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Dean Pianta’s Commencement Address to the UVA Class of 2017

Published on 05/24/17 in News » Articles

Thank you, Mr. Rector for that generous introduction.  Members of the Board of Visitors, President Sullivan, vice presidents and deans, distinguished guests, faculty, students, family, and friends.  It is my honor to offer remarks today, and I am humbled to share this podium with the weekend’s other distinguished speakers.

Today’s ceremony prompts two memories. Thirty springs ago, I was winding up my faculty interview when my wife Ann and I toured Grounds. It was one of those stunning, sunny, spring mornings.  As we walked up the steps on the far corner, I saw the Lawn for the first time.  There was this tranquil beauty and power of a place so long dedicated to human progress, learning, and ideas –– and the past, embodied in physical space and buildings, connected with the present, the thread was this commitment to the power of education in human lives and society.  I was all in.

More recent Lawn memories come from a decade ago, sitting in front of the Rotunda, on a late August Sunday, the buildings reflecting the early evening colors. We faced the newly arrived first years for opening Convocation and the honor pledge, an event brimming with pride and anticipation, an experience yoked to the occasion that spring of walking the Lawn in this direction, on another sun-splashed May morning when, taking care not to trip while walking up these steps, I turned and for the first time faced those assembled for graduation. It was a remarkable moment – a collective, communal instantiation of the work of a great university.

I suspect we each entered this place feeling a mixture of pride, uncertainty, excitement, and curiosity. I did, as a newly minted PhD.  For me those feelings have morphed into deep appreciation and respect for your aspirations as students and our opportunity as faculty. Thank you for your choice to participate in the collective, dynamic transformation that is this University.  Thank you for joining in our journey from that end of the Lawn to this end.

Today we celebrate our unique work together. Although universities are often rightly critiqued as sclerotic –  courses and programs repeat year after year – every single person here today moved through this university together only once. A dynamic community of the possible balanced by the gravitational pull of place. A yin and yang of history and potential, making this commencement unique. 

So, congratulations graduates and my deepest appreciation to parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, family and friends, for your role in making today possible.  This arc of this moment originated long ago, and you each bear responsibility for successes we celebrate today. Similarly, I am humbled to stand here as a grandson and great grandson of immigrants - launched by risks they took, by their hard work, their instilling in my parents a set of values and aims for my generation.  And as a dad of two UVA grads (and proudly of one VT grad), a resident of the Lawn, and faculty member, I have some sense for the formative role this institution plays in people’s lives.

Today we celebrate graduations from the University’s 10 professional schools and institutes – a notable share of the University of Virginia’s impact on the world –  we publicly certify your commitments to and success in preparation in a range of fields—each engaging the world in a particular and practical manner –– to act on the world toward certain ends.  We celebrate your promise and potential to solve big challenges.

As I started thinking about this speech I actually Googled “profession,” what appeared first was, “A specified activity and one’s main paid occupation rather than a pastime.”     

Not very inspirational.

Next popped up Merriam Webster, of course more high-minded than Google.

“An act of declaring or publicly claiming a belief or opinion” and “a calling or engagement requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic employment”

Note the emphasis on a calling and declaration – a statement or claim of identity, engagement – a form of action, training and apprenticeship—learning culminating in qualification.

Let’s use these to reflect on three questions: What drew you to your education?  What forms of learning are key to your success? What guides your path toward leadership in the years ahead? 

In other words, let’s make this all about you. 

What does your graduation from a professional school at UVA say about you?

At some point you made a decision to enter one of this University’s professional schools, places with high bars for learning and for leadership. That choice says something about you, your press for action or influence in a sector or system or problem—a choice to apply your energy and talent to face out to the world. There’s something enticing, from which you draw energy, when pressing into a problem instead of observing it.  The experience of action and reaction. The serve and volley of acting on the world and responding to what it returns to you. A sense of vitality.

Your choice also creates an identity, a shape and form for engaging the world. Soon many of you are likely to assert publicly I AM a nurse, teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer, planner, accountant, banker—  A declaration of self and a frame for the relationship you form with the world.

What forms of learning have and will enable your success?

In your time here we hoped to cultivate two forms of learning, one oriented to a knowledge base: Principles of accounting or human learning, provisions of constitutional law, the facts of anatomy and physiology, methods of quantitative analysis, or the laws of thermodynamics.  I suspect that type of learning was familiar. Get the textbook, memorize facts, and reproduce them on tests. That kind of learning leads to the test scores and grades you need to get into good schools, and you are really good at it.

Recall Webster’s definition includes a period of practical preparation –  a second form of learning—in the skills needed to interpret and act in the streams of interests and aims flowing around real problems, in real settings, in real systems. 

I suspect that the intriguing opportunities that entice you lie in a land of ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk. Mastering this terrain is why professionals are also entrepreneurs and creatives, drawing on a synthesis of experience, knowledge, attunement, and improvisation.  Fostering these skills, barely detectable, or predictably reproduced, makes your learning a unique form of education. And frankly, higher education is only starting to elevate and explore this alchemy. Your success in this situated form of learning, will distinguish your capacity to influence and lead, and the key skills are located in relationships.

Here I quote and paraphrase John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago Neuroscientist, who writes:

“As we enter the third millennia of higher education, consider that facts and technology alone cannot elevate humanity, relationships are not the antithesis of rationality, but an essential ingredient for, and an overwhelming obstacle to optimizing human potential.  Graduates should leave not only able to think and build, but also with a heightened awareness to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions, and to use that information to the benefit of all”

Maybe it won’t be whether you know the latest facts (which you get from Google anyway) but rather how you recruit assets in the midst of ambiguity. How you build relationships, enroll stakeholders, establish mutual aims, and act. Those skills set the shape and slope of your professional pathway.

This relational nature of learning was described by Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky as “The Zone of Proximal Development.”  For persons, organizations, or societies, this concept refers to that entity’s emergent capacity to master a complex challenge – defending an alleged murderer, turning a profit during a recession, teaching any seventh grader, caring for an aggressive patient, or managing a struggling non-profit. The “zone” is the difference in accomplishment when facing that challenge alone or when working with a skilled teacher, mentor, coach, or leader.

Vygotsky reminds us of this truth: Performance is always embedded in relationships. There are no truly solo acts, rather learning is what happens when potential is activated by context – a precipitate of the chemistry of challenge and support. Too much challenge and too little support, you’re overwhelmed and retreat. Too much support and too little challenge, you’re not interested and so don’t engage. And with the right supports, achievement can soar beyond the imaginable.

Let me offer an example.

Jeff Bulington is a chess teacher hired to live and work in a rural Mississippi county fitting the stereotype of “nowhere” – one streetlight, lots of tough times, and few reasons to think aspirationally. That was particularly true for the kids, enrolled in a school system regularly on the list of failures.

Bulington started teaching chess in the elementary school to kids who had never even seen chess played.  From the incongruity and challenge of teaching and learning chess in rural Mississippi emerged curiosity and connection, taking form in a new and entirely unanticipated level of performance when the kids dominated their older peers in winning the Mississippi state championship. 

Then, amazingly, the team upped the ante, entering nationals, most leaving town for the first time to face 1,500 of the country’s best players for seven rounds over three days. Think of that challenge.

They lost 30 of their first 32 games.

Bulington observed, “They’re learning they have to struggle at a different level than ever before.”

Rather than fold, the players huddled, finding resolve and focus around the Bulington mantra, “Let your opponent show you how they’d like to lose.”  With their self-worth on the line, the kids trusted their coach, and found resources in a relationship.

Eighteen months after their first exposure to chess, the Franklin County 5th and 6th grade teams placed in the nation’s top 10. 

That’s learning situated in relationship, with the dynamics of challenge and support exquisitely titrated and choreographed by a mentor, a coach, a leader.

I venture that your most meaningful learning experiences organize around challenges that made you wonder if you were up to it and an experience of working with someone or some resource – a relationship that created – literally created – some new level of performance or knowledge in which you could take pride.

As you leave here as both learner and leader, how can you reconcile those roles that seem incongruous?

In our research on measuring and improving classroom teaching – a leadership role that Malcolm Gladwell compares to that of an NFL quarterback, the elements of effectiveness are anchored not in knowledge or technical skills but in attention—to one’s own behavior and experience while also tuning to the subtle, nuanced, momentary cues of learners: Awareness of self and of other.

I believe the skills we often prize in role of learner and of leader—collaboration, problem solving, creativity, persistence—are actually phenotypes of more fundamental qualities of attention, awareness, empathy, and perspective.  Your cultivation of these sensibilities will determine success in learning and leading in your craft and as a citizen.  And all are embedded in relationships.

If I offer any advice today, your first order of business as learner and leader is to take responsibility for your own zone of proximal development and assemble a support team of mentors and guides. Find your Jeff Bulington.  Don’t make this an accident.

And now the third question: What do you draw from here as you face into the challenges of our time?

In May 2017, you cross the graduation threshold at a worrisome time.  Unsettling because the anchors informing responses to the adaptive ambiguities of this epoch in human history – globalization; human capital; equity, justice and difference; climate, health; economic and social stability; and perhaps even the nature of truth – are unmoored and untethered.  We float, navigating without compass or north star. 

Intransigent challenges will not be addressed by knowledge alone. Knowledge can describe disease but will not create health; mapping climate change and its causes will not create resilient cities; the wonders of technology make life easier for some and displace millions of others; decades of an education system focused on teaching and testing facts didn’t close the achievement gap. Failure to design around problems in situated, relational, and systemic form too often leads to wasted human potential and political isolation.

And the limitations of knowledge seem proportional to the glut of information available. In a world in which information is commoditized and free on demand, what good does it do that we can Google any fact?

The psychologist Carol Dweck, describes two distinct mental frames shaping learners’ and leaders’ choices in the face of such daunting challenges.

A deficit mindset triggers actions as a fixer; it equates challenges with a lack of resources; stakeholders are passive participants, and solutions determined by external forces. Whereas a growth mindset triggers actions as a facilitator; it assumes the presence of sufficient assets and interested stakeholders; with leaders as learners, creating conditions in which assets are identified, signaled, and mobilized.

In a growth mindset, “solving” a problem is the polar opposite of “fixing.” Rather it is a restoration to health – such as using the body’s immune system to fight cancer, or allowing disenfranchised youth to define and invent their own educational goals; or revitalizing marginalized communities through self-organized planning.

When leaders focus on assets the power is transformative. It creates chess champions. And in this sense, leaders are actually educators, from the Latin root EDUCE, meaning “to bring out or develop something latent or potential.”

Let’s return to Mississippi.

After winning, one dad described the kids realizing, “‘Wow, we are good.’” He reflected, “Having the realization of their own potential was a beautiful moment.” 

Bulington described it this way: “People say, ‘I did not know that he could do that’, or ‘I did not know he or she was smart,’  They got it wrong; kids have been underestimated or written off for reasons that are false.”

And one third grader reflected, “I feel like chess could take us anywhere. But it’s not about where it takes us, it’s about how far it takes us.”     

These words describe the transformative power unleashed when learning and leading intersect – declarations of value and recognitions of worth and hope.

As leaders, to elicit potential we must cultivate awareness, recognize and engage assets where, how, and with whom we work and live. As we do this, within ourselves, in workplaces and communities, we create resilience, open-mindedness, empathy, and respect.

What qualities will you need in this world of commoditized knowledge, rising divisiveness, and ambiguity, where as a professional you own responsibility for results, and as a citizen have responsibility to others?  How will you respond when the stakes – for you, the children you teach, the business and organizations you shape, the patients you care for, the communities you live in—rise while resources wane?  Where is your compass?  In professional ethics?  Religious creed? Cultural norms?  Or in your values?

I think it is all about you.

This institution was founded in part as an experiment in human development, in the education of young adults. For the first time in higher education religion did not play a guiding role and students were offered a broadening curriculum and wider view of the world. This project was a conscious untethering of the enterprise of fostering human progress from the foundations around which it had been anchored for hundreds of years. Without a religious core, guideposts were found in the confluence of self and community, a form of relationship.

As influencers, you will engage a world demanding answers and action to daunting challenges. In this crucible, you establish your agenda and set anchors. I hope you take from here not only knowledge acquired and reproduced, but also an authentic experience of mentorship and learning situated in relationship – of the importance of self-awareness and honesty – and bedrock values of open-mindedness, empathy, and trust. If this was your journey these past few years, then the rest will take care of itself.

And as this institution navigates into a third century, you have a stake as we carry values into the future – a purpose in scaffolding us, leading us, to be relevant, influential, and constructive in the world. So we invite your attention, curiosity, and presence.

The power of the experiences was made real to me at a recent reunion, with students I taught almost 20 years ago. For me the energy and flow connecting past and present was palpable— sourced from the intimacy, creativity, and honor of participating in someone’s life journey. I was reminded that there is nothing so gratifying and humbling, as this process of co-creating that we call education.
Graduates, thank you for joining us for a time, for your openness to what we have offered, for what you have contributed to one another, to this place, and for what you will be in the world.  And thanks for listening.



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