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Citadel News Service

Thomas Mahan
Former CGPS dean of graduate and continuing education

Commencement Address
College of Graduate and Professional Studies

May 4, 2003

          It is a genuine honor for me to be invited to be here with you this afternoon. I take great pride in my 20 years of active association with The Citadel and especially with its programs now encompassed by the College of Graduate and Professional Studies. You graduates here today are an integral part of The Citadel's mission to develop leaders -- women and men with vision, commitment, values and knowledge to serve the community. So it was with enthusiasm that I accepted the opportunity to be your speaker here today and especially so since this is the 35th anniversary of The Citadel's move into graduate education.

          However, as my ego settled down and reality set in I was faced with a terrible recollection: I could not remember the names of any of the speakers at my own graduations, to say nothing of what their message was. Even more troubling was my memory of the many graduations in which I took part as a faculty member: For the most part, they were a blur of names with one exception. Almost 40 years ago, I was among the faculty at an outdoor commencement ceremony and the rain began to fall. The university president courageously introduced the speaker as the rainfall became more insistent. Then Lady Barbara Ward, the speaker, came to the podium and said words to this effect: I do not know about the rest of you, but I am not crazy. If you feel the need to get soaked, that's up to you, but I am leaving. And she left to a standing ovation from the graduates.

          Now that is a scary message. I do not recall many standing ovations for commencement speakers and this ovation was for not speaking! Well, we are inside McAlister Field House and it seems very unlikely that you will be rescued by any sudden downpour bursting through the roof.

          Let me first congratulate each of you and those who supported you in this quest for further personal and professional growth. It is not an easy task to invest your time and energy into the pursuit of a degree when you already have a plateful of responsibilities and commitments that often add up to more than 24 hours a day. I am proud of you, The Citadel by this ceremony shows its pride in you, and I trust that each of you is proud of your presence here today. Congratulations to you, to your spouses, to your parents, to your children, to your friends -- and to your faculty. And let me give special recognition to the faculty. Without them this day could not come to be; they are the soul and spirit of the institution. And let me add a brief footnote to recognize, even with my wife present, three Citadel women who made my life especially enjoyable here and continue to be essential to this ceremony: Colonel Pat Ezell, Ms. Shirley Platt and Ms. Edith Kaufman.

          Today you are the class to celebrate this 35th anniversary of The Citadel's expansion of its educational mission -- an expansion that is a vibrant part of this institution whose history of developing leaders spans over 160 years. The degrees that you are about to receive point to your role as a leader, as individuals who have mastered and specialized in an area whether your degree title says "bachelor" or "master" or "specialist." The Citadel's mission statement tells us that "a demonstrated inclination toward leadership through service is a key indicator of success at The Citadel." But the burden of leadership involves more than just a deepened knowledge of a professional area or academic subject; it carries with it the parallel expectation that you have built up your talents in relating to others and helping them to grow. Basic to the very idea of leadership is an expertise in interpersonal relations.

          But leadership is also dependent upon vision, upon commitment to a mission and the capacity to articulate that vision and mission to others. It springs first from your development of your deep sense of self-awareness -- who you are and what your talents and limitations are, then from your self-regulation -- your ability to focus yourself, to stay on task, to avoid squandering of your emotions; thirdly, it presumes your commitment in your motivation. Then it calls into play your ability to connect with others through your empathy and your social skills which include listening, team building and supporting others. These five traits are the bases for creating a foundation for positive leadership. Your Citadel programs have built into them experiences which are designed to lead you toward growth in those areas. Your degree from The Citadel implies not only your mastery of a body of knowledge, but equally your mastery of yourself as an instrument of leadership.

          Leadership, especially in a free society, is intimately linked to hope. Just last Thursday, President Bush, speaking from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, stated the case clearly for hope as the best antidote to violence and terrorism. But hope is a pervasive need; we all require healthy doses of hope. A few years ago there was a surprise movie box-office hit entitled Chocolat where Juliette Binoche, as a single mother, opens a chocolate shop in a tightly controlled French village where people operate out of fear. I would suggest to you that the deep theme behind the comic elements in that movie is the power of hope. Once again, The Citadel's mission statement sets a clear priority as it focuses on developing "insight into issues, ideas, and values of importance to society" and announces the goal of stimulating "both critical and creative thinking." Those are elements from which hope emerges and leadership takes root. Our colleges and universities are the secular bastions of hope; we need only look at how quickly repressive regimes close the colleges and universities when pressures build for change. Other institutions in a society easily fall into line at times of fear, but the role of higher education is to resist any calls to conformity because it is committed to the ultimate victory of hope over fear, of the pursuit of a better future over a clinging to a legendary past. As you receive your diploma that signifies your completion of a program here at The Citadel, you are called to be ambassadors of hope in a world so often subject to fear and terror.

          The revived musical now playing on Broadway, Man from La Mancha, based loosely on the story of Don Quixote, has that glorious tune, The Impossible Dream. The lyrics ring out with those heart-stirring lines: To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unbeatable foe,…To try when your arms are too weary, To reach the unreachable star. This is my quest to follow that star, No matter how hopeless, no matter how far, …To be willing to march into hell, For a heavenly cause. (At this point you should all be offering a prayer of thanksgiving that I recited those lines and did not subject you to experiencing the fact that I am musically challenged.) I feel certain that some, perhaps many, of you once felt that your pursuit of a degree from The Citadel was an impossible dream. Some 50 years ago when, as a young Coast Guard officer, I was piloting vessels in somewhat treacherous waterways, I would have dismissed any possibility that a half-century later satellites would be used to guide people, boats, cars, missiles and bombs to precise locations. I know that 35+ years ago as the idea of graduate programs at The Citadel took shape many scoffed until faculty such as Colonels Charles Hirshey, D. Oliver Bowman and Harvey Wittschen turned that dream into a reality, But it is the capacity to dream, to see beyond what the world calls "reality," that is the engine for growth and development, both personally and organizationally, and it is that same capacity that marks the leader. And you who now will be confirmed through your degree as prepared for leadership must as well protect those around you so that they too pursue dreams.

          But we all know that our world is one of uncertainty except for the certainty of challenges. In such times, it is easy to find oneself seeking security or structure in rules, regulations and established procedures at the cost of openness to novel approaches, to musing about what might be, to open debate about alternatives, to dreaming. If your Citadel faculty has been successful, you will resist that temptation; you will let your human spirit embrace the goodness of humanity and commit your energies to bringing about a better world in your space. Ours is a great nation, built upon values that exalt the dignity of the person -- all persons. In these days we witness the courage and commitment of our women and men in our armed forces who are willing to risk their lives in defense of those values, of that belief that every person is precious.

          At the same time, the culture which pervades our Western society contains a virus spawned from our romance with success and individual rights. We can become so enamored of "looking good" that we slip into an easy road to deceit -- deceit that includes self-deception as well as deception of others. Our "image" becomes more important than honesty and openness and authenticity. The recent financial collapse of corporations is a warning to us as individuals, as members of an organization, as citizens of a country how easy it is to let image crowd out integrity and honesty. One need only look at the shelves in a bookstore to see how enamored we have become with success; book after book in psychology and management and educational methodology have titles that shout out the secrets to success and image, oftentimes connected to a worship of technology or technique. Yet, right here on this campus some 15 years ago, The Citadel in collaboration with Burke High School demonstrated that a better (and more difficult) road to success was found in building relationships, entering into dialogue, encouraging dreams, creating a community around a shared ownership of a vision and a mission, and leading all to discover and explore their own hidden or unused talents. And it also found that honest, unvarnished analysis of experiences -- including the experiences of failure -- was the antidote to self-deception and false image portrayal and that technology and technique are servants of leadership, not its substitute. Unfortunately, that message continues to be ignored by many politicians and educational reformers who seek for magic answers. Is it surprising when you think of the insidious impact of deceit (and perhaps even more of self-deception) to find that Dante in his picture of hell puts such offenders in the eighth circle -- only those who have betrayed others are assigned a more terrible fate in the ninth circle?

          But your fate today is one of earned joy and celebration All of us here join in that spirit. As the chairman of the Board of Visitors, exercising the authority given to him by the State of South Carolina, confers your degrees, I ask that you give great thanks, but that you also accept eagerly your role as a leader. My dream is that you will take from these words I have been privileged to share with you these thoughts: never give up the courage to dream; never be afraid of being wrong and never hide it when you are; and test out the contention that the things most worth doing are going to be seen by many as impossible.

          Thank you and may your hearts be filled with hope and your lives be filled with opportunities seized.




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