Mortar Board Initiation Ceremony
Solarium, Indiana Memorial Union
April 6, 2008
I am delighted to be with you this afternoon to help initiate IU’s newest Mortar Board members. For 90 years now, Mortar Board has promoted the ideals of service, scholarship, and leadership that are the three pillars of its mission. At IU, Mortar Board has made a difference on campus and in the larger community.
Admission to a Group of Leaders
The word “initiate” has particular meaning today. As a noun, it refers to all of you here, new initiates in the Mrs. Granville Wells Chapter of Mortar Board. You are here because you have demonstrated your own commitment to Mortar Board ideals, and you are to be congratulated. Your status as Mortar Board initiates has not come by accident, birthright, or popularity; it has come because of your hard work and dedication.
Today you begin another phase in your development as the next generation of leaders. This campus and the Bloomington community need the compassion and commitment, the intelligence and integrity you bring to your new roles. As you do the work of the Mortar Board Society, you further strengthen the foundational leadership skills you will draw on in the various phases of your lives.
I find myself drawing some parallels between your experiences and my own. Like you, I have taken on a new role and am learning how I can make the most of it. My still-new position as first lady of Indiana University is part of my journey from college to career and beyond. I have no doubt that your own journeys, which are not beginning with this ceremony, will also proceed in phases that provide you wonderful insights into your further potential as leaders.
I thought I’d share some brief background on how I got here. I received my undergraduate degree in history at the University of Michigan in 1978, and went on to graduate school fully intending to become an academic historian. But around that same time I met and married my first husband, and to help support the family we wanted to start I took a job with the state networking organization in Michigan.
It was supposed to be temporary, but this was just after the basic protocols that underlie the Internet we use today were standardized and just after the first PC came out. A lot of very creative engineers and scientists, as well as those with liberal arts backgrounds, were caught up in one of the most significant waves of innovation in the 20th century, indeed in modern history. And I got swept up too.
In part because I was not a computer scientist or network engineer by background, I found myself moving into management positions fairly early. As is the case in many fields, the “real” status accrues to the practitioners of the art, not to mere administrators. It was my first experience of finding a path to leadership that was not the obvious one in that context.
I also got involved in a number of committees and organizations, and through those experiences began to discover my own leadership abilities. I wound up, nearly 20 years later, as an executive director with Internet2, the national consortium that is building the next generation of the Internet.
Advancing the Status of Women and Minorities
Along the way, I engaged in a number of programs focused on leadership development and on increasing the number of women and minorities in information technology because at that time, there were so few.
Depressingly, this is still true. I attended a conference in September of 2007 that reported the results of an NSF-funded study of women in information technology, and it seemed I could have been listening to data from the 1980s. There are several possible reasons for this, including overall decreases in computer science, but there remains a gender gap. Last month I was appointed as an adjunct faculty member in Informatics in Bloomington and IUPUI, where the dean, Robert Schnabel, is very committed to addressing this gap. I look forward to working with him and other faculty on this issue. This relates to one of my priorities as IU first lady that also arises from my technology background, which is STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).
The lack of women and minorities in technical fields is first and foremost a matter of equity; the highly paid jobs of the future, particularly here in Indiana, will require at least basic competency in math and science. But it’s also a matter of pragmatics. We are projecting shortages of doctors, engineers, scientists, and other professions that will fuel Indiana’s, and the nation’s, knowledge-based industries, like the life sciences. It’s only logical that we should look to populations that have been disproportionately underrepresented in the past to meet the workforce demands of the future.
To help with this, I am taking on an advocacy role with I-STEM, a state-wide initiative in which IU, Purdue and other universities around the state participate. I-STEM is focused on a number of things, including redesigning middle school and high school curricula. It also focuses on providing the professional development needed to, among other outcomes, enable Indiana’s teachers to increase the success of female and minority students in these fields.
We’ve all experienced transformational teachers, the ones who spark a life-long interest in a particular field, and when those confident and scientifically competent teachers are women, African Americans, Hispanics, etc., the next generation sees diversity in their role models.
So I applaud Mortar Board’s historical emphasis on advocating for equal opportunity for all.
The Importance of Role Models
In each new leadership position we assume, role models are invaluable in helping us discover within ourselves the talents and skills required to make a difference.
This being the Mrs. Granville Wells Chapter of the Mortar Board Society, I’m aware of how much of a role model the woman widely known as “Mother Wells” is for all of us. She is a wonderful example of someone who refused to allow any personal limitations to impact her ability to serve—and to lead.
When she became IU’s first lady during her son's legendary presidency, Mrs. Wells was a 65-year-old former school teacher, homemaker, wife, mother, and county official whose formal education had ended in grade school. Yet for a quarter of a century she greeted emperors and queens and helped students from around the state and across the globe feel at home at IU.
There is a wonderful story about a garden party she and President Wells attended at Buckingham Palace. After being greeted by Queen Elizabeth II, she sought out the Queen Mother. The two spent the afternoon discussing their respective families and how they had brought up their children. Asked later what she had talked about with the Queen, she said: “I let my son do the official honors. That’s what we educated him for.”
She had focused on the mutual experiences that would enable her and the Queen Mother to enter into dialogue. The ability to find commonalities and foster dialogue is an essential skill for anyone who wishes to serve or to lead.
My own mother set a great example for me. She grew up in Minnesota and attended college, thanks to a farsighted aunt who herself had broken a gender barrier or two to become county Superintendent of Schools in the 1930s.
My mother wanted to major in chemistry but was steered to history because it was a more “suitable” major for a woman, even though it was far from her favorite subject. She wound up getting a teaching certificate in physical education and taught in the Madison, Wisconsin public schools. There, she met my father, who had just finished his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin in microbiology.
In 1955, he brought our family to Ann Arbor when he became a faculty member at the University of Michigan. My mother, who by then was primarily occupied with rearing my three siblings and me, became one of the first women to run for and serve on City Council in Ann Arbor in 1962, and in 1965 she was just the second woman to run for mayor. When my father died suddenly that same year, she continued to serve as a council member and even today, on the cusp of her 85th birthday, she remains active in her community.
As I came into adulthood, it was her experiences that helped form my belief that I should be my own person, economically and intellectually, and she taught me that there are multiple ways to engage in civic life and to be a force for change.
Eleanor Roosevelt is another strong role model for me, as she is for many of us. As I contemplated my new position, it was her experience of coming into the role of First Lady of the U.S. that I found myself thinking about the most. She was initially very depressed when her husband Franklin was elected president. He was certain she would lose her ability to lead her own life and be crushed by inflexible expectations. But she also saw the opportunity to make a difference, and she got beyond her misgivings to redefine the concept of first lady from one of “behind-the-scenes” helpmate to committed advocate.
Eleanor brought her own vision and agenda to the White House. She signaled her intention to approach the role of first lady differently than her predecessors by holding a press conference when her husband took office in 1933. It was the first press conference ever called by a first lady of the United States. Mrs. Roosevelt held her press conference before her husband convened his first such gathering as president.
Seizing the Opportunity
Eleanor Roosevelt was very definite about the personal qualities required for effective leadership. She believed good leaders must have the strength to face criticism and opposition with confidence. She believed they must be optimistic about the future. And she believed they must have a passionate commitment to their beliefs and to the potential for change. I admire Eleanor because she exemplifies one of the primary traits of a leader: the ability to comprehend an opportunity and step up to make the most of it.
I am told that the colors of Mortar Board reflect this important dynamic of good leaders. Gold is for achievement and silver for opportunity.
To Begin or Commence
Another meaning of the word “initiate” is, of course, “to begin or commence.” You are beginning your identity as Mortar Board members, but almost certainly not your identities as leaders. Some of you may have always known you were going to be out in front, others of you discovered this later on, and others may still be exploring how you want to express your potential. Regardless of the timing, beginnings themselves come in different forms. Many of us come into leadership positions because of external factors that we respond positively to rather than a path we charted ahead of time. We see a problem and know we can take charge and fix it. We develop skills and expertise and discover our leadership abilities within that discipline or profession. We are called upon by others who recognize our leadership qualities and encourage us to step up. And even if we have misgivings, we feel an obligation to do so. As our nation’s second first lady, Abigail Adams, once pointed out, “Great necessities call forth great leaders.”
Conclusion: A Quarter of a Million Initiates
A third meaning of initiate means “to be admitted into some society, office, or position, and instructed in some secret knowledge.” Today you join the quarter of a million initiates of 223 Mortar Board Chapters. Your participation in the IU Bloomington and the larger community of Mortar Board members is, among other things, recognition of your academic achievement and your interest in others. Of course, your new role offers both privileges and obligations.
For the rest of your college career and beyond, you will live lives that prove the truth of something that Marian Wright Edelman, the founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said. “Service is the rent we pay for living on this planet.”
Eleanor Roosevelt put it another way. During World War II, she visited with troops at the front. She said that the experience filled her with “a sense of obligation which [she could] never discharge.” This sense of obligation prompted her to write a prayer that I would like to share with you: “Dear Lord,” wrote Mrs. Roosevelt, “Lest I continue my complacent way, help me to remember, somewhere out there a man died for me today. As long as there be war, I must ask and answer am I worth dying for.”
Whether we agree with the rightness of war itself or of any particular war, we all recognize that fighting against injustice and for freedom and democracy is hard. I believe we owe those who give their lives our best effort to make the world a better place.
As alumni of Mortar Board and of IU you will encounter so many opportunities to use the leadership skills you will hone here. You will use them to fight injustice on many fronts, to help halt the AIDS pandemic, to impact hunger, poverty, and environmental degradation. You will use them to help bring civility to our discourse, intelligence to our decisions, and hope to the generation that follows you.
As Mortar Board members I hope you practice the kind of leadership that Mrs. Roosevelt espoused—that you meet criticism and opposition with strength and thoughtfulness, that you sustain a vibrant optimism about the future, and an unshakable commitment to your beliefs and the potential for change. I hope you cultivate Mrs. Wells’ sympathy with and interest in others and their problems, and her ability to find the common experience with those who may be different from you. And I hope you find creative ways to respond to the “great necessities” of your time. I have every confidence that you will do so.