2019 Convocation Address Transcript

President Snyder’s Annual Convocation Address
October 22, 2019


Thank you, Executive Vice President and Provost Poon.

We welcome today:

  • Members of the Board of Trustees;
  • Members of our Board of Regents;
  • Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer Lynne Scarboro;
  • LMU Faculty, Staff, and Students;
  • Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, Jesuits, interfaith clergy;
  • Alumni and Friends;
  • Our masterful musicians! We thank them once again for that mind-blowing performance.

I thank each of you for joining us this morning.

I welcome our newest members to the LMU community, along with all new faculty, staff, and students: Ashley Armstrong, deputy athletics director; John Axtell, associate vice president for communications; John G. Baker, senior vice president for University Advancement; Lindsay Crowell McCarthy, assistant vice provost for financial aid; Ammar Dalal, assistant vice provost for graduate enrollment; Verna Donovan, associate vice president for marketing and brand management; Devra Schwartz, vice president for Campus Safety and Security; and Jennifer Silverman, university registrar. Thank you for helping us strengthen our ever-growing family of Lions.

In yesterday’s LMU This Week, I shared a spectrum of recent achievements; today, I highlight a few of the many ways in which LMU is evolving to address the needs of our changing world.

Our academic rigor: We are an intellectual powerhouse, and the world has taken note. The achievements we celebrated last year—opening our Playa Vista Campus, receiving a charter from Phi Beta Kappa—have set the stage for “next-level” impacts.

Following Carnegie’s reclassification of LMU as an R2, “high research activity” university, we debuted on U.S. News’s list of national universities at #64 in the nation; in the top six private colleges in California, and in the top four Jesuit universities. This recognition marks the soaring achievements of our diverse faculty and student body. And as Provost Poon mentioned, this year, another-record 18,500-plus students applied for undergraduate admission to LMU, and our admit rate dropped to a record low of 44%—demonstrating the desirable destination we have become.

We are also one of the greenest schools in America! We are the 2019 national Champions for Recyclemania—and for the first time in the tournament’s history, one University swept both primary categories in the same year. That’s LMU!

We continue our Implicit Bias Initiative, creating awareness of our unconscious biases and cultivating a more equitable society. I thank Jennifer Abe and her team, along with Student Affairs’ LMU Cares, for their leadership in this initiative. And I salute Senior Vice President and CFO Thomas Fleming for his sure-handed leadership and legacy of sound financial management as he begins his final year in that role.

Our campaign, in the leadership phase, is growing in volume, and we will soon see a transformed Westchester campus—starting this December as we break ground for our new Howard B. Fitzpatrick SFTV Pavilion, and next summer as we open our brand new residence halls.

At our Playa Vista Campus, we are forming new partnerships that will help revolutionize the creative industries, including showcasing our leadership in mixed-reality storytelling in collaboration with Film Independent.

Meanwhile, LMU ranks number three in the nation by Princeton Review for students most engaged in community service, contributing a quarter-million hours of community service each year—along with an additional 60K coming from LMU Loyola Law School.

The Law School’s commitment to social justice has brought about the release of nine wrongfully convicted citizens over the past decade. A recent grant from the U.S. Justice Department, funding post-conviction DNA testing, will hopefully deliver more reversals of such tragic decisions.

We compete not just academically and IN courts, but also ON courts and fields. Our roar continues to soar. Last year we knocked off TWO #1 teams in the nation: Baseball over UCLA; volleyball sweeping Brigham Young. Volleyball went on to defeat Duke in the NCAA tournament, then lost to Stanford—which went on to win the national championship—making us, I say, the #2 team in the nation. Let’s #JoinThePride by supporting our teams over the coming season:

We are indeed one LMU.

In last year’s convocation titled, “Today and Two Tomorrows,” I talked about the difference between the future we expect—the world we want to live in—and the world toward which we seem to be drifting. I encouraged us to believe that LMU possesses a unique opportunity to resolve our possible futures, to help the world choose wisely between them.

This year, I will elaborate on how I believe LMU can address that difference—to envision with you the educational experience we can provide. This vision effloresces from our mission and has the potential to cultivate the emergence of a better world. As a road map for today, I share a statement—one I hope you have heard before, because it is enshrined in our Lion’s Code.

“In faith,” the sentence begins, “the Lion grows to be fully alive, clear in thought, rich in vision, and vigorous in act.”

That, in a nutshell, captures not just who we have always been as a university but also where I see us heading: becoming a university that, better than any in the world, forms “human beings fully alive.” It does so across three dimensions. First, we form persons clear in thought, who realize their full capacity for intellectual rigor. Distilled: reason. Second, we form persons rich in vision, who imagine with their full creative capacity. Distilled: imagination. And third, we form persons vigorous in action—who choose wisely, and act courageously for the greater good. Distilled: ethical discernment. If we pursue educating toward these three ends to the potential I know we already possess, we will contribute more than any other university to creating the world in which we want to live.

Today’s talk has two sections. First, I will focus on these three dimensions of whole-person education. Then, I will describe the process by which we will plan, together, how we can advance our educational mission, strategically, toward lasting impact over the coming years.

The three dimensions: Reason. Imagination. Discernment. With reason, I return briefly to our two tomorrows. How do we engage with each of these futures? We use reason to divine where we appear to be headed, tracking the trajectory of present phenomena to discover their likely destination. Reason can help divine the future. Reason is divine in origin, but it requires us, as the Lion’s Code reminds us, to be clear in thought—a necessity as we navigate toward our better world. Clear thought requires discipline: the discipline scientists use to estimate the projected rise in planetary temperatures; the discipline economists use to estimate the likely effects of taxing fossil fuels; the discipline journalists employ to probe what leaders say, and then report their findings vividly and accurately.

At LMU, reasoned discipline, within and between our academic disciplines, is taught and practiced. I think, for example, about how Professor José García-Moreno, in his animation classes, emphasizes the importance of the animator’s understanding of classical principles—posing animation as, ultimately, a way of thinking. While other institutions begin with how one places pen to page, this approach exemplifies Reason as foundational in our pursuits.

Reason, while necessary, is one of several facets we require to create the world we want to live in. Disciplines of Reason predict a future we might expect—yet we also need to imagine alternative futures—the plausible “what ifs?” and “why nots?” that lie beyond our reasoned scope. To engage alternative futures—to prepare for their dangers or plumb their possibilities—we need imagination to expand our intellect, to partner the creative with the “Reason-abled” dimensions of our practice. imagination: that Earth could be other than flat; that we might not be the center of the universe; or that—right now!—we may inhabit one of billions of God’s universes.

In my convocation two years ago, I outlined how higher education remains astonishingly bereft in Imagination, and where LMU is positioned to take the lead. We are blessed with advantages other universities lack:

  • Our Jesuit and Marymount heritage, with Ignatius’s emphasis on the contemplative Imagination and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Mary’s devotion to the arts and their ability to enliven;
  • Our Los Angeles location—as the international capital of creativity;
  • Our strengths in the fine arts, the liberal arts, the narrative arts of film and television; our professional curricula across creative enterprises like engineering, marketing, computer science, and, yes, creative accounting—at least where its standards permit;
  • Our commitment to diversity of all kinds, which, as I continue to affirm, is the font of creativity;
  • Our Academy for Catholic Thought and Imagination.

We are better positioned than any university to lead in educating the human Imagination. And we will.

Clear in thought: Reason. Rich in vision: Imagination. We are also called: to action. But to create, through action, the world we want to live in, we need to prepare students to discern their, and our, desired future—the world we want to live in.

Discernment has a specialized meaning in Jesuit life: St. Ignatius teaches us to “discern among spirits,” that is, to examine and sift among our experiences, to listen carefully for the voice of God and ultimately choose the better path. The necessity to which Ignatius’s “discernment of spirits” speaks—informing human choices with insight and a sense of what is right—longs for what we might now call ethical discernment, and it is fundamental to the educator’s task of cultivating virtues that form wise and discerning persons.

In the face of epochal changes, Pope Francis reminds us that the Church and its works must “form consciences” that seek to "put on the mind of Christ in our actions and choices.”

Problems stand before us: climate change, violence, unintended consequences of invention. These are not just failures of Reason—or even failures of Imagination—they are also failures of Ethical Discernment, of moral will. The combines and cooperatives, the comforts and conveniences that have furnaced our rising global temperatures started as triumphs of Reason and Imagination working together—but collectively they also have been accompanied by—failures of ethical judgment. The internet began as a triumph of Reason and Imagination—but it routinely exhibits epic collapses from our haphazard regulations and our use of it. Remember: We have evolved—each of us—for existence in small communities—of 20 or 30—yet we are now dancing within and about a circle wholly unknown to us—one for which natural selection—evolution—is too slow to provide an answer.

We at LMU are uniquely equipped to provide solutions: through education in Ethical discernment founded in our commitments to faith and justice. Our missioned service of faith draws attention to what higher education often overlooks: the heart. A discerning person is one who not only knows how to listen to their heart, but also how to interpret their heart, to interrogate it, challenge it, explore it.

In the same way, the pursuit of justice proceeds from Ethical Discernment: Cornel West describes justice as, “what love looks like…in public.” Our best alums see discernment not as some private reflection, but something that can be realized across society—biased—toward the most vulnerable. The distinctive elements of Jesuit-Marymount education: the primacy of context and experience, the vitality of reflection, action, and evaluation; the richness of human expression—provide beams toward forming persons who know how to discern ethically, choose wisely, act courageously, and build—justly.

I sum up what we do by saying that all we do, we do with purpose. Reason, Imagination, and Ethical Discernment are the cornerstones of purpose. These dimensions reinforce one another, as when a third dimension of an object coheres with its first and second dimensions, with each enhancing its two counterparts. 

I know this from my own experience. As a mathematician: I practice a discipline that classically epitomizes Reason. I am also a musician, called to create artistically by drawing on my Imagination. Yet my musicianship does not compete with or undermine my mathematicianship: rather, in ways of which I am typically not conscious, I draw on the logic, the orderliness, the proportions of math as I structure a new musical composition; and I draw on the playfulness, the invention, the vitality I know from music as I encounter a mathematical insight. Each dimension expands, even changes, the other. Third: I am a Catholic, a center to my identity, which enriches my other dimensions with a foundation of faith and hope, and an ethical commitment to bettering the world, a dimension that gives greater meaning still to math and music, to other dimensions of my life.

I see this multi-dimensionality around us each day in the joyous endeavor we call LMU. Professor of Psychology Cheryl Grills and her students employ reasoned discipline to analyze broad systemic problems in mental health; imaginative empathy to understand how those dynamics affect individuals; and Ethical Discernment to bring a richer understanding of context, leading to what we might do, given these insights, for our society. When Engineering Professor Rachel Adams and her students head to Santa Monica Bay, with thin plastic sheeting from Home Depot, they bring with them reasoned discipline, to measure and analyze toxic waste levels; Imagination, to envision new models of toxin movement detection; and Ethical Discernment, to improve access to clean drinking water and to mitigate future environmental damage.

This dynamic likely connected many of us to LMU. Each of us puts this three-dimensional puzzle together a bit differently—but each of us also becomes more fully human, more fully alive, when we learn to integrate, rather than separate, the fundamental capacities of Reason, Imagination, and Ethical Discernment.

Higher education is complete only when it takes a whole-mind, whole-person approach. The academy has focused on Reason as primary and Imagination and Ethical Discernment as also-rans. Incomplete. Short-sighted. Knowing I can navigate a given maze is one thing; knowing why I am doing so—what my completing the maze might mean to others—or how I got myself into the maze in the first place—rests in human creativity and conscience.

Let’s now move to our second shorter section: the “what we do about it.” Two discomforting truths. First: no one in higher education addresses what I just described. Second: even at LMU, where we consciously try to attend to all three elements, and where we have made strides, more work stands between us and the realization of our potential. We are called: to pioneer.

How should we proceed? By reasoning together, imagining together, and discerning together…our future. Today I call on our university community to undertake a new strategic planning process during the year 2020, to select the priorities that will guide us over the next five years (2021-26). I have asked John Parrish, Professor of Political Science and Special Assistant to the President, to lead this process.

A successful university strategic plan must begin with a distinctive vision of the kind of academic and transformational excellence the institution will prize and prioritize; and it must integrate that vision with a plan for how its people, its practices, its finances, its infrastructure, its external relations—can support and advance that vision.

Our strategic plan must have at its center an academic vision that capitalizes on LMU’s distinctive potential to be educators of the whole mind and the whole person. And so, as we begin to deliberate together, I ask our community to be guided by this foundational question about our future:

How can we best prepare our students to reason rigorously, imagine richly, and choose discerningly—the world in which we want to live?

Often, strategic plans fail because they consist of too much plan and not enough strategy—or too much breadth, or a time line that stretches into a next generation. We will avoid these tendencies. I ask for a focused plan—focused in its time span, focused in its number of main priorities, and focused in choosing what is most important for us to do—even if that means there are other worthy things we choose not to emphasize in the here-now.

For this plan to succeed, it needs you:

  • Our faculty, with the primary responsibility for our academic life, for shaping and sustaining an intentional curriculum, and for fostering an intellectual climate in which all can flourish. You must not let this rest. Our academic vision must be ready to meet society where it is going, as well as remain fully attuned to the timeless truths spoken by our Catholic, Ignatian, Marymount, and liberal arts traditions. Guide us in articulating that vision and in embracing new avenues of scholarship and creative work that support our students’ success.
  • Our staff, with the primary responsibility for ensuring excellence in the areas that support academic, student life, and transformation. You must not let this rest. Your innovative and collaborative spirit make you aware of the world and the ways in which it is changing. Support us in ensuring that the whole-person experience we provide fully engages the development of our students’ Reason, Imagination, and Ethical Discernment.
  • Trustees, Regents, alumni, donors and friends—we need you to share your wisdom and your love of LMU, to help us envision where we might go in a way that will benefit the world you inhabit, and that will inspire your support and your continued devotion. You must not let this rest. Challenge us, dream big dreams for, and with, us; support us generously as benefactors and as volunteers.
  • Students—You know, better than the rest of us, the nature of the world you want to live in—you must not let that rest. You must share that vision with us—and you must work hard to make the most of your years at LMU, to, as Dean Robbin Crabtree loves to say, live the life of the mind, to realize the potential impact you can have on the emerging world as persons for and with others, as vectors for the greater good.

I began by quoting from the Lion’s Code: “In faith, the Lion grows to be fully alive, clear in thought, rich in vision and vigorous in act.” I conclude with another thought from the Lion’s Code, one that speaks to our capacity to influence the future and our responsibility to do our part for the greater good.

The Code says: “Some will pass through and never inhabit this place. Others will be here but never shape this place. [Yet] those who embrace [our life-giving traditions] give form and force to this place, just as [those traditions inhabit and shape] our mission: the encouragement of learning; the education of the whole person; the service of faith and the promotion of justice. In this tradition, among this community, within this academy, you are asked to stand, learn, and be in the world. You are asked to be a Lion.”

Faculty; staff; students; Trustees, Regents, alumni, donors, and friends: as we begin this process of strategic planning and as we strive to complete the good work we have already begun, I ask you to stand, as community, as academy, to learn, to be in the world: clear in thought, rich in vision, vigorous in act. I ask you—us—to be Lions, together, for the good of those here, for those to come, for the earth itself, and for the greater glory of God.