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Opening Convocation and Celebration: "A Meditation onSuccess" by Professor Charles J. Ogletree, Jr.

September 5, 2005

Monday, September 5, 2005 - Merced, California

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr. and Jesse Climenko
Professor of Law & Founding/Executive Director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice
Harvard University

Academic Keynote Address

MERCED, CA— This is a great day in Merced, and a great day in higher education. Congratulations to all of the faculty and staff, trustees and friends, parents and relatives, all of our guests, and most especially to our inaugural class, who today continue or begin the most important journey of their lives. You have accepted the challenge of enrolling at UC Merced, and you are the trailblazers in this new academic adventure.

I want to first thank God and all of my mentors who have blessed me to be here today. Although my birthplace is right here in Merced, down the road, across Bear Creek Drive, and over in South Merced, it seems like I have traveled thousands and thousands of miles to arrive here today.

Indeed, no one would have thought that a young African-American kid from South Merced would one day end up at Stanford University, graduate in three years, and be elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and then find my way to Harvard Law School, as a student and now a tenured faculty member, and ultimately, come back to speak during the opening session at UC Merced. As I stand here addressing the future students and their families, I must tell you that it is a very different feeling than it was many years ago. I also know that my challenge today is to address the divide between me, a person who now is over 50, and you, many in your teens, 20s and 30s. The differences are phenomenal, as I have learned in recent times.

On Dec. 31, 2002, I celebrated my 50th birthday; it was a moment of great significance for me. It was, however, in some ways, disarming. Not only did I realize that I was getting old, but I actually received my AARP card in the mail soon after that date. So I know the challenges I have today attempting to have an intergenerational conversation with those of you whose life experiences are very different than mine, but I will try to do so nonetheless…

My topic for today is a meditation on success. Success does not come easy, nor is it guaranteed. It is something that is earned through hard work. Each and every one of you will achieve your goals if you have faith, family, friends and freedoms.

Each of these is necessary to ensure your success. When I say “faith,” that comes in many different tones and many different contexts. It is not simply a faith in God, which is important, but faith in so many other aspects of life as well, and I am certain, whatever your religious conviction, that you are all people of great faith.

As a teacher, I know how important faith is, as I see my students — how some may question how they have defined the belief in God, it comes through unmistakably in their efforts. Indeed, I have not gone through a semester when I have not heard students, the night before exams, praying to God to make sure that they pass the test, to explain why they should pass even if they didn't study as hard as they had planned, and to give them just one more chance, and they'll do better in the future.

So faith is a big aspect of it. This faith is recognized at the conclusion of your academic studies as well. Some in this audience will graduate summa cum laude; others will graduate magna cum laude; still others will graduate cum laude; and some will graduate, Thank You Lord! Laude. It is not where you finish, but that you finish, that is most important.

Family is important to me as well. When I wrote my book, “All Deliberate Speed: Reflections on the First Half-Century of Brown v. Board of Education,” I learned how my family inspired my faith, by simply encouraging me to believe that if I learned to read, that I could learn to lead, and how it enriched my otherwise impoverished life. I wrote:

“While the material poverty we lived in was palpable, there was no poverty of values in our home. My grandmother could barely read, but she knew enough to read the Bible to us, and make sure we listened. I don't know why she read that Bible to us, but it started my curiosity in reading. I was so drawn into these biblical stories that I spent hours in the library and read lots of books.”

The more I read, the more I dreamed of being in another world, and the fascination with learning opened up avenues that I never imagined. I was encouraged to keep up this interest in reading, as the school librarian was my enabler. She offered me new books to read, and seemed vicariously to enjoy my excitement. We established a nice partnership. She provided the books for me to read, and I told her stories about the wonderful things I learned. I treasured every moment, and whether I was riding home on the bus or sitting outside near the creek behind our house, reading a book became part of my daily routine.

Not everyone embraced the full scope of my endless interest in reading. My grandmother and mother, who were pleased to see me interested in reading, did not like the lack of self-imposed boundaries.

Both would occasionally admonish me for spending all my time reading, and forgetting to do some of my chores around the house. At night, I would read until it was dark, and my mother would say, “Junior, you are going to go blind reading in the dark! Put that book down, and go to bed!” I always wanted to respond and tell her that reading in the dark doesn't cause blindness, that this was a silly thing to say. But I knew better. I followed her admonition, and when she fell asleep, I would use the moonlight to read as long as I could, and then fall off to sleep myself.

Books were my addiction, and I could not feed it fast enough. The books I read took me places that I suspected I would never visit in life. They took me to castles and caves, over the seas and atop the highest mountains. They allowed me to be by turns inventive, curious, melancholy, or frustrated. I would imagine riding on a riverboat with Tom Sawyer and telling him I did not appreciate his use of the word 'Nigger.' I would find myself enthralled by Daniel Defo's classic work “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe,” and travel the high seas serving as a mate for any captain looking for a gifted sailor. My most inspiring moments of reading and learning came on those summer nights, when it was just too hot to sleep. I would read about places all over the world and imagine getting there. These trips were made a lot easier when I heard the Southern Pacific trains travel through Merced, heading to destinations unknown. I imagined getting on those trains and journeying to places with no limits and no barriers.

It was becoming apparent to others around me, but not to me, that reading would be my ticket out of poverty and despair. I had witnessed a better place and a better life. I was patient but certain that, as I grew older, it would be time to move to another place and be someone else. It would be time to see the things my grandparents and parents had never imagined, and to do the things they had never dared even try. I hope that each of you will find faith in some aspect of life, as well, that will inspire you.

So what should you take away from your time here at UC Merced as a student? Let me tell you what I learned here, and how it enriches my life, even today. It is hard to imagine today that I am where I am, in light of where I started from; however, I know that I have made it this far because of the friendships that I have established over the years, and the many mentors right here in Merced who inspired me to take on every challenge to ensure success in life. I could not be where I am, nor could I imagine where I would be, if it had not been for the friends who have made such a remarkable impact on my life.

As you pursue your education here at UC Merced, you will meet people, engage in serious debate, change your point of view, and ultimately grow intellectually and emotionally, in this rich and challenging educational environment. These experiences will profoundly affect you, today and tomorrow, and when you have a moment to reflect on your brilliant career, the time at UC Merced will be viewed as a crucial turning point in your life.

Friends are the third principle of success that one must have. We cannot make it without others giving us guidance and support. There will surely be days when you are here studying and you will wonder whether you have any friends. On occasion, I felt that way when I was a student, and bad thoughts would enter my head. At those darkest moments, I would play that classic song by the great blues artist, B.B. King, who wrote: “Nobody loves me but my mother, and she may be jiving, too!” Well, don't play BB King too often, as you are loved.

Three years ago, I wrote a tribute in the Merced Sun-Star, to my mentors, the people who nurtured me as a child, disciplined me as a student and supported me as a young adult. They all were part of the village raising me. As I reflect upon the many supporters during those years, I have to recognize the nurturing and support I received from my grandparents, parents, siblings and other relatives. As I went through the public schools in Merced, many people reached out to offer me encouragement and counseling that influenced my decision to go to college and law school and to pursue a career of public service.

During my years in elementary school, Gaither Haynes served as my principal at Galen Clark Elementary School. He reminded the students of his pride in being a Native American and taught us the value of cultural identity at an early age. Ms. Edna McMasters was one of my elementary school teachers who took every opportunity to challenge us to learn more and to strive to do the best that we could as students. Mr. Tony Soria was an important influence in my life as I grew older. He arranged for me to receive my first job as a paperboy for the Merced Sun-Star. He taught me the lessons of discipline, professionalism and integrity in this early business opportunity. When I attended Merced High School, I greatly benefited from the wise counsel of all of my teachers, coaches, counselors and mentors, many of whom are here today, and by my surrogate parents, Clifford and Alice Spendlove, Charlie Bennett, the Jones family, my aunt and uncle Nadine and Napoleon Washington, and the person who brought the blues, music that is, into our homes on the weekend to help us make it through the week, Mr. Denard Davis.

They all encouraged me to seek higher goals and they continued to offer support and encouragement when I attended Stanford University and Harvard Law School. As I recounted in the Sun-Star story: Two families in particular, the Beale and Huddleston families, were always there for me, with Almetres Huddleston welcoming me into their home and Mrs. Beale doing the same. Mrs. Julia Beale and Mr. Charley Huddleston, were influential in my life from the very beginning. Whenever there was an issue of racial conflict at the high school, the college, or in the community, Ms. Beale, as the NAACP chairperson, was always there. She spoke eloquently and thoughtfully about justice and equality and was a role model for all of us. Charley Huddleston has always been viewed as the unofficial mayor of Merced. My father worked for him for more than 20 years, and he also found jobs for the youth during the summer, hosted evenings of skating in the community, sponsored motorcycle rides and had a significant relationship with many landowners who allowed him to take us to some wonderful and secluded fishing spots.

As I look back on my early years in Merced, I can do no less than to honor these outstanding citizens and, by implication, many others for the nurturing and support they have provided to thousands of Merced's urban youth. In 2002, I saluted these mentors in a concrete way, by announcing the $50,000 Ogletree Scholarship Fund for Summer Jobs, and for the past 15 years, I have annually provided scholarships to Merced High School graduates, and more recently, Golden Valley High School graduates, to support the effort to raise the next generation of leaders. I mention this fact not to boast about financial contributions, but to make a different point. I try each year to reward promise and potential rather than proven success. I try to find the young women and men who need a hand up, not a handout, to pursue a college education. I try to find the first-generation college student, who, like me, will make their parents proud that they are carrying the family tradition into uncharted waters, and at the same time, make a commitment to return to the community to lift up others. I firmly believe that we are duty bound to “look back on those who were able to get us here if we're ever going to go forward in meeting the challenges of the future.”

The opening of UC Merced comes at an important time in our lifetime. It comes after the multiple tragedies of Sept. 11, 2001, when life as we knew it changed forever. It comes when technology and the Internet are as common as a warm summer day. UC Merced opens when we are facing the likelihood of paying $5 or more for a gallon gas, when I remember complaining, as a kid, when I had to pay $1 to get four gallons of gas! It is also a time when we are witnessing the catastrophic destruction of property and loss of thousands of lives in the Gulf Region. It is indeed, the best of times and the worst of times.

We live in a state that is one of the most diverse, and fastest growing in the nation. How will this incredible set of challenges influence our ability to create a great university? It will be difficult, but I'm confident, as I look out at all of you, that UC Merced will be the “shining School on the Hill,” but one with people who not only have come from the Valley, but are deeply committed to return to serve those in need in the Valley. It is my hope that we at UC Merced celebrate our diversity, and see diversity and excellence as complimentary, not in conflict.

You will live in a learning environment, much like the one described by my friend and former President of Harvard University, Neil Rudenstine: “In a debate that is too often framed by the competing interests of different groups, it is all the more important that we remember the most fundamental rationale for student diversity in higher education — its educational value.

Students benefit in countless ways from the opportunity to live and learn among peers whose perspectives and experiences differ from their own. A diverse educational environment challenges them to explore ideas and arguments at a deeper level — to see issues from various sides, to rethink their own premises, and to achieve the kind of understanding that comes only from testing their own hypotheses against those of people with opposing views.”

It is interesting to reflect upon what other major University of California campuses went through as they were established, and to compare that to here, we might go in the next quarter century or more. UC Berkeley, the oldest and largest of the California universities, actually was founded in the 1860s and began operations in 1869 in Oakland. When the doors opened, diversity was an integral ingredient of its mission, as the first class enrolled consisted of 167 men and 222 women students!

UCLA, by comparison, was originally the Los Angeles State Normal School and was founded in 1881. The University of California, Los Angeles, known as the “Southern Branch” of the California University System, was located on a 25-acre campus on North Vermont Avenue, offering initially a two-year curriculum in the College of Letters and Science, with an enrollment of 250 students.

Today the University includes, with the opening of UC Merced, a 10-campus system and has an estimated enrollment in excess of 170,000 students, with more than half of them women.

When Daniel C. Gilman, President of the University of California, gave the inaugural address on Nov. 7, 1872, it is worth noting his optimism concerning the role of the University of California as a national entity. In describing what the founders envisioned in building this new university, Gilman observed: “First, it is a 'university,' and not a high school, nor a college, nor an academy of sciences, nor an industrial school, which we are charged to build. Some of these features may, indeed, be included in or developed with the university; but the university means more than any or all of them. The university is the most comprehensive term which can be employed to indicate a foundation for the promotion and diffusion of knowledge — a group of agencies organized to advance the arts and sciences of every sort, and to train young men as scholars for all the intellectual callings of life.

“Second, the charter and the name declare that this is the 'University of California.' It is not the University of Berlin nor of New Haven, which we are to copy; it is not the University of Oakland nor of San Francisco, which we are to create; but it is the University of this state. It must be adapted to this people, to their public and private schools, to their peculiar geographical position, to the requirements of their new society and their undeveloped resources. It is not the foundation of an ecclesiastical body nor of private individuals. It is 'of the people and for the people' — not in any low or unworthy sense, but in the highest and noblest relations to their intellectual and moral well-being.”

An enduring vision emerges, and is captured in Gilman's prophetic vision. As I think about the UC Merced campus, I too envision a unique place, in California, in America, and indeed, in the world. I envision that, when your children and grandchildren have a choice of universities to attend, whether it is Harvard or Howard, Stanford or the University of Texas, Princeton or even UCLA or Berkeley, they will say, “Thanks, but no thanks. I'm setting higher goals, and the institution I choose to attend is UC Merced!” This may seem a lofty goal here in 2005, but it is precisely the spirit of dreaming big that will lead to your soon-to-be alma mater being a highly sought-after institution of higher learning.

My only regret today is that the four people who nurtured and protected me during the formative years of my youth are not here to see this. They are my grandfather and grandmother, Willie and Essie D. Reed, and my mother and father, Charles and Willie Mae Reed. Neither my grandparents nor my parents were able to finish high school, and certainly never imagined going to college. They did, however, expect that I would be where I am today. In honor of them, I want to announce today that my wife, Pamela; my two children, Charles III and Rashida; and I, will provide an annual $5,000 scholarship to a deserving Merced student to attend UC Merced, beginning in the fall of 2006. It is the least that I can do to honor those who have lifted me up for so long.

Finally, there are freedoms that you will be urged to pursue, and those freedoms include the ability to learn at your own pace, demand the best from those who teach you, finding meaningful and rewarding ways to apply what you learn, and think outside the box.

Nelson Mandela, who spent 27 years in prison before being released and elected as the first African president of South Africa, describes it in equally eloquent and personal terms. President Mandela reminded South Africans, all South Africans, of the need to not restrain their talents or dreams.

Reading from Marianne Williamson's Book, “A Return to Love,” Mandela urged us:

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us.
We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be?
You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us.
It is not just in some; it is in everyone.
And, as we let our own light shine, we consciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

It is this message — of family, friends, faith and freedom, that will sustain you as you embark upon this journey. Please know that we will be there with you, in our presence, and sometime simply in spirit. We shall never forsake you, and you should never feel any reluctance to call upon us. Always remember that there is someone there upon whose shoulders you stand, and who will guide you through all of life's challenges. There will be difficult days, and the demons will even enter your head every now and then to try to persuade you to give up and turn around. Don't fear, because you are protected and will arrive at your destination safely. How do I know that, and why do I believe that? I came a mighty long way to get here, and I know when fear can try to unravel you. It was not a teacher, or even a peer, who convinced me that I would be all right. It was my grandmother, Mrs. Essie D. Reed, who did not go through high school, or college, nor any other meaningful educational process, but she carried one book, the Holy Bible, that gave her the abiding faith to assure me that I would make it. All she had to do was turn to the 40th chapter of Isaiah, and God took it from there:

28: Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding.
29: He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
30: Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall.
31: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.