New Student Orientation – Opening Assembly
Wednesday, August 18, 2010
Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel
On behalf of the 43 members of our board of trustees, a
distinguished faculty of 165 men and women, a tireless staff of
more than 400 people, and more than 15,000 living graduates, I
welcome each member of the class of 2014—and your families—
to Morehouse College. Allow me to also acknowledge that
yesterday was a wonderful first day and that, throughout the day, I
received on behalf of the entire Morehouse family your abundant
compliments and praise. We recognize, however, that there were a
few departures from our usual standards of excellence. I accept
responsibility for them. For each of those departures, I ask that
you accept my apology and, more important, my pledge to see that
they are corrected and never repeated.
Seeing the men of 2014 arrive with parents and families
transports me 38 years back in time. I arrived from Chicago by
Greyhound bus with my mother. My father didn’t make the 18-
hour trip, preferring to work so that he could pay for tuition, then
at the exorbitant rate of $3,000 per year.
The day of registration, my mother and I took a taxi from
Paschal’s Hotel and, when I saw the long line of brothers
attempting to register at Graves Hall, I told Mom to leave me on
Fair Street a short distance from the gate so no one would see her
escort me to the door. I wore a shirt and tie and had a snazzy new
Samsonite briefcase given by the proud members of my local
church. I felt that I was “Mr. Morehouse,” all set to dive into the
Years later, an uncle told me that my mother called him in
tears as she returned home alone. She had just left her baby at
Morehouse. My uncle interrupted her and said, “Dorothy, listen to
what you just said. You left him at Morehouse College. Some
mothers are crying today because they have left their sons in jail.
And some have left their sons in a morgue. But you have left a son
at Morehouse.” He told me that those words made all the
difference, and her tears of grief immediately transformed to joy
So this is a word to parents. Leave your sons, grandsons and
young men at Morehouse and be proud of what you have done.
Although it may be difficult and painful to separate, do it for his
sake. You’re leaving him in good hands. He will mature into a
Morehouse man, and we’ll all be the better.
As we begin my fourth year as president, my “senior” year, I
want to share a few observations that I think will make the
transition from high school to life at one of the nation’s “most
grueling colleges” easier and more seamless. And I firmly believe
that, if adhered to, these suggestions—the seven habits of highly
successful men of Morehouse, to paraphrase leadership guru Dr.
Stephen Covey—will serve you well during the next four years and
1) Seize responsibility for your education. Attend every
class that you are able to attend.
Contrary to what some might say, your consistent attendance is
important—even if you already understand the material.
Classroom discussion provides the immediate, dynamic, highly
interactive exchanges and insight to which you would not
otherwise be exposed.
Complete every assignment and keep every appointment. If
you must change or cancel an appointment, be responsible and
respectful enough to alert others well in advance instead of wasting
their time and hurting your reputation. It will show that you are
serious about learning and that you are dependable. Be a man of
your word. And remember the Morehouse adage: “To be early is to
be on time; to be on time is late; and to be late is unacceptable.”
2) Take good notes. They will be of paramount importance
when you’re studying for tests, particularly midterms and finals—
when the material may no longer be so fresh in your memory.
Make an effort to meet with your professors outside of the
classroom. Not even a professor’s syllabus can take the place of
personal interaction when it comes to understanding his or her
And be an academic entrepreneur; that is, manage your own
business. Tell your parents, “Mom, Dad, I know you’re used to
doing things for me, but I’ve got this!”
3) Embrace learning and discovery as a new and exciting
adventure. In an earlier speech (which you can find online)
inspired by the Nobel Laureate Hermann Hesse, I referred to
college as an intellectual game and to all the men of Morehouse as
“masters of the game.” Regard every article or book you read as
the opening of a conversation with a new friend, one that should
last the rest of your life.
H.G. Wells had it right when he observed, “More powerful
than a standing army is an idea whose time has come.” Make your
learning come alive. If you find the material or the professor or
your classmates insufficiently inspired, you bring the inspiration,
the creative new point of view, and the well-crafted question that
explodes like a chemical reaction.
At Morehouse, it’s okay to be smart! In fact, the smart guys
run this show. The cool nerds have the juice and are the most
charismatic and interesting brothers on the block. But one of the
things I loved about Morehouse in my student years was that
although we competed intellectually, we never stooped to being
mean-spirited towards our vanquished foes. We always left their
dignity intact and extended a helping hand to lift the other brother.
4) Select your peer group wisely. An African proverb
declares, “If you want to travel quickly, go alone. But if you want
to travel far, go with others.” Travel only with those who have
chosen a lofty goal as their destination. It is sometimes unfair, but
you are judged by the company you keep. And you don’t need the
added burden of a friend holding you back from your dreams.
Also, in case you haven’t already noticed, there are plenty of
attractive young women in the AU Center. Choose one who is
serious and mature. Be responsible and be respectful of others.
And if things are not working out, don’t play her. Be honest,
dissolve the relationship in a compassionate way and move on.
Be respectful of your brothers when you invite a friend to our
campus or your residence hall. We have had a few instances of
visitors who were unaware of our expectations, came to visit,
behaved badly, and then departed never to be seen again. But they
damaged Morehouse, and your behavior enabled that.
5) Request help if you need it. Those who seek help do
exceedingly well. Those who wait until they are already in
profound academic jeopardy before seeking assistance always
regret it. Some brothers think it is not manly to ask for help. On
the contrary, it is unwise and childish to find yourself in trouble
and not speak up. You are paying the faculty to help you, so ask
You are now part of a brotherhood. We are here to help you.
6) Avoid people and situations that could threaten your
success or safety. Do not venture out alone into unknown
territory, especially at night. Nothing good happens after midnight
around here. Your intellect alone cannot protect you from the
elements that others bring into our community.
Do not use illegal drugs. And certainly, do not sell them. Not
only will they impair your mind, but they will ruin your life. If you
are under the legal age, do not drink alcohol and, by all means, no
one should drink or smoke and drive.
Real men of Morehouse are incapable of abusing and
disrespecting women physically or verbally. If she says, “No,” that
means no. And if you disrespect her, I will take a personal interest
in seeing that you move quickly through our campus judicial
We do not hurt our fellow students in any way. Curtail the
impulse to be violent, mean, or intolerant.
Do not cheat. If you quote another author, you must cite that
Practice decorum on the social networks: Facebook, Twitter,
etc. Do not repeat malicious words or gossip about others. Be a
leader and a man of integrity who puts the fire out instead of
fanning the flames for your personal enjoyment.
As important as your presence is to the Morehouse
community, if you break the rules and erode the community, you
will have proved that we made a mistake in admitting you, and you
will not be here for long.
7) Cherish the privilege of attending college. Realize that
only 27% of all Americans have earned a college degree. The vast
majority of Americans have not done what you are preparing to do:
finish college. And only 18% of black people in this country have
completed college degrees. So being here is a privilege that you
should cherish. Make those who nurtured you and sacrificed so
that you could be here proud of your behavior, as well as your
Last night, you heard of the five characteristics that I wish to
hold above your heads, along with the crown you will someday
wear. Affectionately known as the “five wells,” they express the
substance and style of the men who will help to lead a renaissance
in our communities.
Renaissance means rebirth. And in most of our communities,
there is a need for rebirth, another chance. But communities need
leaders who can catalyze and guide the process. They need
• Become well-read. Read physics and philosophy; read
finance and poetry. Then, put these disciplines into
innovative and unprecedented dialogue and dialectical
• Second, become well-spoken. Have something valuable to
say, and say it well. Express yourselves with precision,
grace, and style, both orally and in writing. You’ve come
here to learn to put complex emotions and ideas into elegant
words. Develop what Aristotle called “the art of rhetoric.”
Remember the three Bs: be good, be brief, and be seated.
• Third, become well-traveled. Plan now to voyage to distant
lands. Experience the “decentering” that comes from leaving
home and looking back to assess and understand one’s
origins. We are blessed to have many international students
who know this and can assist the rest of us. My junior year
was spent in England, and I became a better Morehouse Man
because of it.
Take advantage of the many opportunities Morehouse
offers its students to travel and study abroad. Travel to the
edges of the world and take the Morehouse banner with you.
Get out of your parent’s house and out of Morehouse to see
• Fourth, become well-dressed. Make the right first
impression. Whether you like it not, people see you coming
down the street or corridor before they meet you and hear
your brilliant and charming conversation. There is a time and
a place for every cultural wardrobe. Well dressed doesn’t
mean shirts, ties, and suits only. We celebrate diversity, but
we expect professionalism, neatness, and dignity in all things.
Perhaps some of you have seen the September 2010
“Back to College” issue of Ebony. In a nice piece on
Morehouse, the magazine affirms our tradition of leadership
development and high academic expectations. But it dwells
excessively on the dress code.
Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time
explaining and defending our appropriate attire code. As my
chief of staff Fran Calhoun suggests, it’s time to change the
conversation. I do not wish to talk further about dress codes.
The topic is uninspiring when compared to the other four
wells. I’d rather talk about Dunbar and DuBois, Aristotle
and Shakespeare. So let’s spend the rest of the year focused
on becoming well read, spoken, traveled, and balanced.
• Finally, become well-balanced. Morehouse teaches us to
possess healthy minds that reside within healthy bodies
governed by healthy values. Remember that phrase: healthy
minds inside healthy bodies governed by healthy values.
This affirms the importance of a well-rounded existence built
upon the wise allocation of time and effort. To everything
there is a season and a time for every purpose under the sun.
A time for relaxation and a time (a lot of time) for study; a
time for sports and recreation and a time for worship and
spiritual nourishment. Dr. DuBois said that university should
be a place for “hard work and hard play.”
Lead by your example of integrity, humility, and
goodness. We are a college that values leadership, so let your
leading begin here. When others are making bad decisions, have
the courage to say no and to move in another direction. Do not
succumb to the immoral and mindless pressures expressed in the
phrase, “Don’t snitch.” That’s the same message that the Ku Klux
Klan promoted when they wore sheets over their heads to hide
their identities and threatened those who knew them to keep quiet.
Do not allow crime and bad behavior to invade Morehouse while
you sit timidly on the sideline of history.
Rabbi Hillel, a 1st century Jewish contemporary of Jesus of
Nazareth said, “The world is equally balanced between good and
evil, and your next act will tip the scales.”
Sometimes, one man can make a difference. One man
stood in front of a line of Chinese military tanks in Tiananmen
Square on June 5, 1989, and stopped them temporarily. He also
stopped our hearts and inspired our courage.
One man, a Morehouse man, sat alone in a Birmingham jail
cell and, in his idle hours, began to compose a moral treatise
unparalleled in modern moral philosophy and civil disobedience.
And I might add, he used the talents he honed in English, history,
sociology, and religion classes right on this campus to spur a
nation toward change.
You, too, should lead us toward that which is good and right
and encourage your fellow students to follow your lead. One man
can make a difference.
I close by asking you to help me.
Each year, I remind the men of Morehouse that we are called
to serve. We are Morehouse and we are here to serve the least
advantaged members of the community. But what if they do not
know who we are and why we exist? We must tell them. So, men
of Morehouse, please stand.
When I declare the word, “Morehouse,” you will respond
with five simple words: “Your ‘House, at your service.”
When you say this, I want you to roar so loud that an African
lion in the Serengeti will pause because he has heard the roar of
crouching tigers on this red hill.
Your ’House, at your service!