Gazette

Address to convocation by Dr. Philip Warren


(June 4, 1998, Gazette)

First, I want to extend warmest greetings to the graduates. You are graduating from a university that is widely known and highly respected, not only in Canada, but also in other parts of the world. I congratulate you. And if your experiences are typical, then there are others to share the congratulations, because they have also contributed to your success - parents, brothers and sisters, other relatives, and friends. They, too, are proud of what you have accomplished.

Next, I would like to thank the Senate of Memorial for the honor you have bestowed on me at this convocation. Many times in the past I have attended convocation as a young graduate in the mid-1950s, as a faculty member on numerous occasions from 1962 to 1989, as a minister of education, and even as a convocation speaker. But today is very special. With so many of my family and friends in attendance, including my 89-year-old mother, I am deeply moved. I thank you all.

It would be appropriate, with so many of the graduates here today from professional faculties and schools, to comment briefly on the place of the professions in the university, and then, to outline a number of challenges with which today's graduates are faced. I know you will understand if given this opportunity to offer a little advice, I take it.

The debate about the purposes of a university is a long-standing one. For years, many saw the university as an academic cloister (to use Cardinal Newman's term), where basic education and fundamental research were the goals. But, today, we have accepted a much broader model. In addition to promoting fundamental research, for example, the modern university, often in partnership with the private sector and government, conducts applied research as well. "Serving the economy" has gained a certain credibility in the modern university, and social responsibility is seen as an essential task. The university has also become the chief port of entry for many professions. In fact, professions gain their identity and their credibility from making the university their home. The modern university, therefore, plays a major role in preparing highly skilled professional personnel for the global marketplace.

In many parts of North America, law and medicine were among the first professions to be established in universities. At Memorial, however, it was teacher education that took the lead. After co-existing with Memorial University College for several years in the same building on Parade Street, the teacher training program became an integral part of the college in 1934. Pre-medical, pre-engineering, and pre-agricultural studies were also established in the early years, and consideration given to the introduction of a law program. In fact, in 1946, it was decided that a law program would be offered shortly after the institution received degree-granting status. There was every indication, then, that a law school would precede a school of medicine. Offering degrees in nursing and pharmacy was also proposed during the late 1940s.

While some professional and pre-professional programs existed before Memorial College received university status in 1949, even in teacher education, enrolments were relatively small. The college itself had a full-time enrolment of only 307 students at the time of Confederation. After that, however, enrolments began their rapid increase until 1990, when the number of undergraduate students exceeded 12,000. By then, the Faculty of Engineering was offering degrees, the Faculty of Medicine had emerged, and degrees in business, music, nursing, physical education, social work, and pharmacy were available. Last year, Memorial awarded approximately 1,150 professional degrees, nearly 45 per cent of the total awarded by the university.

One important benefit that accrued to the province as a result of having the Faculty of Education integrated into Memorial at such an early date was increased accessibility for outport students. The teacher training grant, among other things, made it possible for many students from rural areas, including large numbers of women, to begin university studies - students who would not otherwise have entered university. I, myself, would never have gotten to Memorial without that grant. Many outport students, therefore, were destined to become teachers or preachers, or both. Then, the Faculty of Education could easily have been called the "outport university." Now, of course, students in all professional schools are drawn from a broader geographical area and a much wider spectrum of backgrounds.

Professional students graduating today face many challenges. One such challenge is dealing with the uncertainty about job opportunities, in some professional fields more than others. Sometimes, and in some jurisdictions, there are discrepancies between the number of university graduates and the supply of jobs. Moving from higher education to employment, therefore, has become much more difficult than in the past.

I'm not sure how to respond to this challenge, other than to argue that with a growing economy, with expanding health care and social needs (including those that result from an aging population), and with early retirements in some areas, job opportunities for professionals will improve, locally as well as nationally. For graduates prepared to move, even to get their first job, these opportunities will be enhanced. Preferably, of course, you'll have the choice of remaining here to contribute to the building of our economy and the improvement of our way of life.

I'm sure you realize that what counts today in getting employment is not just the degree, but the quality of that degree, the reputation of the university that grants it, and your own personal characteristics, including your communication skills, your computer skills, your ability to get along with others and work as a member of a team, and your intellectual flexibility and creativity.

At this point, I should stress the broader benefits of having a well-educated population, social as well as economic. These benefits accrue to society at large, as well as to the individual. That's why governments must continue to consider expenditures on education one of the best investments they can make.

Dealing with stress on the job is another challenge with which you will be faced. On a daily basis, media stories focus on the heavy workload of medical doctors, nurses, social workers, and teachers. One well-known way of dealing with such stress is balancing work and recreation, as difficult as that seems to get. Early in your careers, you should adopt leisure, recreational, and other activities that will help you in this regard, including: physical activities that will stay with you throughout life (such as walking and golf), volunteer activities, and enjoying the fine arts. We're told there's a resurgence of interest in culture and the fine arts, because they add a new dimension to our lives. Certainly, going into concerts, art galleries, and museums has done so for me. Good artists, and there are many in this province, have passion for meaning, truth and beauty, and throughout their works, they help us in our search for these things. They help us understand nature, our heritage, our culture, and, indeed, ourselves. Please find time to explore their world!

Another major challenge for graduates from professional schools today is maintaining the emphasis on service. In our increasingly impersonal world, professional behavior must still be defined in terms of service to the community. Using your specialized knowledge and skill in the community interest is an essential attribute of professional behavior. That's not to say that you and your professional organization should neglect individual self-interest - but that interest must be balanced with serving the needs of the community and individual citizens.

The importance of your role was once described by a person who said professionals dominate the world: they heal our bodies, they enlighten our minds, they save our souls, and even measure our profits. What an important service!

A fourth major challenge for all graduates today is to remain positive and optimistic in an age of increasing mistrust and continuing criticism. For various reasons, including the influence of the media and the growth of special interest groups, distrust is a very strong element in our society. It seems that everybody is criticizing and blaming others for the ills of society. Teachers, for example, have been blamed for the nation's economic problems and for an unending list of social ones. They have been accused of producing at best, barely literate graduates, and at worst, thousands of dropouts. And yet the facts do not support this generalization. We have many competent, caring and creative teachers, achieving important goals under difficult circumstances. Of course, we must do better, but let us acknowledge what teachers and other professionals do to lift society.

Toffler called the 1960s and 1970s a "hinge in history": connected to the past, yet swinging in another direction. I believe we are in another such period today. As a society and as a province, we can respond in several ways. We can batten down the hatches - that is, adopt a fortress mentality, and go on the defensive - or we can look to the future with confidence and enthusiasm. We can try to re-live the good old days, as desirable as that may seem, or we can willingly embrace the future, doing our part to make a difference. As we approach the next millennium, we in Newfoundland and Labrador have an historic opportunity to celebrate our accomplishments and, at the same time, look with vision, courage, and hope towards the future. Seneca, the noted Roman philosopher and statesman who lived in the first century, said: "The fates guide those who go willingly: those who do not, they drag." This statement is equally valid as we approach the 21st century.

I know that you, the graduates, are prepared and willing to meet these challenges and grasp these opportunities. I know you are prepared to give the leadership so necessary today and in the future. You are part of the best educated generation in our history. And you belong to one of the best countries in the world - where compassion, tolerance, diversity, caring and hard work are important values. We should cherish these values and promote them. I know you will use them as you build your professional and personal lives. I wish you well on that mission.