Wanting our university to grow in stature and importance, because it will be a better friend to our region, is an appropriate and powerful aspiration. There is only one way to do it. Seeking quality, defined and heralded as academic excellence, will make Southern a strong force. In all but the most limited definitions this includes softball and football, the symphony, and service to the region. Motive is everything though. We engage ourselves in these ways because if we attend to them properly they improve our ability to meet the academic mission of Southern. Academic excellence must be the first cause of all action. Not jobs, not economic development, not enrollment numbers, not placation of various political forces. Only quality. If we work toward this one goal, all else will follow.
Quality is an elusive construct and appears differently in various settings. It is always the result of passionate work and never the result of an accident. The key to understanding excellence for Southern is to understand that it is dependent on high quality people with vision. That doesn’t differentiate the university from our local car dealer, bank, movie theater, fast food joint, or house of worship. This too is not hard to see. Find the people who love their work, whose labor is born of devotion, and you will always find the best. Mark Twain said, “Who was it who said, “Blessed is the man who has found his work”? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind.”
Faculty, students, and staff who love their labor embrace and achieve excellence in one form or another. People driven by principle and purpose, vision, not processors or panderers, are those we want to associate with. They set high standards for themselves and once they meet them, they set their expectations even higher. This is what powers a university.
Excellence is a demanding target, a difficult roommate, an unloving friend. Sometimes it is cruel… a goal that requires sacrifice… and it is always intolerant of a half-hearted effort. If you think you have attained excellence and say to yourself as you read these words, “Wait a minute, I have accomplished something excellent and it was easy and fun,” I will say to you, “You may have performed well, you may have an innate or God given skill that you have exercised with ease, in a common way, but you have not attained anything excellent.” Excellence requires your best effort, and that means sacrifice and hard work.
Excellence grows in soil fertilized by vision, accountability, honesty, loyalty, determination, steadfastness, intolerance for compromise, and other characteristics that frequently come at a high price. Why is excellence so important from the classroom to the boardroom and everywhere in between? It draws people together and magnifies the result of work, like a fulcrum to a lever. Southern should nurture, reward, and recognize excellence for its pervasive ability to draw students here, to draw business here, to draw faculty here, to draw industry here, because they all see that the association will enhance their reputation. Pressing forward through current challenges is the means by which excellence will be achieved, and the university’s edge whetted.
Excellence speaks for itself in almost every facet of university life. By demanding only the best from leadership, students, faculty and staff, we will stretch beyond our apparent abilities and our university will serve its mission well.