All universities have histories. Some aspects of those collected histories are powerful while some are minor nuances of institutional life. Look at the impact of the shootings at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966, at Kent State on May 4, 1970, or more recently, at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. These tragic events help determine what a place is. Little ties these events together other than the utter senselessness of them, and the fact that they occurred on university campuses. As grievous as the personal losses to friends and family are, these events don’t define the institutions.
Routines give life and definition to a place.
Recently, we learned that SIUC was no longer at the top of the party school list. No news here… it has not been on that list for a very long time and there are dozens of universities that are more defined by weekly revelry than SIUC ever was. In addition, the university and the community working together have slowed a dangerous trend around Halloween where life and property were put at risk in a drunken brawl, as many people watched and did nothing.
My first tour of the campus in 2001, on the second night of my initial visit, took me to where the action was on the strip, and the individual giving the tour explained to me how he and others watched the fracas from the roof of a nearby building. He pointed it out with some degree of pride. It was a distinguishing mark of the institution.
The traditions at places like Yale, or Texas A&M University are things that happen over and over again defining what a place is, who it serves, and why it exists.
Customs shape a place.
The once in a lifecycle events that occur at a university, or in any other institution, may help define and give institutional perspective, but the truly important stuff happens every day, over and over again until something becomes a habit, hopefully a good one, and creates the identity of the organization, not by force, but by presence.
Just like a marriage. How you do the dishes, put out the trash, brush your teeth, and pay the bills may be more important than an engagement ring or a honeymoon trip or a fiftieth anniversary party.
These things that shape us occur every day. How does the teacher address the student who is struggling with the course material? How does the organization recognize excellence? How does the custodial worker prepare the building for teaching, research and scholarly activity? How often do students use the library to investigate something that has always been a curiosity to them, not just a requirement for class? How do faculty give life to thought through their own study and creative work? How do we welcome those who are different from ourselves?
These are the things that make us who and what we are. These day-to-day occurrences shape what the university is to a much greater extent than the once in a lifetime events that make headlines and then are remembered for their dramatic and distant impact.
Even seminal positive events, a national championship in a sport, or a Fulbright scholar every so often, don’t leave a lasting impact unless they become a habit. Those things happening everyday need our utmost attention.
Like a person, a university becomes what it daily lives.
At Our University we need to be mindful of what Charles Noble said, “First we make our habits, and then our habits make us.”