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“What Really Matters?” President Davis Lecture

Furman President Elizabeth Davis

“What Really Matters?”

November 17, 2015

It is a privilege and honor to stand before you and deliver my thoughts about what really matters.  It’s also quite humbling as many presenters in this series have so rightly pointed out.  For 33 years, we have honored the legacy of LD Johnson through this series, and our community has been blessed by the wisdom of some of the finest minds on campus.

I’ll confess at one point thinking, certainly someone over these past 33 years hit it right—clearly articulating what really matters.  Maybe we should just read that essay over and over.  Of course, there are some problems with that strategy.  First, we probably couldn’t offer CLP credit for reading one essay.  But more importantly, that passive, individualized exercise goes against one of the very things I understand Dr. Johnson was so well known for—asking us as a community to stop and reflect on who we are and what we are about.  And hearing from our own community members offers a way of knowing each other that we don’t often experience.

So again, I’m privileged, honored and humbled to be among those who have searched for wisdom and answers to this most important and pressing question.

This past month, I was pressed to think about what really matters and not because I had this speech tonight, but because of two specific events.  The first was a memorial service for my friend and colleague Diana Garland.  Diana was the dean of the school of social work at Baylor University.  She died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 65.  At her service, we heard the eulogy virtues, as David Brooks calls them.  Eulogy virtues are different from resume virtues. Yes, at memorial services, we all lament that in our daily lives we aren’t working on our eulogy virtues.  But if hearing the good works of a social worker was all the service was about, I wouldn’t have made the in-and-out trip to Waco.  Diana’s death rocked me to my core.  Social workers and accountants don’t think alike.  Social workers and academic administrators don’t think alike.  That Diana and I were dear friends might be a bit unusual.  But I will tell you, Diana changed me.  She changed how I think about making a difference in this world.  Lots of people want to make a difference…and they’re terrible at it.  Because making a difference requires more than a heart.  It requires a head.  Diana taught me what it means to intellectually understand the sociological, environmental, economical, and theological implications of doing good.

The other event was much more up-lifting.  It was the ordination service of Maria Swearingen and Sally Sarratt.  Baptists have ordination services to officially recognize the calling of members to ministry in the name of Jesus Christ.  There’s a lot of stuff that happens leading up to an ordination.  Not just everyone is ordained.  But those who are have demonstrated a faith and commitment worthy of the congregation’s blessing.  A calling into the ministry is not easy.  It’s a calling to serve, care, and preach the good news.  It is a 24-7 job that is all about others.

When I think about Diana and Maria and Sally and what really matters, I’m humbled.  I’ll confess to a slight inferiority complex.  I am trained as an accountant.  I’m not one of those people who help others in times of deepest need.  But over the years, I have come to accept my gifts as they are.  And tonight, perhaps I will persuade you that thinking like an accountant is not necessarily a bad thing.

Accountants are historians.  I bet most if not all of you have never thought about accountants that way.  Now, speaking just for me, I’m not nearly the elegant historian that, say Marian Strobel or Savita Nair are.  But in preparing financial statements, accountants report in numerical form the aggregation of events that happened in the past.  When I read financial statements, I can surmise what happened and what didn’t happen.  The three major financial statements, the balance sheet, the income statement, and the statement of cash flows, explain a different piece of the history.  The story is incomplete without each one.  While each statement has its own style and purpose, they are inextricably linked.  They are connected, and understanding how one informs and is informed by another is an important part of understanding the history.

The income statement and statement of cash flows tell a version of recent history.  Typically, it’s what happened in the past year.  The balance sheet is an accumulation of events or history over many years, typically the life of the organization.  While an income statement and statement of cash flows start fresh every year, the balance sheet is merely adjusted year to year.  Old experiences aren’t forgotten, but are built upon each new year.

The goal of creating financial statements is to provide information that is useful to existing and potential investors, creditors and other lenders for decision making.  To facilitate putting these historical accounts together, the professional body has articulated two qualitative characteristics that these records should possess:  relevance and faithful representation.  For financial statements to be relevant, they need to have predictive value and be of a nature that matters.  We call that materiality.  For financial statements to meet faithful representation, they should be complete, neutral and free from errors.

Enhancing these characteristics are the qualities of comparability, verifiability, timeliness, and understandability.  I suppose if an accountant were asked what really matters to the profession, it would be that we can be relied upon to understand the needs of the user, our audience, so that we might present information that is helpful, reliable and trustworthy.

While it may appear to the untrained eye that accountants merely follow a bunch of rules, adding and subtracting, it’s more complicated than that. Professional judgment is required to meet the standards. In fact, a major decades-long debate in the profession focuses on whether accountants should follow rules or principles in the preparation of financial statements.

Rules, for the most part, appear to take away a lot of judgment of the accountant, especially when it comes to meeting the quality of faithful representation.  Rules can be manipulated to achieve what an organization wants to report — meeting the letter of the law as opposed to the spirit of the law.

Principles, on the other hand, can affect the comparability of results between organizations.  Agreeing on principles is difficult, and defending principles when an organization has suffered losses is even more difficult.  For the educators in the room, think about creating a syllabus or a university policy.  I think back to my first syllabus.  It wasn’t too long—here are the learning objectives for the course, here are the assignments, here is how your grade is going to be determined.  Maybe 2 or 3 pages.  Principles, if you will.  Then, after enough disagreements with students about what the syllabus does or doesn’t say, rules get added.  Make-up tests need to be arranged ahead of time.  Homework is due at the beginning of class.  Rules begin to take over.  The syllabus grows in length.  And before long, we’ve lost the purpose behind what the course is designed to accomplish.  It becomes a series of obstacles to overcome rather than a cohesive set of experiences that together meet learning objectives that, in concert with other courses and experiences, create transformative learning experiences for students.

But let’s get back to accounting.  I was always good at accounting.  I had no idea before I went to college that I would end up majoring in accounting.  I started out in computer science.  I really didn’t know what that would entail, but it was one of those cool, newish majors back in 1980.  I have shared with my computer science colleagues that I liked what I perceived to be the logic of computer science, but I didn’t like the rules or the syntax to code programs a particular way.  Those of you who might have taken a Fortran class a long, long time ago may know what I mean.  So I switched to something less picky than computer science—accounting.

For me, accounting was like a big puzzle, and I have always enjoyed puzzles, especially logic puzzles.  I like to figure out how things work together.  Early on in my career at Arthur Andersen, I would be sent in to unravel some of the messiest accounts within our client records. I guess someone discovered that I could walk into an unfamiliar situation and figure out what was going on.  I could infer the history that led to the present situation. In an effort to sound really interesting, the term forensic accounting has started to take hold for these kinds of investigations.  Marketing, it’s all marketing.

At the same time, I realized that the staff I was supervising didn’t have the same understanding of accounting that I did.  Many of them were merely following directions without a clear sense of why they were doing what they were doing.  It’s hard to adapt in a dynamic environment if you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing.  Or if you don’t know how to interpret information within a particular context.  So I decided to enter academia so I could help teach the “why.”

Because I so enjoy understanding how things work together to produce a result, I tend to want others to experience that same joy.  As I look back on each of the various administrative roles I’ve held in academia, I notice a common theme of bringing people together to understand how and why things work a particular way, so we might collectively improve.  It matters to me that the groups with which I work share a common understanding and a common purpose.  It’s hard to work toward a common good when we don’t or aren’t willing to consider how the various pieces contribute to the whole.

While some accountants will focus on historical events, others take the role of prognosticators, imagining what could be.  Typically, these prognostications or forecasts predict financial results if certain actions are taken—if we invest in this asset, our income statement will look like this.  If we add a product line, our income statement will look like this.  The math is easy; the assumptions that inform the math are critical.  Predicting or imagining what could be requires a great understanding of current reality, how internal and external forces work together, and full consideration of the various trade-offs that could arise as decisions are made.  Predicting or imagining what should be requires a commitment to the principles or values driving an organization.

And now I’m called upon to lead an institution as we decide what could be and what should be.  How I go about that is determined in part by the experiences that have formed me these last 53 years, or at least these last 23 in higher education.  How does our institutional history inform the directions we should take?  How do our individual histories affect our contributions to shared aspirations or even our ability to create shared aspirations?

Those of you who know me or have had to listen to me over this past year know that I am very fond of the aspirations set forth in our character and values statement.  How fitting that LD Johnson developed our statement, essentially declaring what really matters to us as an institution.

Some of my favorite phrases, paraphrased, from our character and values statement are:

  • We maintain our commitment to freedom of inquiry and excellence in the quest for truth.
  • We encourage and nurture individuals as they search for truth with passion, integrity, and rigorous intellectual discipline.
  • The university understands its mission to be not only the transmission of knowledge, attitudes, and values, but also their examination and correction in the light of continuing discovery and the integration of knowledge.
  • We are a person-centered community, emphasizing the prime worth of persons and encouraging concern for others.

Living up to these values is hard work, and requires a shared understanding of what we are trying to accomplish at Furman.

Let’s consider encouragement of individuals as they search for truth with passion, integrity, and rigorous intellectual discipline.  That’s easier said than done.  In academia, we devote ourselves to the pursuit of truth within our own disciplines.  According to Myra Stober, emerita professor of education and of economics at the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, “talking across disciplines is as difficult as talking to someone from another culture.  Differences in language are the least of the problems.  What is much more difficult is coming to understand and accept the way colleagues from other disciplines think—their assumptions and their methods of discerning, evaluating and reporting ‘truth’—their disciplinary cultures and habits of mind.”

Wendell Berry, the prolific American author argues in his 1984 essay, “The Loss of the University,” that this focus on disciplines and our disciplinary ways of thinking have caused us to lose our common purpose.  “The modern university has grown,” he says, “not according to any kind of unifying principle, but according to the principle of miscellaneous accretion.”

He continues his essay by likening the modern university to an industrialized factory.  The laborers, the faculty, have become so specialized that they no longer are concerned about the final product, but rather doing their own work well.  When we are no longer concerned for the thing being made, then we abdicate responsibility for the thing being made.  What is it that is being made at a university?  What is our final product?  Mr. Berry says it’s humanity.  Not just citizens or contributing members of society, but “heirs of our human culture.”

So how might we return to a common purpose and a common language when we have worked so hard to create pockets of specialization?  What is it going to take today to educate “heirs of our human culture”?  Certainly timeless notions of wisdom must be a part of the education.  Yet, so too must we acknowledge the realities of today’s cultural and economic landscape.  We must be clear about how the various pieces of knowledge we are teaching and discovering and the experiences we offer contribute towards the vision of the whole.  This vision of how things “fit together” is necessary for a life well lived.

While the pursuit and transmission of wisdom historically has been at the heart of education, wisdom too often is seen as the sole province of a few disciplines such as philosophy and theology, and not at the center of the entire university’s work and purpose.  But without wisdom, how is new knowledge to be used and towards what end?  Without wisdom, how are university graduates prepared to seek meaning and significance in their lives, whatever their occupations?  Without wisdom, how does the university fulfill its enduring mission to nurture our human nature and serve the deepest needs of our communities, our nation, and our world?

Let’s first consider what we mean by “wisdom,” starting with the way wisdom is understood from the classical Greek tradition.  All men desire to know, said Aristotle.  Such a desire is rooted in our human nature.  We begin to know through the perception of particular objects and then move to ask questions about the particular things we encounter: what are these things before us?  How are they related to other things we encounter?  How did they come to be?  What are their various purposes?

This kind of wisdom—call it theoretical or contemplative wisdom—is found in the pursuit of first causes and principles.  It comes as a result of our efforts to put the particular pieces of our experience together in an all-embracing account of the ways things are, most generally.  Seeking contemplative wisdom involves the dogged pursuit of truth and reality, which, in turn, brings about a profound transformation in the knower.

But ancient philosophers also understood wisdom as a kind of right action, informed by good judgment.  The person of practical wisdom, according to Aristotle, is one who deliberates about a given course of action and chooses well.  One who is practically wise is able to see the various features of a given circumstance, determine what the virtuous response is, and then act accordingly.  Indeed, Aristotle thought that any virtuous response whatsoever—justice, courage, temperance—required just this kind of practical wisdom.  We cannot do the right thing unless we know how and when to do the right thing.

And set along these philosophical reflections are the considerable reflections on wisdom articulated in our faith traditions.  From the book of Proverbs—and in many places throughout Scripture—we see wisdom referred to as a gift from God—because God is wisdom.   To partake in divine wisdom is a blessing of incalculable worth, “more precious than rubies.”  Consider Proverbs 3:13, which says: “Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding.”  And from verses 21 and 22: My son, do not let wisdom and understanding out of your sight, preserve sound judgment and discretion; they will be life for you, an ornament to grace your neck.”

Wisdom is omnipresent as a core tenet among all the major religions, which is in itself telltale, but the perspectives these faiths offer as to the components of wisdom are also curiously connected. Buddhism, for example, presents The Eightfold Path, which regards wisdom—along with ethical conduct and mental discipline—as critical to enlightenment. Buddhists talk about Right View, understanding the nature of reality; and Right Intention, acting on that understanding with love and compassion. These are pillars to wisdom. Buddhists also believe knowledge is not the same as wisdom, and the confusion of the two is especially problematic in our modern society where we need, but often eschew, informed hearts and feeling minds. In Islam, hikmah, the word for wisdom, constitutes one of Muhammed’s major teachings. A rejection of wisdom can be seen as a rejection of god. Here again, wisdom is paired with ethical action, often translated for Muslims as “doing what is required in the right manner, at the right time, in the right place.”

What can we learn from these philosophical and religious reflections on wisdom?  What are the implications for education?

First and foremost, both the philosophical and religious accounts of wisdom point to the interrelated relationship between contemplative and practical wisdom.  Education cannot privilege one over the other.  Perhaps we pay more attention to practical wisdom, especially at a place like Furman, where the work ethic is such a powerful force—we want our students to go forth into the world and do good—but doing and acting well always rest upon an understanding of more general conceptions of goodness and truth.  Accordingly, we cannot expect our graduates to go into the world and live morally good, faithful lives without having devoted significant attention to the tasks of reflection, study, and contemplation about fundamental concerns that should guide their lives.  Nor should we think that the formation of our students should be intellectual only. A faithful life needs to embrace a conception of wisdom as expressed through both contemplation and action.

The second thing we might take from these reflections is that educating for wisdom is more than simply asking the right kinds of questions about what really matters.  The right questions are important, but certainly we would believe there are better or worse answers to the questions.  The notion of wisdom as a divine gift is important for us to remember on this score: ultimately there are things that we will not and cannot understand—and for guidance we seek wisdom from the sources in which we have ultimate faith, not in ourselves.  For me, that is my Christian faith.  And it provides me a sense of comfort to have a real and vibrant source of wisdom to draw upon for such guidance: an understanding of what it is to be a human person created in the likeness and image of God, how it is to love God, others, and God’s creation.

If we commit ourselves to the task of educating for wisdom, we may be able to resist some of the fragmentation among the disciplines endemic in other institutions.  Because wisdom is the task of every discipline.  It belongs to each of the disciplines because there is a shared assumption about the unity of truth: each discipline, in its own particular way, moves towards truth – or contributes to wisdom.  Our fundamental premise should be that we are more alike than we are different; that we share a common purpose and we can learn from one another.

I don’t want to suggest that educating for wisdom is easy.  And quite frankly this notion that we are creating a common language that brings us together can sometimes drive further wedges between the disciplines.  Just as we are prone to have a bias toward the habits of mind that shape our disciplines, so too can we believe that our ways are best when it comes to educating for wisdom.

Let’s now consider the section of our character and values statement that identifies us as a person-centered community, emphasizing the prime worth of persons and encouraging concern for others.  This past year, we have challenged ourselves to evaluate whether such an assertion is true.  Some of the results are not good.  And we are not alone.  Demonstrations at the University of Missouri and Yale, not to mention the horrific acts in Paris and Beirut, call into question whether anyone is living up to such an aspiration.  Some users of Yik Yak routinely spew hatred of various kinds.  A 2011 New York Times article entitled “The Fraying of the Nation’s Decency,” suggests that we are “witnessing the fraying of the bonds of empathy, decency, common purpose.  [America] is becoming a country in which people more than disagree.  They fail to see each other.  They think in types about others, and assume the worst of types not their own.”

We see these attitudes in Washington, we see them on TV, and we see them in our own neighborhoods.  If our call is to educate “heirs of our human culture,” is it possible to turn the tide on the hatred and fear we witness daily?  If, as Aristotle claims, we desire to know the things before us, then it is imperative that we have a diversity of things before us.  Technology would have us only experience what we like—call it the Pandora experience.  Pandora, the music provider, identifies the kind of music we like and then offers up other music selections in the same vein.  Never again shall I listen to country and western music.  Give me 70s rock plus a smattering of rhythm and blues.

We are a collection of our experiences and we can’t change that.  But each year as we grow, we can seek truth and, if necessary, correct our understanding in light of continuing discovery and the integration of knowledge.  We have done this before as an institution.  Last year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of desegregation at Furman.  Our main goal in remembering the desegregation of Furman was to affirm the value of equality and inclusiveness on campus today.  Our tale of desegregation is not a simple one.  We acknowledged that Furman was part of a wider culture in the South that valued and defended segregation.  It is by turn a difficult reckoning, and a profound story of transformation.

And today we as a nation struggle with the acceptance of adherents to particular religions.  We tend to think in types about religions other than our own.  We all know there are religious extremists who damage the reputation of our own religions, but we can see the faithful who follow our traditions and practices as we understand them.

Following the recent attacks in France, Furman’s Muslim Student Association issued a press release condemning the violence.  They said, “The terrorists who are committing barbarous acts like those in Paris, are not only enemies of the West, they are enemies of humanity.”  Our students are asking us to see them, not to think in types about them, and not assume the worst of them.  When we create and sustain an environment that’s inclusive, where the norms for behavior and performance don’t depend on gender, race, age, sexual orientation, religion, political point of view or any other aspect of our character that defines us, then we have an environment in which everyone has the possibility for success.

So the question of whether one becomes an accountant or a social worker or a minister—or whether this year’s graduates earn more money, on average, than last year’s graduates—are really not the questions of utmost concern. What matters is that we model and we educate living lives that are principled, relevant and a faithful representation of who we are called to be.

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