Convocation Remarks on the University of Maine at Augusta theme for 2014: “Innovation”

Convocation at the University of Maine at Augusta, September 19 2014

UMA Convocation Fall 2014
Framing the Theme – “Innovation”

Good afternoon.  Last spring, the UMA Faculty Colloquium Committee identified a special theme of innovation to reflect the University’s 50th anniversary. The committee asks that every member of the faculty, staff and student body read and reflect upon a book about innovation, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.  Look for activities throughout the year celebrating UMA’s 50 years of innovation.  As we kick off the year today, I’ve been asked to frame the theme of innovation in a few remarks.

When most of us hear the word “innovation,” we focus on the creation of something new.  But there is more to innovation than newness.  The word “innovation” comes from the Latin innovare, to renew or to make new.  What do we renew?  What do we make new?  Something that was already there.  To innovate is to make something new out of what came before.

To write a “novel” means literally to create a story that is new.  But in the introduction to her novel Frankenstein, a novel of ghastly innovation, author Mary Shelley admits stitching together her story from the science, philosophy and mythology of the day before adding her own animating spark.  “Everything must have a beginning,” Shelley writes, but “that beginning must be linked to something that went before…. Invention does not consist in creating out of void… the materials must, in the first place, be afforded.[i]”  The innovative stories we tell are based on what came before.

Every human being on Earth is a unique innovation, a Frankenstein experiment of sorts, with a genome ripped from our parents and stitched together in a brand new way.  Thanks to mutation, even identical twins don’t have exactly the same set of genes.  But neither is any human being entirely new.  We are variations on the genetic themes set by our parents, and as social scientists know we draw heavily from our environment in fashioning our public selves.  The new, innovative you is based on what came before.

The University of Maine at Augusta is itself an innovation.  Our history tells us that 50 years ago, there was no college or university in Augusta – and when UMA held its first classes on September 12 1965, it had no campus of its own.  Our first classrooms were in Cony High School, set aside for use after school hours; that’s innovative.  Our bookstore was fit into a Cony High School coat closet; that’s innovative[ii].  Even these humble beginnings were not completely new, but based on what came before: an existing school, repurposed and reimagined. In its next 50 years, UMA will rely on already existing strengths as it finds innovative new ways to fulfill its purpose.

And what is that purpose?  What is a university for?  At first glance, it may appear to some that a university is a business selling a product called a diploma to customers called students.  Once purchased, the diploma product can be redeemed by the customer for future economic profit.  Well, it certainly takes money for a person to live and for a university to run.  But is an education just another consumer purchase?  Is a university an assembly-line factory?  Are faculty here to sell?  Are students here to shop?

I think not.  We are here because we share a dream.  We dream of becoming more than we are.  We dream of remaking ourselves, putting parts of our lives that came before together with something new and adding an animating spark.  We know this dream of innovation can come true because we see it happen here every day — for some sooner, for some a bit later.  The poet Adelaide Anne Procter shares a truth we at UMA know well: if we miss our first shot at remaking ourselves a second chance, a third chance will come.  It is never too late.  Procter writes:

“Have we not all, amid life’s petty strife,

Some pure ideal of a noble life

That once seemed possible? Did we not hear

The flutter of its wings, and feel it near,

And just within our reach? It was. And yet

We lost it in this daily jar and fret,

And now live idle in a vague regret;

But still our place is kept, and it will wait,

Ready for us to fill it, soon or late.

No star is ever lost we once have seen,

We always may be what we might have been[iii].”

 

This is the heart of innovation: to draw from what came before, to honor those who inspire your work today, to dream of being more than you are.


[i] Shelley, Mary. 1818.  Frankenstein, or, the Modern Prometheus.  London: Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor and Jones.

[ii] Brookes, Kenneth. 1977.  The Story of the University of Maine at Augusta: The Jewett Years.  University of Maine at Augusta publication.

[iii] Procter, Adelaide Anne. 1864. “A Legend of Provence” (excerpt).  P. 191 in The Poems of Adelaide A. Procter.  Boston: Ticknor and Fields.

A Wizarding School

Did you know that as part of the University of Maine system’s commitment to public transparency, you can look up the annual salaries of “regular employees” employed by the system and its seven campuses? It’s true. Looking through November 2013 data (the latest available), I notice that the University of Maine campus in Orono employs two people under the official job title of “Wizard.” One of them is even a “Wizard Coordinator.”

Think carefully: if I ask you how to get to the University of Maine — exactly how to get to the University of Maine — can you give me absolutely precise directions? Did you ever see odd-colored lights streaming out of the on-campus dorms late at night? Have you ever had a conversation with a graduate or current student of University of Maine student in which you ask them what they’re studying and they respond in vague terms (“this and that, “stuff,” “qualitative research,” “arts & sciences”) and then quickly change the subject?

I can’t speak my claim out loud, because I don’t have proof, but you know what I’m suggesting. Think about it — and look for the signs.