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  April 26, 2004

President's Column

Like all great colleges and universities, the University of Connecticut has its own special traditions and its own cycle of events - all of them important for their own sake, and all equally important because they keep us anchored in a time of dramatic change.

Image: President Philip E. Austin

We have recently honored five outstanding faculty members - in fields ranging from community medicine to marine sciences - who've been named "Board of Trustees Distinguished Professors." About a week ago, we held our open house for newly admitted students whom we hope to welcome back in the fall. The same day, we held a dedication ceremony for the new, privately funded wing of the Benton Museum; and a few days after that, there was a ceremony for the Center for Undergraduate Education. We'll hold the honors convocation for graduating seniors on May 1, and then Commencement.

Along the way, we also had Spring Weekend, but the less said about that, the better!

My point is that a great deal is happening at UConn, every week and every day - and almost all of it is positive.

If you have any doubt about that, just think about the shouts for our basketball teams as they returned from two triumphs, in San Antonio and New Orleans. But no matter how excited we get about building openings or basketball, academic excellence is the fundamental focus of the University of Connecticut every day of the year.

I want to share with you my thoughts about the concept of excellence as it relates to individuals, to the University, and to society as a whole.

First, the personal dimension. Faculty, staff, and students are here at UConn because they are qualified to be here, and each has a contribution to make. Some will achieve extra distinction, as this season of awards will attest.

Personal accomplishment connotes a list of important traits: intelligence, diligence, ability to focus, creativity, facility with words, facility with concepts, and more. It also demonstrates a capacity to achieve excellence and to achieve great things in the future. This confers not only opportunities and privileges; it also conveys its own share of burdens - such as the responsibility to aim high.

This leads me to the second dimension: institutional excellence.

Normally, I wouldn't bring athletics into a celebration of academic achievement, but I will do that, first, because it's all over the media and to ignore it would be artificial and, in its own way, a kind of snobbery. But second, and more important, because our basketball triumphs are emblematic of what the University is achieving in every field in which we're engaged.

UConn is absolutely committed to excellence. But it's a special kind of excellence - one that befits our role as a public university committed to service for all the people of our state.

At UConn, excellence means opportunity. That translates into a commitment to exclude no qualified student because of inability to pay; a curriculum that encourages - even forces - students to get a good grounding in a wide range of general education courses; a high quality of student life; and a commitment to attract and retain some of the best faculty in the country, if not the world.

Our graduates enter the Connecticut workforce and contribute to the state's economy, its health care, its public schools, its social service organizations. Our research helps not just Connecticut, but the world through everything from medical advances to development of new technologies that translate into new businesses.

That brings me to my last point, the third dimension: commitment to build a better society.

I've said many times that it's not the University's job to tell students what to think. I hope we can guide them in how to think - about what's going on in the country and the world, as well as in their own fields and their own lives. And I hope we can help them form intelligent opinions that are backed up with facts and grounded in cogent theory. I certainly don't care who our students vote for, for example, but I want very much for them to engage in the political process, because that is the highest form of citizenship.

And I want all our students to make a commitment that when they leave UConn, or even while they're still here, they'll devote at least part of their time and talents to creating a society that reflects the best, most fundamental, and most widely shared American values. This is what democracy is all about. At its best, this is what our country is all about. A good, strong university is one instrument to that goal, but there are many others.

High in my generation's expectations is this hope: that young people will take up the task of working toward a society that reflects these values and translates them into reality more of the time, and for more people.

Human history tells us that we may never achieve perfection in this realm. But the pursuit of excellence is itself a worthy calling. Indeed, I suspect that it's in the struggle for equity and opportunity in society that the best traits of all of us are revealed.

This column is excerpted from a speech given by President Austin on Scholars Day.