Walter Isaacson Urges UM Grads to Embrace Creativity, Collaboration

Renowned journalist and biographer delivers Commencement address to more than 15,000 in Grove

Walter Isaacson makes a point during his Commencement address Saturday morning at the University of Mississippi. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

OXFORD, Miss. – Under powder blues skies Saturday in the Grove, Walter Isaacson stressed to the University of Mississippi’s graduating class that being smart is only part of success, and that life’s greatest achievements come from collaborating to connect the arts and sciences with humanities and engineering.

Isaacson, acclaimed biographer, professor and historian who also was head of both CNN and Time magazine, spoke to the graduating class of more than 5,300, including more than 1,300 August degree candidates and nearly 700 who finished in December. 

His talk about the need to surround oneself with people from many backgrounds to forge innovation also was peppered with the refrain of “what we forgot to tell you” to impart wisdom he’s acquired since he graduated.

“You are hereby certified by this university as being very smart,” Isaacson said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is that you’re about to find out that smart people are a dime a dozen.

“Here’s what we forgot to tell you. Smart people often don’t amount to much. What really matters is being imaginative, being creative and being innovative and most important of all, just being good.” 

A crowd of more than 15,000 people gathered in the Grove to hear Isaacson, a professor of history at Tulane University in New Orleans, where he grew up. He’s a graduate of Harvard College and also Pembroke College of Oxford University in Oxford, England, where he was a Rhodes scholar.

He began his career at The Sunday Times of London and then the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He joined Time in 1978, working as a political correspondent, national editor and editor of digital media before becoming the magazine’s editor in 1996. In 2001, he became chairman and CEO of CNN, and then president and CEO of the Aspen Institute in 2003.


Besides having headed two of the world’s most important media organizations, Isaacson is a prolific biographer and nonfiction writer. He is the author of the best-seller “Steve Jobs” in 2011, as well as biographies of Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger.

His most recent work, “Leonardo da Vinci” (Simon & Schuster), released in October, offers new discoveries about the artist’s life and work, weaving a narrative that connects his art to his science.

He cited lessons from the figures he’s written about; most prominently that that they all found ways to innovate, not only through a tireless curiosity, but through bridging sciences, humanities and the arts.

Society has forgotten to tell students that creativity comes from working across disciplines, Isaacson said.

Loving everything from art and anatomy to geology and zoology and understanding the patterns across different disciplines of arts, sciences, humanities, social sciences and engineering just as da Vinci did is critical, he said.

The 165th Commencement ceremonies at the University of Mississippi honored a graduating class of more than 5,300, including more than 1,300 August degree candidates and nearly 700 who finished in December. More than 15,000 people gathered in the Grove for the main ceremony. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Communications

The late Steve Jobs, visionary leader of Apple, always ended his project launch presentations with slides of street signs showing the intersections of the liberal arts with technology, or the humanities with engineering. He said at those intersections is where creativity occurs.

“Steve Jobs made the iPod, which was a combination of art, design, beauty and engineering,” Isaacson said. “Whatever they were preaching about knowing STEM subjects, Steve also knew the true essence of creativity, which is that beauty matters.”

Passionate curiosity is a common trait of historical figures such as Jobs, da Vinci and others he’s written about, Isaacson said.

Both Einstein and Da Vinci, some 400 years apart, wrote the same simple question in their notebooks: “Why is the sky blue?” They wondered about it and did experiments to try to figure it out. They both were driven purely out of a sense of wonder.

“That’s what your education is about,” Isaacson said. “It is always remaining like a student, staring at the cosmos and the creation into which we were blessed and graced to live and having that childlike sense of wonder.”

Working with others, especially from diverse groups, is also important. He noted that for many, the university is the most diverse place they’ve ever been. People from many countries and economic backgrounds live and attend classes together, all learning ideas from across the academic spectrum.

He urged students to go about the rest of their lives seeking out opinions and ideas of others who aren’t like them.

“We told you this was a very exclusive place and you got into more and more and more exclusive realms,” Isaacson said. “What we forgot to tell you is it not about exclusivity in the real world. It is about inclusivity. It is about how many people you bring together.”

Graduates are also often told it’s time to “grow up” when they leave college. Not so, Isaacson said. The central point of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” was the benediction he gave the Commencement crowd.

“I want to give you that benediction today and I want you to do it right with humility and do good with wonder and curiosity at all times,” Isaacson said. “May you stay forever young.”

UM Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter said it is an honor to welcome Isaacson, who played a major role in the success of the university’s inaugural Tech Summit in 2016, back to campus on such an important day.

Vitter, presiding over his third Ole Miss Commencement, stood before the graduates and paused to snap a panoramic photo of the crowd, which he posted to his Twitter account. It’s a tradition he’s carried on each year since 2016.

He noted the importance of the day to the graduates and wished them well in their future endeavors.

“Today you complete your work as students at the university – you graduate,” Vitter said. “You also begin the next chapter in your lives – you commence. Our collective prayer for each of you is a life filled with joy, good health, successful, meaningful careers and peace.”

The university’s Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College conducted its commissioning ceremony Friday afternoon, and recipients of doctoral degrees were honored at a hooding ceremony that evening, both in the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

During Saturday’s ceremony, Ann Monroe, assistant dean and associate professor of education, was introduced as the 2018 recipient of the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award, the university’s highest campuswide honor for teaching.

Marc Slattery, professor of biomolecular sciences in the School of Pharmacy and research professor in the Research Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences, was named the recipient of the university’s 11th Distinguished Research and Creative Achievement Award.

Chancellor Jeffrey Vitter (center, in red) leads administrators and the crowd in applause of Walter Isaacson (left center) after the acclaimed journalist and biographer delivered the university’s Commencement address Saturday in the Grove. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Communications

The university also recognized the winners of this year’s Frist Student Service Awards: Kerri Scott, instructional associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and associate director of the university’s forensic chemistry program; Leslie Banahan, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs; and Ryan Upshaw, assistant dean for student services in the School of Engineering.

The university also honored former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran with its Mississippi Humanitarian Award, which is presented only rarely to exceptional figures who have shaped the state. Vitter noted that Cochran, who was unable to attend the ceremony, played a vital role in supporting the university’s research venture and also championed many programs that have improved life for Mississippians.

Bobby Bailess, of Vicksburg, president of the Ole Miss Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates as alumni.

“You will soon know that being an alumnus means being a member of the Ole Miss family,” Bailess said. “This is not just a place where you earned a degree.”

Guy Fortenberry Thornton, UM senior class president, talked about the senior class project, which raised $27,000 for the William Magee Center for Wellness Education as a defining experience for his time at Ole Miss.

He also challenged his fellow graduates to reflect on their own time on campus as they age. He told them that over the years, the wrinkles will come, but it’s nothing to worry about.

“In the wise words of Jimmy Buffet, the singer and songwriter, who once said, ‘Wrinkles will only go where the smiles have once been,’ I know I will have many of these wrinkles from all of the good times and the smiles I’ve had with all of you these past four years,” Thornton said.

UM Opens Search for Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community Engagement

Committee established to find qualified candidate

Committee

A committee has been established to find UM’s vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement.

OXFORD, Miss. – The University of Mississippi is seeking to fill the new position of vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement.

This position is one of the key components of UM’s comprehensive action plan designed to foster an inclusive and welcoming environment on all its campuses. The action plan was announced in August 2014, and an earlier search to find a candidate for this position was unsuccessful.

Renewing the effort to hire UM’s first vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement is among Chancellor Jeff Vitter’s top priorities, he said.

“As key components of the UM Creed, the values of diversity and multiculturalism are core to the University of Mississippi community,” said Vitter, who became chancellor on Jan. 1. “I share that strong commitment to diversity.

“For that reason, my first major administrative action is to launch the search for vice chancellor for diversity and community engagement. We will recruit an outstanding leader to partner with people and units throughout the university in creating a welcoming and inclusive multicultural environment for all students, faculty and staff.”

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Morris Stocks has established a search committee to oversee this effort to find the person who will serve as the university’s chief diversity officer.

Once hired, the new vice chancellor will report to Stocks.

Don Cole, assistant to the chancellor for multicultural affairs, assistant provost and associate professor of mathematics, has served as the university’s chief diversity officer since 2003. Cole joined UM in 1993 and was recognized in 2003 with the Frist Student Service Award.

Vitter and Stocks expressed appreciation to Cole for his leadership and steadfast commitment to enhancing the campus climate for all.

“Don Cole has shown a remarkable talent first for listening carefully to the concerns of a wide array of individuals, and then working cooperatively with many people and programs within the university, our community and the state to effect positive change within our university,” Stocks said.

Vitter also praised Cole for his impact at UM.

“We are deeply grateful to Don Cole for helping our university make important progress in creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for all,” Vitter said.

Among the responsibilities of the new vice chancellor will be to engage in efforts to address issues of race and diversity at UM. This vice chancellor will also work with other existing campus organizations that focus on these issues, Stocks said.

Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs, will serve as chair of the search committee.

Other members of the search committee are Tony Ammeter, Michael Barnett, Alice Clark, Don Cole, Derek Cowherd, Sandra Cox-McCarty, Phillis George, Susan Glisson, Maria Gondo, Sue Grayzel, Carl Hill, Andrea Jekabsons, Linda Keena, Shawnboda Mead, Chase Moore, Sathyanarayana Murthy, Albert Nylander, Rachna Prakash, Sujith Ramachandran, Evangeline Robinson, Jocelyn Tipton and Ryan Upshaw.

“I feel privileged to lead the committee that will identify and recommend a strong leader for this critically important campus role,” Hephner LaBanc said. “Numerous committee members from the earlier process have returned to serve during this search process. I know, without any doubt, they will remain highly engaged and work diligently to seek out an individual who will bring immense talent and passion to our great university.”

To assist the search committee, a firm will be hired to recruit qualified candidates.

Once the search is open, information will be available on the Office of the Provost’s Web page.

Poets Advise Honors Students to Use Their Imagination to Influence Communities

OXFORD, Miss. – After flipping a coin to determine who would speak first, poets Brenda Hillman and Robert Hass encouraged University of Mississippi honors students to keep poetry in their lives while working for social change.

Delivering the keynote address for the recent Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College fall convocation, the husband-and-wife duo even sensed poetry in the event’s setting, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

“We are in a place where Barack Obama and John McCain debated, and it is awe-inspiring,” said Hillman, winner of the coin toss.

Hass, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 1995 to ’97, teaches at the University of California-Berkeley and is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Hillman, whose work has been described as eclectic, mercurial and sensuous, is one of the country’s foremost avant garde poets. Both are internationally renowned, prominent environmental and political activists.Read the story …

Rebel Black Bear Selected As New On- Field Mascot for Ole Miss Rebels

OXFORD, Miss. – The Rebel Mascot Selection Committee is excited to announce the Rebel Black Bear as the new on-field mascot for the Ole Miss Rebels.

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Former President’s Visit An Honor for University of Mississippi

OXFORD, Miss. – Former President Bill Clinton’s appearance today (Oct. 14) at the University of Mississippi will offer students an opportunity to hear firsthand about the importance of exercising their right to vote.

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MEDIA ADVISORY: Former President Clinton to Speak Thursday in Grove

Former President Bill Clinton will visit the University of Mississippi Thursday (Oct. 14) to discuss the value of voting and the importance of participating in the election process. Clinton plans to speak at 11:45 a.m. on the Grove stage.

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Solo Theater Performance, Workshop Oct. 16 Mark LGBT History, Diversity Awareness

OXFORD, Miss. – A monodrama performance and workshop on documentary theater are scheduled Oct. 16 at the University of Mississippi to recognize October as LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) History Month and National Diversity Awareness Month. The events are free to the public.

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Top Ranked Dance Company Performs at Ford Center Oct. 26

OXFORD, Miss. – One of the world’s foremost modern dance companies, the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company is slated to perform Oct. 26 at the University of Mississippi’s Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts.

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Staff, Faculty Members Recognized for Excellence in Advising Students

… Inaugural award to be presented annually

OXFORD, Miss. – Two University of Mississippi faculty and staff members who have consistently demonstrated excellence in advising students have been selected for special recognition.

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Fifth Annual Civil War Conference Addresses Multiple Issues Leading to War

OXFORD, Miss. – Focusing on a variety of issues that propelled that nation into a bloody four-year conflict, the fifth annual Civil War conference at the University of Mississippi coincides this year with the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s 1860 election and the beginning of the secession crisis.

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