May 24, 2003
Dr. Ron Duncan, Oklahoma Baptist University professor of anthropology, encouraged 269 graduating OBU seniors to continue learning and to encourage diversity. Duncan spoke to the Class of 2003 during OBU's spring Commencement Saturday morning, May 24.
The program also included recognition of three award winners. Dr. Ramona Farthing, professor of French, was presented the 2003 Distinguished Teacher Award. Dr. Joe Bob Weaver, retiring senior vice president of academic affairs, received the Meritorious Service Award. The 2003 Most Promising Teacher Award was presented to Dr. Garry Bailey, associate professor of communication arts.
Noting the historical context for the current class, Duncan said he had been witness to diversity's historical markers at OBU.
"Scores of years ago I sat in the seats where you sit today as a part of the first OBU class that graduated in Raley Chapel," said Duncan. "Only a few days before that graduation, I sat in these same seats as Mahalia Jackson, the great gospel singer, gave a magnificent concert as a part of the inauguration of this Chapel. That may not seem remarkable today, but then it was bold. It was one of the first concerts by an Afro-American singer on this campus or any college campus in Oklahoma at that time, other than at Langston.
"When I was student, the first African student at OBU, John Lawale, was also here. He later went back to Nigeria to become an important political and tribal leader."
Duncan witnessed first-hand a society not ready for diversity and how he was able to turn to a faculty member for reassurance.
"The 1960's were not an easy time, and American society was changing from the small town segregated world that it had been to the more integrated, cross-cultural society that it is still becoming," said Duncan. "I remember coming back to the dorm after one break, only to find John in his room sad and upset. That weekend, he had been visiting in a large city in a neighboring state, and he went to the flagship Baptist church of that city, only to be stopped at the door. He was not allowed to enter because he was African. Since he normally attended the First Baptist Church in Shawnee, he thought he could attend other churches equally well.
"John was a Christian and Baptist, and he had come to the United States to study on the encouragement of Baptist missionaries in Nigeria, but that was not enough for him to be able to attend many of the churches in our land at that time. As we heard his story on that spring night decades ago, we were confronted with the injustice that can so quickly intervene to block the bonds of fellowship and worship. Vicariously confronting that intolerance and discrimination against John was a disturbing experience for me as a young OBUer."
Duncan said he turned to an OBU professor to help him piece together the emotional fall out that accompanied that experience.
Duncan told the students that the university shares their concerns about cultural diversity on campus and challenged them, as new graduates, to make OBU more diverse by making their environment more open to diversity.
"If Sunday morning is a segregated time of the week, so will be the enrollments of church related colleges," Duncan said, citing a study OBU was involved in. "Although cultural diversity is an important aspect of the liberal arts tradition, it cannot exist only in the University. It must also exist in the larger community in which the university is embedded. Since diversity is important to your generation, you will now have the opportunity to approach that issue as you take on your roles as the new leaders of churches, schools, and businesses in Oklahoma even as those of us who remain here continue to address it in the university."
Duncan said he remembered the famous "I Have a Dream" speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., when he was asked to deliver this commencement address.
"Today, as you graduate, segregation is no longer the monster that it was. It is a pleasure to see you in groups of friends that include people who come from families of European origin, or African, Asian, Latin, or Native American, laughing and sharing the joy of youth and the springtime of life. Of course, we have not solved the issue of diversity, and in Middle America, we still tend to be mono-cultural and monolingual. The world of brotherhood and understanding is all too frequently thwarted by intolerance and lack of knowledge about those who are different from us."
Duncan said he has a vision for OBU.
"I have a dream for OBU and for you, its representatives who will be spread around the world, and it is a dream of cultural diversity, wisdom, and spiritual strength," he said. "My dream is that we learn to live with our neighbors on this globe in peace and respect, and may we be leaders in showing that it can be done."
Duncan also encouraged the graduates to continue to learn.
"Although you may feel full of knowledge, in reality you are a cup waiting to be filled, a cup that has been forged and ready to receive the knowledge of life that is about to wash over you faster than you can imagine," Duncan said. "Your professors have built infrastructures of mind that are strong and can accommodate far more knowledge than you may be able to anticipate today. The abilities forged in your minds are a gift that will serve you the rest of your life."