Michael Alexander’s Rousing “I Believe” Speech

(Editor’s note: on January 25, 2006, Michael Alexander -- who was one of the four finalists for the presidency of Lasell -- came to the campus to meet college constituencies, answer questions, make his own inquiries about the campus and its culture, and reveal something about himself to those whom he might soon be leading. By all accounts, Michael’s “I believe” speech was the tipping point for many who listened and heard. The response was emotional and enthusiastic. Michael’s speech is reprinted below.)

In the movie, “The Contender”, Joan Allen plays Senator Laine Hanson who has been nominated by the President to fill the vacant position of the Vice President, who died in office. Senator Hanson, who would be the first woman to hold the office, is immediately attacked by the opposition in the most pernicious and personal ways. The chair of the Senate committee that must approve her appointment leads the charge against Senator Hanson and keeps turning up the heat, suggesting that he has proof of deviant sexual behavior in her past. Joan Allen’s character must decide whether to respond to the vicious accusations, even though she believes they are not appropriate or ethical topics for a confirmation hearing. The climax of the movie occurs when Senator Hanson finally testifies before the Senate committee. We do not know whether she will address the charges or not. In a wonderful scene, she gives her “I believe…” speech, telling the committee in a simple and straightforward fashion what she values. She is saying, “Here is who I am, accept me or reject me for who I am.”

I figure what you really want to hear today is who I am, what kind of person I am. So I decided I would give you my “I believe…” speech.

I believe…

  • That the Earth’s biggest problem is too many human footprints.
  • That the Great American Novel has already been written but we just have not been able to agree on what it is.
  • In the Big Bang but not that it was the beginning.
  • In waiting for a pitch that is in your zone and then hitting it as hard as you can.
  • In a woman’s right to make choices about her own reproductive health.
  • That there are no accidental details in good writing.
  • That the most important skill for a college graduate entering the world of work is the ability to write and speak effectively and clearly.
  • In the redemptive power of love.
  • That the theory of relativity reconciles with quantum mechanics, we just haven’t yet been able to find the theory that unites them.
  • That Mozart used just as many notes as were necessary.
  • That the Cincinnati Reds should still open every baseball season.
  • That the most interesting thing about knowledge is that it is always in doubt.

And I believe in a liberal arts education configured for the contemporary world. What do I mean by that?

  • I mean all the usual things we have traditionally meant by a liberal arts education – one that prepares students to be contributing members of society, participating in the ever changing global economy, establishing habits of lifelong learning, learning how to learn, if you will.
  • I mean exposure to the great works and to multiple and diverse cultures, and an understanding of the wonders of science and nature.
  • I mean learning to think critically and to communicate those thoughts to others while maintaining a commitment to open inquiry and discourse that respects the thoughts and beliefs of others.

Just as a grounding in the liberal arts prepares us to adjust to the rapidly changing world around us, so the liberal arts curriculum needs continuous adjustment to the realities of the contemporary world. I believe, in this day and age, a liberal arts education should emphasize the following:

  1. The skill in greatest demand in the world of work is the ability to communicate orally and in writing. One of the critical issues in higher education today is the need for colleges to demonstrate the value of the education it provides to its students. We must find ways to show that our graduates leave with the communication skills that are the key to success in almost every chosen field of work.
  2. One who leaves college today without a basic understanding of technology and an ability to manipulate its tools starts off his or her working life with a handicap. Basic training in computer skills is a necessary part of any functional education today.
  3. There is no path one can walk in life where one will not eventually be faced with moral dilemmas or moral choices with real consequences. The ability to think one’s way through such moral dilemmas, to understand the value of a choice that may not always be the easiest, to have the courage to maintain one’s principles precisely when it is most difficult to do so – these are habits of thinking and behavior that colleges today must find a way to teach and to incorporate in its graduates.
  4. And finally I would add one more – a liberal arts education configured for the contemporary world provides skills, knowledge and understanding that prepares graduates to be better parents. At least one third of the responsibility of parents is to give their children opportunities to learn. What better preparation for that role can there be than to have gained a broad foundation in the arts, sciences and humanities, to have established the habits of lifelong learning, to be practiced at making courageous moral choices, and to model the sheer joy of learning. That is not to say that without such an education one cannot be a good parent. Yet I firmly believe a liberal arts education can be an enhancement to parenthood.

Senator Hanson faced a moral dilemma. Does she respond to the personal attacks on her to assure her nomination or does she stick to her principles, protect a college roommate who was actually the one whose behavior was compromising and take the heat on herself? In explaining her behavior to the President, who doesn’t quite understand why she refuses to refute the charges, Senator Hanson says, “Your principles are only good if you hold to them precisely when it is most difficult to do so”. She made the difficult choice, the courageous choice. Senator Hanson models the behavior we would commend to our students; it is our duty to help our students develop the skills and understanding and experience to make moral choices in a complicated world.