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Minding Our Business



When you come to a fork in the road

Across many campuses—including ours—it's fall commencement time. Many graduates will be entering a world dramatically changed by the business and economic turmoil of the past months.

Dean Bierbauer delivered the commencement address at Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina, on December 13. His remarks are below.

Thank you for this opportunity to be with you for this celebration. I will be at our own commencement on campus in Columbia on Monday. For us, it is one of three days a year that I can count on seeing pretty much nothing but happy—and sometimes relieved – faces.

From time to time, I have been asked to be a commencement speaker. That’s included my high school in Pennsylvania and my alma mater, Penn State. I am always mindful that I do not remember who spoke at my commencement or what he said. I do recall that it was a “he.” Those were still the unenlightened dark ages. As I look out here, I see a picture very similar to ours at USC—more women than men. The senior members of my college’s staff—the directors of both our schools, the associate dean, the director of development, our alumni relations director—are all women.

Life is about change. It is not about constancy and stagnation. How many of you voted this year for the first time in your lives in a presidential election? Regardless of how you voted, you were cognizant, I trust, of the notion that this election was about change. If only the change from the administration of the past eight years. I was in Washington on election night, broadcasting from a rooftop overlooking the White House a block away. When the polls closed on the West Coast and Barack Obama’s electoral vote projection clinched the election, it was as though the doors of Washington had sprung open. People started streaming toward the White House from all directions. Perhaps 2000 of them gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue. And the chant that wafted up to us on the rooftop was “yes, we can.”

This election, unquestionably the broadest, deepest, longest, most expensive, most diverse and most dynamic in my lifetime—therefore, also in yours—was also about generational change, philosophical change, attitudinal change, even technological change. The Internet, blogs, YouTube and Face Book were all campaign elements. This election was cast in your language on your turf.

Your lives are about to change again. You knew that. Now here’s the inherent problem in commencement speeches. You have just spent the past four—or five—years amassing some 120-plus academic credits in a wide variety of subjects, accruing knowledge in your specialized course of study, absorbing the wisdom of dozens of professors—either by inhalation or osmosis—sharing the collective experience of your classmates, fraternity brothers, sorority sisters, soulmates. And I’m supposed to impart some additional nugget of universal and eternal wisdom in a ten-minute speech—the university web site says I will deliver a “motivational speech.” I sense you are already motivated by today’s event. (And I’ve already blown two minutes of my ten.)

Perhaps the best thing I can tell you is that just when you think you’ve got it figured out and gotten it right, someone will throw you a curve ball and the game will change. Things don’t happen on a predictable timetable.

Albert Einstein explained his theory of relativity more than 100 years ago. E=mc2. We’ve probably all known that, repeated it and—because Einstein was cool way before his time—took it for granted, whether or not we understood it. It means that the amount of energy is equal to the mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light. Sure, you physics majors say. Yet only recently has an international team from Germany, France and Hungary using supercomputers managed to prove, as one web site describes it, that the “theory is actually right from a subatomic perspective.”

What’s my point? The tricky things in life—and a lot of life is tricky—are not easily figured out. Not if it takes 100 years to prove what Einstein intuitively knew a century ago. Not in my ten minutes—now three—or four--of them consumed.

Have you seen the movie “Groundhog Day” with Bill Murray? It’s about a local television reporter (I can relate to that) assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day ritual in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania. Local lore has it that if Punxsatawney Phil—the groundhog—sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. In Pennsylvania, where I grew up, that’s an important thing to know. Actor Bill Murray, as the reporter, somehow gets the story wrong and is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day—day after agonizingly repetitious day—until he gets it right.

In truth, no two days are alike, even when it seems they might be. You get up at the same hour, go through the same morning habits—exercise, shower, shave (well, I don’t shave), dress, eat the same breakfast—wheat chex, granola, banana and raisins with 2% milk--no, I actually like it—read half the newspaper (oh, your generation may not read newspapers—make that check your Face Book), and dash to work.

But one day, you may skip the exercise part because it’s really cold and, well, you just don’t feel like it. And you forgot to pick up your laundry, so as one Johnny Cash song says, you “put on your cleanest dirty shirt”. And you’re out of bananas, so you forego the chex and granola, too, and stop at Starbucks for a “grande” and a blueberry muffin instead. And you sit and sip your grande and read the whole newspaper. And there on page 11 of the business section you see a story that captures your imagination. And you start doodling on the napkin and soon you have a notional business plan for that social networking web site that no one else has thought of, and you can see it generating, oh, easily a million dollars in the first six months. And this is no Groundhog Day!

This is a Yogi Berra day.

I know commencement speeches traditionally quote the ancient great philosophers—as Aristotle learned from Plato….

Instead, I have a rather eclectic group of heroes. Einstein, Johnny Cash and Yogi Berra. [Not Yogi Bear.] Does anyone now know who Yogi Berra is? He was a Hall of Fame catcher for the New York Yankees and manager of the Yankees and the New York Mets. I met Yogi Berra once. He was quite a baseball player. Caught the only perfect game thrown in a World Series. These days Berra may be more remembered for a collection of malapropisms, whether true or not, that are attributed to him, such as: “It ain’t over until it’s over.” “It’s like déjà vu, all over again.” And one I cite with some regularity: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

So here we are, at a fork in the road. (It’s taken you four years and me about six minutes to get you there.)

This city, Greenwood, once thrived on cotton mills and the railroad. Not any more.

My friend Judy Burns and several generations of her family have owned and worked at the Greenwood Index-Journal. But the newspaper industry is changing rapidly and dramatically. Sometimes, I get the headlines on my iPhone.

Today, Greenwood has new technology-based industries—Fuji and Solutia—and, like any city, you hope there will be more.

The auto industry, steel, durable goods once seemed to be places where you could work for life and pass on your job to your son…or daughter…with unions protecting your jobs, your rights, your pensions. Look at the headlines out of Detroit these days.

For my generation there was still a notion that you would go to work for a company and perhaps spend your professional life there. I have high school classmates who joined IBM right out of college and retired comfortably 30 years later. I’m still working.

But I’m not complaining. Because I’m a fortunate graduate of the Yogi Berra school of career planning, summa cum laude. When you come to the fork in the road take it. I’ve got enough forks to fill the silverware drawer.

My freshman year at Lehigh University was a year of exploration. Alas, I was so busy that I did not explore the inside of enough of my classes, primarily that 8am calculus class. (Remember that?) I did not know it at the time, but adversity is the gateway to opportunity. So I spent the next three years in the U.S. Army acquiring an excellent working knowledge of the Russian language and, later, undergraduate degrees in Russian and journalism and a graduate degree in journalism. Within a short time, I found myself as a foreign correspondent, first in Belgrade, Yugoslavia; then Vienna, Austria; Bonn, Germany; London; Moscow, then still the capitol of the Soviet Union, and back in Germany again.

In all, I have lived in seven countries and worked in dozens, some of which no longer exist in the form they did then.

That period of wanderlust—more than a decade—was followed by more than 20 years as a CNN correspondent in Washington with several forks on that stretch of the road — the Pentagon, the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and hundreds of thousands of miles covering five presidential election campaigns.

In 2001, I came to the big fork in the road and decided that after more than 30 years of daily deadlines, days in the sun or rain, nights in the dark or cold, holidays away from home and missed family occasions that change might be a good thing.

So I and my encouraging wife and uprooted son came to South Carolina in 2002 for a new academic career as a dean and professor, now in my seventh year. Susanne—also a journalist with the Associated Press—and Andrew, a high school senior coming to the fork in the road you were at four years ago, are here with me today.

Every one of those places where the road splits has required a decision made with one measure of enthusiasm and one of trepidation. At no point could I ever have told you that on December 13, 2008, I would be at Lander University receiving your honor and sharing your experience. There’s never been a Groundhog Day along the way. There may have been days that started out seeming awfully familiar; they just never ended that way, even if only by an increment of change.

Well, that’s the condensed version of my life. And I’m about nine minutes on here and getting panicky because I’m just about the last thing between you and your becoming genuine college graduates. No time to tell you about my international rugby career (short, sweaty and in its final act quite painful), or meeting presidents, prime ministers and kings, or crossing the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railroad, or paddling a raft 150 miles down the Grand Canyon.

Yogi doesn’t know it, but I’ve spent a lot of time with him at one fork in the road or another.

Now it’s your turn.

Don’t know just where you’re headed? That’s ok. Think you do, but are not certain? Not a problem. Haven’t got a clue, so better go to grad school? Call me. We’ve got a couple of interesting programs in information science and mass communications. Got it down pat, job in hand, sitting at the wheel, road ahead straight and bright? All right! Good luck. Watch out for the turns and the deer in the headlights.

Change and temporary uncertainty are O K. You don’t want to know everything that lies ahead. That would take the excitement out of it. Or from a different perspective, if you knew, you might never get out of bed in the morning.

But my time’s up. Yours isn’t. The fork in the road is just outside the door. God speed.


The Column

Charles Bierbauer

Minding Our Business is a column by Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC's College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and a former CNN and ABC News correspondent.

This column addresses issues faced daily by students, faculty, editors, news directors, public relations experts, and media managers about our professions.

We welcome feedback.

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