FINN’s Scott Widmeyer Delivers the Commencement Address to West Virginia University Reed College of Media Graduates
May 18, 2023
Commencement Address to WVU Reed College of Media // Scott Widmeyer // May 12, 2023
Whew! This has been quite the week, with an unfortunate national spotlight on WVU, but now …
Let’s turn the spotlight on you. This is your Commencement. This is your Day. And, by ‘your,’ we mean all of you here. Regardless of who you are, WVU has taken great strides this week in acknowledging that all of us, including those of us who are LBGTQ+, are welcome here. So … Let’s Go Mountaineers, all Mountaineers!
You worked really hard to get to this point. And this is only the beginning. So much more lies ahead for you.
The 2023 graduating class is truly the COVID-19 class. Many of you began your college studies in 2019 only to have them significantly disrupted by a pandemic that swept our world.
In March 2020, you were leaving campus and returning to your home community because none of us knew then how COVID was going to play out.
From lockdowns that meant little to no social interaction with your classmates, your friends and your teachers to remote learning that typically could not measure up to the in-person learning environment that you were accustomed to…..these were times that tested all of us…. but probably tested YOU as well as your professors more than any of us.
A quote by 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche says it best in terms of framing your experience these past few years…”that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Every generation is confronted with challenges of one kind or another. The challenges of my generation—and specifically—the timing of my college days here at WVU were framed by the Vietnam war, Watergate, civil rights battles, pay equity for women, the 1973 Supreme Court Roe v Wade decision, the Buffalo Creek disaster in Logan County that killed 125 people and wiped out several communities in southern WV, record high inflation approaching 20 per cent and the OPEC oil embargo that created huge lines at the gas pump.
Let’s fast forward to your generation and observe where things stand today. Many of the same issues we confronted in the 70s are still front and center in 2023. Broadly, those issue sectors remain tied to the economy, equity, energy and rights for so many in our society who have been forgotten, ignored and left behind.
I have dedicated a lot of my time and energy over the decades to tackle these pervasive problems. And, yes, we have made some gains, and we have failed, at times, and, in many places, we are losing the ground we fought so hard to gain. Coach Huggins’s comments this past week remind us of how easy it is to slip back into demonizing the marginalized and disadvantaged. Texas Governor Abbot’s comments about immigrants following their deaths in yet another mass shooting is another example of how fragile the rights of so many are.
I know that during your time here at the Reed College of Media, your studies have been linked to a set of guiding principles, to collaboration, innovation, relevance and curiosity. I urge you to keep those characteristics front and center in all that you pursue in the days ahead. No matter where your career path takes you, remember that as communicators, writers, creators and journalists, we must adhere to truth-telling and ensuring that all voices are heard.
The Bobby Huggins situation is a case study in how all sectors of the media—journalists, PR practitioners, strategists and creative folks—have critical roles to play. Clearly, we, as professionals, have an obligation to be truth tellers. We certainly saw this play out in recent days here in Morgantown. My compliments to the communications team here at WVU this week who helped guide the university through its response in the Huggins matter. Their job is not done. In the coming weeks and months, their job will be to stay on top of the very public facing side of this controversy by keeping the public informed on how Coach Huggins is meeting the terms laid out by WVU and agreed to by Huggins around condemning hate, learning from one’s mistakes and providing support for our marginalized communities.
As 21st Century journalists and communicators, the future of the world, the nation, the state of WV and your local community is depending on you. In fact, these inter-woven communities stand ready for the assist you can bring them…with your energy, your inquiring minds and tapping fully into the assets of everything you have learned these past four years in the Reed College of Media.
A verse from Ephesians in the New Testament of the Bible aptly sums up the responsibility you carry as you go forward. “Live as children of light—for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”
The economist, sociologist and historian Jerome Roos writes about how our world today is cast adrift….he says like a rudderless ship in a terrible storm. Roos references this period we are living in as “age of upheaval.”
I think we can all agree on that. But, we should not view the age of upheaval as a bad thing.
Your graduating class is a symbol of hope. Your graduating class represents aspiration and perseverance. And each one of you developed and sharpened important skills during your university education that position you to be ambassadors of truth telling.
Unfortunately, there are some in today’s society who are not approaching this period of upheaval so well. Is change something to be feared? I don’t think so and I am betting that most of you don’t fear change.
19th Century historian Jacob Burckhardt referred to the great upheavals in history as “genuine signs of vitality” that “clear the ground of discredited ideas and decaying institutions.” A period of crisis, he wrote “is to be regarded as a new nexus of growth.”
Burckhardt‘s words of 200 years ago certainly ring true today.
As we work on this “new nexus of growth,” I encourage all of us to bring civil discourse to our discussions and daily lives. Rage and bullying are losing equations. We win when we all sit down and talk things through. Communications is key and I hope you will take that into your professional careers as you leave WVU.
There’s a long list of critical matters that confront us today. I will touch on a few.
Starting first with the news media. Too many communities today no longer have a strong daily newspaper or local radio or TV station to cover important things happening in government, our schools and in our community organizations. Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers have vanished in the US and newsroom employment has dropped 57 per cent.
When this happens, we see our democracy challenged.
I am reminded of the motto the DA followed for 30 plus years that began when I was editor in the mid 1970s.
“Little good is accomplished without controversy and no civic evil is overcome without publicity.”
Not only are traditional jobs in journalism eroding, the safety of those who work in the media is threatened. At this very moment, Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gerskovich is being held in a Russian jail just for doing his job. And in 2022, we saw 67 journalists die doing their job covering news around the world. And just 5 years ago, next door in Annapolis MD a mass shooting occurred in the news room of the Capital Gazette killing five staffers.
And, in today’s political world, we see one party/super majority rule running rampant in a large number of states and when this happens the voices of many are often trampled. We are witnessing this in state after state around important issues including choice, education, LGBTQ rights, home rule and gun safety.
We see too many politicians who have taken the word woke and used it to build out a cacophony of mistruths and distortions.
As part of our quest to forge through this period of upheaval, we must take on the task of being architects for the future. Yes, you too, as communicators and journalists can be architects for the future. Let’s ask ourselves, what do we want to rebuild? Where do we need to rethink?
One area for a rebuild…rethink is with higher education. The American higher ed system has produced huge swaths of talent and genius over the decades harnessing advances in medicine, education, the arts, public health, energy, technology and more. As the state’s land grant institution and one of only 146 institutions in the US that are classified as R1: Doctoral Universities…noted for their very high research activity, WVU clearly is a stand-out.
However, today, many question how college tuitions have spiraled out of control…jumping 144% in the past 20 years far, far greater than the rate of inflation even when you factor in 10-12 % inflation these past two years. And to add further salt to the wound the average starting salary for a college graduate has only ticked up 15-25 percent over the past 10 years. Much of these tuition increases have occurred while state after state have reduced their funding support for higher education. In WV, the state legislature between 2008 and 2018, reduced funding by almost 25 percent. Next door in Pennsylvania, the cuts were 34 per cent.
Now is the time for the best minds—including many here today—to come together and lay out a new roadmap….a new model for 21st century higher education….one that continues to embrace the significance of a liberal arts education but one that rethinks costs and value and how colleges are more smartly linked to the communities they operate in so that all citizens derive benefit. I am confident that WVU will be a leader in this rethinking.
And, there are other areas that need our attention as “architects:
*Building out a new energy economy that addresses the challenges and the upheaval being brought on by climate change.
*Respect, Rights and Values. We don’t live in a one-size fits all world. And, as I’ve already noted, we can’t ever think we’re done. Rights must be protected, even once gained.
*Making sure our communities are protected from gun violence.
*Reminding everyone as good citizens that we must protect the First Amendment against censorship. I hope you will be part of that crusade whether you are a working journalist, a strategic communicator or working in new and developing sectors of communications.
The WVU Reed College of Media and its predecessor PI Reed School of Journalism have been graduating journalists and strategic communicators since 1939. By my calculations, that makes your graduating class the 85th to be granted bachelors and masters degrees. Congratulations.
Your studies at the Reed College of Media have been purpose-driven, one that is linked to “a robust, independent media which is fundamental to a democratic society in which individuals are empowered as critical thinkers, creative problem-solvers and engaged citizens.”
Please, please, please….take the spirit of Reed and the spirit of us as Mountaineers with you as you launch your future.
And, in doing so, never forget how all of this began and the many tasks and challenges we face.
Our state of WV and our country is relying on all of us but even more so counting on you because you bring that requisite energy, intellect and motivation to overcome obstacles when they get in our way and to always remind ourselves of MLK Jr. and his message “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In closing, we are gathered here today to celebrate you. To celebrate this major life moment, this monumental milestone. You have taken many paths to get here today, and many have helped to guide you…parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, teachers, mentors and many others in your community. Please take time to thank all of those who have been by your side.
Keep traveling down that highway of life and don’t allow yourself to be detoured from the truth and truth telling.
I leave you with this piece of inspiration from Maya Angelou…
“We, this people, on a small and lonely planet traveling through casual space. Past aloof stars, across the way of indifferent suns. To a destination where all signs tell us…it is possible and imperative that we learn. A brave and startling truth.”
Thank you and again my congratulations. I, like you, feel a sense of accomplishment. But, with that accomplishment, comes a sense of responsibility.
Let’s go Mountaineers.