New Student Convocation 2023
Photo by Nodoka Kondo)
September 18, 2023
President Peñalver welcomed new students at Seattle University’s Convocation on Sept. 18.
Welcome to Seattle University. And congratulations on your decision to pursue your higher education here with us.
Beginning college marks the start of a new stage in your intellectual and personal development, one that likely fills you with excitement but perhaps also no small degree of uncertainty or anxiety.
Each of you will experience this transition differently.
I hope you all will approach it with the confidence that the Seattle University community (and by that I mean each of us) is accompanying you on this journey of discovery and growth.
We are committed to your success.
I also hope you will support one another in this journey.
Speaking to those of you who grew up here in the Pacific Northwest, if I may for just a moment, one way you can support your fellow students from out of town is by translating for them some of our unique regional weather vocabulary.
For example, our out-of-town students may wonder what people in Seattle mean when we say “The Mountain is Out.” You can explain to them that this is a good thing.
They may also wonder what it means when the weather forecast says that it is “partly sunny” or that we will experience some “sunbreaks.”
You can explain to them that in other parts of the country, they unimaginatively refer to those conditions as just “MOSTLY cloudy.”
Beyond your initiation into our unique regional weather jargon, in joining this university, you are becoming part of a community unlike any other you have experienced to this point in your life.
No matter where you come from (and collectively you come from all over the country and around the world), you have likely never been part of a residential community as diverse as this one, with so many different kinds of people from different backgrounds, life experiences and identities all living and learning together.
That diversity will stretch you – it will change the way you think.
We can actually measure this.
People who have gone to college are more likely to welcome new experiences compared to those who have not. They tend to be more tolerant of those with different backgrounds or identities. They are more adept lifelong learners.
And these impacts of a college education have been growing over time, as colleges have become more diverse.
In addition to our diversity, universities are unique communities in our society because we are dedicated to the production and transmission of knowledge and to the formation and education of future leaders.
Accomplishing these important goals requires universities to maintain a distinctive kind of culture – one characterized by comfort with disagreement, by expressive freedom, by intellectual adventurousness and by the robust exchange of ideas.
Freedom of expression and tolerance of divergent perspectives – points of view you may perceive to be obviously wrong or even offensive – are essential components of a healthy university community.
Although they can create discomfort, I hope you will come to appreciate and even enjoy them.
All of the foregoing is true of almost ANY university worthy of the name.
But, as a Jesuit university, Seattle University adds further layers to this.
The Jesuit approach to higher education puts you at the center of our mission.
Our Jesuit values manifest themselves in our small class sizes and in our emphasis on experiential and community-engaged learning with the goal of preparing leaders dedicated to the service of others.
The 500-year old Jesuit educational tradition is embodied today in a global network of 200 colleges and universities in the United States and around the world.
That Jesuit tradition informs and grounds everything we do.
It is BECAUSE we are a Jesuit university – dedicated to accompanying young people towards a hope-filled future and committed to caring for our common home, the Earth – that we are the first university in the State of Washington to fully divest our endowment from fossil fuels.
It is BECAUSE we are a Jesuit university – committed to walking with those on the margins – that we support place-based service learning through the Sundborg Center for Community Engagement, bringing our students out into the neighborhoods surrounding our campus to support young people on their own educational journeys or to work with nonprofits serving refugees or people experiencing homelessness.
It is BECAUSE we are a Catholic university – committed to the view that all human beings are created in God’s image – that we seek to build an inclusive academic culture that reflects the full diversity of the human community.
Seattle University welcomes students, faculty and staff from all faith traditions – including many people who identify with no faith tradition and some who affirmatively reject faith altogether. We welcome people of all races, national origins, sexes, gender identities, and sexualities. We welcome people with a diversity a viewpoints, abilities, and cognitive styles.
The radical inclusiveness of our invitation is ultimately rooted in our Jesuit, Catholic values, which teach us that all human beings, without exception or qualification, are loved by God.
Many of you have chosen to come to Seattle University BECAUSE we are a Jesuit university.
I don’t doubt that some of you have chosen to come to Seattle University DESPITE the fact that we are a Jesuit university.
Others of you may be sitting in your seats this morning, asking yourselves: “Wait, Seattle University is a Jesuit university?”
Some of you are practicing Catholics. Most of you are not. Collectively, you represent the religious diversity of our region and our country. You are Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, neo-pagan, agnostic, atheist, and many more.
But the largest single group – approaching 40% of you – are “nones.”
When I was a kid, a nun was a woman who wore a habit and taught in my Catholic elementary school.
These days, “nones” refers to people not affiliated with any religous tradition. It is the largest and fastest growing religious identity among young Americans.
What does it mean for Seattle University to be a Jesuit university in the context of increasing skepticism about organized religion in general and – let’s face it – about the Catholic church in particular?
Let me start by saying what it does NOT mean.
It does not mean that Seattle University is interested in convincing you to become Catholic.
Our mission is to empower leaders for a just and humane world. Not just Catholic leaders; not just Christian leaders – but leaders.
As Pope Francis has observed, looking around the world today, in the 21st century, humanity faces a number of daunting challenges – from climate change, to political polarization, to racial conflict, to widening economic inequality, to dizzying and at times destabilizing technological change.
As he has suggested, the main challenge that you will confront in leading the world towards justice and humanity is not an insufficient supply of Catholics.
That said, underlying the many, seemingly independent, crises we face, is a deeper crisis of meaning that pervades our contemporary culture.
Surveying our materialist, consumerist way of life, Pope Francis has dubbed it the “throwaway culture,” in which virtually everything, including human beings and even the earth itself, is treated as disposable.
Within this culture, Pope Francis says, “the accumulation of constant novelties exalts a superficiality [that makes it] difficult to pause and recover depth in life.”
And yet, even as many young people have turned away from organized religion, a growing number describe a deep desire to recover depth in life through spiritual engagement.
This desire should not be surprising. As Columbia University psychologist Lisa Miller explains in her recent book, The Awakened Brain, human beings are hard-wired for engaging with the transcendent.
Miller understands spiritual life in a broadly inclusive way. Looking across religious and spiritual traditions, she finds five common patterns of thought and behavior that come from sustained spiritual engagement:
- Love of neighbor as self
- A sense of oneness
- The practice of sacred transcendence; and
- Adherence to a moral code
Miller finds that people who attend to their spiritual lives demonstrate higher levels of happiness and lower rates of loneliness, anxiety and depression.
When we engage with the transcendent, when we acknowledge something larger than ourselves, she says, “we feel more fulfilled at home and in the world, and we build relationships and make decisions from a wider view. We move from loneliness and isolation to connection; from competition and division to compassion and altruism.” We stop focusing on our own wounds, problems and losses, on the ways our identities diverge, and we become more attuned to what we share with one another.
Miller’s important observations suggest that one remedy for our contemporary crisis of meaning is precisely the kind of education you will receive here at Seattle University.
The Jesuit model of education invites and encourages you to engage your whole self – mind, body, and spirit – in the educational process.
We do not ask you to leave your values or identities at the door but rather encourage you to bring them into your educational experience, inside and outside the classroom.
Our focus on you as whole persons leads us to be concerned not just with your intellect, but also with your wellness.
This concern is reflected in the investments we have made in counseling and psychological services; in the availability of online physical and mental health support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week; in opportunities to learn how to meditate or take a retreat with campus ministry, or to experience nature with UREC; or to attend to your physical health and leadership skills with varsity or club athletics.
Jesuit education celebrates academic achievement and technical excellence, but it also emphasizes the importance of putting our gifts to work in the service of something larger than ourselves.
Viewed through the lens of your intellectual and spiritual development, Seattle University’s hopes for you are both broad and inclusive.
For those of you who come from a different religious tradition than Catholic (and almost two-thirds of you DO identify with SOME religious tradition), one hope we have is that you might deepen your engagement with that tradition.
For those of you who do not identify with any religious tradition or who are questioning your tradition, our hope is that the environment at Seattle Univerity will provide fertile ground for your spiritual exploration.
In addition to our goal of providing opportunities for spiritual development and wellness more broadly, the Jesuit Catholic educational tradition is reflected in our commitment to the idea that the truth is both real and interdisciplinary.
To say that we believe in the idea of truth can be a controversial notion in this era of perspectivist relativism and “alternative facts.” But we also understand that the truth is complex and elusive. No one can ever know the full truth; we can only feel our way towards it.
Pope Francis has said that “[i]f [some]one has the answers to all the questions – that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet . . .”
(By the way, this is why academic freedom is so important.)
Each of the academic disciplines, from economics to physics to literature to the arts, has something to contribute to our grasp of the truth.
Our commitment to interdisciplinarity underlies perhaps the most distinctive trademark of Jesuit higher education -- the CORE CURRICULUM.
In a careful and deliberate way, THE CORE will expose you to disciplines well outside your major.
Like generations of students before you, some of you will grumble about having to take a course in, say, theology. And, like generations of students before you, most of you will tell us that course became one of your favorite classes.
Seattle University shares all these commitments – especially the core curriculum – with the dozens of other Jesuit colleges and universities around the country and around the world.
But, as Seattle’s Jesuit university, we bring to our work a distinctive engagement with the culture of technology and innovation for which our city is known.
At Seattle University, we celebrate innovation, which we hope will unleash opportunities that lead us towards a more just and humane world.
Seattle University has graduates working in every one of Seattle’s iconic businesses and innovative nonprofits.
But, embedded as we are within our Jesuit and Catholic tradition, Seattle University approaches the topic of innovation with the conviction that it needs to be guided by enduring values.
Recent discussions of generative artificial intelligence provide a useful example of what I am talking about.
Over the last year or so, people have been justifiably enthusiastic about the abilities of this new technology. But some people have been perhaps a bit too enthusiastic.
Some have predicted that generative AI will render entire areas of higher education useless.
Why learn to write if ChatGPT can write an essay on any topics in just moments? Why learn to code if generative AI tools can write code in response to a simple prompt?
Let me tell you a story about Steve, a person who may have been just a little too enthusiastic about the capabilities of generative AI.
Steve was a seasoned lawyer in New York City. He was working on an important case. His client had been injured while flying on Avianca Airlines. Although Steve was an experienced lawyer – having practiced for over 30 years – he did not know a lot about aviation law, a highly specialized field governed by complex international treaties.
A brief was due in the case, and Steve was pressed for time. Harried and under the gun, he turned to ChatGPT. He prompted it to write him a legal brief in support of his client’s case.
Amazingly, it did just that.
That AI-generated brief cited a number of cases in support of Steve’s legal position, cases like
- Varghese v. China South Airlines
- Martinez v. Delta Airlines
- Shaboon v. EgyptAir
- Petersen v. Iran Air
- Miller v. United Airlines, and
- Estate of Durden v. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.
Each of these cases involved passengers suing airlines that had injured them. Each of these cases supported Steve’s client’s legal position.
Just one problem: none of these cases actually exist.
The airline’s lawyers, who DO know a thing or two about aviation law, were puzzled by Steve’s citation to cases that they could not locate in the usual, authoritative legal sources.
They asked the Court to have Steve produce copies of the mysterious cases.
So, naturally, Steve asked ChatGPT to find the cases. And it did. It provided him with what appeared to be complete judicial opinions for each of the cases.
But, once again, when the airlines’ lawyers checked the opinions against the authoritative digests of judicial decisions, they could not authenticate them.
As it turns out, the opinions were fabrications, or what AI experts call “hallucinations.”
Confronted by opposing counsel, and ultimately by the court, Steve admitted that he had written his brief and found these documents with the assistance of ChatGPT.
He had never used the tool before, he explained, and he had no idea that it would simply make things up, including citations to cases that did not exist and even entire judicial opinions that had never been written by any actual judge.
Steve is now facing professional sanctions for his actions and may well lose his license to practice law.
The moral of this story?
Don’t be Steve.
But, importantly, the moral is NOT that generative AI is useless or that it will NOT dramatically change how we perform certain tasks.
I suspect that it will prove to be extremely useful and will have tremendous impacts that we can’t yet fathom.
Knowledge still matters. Expertise still matters. The truth still matters.
In fact, in an era of generative AI, of deepfakes and malicious but capable bots, knowledge, expertise and the ability to ferret out the truth are going to matter more than ever.
This was a story about a lawyer, but I could also have told similar stories about the computer scientist who uncritically relied on faulty code generated by AI. Or the policymaker who did not appreciate how racial bias in the materials used to train AI can generate biased outputs. Or the hapless undergraduate who relied on AI it to surreptitiously produce a term paper – not that any of YOU would do that.
In the world of generative AI, your education – a Jesuit education committed to teaching you not just what to know but how to think intelligently and critically – will be more valuable than ever. But only if you actually put in the work.
What better place to explore the implications of AI for our society than a Jesuit university situated right here in the center of one of the largest tech hubs in the world?
And so here are our commitments to you:
- Your education here at Seattle University will attend to your development as a whole person.
- It will encourage your spiritual exploration and expose you to broad, interdisciplinary approaches to learning.
- It will prepare you to engage with technological innovation in an ethical and critical way.
And these commitments are the reasons why your decision to pursue a Jesuit education in this city – this global hub of technology and innovation – is such an inspired choice.
And so I conclude how I started: I congratulate you on your superb judgment, and I welcome you to Seattle University!