Games show we can aim higher and hope to find success

September 26, 2010 

We are at a pivotal point in the history of Kentucky.

For far too long, with a few exceptions, such as sports and recreational beverages, we have aimed too low and been willing to accept second rate or worse in education, economic opportunity, public health, environmental practice and a number of other areas.

We need to develop the habit of aiming higher. As William James, the noted American philosopher, said, "we are mere walking bundles of habits," and how we proceed day to day, year to year is key to progress.

With the 2010 World Equestrian Games, we are illuminated by the global spotlight and have an opportunity to shine, learn lessons and make commitments that will enable us to shine even more brightly in the future.

I make no apology for asserting that at Centre, we have long had the habit of aiming high. I could cite any number of examples: hosting a televised General Election Debate in 2000, encouraging our students to apply for the world's most prestigious academic awards (two Rhodes scholarships and 30 Fulbright scholarships in the last decade), completing an $85 million campus building program during a long, deep recession.

And presenting the world's greatest orchestra, the Vienna Philharmonic, led by the world's most exciting conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, Monday night at our Norton Center for the Arts. The North American debut of this spectacular pairing is not in New York, Boston, Chicago or L.A., but in Danville.

We not only aimed high in the preceding examples, we succeeded. What will be required of us as a state to form not only the habit of aiming high, but the habit of hitting the mark?

I'd suggest four essentials.

First, more cooperation and collaboration. Slightly altering our state motto to: "United we stand, divided we fail." Only by cooperation will we make extraordinary success the norm. This is how we landed the WEG — public/private partnerships, city/county/state collaboration, sustained effort by multiple political administrations — and it's how we'll advance across the board.

A specific example from education. Several years ago, Jim Ramsey (University of Louisville), Larry Shinn (Berea College), Lee T. Todd Jr. (University of Kentucky) and I brainstormed in search of an idea that would benefit our state. The result was Energizing Kentucky, a series of conferences that got the major players from government, academia and business to sit down together — for the first time — and learn about and discuss our great challenges and opportunities in energy. By all accounts this collaborative endeavor advanced a critical conversation; the resulting white paper can be found at energizingkentucky.org.

Second, more civility. We may be swimming against the tide on this one, but that is often the direction of success. When we demonize those with whom we disagree, the opportunity for meaningful dialogue is lost. In each situation, we must make our best case and treat opponents as well-intentioned people with a different perspective. By maintaining civility, we also preserve the possibility of locking arms later in common cause.

Third, more energy. The kind of energy I'm referring to here is more that of the distance runner than the sprinter. Sufficient challenges — such as advancing a state — require a relentless persistence that refuses to be discouraged by setbacks and celebrates victories great and small on the way to ultimate success. Pearse Lyons, founder and president of Alltech, WEG title sponsor, has set a vivid example here in his tireless support and promotion of this undertaking.

Fourth, more consistent focus on our achievements. We sometimes get so pre-occupied with the problems of our state, we ignore or give scant attention to areas in which we have genuine accomplishment. A few examples, again in the field of education:

The UK College of Pharmacy has achieved consistent Top 10 status, as has the U of L Entrepreneurship Program. Eastern Kentucky University's offerings in criminal justice are regarded as among the best in the country, and Berea — the first institution to introduce interracial education in the South — has been recognized as one of the best values in the country by both Forbes and Princeton Review. Forbes recently ranked Centre No. 1 among all colleges and universities in the South, and U.S. News just ranked us No. 9 among national colleges on the "Strong Commitment to Teaching" list.

As we develop a tradition of aiming higher and employ tactics that will enable us to succeed consistently, we must remember that those things which build the Kentucky brand help us all. We will get better one step, one improved practice, one act of generosity and inclusion at a time. With persistence, this will lead to richer, more rewarding lives for our citizens. To paraphrase James, as we shape our habits, so we determine our destiny.

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