Dr. Angela Duckworth, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, set out to study a mystery:
If talent does not predict success, what does?
Each year, more than 14,000 applicants begin the admissions process for West Point. 4,000 qualify for nomination and only about 2,500 sterling students meet the rigorous academic and physical standards for final consideration. This process is designed to find the best and the brightest and in the end, only 1,200 new Army cadets are admitted. But most likely, as in years past, one out of five will drop out.
If the strong resumés, GPAs and impressive athletic performances do not determine who makes it and who does not, what does?
Duckworth’s answer, and title for her book, is GRIT.
Grit, she believes, has two components: passion and perseverance.
Passion, Duckworth writes, is following an internal compass directed by curiosity. If pursued consistently, that curiosity will lead one to an interest, and with practice, a purpose. Perseverance is also not gifted or inherited. It must be earned.
So with purpose and a commitment to self-improvement, we learn to persevere – but only with the support of an inclusive and robust community.
Upon reflecting on the University of Kentucky’s imperfect history, I found myself asking similar questions: How, through 150 years of economic instability, prejudice and divisiveness, has the university remained a leader in cutting-edge research; a force for progress, inclusion and artistic expression in the Commonwealth; and a springboard for individuals who become the backbones of their communities?
This past summer, we spent hours asking similar questions. After surveys and interviews with students, faculty, staff, graduates and others we serve, we developed something of a manifesto for our institution.
It’s what I call the soul of UK:
At UK, we achieve more through grit and grace. By grit we mean the drive and persistence to succeed. To be comfortable being knocked down and confident enough to get back up. By grace we mean how we support and treat one another on the path to success. Our grace is characterized by generosity towards one another, diversity without divisiveness and self-reliance without selfishness.
I see examples of this promise each day. And when we were called to respond to the opioid epidemic gripping our state and nation, we answered with our grit and grace.
This addiction is a chronic disease. It is not a failure of judgement or character. It permeates economic, racial and educational boundaries.
And Kentucky knows its devastating grip all too well.
In response to federal calls for proposals, 20 UK faculty – in partnership with the state – worked around the clock for 90 days to produce a 600-page plan to decrease opioid deaths in Kentucky by 40 percent in three years.
Ultimately, Kentucky was one of four states granted an award of nearly $90 million to end this scourge.
So, as we welcome a new class of students, we enter a pact with them steeped in our tradition.
We believe and recognize every student’s potential to excel, and we draw out that potential in our own distinctive way — though determination and compassion. This is not something we do for them. We do it with them.
What do we expect from our students?
Today, our differences are being used as a wedge between us.
We expect our students to grow.
While this community is emotionally safe, it is intellectually challenging. We will teach them to listen more than they speak, to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and to open themselves to new experiences, opinions and people.
Our students will learn many lessons outside of the classroom. We expect them to build a community not only of belonging, but a community worth becoming.
This journey is not supposed to be easy. We expect them to dig in, work hard— win or lose— try again.
And finally, we expect our students to ask for help. We expect them to lean on this community. Doing so is not a sign of weakness, but signs of honesty, strength and courage.
We have a responsibility to one another, so just as we have expectations of our students, they should have expectations of us.
Our job as a University is not to tell anyone what to think, but to teach them how to think critically and communicate effectively.
This is a place where courageous conversations happen. We are not here to tell anyone who they are. We are here to help people discover their passions which, when pursued, will guide them to who they want to become.
And finally, we are not here to carry our students the whole way. They come to us prepared to work hard, dig in, collaborate and take advantage of the resources on campus designed to help them succeed, and we excitedly welcome each and every one of them.
I told our new class at a recent academic ceremony that if they commit to opening their minds, closing the distances and supporting one another, we promise to provide the support and space to do so.
And together, we will achieve something remarkable – what we call Wildly Possible.