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Today he puts forth the tender leaves of hope; tomorrow blossoms and bears his blushing honors thick upon him. — Shakespeare

Our universities are filled with young men and women desperate for a sense of purpose and direction during these turbulent times. Increasingly the response echoing throughout the corridors of political and economic power, is a vacuous one. Dark. Hollow. Relentlessly the same. “Life is a struggle to the top of the pyramid. There are winners and losers. Winning is everything. Take care of # 1. Get yours. Whatever it takes. Private pleasure and gain alone matter.” Yet we are better than that. Surely, we are.

Something refreshing happened recently that points to a radically different vision. A simple yet profound occasion that deserves the attention of all Montanans. Faced with the accustomed pomp and circumstance of a University of Montana presidential inaugural, Seth Bodnar chose a less egocentric and expensive path.

Burdened with declining enrollments and painful cuts, some might say that an economic straitjacket required no less. What followed however suggests that the freshly minted president was expressing something rich and altogether authentic. After opting for a spartan ceremony on the steps of Main Hall, he joined hundreds of volunteers to package 8,000 meals donated to the Missoula Food Bank. His gesture was as redemptive as his inaugural message. “As a public institution of higher education, our highest purpose is in fact to serve.” A far cry from the narcissistic credo of our times. Ego uber alles. Self over all.

Educated in the humanities, President Bodnar is surely aware of the deep roots within our nation’s tradition of higher learning. A university is above all a moral enterprise designed to celebrate the most noble aspirations of the human spirit. An incubator of hope. Those admitted to the academy are called to embrace the responsibility of living up to their individual gifts and putting them at the service of others. The gift of self on behalf of the common good is not an easy road but surely a higher one. One laced with compassion and as close as every human hand and face. A journey that demands a better version of ourselves.

Our country’s Founders rejected any suggestion that education was primarily about getting one’s ticket punched before embarking on the journey in quest of prestige, power and selfish interest. Instead, those blessed with the opportunity of higher learning were encouraged to cultivate a commitment to civic responsibility. To embrace challenges on behalf of others, while at the service of all.

“We the people…To establish a more perfect union…Promote the general welfare…” It was to this that our Founders pledged their “sacred honor.”

Rather than pushing young men and women to scramble over one another on the way up a fiscal pyramid, such vision requires a radically different metaphor. The Lakota Sioux envisioned life as a Sacred Hoop. A circle always expanding and becoming increasingly inclusive. More embracing. More human. It is to that effort that our current generation of university students are called to commit themselves, if they are to leave a pronounced fingerprint on the future.

President Bodnar gets it, as even a casual glance at his resumé reveals. Servant leadership lies at its core. His inauguration was yet another step beyond mere words. One envisioning a morning star of hope rising over the horizon of our collective future. One enshrined by Robert Kennedy in his address to an assembly of students on what now seems like a terribly distant day. The grandeur of an education was foremost in his mind. An honor that carried with it a pronounced responsibility.

You live in the most privileged nation on earth. You are the most privileged citizens of that privileged nation. So you can use your enormous privilege and opportunity to seek purely private pleasure and gain, but history will judge you as the years pass, you will ultimately judge yourself, on the extent to which you have used your gifts to lighten and enrich the lives of your fellow man.

Put another way, it is the age-old mystery President Bodnar is reflecting.

If you want to find your life you must first learn to give it away.

Michael Miles is professor and director emeritus of the Honors College at Montana State University in Bozeman. 

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