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End of an Era: Last Commencement Address at USF Poly

May 6, 2012 - 6:00pm

To the class of 2012, to all 214 of you: we're here to celebrate your academic accomplishments and to wish you well as you leave your campus family.

You leave armed with a degree from an accredited and well-respected university that will serve as a valuable asset as you market yourself in this challenging economic climate.

At a time when finding employment in your chosen field pits you against many other talented individuals, the measure of your character and the quality of your education are two of the most important factors that will determine how well you can compete.

You were fortunate to have a knowledgeable and caring faculty here at the University of South Florida and we should take a moment to recognize the tremendous impact they have had on your academic achievement.

Whether you studied engineering under Dr. JoAnne Larsen, psychology under Dr. Richard Marshall or childhood education under Dr. Sherry Kragler, these dedicated men and women have invested a considerable amount of care and concern in your future success, so please show them your appreciation. It is up to you to take the knowledge you have obtained here in this structured environment and continue to grow academically through practical experience and a less formal but equally important quest for knowledge. To be able to compete in this increasingly technological climate, you will need to keep up with the latest information in a constantly changing arena. You leave here with the ability to learn and to process information.

The vast majority of what you will need to know to be successful will be learned after you leave this prestigious university. During my 16 years in the Florida Legislature, I had the opportunity to interview many people for employment and the opportunity to screen candidates for positions on boards and other appointments. Being fully prepared for any interview is crucial. But what happens after youve earned a quality education, done your research, found a position and are on your way to success? What does it take to maintain that position and to advance throughout your professional career?

As I mentioned earlier, another major determining factor for success is character. While intellect is desired, most major corporations are looking to hire or promote those who show leadership or the potential for leadership.

What makes a strong leader? Let's start by debunking a few myths. A leader does NOT: dictate, rule through fear and intimidation, abuse their power or authority or take unethical or illegal actions.

Unfortunately, the current political climate is one in which winning at any cost is considered success even if the outcome is destructive, divisive or wasteful. A true leader doesn't force their will on others but rather works with others collaboratively to reach a shared outcome or goal.

Through my experiences in the Florida Legislature, I had the opportunity to watch many elected officials attempt to show leadership in numerous different styles. The biggest mistake they make is to believe that you are a leader by virtue of a title or position bestowed upon you. Certainly you can use that position for good or for evil but holding that position does not automatically endow you with leadership qualities.

Through experience and lifes lessons, Ive come to several beliefs about true leadership that I have tried to emulate throughout my career:

A person of integrity is the same on the outside and on the inside. That individual can be trusted because he/she never veer from their inner values, even when it is politically expedient to do so.

A true leader must have the trust of followers and therefore must display integrity. Honest dealings, predictable reactions, well-controlled emotions and an absence of tantrums and harsh outbursts are all signs of integrity.

A magnanimous leader ensures that credit for success is spread as widely as possible.

A good leader also takes personal responsibility for failures. "To spread the fame and take the blame" is the sign of effective leadership. Being magnanimous is the virtue of being of great mind and heart. It encompasses a refusal to be petty and a willingness to face personal risk for principled purposes. A true leader is open to new ideas and is a good listener. Openness builds mutual respect and trust between leaders and followers and also supplies the team with new ideas, better information sharing and a shared sense of purpose.

A fair leader deals with others consistently and justly. A leader must check all the facts and hear everyone out before passing judgment. They should avoid leaping to conclusions based on incomplete information. When people believe they are being treated fairly, they reward that leader with their loyalty. In a nutshell, my ideal leader is a person of integrity who is both fair and magnanimous and listens with an open mind.

Curtis Peterson was such a man. As a Florida state senator, and then Senate president, he had the vision and tenacity to bring a branch campus of USF to Polk County to offer our students the opportunity to attend a well-respected, accredited public university without them having to leave the county. His success in the 1980s has led to thousands of Polk County students studying and graduating from USF over the past 23 years. The presence of USF has led to a great partnership with Polk State College as well as cutting-edge research and economic development opportunities.

The marriage of Polk County and USF has been a very happy one and I'd like to personally thank President Genshaft for being such a good partner in our shared goal of providing an excellent learning opportunity for Polk County students. Sen. Peterson would be so proud of what has been accomplished here due to his early efforts.

So it is on a sad note that we must acknowledge and accept that after nearly 25 years of USF's presence in Polk County, and all that has been achieved during that period, we are forced to divorce even though we still have a great love and respect for each other. Over the past nine months I had the opportunity to get to know some of your leadership here at USF Polytechnic.

Both the student leadership and the faculty leadership expressed their concern and fear that actions were being initiated to not only separate the branch from USF but to also remove USF completely from Polk County. What I witnessed from both the students and the faculty was a heartfelt desire to fight to protect their school from disappearing ... a noble cause. And they did this at great personal risk to themselves bothacademically and professionally.

I was proud to stand with them and to try to be their voice of reason.

Over the course of the 9-month ordeal, they witnessed a political system that ignored the voices of those who would be directly affected, those with the most information on which to base a thoughtful and reasoned decision. They were frustrated and disheartened by what can only be described as a textbook example of the antithesis of leadership. But through it all, they collaborated, they shared information, they sought consensus, they treated others with respect, fairness and openness and only asked to be heard.

I wish I could say that in the end, truth wins out or that hard work and doing your homework always pays off. Unfortunately in this political climate and perhaps business climate as well, that is not the case. Your efforts, however, did not go unnoticed. Your Board of Governor student representative, Michael Long, stood strong for you and showed tremendous leadership as did fellow BOG member John Temple.

The states most influential corporate citizens, The Council of 100, presented a thoughtful argument against the bill and every major Florida newspaper that editorialized on the subject did so with a very strong message against the process and the policy. University of Florida students joined in your cause as the hypocrisy of stressing STEM here while their existing Computer Information Sciences program was being threatened, due to $300 million in higher education cuts statewide, became too much to bear.

I watched as students juggled their crusade to save their school while holding down jobs and completing their studies. So much of their time and energies were devoted to the political drama that it was hard to imagine their grades didn't suffer. They were continuously let down by every political decision that was made starting with the Board of Governors and finishing with the governor signing the bill which eliminated USF from Polk County without even the courtesy of meeting with them.

The one ray of sunshine that students and faculty enjoyed through these emotional times was the selection of David Touchton as interim regional chancellor. He provided the stability and the presence of a fair and thoughtful leader at a very troubled time. His integrity and openness to listen, really listen, to both students and faculty instilled a sense of calm to a turbulent campus. I cannot adequately express my thanks to Chancellor Touchton for his leadership and I hope that he will continue to see the remaining students through to their graduation as the teach-out begins.

I think I speak for everyone on this stage when I say we are committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that all of the current students will have the opportunity to finish their degrees here before we forever lose the USF experience. And that all members of the faculty will be kept on staff for the duration of the teach-out. All of you students are to be commended for reaching this milestone in your academic studies despite the emotional turmoil of the past two semesters.

It is said whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger and you have shown the tenacity to move ahead despite obstacles and distractions. Tonight you are making history. You are the last official graduating class of USF Poly before the law takes effect in July. While I am hopeful your fellow students will be able to graduate under the planned teach-out, you will forever be remembered as the last graduating class of USF Poly. It is bittersweet but I am so honored to have been with you through the battle and to be with you now for this celebration of your accomplishments.

And I am so proud of all the students and faculty who showed tremendous leadership, integrity and dedication. While here, you have earned degrees in a broad range of academics some of you in STEM courses and others in liberal arts.

No matter where you are in life -- moving away from home for the first time or an adult graduating with an advanced degree -- you each are starting a new chapter in your life. My hope for you going forward: you will each try to live with the courage to stand up for what you believe in. Whether you are making decisions on a large political scene, or making smaller choices that will affect very few, confronting and fighting injustice is not an easy thing to do. At times you will find yourself alone. Your friends and coworkers may be uninvolved or simply swaying with the prevailing wind.

But one day, you will have the opportunity to share your story. You can look back proudly on your accomplishments -- whether you win the battle or not, they will still be your greatest accomplishments because knowing you fought the good fight, and did the right thing, is a personal moral victory that no one can take from you. Each of us has a responsibility to do the right thing. It isn't always easy and often it comes at a great personal cost, but that is the measure of one's character.

My favorite inspirational saying is from Edmund Burke. It is simplistic yet very powerful. It has been my guiding principle throughout much of my legislative career. Burke said, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." Individually and collectively, you have shown that you refused to sit idly by and do nothing.

As the future leaders of our community, our state and our country, you renew my faith that you are men and women of character and under your leadership, our future is bright indeed. As you are closing out your college careers, I will soon be closing out my legislative career. Ive tried to live by Burkes credo and lead by example and I can tell you firsthand it isnt always easy. Sometimes it means your ideas wont be heard. Or you might get assigned a conspicuously small office on a lower floor. Or you wont get a chairmanship or appointed to serve on a choice committee. You canstill be highly effective despite the efforts of others to hold you down.

You will have some things like this happen in your lives as well but youll get to carry your head high knowing that you did your best and maybe one day, you too will be rewarded with the chance to come tell another class that looks just like you to pay it forward. Congratulations on your academic success and the very best wishes for a productive and successful career.

Thank you for letting me be a small part of your experience here at USF, and from this hardcore Gator grad a very sincere and heartfelt "Go Bulls!"

Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, is Florida state senator. She is term-limited out of office in 2012. Sen. Dockery delivered this commencement address in Lakeland at 7 p.m. Monday.

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