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Nancy Footer's Commencement Address

University of Texas at Austin Department of History
Spring Graduation, May 18, 2007

For every one of you who knows exactly what you are doing next there are more than a few of you who do not know what your future holds. Some of you are wondering – what was I thinking when I decided to major in history? You may even be looking with envy at your friends who majored in education or business. And if you aren’t, your parents are.

And so it is that for many of you, the joy and excitement that graduation is finally here is tinged with just the slightest hint of anxiety about the future. And the common thread that knits you all together – in fact, knits together all history majors at this life juncture – is this thought:

At Least I Didn’t Major In Anthropology!

My hope is that I can allay your concerns about your choice of major – if I have my way you’ll leave here tonight as confident and proud as I am of the choice I made to study history. I’d also like to talk to you ever so briefly about giving thanks to those who helped get you here. And lastly, I want to close by talking to you about a concept that gets for too little attention in life – the meaning and importance of having fun.

So my message tonight is in three parts

You made the right choice
You owe a debt of gratitude
What comes next is meant to be fun

You Made the Right Choice
The lawyers in my office are – with one exception – either history or political science majors. This is not entirely by accident as I find that liberal arts students, but most particularly history students, bring something unique to their work.

When I took my current position I made two promises to attorneys in the office – that we would render the highest quality legal services for our client and that we would do so in context. What do I mean?

I mean the ability to see events, people, problems, crises, all manner of issues and questions not in isolation but as a part of something larger. Those of us who major in history learn to view events not as singular moments in time but as part of a tapestry of social, moral, intellectual, political, cultural, and other influences that have evolved over time to bring us to the place we now find ourselves. This – whatever this is – has happened before – not precisely this way, but there are kernels of familiarity that serve as anchors as we find our way. This perspective is a powerful tool and one that if honed will serve you well the rest of your life.

For me, working as a lawyer in higher education, legal advice must be rendered in the context of the mission and values of the campus we are serving, with an eye toward the goals we are collectively trying to achieve. When the same sticky personnel problem confronts the presidents on all 3 of our campuses the solution for one is not necessarily the same as for the others. We help our clients fashion a solution that “fits” because it takes into account not just the law, but also how we’ve responded in the past, what the culture of the campus is, what the needs are of the individuals are who are involved. What works well at a medical school does not necessarily work at an undergraduate institution. Why? Because each campus has a different feel, a special mission, unique values, and it is our job to craft a solution that achieves its purpose, is lawful and practical, and but that resonates for the faculty, students, and staff there. We do this well because we understand how to work in a broader context than just the law. We understand this because we studied history.

Of course, at this point in my career I don’t just practice law – I also manage a staff of 14. Nothing in law school prepared me for the trials and tribulations of motivating that many people. It turns out, however, that much of what I needed to know about being a good manager and colleague I learned here. How so? Because the history faculty taught me to be a student of the human condition. To my way of thinking a history degree is far better preparation for managing people that studying psych or OD or management. OK, I realize the business majors will never agree – and it might be best if we kept this little secret to ourselves. But hear me out. Most business and social science courses provide you with a tool kit and some tools – you learn to spot a specific problem and you get 3 cookie cutter solutions to pick from to fix it. It’s a more vocational approach to the topic – not to be dismissed but also not the only way to get at the often confounding task of managing people. The student of history learns that people are at the center of all important events and by understanding a person’s actions, motivations, thoughts, and beliefs you will come to understand an event. So, take heart – you may not leave here knowing how to construct the perfect performance evaluation, but your corporate human resources folks can teach you that. You will always, though, be intrigued by what makes people behave certain ways and you’ll be able to detect themes, patterns, and nuances that will help you motivate, influence, and lead others.

Using my history studies to influence my legal training has helped me find genuine fulfillment. But the single greatest contributing factor to my professional happiness stems from the fact that I got lucky enough to find a job in higher education. In our office we know that no matter how tough things get, how under appreciated we may be some days, in the end we play a supporting role – an important role in our highly regulated and complex world – in one of the greatest goods our country has to offer – its system of higher education. And so it is that no matter how difficult or demanding our responsibilities we leave each day knowing that something we did freed up a faculty member to create beauty – and therefore a more just world – through painting, music, sculpture, to find cures for the diseases that plague humanity, to foster understanding of conflict and change through the study of history, to seek solutions to poverty, hunger, and pain, and most importantly to teach and inspire students like you to learn, to achieve, and to become contributing members of our great democracy.

So relax. You made the right choice.

And So It Is That You Owe A Debt Of Gratitude
You’ve seen them – the economic studies that detail the value of a college degree – not in terms of the intrinsic worth of being an educated person, which is priceless, but the hard dollar value of a degree, the boost in earning power it gives you, the road to better health is puts you on, and so on. It’s all true. As a college graduate you will in your lifetime earn $1 million dollars more than someone who only graduated from high school. You will be healthier, your children will be better educated and provided for, and your communities can count on you for a greater commitment to public service. You leave here today rich in mind and spirit, and eventually in pocketbook. And so you must give thanks.

Some of you leave like I did – debt free. A free college education is the greatest gift you will ever receive. My parents never thought twice about paying my way. They are, like some of your grandparents, members of the greatest generation – a generation known for its generosity, modesty, and self sacrifice. My parents are no different. And so it was that I left college and law school not owing a cent. I really didn’t appreciate it at the time and my hunch is some of you don’t either. So, here’s what I’m going to ask you to do.

Thank your parents, spouses, and families and if you attended on scholarship, thank your benefactors. Don’t just thank them now, today – I want you to calendar this date five, ten and fifteen years from now. On the anniversary of your graduation, thank them again. The first two times – in years 5 and 10 – the thanks you give will mean more to them than it will to you. Then sometime between year 10 and 15 the true value of your degree will begin to come clear to you – not just financially but also intellectually and spiritually as you life will be far richer that you can imagine – and so in year 15, I promise that the thanks you give will mean more to you than it will to them.

I realize I’ve left some of you out because many of you have paid your own way, and you leave here anxious about the 10 years of loan payments on the horizon. Never doubt that you did the right thing. When you leave here hold you head high knowing that at a young age you made a powerfully adult decision – to change your life by going to college and to pay for it yourself. It is a choice you won’t regret.

What Comes Next Is Meant To Be Fun
On the day I graduated from law school, my father put his arm around my shoulder and said, “I know you think school has been fun and I’m sure it has been, but the real fun in life is to be had at work. Now you get out there and have a good time.”

I tell you this for two reasons – one, because not very many people will tell you that work is meant to be fun and two, because my father doesn’t actually remember saying it.

I don’t mean to embarrass my father by telling you he doesn’t remember saying this. Instead, I hope to reassure all the parents out there that we, your children, are actually listening to you, even when you least expect it. You’d be surprised what we retain, so keep at it even if you think we aren’t paying attention.

Oh, and for those of you going to law school – gird yourself. Law faculty do not have lectures entitled “Legislative Licentiousness” nor are they playing “Fanfare for the Common Man” on the first day of class. I did not find a Professor Miller in law school. The good news? Even if you don’t much like law school – and I didn’t – you will love the practice of law.

So, what do I mean by having fun at work? I don’t mean it in the “Google” sense of the word. Who hasn’t read about their corporate campus, complete with lawn toys, 24 hour cafeteria, no dress code, and on and on. I’m sure that makes for a playful work environment, but what I’m talking about is the fun you will find in the substance of what you do every day at work. I’m talking about the work itself.

Work is exhilarating. Never never let anyone try to convince you otherwise. Even in the most stressful times, my work is always interesting, richly varied, and quite challenging.

Let’s face it – how many people do you know whose average work day can include questions with constitutional implications, especially about the first and fourteenth amendments, a research misconduct case, a federal fraud investigation, the formulation of a defense strategy in a complex employment or student discipline lawsuit, and the drafting and negotiating of a head coach’s contract. Yes, the athletics department is a frequent flyer in any university legal department, so we see coaching contracts, game contracts, charter plane and bus contracts, bowl game deals, conference realignments, you name it, we see it. The sports junkies in our office could get their fill of fun on these issues alone – and then for a really good time we get to add in Title IX compliance audits and NCAA antitrust litigation. Who wouldn’t have fun doing all that?

And then there are the thousands of contracts we see every year – they run the gambit from $75 million construction agreements to $50,000 concert agreements. We live for the moment every year when we can set aside sponsored research agreements, real estate leases, and construction change orders to pick up the Moby or Bowling for Soup contract. Yes, it’s true that a certain band in the 1980’s used to ask for 10 pounds of M&M’s with all the brown ones picked out (no we didn’t agree to do it; and yes, they came anyway) and just last month a group wanted naked pictures of a certain supermodel and an amount of ice that, well, isn’t describable here. No, we didn’t agree to provide the pictures – they did get a lot of ice, who knows if it was enough. But, thanks to my job I feel like I know the weird quirks and eating habits of most of the members of the music industry.

I don’t mean to make light of my work. The business of lawyering in higher education is serious stuff. Imagine if you will what the work is like for the general counsel at Tulane or Virginia Tech. From personal experience I can tell you that presiding over a campus crisis team on September 11th when we had no idea what would come next was nerve wracking. Deciding how to protect, house, and feed 16,000 students when our nation was under attack was daunting. It was also more a bit like that scene in the movie Apollo 13 when the best and the brightest at NASA came together to find a solution to a deadly problem. Through hard work and clear thinking we made good decisions that served our university well. It’s not lighthearted, it’s not funny, but when you and your team rise to meet a challenge it is exhilarating.

You have to decide for yourself what is fun, and then go find it. Fun for me is finding solutions to problems that are complex. I thrive on variety, the opportunity to work with people, often in teams, on unique and difficult projects. I love working with incredibly smart people – and I get that because I have the chance to work with faculty. I like the fact that I work in a community of learners – where knowledge is valued and intellectual growth is prized.

My advice to you? Think about what it is in studying history that you found fun and use those clues to ensure that you find fun in your work. Don’t settle for something mundane when you can do something thrilling.

I thank you for the chance to talk about my life and my work.

Congratulations on your glorious achievement.

Now, get out there and have a good time.

Nancy S. Footer
Class of 1980