Provost Hexter Selected Excerpts

Provost Ralph J. Hexter
A Celebration of Service

Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter

The Abridged Provost Hexter

Selected excerpts from his speeches and writings, 2011–2020


A university does not and should not emulate a factory, working in a narrowly focused and highly efficient way to produce useful knowledge and technologies. A university will rightly pursue certain practical activities, but it is dedicated first and foremost to disinterested intellectual exploration, a journey guided by the researcher’s curiosity, not by the possibility of profit or practical usefulness. A university is founded on the idea that this sort of disinterested exploration is immensely beneficial to society, and that no other institution is as well qualified as the university to perform it.

Remarks to the Symposium prior to the 23rd International Conference on Supersymmetry and Unification of Fundamental Interactions, 2015

I don’t think we have the luxury, the privilege, of simply recoiling when we are confronted with evil,

in any form, of turning away and expressing our distaste or outrage to some authority that we would like to have intervene on our behalf and “make it better.” If we possibly can, I think it is incumbent on each one of us to take a stand and bear witness to what we believe in. Let’s not allow those who are promulgating and perpetuating what we consider an ill-informed and ignorant viewpoint, on whatever subject, themselves remain unchallenged. If one allows oneself to remain silent, or be silenced, we are letting them “normalize” the world for their viewpoint.

Remarks to the UC Administrative Management Professionals Conference, 2017

The desire to create and enjoy art

has been fundamental to all of human history. A society without a commonly shared reverence for, and engagement with, the arts may be highly advanced in material ways, but it will be deficient in heart, soul, and imagination. It will also be deficient in its ability to understand itself, the people within and beyond its borders, and the life and history of our planet. In fact, if one recognizes these great benefits, are not the arts among our most “practical” enterprises?

Remarks for the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art Gala, 2018

One of the great benefits of a work of literature

is that it captures a substantial portion of the complexity—and confusion—belonging to certain important life situations; it invites us to linger amidst this complexity; and it induces us to identify those courses of action, and ways of being and thinking, that will best serve oneself and the larger good.

Commencement Address, “Ancient Wisdom (sound bites for new graduates),” Spring 2012

I will wonder aloud if we have not done our students a disservice by not teaching them more history.

I do not mean just “we” at the university. I mean in our schools generally. History is more than chronology; it involves narrative and interpretation, both likely to be highly contested. But it must be an unvarnished history, not a triumphalist narrative. If we do not teach even pre-college students to grapple with the many contradictions of American history, we are not preparing them to face the realities of the contemporary world—because why should our own times not be filled with as many contradictions as previous ages?

Any honest traversal of American history would involve, frankly, looking into a cabinet horrors. Where to begin? The internment camps for Japanese Americans during World War II, which are frequently cited these days, constitute a terrible blot on our history. But they are by some measures mild compared to the many other events that are not so frequently mentioned. What about not just countless treaties with Native Americans abrogated but actual massacres? What of the Trail of Tears? Our very own California history includes genocide. Violence against African Americans? The slave trade precedes the founding of the republic, but the lynchings? The Tulsa race riot of 1921? Tuskegee? And what about anti-Semitism, “polite” as it used to be called, and otherwise? There would be no end.

Remarks to the UC Administrative Management Professionals Conference, 2017

We can certainly explode the so-called traditional university

in the hope of constructing something better on the rubble. Or we could eliminate or drastically scale back certain major parts of what we do—like research, or most of our curricula in the arts, humanities, and social sciences. In the words of Florida governor Rick Scott, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?”

But here’s the point I want to make. The thing about a given ecosystem, social or natural, is that it is a finely balanced and interdependent entity, and also an integral part of an even larger ecosystem that contains it. Thus, we explode it, or yank out a piece here and there, at our peril. If we sacrifice the rich and balanced ecosystem of our universities, we may also be seriously limiting our ability to support a rich and balanced and humane society—the kind in which we all wish to live.

Commencement Address, “Ecology and Ecosystem,” Spring 2015

Especially in today’s world, we need spaces, real and virtual, where the diverse noises, literal and figurative, of everyday life are largely kept out.

However else can we read and think deeply?  Libraries have always embodied the logic that the ability to truly enter and experience and understand the other worlds that are captured in books requires close, focused, contemplative, and slow reading. In addition, there are times when silent contemplation of the text inspires musings, even daydreams, which become possibilities for introspection and self-discovery.

This quiet I am talking about also includes the silencing of the metrics of success and efficiency that guide the world of business.

UC Davis Library Town Hall Meeting, 2018

As I pondered the name “British Animal Rescue and Trauma Care Association,” I found myself wondering: What is so special about British animals?

What makes them more worthy of rescue and care than, say, American animals? As often happens with thorny questions of philosophy and language, it turned out that I was inadvertently opening a Pandora’s box of knotty questions. Beginning in a practical vein, I further wondered: Was this association dedicated to serving all animals now or once residing in the UK, or only those holding British citizenship?

In truth, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit in this august company that I posed this question. For only a few seconds of further thought made me realize that these weren’t the only possibilities. Perhaps being British—in the eyes of this still-mysterious professional association—was not a technical matter at all, but rather one of possessing a distinctive attitude or spirit—presumably including that unflappable pluckiness and determination for which the British are famous. That seemed eminently possible, given what I’d gleaned from my reading of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” many years back in college, when I was, indeed, an English major.

Remarks to the British Animal Rescue and Trauma Care Association Conference, 2017

In my ideal university, we engage in dialogue in a humble spirit,

sincerely entertaining the possibility that we can gain insight from our dialogue partner. We readily accept that our own current grasp of the truth may be incomplete, and that even our deepest convictions may be questionable or based on faulty premises. Keeping our minds open to the possibility of a different interpretation is difficult, but it is a discipline worth developing.

One of its modes that I particularly value is something called  “interpretive charity”: when confronted with an idea that seems utterly wrong, we nonetheless try to understand in what ways it might contain some truth, or at least how it might seem to contain truth to others. No need to shout down the speaker of such an idea—indeed, every reason not to. We all gain more if we attempt to engage an idea thoughtfully rather than silence it—and this is especially true in the case of ideas that many of us believe are mistaken or find offensive.

Convocation Address, Fall 2016

We frequently acknowledge, sometimes very publicly, the value of imagining.

We admire the imaginative power to “Think Different”—in the words of Apple’s old motto—that gave us the personal computer, the smart phone, Facebook, and Uber. In a less serious way, popular magazines habitually offer up for general admiration the imagination behind certain unorthodox fashion choices. “Who would have imagined that those socks could be worn with those pants?  But they work!”

Lest you misunderstand me, I am not arguing that there is deficient value in digital devices, or social media, or new business models, or even bold fashion choices—in fact, I heavily depend on the first few of these things every day, and occasionally dabble in the last one. My point is that these innovations reflect only a very narrow slice of imagination’s power and potential.

Remarks to the Imagining America Presidents’ Forum, 2017

Every classicist knows the great poet Pindar, who celebrated athletic victories in his odes,

and also contemplated the significance of sports in the larger scheme of life. I’m not a poet, but if you’ll allow me to stand in for Pindar this evening: I foretell your valiant effort in this contest—and this, in truth, is the highest achievement to which any athlete may aspire. At the same time, I am eager to see you crowned, at the end of tonight’s meet, with laurel—the glorious symbol of athletic victory. Above all, know that your spirit and skill are an inspiration, and honor, to all of us who call UC Davis home—a campus famous for its olive trees, as well as its superb olive oil. Thank you for allowing me to be with you tonight, and have a great match!

Pre-Competition Talk to the UC Davis Women’s Gymnastics Team, 2013

The fact that all of us work alongside so many others who are in different fields

means that we are constantly reminded that reality is always highly complex and difficult to understand. Indeed, this is demonstrated to us every day. I hope our hypothetical vineyard tour is still fresh in your mind, for it may help to convey an important truth. The particular perspectives that each one of us brings to the world, the very thoughts we have, are enriched by the fact that our companions have different perspectives and thoughts—because, sooner or later, in some form, they find their way into our thinking, as well. By processes straightforward or mysterious, we are taught every day that all questions have many aspects, and we are cautioned that we need to approach with a healthy skepticism all ideas and solutions that are simple and easily found.

Our mindfulness of the world’s complexity, and our habit of approaching it through informed and rational thought, are, in my view, among the most important things we have in common. They are qualities that make ours a true university, a universe rather than independent planets.

Commencement Address, “University and Multiversity,” Fall 2017

Lesson seven: Find your spot on the couch.

Sheldon’s insistence that no one sit in his carefully chosen spot is based on a profound truth. There is nothing more valuable, certainly not material wealth, than feeling you are properly placed in the world—where you feel happy, healthy, proud, and able to do your best work. The luckiest among us find our proper place with respect to all of the important coordinates, including career, family, friends, and where we live.

Commencement Address, “Everything You Need to Know, You Can Learn from The Big Bang Theory,” Spring 2013

What are the things in our world that we most value?

By all appearances, very many of them fall under categories you hear spoken of with admiration every day: innovation, efficiency, Forbes 500–level wealth, Beyoncé-level celebrity, a lifestyle of luxury and ever-increasing convenience, and not least important, scientific and technological miracles. To be sure, there are attractive aspects to all of these things, and many scientific and technological advances have improved our lives, some of them greatly.

But what happens if we frame the question as Praxilla did: What things, after we die, will we most regret leaving behind? We might come up with a different answer. We might even come up with an answer that is more in line with the so-called silly answer of Adonis [who said he would miss, along with the sun, moon, and stars, “Cucumbers in their season, too, and apples and pears”] or the words of the speaker [in Wordsworth’s poem “She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways”] who mourns the death of an unremarkable person named Lucy.

That is to say, we might feel that, even today, there is still much to be said for many things that our age seems intent on eliminating. I’m speaking, for example, of face-to-face human interactions, of simple pleasures, and even of tradition. I’m speaking of the ability to sympathize with and value others based not only on their socioeconomic class, or religious or ethnic affiliation, or curriculum vitae, but also on their inherent worth as human beings, and their small as well as great virtues.

Commencement Address, “Two Poems,” Spring 2016

Let me—following the example of Martin Luther nailing his theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle church—

very briefly reiterate my handful of key points. First: Truth is often difficult to discern, is never seen in its entirety, and is always filtered through our imperfect understanding. But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as truth. Second: It is fairly common, especially in an academic context, to hear someone say that everyone has her or his own equally valid truth; or that no one outside of a certain group has any access to the truth about that group. I urge you to approach both of these positions skeptically. Third: Truth is rarely black and white. Rather, it is usually gray, and there is great value in determining exactly what shade of gray it is. I speak metaphorically, not in reference to the well-known novel trilogy and film adaptations. Fourth: In seeking truth, we must assume responsibility for acquiring the relevant facts, engaging in the necessary critical thinking and discernment skills, and understanding all the biases and cultural assumptions that we bring to the table. And fifth: We should neither automatically be persuaded by precedent and authority, nor automatically doubt their worth. This comes with a corollary: if an authority is proven wrong in one thing, it does not mean that that authority is wrong in all things.

Commencement Address, “Truth,” Spring 2017

What seems like a moderately irresponsible course of action may, in fact, be the path that leads to a more fulfilling life.

You may need to take some significant risks to pursue your passion, escape the strictures of obsolete or even harmful values, or have quality relationships with family and friends. As for your career . . . which you have been so careful to prepare for . . . some measured irresponsibility may be the rocket that takes you to great heights. In this connection, I will point out that some of history’s most influential thinkers fell short of our modern ideal of the responsible worker. Both Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin typically engaged in serious work for less than five hours a day. And Isaac Newton—who in this respect was a sort of seventeenth-century Ferris Bueller—benefited from a break in his school routine. When Cambridge was temporarily closed as a precaution against the Great Plague, Newton had the opportunity to sit in his family’s garden and contemplate falling apples.

Commencement Address, “Irresponsibility,” Spring 2019