“Such a Time as This,” Remarks at Stanford Convocation

I was asked to give the faculty address at Stanford’s annual LDS Convocation, held in Stanford Memorial Church. This is the text of my remarks. Video production is by Ken Allen, posted with permission.

In Computer Science, our traditional greeting is, “Hello, world” So, “Hello, world!”

My task this evening is to join our identities as scholars and saints, and so I want to explain what I think is a particularly Mormon moral obligation we assume as members of the Stanford community.

When I think about what is different about myself now compared to when I arrived at Stanford one year ago, the thing that stands out most is the degree to which people care about my voice. To the newly arriving students here this evening, you too will soon experience this. For the rest of your life, people will care about what you say to a degree that they did not before and wouldn’t otherwise, because of your association with Stanford. Not only by virtue of the name Stanford, but by the skills you acquire here. In my classes, I’ve taught students the fundamentals of directly manipulating the memory of a computer. These are the same fundamentals underlying the infamous Heartbleed vulnerability. This is powerful stuff! All of you are much more likely to have close access to those in charge, and you are more likely to be in charge, wherever you go in life. In writing, teaching, speaking, leading, and in meetings of all kinds, your voice has just been granted a new and powerful megaphone. What will you do with this voice?

Stanford Memorial Church interior. Photo by Eric Chan

Photo by Eric Chan

Let’s talk about meetings. Since coming to Stanford, I’ve been in innumerable of them. New students, I’m sorry to say that you should anticipate the same in your future! My strategy in meetings is that I concern myself very much with who will be there—I want to know their names, their job titles, their backgrounds. I want to know who the VIPs are, and who reports to me. I pay careful attention to where they sit, and where I sit in relation to them. I am acutely aware of everyone in the room. As Sheryl Sandberg wisely advises, I lean in. This is all good strategy, and I recommend it to you. But today we consider our Mormon moral obligation associated with the louder voice we’ve been granted, and I invite all of us to bring a new strategy to meetings. That new strategy is to focus more on who is not in the room.

Because we are there and others are not, do we not have an obligation to think of them and say what they would say if they were in the room?

Esther, Queen in the Old Testament, shows us the way. She had special access to the King that none of the rest of her people had. Rather than concerning herself primarily with how to impress the VIPs in the room, she kept in her heart the needs of those who were not in the room, and she courageously used her voice to speak for them.

In business, law, technology, academia, government–and in the church–are we not obligated to do the same? I echo to you the words of Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai to her: “who knows but thou art come here for such a time as this?”

You may be wondering why I consider this a particularly Mormon moral obligation. My inspiration for this talk comes from the temple. For our guests, I will explain that when we enter that Holy house, we are each given a small slip of paper bearing the name of a deceased person, often one of our own cherished ancestors. In a room on earth where they can no longer be, we say on their behalf the words they can no longer say.

In the meetings of our daily lives, will we perform the same service? If the business plan grinds the face of the poor who have no seat at the boardroom table, if the law serves a few at the expense of the many, if the script has no worthy role models for our girls, will you reach in your pocket and imagine holding a small paper there, bearing the names of those who need you to speak for them? Will you be the one to say the words they cannot say?

Can I ask an even more difficult thing of you? Can I ask you to do this before you are the #1 VIP in the room? As Stanford graduates, you are not unlikely to get there! But don’t wait. As Queen, Esther had access to the King in a way no other Jews had, but her very life was completely at his mercy. She did not wait until she had tenure, or made partner, or her options vested, or she closed the next round of funding, before using her voice. She was as junior an associate as there was on the court, but she used what access she had to be a voice for the voiceless.

I invite each of us to be that voice. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

October 9, 2014


4 February 2015:  Awarded “Best Spiritual Post” of the year for Mormon blogs

Comments

  1. Great talk Cynthia! I love the way you connect it to Mormon symbols and themes.

  2. Simply amazing. Well said.

  3. Oh, Cynthia, this is phenomenal and I have shivers down my spine. Well done.

  4. Glad to know you, Cynthia.

  5. Challenge accepted.

  6. :-) Thanks, Peter.

  7. I loved this message, and was inspired by it. Thanks for helping me to think about responsibility in these terms.

  8. Powerful words, Cynthia. I’m so glad that your voice was given a place in this convocation, and your call to think of those whose voices were not is most welcome. Thank you!

  9. Oh Cynthia!! This is a paradigm shifting idea- you are remarkable.

  10. This is good. Very good. I’ll never have influence like someone graduating from a prestigious rigorous regarded college, but I do sit in rooms. I do have conversations. I will lean in. I am somewhat aware of my privilege and access. I will try to remember to carry a slip, when I sit in rooms, leaning in. I will hold in my heart the names of those not present.

  11. crazywomancreek says:

    This gives me goosebumps-what a powerful talk! I really want to hear from people who were there- I’m sure you changed some lives.

  12. What a phenomenal, succinct, and wise talk. Thank you so much for posting it here to edify us all!

  13. SB2 FTW 4EVA

    super good.

  14. Having a little trouble keeping control of my breathing, so choked up am I. Thank you so much for this. I hope to be able to settle this priority effectively into my heart.

  15. Amen.

  16. I’m just so glad that they recognized the need for you to speak just one year in. Go Spirit!

  17. “will you reach in your pocket and imagine holding a small paper there, bearing the names of those who need you to speak for them? Will you be the one to say the words they cannot say?”

    Wow, Cynthia! I love this so much! Thanks so much for sharing your remarks here.

  18. blueridgemormon says:

    Cynthia – as others have said, this is an amazing, succinct, powerful talk. I’m confessing now, in advance, that I am TOTALLY co-opting this idea (and will credit you of course) as I often speak in a similar setting: to LDS graduate students of a top-10 business school where I teach. Kudos. Would love to talk directly some time to share ideas. Best!

  19. Wonderful stuff. I liked how you headed right into the issue of privilege. Oh, and that bit about meeting prep was very helpful. Thank you.

  20. blueridgemormon says:

    [Apologies in advance for a minor threadjack!] Steve Evans – for 20 milliseconds you had a tongue-in-cheek reply to my comment… I wrote a witty rejoinder, but before I could post it, your comment had disappeared! What happened.. did the black ops folks who censored Elder Carlson’s conference prayer discover your quick wit?

  21. That is just how I roll, man.

  22. blueridgemormon says:

    Wow – and to think: none of us suspected that YOU were the one who redacted Elder Carlson’s prayer! Well played. Apparently you are more well-connected than we thought! Slow clap.

  23. Wonderful, Cynthia. What an important message, and I love the way you framed it.

  24. The audience of Cynthia’s talk is indeed broader than Stanford students. It is perhaps a reasonable assumption that Stanford students will be future leaders and that Stanford itself will be a factor in getting them there because it will bolster the authority of their background.

    But as Dovie points out above, those of us who did not attend Stanford also need to seriously contemplate this message about bringing the voice of the non- or underrepresented into policy discussions or decision making situations that we happen to find ourselves in. Having this mentality of being the representatives of the less fortunate in all scenarios will naturally mute the voice of self interest in our own minds that, as the voice of the “natural man” or “natural woman”, will tempt us to act or apply our voice only in that way that profits us personally directly or indirectly by profiting our venture, to the exclusion of others.

    If we are able to suppress this tendency of natural man inspired self interest seeking by applying the ideas in Cynthia’s inspired talk, we can finally begin to “bind ourselves” by the covenant that the Lord has prepared for us as a way of Zion living — that of “[e]very man [and woman] seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 82:19).

    (We simply must at some point begin to replace Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” with Joseph Smith’s “eye single to the glory of God” or, at the very least, with Adam Smith’s “helping hand”, which even he found more compelling than the invisible hand he had posited in his earlier Wealth of Nations.)

    So the audience of this talk includes not just Stanford students but all of us to the extent that we acquire any level of influence in policy or decision making positions.

    This would, I think, necessarily include General Authorities of the Church at even the most senior levels. An obvious example is the very timely issue at the moment of the lack of meaningful female input or voice at the most important decision making levels of the Church. Since no women are ever present at the weekly meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles, those in attendance must seek to represent them in the meeting. In this particular example, I would think that this entails representing the needs and desires of women to the Lord as a consequence of the office held by the meeting’s participants. An example might be petitioning the Lord on behalf of women who are concerned about the lack of women’s voices in Church leadership because the priesthood is not extended to them. Is there a moral duty to this service given that women are not able, themselves, to be in this meeting or in this position?

    Another example might be leadership meetings in which Apostles give direction and seek input from Seventies based on the responsibilities delegated to the latter. Since no women are present in such meetings either, should not the Seventies remember them specifically in these meetings and represent them and their needs, desires, and concerns to the Apostles as part of such briefings?

  25. John: “Since no women are ever present at the weekly meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles”

    This is true as a general matter, however my understanding is that people can be brought into those meetings as requested, so I’d hesitate to make this a blanket statement. Your overall point re: moral duty to represent the voiceless is undiminished.

  26. J. Stapley says:

    Powerful.

  27. lovely talk, and I am intrigued with the idea of an LDS convocation…do other universities do this?

  28. What now seems like long ago I had the honor of speaking at the LDS baccalaureate ceremony at Stanford. I wish I had delivered remarks a tenth as profound as these. Excellent job Cynthia! You are an asset both to the LDS community at Stanford and the students in general.

    I’m glad that the LDS community at Stanford is continuing to make use of Memorial Church rather than exiling themselves in the ward building. It is a setting that brings an intimacy and a grandeur that our chapels often lack. Bishop Russell Hancock started using MemChu for some LDS meetings such as convocation in 1997 or so. Prior to that I don’t recall us using it. Once we did I think it helped foster a sense that our religion belonged on campus as well as off campus, and also that the sacred space of Memorial Church belonged to us as well as to those of other traditions.

  29. great insights, John H. — thanks for bringing those into the discussion

  30. Thank you Cynthia. This is pivotal.

  31. Former Stanford Student says:

    Thank you for reminding me of convocation! As a student who attended during the days of Rusty Hancock and Alonzo Gaskill, one of my main regrets from young adulthood is that I didn’t take more opportunities to avail myself of the extraordinary community that existed there. One convocation will always stand out to me, when Elder Holland give an extemporaneous speech probably lasting more than an hour. As I left MemChu, I heard a prominent Stanford administrator say that he was one of the best speakers he’d ever heard. I’d have to agree.

    What wonderful memories!

  32. poetpoetpoet says:

    Holy wow. Don’t mind me while I link this everywhere.

  33. Amen. Thank you Cynthia. Thank you also to whomever selected the photo, my high school baccalaureate was held in that glorious building and it is a house of God to me.

  34. Beautiful, Cynthia. Hits the mark perfectly.

  35. I’m moved. Many thanks for this.

  36. wreddyornot says:

    May your iteration of moral obligation sweep through people in every institution and at all levels of life.

  37. So say we all.

  38. Hey Former Stanford Student, don’t be shy!

  39. Fab, SB2.

  40. Thank you, Cynthia. I am so inspired by your words.

  41. Former Stanford Student says:

    This is an excellent convocation address! I love how it highlights how many voices don’t have the opportunity to meaningfully participate in the corridors and boardrooms of power.

    But curmudgeon that I am, let me throw some cold water on its proposed solution (after all, the benefits of a university education are critical thinking, right?). In environments where people are so calculating and career-obsessed that they map out the job titles and locations of everyone at a meeting, will such people really meaningfully represent the “under-represented” at any cost to their own self-advancement? Sharks are not doves, and saccharine words will never make it so. Do sharks actually have a clue about what under-represented stakeholders actually want or need? Who are we to presume to speak for them and usurp their voice? In so doing, we merely assuage our own guilt and make a pretense of representation that doesn’t actually exist. Faux representation is worse than no representation. If we want someone to be represented at a meeting, we should invite them so they can do so themselves. Otherwise, we have no right to solace ourselves through such counterfeit displays of compassion.

    Although this post conjures many fond memories of Stanford, it also conjures some of the worst, particularly the Silicon Valley hypocrisy of people obsessed with self-advancement and “leaning in” who would placate their conscience through platitudes. I don’t accuse Cynthia L of this, but the memories of it in Silicon Valley still makes me nauseous. Whereas Christ asks us to choose between God and Mammon, the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world tell us “we can have it all.” So let us abandon the pretense and not deceive ourselves: what the Stanfords and Sandbergs care about–as do those who aspire to join them–are precisely those things that the under-represented don’t have. Money, Power, Fame, and Fortune.

  42. I couldn’t finish the talk. After I read this, I couldn’t stop laughing. “For the rest of your life, people will care about what you say to a degree that they did not before and wouldn’t otherwise, because of your association with Stanford.”

  43. Another former Stanford student says:

    Former Stanford Student, I only graduated 4 years ago, but I feel the same way. Cynthia, thank you for this — I wish you’d been around to give this while I was there!! You know, I think I’ll just pretend that happened…

  44. melodynew says:

    This makes me want to sing! Thank you, Cynthia. God bless.

  45. There’s a great comment from Blaise Pascal: “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” You have boiled down something important into a very few words. So wonderful.

  46. Dave, a little flattery is to be expected at any event like this! You must be a Cal alum? :-)

    Seriously though, I have personally experienced a noticeable difference in the way people see and treat me. It’s a real thing in that it really happens, though whether it is deserved/etc., is an entirely different question.

  47. Former Stanford Student says:

    Please let me clarify in advance that my curmudgeonly post was not directed to Cynthia L., who I’m sure is a wonderful person. I apologize for the rant generally, and particularly for how it might be misconstrued as criticizing Cynthia, which is not intended. Thanks, Cynthia, for your post and for an excellent address!

  48. Dave, if that line had you laughing, imagine how the rest of us feel when we hear or read BYU people talk the same way about BYU. That is pure comedy gold.

    Great talk, from someone not remotely affiliated with Stanford, except hiring a few grads.

  49. Former Stanford, thanks for your comment. That it makes more sense to have an excluded group join the meeting than presume to speak for them is an excellent point. I did think about addressing that point in the talk, because it’s a point I’m passionate about (see many of my previous posts, my comments in SL Tribune, …) I didn’t for two reasons. One, I had only 5 minutes and it was already a magic act of painful cuts to get it down to the near haiku you see here (which I timed at 5:30), and, more importantly, I thought that anyone who really got in the spirit of thinking about what others needed them to say would naturally realize that often that thing is, “Hold up everyone, we don’t have _____ with us and that’s not right.” So the talk was aimed at lighting a fire in people to develop an empathy orientation, and trusting/hoping they do the right thing from there.

  50. A very memorable metaphor!

  51. A really excellent talk. I love the metaphor.

  52. Bro. Jones says:

    Excellent, thank you!

  53. jsfueston says:

    Sublime. Thank you.

  54. As a college campus reporter, who oftentimes is pitching stories that most students don’t want to think about, I find that it is amazing how different it is, the day after an article comes out. Suddenly, people are willing to name the problem, and at least a few more, sometimes many more, are willing to start facing it.

    I really needed this post today. I just submitted an article on our Title I campus review, and directly called out our administration for lying to the campus community. It took more than a month of work to get people on the record, and I think Teddy Roosevelt might well accuse me of being a muckraker. I will start tomorrow interviewing the 14 students who are willing to go on the record, and as I do, I will also be asking who is not willing to go on the record, and why. It is their stories that won’t ever be told, if I don’t go looking for them.

    I’m also considering running for the Student Regent position at my university. I have been fasting this week, because I am getting close to making the decision. Reading this, I realized that whether I win or lose, campaigning for all the students who aren’t in the room, is what I am being “called” to do. Thank you for your wisdom and insight Cynthia. If you come to the 2016 Arctic Science Summit, (I know Stafford usually sends a large contingent) I would love to interview you. ;-)

  55. Just read this and it is very good. Thank you Cynthia!

  56. Queen Esther Award goes to Cynthia L.–way to represent!

  57. Voiceless says:

    Your results may vary but my experience has been that if I give voice to the voiceless, especially in a church setting, I quickly find myself voiceless – either due to my voice losing credibility to the would be listener or by being disinvited to future meetings.

    What you talk about represents the ideal; ears that are willing to hear the voice of the voiceless coupled with a voice of the voiceless that has enough skill, charisma, and authority to not be readily discounted.

    In meetings I’ve listened to leaders lament over losing members that were born in the church, served missions, and married in the temple. They specifically referenced doubts as the cause. I piped up, “I’ve struggled with doubt, I might know where they are coming from. I’m more than willing to help in any way I can.”

    Unfortunately that alone was enough to “out” me as a doubter . Despite being fully active and functioning in a calling that saw me attending those types of meetings I quickly became a “them,” was released, and grafted to trees in the nethermost parts of the vineyard. I was rendered voiceless.

    The temptation is to give up, to leave the institution that has shown that there is nothing that I can give her that she is willing to accept.

    I believe it takes time for Ahasuerus to be willing to listen and if he doesn’t listen today perhaps he might listen tomorrow. I’ll do what I can until that day. We all know what eventually happens to the branches that were transplanted to the nethermost parts of the vineyard.

  58. Voiceless, you are much braver than I. The example you gave is exactly why I keep those comments to myself except to semi-anonymously post them in a safe place like BCC.