Optimism in a difficult time

My friend Bob is a pessimist.  Bob was a senior leader at another university for many years.  No matter what opportunities or challenges that university faced, Bob was pessimistic about the outcome.  During the years Bob reported to me, I frequently chided him on his persistent pessimism, which had a negative impact on those with whom he worked.  His response was always that he was a short-term pessimist, but a long-term optimist.

I can certainly understand short-term pessimism. The day-to-day problems, difficulties and challenges in our personal and professional lives often seem to outweigh our joys, hope and optimism. Today, for instance, we are grieving the horrific mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Broward County. Many in our community are impacted by this shooting, including 283 current UF students who graduated from Douglas High. As of Thursday afternoon, we also know that one of those killed had just been admitted to UF last Friday and was planning on attending in the fall.

It is difficult to be optimistic about the present when we see in our society and community inequalities and evil, or when we personally face setbacks, pain and seemingly insurmountable problems. Justification for even long-term optimism for our society, community or personal lives may not always be obvious.

One of the issues I face every day is how to communicate the very real optimism, excitement, joy and progress of our university when not everything is joyful and perfect. There are challenges facing the university and each of us personally. Indeed, there are times to grieve, be sad, discouraged and even to be outraged.

I have one advantage over most at UF, and that is age. Time does provide evidence for optimism over pessimism. This year is the 50th anniversary of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive and widespread protests and violence across our nation, including on university campuses. Our nation soon after had an economic inflation crisis, national energy shortage and the looming threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. In the late 1960s and ‘70s, UF was not yet a member of the Association of American Universities and was not considered one of the nation’s top public research universities.

And yet, although much work has yet to be done, our nation, state and our university have made significant progress over the past five decades and are considerably stronger and greater than when I was a high school student a Miami.  We have much to celebrate and reasons to be incredibly optimistic about both the short-term and long-term future.

In his book “The Better Angels of our Nature,” Steven Pinker provides evidence that the present time is the most peaceful in the history of mankind. Johan Norberg’s book “Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future” provides compelling evidence that global society is making dramatic progress in addressing fundamental problems such as shelter, food, clean water, energy, violence, freedom, equality, literacy and poverty.  

I couldn’t attend my friend Bob’s retirement celebration last year, so I wrote a letter that was read at his reception. I shared my admiration and affection and once again chided him for his short-term pessimism and congratulated him on his contributions, which created optimism for that university’s future.

As you face midterms and the personal hardships of university life, I wish for you optimism, both for the present and the future. In all kinds of weather, it is great to be a Florida Gator.