Pepperdine’s Sea-Change, and Mine

By Darryl Tippens
Provost

Situated as it is on the magnificent Pacific coast, Pepperdine naturally makes much of its location. We are a “Pacific Rim” university.

Our school colors are on glorious display most evenings—as an oversized sun, against the backdrop of a blue-and-orange sky, slips gently into the waters. We might be forgiven if we are tempted to think, for a moment, that God loves the Waves in a very special way.

But oceans are fickle, tricky, and dangerous. In the Bible, the sea is often portrayed as a place of chaos and turmoil—the domain of scary monsters like Leviathan and Behemoth. As Jonah and the disciples on the Sea of Galilee learned, large bodies of water signal danger.

Even after 13 years of daily observation, I am still stopped in my tracks by the drama of this magical Pacific panorama. I have learned that the ocean can look very different from day to day. Sometimes the blue is so intense it hurts my eyes; other days it’s a somber steel gray. Within minutes it can change dramatically.

William Shakespeare had a name for this feature of the ocean—both to alter quickly and to alter those who get near it. He invented the term “sea-change,” which signifies a swift metamorphosis,
a surprising alteration of things. One might say, for example, that higher education is undergoing a sea-change.

To live is to encounter tempests. There is no other way forward. In Shakespearean (and biblical) terms storms produce something rich and strange—something beautiful beyond imagination. That is the story of Pepperdine University and its people.

Of all the institutions in the world, Pepperdine should understand the concept of “sea-change.” It’s a fair question: how are we handling the sea-change occurring in higher education? I think the English Bard provides a clue to the answer.

In Shakespeare’s last great play, The Tempest, a young man, Ferdinand, supposes that his father has drowned in a great storm. The youth hears a mysterious melody sung by an airy spirit named Ariel:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange. . . .

 

As it turns out, Ferdinand’s father has not drowned, but he has been radically changed by the ordeal. Though his body was not turned into coral or pearl, his metamorphosis is far more wonderful. His heart underwent a redemptive, baptismal renewal.

Reflecting on my years at Pepperdine, I am struck by the number of “tempests” we have endured. The events of 9/11 came early in my days at the University. More recently the great economic tsunami (the “Great Recession” of 2008) hit, the effects of which continue to linger. There have been other tempests and transitions as well. I think especially of the passing of dear friends—faculty, staff, students, board members, and their spouses.

Each fall we celebrate the milestones of our faculty and staff. We always conclude with a ceremonial toast to our retirees, as strains of the poignant Celtic “The Parting Glass,” plays:

So fill to me the parting glass
Good night and joy be to you all.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not, I’ll gently rise and softly call
Good night and joy be with you all.

 

The annual departures of beloved colleagues are also part of Pepperdine’s ceaseless sea-change.

Lest we turn melancholy, though, we should recall the key line of Ariel’s song. Everything that undergoes a sea-change, he sings, turns “into something rich and strange.” Expect a happy outcome! Something more exquisite than coral or pearl will emerge from the storm.

This leads me to a few observations about Pepperdine’s amazing story. Our institution and its people have gone through—and continue to go through—choppy waters, squalls, and even the occasional “perfect storm.” Yet we sail on. Our leaders steer the institutional ship exceedingly well. This is seen in the best of captains, President Benton, who has been my personal “Lord Nelson.” The quality of our faculty and students has never been better. The commitment to the Christian mission is clear. The aptly christened “Pepperdine Voyage,” that decade-long investment by the Lilly Endowment to enhance the mission, has been central to our sea-change. The opportunities to expand the University’s reach have never been better, through new modes of delivery, new programs and institutes, and new campuses around the globe.

As my term of service draws to a close, my heart is filled with gratitude and wonder at how the journey has led to my own personal sea-change. The tasks have seldom been easy, but they have challenged me to grow. The kindnesses, the forgiveness, and the encouragement, which I have received so often, remind me of another Shakespearean play in which someone declares: “Tempests are kind and salt waves fresh in love.” The paradox is that tempests (a metaphor for trial and testing) are not ultimately detrimental, but the prelude to something better.

To live is to encounter tempests. There is no other way forward. In Shakespearean (and biblical) terms storms produce something rich and strange—something beautiful beyond imagination. That is the story of Pepperdine University and its people.

When someone yells “Go Waves!” with just a little imagination you might hear more than the cry of a sports fan. “Go Waves!” could be code for the very genius of this University by the sea. “Go Waves!” reminds me what we all have been called to do when the squall hits—to embrace the challenge and expect, in faith, a positive, transformative sea-change. That is what I have learned during my Pepperdine voyage. May it be so for those who follow.

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