Michael Bassis

President Emeritus, Westminster College, Salt Lake City
Served from 2002-2012

Writing and Other Communication Skills Reflection

Westminster defines communication as: "the ability to convey information in a way that allows the audience to understand the communicators meaning, deepens their understanding, and, when appropriate, makes a persuasive case for the communicator's position. Writing effectively requires addressing multiple aspects of the written work, from the writer’s main objective, and how he or she accomplishes it to organization, sentence structure, word choice, and mechanical issues." 

Among all of the things I have written over the years, I chose to illustrate my writing ability by selecting as my ARTIFACT, a Convocation speech I gave to new students and their parents a few years ago. I believe the speech demonstrates an awareness of my audience, supports its claims with carefully chosen examples, is controlled, fluid and logical and demonstrates control of both words and sentence structure. But the principal reason I chose this speech is because it demonstrates a particular technique for catching the attention of the audience.

Drawing on my Own Experience

Graduating from Brown, 1967








Much of my passion about education comes from my personal experience. I was fortunate to attend extraordinarily good schools: Deerfield Academy, Brown University, and the University of Chicago. But some of the most important lessons I learned at these schools came from painful experiences. I described one of those experiences, flunking out of Brown, in this speech to incoming freshmen and their families. While it was enormously painful at the time, it was one of the best things that every happened to me. It made me think about how privileged I was and how I was throwing away all of the advantages that came with those privileges. I vowed never to let that happen again. Just as importantly, the experience contributed to my growing sense about the importance of helping others who were, as they were called then, "underprivileged".

I had told this story to friends and colleagues and peers many times over the years. But I had never shared it with people I didn’t know well and certainly not with new students and their families. Some people thought that talking about my “failure” would be inappropriate. I obviously disagreed. Let me tell you why.

Making Oneself Vulnerable

Experiencing some vulnerability while sailing off the Maine coast

Aristotle defined ethos as the “perceived character, intelligence and good will of a speaker.”  People tend to listen to people they like and respect. You see that in political polls all the time: candidates who do well on the “cares about people like me” scale tend to win elections. A part of developing ethos is the ability to acknowledges one’s own flaws and failures; it tends to give you credibility with others who know that no one can be as perfect as most of us think we are.  

So by talking about flunking out of school, I was trying to build some credibility and commonality with my audience. For example, talking about my parents’ reaction to my failure gave me some standing to suggest to the parents in my audience that they ought to abandon the helicopter model of parenting and give their students some experience in solving problems on their own. And I wanted parents to know that there were valuable things their student would learn even if they weren’t always successful solving a particular problem they were experiencing. Using my experiences in college as a repeated theme throughout the speech, I talked about the way my experience had shaped my view of what higher education ought to be and what it should seek to accomplish. The learning paradigm we use was not, I tried to suggest, just a philosophical and abstract concept; it was rooted in real world experiences they could relate to and it could provide real benefits to their students. 

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Michael Bassis, President Westminster College, Utah
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