Neurosurgeons encourage MSU grads to commit to an ‘unending quest for knowledge’ and stand up for freedom of speech

Contact: Allison Matthews

MSU graduates at Friday’s [Dec. 8] commencement ceremonies celebrated their achievements and heard from two fellow Bulldogs who returned to their alma mater to encourage the university’s newest alumni to pursue an “unending quest for knowledge” and uphold the freedoms that make America unique. (Photo by Megan Bean)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Mississippi State fall graduates heard from two fellow Bulldogs who returned to their alma mater today [Dec. 8] to encourage the university’s newest alumni to pursue an “unending quest for knowledge” and uphold the freedoms that make America unique.

Dr. Allen K. Sills Jr. delivered the morning commencement address, and Dr. John D. Davis IV addressed graduates during the afternoon ceremony. More than 1,400 students were candidates for December degrees.

Dr. Allen K. Sills Jr., left, rings a cowbell presented by MSU President Mark E. Keenum, right, after the morning commencement address Friday [Dec. 8]. (Photo by Megan Bean)

Sills and Davis both are MSU summa cum laude biological engineering graduates who went on to earn professional degrees at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland. Both also served as MSU Student Association president during their senior years; Sills, in 1985-86, Davis, in 1987-88.

In March, Sills was named the National Football League’s first chief medical officer, a full-time position based in New York City. He continues as professor of neurological surgery, orthopaedic surgery and rehabilitation at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and he has cared for and operated on collegiate and professional athletes from every major sport. For the past 18 years, he has been the consulting team neurosurgeon for all Mississippi State athletics.

Davis is a surgery division physician at NewSouth Neurospine, a comprehensive multispecialty spine-focused practice in Flowood, where he has particular interest in cervical spine and neck disorders. He was named in August as one of the NFL’s unaffiliated neurotrauma consultants for the 2017 season. He helps oversee evaluations and identify players who may have suffered concussions. He also serves on the board of directors for the MSU Foundation and as a member of the MSU Bagley College of Engineering Advisory Board.

Dr. John D. Davis IV speaks to MSU fall graduates during commencement ceremonies Friday [Dec. 8] afternoon at Humphrey Coliseum. (Photo by Beth Wynn)

While Sills admitted he is “not much help with your NFL Fantasy Football team,” he said his New York City office at NFL headquarters prominently displays his MSU background.

“If you walk into my office in the NFL at Park Avenue in New York City today, the first thing front and center is my diploma from Mississippi State University, of which I am very proud,” Sills said. When he graduated from MSU in 1986, he “had no idea what story was about to unfold over the next few decades, and today, neither do you,” he told graduates. “You can be sure that story will involve change,” he added, advising that change is not something to fear, but rather something to acknowledge and even embrace.

Sills offered reflection on “things that have helped me have a happier and more balanced life,” and utilized an “M-S-U” acronym to guide his points.

“‘M’ is for mentorship,” he said. “I want to encourage each of you to seek out mentors at every phase of your life.

“Choose wisely and look for people who are older, more seasoned and whose lives we would want to emulate both personally and professionally.”

Sills said “S” is for service. “There are needs all around us. I encourage you to identify those needs that stir you and excite you and make you want to work for change,” he said.

For his last point he urged graduates to embark on an “unending quest for knowledge.”

“Medical research has shown that we can slow down some of the inevitable aging of our brain by continuing to accept new cognitive challenges, such as reading and learning about new subjects. Keep growing your world—travel, see new parts of the country and new parts of the world, develop new hobbies, explore new horizons and accept new challenges.

“Make your life one of continuous expansion and adventure—your life will be much richer and your impact will be much greater,” Sills said.

Davis also told graduates to be very proud and confident in their MSU diplomas. “Graduates of Mississippi State University compete successfully with graduates from any university, anywhere in the world, every day,” he said.

The 1988 Mr. MSU also advised students to treasure their time at the university and “come home to campus when you can.”  He recounted how living in a new area, even if for a brief season, can be enlightening as new graduates set a course for career and life.

Davis said his experience in medical school living with a diverse group of roommates from various backgrounds and hailing from different parts of the country gave way to conversations about “every raw, sensitive topic imaginable—and we did that passionately, but we also did it respectfully,” he said. “It was wonderful because it caused all four of us to explore not just what we believed, but why.

“For me, our time together didn’t weaken, but rather strengthened my beliefs, but it gave me a better understanding and respect for other views, and more importantly, the people who hold those views,” Davis said.

He warned graduates that trouble and hardship are part of life, and “you are going to need other people.” He advised, “start cultivating deep, safe relationships now” with people who will help navigate hard times or tough decisions with truth and caring.

He also urged, “Commit yourself to protecting our freedoms and especially our freedom of speech,” pointing out that, “Freedom of speech is a topic of intense debate in 2017.”

“I’m going to ask everybody with every opinion to back away from that opinion and back away from all of your emotion that surrounds that opinion, and let’s rise up to a higher perspective together to a place where I believe we can find unity and we can find agreement.

“The assurance that you and I can speak and express ourselves is unique to the United States of America, and that’s because of our First Amendment. I believe that free speech is under attack today in some corners because some people seem to have confused what you shouldn’t say—and let me be clear, there’s a lot of stuff that gets said that shouldn’t be said—but that’s confused with what you can’t say,” Davis emphasized.

“There is much said that, to me, is plainly offensive, hurtful and evil. And I believe we have the responsibility to stand up against such ideas by exposing them and articulating better ideas. But our First Amendment ensures that any of us—and particularly those in the minority whose ideas may be out of favor in certain circles—can express ourselves freely,” he said.

“I’m asking you to protect our free speech as fervently as did those who came before you, even with their lives. May your words always be protected and may they gracefully and with respect cast light, truth and insight wherever there is darkness, lies and ignorance.”

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at