Call Me When You Get It

Remarks of Welcome to Faculty and Staff, Convocation Ceremony - August 29, 2012

 

I trust Garrison Keillor’s literary judgment and sensibilities. He looks out for the people in liberal arts places, particularly English majors. His taste has moved past the 1960s canon of his own university days. He now calls T. S. Eliot “the great stuffed owl,” Walt Whitman “the typhoid Mary of American lit,” and about reading poems of that “gasbag” Allen Ginsburg, he says it is “like hiking across North Dakota. I stopped just beyond Fargo.” 

Keillor recommends many contemporary, living poets, most of them not yet in the anthologies of college texts. David Budbill, for example, lives nearby in northern Vermont and gives us a poem that fits my mood and purpose today. This is not the first time I have shared it with an audience, but I come to it now because it frames all that we hope will magically transpire for both teachers and students in a vibrant liberal arts community. Budbill’s poem is named “The Three Goals.”

The first goal is to see the thing itself
in and for itself, to see it simply and clearly
for what it is.
No symbolism, please.

The second goal is to see each individual thing
as unified, as one, with all the other
ten thousand things.
            In this regard, a little wine helps a lot.

The third goal is to grasp the first and the second goals,
to see the universal and the particular,
simultaneously.
            Regarding this one, call me when you get it.

From the larger perspective of the university, and not just the ground-level of a single class or department existing within it, St. Lawrence now possesses a confident ambition in setting its current goals. The St. Lawrence Promise, as we are calling our anchor text developed by the community a year ago, strategically maps the way ahead using pencil lines, not indelible ink. By any measure of metes and bounds, we have already covered great lengths of progress in a short amount of time. I would briefly mention three university goals that a year ago at this same occasion were still conceptual. Other goals, of course, are also in the picture and are mutually inclusive in the overall promise we are making ourselves and our students.

Our first goal is to “advance an innovative and distinctive liberal arts curriculum.” This hortatory declaration has all the qualities of a sentence right out of Cervantes. All the illusions and all the adversarial windmills Don Quixote battled and charged can be imagined in a campus trying to bring about reform in its curriculum. A few years ago, Harvard University attempted such a feat, pursued the hand of Dulcinea, and by most accounts fell flat and short of its ambition. Many observers said that Harvard simply and miserably failed. One of the faculty leaders at Harvard lamented at the time, “We are just not accustomed to thinking about education in general terms. It’s not our specialty.”

Louis Menand who is a member of both the Harvard faculty and the staff of The New Yorkermagazine says that “general education is, historically, the public face of liberal education.” And yet, on its face, something so basic should not really get so messy, as it does at many universities. Menand explains its provocative and paradoxical nature, “liberal arts faculties want to own general education and to have little to do with at the same time.” His best and most revealing quip of all is an insider’s wisecrack: reforming “the contemporary university is like trying to get on the Internet with a typewriter.” There are legions of presidents, deans, and professors around the country who are on their home campuses muttering to themselves, “call me when you get it.”

Isn’t it a wonderful feeling to be exceptional? As a historian, I am generally very skeptical of interpretive theories that claim exceptionalism. But the St. Lawrence faculty has accomplished a significant singular and unifying goal when it voted in new graduation requirements that express the promise of a liberal arts education in ways that will make many of our peer institutions jealous. One of the most differentiating features of our new core curriculum is the inclusion and expectation of environmental literacy; fewer than 5% of all American universities have a similar requirement.

One of St. Lawrence’s best attributes is its spirit of innovation. We launched the New York City Semester last year and will start another off-campus program in January, calling it the Sustainability Semester. These are also recent examples of St. Lawrence “getting it,” because in many quarters of the academy there abides a superstition that the experiential is the enemy of authentic liberal learning. We have many more roads to explore this year, perhaps none as important as a program we are tentatively calling Career Connections.

A second major goal is to expand the reach of admissions. In numeric terms, we have set targets that increase our recent first-year average classes by 40 students. For the second year in a row, we have pierced the bull’s eye and also nailed our standards for quality. Our projections for the next two or three years still show our total enrollment as one never exceeding a 14:1 student-faculty ratio. This is no light accomplishment given the hard facts that many outstanding liberal arts colleges did not “make” their classes this year. In our case, we not only met a challenging goal, including the necessity of net tuition gains, but we also have realized all-time historic highs in recruiting for diversity. Our incoming class is 14% U.S. students of color and 8% international. St. Lawrence has never before reached a diversity ratio this high. No need to call. We get it.

And yet, there is a continuing need to double down on our work to make diversity, inclusivity, and pluralism a deeper, more abiding constant in our community of learning. We owe our students a vibrant campus, a wide range of courses, and a multitude of conversation points that will shape their better understanding of the differentness that often reveals a universal human sameness. I believe we may be headed toward a new phase of shared work in building a diverse community; my own hope is that it will be sustained by a norm as natural and common as any human appetite, less self-conscious and absent the self-righteous. We must, however, remain active in our plans and efforts to be so. I hope this year we will organize a fresh campus conversation within our existing university structures or committees to imagine how best to continue this all-important progress.

A third major goal I wish to mention is about the land and buildings of St. Lawrence University. Opinions are always strong about the curriculum and perhaps equally energetic about the institution’s identity and ability to attract the most promising students. How the campus functions, how it looks, how it flows, how it coheres, and how it explains us to others are also the questions that surely can stir the passions. We will soon complete a comprehensive analysis of all our working and living spaces, the condition of our buildings, and the future need for new or restored facilities. The master plan has already benefitted from hundreds of people taking an interest and expressing ideas. Soon, a draft of the report, its findings and recommendations, will invite further response. Our approach has been open and the plan itself, when presented to the Board in October, will remain flexible, something to update or change each year as we complete various projects. Your own claim of tenancy and stewardship is genuine. No need to call. We get it.

Nevertheless, dreaming about this landscape risks a self-defeating disillusionment because of the totality and scale in all the choices we must consider. Our boldness to build or remodel will be governed by our finite ability to pay for projects as we go, not by our capacity to incur more debt or reduce the size of staff or jack up the comprehensive fee. If you know the history of Oxford University, there is a long record of never-built plans owing to architectural indecision, financial limitations, institutional indifference, or rejected design. On this topic, and perhaps many others, it’s been said that the Oxford academic culture is “a hotbed of cold feet.” Our own history about caring for St. Lawrence’s idyllic campus is nicer and braver than that. We are well positioned to make choices and flourish even without a fully finished city on the hill.

Our goals, of course, are set against the large-picture status of higher education in America. This is not a time of plenty and prosperity for universities and colleges. Rather, the general conditions remain dangerous and uncertain. A few weeks ago an article in The Economistreported the systemic difficulty and financial weakness at a growing number of American institutions. The writer says, “a crisis…has been brewing for years….Four-year residential colleges cannot keep on raising their fees faster than the public’s capacity to pay them…. Universities that fail to prepare for the hurricane ahead are likely to be flattened by it.”  

I assure you that we are not in the path of a hurricane, though we must remain extremely vigilant about the public’s waning confidence in liberal arts education. That is not a passing cloud raining somewhere else. If St. Lawrence did not have a map, lacked a belief in its own promise, or saw its reputation reversing, there would be much more to fear. While we should never fail to respect the winds and waves in the market and economy that affect our weather, our story, about the amazing things our young graduates do and how well prepared they are in the doing, must be told over and over by each of us, to each other, and far beyond ourselves. Residential liberal arts colleges are now on the defensive everywhere, and if we cannot or do not speak up, then who will? Taking voice and action reduces the protracted worry brought by otherwise cold, sober forecasts. We are good, really good at what we do. And we are worth it. Please say that to your neighbor who has bought the false stereotype that a liberal arts education is a disposable luxury.

Rather, our kind of education cannot be fairly judged only by the extrinsic immediacy of high-paying jobs or the net worth of 30-year-old alumni. A retired member of the St. Lawrence faculty wrote to me recently that he hoped today’s faculty and university leaders had the courage to tell parents, who are overwrought in their desire to protect their children from materialistic fears,  and who are questioning what a college education is for, that “Money is not life’s report card.”

Last spring, our new vice president for advancement, Laura Ellis, was having dinner with a group of students. When she asked them what they liked best about St. Lawrence, a young woman said, “I can’t really put my finger on it, but I know I found my soul-mate school.” Our convocation represents an important ritual attempt to comprehend what we do that really matters.

We know that Aristotle asked himself all the time what produced virtue? The first answer he gave, you may recall, says virtue is “acting in accord with correct reason.” And that carried him a long way, as we, too, insist that empirical and logical reasoning are foremost. Then, if you examine his actual list of virtues, you see the majority of them have a certain quality of feeling: liberality, magnificence, ambition, gentleness, friendliness, and even wittiness. The sum and centerpiece he calls, “greatness of soul.”

We are a soul-mate school; it’s our invisible recipe, the best ingredient of our secret sauce. All over campus, each of you is the magician, the alchemist, the provocateur, the pontifex, the teacher. Your involvement in a young person’s life has certain goals; especially at a moment when a singular focus cracks open other particulars to glimpse suddenly, potentially something universal; it happens instantly and maybe simultaneously with your own fresh discovery.

Call me when you get it. The line may be busy because of what St. Lawrence is and hopes to be.