Fall Community Letter - November 29, 2010

 

Dear Laurentian Friends:

Sometimes my seatmate on a return flight home gently inquires. It may be the store clerk in a distant city. On occasion, the question is posed by a long-time friend from our days in California or Missouri. They each will express the same unmingled curiosity: “So, what is St. Lawrence known for?”

I have, as if reaching into a trouser pocket weighted with quarters, plenty of coins to feed this particular meter of conversation. One of my pithiest responses, however, simply states, “St. Lawrence graduates are often known by a particular habit of mind, that there are almost always two ways of looking at things.” Whether in the teaching of comparative government or environmental studies, quantum mechanics or abnormal psychology, the results defy the doctrinaire or obstinate.

St. Lawrence presidents must also rediscover that object lesson. As Lynn and I were driving back from an Ontario ramble one Sunday afternoon a few months ago, we stopped at historic roadside markers between Brockville and Prescott along the narrow lanes following the St. Lawrence River. Along the Canadian side of the St. Lawrence are signs and remnants of old forts or sentinel camps between the near neighbors of small ports and the bridge to Ogdensburg. They tell stories of military heroics, but mostly they commemorate the great Canadian victory against the United States in the War of 1812. I turned to Lynn with the observation, “Odd, that’s not how I learned this history!” 

Rather, as a boy living and playing in the Nation’s Capital (not Ottawa), I knew well the route of the British soldiers who burned the City of Washington, which survived, as had nearby Fort McHenry; and that the Americans ultimately prevailed in New Orleans, even after the Treaty of Ghent was already written. I had always believed the United States had unequivocally “won” the War of 1812. In my later education I had, subsequently, “contextualized” these years as the twin forces of the smoldering American Revolution and the white-hot Napoleonic Wars. Alas, I was living by a half-truth. The other half was just across the river from my current home—a truth Canadians note well in ratio to what Americans misremember. There was a pre-meditated American invasion of Canada, a causa bella, and the outcome was decisive: the U.S. lost.

***

Even now, there are two ways of looking at things in a historic moment of the present. I have communicated extensively and honestly for more than a year all the challenges the “Great Recession” has caused St. Lawrence to face. The difficulty of these pressures remains real and, in some ways, relentless. Since last year, we have gained impressive ground by making numerous adjustments in our operations to align revenues and expenses in better proportions. Nevertheless, and in continuation of our year-long response and planning, a central question of both the moment and the future is now under consideration by the campus community: what will be the optimal structure, administrative organization, and academic program, both appropriate and feasible, for St. Lawrence to fulfill its mission over the next decade? A special task group of faculty and staff members—representing a second phase of examining the impact of the economy on our campus—is on track to deliver a report of findings, analysis, innovative possibilities, and fresh recommendations before the spring break of next semester.

Until then, there exists a second way of looking at things, of looking at the recession and its much-delayed recovery. It has been a financial storm leaving tremendous damage everywhere. The other perspective, however, suggests that we are also at the start-line of new trends, progressive and creative; within sight are tangible signs of strength forged by adversity, the potential of beginning a new day at St. Lawrence.

For now, I will declare a pause on the sober-sided thoughts stirred by the financial whitewaters of higher education and, instead, enumerate another way of looking at things from our campus:

  • New and revived facilities: the Peterson-Kermani Performance Hall just opened this fall with raves about its acoustic properties and superiority—one member of the Alexander String Quartet said that playing there “is like hearing the first few measures bowed on a Stradivarius.” In another corner of campus, we dedicated the Leet-Hall Stadium overlooking the completely renewed, relined turf of North Country Field—more raves from lacrosse and field hockey players, alumni, and parents. Also, Java and KSLU have new quarters that will surely continue the long tradition of St. Lawrence as a place that rocks and a place claiming the earliest sounds of Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, one of the hottest bands in America today.
     
  • Momentum St. Lawrence: this seven-year-old comprehensive campaign concludes on December 31, 2010as a record-breaking triumph. When the total is complete, the amount will exceed every prior St. Lawrence campaign, the last one by $40 million. There will be more to tell and much to celebrate.
     
  • Faculty: within the last 12 months, at least 10 books have been published by St. Lawrence authors, in addition to numerous papers written and presented, research grants awarded, and drafts of works now in the hands of publishers. Scholarship serves teaching to ensure excellence in the classroom and a very solid reputation among our academic peers.
     
  • Student trends: we have reached impressive statistical measures in the quality of our overall student satisfaction and success with a retention rate of 93% (rate of first-year students returning for sophomore year); our diversity rate also increased this fall (11.5% American-born students, 6.5% international students); and our placement rate for recent graduates (class of 2009) is 94%. Each of these categories places St. Lawrence in the company of the nation’s best.
     
  • Athletics: Possibly, we may have had the greatest fall in St. Lawrence’s storied history of athletic success. Volleyball won the conference title; Men’s Soccer was conference champion and a NCAA playoff participant; Football finished first in the conference and also played in NCAA post-season competition; Men’s Cross Country placed 3rd in the Nationals with four All-America runners; in Women’s Cross Country, Wendy Pavlus successfully defended her 2009 National first-place finish by winning her race just before Thanksgiving at the Nationals of 2010, and is NCAA Female Cross Country Runner of the Year.
     
  • Financial Measures: We examine each fall 35 university “business metrics” with our Board of Trustees. A year ago, we were down or deficient in 20 areas. Over the last 12 months, we improved dramatically and had only four “red” marks on our score card. Our endowment returns and values improved by 14.7% (now $218 million); our annual fundraising regrouped, not yet to peak levels, but in keeping with solid averages of the past decade ($17.4 million with 35% alumni participation); many of our ratios for operational efficiency, including our carbon footprint, have also improved. Always, one year at a time, as our trustees remind us, but this gives us a boost of confidence in our “can-do” direction.
     
  • Main Street: Just opened in Canton at Riverside Drive and the north side of the Grass River Bridge is a beautifully retrofitted office and residential space, once occupied by the Gray Lanes Bowling Alley. Handsome offices and attractive river-view condos “brighten” this corner. St. Lawrence University, in partnership with numerous community leaders, was the “producer” and “director” of this movie with a happy ending.
     
  • Campus Innovation: This fall, coming from special funding received by the Mellon Foundation, we instituted a competitive internal grants program that invited all campus members to submit new project ideas that would somehow, even modestly, enrich the community life on campus. More than 30 proposals from over 60 people were considered. Among the 10 innovations chosen, there will be projects to reclaim, reconnect, and rehabilitate a network of abandoned or neglected trails adjacent the campus; install a “hydration station” in the Sullivan Student Center for students to refill their steel canisters with filtered water, thus reducing the sale of plastic water bottles on campus; and institute a mentorship program for students to be paired with regional artists who will come together around local workshops and exhibits.

***

Since I began with a Canadian perspective, a distinctively different way of looking at the same river and its history, I return again to that point of reference. Although Willa Cather is an American author, her novel about the early French settlers downstreamhas a definite Canadian cast to it. Her Shadows on the Rock (1931) is a story that captures a tough-minded optimism of French-born inhabitants of late 17th - century Quebec.  The courage of these Canadians 300 years ago offers us wisdom in our own challenging day: “They never vulgarly exaggerated hardships and dangers. They had no hours of nostalgia, for they were quite as near the realities of their lives in Quebec as in [France]. They were still in their accustomed place in the world of the mind (which for each of us is the only world).”

Two ways of looking at things: St. Lawrence University is in and of a world requiring consumable facts of life—resources and costs. But we also must remember the view that still holds the beautiful days of our lives, specifically supported by “the world of our minds.” As a whole truth, in the end, it is this world that sustains us the most—a world St. Lawrence consistently offers its students, usually a good map with historic road markers beckoning a second look, sometimes just the mind’s eye catching a glimpse of oceans and stars yet to be seen.

Sincerely,

William L. Fox
President