Honorary Degree Remarks - Daniel F. Sullivan

May 17, 2009

For an alumnus of St. Lawrence who was able to return to his alma mater as its president, no honor, no recognition is more meaningful than this.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

As you can imagine, I’ve thought a lot recently about what, if anything actually went according to plan here over the last thirteen years.  I believe that one should start a presidency, especially at one’s alma mater, like an anthropologist beginning field work.  You try to the extent possible to suppress preconceptions formed from afar, be open to what you see and hear, listen carefully for the hopes and aspirations of faculty, students, staff and alumni to see what they are already committed to that could be part of a vision for the future, try to understand the culture of a place and maybe even its soul, if it has one.  Success happens so much more easily if you can find a way to go with the grain, not across it; if, indeed, you can discover that moving to the right place for the future involves lifting up and re-emphasizing values already deeply ingrained in the culture of a place.  Sometimes, profound and necessary changes in an institution can happen much more easily if they are essentially about “going home” rather than “going away.”

“Going home” is by no means automatically a good way to a successful future.  Founding visions and values very often need to be shed or greatly adapted if an institution is to thrive in the present and be positioned well for the future.  St. Lawrence, of course, was founded by Universalists committed to inclusiveness, fairness, equity, equality—they believed that all people are God’s children—and, very importantly, they were committed to evidence-based reasoning.  Despite their worry that because Canton was a bustling county seat in a robust frontier lumber and agricultural economy students might be exposed to too much excitement (fat chance in retrospect), they selected this North Country village to build their university, and we have been profoundly shaped by that choice of place ever since.

The North Country is about having a strong work ethic and a lack of pretension.  There is nothing snooty about the North Country.  There is instead a kind of honesty and straightforwardness here.  We welcome visitors into our homes, and we welcome students and their parents into the St. Lawrence family, an inclusive, welcoming university with a big, generous heart.  What I heard in hundreds of conversations before and after arrival as president in 1996 were hopes that we would try to come closer to realizing these values in our quest to prepare students properly for the future with an outstanding liberal education for the 21st century.  Change at St. Lawrence, I realized as I heard these hopes, could happen with the grain rather than against the grain. 

I heard other yearnings in my first weeks and months here, some of which I tried to raise up in my inaugural address on a sun-filled, magnificent North Country September day.  I said then:  “There is a yearning here to work cooperatively and collegially to make the best things happen for students that we can.”  “If,” I said, “we get all the forces pointed even close to the same direction . . . . . . watch our smoke!”  Boy, did we make smoke together!

Over and over I heard faculty talk of building a “single learning community of faculty and students where faculty teach and mentor students in such a way that they gradually assume the role of junior colleague.”  Already in place when I arrived as part of this vision was our signature and extraordinarily successful First-Year Program.  An issue, given the level of commitment in time and resources to the FYP, was, as I said then, “how simultaneously to set the tone in our students’ first year with a powerful statement of what we expect and at the same time deliver a richly textured, intensive, deep learning experience as a capstone of a St. Lawrence education.”  In the years since, faculty have worked constantly to make the FYP better and better, while together we explored and funded ways to extend its liberal education vision through students’ full four years.  Today we have a nearly universal senior year experience requirement, a major feature of which is a robust program of undergraduate research and creative work guided by faculty mentors, and we have disciplinary and inter-disciplinary majors that are also strong and robust.  A decade of self-assessment research shows clearly that today’s students at all levels of study—first-year through senior year—see St. Lawrence as a demanding, stimulating, holistic educational environment.  Bravo to all in this learning community who have made that happen!

A hot item of discussion back then was the “perpetual question of how much a collegiate education ought to be based in the traditional disciplines and how much should focus on helping students better come to grips with the messy interdisciplinarity of real-world problems.”  “Interdisciplinary research and teaching,” I said then, “is liberating to some extent precisely because we liberate ourselves from the rules regulating truth-claims within the disciplines.  Sometimes that liberation allows penetratingly original and ultimately successful new insights; but sometimes it just results in foolishness.”  The most successful universities find a creative, productive balance of these competing forces.  I saw my role as trying to foster an environment in which productive dialogue could occur and new experiments could happen while we at the same time mined the deep insights of our traditional disciplines.  As I look back, I think the St. Lawrence faculty has done all of this wonderfully well.  It has been great fun to be along for the ride.

What is surprising in retrospect is that St. Lawrence’s facilities, fields, and landscape needs—needs we have spent so much time and money addressing during my presidency—are unmentioned in my September, 1996 address.  I had visited every square foot of physical plant at St. Lawrence that first summer, and major needs were evident to me, but conversations with faculty, staff and trustees had not gotten there yet.  We certainly did get there pretty soon after that.

Finally, I spoke then about the opportunity structure I thought St. Lawrence faced—wealthy enough to be ambitious in what we sought to accomplish with and for our students, but not so wealthy that we could ever take our financial base for granted and become complacent.  Our strategy had to be to find opportunities to get better faster than our competition in all of the ways that matter most to the education of our students.  I said:  “As a former soccer goalkeeper here at St. Lawrence, I certainly know the value of keeping the other team from scoring.  But we all know you can never win unless you score.  So we will be prudent, thoughtful, wary of the downside, but also ambitious . . . . ., goal-directed and aggressive in our pursuit of ways to make St. Lawrence better for our students.  And we will do this while seeking to have a community based on mutual respect among president, professor, student, housekeeper, counselor, fund raiser, carpenter and cook—indeed, among all faculty, staff and students who make up this great North Country University.”  I think we have lived by this vision, even when we have not gotten things exactly right.  Much if not all has, in fact, gone according to plan these last thirteen years.

Ann and I are asked constantly what we are going to do in retirement and where we are going to live.  We have built a home in Colton, on the Higley Flow (the lake formed by the dams in the Raquette River at Colton and South Colton) across from the state park about 14 miles from Canton.  We will live there most of the year—far enough away, we hope, to be out of everyone’s hair but like the large group of other retirees who have chosen to stay in the North Country, close enough to take advantage of being near St. Lawrence—while continuing our summer time at The Chautauqua Institution, with its resident symphony orchestra, opera, theater, and ballet companies, daily lecture series, and many opportunities for recreation.  When people ask:  “Well, what can you actually do in Colton?” I remind them of the annual Higley Flow Round the Island Canoe Race and Town of Colton jumping frog contest, and the great family breakfasts at the HideAway Café.  Need I say more?

At Chautauqua I will continue my participation in three very amateur brass groups where I am the oldest and only euphonium player, we will spend time with family and friends while we think through how to be of service here in the North Country and elsewhere in this next phase of our lives, and all the time our hearts will be with this extraordinary St. Lawrence community.  I can tell by the looks on your faces that many of you are saying:  “What’s a euphonium?”  Listen, then, for a few moments to the most mellow and soaring of brass instruments ever made.

Thank you all, most warmly!