The Parable of the Homestead

St. Lawrence Magazine Essay - Fall 2009

 

The long road to the North Country covers more than the miles taking us to St. Lawrence University. Rather, travel offers a serious advantage for making adjustments to a college life that exists at the end of it. For every generation of St. Lawrence students, the journey has required the patient study of the landscape, without choice or distraction, while measuring its distances and counting the beats of its stillness. From the windows of trains, cars and buses, young people have peered across the North Country’s farm fields to a vanishing point created by earth and imagination, perhaps to see themselves in the story of extending the human desire for a homestead.

My first time on that road was on a Greyhound bus. From that moment, lulled by the thrum of the road, I imagined what it must have been like for the first settlers. They were a generation born in and of the American Revolution, some of them perhaps war veterans, but if they received pensions, it was not in the land of the North Country. Those rewards occurred elsewhere, to the west.  Rather, the land of the North Country was purchased, not given.

The yeoman generation of America, farmers of the frontier, who built the homesteads that dotted St. Lawrence County, believed they were creating a permanent legacy for their heirs. Real property was the one thing no one could take away once it was owned. They worked themselves old and the land hard in order to have something significant to pass down. County land records prove unequivocally this was their purpose. Time, wars and recessions, however, altered the deed pattern. No longer is there a one-name natural progression defining family boundaries of the North Country; it is the truth of other, larger worlds, too. Today, and for the last few years, two farms a week fail in St. Lawrence County. Now, a parable grows.

What bearing does the story of a changing place, a far-reaching farmland, have on the work of our University? There was a time when the American Dream pictured a homestead staying forever in one family. What do any of us today actually and securely hold to pass down that is the reliable equivalent in symbol and meaning of a century farm? What lasts like that former confidence in land, barns and stone houses? Education remains the one thing no one can take away once it has been bought and possessed.

St. Lawrence must present a new value proposition as if we are keeping a homestead of old. The public scrutiny and criticism of higher education shine unrelenting focus on the cost, often assuming the worst about us. And yet, I believe if universities were redefined as the moral equivalent of the American homestead ideal, rather than a large cog in the market model, there would be a deeper appreciation of our enterprise.

A university budget is a complex of operations, like a small city dedicated only and ultimately to human thought; and because its purposes, functions and expenses must cross multiple lines to make the whole greater, there must be critical vigilance of what works well accompanied by constant review of how to do things differently. St. Lawrence has had much recent practice in these exercises of getting better. The great recession economy, however, now gives us inescapable immediacy and warrant for a deeper look at the quality and cost of our work. The moment reminds us that each generation must labor anew to keep the homestead in the family.

St. Lawrence cannot remain strong on the cheap. Education cannot continue as a national passion and also an uncivil price war. Let’s give the harsh criticism of universities its full run of logic: If it were free of charge and of hard work to attain it, what would it likely become? Probably it degrades. Perhaps it turns into just an obligation, like serving out a tedious term, or it offers the mere interlude of recreation, like the lotus-eaters in Homer, enjoying ease and luxury, forgetting friends and homes, what matters and why.

We have no choice but to face the facts. Because of endowment value loss, we have $80 million less than last fall (meaning we will have about $4 million in lost annual operating revenue); St. Lawrence has invested strategically and leveraged aggressively its resources to transform our campus, but the debt is now a little over $100 million (which costs about $5 million a year in interest charges, just like our home mortgages); our fundraising has been spectacular, but we raised $10 million less this year compared to last year’s all-time record.

Forecasts call for a modest return to economic growth, continuing high unemployment, more home foreclosures, increasing business failures, and caution about higher education spending by families shifting their priorities to a savings orientation.  If we do little or nothing, the resulting deficits will be crippling and very difficult to fund because of our fixed obligations to creditors.

We will make haste slowly in how we address these new pressures. Our budgets are not turned on a dime, nor can they be reduced to a dime. It will take us a couple of years to bring ourselves into a state of healthy and secure financial equilibrium. Our process is inclusive, bringing the wisdom of faculty, staff, students and, via the Alumni Council, those of you who have a lifelong “homestead identity” with St. Lawrence, our teachers and friends.  We seek your special wisdom as the enduring values of a St. Lawrence education and the ways our campus itself, built on land of old family farms, are best understood as an earnest force of difference in the generation we are now getting ready.

The North Country teaches us many lessons about discipline and wisdom: it is the perfect time to re-imagine ourselves as one of its continuing homesteads—something we can give our posterity that will last beyond our lives and theirs, never taken away, never sold out of the family. --WLF