Remarks to Alumni at Reunion 2013

We Carry On (Reunion 2103)
William L. Fox

Welcome aboard; and welcome back to campus. A fleet of tall ships will be on the St. Lawrence River next week, honoring the Canadian victory against the Americans in the War of 1812. So, as we prepared for your return over recent weeks, I kept imagining it was like getting a ship ready for a short voyage. In fact, I even had music in my head to go with the idea that the campus was a grand passenger ship being swabbed, scrubbed, and polished for our reunion guests.

When he was about 80 years old, the piano jazz great Dave Brubeck produced an album of original compositions called “The Crossing,” which evokes the first moments of an ocean liner’s departure from its berth and harbor. It’s an intense musical vision of a ship setting sail, engines roaring, bells and fog horns sounding, the whole affect up-tempo. Now, as a college president in the middle of this imaginary scene, I need to find my equivalent place in the moment of launching the tour.

When I was a boy, our neighborhood was formed by houses built close to each other and numerous families with all their children near in age. Not every family had the same dinner hour, but every family had the same routine of summoning the children to the table from the outdoors. There were dinner bells of different pitches and cadences. Fathers who could do bird calls or whistle loudly through their teeth brought the family table to order. But in my family, we were called home by a very distinguishable signal that no one but the Foxes had found or heard. My father was never in the Navy, but somehow he had acquired and learned to use a boatswain’s pipe to gather us for dinner. I doubt any of his boatswain’s calls were in official use by the U. S. Navy, but his own sequence of high-pitched notes was a reliable message to deliver all hands on deck.

An old memory gives me a wise image of my actual job this morning. I’m the boatswain piping you aboard, a musical short cut without a gun salute and band. In Navy parlance, this ceremony would be called “tending the side” when a party of sailors would hoist visiting officers in a bosun’s chair to be welcomed on deck. Before ships had public address systems, it was also the boatswain’s pipe that alerted crews to important messages that needed to circulate within the ship, such as “heave around,” “carry on,” or “pipe down.” In a fashion, a college president at reunion is really a boatswain, first to salute you and then to call a few things to your notice.

For the last two years, we have set a course for ourselves called the “St. Lawrence Promise,” a strategic map for the university’s growing reputation, financial strength, and campus attractiveness. This ambition, you need to know, was born out of the headwinds and tall waves of a major recession, and not during the calm seas of a prosperous voyage. Since we started with our map, the progress has been in both pace and result very impressive. Dozens of examples are featured in all the activity reports we publish and post, but let me cite a few of the most recent developments.

Our commitment to the academic mission must always be expressed in goal and effect by superlative terms. St. Lawrence has done many pioneering things in its history—getting ahead of its peers in physics, environmental studies, Canadian studies, Africa study abroad, and first-year programming. With secure ballast in the liberal arts we can be innovators. Our most recent off-campus programs are daring, exciting, and successful. The New York City Semester, after only two years, has now changed the lives of 45 St. Lawrence students who have advanced in confidence and opportunity. We just launched a Sustainability Semester using the North Country land itself as an experimental station for planetary issues concerning energy, water, food, climate, public policy, and economics.

Our latest news in academic innovation awaits the consent of New York State regents. We will add a new major called “Business in the Liberal Arts.” The curriculum will not be anything like undergraduate business programs, which are typically lacking in cultured breadth. Our program will be built on a double-major model that will include internship expectations.

There is much more to tell about the many avenues of learning today at St. Lawrence, but one major article of faith in our work is the university’s ability to attract a gifted faculty. More than half of them are new in the last ten years. Our faculty, like the students we also attract, are multi-dimensional in their lives and interests. We have banjo pickers who teach quantum mechanics, neuroscientists who play volleyball, and artists who can land a muskie out of the Grasse River.

Our enrollment is gradually growing. We added physical capacity over the last decade to accommodate a larger critical mass of students. And our careful planning is paying off as our most recent entering classes are the largest in 35 years. We now have 2400 students, but have mapped ourselves to reach 2500 in the next few recruiting seasons.

This incremental increase may not seem like rapid or high growth, but let me help you understand how important and brave it is for us attempt this move. It is important for us to understand that for many students thinking at all about a smaller residential college (an overall percentage of the total that is actually shrinking) the definition of “smaller” is much larger than it used to be.

Surveys of high school sophomores ask what they mean by “smaller” in their size preference; today, the common baseline answer is 5000. The market definition of small has expanded. St. Lawrence, to remain appealing and competitive, simply needs to populate its activities and majors with enough students to create a community of multiple connectedness. The first-year class arriving in August will number 640, with 10% of them traveling here as international students and another 25% coming from states outside the New York and New England region. Over 90% of our students will benefit from some form of financial assistance.

They come eager to explore, learn, and be involved. Our varsity athletic program runs 32 teams and claims 35% of our students as participants. Our equestrian team just won the national championship for the second year; our squash team includes the number 1 men’s singles player in the nation. We have men and women All-Americas in track and field. And we were the only hockey team in the nation with two finalists for the Hobey Baker Award this spring.

In March, a St. Lawrence alumnus returned to campus as a guest lecturer. He has practiced law for many years and now serves on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School. He wrote me recently about the kind of students we are attracting: “Many law students become good lawyers and earn outstanding salaries, but the great lawyers, the ones who make a difference, are those for whom law is a passion and for whom the word ‘altruism’ beats in the blood. And that is what I found at St. Lawrence…in the classes I taught. I found in those students a real passion. Had I met them in the late ‘60s, I would have wanted to know them.”

Our strategic map now has within it a new master plan for the campus. We are sufficiently built out, so most of our future projects will be to restore and modernize structures requiring close attention for better energy conservation and space flexibility. Meanwhile, our residential facilities will demand considerable improvements for the next generation to be housed appropriately. Except for students studying abroad, fewer than 40 students live off campus in Canton—reflecting student preferences, not St. Lawrence policy. In order to do residential remodeling over time, the sequencing of projects will require swing space, that is, a place for students to sleep and study while older buildings are being worked on. The vast majority of our students today live in campus facilities that are 50 to 85 years old. In fact, the last time St. Lawrence planned to build a traditional residence hall (Lee and Rebert), the class of 1963 was in its senior year.

Since some of you have been away for 50 years, you may have noticed that we’ve recently moved a little earth on campus, actually a parking lot next to the Quad. In that hole in the ground, just opened up a few weeks ago, are the beginnings of a new residence hall. Our master planners insisted that we build from within, as only that kind of architectural statement will keep our community vitality in full measure. We were specifically warned against “suburbanizing” the campus. So, with a classic, elegant design that will capture the best and most favored architecture already existing on campus, we will construct a residence hall for 150 students, with a mix of singles, doubles, and triples; perhaps, most importantly for future reunion classes, the rooms will include private baths and air conditioning.

The building façade will be constructed entirely of natural stone, similar to Gunnison Chapel, but with a metal standing seam roof. It will be built to LEED standards of excellence, including the maximum one-hundred year life expectancy, and a sustainable, hidden-from-view geothermal system for heating and cooling the building. Two more important points to make about this wonderfully exciting project: not one square-foot of the Quad will be lost; it’s next to the Quad, but not on it. And, because I know you will ask, it will cost about $13 million. We are not taking on any additional debt for this project, but rather, we are confidently going down the old-fashioned path of fundraising for the total expense. Already, we have 35% of the budget covered. No university capital priority right now is higher than this one, so if you’re seeking a significant, worthwhile new cause, I can recommend a beautiful opportunity.

Two weeks ago, Laurentian affection and pride was supremely exhibited in the annual custom of our commencement exercises. In giving you a report on the conditions, status, and hopes of your alma mater, perhaps the truest measure is the graduating class. I will miss them, as you were once missed by other presidents. They leave St. Lawrence absolutely loving this place. One father wrote me, “The young men and women graduating were set off on “the river” just right… [And] I will be a St. Lawrence supporter [forever] going forward.” Another father had this to say, “There is no better feeling than to know your child is growing academically, spiritually, socially; and he’s happy (really happy) doing it.”  

The final cut on Dave Brubeck’s album “The Crossing” is based on a Langston Hughes poem called “Dreams.” The last line scans, “Hold fast to dreams/ For when dreams go/ Life is a barren field/ Frozen with snow.”

We know all about snow covered fields in the North Country, but we also know this land as the ground of abundant dreams, inspiring voices, lifelong friendships, and the lasting memories as faint as a boatswain’s call, “to carry on.” Thanks for coming home.