Three Drops of Water

Remarks of Welcome to Faculty and Staff, Convocation Ceremony - August 25, 2010

This week marks one of those assured delights in the life of the academy, the beginning of the fall term. It is the moment of falling in love with your work all over again. It is also my personal pleasure to signal and greet the return of my teaching colleagues and their students. Also, we celebrate the arrival of a new class, 611 strong; and another 18 who join us as transfer students.

 The service and administrative staff often gets lonely in the summer and feels like the skeleton crew of a large seaworthy ship moored in the bay, empty of cargo and passengers, but getting ready, nevertheless, for a long autumn voyage. If you know Dave Brubeck’s composition “The Crossing,” with some great solo work on the alto sax by Bobby Militello, then you know the build-up, excitement, and pulse of the engine room when putting to sea. It captures the joy of weighing anchor and getting under sail while the blue water is calm and the next port beckons.

When I welcomed the class of 2014 to campus a few days ago, I mentioned in passing John Milton, an unclassifiable English writer of the 17th century who was a poet, propagandist, and polemicist, all at once. His greatest work, of course, is Paradise Lost, written in the midst of being widowed, imprisoned, and banished by the London plague. 

In the course of my travels last year, I met in Austin, Texas John Rumrich, a St. Lawrence alumnus, who happens to be a renowned Milton scholar. When I returned to Canton, he had sent me a gift copy of the latest critical edition of Milton’s poetry and essential prose that he and two colleagues had co-edited. There is also another St. Lawrence-Milton association found in the stained glass of Gunnison Chapel—the poet has his own window in the tower stairway. 

Finally, this summer I began reading Milton again after many years of keeping a dormant college text on the shelf next to Shakespeare. Thinking about today’s gathering, I found myself unable to depart completely from Milton, who is not a very likely source of inspiration for good cheer and convocation remarks. Nevertheless, I think Milton may help us understand a few points that will make this occasion useful and not merely ceremonial.

Milton’s epic poem is not the ultimate dark dirge that some undergraduate readers may first believe it to be. It is, in the most general way, about the all-too-human, coming-of-age loss of innocence, but it is also about opening your eyes one day to the realization that you are disoriented, perhaps transplanted to an unfamiliar landscape, and must take measure of some hellish human miseries before seeing again a beautiful rainbow or a clear night sky. “Over the earth a cloud” is perhaps the gentlest of summaries (PL XI: 896). And yet, the hard journey will bring the two travelers, hand-in-hand, into a better view of their green valley, having endured a terrific ordeal.

While I am mindful of our daily privilege to work and teach at St. Lawrence, I am also fully aware that for many on our best days, we must allow this to be a proximate paradise. For higher education, however, these are not the best days, not in the material terms of abundant orchards bending to our reach in the original Eden. Rather, it is a period of our lives that requires us to find a new way of seeing the world as it is and will be, one that has undoubtedly changed and is more uncertain about prosperity and peace. But I am confident it has not stripped us of our best privileges—to teach the young how to think clearly, live nobly, and discover human joy, that they may do difficult things with skill and excellence.

One of my favorite scenes in Paradise Lost is a moment of recovered, refocused vision, a time of adjustment suggesting to us that this kind of human experience has precedent and a residual power to inform us of our own need to see things differently. Remember that Milton himself was blind, so there is a walloping irony in what he is recommending about corrected vision.

When the pair of travelers first looked back upon their beautiful valley, with the assistance of the angel Michael, their view of the world was distorted because the affect of eating the fruit was to put a film on their eyes. So, Adam looks over the world’s great kingdoms of China, Persia, Byzantium, Russia, Congo, Morocco, Rome, Mexico, even El Dorado (PL, XI: 385-411), not yet realizing that much of it is an illusion. Perhaps for us the equivalent pinnacle of glory would be Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, and Cambridge. But then Michael gently interrupts Adam to tell him there are “nobler sights” than these empires of wealth and grandeur. And then, from the Well of Life, Michael puts three drops of water in Adam’s eyes. 

What, then, did he see? What did he see that mattered more than all the great empires, the old embarrassment of riches known in multiple ages and places? Simply, all was not lost and paradise was not ruined:
“His eyes he opened, and beheld a field,/ Part arable and tilth…/ Rustic, of grass sward…/ A sweaty reaper from his tillage brought/ First fruits, the green ear, and the yellow sheaf,/ Unculled, as came to hand…” (PL XI: 429-436)

For many colleges and universities there has been a strong sense for the last two years that a paradise has been lost to the bitter fruit of an economic recession. Perhaps American higher education has had a glib confidence about the garden it has enjoyed in the last quarter century. But as every gardener comes to know, nature, the woods, and wilderness are always close and eager to reclaim what first belonged to them. And yet, Milton is right, is he not? 

The field now in view is and will be productive. But we need a better way of seeing the “sheep-walks and folds,” the fresh opportunity, and reliable wisdom that reminds us “Nor love thy life, nor hate; but what thou liv’st/ Live well, how long or short permit to Heav’n.” (PL XI: 553-54) In other words, the familiar epigram says that what we usually have at hand is more than enough to live well, usefully, and happily. How do we in our financial, “new norm” circumstances see it that way and avoid the trap of lamenting a former time of minimal privation? What are those three drops of water we need to put in our eyes at St. Lawrence?

Last year we made our first major response to a global recession now two years old. We reduced our operating expenses by $5 million for this year. The first phase of our institutional reaction to the economy was a matter of beginning to bridge the operating budget gap, principally an acute financial exercise. The second phase of discussion and analysis that we begin this fall as a community is to be slightly less budget obsessed at the core, though we still face $3 to $5 million deficit projections in the next several years. Rather, the second phase must actually be more visionary and long-range in its purpose. 
How do we keep doing what we do extremely well, yet with a fiscally responsible program that lives within actual and finite resources? What continues to make sense, what needs to change and grow, what no longer seems to fit? Rethinking the structure, programs, and organization at St. Lawrence constitutes the main agenda of our next round of recession response planning. We will have some excellent tools at hand, a new planning grant, and a recently completed market research study. The senior principals of Hardwick-Day will be on campus in a couple of weeks to discuss their findings and recommendations. Meanwhile, I have prepared a framework paper that will be distributed in the next few days to the campus community, which explains what the Board of Trustees, Senior Staff, and I have mapped out as a process to ensure St. Lawrence’s financial security and academic prosperity in the years ahead.

For now, let me imagine with you what three drops of water in the eyes will help us see in this important task that we can neither temporize nor neglect, but  must do thoroughly and superbly. Here is what I believe we should see:

First, innovation almost never transpires in flush times, but only when there is something serious at stake. It comes from constraint more than comfort. Thinking about our forms and structures, whether in program, facilities, or calendar, does not require the grand design or master strategies of building a new city. Innovation in our case must build on what we have, be highly adaptive to what we need, and be soberly honest about what we perhaps need less. We will not always agree, but we must pledge that we not become disagreeable. We simply cannot afford the luxury of a sour mood.

Our common sight must look for the niches of relative advantage. And we must encourage each other to reset our points of view and give innovation the benefit of the doubt, especially as ideas in the community are first conceptualized. I say this because of the familiar habit of some in the academy (and elsewhere) to be instantaneously critical in the most harsh and dismissive terms, a sure-fire means of stifling the generation of new ideas at St. Lawrence. 

To inspire and reward fresh ideas, we will make available this fall to all campus members, a new fund of $25,000 underwritten by a foundation gift, divided into small internal grants, to start-up pilot innovations that will add something extra to the quality of campus life.

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, was cited recently in the New York Times for seeing in this curious day a ripe moment possessing a green field of innovation (column by Thomas L. Friedman, August 4, 2010). “One thing we know about creativity is that it typically occurs when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework of one to think afresh about the other. Intuitively,” he says, “you know this is true. Leonardo da Vinci was a great artist, scientist and inventor, and each specialty nourished the other. He was a great lateral thinker.” Our best advantage at St. Lawrence, our richest resource, is that we have a large population of lateral thinkers. I can’t wait to see what we’re going to be talking about six or twelve months from now.

The second drop of water yields a view that complements what the first boldly suggests to us. We need to see ourselves as a people of discipline, which as one of my favorite ancient texts says is the beginning of wisdom. A university is seen from outside itself as very loosely structured when compared to other human organizations, such as government or business. Its horizontal character is, of course, part of the charm, which we love and cherish. And yet, it would do us no harm to think more consciously about the positive results of a vital community discipline in creating a fresh trend; not a radical or steep turn, but a steady course ensuring long, happy, and prosperous careers at St. Lawrence.

I like something one of Canada’s current political leaders said last year, “Successful societies struggle with their deficiencies and overcome them through collective efforts of will and sacrifice. [This public] sentiment… makes people demand reform, change, and improvement in their [community].” (Michael Ignatieff, True Patriot Love (NY: Penguin, 2009) 176)

Finally, the last drop of sight-giving eye-wash is blinked in gently. It will help us see more clearly that the execution of our ideas must be doggedly in view. To dream or allow innovation, to plan with a collective mind of common purpose and discipline, without also a determination to act would be to see a cloudy future as through the filmy eyesight of severe cataracts. 

Historians of the modern Middle East have noted that the founding president of Israel, David Ben Gurion, was a pragmatist. It was a notable characteristic in Lincoln and FDR, too. Actually, the word in Hebrew associated with Ben Gurion’s personality is bitzu’ist, which means more than being merely diplomatic or able to see all sides, he was someone who got important things done. He was a turbo-charged pragmatist. It is a term expressing the greatest respect and highest admiration for an individual in Israeli society. (cf., Dan Senor & Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation, 2009, 106).

We will require at St. Lawrence, and if necessary develop and train, members of our community to be sufficient as bitzu’ists, people who will get things done, who will not stop at the roadblocks of self-pity or hesitate to build better routes never before on our landscape. It is difficult to avoid quoting Milton one more time, but at the end of the masterwork about seeing, understanding, and accepting change, he gives the best encouragement I know, “So shall the world go on,/… till the day/ Appear of respiration to the just.” (PL XII: 537-540).

The question about envisioning our prospects at St. Lawrence, in a day when many feel a little lost and off-balance, is not a subject of what, but who. Our shared vision for our university is less about the landscape of a paradise and more about the paradise within each person, each individual who can draw the deep breath of “respiration to the just” and realize that our imagination, discipline, and willingness to act will be enough. Paradise was never really about a place, but about a way of seeing inside ourselves, and more deeply into our community; it was never about a material what, but a possible who. This is the challenge I put before myself and all of us at the beginning of a new academic term. Welcome back, St. Lawrence needs each of us, for there is work to be done in the garden.