President Kate Morris stands behind a podium outside in front of a sandstone building.

Convocation 2021 Remarks

Good afternoon, everyone. It is an honor and a privilege to be here with you today for my first convocation at St. Lawrence University.

We’re obviously in the midst of a heat streak, and yesterday afternoon we reconfigured our approach to this event. And while we will miss some components of our program that were planned for the chapel, I do hope we will be more comfortable with less heat than in the chapel, some shade, a nice breeze, a bit more distance between seats, and no mask requirement. And I’d like to express my sincere thanks to those who worked hard to enact the changes on very short notice last evening and today.

As you get to know me, you will learn that I’m fond of saying that one should begin with gratitude. Therefore, I’d like to share a few words of thanks. I’d like to give a special shout-out to members of the presidential search committee, who are most directly responsible for me being here today. Special thanks also to the President’s Office staff, Senior Staff, and Faculty Council, who have been so kind as to provide an ongoing orientation as I get to know this community. And beyond those specific groups of individuals, I would like to thank all members of this community for helping me become a Laurentian in short order. I can honestly say that every person with whom I’ve interacted since being announced as President Elect on February 4 has been exceptionally kind and welcoming to me, Brian, and our family.

Since that announcement back in February, my goal has been to get to know members this community and to get to know this institution and how it operates. It’s been a bit of a whirlwind, but I’m pleased that I’ve had the chance to interact with so many of you already.

Let me tell you some of the things I’ve done to get to know people, and a little bit about what I’ve learned.

Last spring, I participated in 29 “welcome zooms” with just under 350 members of the Laurentian community. Although some of those sessions included students and alumni, the majority were for employees. Via Zoom, I met with the leadership team for each division of the University, department chairs and program directors, members of several elected faculty groups, and members of several tripartite committees. These sessions began with self-introductions, during which employees were asked to share something special about St. Lawrence. As it turns out, this was a very good way to understand this community. As any good academic would, I kept tabs on what people shared during these sessions.

Here's what I heard:

  • Community. I heard over and over again about the special closeness of the St. Lawrence community. I heard stories of people who deliver food to those who are stranded, to people who teach newcomers to the North Country how to drive in the snow, and most recently, a story about St. Lawrence students who put up a tire swing in a faculty member’s yard because the professor mentioned that her daughter always wanted one.
  • Faculty and staff were especially likely to say that St. Lawrence is a place that will support bringing good ideas to life
  • Faculty mentioned cross-disciplinary collaboration, especially in the First Year Program.
  • Many people mentioned off campus study, especially study abroad. Multiple people highlighted the Kenya program, in particular.
  • A commonly cited special characteristic of St. Lawrence is the many traditions here. People mentioned the bagpipes, the candlelight services, and the first-year activities conducted at orientation.
  • And the commitment of St. Lawrence and its people to North Country and its people was mentioned numerous times.

For those not included in one of the groups involved in these welcome zooms, we did a live webinar that was a conversational interview between Karl and me. You also may have seen the interview I did with for the student talk show, “Let’s Just Talk with Hammi."

Also last spring, from mid-February through June, I Zoomed with President Fox almost every week. I’m so grateful for his generosity in sharing history, context, insight and answering numerous questions I put forth.

Since my arrival on campus in June and my first official day on the job in July, Brian and I hosted about 200 employees at MacAllaster House for happy hours or for breakfast (for employees who work over night).

In the first two weeks of July, I attended classes and held other student engagement events that allowed me to interact with approximately 1/3 of the students on campus for the summer term. Later in the July, approximately 100 of the students who were on campus for the remainder of the summer visited MacAllaster House for dinner. We also had dinner with faculty, staff, and students at the Sustainability Farm.

In addition to these “getting to know the community” activities, since early June, I have been actively involved in the work of the University. I began weekly meetings with Senior Staff in the first week of June. I attended a Board of Trustees meeting at the end of June. I’ve begun regular individual meetings with the vice presidents to learn more about each division. As the new academic year begins, I’ve had introductory sessions with several divisions and will get such sessions set up with other divisions and with academic departments/programs. I’ve taken a tour of almost all institutional facilities, and I continue to learn about our finances and operations. It’s been a very busy few months and is most definitely intellectually engaging to learn as much as I possibly can as fast as I possibly can.

In addition to what I’ve shared thus far about what I’ve learned about this place, I’ve also learned that you did a remarkable job sustaining an in person, residential experience for students last year, in exceptionally challenging circumstances. And although I wasn’t here for that, I was at another institution where we were doing the exact same thing. I have a good feeling for just how hard it was, just how much it took out of you, and just how frustrating it is that although we had a few weeks of tremendous optimism this summer, there has been a crashing reality that although we’re “done” with this pandemic, it’s not yet done with us.

Please know that we are constantly monitoring the public health situation and making changes as needed. As you’ve seen, in recent weeks, we’ve reverted to masking indoors and initiated a requirement that all employees be vaccinated. I’m aware that both measures are controversial and did not have ubiquitous support, particularly the vaccination requirement. Nevertheless, I am confident we have made the right decision.

I’d like to provide a few quick updates on the pandemic:

  • As of Monday, our student vaccination rate was over 96%. About 1.5% of students have approved medical or religious exemptions, with the remainder being partially vaccinated.
  • Again, as of Monday, 79% of our employees are fully vaccinated. As you know, all employees are required to be vaccinated or to have an approved medical or religious exemption by the end of September. If they do not, employment will end with voluntary resignation on September 30.
  • There have been a few positive COVID tests as we’ve moved students back to campus—both among students and among employees—the dashboard is being updated regularly. Given that we have a full complement of students on campus this semester, we have fewer quarantine and isolation spaces than last year. At the moment, the CDC does not require quarantine for vaccinated individuals who are close contacts, which should greatly reduce the need for quarantine space. And also consistent with last year, students who live within 500 miles of campus are expected to go home if they are required to quarantine or isolate.
  • In addition to our entry tests, we are doing post-arrival tests about 10 days after arrival. Consistent with the approach of several similar institutions, we will make decisions about ongoing testing protocol after we see what we learn from the post-arrival testing. Our plan will be informed by recommendations from local and state health officials and the CDC, which are not currently recommending the same types of surveillance testing as was in place last year.
  • In one bright spot of progress, we currently have 84 students on or soon to be on study away or study abroad this semester.

I know it’s more than any person can reasonably ask given what we’ve all been through, but I ask for your continued patience, your continued commitment, and your continued resolve to serve our students and to serve our institution as we begin yet another challenging year.

I’m grateful to the Campus Safety Monitoring Committee and the Senior Staff for their ongoing work to ensure campus safety and lead us through challenging times.

Now that I’ve shared a bit about what I’ve learned about you, and made some remarks about the pandemic, I suspect you are also interested in getting to know me. I hope that you may have started to develop a sense of who I am as a person and a professional. But for now, let me share with you three things about me. And like any good academic, there may be sub-parts to each of these three things…

  1. First, as a teacher-scholar-mentor, I have two favorite high impact practices.

    1. I am a steadfast champion for study abroad. My world changed in 9th grade when I befriended an exchange student who was living in my hometown and attending my school for a year. I ended up traveling with my friend to her home in Belgium for that subsequent summer, and I returned to the US knowing I needed to figure out how to be an exchange student myself. I got a job and began saving my money, and I spent the year between high school and college as an exchange student in Austria. It was one of the best, and one of the hardest experiences of my life and had a profound impact on the person I became. One of the joys of being provost at my former institution was my work to lift up that institution’s Center for Global Education, offer new programs for students, and offer international professional development opportunities for faculty. Frankly, for me, the very worst professional moment in March 2020 was when I pressed “send” on an email to bring back all the students then on study abroad.
    2. My other favorite “high impact” practice is student-faculty collaborative research. Over the years, I supervised and mentored numerous undergraduate students—every semester between 5 and 15 students in directed research, independent study, and honors thesis. Although I absolutely loved being a classroom teacher, working with students in the research context was very rewarding. I’m still in touch with the vast majority of those students who did research with me, whether that was in 1996 or in 2012. In fact, one of them is going to speak at my inauguration in October, assuming we are able to hold that event.
    3. So, the first thing about me is that I am truly a believer in study abroad and in student-faculty collaborative research. I realize there are other meaningful ways for faculty and staff to engage with students—and I am a champion for those other high impact practices as well. These are just the two closest to my heart. But in general, it is those engagements between students and their teachers/advisors/mentors, whether they be faculty or staff, that is the ‘magic’ of an engaged higher education experience. For this reason, I asked that during inauguration weekend in October, we showcase such collaborations—whether they are these two high impact practices that are nearest and dearest to me, personally, or others that are equally impactful.
  2. Second, as a person, and as a psychologist, here are two things about which I care deeply.
    1. I care deeply about well-being. In January/February, 2020, although I was still in my full time administrative role, I had the opportunity to teach a course called “Determinants of Well-Being” to a group of 20 students at my prior institution who were participating in a study abroad program called Global Adventures in the Liberal Arts. These students spent the whole spring semester (at least until they got recalled due to the pandemic) in Australia, with faculty coming over to teach intensive, place-based courses for a portion of that semester. In the course I taught, we studied the physical, cognitive, psychological, cultural, environmental, and structural factors that affect well-being. And we put the science to of well-being to work in our daily activities throughout the 3 weeks of the course. We exercised, practiced mindfulness, savored good food, communed with nature, connected with others, and wrote, all in the name of wellness. Fast forward to the lock down. I heard from almost all the students in that class who told me that even though they were devastated to have to leave their study abroad experience and be in lock down, that the research they learned about and practiced in the course really helped them cope. Personally, I found the same. And mind you, well-being was a topic I hadn’t ever taught before—so it was a learning experience for me along with the students—and we learned that if we put the science of it all into practice, it helped us through some tough times. Now, here at St. Lawrence, for ourselves and for our students, wellness and well-being are critical, and we will continue to place emphasis in that area.
    2. I care deeply about diversity, equity, and inclusion. As a teacher, I noticed when I first became a faculty member back in 1996 that the curriculum didn’t have much DEI content. I developed and taught courses on the psychology of gender, women, prejudice, and stereotyping. I also incorporated DEI related content into courses where it didn’t obviously fit, including research methods and statistics. My research at the time I moved into full time administration focused on using confrontation to address incidents of bias or prejudice as a way to curtail those forms of inequity or discrimination. And when I became a full-time administrator, I continued my focus on DEI related topics. I’m especially proud of the work we did to enhance the diversity of the faculty, to implement a social justice and diversity curricular requirement, and to create the Hub for Black Affairs and Community Engagement. As a candidate for this job, I paid careful attention to your collective efforts in this vein. And going forward, we will continue and enhance this important work.
  3. Third, I celebrate success while being realistic about challenges. Regarding challenges, we have them. St. Lawrence University, like virtually all other small, private, tuition dependent colleges and universities, faces financial challenges. If I thought they were insurmountable, I wouldn’t have accepted this job. This community has done more than most to study those challenges and to begin developing strategies to address them. Because this is a topic that requires more time than one small part of my initial remarks to my new campus community, please stay tuned for a to-be-scheduled Town Hall for employees to talk in more detail about the financial challenges before us and our next steps as we emerge from the Experience St. Lawrence Task Force process.

As I said, I will be realistic about challenges, but also celebrate success. Let me take a few moments to highlight some of St. Lawrence’s successes I find to be particularly impressive.

I’d like to situate acknowledgement of success into the context of my decision to accept the role I now occupy. In my letter of application for this position, which I submitted on November 19 of last year, I wrote, “Given that I have dedicated my career to Butler University, it would be only a truly special institution that could lure me away. Based on everything I know thus far, St. Lawrence might be that institution.” In writing these sentences, I was conveying that I wasn’t looking to leave; I wasn’t trying to escape a bad situation; that the bar for leaving there was exceptionally high. In fact, I wasn’t even applying to presidencies, in general. It was this particular role that piqued my interest. And let me share a few things that were in progress during the time I was a candidate that have now come to fruition, that are great cases in point about St. Lawrence’s success and that deserve our recognition:

    1. Academic Affairs: This faculty and this institution has approved four new majors, two of which have now received full approval from the State of New York.
    2. Student Life:  This is an institution where we are thinking carefully about the needs of our students. As one case in point, many of you are already aware that in addition to our regular orientation activities for first year students, we added several orientation activities for second year students. This is exceptionally important work in terms of supporting and retaining our sophomores, who are at particular risk given their lack of a “normal” first year transition. In addition, we are on the cusp of a new relationship with the JED foundation, which will serve as a basis for a holistic approach to student well-being. I have seen first-hand, and talked about at a professional conference, the way in which a JED partnership can transform a campus.
    3. Enrollment: It’s a tough recruitment landscape out there, but we’re holding our own. On this first day of the new academic year, we have an incoming class of 615 first year students and 20 transfer students. And by realigning Athletics with Enrollment Management, St. Lawrence has recognized the important role athletics plays in recruitment and retention. Each of the past two years, over 40% of our entering class are student athletes.  In addition, to support student recruitment efforts, we we have done a great job with our new website, designed by University Communications with the extremely important task of student recruitment in mind.
    4. University Advancement:  Aside from student tuition revenue, the primary financial resources for St. Lawrence come from fundraising and the endowment. The Campaign for Every Laurentian came to a successful close in June with a final total of gifts and commitments of $232 million. We have to keep in mind that this isn’t all money in our pockets, as the majority of that comes in as multi-year pledges, endowment gifts and future planned gifts. And another bit of good news is that our endowment is the highest level it’s ever been, currently approaching $400 million.

In conclusion, I’ve shared with you three things about me: study abroad and student-faculty collaborative research have a special place in my heart, I care deeply about well-being and DEI work, and I will celebrate success while being realistic about challenges.

Let me say one final thing about my interest in this role. When I was a candidate, I knew many of these things I just highlighted as successes were already in process. To see these things come to fruition after I accepted the job reinforces what I saw as a candidate—this is a place “on the move” while continuing to be grounded in our liberal arts mission.

For me, institutional progress is necessary in terms of being the kind of place I’d consider leaving my prior institution for. But being proactive in the face of ever more challenging circumstances for higher education, was never going to be sufficient to convince me to come here. There had to be something more beyond that, something a little less easy to quantify or even describe. There had to be something special about the character of the community to lure me away from where I was, a place that also had a special quality to it. From my earliest days as a candidate, I noticed that there was something special about St. Lawrence. It came through in the presidential prospectus. It came through in the initial conversation with the search committee. It came through as I continued to advance in the search. I took a leap of faith that it was there, and I accepted the job.

And that brings me back to those welcome Zooms with almost 350 Laurentians, who shared what is special about St. Lawrence: and who overwhelmingly commented on the COMMUNITY. I’ve heard it, seen it, and felt it over and over again. This place has a special sense of community. And I’m truly honored to now be a part of this community.

I hope that as our students have returned to campus this week, their enthusiasm has likewise instilled energy into each of you. I hope that like me, you feel a great sense of passion for your work and for our academic community as we begin the new year.  I look forward to working with you in the coming months.

With gratitude to each of you, I will now turn it over to Dean Karl Schonberg, who will recognize new faculty and staff. I’ll see you again soon for recognition of staff award winners. Thank you.

Kathryn A. Morris, St. Lawrence University President
Wednesday, August 25, 2021
Herring-Cole Grove

President Morris' remarks begin at the 17:35 mark.