2016 Martin Luther King Day Message from the President | St. Lawrence University President's Office

2016 Martin Luther King Day Message from the President

January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Dear Laurentian friends,

During the long winter recess between semesters, my usual time of reflecting on the past academic fall term and the one now ahead of us was inescapably different. I could not stop going over the numerous, compelling conversations I had with St. Lawrence students about color, race, and difference. There were tears in the memory of those talks I had last fall. The disquieting news stories of intense campus debates from around the nation were also never far from my thinking about the history and my own complicated experience of diversity in America.

Far from believing that our country’s principles or habits about “getting along” are settled, particularly if the only proof given is the historic symbolism of an African-American citizen bearing the highest office in the land or that we have witnessed the final lowering of Confederate battle flags from public buildings, I take exception, nevertheless, to how far we have moved as a society. It is not as far as we have wishfully imagined. The side-view convex mirrors on old cars once had the decal warning: “objects are closer than they appear.” The legacy of slavery and the posterity of Jim Crow are not really that far away. Race matters are not settled in America; the slippery illusion that the big things have already been achieved now fails to convince many of us; actually, it fails us all over again.

The chilling report heard from a visiting author on campus last fall about current voter impediments suggests we are closer to the starting line than the finish line. The unyielding dual presence in our society of criminal gun violence and the legal, lethal force in city, suburb, and small town create feelings spanning extreme caution and deepest fear; the immensely high rates of incarceration in our country, still an essential part of our own local economy in the North Country, complements, even explains, the levels of social distrust in communities everywhere; and further, the comparatively unimproved life expectancy averages for people of color are not merely the small details of public health lab results, but the moral shame of unfairness.

These conditions of life touch us at St. Lawrence more than is often known, studied, discussed, or understood; they affect many of our students personally, often invisibly to others; these realities murmur to many of our recent graduates who have returned to their home communities with beautiful self-confidence, but never enough of it to erase that acute self-awareness of difference.  Because we sometimes have no choice in what and how we learn, particularly from the bright students in our midst, our unavoidable imperative is to meet them where their time is in life, in an age of anxiety, fracture, and fear.

Our imperative is to get them ready with the best ideas they can possibly develop, reassuring them by our own examples of rigorous thinking and commitments to caring. A new imperative, however, makes this year different. Or so it seems to me. The larger circumstances of university life in America, here and in places similar to St. Lawrence, now point to the beginning of something building up, somewhat confusing, possibly divisive, certainly discomforting. The way ahead is not well marked. And yet, can we work together with our students (as with have with them in business skills, by-stander intervention, or alumni networking) to create a different kind of St. Lawrence experience that prepares them for leadership in today’s social environment?

If we ever doubted our efforts to attract a campus population that resembles the world of our students’ globally-based lives, then we are in peril of obliviousness, because our efforts have succeeded by all the yardsticks of representation. But that soulless ratio, of course, is not going far enough. It is at best the first half, perhaps the first quarter, of fulfilling the promise of diversity in its best terms. Optics are not the same as eye contact.

We have reached a flexion point about diversity at St. Lawrence that must examine “belongingness,” genuine inclusion, and most importantly, the feeling of respect, even admiration. At St. Lawrence diversity is no longer a topic of easy relevance that can wait, even with a new graduation requirement of coursework still evolving, but rather, a culture of both diversity and inclusivity must become the preeminent norm on our campus. I promise you it will be hard work, the kind that frustrates for being too heavy, that will strain emotions in the lifting, before we can ever know the satisfaction of a long day being done with the cart loaded.

For Americans whose ancestors came through the dirty ports of sub-Saharan West Africa, their history divides by decisively dissimilar parts. I fear the point has been lost: the decades of enslavement exceed the years of freedom. How does that imbalance of human time still matter? And can a student go through St. Lawrence and not comprehend that central fact of American society?

***

On this day that honors an individual American leader for his towering heroism, the kind that is intellectually brave and physically fearless, I wish to outline an agenda for this semester that keeps faith with the untiring vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. and with St. Lawrence’s recently adopted mission statement on diversity. The University’s standing Committee on Diversity and Inclusivity, co-chaired by Dean Val Lehr and Dean Joe Tolliver, is using the Presidential Commission’s report (2014) of findings, recommendations, and suggestions as its strategic map; further, between semesters, it has increased its membership to include the Athletics Director, Bob Durocher, and the chairs of two Thelmo committees with appropriate charter alignment focusing on student diversity concerns.

With my encouragement and support, the committee will work in four task areas, the sum of which, over time, ought to serve St. Lawrence in foundational, not merely ancillary ways. The scope of the subcommittees will be 1) Curricular and Co-Curricular programming (working with established campus organizations to develop events for orientation, potentially a TEDx at St. Lawrence, and a proposed all-campus symposium); 2) Intergroup Dialogue (training sessions will occur in February ’16, focusing on how to have important, respectful conversations about issues often talked around); 3) Pedagogy and Classroom Issues (recruiting and retaining future faculty; methods of teaching a diverse class); and Protocols and Community-building (campus climate assessments, bias response plans, attracting and mentoring a diverse staff).

In addition, our University committee will collaborate in all possible ways with our neighboring campuses, both public and private, especially in understanding the distinctive nature of our region, both economically and socially as a place enhancing and challenging our goals; it will also share ideas and coordinate activities within our NY6 consortium, as there are ample similarities in our campus cultures, traditions, and social patterns.

We have much more to do at St. Lawrence that, in my judgment, cannot ultimately be accomplished by a committee alone, despite its dedicated volunteers. I have, therefore, asked the committee to develop a new position description for the appointment of a full-time professional diversity officer of the University to begin in the next academic year, 2016-17. The committee will also submit a preliminary program budget in support of the diversity officer’s work. A national search will be conducted once the organizing details are in place.

Meanwhile, I am appointing today Dean Joe Tolliver to serve as the Interim Chief Diversity Officer of the University in addition to continuing his leadership role in Student Life. Rance Davis, Associate Dean for Student Life, will also add to his portfolio of duties in the position of Interim Deputy Chief Diversity Officer. They have each readily consented to do so and will serve until the diversity officer search is complete.

***

I returned a few days ago to a once familiar treatise. It had been many years since I last read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (August 1963). He wrote it out in longhand, so there remains an unedited originality about the work, its lucid paragraphs and big rock phrases. King could have written the purpose statement of a current-day liberal arts college when he exclaimed, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

In that letter he also sharply admonishes “the white moderate,” and he does so with grave disappointment. He got me. Again. Called me on the distinction between order and justice. His tough word about people of mere goodwill stood me up straight. As did Ta Nehisi Coates when he writes in his own letter, “Good intention is a hall pass through history.”

King still speaks from the cold metal chair in a jail cell or from the solemn stage of the Lincoln Memorial. Across a half century, he insists anew that we examine the complexity of our mutuality. If we don’t do that at St. Lawrence, then where? Let’s talk some more this semester about differentness and sameness.—WLF