But Don't You Know? | St. Lawrence University President's Office

But Don't You Know?

Convocation 2018

All summer the chapel bells are silent and the rhythm of the day is measured by shadow shapes, not sounds. And then, the bells ring again when the first classes resume and the first day ends. We assemble to mark the occasion with moderate form. Without drama or misplaced exuberance, like the players in a philharmonic before the concert, we simply take up our positions.

Our opening tradition—the bright, penetrating pitch of the oboe to which the orchestra tunes itself—signals a community’s first principles and lasting values. We need to hear this protocol expressed with fresh energy, but we also must expect a reminder of familiar impulses and a continuing hope.  

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You may know a body of literature called the academic novel. As long as there have been college campuses, there probably have been writers using them as settings for a story, often hilarious parodies, but full of truth nevertheless. One of the best among the serious academic novels is John Williams’s book titled Stoner, first published in 1965, but set around the beginning of the First World War and the years after.

The main character William Stoner was born on a Missouri farm and would have remained working on the farm, in hardship and near poverty, had not a local agriculture agent recommended him for college. He is sent off to the state land grant university. Early in the story there is a scene that I can never erase from my thought about the promise of a new semester. The young college student, lacking in social or academic poise, is summoned by his English professor to stop by the office after class.

The conversation in this scene is sparse, tender, but poignant: “But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner? Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher.” No matter what our job is at St. Lawrence, we are all, broadly speaking, teachers. Our convocation ought to bring us back to that particular personal moment when someone once touched us with an encouraging conversation or example that caused sober consideration of what we were meant to do in life.

I believe that in this line of work there must be a private voice in our heads that only we can summon to renew our commitment to another year. And further, we each have this remarkable privilege, our own capacity in word or deed, to guide young people with the most profound question they will ever hear on this campus, “Don’t you understand about yourself yet?”

Our tradition today surely has its personal terms, perhaps a vocational echo that we each quietly contemplate throughout the weeks ahead. But today also is an occasion to think about how the university, as more than a paradoxical collective of both organized and autonomous individuals, must think about itself and its practical work.

Whenever I have a spare hour in New York City, I often slip into the Met, the Frick, or the Morgan Library to take another look at the European Old Masters, not so much the portraits, but the complex scenes of interior spaces or the open landscape. I like to absorb the whole affect, but I also try to break down the picture into the three perspectives that are usually represented on the canvas in different proportions. There is typically the immediate, the meanwhile, and the horizon. And that also helps me think about our reasonable expectations in the practical and shared work of St. Lawrence in the coming year.

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The most immediate news in the picture is that we will launch this fall a major comprehensive fundraising endeavor called “The Campaign for Every Laurentian.” In that moment when the Board of Trustees comes for its fall meeting, we will announce our goal, already determined philosophically to be the largest in our history. Our confidence to attempt this most important project is supported in the vivid terms of loyalty and financial expression. We begin this semester with $135 million raised in gifts and near-future commitments.

As campaigns are organized today, the signals from the top are important probability indicators of our ambition. We have one donor family signed on for $25 million, another family has agreed to support us with $15 million, and there are three additional gifts of $10 million each. These amounts astonish everyone, including our peers in higher education. We could not make a more powerful statement about investor faith and confidence in St. Lawrence than this phase of planning.

The campaign will address four vital themes—endowing what we already do well by ensuring more permanent resources for students and faculty; develop pathways for innovation in liberal arts learning of the 21st century; deepen the connections to alumni so that the Laurentian experience has lasting continuity that transcends four years and the zip code 13617; and support the best use, structural arrangement, and architectural heritage of our campus buildings. Every Laurentian, every one of us in every corner of university life, will be essential to the progress and hopes that this campaign intends to achieve.

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Meanwhile, a continuing, annual operational perspective requires serious attention to financial pressures. Our campus will take up, once again, the discussion thread of recent semesters focused on aligning our best purposes and work with the actual resources at hand. Strategic budgeting may seem new to some of you, but it is the essential thinking about how revenues and expenses require proportionality. By analogy, it is like the peloton effect in bicycle racing. You win, not by pulling away, but by using the momentum and draft of the group riding in a unified movement. In our case, expenses need to slow down and pull even with the peloton. We all have to ride together, find the right pace and strategy in achieving our meanwhile of operating budgets for the next several years.

The Strategic Budgeting Coordinating Committee will resume its campus project, begun last semester with various campus committees in our shared governance structure, a project charged with examining cost assumptions and revenue opportunities. It will likely prod each of us with new questions to consider and it will take some earlier questions to much deeper levels of understanding as we are compelled to figure out the material proportions of a complex organization. We simply have to examine in honest, clear-headed, transparent terms the way we are structured and set up, because all of higher education, including the famously giant endowment universities, are now facing the reality of what a prominent historian has recently called “a regression to the mean.”

For most of the last 200 years of our history, American higher education, as it emerged as the premier model of the world, is most accurately characterized in financial measures as “a very close run thing.” The prosperity of American higher education that was inspired and funded by the Cold War, extending residually into the decade following the historic shift in global power, was never really more than the illusion of a norm.

The last gasp of passing affluence was just before the Great Recession when cheap money gave us all a relative surge in expansion. It was a good run, but the return of massive government support that infused all of American higher education, even small private institutions, is completely unrealistic now. Rather, the historic norm has been much more economically divergent and uncertain for the colleges and universities most of us attended or now serve. It is a longer history of a disruptive mood in higher education than many of us in the academy may realize. Put differently, our circumstances are not really new.

The history that we need to draw inspiration from is described by Stanford professor David Labaree (A Perfect Mess, 2017) as a system “that was lean, adaptable, autonomous, consumer sensitive, self-supporting, and radically decentralized.” His ultimate optimistic conclusions remind us that “American higher education is organized around an educational market, fostering a kind of entrepreneurial autonomy.” His message to us is that if we don’t take seriously a broader strategic approach to our academic structures and mundane budgeting, we will risk our autonomy and our positive creativity. It is our best shot to determine what a differentiated St. Lawrence liberal arts education should be in the 2020s and 2030s.

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Then, as anticipated, the picture at the beginning of the academic year also includes a horizon. We still get to take the long view, even as we live the “right now” of a challenging campaign target and even as we walk uphill through the middle ground of calibrating financial equilibrium. Our recent success in achieving a strong recommendation for reaccreditation by the Middle States Commission of Higher Education, doing so with flying colors, coupled with the renewal of our independent credit rating, grants us confidence to look out and look far into the 2020s.

Our current strategic map, which we originally called “The St. Lawrence Promise,” was designed to last a decade. We haven’t touched that exact milestone yet, but we have reached the point, perhaps ahead of schedule, confirmed by our Middle States team, when it is time to renew or reimagine the map of the future. We have dozens of new faculty and staff members who were not yet in their St. Lawrence careers when the Strategic Map was first drawn and adopted. We now have attained a critical mass and mix of people in their formative stages of professional life. It’s going to be their turn to shape things in the university sooner than we know.

I propose that this year, perhaps part of next year, too, we organize the research design and the broad charge of a future-casting process that will take the existing strategic map, update it, make it new, and to my younger colleagues, make it your own. One area of highest strategic priority will be the future of our deep commitment to diversity and inclusion. We are lacking a multi-year sequential program plan to address the inevitable growing diversity that will define our campus. The horizon line is moving towards us; it is not really a far distant background in the St. Lawrence picture. This is the moment, born of our recent self-study, to organize this long range thinking and goal setting.

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In the Royal Botanic Garden of Scotland there is an elegant monument to the botanist Linnaeus; it was designed by the legendary Georgian architect Robert Adam. The inscription has one word in Latin and two words in the English translation. It reads “I hope,” the word that ends this talk and begins this semester. Hope is what the founders of St. Lawrence University lived by—the old Universalists often included the ancient symbol of the ship’s anchor, a symbol representing hope, in the stonework, stained glass, or wood carving of their churches.

Hope is the opposite of fear. And though we have many reasons to be afraid, many fears to feed anxiety, many anxieties to stir anger, we are wiser if we give hope the last word. Hope is in all that is immediate, especially our students; hope breeds optimism in the middle of difficult problems; hope looks to the horizon and refuses to live in the past. Hope is a word that a former American president once said takes audacity. My hope is that each one of us hears again at the beginning of the year, “But don’t you know? You’re going to be a teacher.”

William L. Fox
President