The Imperative of the Attentive | St. Lawrence University President's Office

The Imperative of the Attentive

Remarks at Convocation - August 24, 2016

At a certain point in life, a hundred years past is not so far away. One of my odd jobs in the years I was a student at St. Lawrence was to serve as the occasional driver for Atwood Manley who had graduated from the university in 1916, a full century before today’s opening of the new term. He had been a newspaper publisher in Canton, as had his father before him, a paper once owned by Frederic Remington’s family. Atwood lived most of his long life on Judson Street, so he could recite extensive local lore and tell reliable stories going back to the founding of the university in the 1850s.

The year 1916 was also an election year in the U.S., producing an intense campaign and closely-run contest, barely won by a former college football coach who had also been a controversial college president. Woodrow Wilson’s former student and Republican opponent, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes, carried St. Lawrence County by nearly 70%. It was the first time since Andrew Jackson, however, that a Democrat had been elected to serve a second term in The White House. In the background of this milestone of American political history, was the second year of the most extensive war ever fought in Europe. The Battle of the Somme launched in July 1916 and lasting five months, through Election Day in America, resulted in 300,000 soldier deaths, counting the combined losses between the two enormous armies.

The St. Lawrence Class of 1916 apparently had very few of these far away events on its mind. Atwood Manley told the story of the class wishing to forego the annual planting of a tree, deciding instead to stage one of the all-time great campus pranks. In the stealth of a midnight hour, members of the class, fueled by a quart of Canadian whisky, removed the 1856 cornerstone from Richardson Hall. They replaced it with a false cornerstone of recently engraved granite proclaiming the “founding” year 1916. The faculty and administration discovered the new masonry on our beloved “old main” promptly the next day. The scandal created the terms of a swift and punitive ultimatum, which nearly caused a significant portion of the class to be expelled. By nightfall, the original cornerstone had been restored to its place and the fake version was hidden in a nearby Canton cellar until the class’s 40th reunion.

Besides the never-ending ingenuity of St. Lawrence students, this juxtaposition of global scale events with the minor youthful high-jinx of a rural college is worth noting a hundred years later for overlapping perspective. Those committing campus mischief, as if nothing important in the rest of the world mattered, were soon touched by the contingencies of politics and war. Within a year of graduating, half the St. Lawrence class of 1916, men and women together, were in American military uniforms. The moral of the tale, or described another way, its perennial relevancy, is that we who carry on the tradition of teaching and serving in this much admired liberal arts college must always do so with two minds.

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We start with the intention to preserve the traces of an educational theory originating in the ancient Greek academy or the medieval university, later inspiring American colleges planted in wilderness locations.  The premise insisted on safe distances from the eventual pressures students would surely go on to face in the world, to ensure them the idleness and leisure formed by a campus that is organized as a four-year neutral zone of reduced distraction. Keeping the world out and only on the tangents allowed students to concentrate intensely on hard intellectual work and to enjoy the fun of college comradery.

To the full extent we are able to achieve this garden retreat, I hasten to mention the existence of a second mind that requires us to pay close attention to all the forces and complications of the world around us and beyond us. It’s never been an easy order to balance, but I believe this moment for us must feel different from recent years. It seems that the harsh, hateful, and unpleasant tone of public life in American society, accompanied by the real potential for shocking, horrid, and hurried violence has threatened and, in some degree, invaded the sanctuary of the student experience.

My generation bears witness to many beautiful and terrible events over the last fifty years. It is hard for me to imagine a straight line connection to a century past, but, in truth I have personally known in my life the children and grandchildren of African-American slaves. They were old when I was young.

Meanwhile, I lived for six years in a part of Middle America often called Mark Twain country or the Land of Lincoln. There I saw first-hand the early promise of a young black man, an obscure state legislator out of Chicago, first campaigning as a long-shot for the U. S. Senate. A decade later, I heard, with much of the nation in tears, his broken-hearted song of eulogy and grace at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The past is sometimes indistinctive between a year and a century. I made a point of seeing that church myself this spring, not telling anyone on campus I did so, just to apprehend its prevailing peace and forgiveness.

My annual opening message cannot avoid the context of increasing fear, doubt, anger, uncertainty, and worry that is in the air all over the world. We have a job to do at St. Lawrence and, frankly, I believe it got a little harder from the time of our last fall convocation.

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James Wood, a critic for The New Yorker, who is also a member of the Harvard English faculty, gave the Mendel Lectures at Brandeis a year ago. He spoke about the mature cognitive adeptness required of a literary scholar, or even a general reader. Wood emphasized the importance of noticing things. He says, “The slow death that we deal to the world by the sleep of our attention [is troubling]. By congested habit, or through laziness, lack of curiosity, thin haste, [we often] stop looking at things.” Our best hope of living long beyond the slow death Wood describes may be found in an imperative he retrieved from the thought of Walter Benjamin summarized by the simple sentence, “the natural prayer of the soul [is] attentiveness.”

What is the imperative of the attentive this year in the soul-craft of our university? There will be no margins gained by thin haste, so paying attention to our day and times, to the tough business of the day, and to the future inspired by today’s contagious Laurentian energy  become, in Kantian language, imperative. There are three areas of university life that need urgent attention this year, that do not afford us ease, but grant us the extraordinary opportunity to share together important work that matters in the years ahead.

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The American genius of pluralism is at extreme risk of being dumbed down. The status tensions and latent suspicions affecting individual identities of foreign birth, color, religion, sexuality, and LGBTQ equality are openly undiminished. You should probably read more history of 1916 in America to understand why 2016 is not merely a flash of déjà vu. One of W. E. B. DuBois’s best interpreters was the late Manning Marable, my wife’s academic adviser in college.

Twenty years ago, Marable brought out an edition of DuBois’s early essays called Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil, which I read this summer with simultaneous pleasure and pain. The writing from a hundred years ago is magnificently lyrical. Manning explains, “What DuBois wants to achieve is the deconstruction of both whiteness as a social category, and of its hierarchies of oppression. For this to be accomplished, DuBois contends that white Americans must come to a new understanding and an appreciation of what it means to be black.”

The work of “diversity and inclusion” at St. Lawrence continues with even more necessity and purpose than most of us could foresee a few years ago. We owe our students, our fellow teachers, and our staff co-workers the broader and deeper discussion that might achieve “a new understanding.” If the delicate and difficult questions of differentness and sameness do not get considered here, or more poignantly, truly experienced here, then, I ask, at what other time in their lives will our students come to grips with social categories or invisible hierarchies?

A national search is now underway for the university’s first full-time chief diversity officer, but the faculty, our student organizations, and our workforce must also commit more attention this year to advancing our values and priorities. It is not enough to achieve the arithmetic of diversity. We must ensure that the welcoming face of St. Lawrence is the outward sign of its true soul.

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We also have an imperative to be attentive to our business structure and the distribution of finite resources. The main business of St. Lawrence expressed as learning, thinking, and understanding, should not, of course, be overshadowed by also attending the business represented by money and banking. Market watchers will tell you that election years can rattle the windows. Just as St. Lawrence is never fully exempt from the effects of global events, we also cannot escape the financial realities known throughout American higher education. Let me sketch for you a picture that will, in the next few years, need a variety of brush strokes to complete in greater detail. It’s important for us all to grasp first that St. Lawrence is not wealthy, but we are very solid.

We came through the Great Recession stronger than we entered it. A large part of the added strength was the way our community worked together in structuring the simultaneous habits of thrift and innovation. We grew our enrollment incrementally to levels unseen since the late 1970s, which also meant our student revenues grew as an offset to the reductions in endowment income. We added successful academic programs and increased our residential capacity. This year our bond rating was renewed at the A level and the agencies said the outlook for St. Lawrence is stable. Our reputation is also measurably stronger in the view of alumni and, most importantly, prospective students.

Meanwhile, our financial strategy to achieve a healthy equilibrium for those post-recession conditions has now gone as far as it can take us, which is perfectly normal in 3-year and 5-year business cycles. Most of what we achieved has worked out exactly as we had planned, but not all of the numerous components reached the goals of our scrupulous efforts.

With a confident forecast two years ago, I and our trustee investment committee, believed that our once-damaged endowment would not only recover faster than we thought possible, which it did, but that it would also hit the market value of $300 million. It never did, at least not yet. That actual gap is not abstract; it flows into campus operations, which now creates a missing source of about $2 million in income we had been relying upon as additional revenue for today and tomorrow.

The admissions market has resembled, perhaps as a lagging indicator, the pattern that also seems confusing in financial markets, one of soaring and plunging lines on the graph. What this means at St. Lawrence, though it is also an adjusted reality at almost all liberal arts colleges, including the highly endowed places, is that we have experienced hard-to-predict volatility. Last year’s entering class was the largest in our history, giving us a significant enrollment surplus. This year, with the same number of applications, an increase in campus visits, and market competitiveness that has never been as clear and undiffused, we fell short of our goal by more than the excess of last year’s class.

To keep the math in simple round numbers, if we add together the strategic goals of these two classes, we had hoped to have 1,300 students on campus today, but instead, we yielded approximately 1,260. A yield rate on our applicant pool that shifts by only tenths of 1% bruises the bottom line. There are many analytical nuances in this information, but two points need to be emphasized: as St. Lawrence has gotten better, the competition has gotten stiffer; and the hare-trigger difference in achieving our class size and also our student revenue goals is now a margin much less than it used to be. This dislocating market inconsistency leaves a structural imbalance of about $2 million.

We will embark, therefore, on fresh ways of thinking about our future financial security. A new phase of planning must now begin as we imagine St. Lawrence’s sustainable financial footprint. Just as we have become “greener” on campus by doing things differently, such as reducing energy or water consumption, sometimes by doing without added conveniences, those same principles of sustainability should translate readily to our future operating statements. This is imperative hard thinking and important work for us all.

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The third topic deserving tremendous amounts of time and energy will complement the others I’ve already mentioned. We are entering our second year of “not-so-quiet excitement” about a comprehensive fundraising enterprise called the “Campaign for Every Laurentian.” The readiness and hopes for this work have been demonstrated already in the vivid terms of donor commitments that total almost $60 million. Never has this much been raised this fast in the history of St. Lawrence.

The working tagline, “Every Laurentian, Every Year, Everyone Counts,” is working, though many refinements in organizing this project are in the year ahead of us. The intentions and purposes of the campaign are becoming clearer and more compelling—it’s mostly going to be about people and their dwelling places, that is, endowed faculty chairs, student scholarships, differentiating new programs, endowing the work we already do well, and modernizing campus spaces, but not expanding the property we currently manage.

We have in better focus a few big ideas, some pending medium large ones, too. This summer we gathered a very active group of campus members under the agricultural nomenclature of building “shepherds.” They worked on the possible priorities and sequencing scenarios for campus capital improvements. We will hear more about all this during the fall, but the general point to make now is the comprehensive campaign has internal “agency,” as scholars might put it. The campaign must assume inside-out attentiveness, must have the campus enthusiasm and optimism to drive its ultimate success with our outer circles of support.

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We are fortunate that the St. Lawrence community is attentive by nature. Our sense of strategic timing has been carefully calculated over the last twenty years. Yet, the force of the imperative insists on the distinction between “if’ and “when.” The test of “if” is often an exercise to measure the consequences of not doing something—if we do not give attention to the diversity of our community, if we ignore the lines of pressure building within our revenue streams, and if we let the love for St. Lawrence slip by without asking for that love to be expressed in a campaign, we will be found guilty of moral negligence.  

The question of “when” ought to answer itself. The case ought to be convincing that there is now an imperative of the attentive, and that it can’t wait a hundred years or a hundred days, particularly when there is so much at stake for St. Lawrence University. The stained glass window by the chapel’s north door reminds us categorically, even on the first day of the new semester, “we enter to learn, we leave to serve.”