An Inventory of the Possible | St. Lawrence University President's Office

An Inventory of the Possible

Remarks at Reunion - June 2, 2012


Welcome home. Whenever I visit the great cities where apartment-dwelling is the most common form of residential life, I think about the important work of the doorman in the larger buildings. As a university president, I have a special affinity for people who are doing this job of door-keeping. They keep watch, they entertain visitors, they discuss news of the day, they make small talk, they impart wisdom to neighbors, they study the weather, they set standards of decorum, they are the arbiters of who gets in, they assist guests and residents in graceful departures, they make hundreds of small decisions everyday. They’re expected to remember lots of names, even of people they’ve never met; a doorman is just supposed to know a lot about everything. So, as I stand at the door of St. Lawrence University, let me greet your return with a few matters of general interest before you walk through the lobby and take the elevator up to your floor.

As you enter this fond, familiar place, let me suggest that you think about what is different and what is unchanged. If I had to wager, I bet you will most quickly surmise that much of the campus has been altered dramatically in the physical space we occupy today. The campus continues to represent an architectural vocabulary that speaks to the time in which buildings were designed and erected. The familiar College Gothic, Georgian, Italianate, Classical Order, Romantic, and Modern styles are still in place. We now have townhouses adjacent the golf course, a bookstore of diverse retail, a science hall emphasizing the hands-on approach, and a student center giving the ambiance of a lodge at one of the great Adirondack camps.

The French philosopher Descartes called the great city of Amsterdam in the 1630s “an inventory of the possible.” In making a brief report to my fellow Laurentians this morning, it is to give you a sense of what is possible here today. When Lynn and I moved here three years ago, the state of the economy required all of us to develop new words for what we were facing. We talked about our “recession response” and how to achieve “financial equilibrium.” These were new words lifting heavy decisions. More recently, we are now using a language that talks about our “culture of innovation,” our confident ability to imagine and draw “a strategic map,” which we have named “The St. Lawrence Promise.” And this brings me to the Cartesian point about our inventory of the possible, uniting appearance and reality.

We are becoming very adept and, for higher education, even fast-paced at planning. Our St. Lawrence Promise is a map of the next five to ten years. It starts with the centrality of our liberal arts program and the excellence in our intellectual, lived, and social capacities. We have just adopted a new set of university requirements for graduation, the very core of a 21st century liberal arts education. We will introduce it in the fall of 2013. Its design incorporates breadth, deep learning, and flexibility. It will require all students to have studied in the area of environmental science or in the theme of sustainability. This will make St. Lawrence, so far as I know, the first in the nation to have such a stipulation.

St. Lawrence will show a redesigned website later in the year. We have worked hard to research and choose the best ways to describe what the charisma of this place is, our secret sauce. Hundreds, thousands of words are possible. We have decided on a handful of differentiating words: such as, vibrant and collaborative; learning that insists on thought and action; students known as discoverers and doers; a community that values the natural environment and the outdoor life; and a place engaged with global challenges. The former president of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Walter Massey, used to say, “Excellence is a moving target.” And how we express the goodness of this place and the excellence of what we will teach matters more and more, as we build our reserves of Laurentian pride and expand our reputation around the world.

We are also going to travel a longer path in building the size of our enrollment. Our view of what defines our near-future “critical mass” will be 2,500 students, about 150 more than we currently have with us. It may seem counter-intuitive to grow in a time of economic headwinds and crosscurrents, but as a fan of cross-country runners, I have learned that the race is won on the hills. We have to make our move while we have the legs. St. Lawrence must address the falling demographics in the northeast and understand the market research that tells us there is danger in being perceived as too small. We have just had a record year in Early Decision applications and acceptances. We expect a fall first-year class that will be above 640 students, comparable to last fall’s largest freshman enrollment in 25 years. The academic profile of these students is stellar and equivalent to our best classes in history.

We are recruiting in new territories in the American South, Midwest, and Far West. We expect 20 students from China to be with us in the fall. Our diversity ratio for the class of 2016 will be our highest percentage ever—13% U.S. students of color and 9% international. In all this, we are very conscientious of our mission of opportunity and remain more generous in financial aid than many of our peers; the average student debt at St. Lawrence is also the same as the national average of $26,000 upon graduation. The average cost of a wedding in America is nearly $30,000.

Many alumni are interested in university finances, so a brief and reassuring word on that topic is appropriate. Our endowment value is currently $237 million, up $60 million from its 2008 low point, but still shy of the all-time pinnacle by about $40 million. Both Moody’s and S & P have recently reaffirmed our A2 rating with an improved outlook of “stable.” Your own generous contributions continue to cover the gap left by all that our endowment and our tuition revenues cannot reach. This vote of confidence in St. Lawrence is a ratification of our dreams—the dreams we once had ourselves when we were young and the dreams this next generation must also know as something truly possible.

An important cross-roads on the strategic map has been identified as alumni engagement. This is where so much more can be gained, not only in creative ways that our alma mater can serve its graduates, particularly as they begin to build careers, but also in the larger reputation we are growing into because of what our alumni represent in the world. Never before has so much been at stake in defense of a liberal arts education.  You have heard the criticism of liberal arts as a luxury, a caricature largely drawn by oversimplification and distorted price perception that inconveniently neglects to mention the institutional multiple-millions that St. Lawrence and others dedicate to financial aid. There is, of course, a stronger counter-argument that is ours and only ours to make.

I have yet to meet a St. Lawrence graduate in any reunion class that has buyer’s remorse. Rather, I hear the deepest words of gratitude for wonderful professors and inspiring classes, the flash of discovery and the confidence to risk knowing more. I hear the memories of unplanned moments that changed lives. I hear the stories of mature lives endowed with a curiosity about human creativity, public affairs, and the glories of nature that our kind of college education made possible. We need you to testify. And here is what I’d like you to say if given the chance to do so—a liberal arts education buys so much good for the world that it is, in the end, a very small price to pay for what it begets. How we furnish our minds when we are young will determine the quality of our conversation when we are old. A teacher once told me that if you don’t read long into the night in your 20s, you will have little to say in your 50s. It was pivotal advice.

David Brooks recently defended the St. Lawrence kind-of-education we cherish when he asked college students: “Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These… are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations” (NYT, May 25, 2012).

One of our commencement speakers this year was Garry Trudeau, the creator of “Doonesbury.” He recounted a drawing class he took his freshman year at Yale. The professor acknowledged he had artistic aptitude, but Trudeau was only producing easy, pleasant figurative drawings and this completely exasperated the teacher. One day, the professor called him on his facile lines and self-deceiving laziness; and then, told Trudeau he could draw, but he didn’t yet know how to see. It was a liberating moment that changed Trudeau’s life from “visual Muzak” to seeing everyday with keen, curious, fresh eyes. There is no cheap way, no short-cut, to kindle such magic.

St. Lawrence is about experience. Much of what I do for a living these days, I first learned on this campus in organizations, small jobs, and leadership opportunities. We are a highly inventive place in our methods of learning. The inaugural class in our very distinctive New York City Semester that includes coursework and internships had 14 students this spring; by the end, all 4 seniors had job offers and 8 of the 10 juniors will continue in summer internships. We are launching in January a new Sustainability Semester that will have students living with faculty on a nearby farm to study the history of land use, the science of alternative energy, the sociology of food, and the politics of water.

In discussing our ambition, let me offer three final vignettes from my in-box, a sampling of correspondence in the last week. First, a graduating senior from nearby Plattsburgh wrote to say thank you: “My collegiate experience at St. Lawrence was everything I hoped for, and more. In Harry Potter, Professor Dumbledore says to Harry, “Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it.” …Without the help St. Lawrence gave me, I would not be in the position of [going to medical school this fall].”

My classmate Keith Fulmer wrote about his son’s graduation from St. Lawrence 37 years after his own: “We always say that St. Lawrence is about the quality of the peer group, the incredible influence that your St. Lawrence friends, faculty and peers have on you; and how that, in the St. Lawrence environment, makes you a better person… [perhaps] recognized fully only in hindsight, but it is [already] true for Sam, too.”

Lastly, one of Lynn’s colleagues at the Federal Reserve Board is hosting a St. Lawrence student this summer in Washington. This was all unplanned and is a story of lodging arrangements falling through at the last minute. Our student is from Afghanistan and I know her because she was recognized at Moving Up Day as one of our outstanding freshman students. Somehow, our Washington friend came into possession of an autobiographical essay that Maryam wrote. He says: “It takes your breath away…born in Kabul, six years as refugees in Iran, a couple of years in Pakistan, back to Kabul. The story of how she got her breaks to come to the U.S. is not straightforward, but a State Department program… played a key role…” This letter writer has never been here and yet he concludes, “If St. Lawrence has many students like her, it must be one amazing place.”

Friends, as one of you, I stand as your president, really a student in disguise and in amazement. Today I submit my “inventory of the possible.” Thank you for being loyal Laurentians. Welcome back.