Lessons from the Front Room | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Lessons from the Front Room

Remarks of Welcome to faculty and Staff, Convocation Ceremony - August 24, 2011

After I had rambled for a while as a graduate student in history, I came to a narrow place in my education that required a deeper attention to American society, culture, and experience in the years between the two world wars of the 20th century. Those twenty years draw comparative notice again to our own time for their seismic energies, noise, volatility, and rhythm. To understand the importance of those watershed decades, the music of Debussy and the best works of Ravel, for example, could not have been composed after 1914. Gershwin’s music, however, used car horns and street dissonance to capture the clamor of New York in the 1920s and ‘30s. 

John Dos Passos wrote staccato-paced sentences expressing the sensory abundance of the restless city as “sirens bloom in the fog over the harbor” and the streets at dusk are filled with “the throb and hubbub of departure.” Much about the place was the same when E. B. White wrote his celebrated essay “Here is New York” in 1948. While he said “that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds,” he also noted, having lived there himself in the ‘20s and ‘30s that “it can destroy an individual, or it can fulfill them, depending a good deal on luck.”

And then, as a significant counterpoint to the Gotham flash and jumble colliding financial prosperity with economic depression, there are the pictures of the American artist Edward Hopper when he was painting in New York during the twenties and thirties.  He had muted the sound of a troubled time as he responded with hand and eye to his environment. This contemplative body of work is not the pastoral Hopper of the Gloucester and Cape Cod summertime. Rather, this is the Hopper of a different mood and worried scene, perhaps the one from Walter Lippmann’s palette described as “the acids of modernity,” the corrosives that many have identified today as “unfettered greed.”

I am drawn especially to the pictures Hopper painted in this urban period of his career of lone people, most often women, in a front room with large windows. There are no crowded streets or blaring alarms. There is only composure with an undertone of stress. The titles of the paintings give me a visual text for my thoughts today: “Room in New York,” “Room in Brooklyn,” and “House at Dusk.” About one of these “front room” pictures with open windows and no curtains, a curator of a major Hopper exhibit (Carol Troyer) writes, it “is an odd, ambiguous mixture of stability and unease, of comfort and angularity.”

The “front room” as a pictorial idiom touches the perspective I have both developed and tried to express as president of St. Lawrence University in a short period of good memories, new uncertainties, and bountiful, sufficient hope. It is, I confess, an image I have of myself and my work. My office on this campus is literally a “front room” with a wide-scope view that constantly studies the 19th and 20th century heritage of our university, but from the light of three directions it also lets me imagine and glimpse our path into a 21st century St. Lawrence. As in the Hopper paintings of the “front room,” the viewer obtains an interior perspective as an attentive observer and, then, in a participating affinity with the human subject of the canvas, one unavoidably must consider the outside world, its forces and possibilities.

At the beginning of our fall term, I wish to share some lessons from the front room that may still be hard to accept, but they are also optimistic and assuring. There are lessons about the current “big map” context, lessons about measuring ourselves, and lessons about wise planning. As activities of learning, I step into a Hopper “front room” and discover there is a timelessness that has been created in my mind, blending the active tenses of past, present, and future into whatever St. Augustine meant by “the ever new.”

In the first category about the general state of higher education in America, I have learned, that our place in the national economy as both agent and object is larger than I ever imagined. What happens in global financial structures and patterns comes to our small world with less delay or buffering than ever before. We do not have to view at arms-length the conditions of public higher education in California to know that things are not going to be the same again, in public or private universities, particularly when our neighboring New York state universities are their own case studies in rapid flux. 

This “big map” issue, as one example, is in our front yard now and it will affect us because we share so much with nearby campuses in the vitality of the North Country. Put succinctly, I have learned that St. Lawrence’s annual economic impact on this region is almost two times the size of our operating budget. The lesson of local responsibility sinks deeper, never more than when realizing how much has shifted in proportionality from other eras. And yet, we cannot do more if our partner public institutions do less.

Everywhere, the assets of universities are generally down, and they’re not likely to increase anytime soon. Costs are rising and institutional income cannot be raised fast enough. Nationally, most colleges are offering their services (or, if economists prefer, their “product”) at two-thirds of what it actually costs to produce. There are estimates that the price (which is actually less than the real cost) of four years at a highly selective private institution will be around $325,000 before the end of the decade. The strategic theme at St. Lawrence of “affording the opportunity” already has its place as a major compass point. 

Another lesson taken from a view of the current status of American higher education is that innovation (in our calendar, curriculum, and program) will be our most advantageous edge, the moral equivalent of what building major new facilities were over the last two decades. It is a very good thing that we at St. Lawrence built so much and built so well when we did. So, now the lesson is to innovate or enervate. For our moment on campus, there is something exhilarating about this fruitful grafting of new ideas with St. Lawrence’s rootstock of pioneering. And yet, I note something to watch.

I have always assumed that our size, flexible structure, and founding spirit were a secret weapon of success. In fact, I have argued for years that the small liberal arts colleges in America were always more nimble, responsive, and creative than the large lumbering universities with calcified habits and immoveable departments. From my front room, I have learned something different in the last year. 

The big places are now behaving like the small places used to claim as a singular distinction. The 21st century innovation in undergraduate education that we need “to own” is actually underway in quick order at some large universities. I would call your attention to the “Integrative Science Curriculum” at Princeton, the menu of first-year seminars at Stanford, the impressive humanities program at the University of Washington, and the phenomenon of “flash seminars” at the University of Virginia. About UVA, the same social media that brought young  people into Tahir Square in Cairo this spring is also electrifying students on short-notice to gather on Mr. Jefferson’s “Lawn” for spontaneous, topical 2-hour  discussions with professors. These intellectual flash points asked last spring about living the good life with or without money, how Americans understand or misunderstand the Civil War, and the open-ended proposition of whether or not Google makes us dumb. Why not a St. Lawrence version of this? 

Turning to the window in the front room that offers a view of St. Lawrence showing us where it is right now, a couple of recent lessons are apparent to me. I have learned from first-hand experience the inherent strength and resilience of our university, the willingness of its members to work together, even across established social boundaries. There is so much good in this place and, consequently, there is also much extraordinary good work to admire. We need to remember this fact about ourselves more often than we sometimes do. 

One of the lessons from two Recession Response task groups and, most recently, from a retreat a few weeks ago that we called the Strategic Mapping Council is that we are on the brink of discovering a greater, previously unmeasured, depth of talents and temperaments in people who serve in different spheres of the university’s work from our own. Staff co-workers tell me that they have gained a new appreciation for faculty; and professors tell me how much they have admired the intelligent, critical eye of staff. So, I now hear many of us drawing a common conclusion from these examples that we need a shared governance or operating structure that best captures this lesson of how effective work can be accomplished, particularly as we must rebalance the issues of urgency and importance.

There is also the lesson of how good we are as others see us. The new 2011 results of the annual National Survey of Student Engagement are extremely favorable in the arc of trend lines for St. Lawrence. Translated into political polling nomenclature, our “favorables” are high and in some areas, such as “supportive campus environment” and “level of academic challenge,” the percentages are climbing. Recently, Forbes magazine produced its version of America’s best colleges and universities. The Forbes list mixed research universities with liberal arts institutions, which is very different from similar attempts to rank the order. St. Lawrence was accorded 64th place out of 650 in the mix, which is a top-10% level of recognition.

I have also learned from this perspective that our excellent, hard-won reputation is immensely important in order to offset what economists call “negative externalities,” the forces we cannot control, but must nevertheless navigate. We have considerable headwinds on the radar—the rising cost of a St. Lawrence education coupled with the market inelasticity of large tuition increases, all the while that the new student demographics are moving toward greater diversity and higher financial aid demands. The obvious external realities, such as uncertain endowment returns and donor circumstances, are not going to lift soon; that’s a fact supported by the latest Federal Reserve decision to keep interest rates low for the next 18 months. 

All this, as I live through it with you at St. Lawrence, has also revealed to me how many legions of people want us to succeed, want to be an intimate part of this solid enterprise, and want us to be on the move, confident in ourselves, and creative in how we stand and deliver. I have also learned that the most important question for us is not “can we adapt and change as necessary,” but, as William James famously asked it, “have we the will-to-do?” The historian Adrian Goldsworthy illustrates the lesson when writing about ancient Rome, “The great paradox of the Roman Empire’s fall is that it did not end because people inside it—and indeed, outside it—stopped believing in it or wanting it to exist….The Romans failed in the end because they no longer deserved to succeed.”

This leads me to a couple of lessons from the front room about our shared vision and the efficacy of new university planning. Those of us whose intellectual journey has been mostly in the humanities and arts, perhaps also the social sciences, need to remember how our friends in the sciences are trained to think. The scientific method is fundamental whether your work is in field biology, theoretical physics, or computer science. If your inquiry is framed by the most objective collection of data, which is carefully and constantly tested, analyzed, and categorized, then you can trust where the results will take you without prejudice. The general lesson from the scientific method is that a good process will yield the strongest, most reliable conclusions.
Planning for our future must have a fundamental method, a good process. It must be widely inclusive and allow for the creative tension of differences. Former Princeton president William G. Bowen remembers some advice he received from a graduate school professor, “There is no limit to the amount of non-sense one can think, if he thinks too long alone.” Our collective effort to make the maps of the St. Lawrence future must avoid the peril of isolated self-interest and draw from the best thoughts from all corners of the campus. 

Dissent, disagreement, and criticism are, naturally, a given factor in our process, but a thoughtful critique must also be grounded in the best spirit of loyalty and be ready with alternatives in the face of the question, what would you do differently? John Gardner often warned the academy about “unloving critics and uncritical lovers,” but our growing tradition of wider transparency at St. Lawrence ought to make this admonition less worrisome. The models of successful organizations also teach that after the plans are developed, people close ranks and, like Napoleon’s army at its best, march toward the guns.

A final lesson of the day returns me to the important purpose we share and the reasons for gathering ourselves in convocation the first day of the new term. There was a time that I believed the greatest social adversary we faced was the insidious threat of boredom. I remember what it was like to stand in front of a class in the face of boring looks that dared me, if I could, to be entertaining, as if I were some version of a Saturday Night Live skit. I no longer believe that students today are actually bored, maybe overstimulated. Nevertheless, they are seriously interesting. And our job is to help them translate their interest into thoughtful lives.

This is the significant, worthwhile good work for us to do now. Richard Wolin describes recently the current crisis in the humanities (actually, a crisis that stretches across my entire professional career) and worries about “thoughtlessness” in our society. It is a term with a double meaning: thoughtlessness is the “incapacity for sustained critical reflection” and it is also inconsiderate, even immoral, boorish human behavior. We are wise to know the terms of failure in our work if thoughtlessness around us should grow.  And yet, we already know how to be extremely successful when we build lives that are thoughtful and difference-making.
The year ahead, summoning us to work and plan, has numerous challenges and relentless adversaries. Our strategy to combat thoughtlessness and build usefulness will surely take us beyond a single year’s best efforts. I am confident that hard things are always provisional and a long view assures our better dreams.

I must leave Hopper’s front room now. 

As we go out, let me give you a parting thought from the former poet laureate Billy Collins. In his lovely collection of poems “Sailing Alone Around the Room,” perhaps a front room, he has some lines called “Student of Clouds” and it celebrates the open-air landscape paintings of John Constable, a very different artist from Edward Hopper, though both invite a situational knowingness in thinking about ourselves. Each one is instructive—Hopper insists we look in and we look out; Constable reminds us to look up.

…Constable…was a student of clouds
and filled shelves of sketchbooks with their motion,
their lofty gesturing and sudden implication of weather.
High on the soft blue canvases of Constable
… his clouds appear 
to be moving still in the wind of his brush,
inching out of England and the nineteenth century
and sailing over these meadows where I am walking,
bareheaded beneath this cupola of motion…

The summary of lessons is that nothing stands still, not in Hopper’s rooms or in Constable’s clouds. And the life of our university shall be drawn as an artist’s sketchbook of motion, observation, reflection; as mostly a place that is on the move. 

Welcome back.