Measures of Vitality | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Measures of Vitality

Reunion 2015

Reunions disclose a ligature of attraction that is more powerful, more compelling, more ancient than we may realize. The idea of returning to a home place of our youth, making a pilgrimage journey, rediscovering the simultaneous sameness and change in familiar faces are in the stories told by Homer, George Lucas, or Thomas Wolfe. The lure of going back while life goes forward is not just a literary motif; it’s a valid human desire, a two-day duet of fun and memory, of affirmation and hope. Even for those old enough to like their martinis dry or who prefer an ice cube in their sauvignon blanc or who have long ago retired from the mixer and put nothing stronger than herbal tea in their cups, there is more going on at a St. Lawrence Reunion than a parade and a party.

There are personal reasons that primarily justify this gathering rounding off the years by fives and tens. I had five roommates in four years at St. Lawrence. To intensify the point, one of those years was in Sykes spent in a single; the first time in my life I had a room of my own. Of the six of us who briefly shared the same living space on campus, one died too young, but the other five are present today, reunited, and reclaiming a peculiar conversational code that will always sound like a “final frontier” Star Trek language to our families. Meanwhile, what makes this shared personal experience possible are the institutional traditions giving a framework to a lifetime of knowing how to work hard, successfully, and purposefully, while also knowing how to be a friend. St. Lawrence gave us so much more than we knew at the time when we thought we knew most of it.

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For a few minutes, my task is not to reminisce about the days that are now counted as four or more presidents ago, but rather to tell you about the progress and promise of St. Lawrence in today’s terms. I am expected to give you some institutional accounting of how we are doing, like an attending physician reviewing the five vital signs of life (body temperature, pulse, respiration, blood pressure, and pain), but I am shifting that medical check-list to discuss the measures of vitality, which is something very different. Using the parallel of examining-room etiquette, there are five ways to express our current vitality at St. Lawrence.

First, let me tell you about the next generation, particularly the class entering this fall. They are drawn from a record number of 6,000 applications. It will be the largest first-year class enrolled since the 1970s, nearly 700 in number. They come from all over the world, more than 63% from outside New York. We have been expanding our admissions market for the last several years with focus and confidence owing to the gold coin of our reputation. Lynn and I travel extensively; we meet hundreds of people with direct or even oblique connections to St. Lawrence. The Hollywood star Michael Douglas, whose father gives us the name of our new residence hall, said to us a few months ago, “I don’t know what your are doing up there, but everyone I know in my home state of Connecticut, where we are raising two teenage children, is raving about St. Lawrence and all the good things happening on the campus.”

When the freshman students arrive in August, 18% of them will be St. Lawrence legacies, an all-time record number. The class will be diverse in every possible way, 22% will be US students of color or international students. We want a campus that looks like the world, the world our children need to understand in their careers and lives, and this is the campus we are achieving. Our faculty also resembles this world of professional and business life—more than half are women and of the total, they come from cultures and backgrounds very different from my own heritage.

I am appropriately asked all the time about the financial vitality of the university. The challenges of navigating the Great Recession were a long way off from the ambitions I had hoped to extend from the superb work of Dan Sullivan, my predecessor. Instead, our endowment was damaged by the loss of $100 million. With a lot of advice and support, with great discipline and innovation, St. Lawrence stuck to its core values of ensuring the finest student experience in the liberal arts. We not only committed ourselves to maintaining those first principles, we reasserted them vigorously and then drew a map of how to gain fresh ground.

We recovered our financial footing sooner than many of our peers and we haven’t looked back since. One of the best signs of financial vitality is the strategic recruitment and development of the university’s faculty—nothing is more important, nothing is larger as an institutional financial investment. In my six years, I have recommended over 50 professors for tenure or promotion. That is called “buying long.” At the same time, with normal retirements, we have hired about 60 new tenure-track faculty members. You can’t do any of this, if the financial picture has cracks on the surface.

A third measure of vitality is simply and generally, student activity. The class that graduated just two weeks ago reported that 85% of them had an internship while at St. Lawrence. This is a break-through number for us, when 65% is regarded as exceptional. Also, the class numbered the most students in anyone’s memory doing collaborative research with faculty or senior honors projects. The job and graduate placement rate is currently 97%, which puts us in rarefied air among the best in the nation. It is no wonder that we were just selected by The Princeton Review to be one among 50 profiled campuses in a new book called Colleges That Create Futures.

How does this happen? It is not happenstance. Our students are hungry for superior teaching and hands-on experience while also receiving copious forms of encouragement to try new classes. They typically carry a double-major academic load, with every conceivable combination in play, such as English and Mathematics, Psychology and Music. They wear out keyboards writing papers for four years, as you may remember, but they are also gaining highly advantageous oral presentation skills across the curriculum, setting them apart from the competition in ways frequently noted by their employers.

About 35% participate in the learning and discipline of a college varsity team, though it is overall a very active outdoors and athletic campus. The student organizations and clubs are all fully subscribed, close to 200 possibilities. They compete nationally in the Fed Challenge and go to academic conferences, not to observe, but to present posters and papers. Our Stock Pitch team took second last year in a national competition at the University of Michigan. There are leadership opportunities galore on campus from strong Greek chapters to the newer Asian Student Association, but let me also mention clubs for fly-fishing, cribbage, and cheese tasting.

Most importantly, perhaps most difficult to measure, there is the incredible influence of the peer effect. They learn intensively and deeply from their teacher-scholar faculty members, but they also learn from each other a tremendous amount of vital knowledge. They teach each other skills in negotiation and conversation, the younger students paying attention to the success and judgment of the older students; we teach them to trust each other and how to be a devoted friend for life. That is not in the formal curriculum, but it is a major ingredient of the St. Lawrence secret sauce.

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Today, American higher education is a news beat for front-page reporting. Some weeks the difficult headlines seem unrelenting about the cost of college, the student debt load, the value of tenure, the efficiency of knowledge transfer, the salaries of coaches and administrators, the incidents of substance abuse, the issue of underage drinking, the complexity of governance, the fairness of admissions, and the handling of social misconduct and sexual assault. Most college presidents would say this is only a partial list and that any one of these topics is attached by the rope work of long discourse. I assure you that we work extremely hard here to get it mostly right, most of the time.

No college, even in far-away Canton, is given wide berth or an open harbor in the face of these large, messy issues. The possible cataclysmic totality of it all, furthermore, supposes the immediacy of Schumpeter’s theory about “creative destruction” or Darwin’s insights about adaptation and survival: how will higher education, and particularly residential liberal arts colleges, prosper in the coming decades?

In the face of combined and inevitable pressures expected on the voyage ahead, St. Lawrence is well provisioned and prepared. We have developed the habit of keeping steerage-way, of moving through while others seek still water—using effective charts and steady hands to weather the winds and waves. The fourth measure of vitality is innovation and collaboration across traditional academic fields. We have been known as pioneers for a long time—teaching physics, sociology, and psychology decades before others; we were pioneers 40 years ago in Environmental Studies and Canadian Studies. We developed a First Year Program that has been copied nationwide. Now we are advancing discussions to be innovative with the Sophomore Year, a project that will likely set us apart again.

We have designed new off-campus programs using New York City as the classroom and, going 180 degrees the other way, using nearby farmland as a theme for studying agricultural sustainability with your sleeves rolled up. Over 100 students have gone to New York for St. Lawrence courses and sponsored internships in finance, publishing, and arts management. We just introduced the Business in Liberal Arts major, which already is the academic home to 100 juniors and seniors.

In the fall, we will introduce a Statistics major that will stand alone or become paired with any field in the social sciences, humanities, arts, and natural sciences. We are considering programs in cognitive studies, public health, arts entrepreneurship, outdoor education, energy conservation, and international security. In fact, we will be announcing soon an arrangement made possible by a St. Lawrence family for our students and faculty to work with the Brookings Institution on issues of security in Africa. In all cases, the knowledge base of our innovations will always be moored by the liberal arts, but it will be the liberal arts with constant creativity and innovation.

A fifth measure of our institutional vitality is in the broader Laurentian community formed by our alumni. The levels of engagement have never been higher or more enthusiastic than today. Alumni support of the St. Lawrence Fund and special capital projects is a lifeline. The real total cost to educate a single student at St. Lawrence is now $77,000 annually. Our current comprehensive fee is $62,000, but I hasten to note that 95% of all students receive some form of financial aid, so that the net average expense for each family is $34,000. The math ought to be self-evident—tuition and endowment earnings are not enough to create the magic of the St. Lawrence experience. Whether we knew it at the time or never knew it until many years later, someone ahead of us in this unbroken line of engagement covered the gap in the full cost of our own education.

We are seeing record attendance at reunions, larger participation at alumni events, more young alumni networking activity, and rapidly increasing numbers of volunteers serving as current-student mentors and internship sponsors. Over 15,000 people watched the short video of the new spire being raised and fitted to the chapel bell tower. There are, in other words, countless ways the university is being touched to good effect by the affection of its alumni. In Pentagon-speak, this is St. Lawrence’s “force multiplier.”

The medical checklist of vital signs sometimes includes a sixth deciding point of a patient’s ability to thrive. In examining our institutional vitality, I have offered you a sampling of at least 20 quantitative pieces of data, which in summary ought to make us feel very proud of St. Lawrence today. And yet, voice is also a vital sign. I would argue that our core vitality cannot be measured with corporate precision alone because we are also a living human story with more characters and plots than all of Tolstoy.

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Last summer, a student brought me a quart of red currants she had picked on campus. Since I had no idea where this berry patch had been planted, I asked her to show me the spot. Behind the old Phi Sig House, now Commons College, is a permaculture garden our students began cultivating about three years ago with the support of a Campus Innovations grant. At first sight, I thought it was an untended heap of wild vegetation. Then, my berry-picking guide explained its theory of mixing edible landscaping with native plants in a single low-maintenance, self-contained ecosystem.

She gave me the common and Latin names of herbs, nuts, beets, heirloom onions, and tea leaves. She mentioned with some hesitation that some of her courses had not gone so well in the prior semester, but in this classroom she showed her genius and was finding her way. Sitting with her on one of the garden benches, just the two of us, watching the tango of butterflies and wrens, I was learning some new field botany, but I was mostly learning how much there is about St. Lawrence I still don’t know and certainly can’t measure. It was rediscovering how alive the place is in every corner.

Peter Hatch was with us at Commencement as the father of a graduating senior, but also as one of our speakers. Peter’s entire career was spent restoring the historic farmland and gardens of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. He said that “Jefferson was crazy about gardening…sowing cabbage seeds and planting flower bulbs with his granddaughters…Gardening for him was a dance with the elements, where[in Jefferson’s own words], the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.”

What happens in that new permaculture garden also happens in the life of the campus. It’s that same theory and measure we live by in the work of a college, the failure of one attempt is repaired by the success of another. In the end, the mix of roots and blooms, so often unpredictable, but always promising ultimate success, gives not an exact human measure, but the unequivocal sense of lasting vitality. And our Reunion time, once again, brings that point to notice for you take home.