More Than Strictly Social | St. Lawrence University President's Office

More Than Strictly Social

Reunion 2016

A college reunion is simultaneously a mirror and a window. We look into one with self-conscious awareness; we look through the other to discover we are not alone in a socially framed experience. I have asked people when they have returned home from a St. Lawrence reunion, was it worth coming back for a day or two after so much time has gone by? It is a question that, if posed in advance, would return hasty answers of uncertainty. There is an emotional risk of disappointment or feeling foolish when the heart stirs for “the longings of a buried day.” And yet, there is something absolutely right in the intention to be reunited with a familiar place and its people, an instinctive appetite, to be one’s authentic self, even at this moment of measured "grown-upness".

The willingness to put oneself to the test in the presence of friends and classmates, those who once witnessed youthful passages with all the imbalances of mistake and triumph, is in itself an austere discipline testing memory and reality. We all dimly accept that the motives behind our homecoming to a college town are mixed and its transaction quietly nuanced. Beneath the surface of the reunion format exist some of our darkest insecurities and our deepest hopes. Having just experienced my 40th reunion a year ago, I offer an open and personal reflection that nervousness about all this you may experience is normal.

There is a human need of reassuring oneself, now and again, also of being reassured by others, as to one’s longstanding identity, as well as one’s autonomy, what academics currently call “agency.” We ask ourselves, has there been over the years since college a consecutive and reasonably steady self? In spite of all the potential deceptions and distractions of life after our student days, are we at the core the same? And we quickly check ourselves against appearing ridiculous, why should we bother our thoughts over such a riddle? Nevertheless, we can’t help it, because we do care about the continuity of our lives.

You have to take the self you now are, with the variety of emotions given by life, career, and family into account, and go back into the presence of some objective fact, which stands vivid, which you have known well and loved over a length of years. How are we honestly positioned within those formative compass points—are we still bearing true north? It may be the Chapel spire, the steps of Richardson, the Quad, the vanishing point of the Elms, or a worn brick path that serves as an enduring reference indicator. And then, if you are like me, your introspective mind will suddenly populate the familiar scene with friends, including friendly acquaintances. We are, after all, a very “social” place.

***

My remarks this morning are often given as a university business report. And this year will be no different, because the business of St. Lawrence, even in the terms of educational achievement and institutional reputation, is ultimately about the quality of the individual self that is formed in this beloved circle of friendship. I will tell you, however, that the financial ledger is balanced, Moody’s and S&P complimented us with notably favorable ratings, a few beloved faculty members have retired, all exceeding 35 years of masterful teaching, and the class graduating in the 160th year since the founding of St. Lawrence did so with the brightest prospects ahead. They have had something special and they know it.

As I handed each graduate a diploma two weeks ago, I tried to offer a congratulatory word in the exchange. In the single instance during Commencement that I said to a senior, “you’ve had a great four years,” the honest reply was admirable and understandable. The young man said, “Actually, sir, it was five.” I suspect this was a case of whimsical pride, the kind of pride in being envied by many classmates who did not have an on-campus gap year.

St. Lawrence, as this annual occasion again demonstrates, has a knack for the social; it’s a significant part of the education, and part of the university’s renowned power of connecting each to each. New friendships discovered, old friendships renewed, and in that bundle of life, the social bonds holding it all together, suggest the mid-sentence of an unfinished conversation. And this particular understanding of what characterizes St. Lawrence, from its fragile beginning to its transparent strength of today, a result achieved by invigorating the individual self and affirming the social self, keeps our larger purpose essential in a much bigger picture. Put differently, put expansively, the world needs St. Lawrence. It is desperate for the example of what we have and what we do.

***

Economists today speak often of “social capital,” how it is formed, how it moves, and particularly how individuals can or cannot advance from their starting places in life. One of the most compelling situations across the globe, but also abundantly reported in the U. S. and Canada, is the problem of income disparity. If our society can find a way to alter the conditions of wealth inequality, we will repair many other extremely difficult human issues expressed as deepening fractures everywhere.

At St. Lawrence, we learn to see social capital in two ways—the personal, which is already self-evident, as if looking in a mirror, and the communal, as seen through a window of larger purpose. Socio-economic mobility, adaptability, and flexibility are the continuing good effects of what St. Lawrence must achieve for all of its students. The best argument for our existence in future decades shall hang on our success in creating social capital in net terms that move people up—moves them up in self-understanding, as only a liberal arts education does best, and moves them up in opportunity security.

I enter this hour to make a bold claim, backed by ample evidence. Private higher education in America, of which St. Lawrence stands among the best and the best known, is the single greatest consistent force in moving people up. The record and the ratios are unequivocal. Not small business, not big business, not government, not entertainment, not any other form of educational delivery can touch the success of private liberal arts colleges when measuring or predicting the proportional increase of social capital.

By studying lifetime tax returns correlated to colleges attended, the most reliable engine of upward mobility is always private higher education. Think about the people you have known at St. Lawrence, where they came from and where they are now, or think of yourself, as those represented by this supremely stable phenomenon found within our society. How did and how does St. Lawrence achieve this success?

***

I must not allow myself any resemblance to the description by George Bernard Shaw of Lord Rosebery as “someone who never missed an occasion to let slip an opportunity.” Rather, I will give you an opportune answer in one word—generosity. St. Lawrence’s genius, really its social genius, is due to loyalty expressed as generosity.

The “social” must be paired with the word “capital” because it will take the latter to achieve the former. The university’s strategy is no more complicated than that. I would not have gone to St. Lawrence, because I could not have afforded St. Lawrence, and consequently, I would never have held an executive position at St. Lawrence, were it not for an alumni couple who sponsored my education. And when they died, their estate came to St. Lawrence to create, what was then, the largest endowed scholarship on the university’s books.

We are quietly organizing this year a comprehensive fundraising campaign. Never has so much been raised so fast at St. Lawrence in the early commitments of almost $60 million. Its main purpose is to move social capital, to build up an endowment, much too small for the heavy lift ahead, and to preserve a beautiful campus we happily revisit today, as if to live inside the old legend of Brigadoon.

We will need every Laurentian, every year, simply because, at St. Lawrence, everyone counts. We have deeply important work to do. And I know my own thoughts well enough by now, perhaps better for having attended many reunions and thought about what they mean, that I realize this is our turn; this is the equivalent of St. Lawrence’s earliest years, of its founders giving it everything they had.

Helping young people discover who they shall become, even more than deciding what they shall do, by unfettering and releasing the imprisoned splendor within them, is the identity portfolio that will see them through in life. It is what will bring them back here for a look in the mirror and also to take a long glimpse through a familiar window of belonging to a tradition of goodness.

***

I know two young men (and their families) who are recent St. Lawrence graduates and former teammates on the lacrosse team. They have been roommates in a Boston apartment ever since their commencement day. One of them was diagnosed with a frightening brain tumor last fall. The other takes every Monday off from work to spend the entire day totally devoted to his friend who requires exhaustive treatments for his disease. St. Lawrence is not the back story, it’s the whole deal. St. Lawrence moves up people to a better self, not just a better life.

Another recent graduate, the child of impoverished Middle Eastern refugees, a sojourning family living throughout Europe during the last ten years, has a found a job and a career path in Washington, DC, all because of St. Lawrence. She is completely self-supporting with much of her savings still going to her family. With similar ambition, a young alumna told me a year ago that the dream she developed as a student was to buy an apartment that she could share one day with her mother, who was then living in a deadly high-crime neighborhood. As a student at St. Lawrence, among her numerous leadership activities, she also spent a term in our New York City program. Because of that special Laurentian door opening to her, she has a well-paying job and now owns an apartment.

Social capital is both personal and communal in the way St. Lawrence expresses the equation. And its gains are constantly breathtaking by any account. You have each invested in this reunion, invested in yourself, and implicitly, you have invested your heart in the more than strictly social habits of St. Lawrence’s future. You can see it first in your own private mirror; and then you can ponder it together and longer from the reunion window as a rare, upward, and uplifting experience. All because of St. Lawrence.