Never Better is Never Good Enough | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Never Better is Never Good Enough

Convocation 2015

I greet first the newest members of our community who attend this convocation for the first time. And to them, I express the immediacy of our pleasure in their arriving, a salutation that is genuine and meant to include a heartfelt pledge from all of us to make these first days and first years happy ones.

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When I consider saying other words besides the anticipated “welcome back,” what may the opening sentences ask or convey? Let’s start with a dual sense of continuity and projection. Now, where were we when we last met? Our answer ought to begin with the thought of our graduating students, perhaps technically former students, though given our habit of building lifelong relationships between those who teach and those who are taught, I doubt anyone in that bundle of bonds wants the word “former” to gain firm purchase.

Since we last met, our students have begun to find their way in the world. In fact, according to our most recent survey of the preceding class, the placement rate for jobs and graduate school acceptances is 97%. For the sake of research accuracy, I checked the returns; the response rate was over 80%. The bigger news in this information is that over 46% said they are in their current line of work or study as a direct result of the Laurentian network, formed mainly by faculty and alumni. “Never better” is a pair of words that could stand in for “welcome back,” because we can easily demonstrate that our strategic focus and execution, begun a few years ago, is taking great effect.

Where are we now as we check the weather indicators of the new academic year? The entering class of 2019 in its size and quality has never been better. The proportions, breadth of experience, and intellectual quality of our faculty, when considering there have been more than 50 full-time tenure track appointments since the Great Recession, has never been better. The passion and loyalty of our alumni, while always the envy of our peer colleges, has never been better.

Recently, the admissions market demand for St. Lawrence, in the face of uncertain demographics and less secure family economics, has soared above predictions. Campus visits by prospective applicants this summer went up by 22% in July. Never better. The nationwide reputation of St. Lawrence, as examined most recently by Forbes and Money magazines, has never been better. Princeton Review has never been more positive about recommending St. Lawrence, noting that the quality of our science labs and study abroad programs are ranked among the top-20 of the nation. Never better.

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I probably read too much Kierkegaard or Reinhold Niebuhr in my 20s, but because of their tamed skepticism, I have always worked to avoid the trap of excessive optimism. Instead, I have taken a strong dose of provisional caution, but then have ended up on the side of ultimate hope. It would not serve our larger purpose with sufficient integrity if I left off now and allowed the words “never better” to stand alone without challenge.

While I invite your Laurentian loyalty and pride to join with mine in citing so many examples of progress that can be summarized as “never better,” I hasten to remind you of the fairy tale that turns on a beautiful piece of summer fruit that is in reality a poisoned apple. When a college believes or a college president says, “never better,” look out and look in. These are very dangerous words to leave unexamined or to implant in the campus vocabulary without careful interpretation.

The peril of claiming “never better” status is that we succumb to the seeming rational belief that “more of the same,” preferably with more financial resources, is the non-stop ticket. In my experience, it is just at the point when the high performance motor is running in tune with a Stradivarius that you better check the tires.

We are a healthy, happy, and strategically conditioned place of energetic learning and worthwhile doing. But take the words “liberal arts,” “income inequality,” and “regulatory compliance,” all found in the public discourse with loaded implications, and then ponder how at first blush none of them should be tangential to each other, but surprisingly they are. Whether separately or clustered, those word pairs now touch and define St. Lawrence as never before, particularly when heard in the many configurations of the public square. If we fail in our curricular nimbleness or in achieving big ideas over the next decade, “never better” will become never worse.

A thrum and drum counterpoint in America continues to challenge the intrinsic and ultimate value of a liberal arts education; its cadences increase in volume each year, in both senses of the measure—the larger numbers of people in surveys who believe that studying within the liberal arts framework is fusty and elitist; and the actual loudness of their negative, doubtful expressions. The sagging appeal of the liberal arts is also owing to an erosion of middle class buying power, no matter how much we at St. Lawrence try to offset those worries with our good conscience, represented by steep growth in financial aid. Further, we are now many years past the prophesy of Orwell’s 1984, but the effort at St. Lawrence to justify its private, non-profit independence with governmental agencies requires over 7,000 hours a year of staff and faculty time in the reports filed and the training required. Saying no more, there remains obvious and abundant adversity to pile upon these examples of how our own “never better” pride should stand on guard.

And yet, we have creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation on our side, it’s in the blood type of our community, what the physicist Richard Feynman admired as “the kick of discovery.” The history of St. Lawrence is a personal one for me, not solely because I was once a student on this campus, but because over those intervening years, I have listened to many older graduates of this university tell the saga, dating back to a person whom I knew in the class from 1908. Those voices, would have personally heard graduates of the 1870s speak of this valley campus and the earliest, fragile days of its first half century.

Throughout all the decades, St. Lawrence proved itself slightly ahead of the times in terms of what was taught here. From theories of evolution to climate change, from geology to sociology, from physics to psychology as a science, from criminology to humanistic theology, our faculty were often noted as among the first in any American college to build courses around these fresh fields of inquiry. We were pioneers in teaching Canadian Studies, Swahili, and the history of China after 1945. In thinking back, we don’t have to think of our future as unprecedented.

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The social theorist Charles Lemert, affiliated with Wesleyan and Yale Universities, writes recently with a long view of human history and what happens when worlds change, as we ourselves come to grips with a transitional moment, unsure how we should adjust, innovate, and carry on. Lemert calls this feeling a “what now?” moment, “which is to say: What are we to do now that much, perhaps all that we have been taught to assume as the givens of our lives may no longer apply?” I agree with Lemert, along with more than a few St. Lawrence faculty members, such as Steve Papson and Alan Draper, that academic culture in America, ironically the most esteemed by the world everywhere, has slipped into the acute symptoms of “status anxiety” brought on by “the age of fracture.”

Professor Lemert reminds us, however, that all is not lost. Whenever equivalent moments have occurred on a grander sweeping landscape, something or someone had been “able to pick up the thread of what was unravelling to weave a new cloak out of the remnants. When Rome fell, there was Augustine….When classical metaphysics lost its grip, there was Kant, Marx, and Hegel…. When… the House of David [collapsed], there was Isaiah and the prophets.”* Sometimes what followed was not better or helpful, but the question, “What now?” must have an answer.

The particular answer for St. Lawrence ought to be unbending: “never better” is never good enough. What now? To limit our thinking and work to the single year we now begin is also not good enough. What do we want at St. Lawrence for the decade of the 2020s, just around the corner? What does the world need us to be? What can we create and what can we do that will weave what Alfred North Whitehead called the indivisible “seamless coat of learning?”

Because of our recent successes at innovation—the New York City program, the Business in Liberal Arts major, the Sustainability Semester, the Statistics major, and the partnership with the Brookings Institution on East African security issues, and numerous other programmatic experiments—we are already in the middle of our answer to “What now?” So, the charge for the coming months will need to be “what next?” And this is what has captivated the St. Lawrence Board of Trustees to work with us in planning a comprehensive fundraising campaign, which is intended to be the largest in St. Lawrence history.

In barest outline, but with immense potential to be transformational in the years ahead, there are several differentiating ideas now in circulation that I wish to encourage without delay. How can the St. Lawrence sophomore year be better as its own formative occasion for a student to store up identity and intellectual capital? Can we connect up a half dozen academic disciplines, in true liberal arts precedent, to develop a major in the field of public health? What will it take in campaign support to achieve “best-in-the-nation” status for our Business in Liberal Arts major?

There is similar opportunity to bring our graduate program in Education into a broader field of cognitive studies, for nothing will prove to have greater importance than understanding how different people learn differently. Further, if we make a commitment to fostering entrepreneurial thinking among students as essential in their 4-year academic experience—regardless  of one’s major, even in arts, humanities,  and social sciences—St. Lawrence will once again break new ground. Staffing, space, and program through a new center of innovation, ethics, diversity, and leadership are achievable means to the better ends of revealing to young people on this campus their deeper confidence and inner splendor.

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A few days ago, the St. Lawrence Senior Staff and Faculty Council gathered for an all-day retreat. Our purpose was philosophical, practical, and social; proportionate attention was given to each, though we ended the day, as we will end this one, with refreshment and sustenance. The spirit of the day was to think together openly about “what now?” And for several hours, we were not professors or administrators, not particularly mindful of fall classes or the inescapable business calendar, we were reflecting and listening, even dreaming.

Chris Watts proposed, tongue-in-cheek, that to go out-of-the-box we might add “cyborg studies” to the curriculum, that is, the literary genre or ontological inquiry of comic-book superheroes. But then, as only good teachers know how to do when grabbing the audience’s attention, Chris said in earnest and without challenge, “the issue that will be foremost in the coming decades is, what does it mean to be human in the 21st century?” In the presence of artificial intelligence, biological technology, or ethical understanding, new answers are needed for an old uncertainty. Today, my remarks should serve as an invitation to think along with each other in front of the big problems and abiding questions that the next generation must face. What do we owe them in getting them ready?

As we begin again, I turn back to a favorite piece of writing about the greatness of the American small college, a book that has remained in print for 45-years. Burton Clark said that a place like St. Lawrence, once established and sure in its direction, occasionally crisis-tested, but quickened by change, will express holistically what it values most deeply while it “accumulates a predisposition that arguably becomes the best predictor of its reaction to contemporary pressures and future trends.” He says, over time, the people who are attached and embellished by the distinctive idea of such a place will all together become “proud of what they have been through, what they have done, what they stand for.” About the “what now?” question, the present moment should make us feel, “never better.”

*Charles Lemert, Why Niebuhr Matters (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), xv.