Never Far Away | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Never Far Away

Reunion 2017 Remarks

Over a stretch of ten days in late spring, we who work at St. Lawrence mark the dual sentimental experiences of parting and returning. We become extraordinarily attached to the young men and women who just graduated and departed our campus for the last time as students. It’s reminiscent of going down to the pier in the great days of passenger ships and waving good-bye as the stern clears the harbor.  In their leave-taking, they know that they possess something the world can never take away—a clearer understanding of their own minds and how they best work, accompanied by the indelible identity of being lifetime classmates.

And then, we who vote and pay our taxes in zip code 13617, a place that time barely affects in its familiar streets and rhythms of life, get this glimpse of the future by your presence. We get to see in a very compressed amount of time, a flash projection of the years ahead, what these recent graduates will become, how they will look and feel exactly like you. Because I am one of you, an alumnus in the class of 1975, and have experienced reunion as both a traveler and as an adult living on campus, perhaps in the morally equivalent terms of a “permanent alien resident,” I can safely reveal to you that your return to Canton is not a stand-alone event.

It is not just for your happy memories and heart-felt nostalgia that I welcome you, but rather it’s that your presence complements our hope for the class we have very recently sent into the world. I look at all of you and I think of them. Your reunion affirms for St. Lawrence the future day more than your particular yesterday. And yet, I am also mindful that to get here for this weekend was not easy.

There are the great distances to travel, the worry of missed connections, and the final fifty miles of state roads from any direction that bend and rise at the critical moment you are most worn and most eager “just to get there.” We are not on the way to anywhere—not New York, Boston, or Chicago. We hear often that we are in the middle of nowhere. But I must quickly remind you of the North Country adage, that for Laurentians, we also believe fervently that this place is the “center of everywhere.”

It is a center that begins an intellectual journey, a formative crucible of psychological development, a place requiring a depth of learning social balance, an eternal moment of lasting friendships (for some the life-changing discovery of love and marriage), and it is, finally, a reference point of constancy and renewal. The convenience of not attending a class reunion, however, is truly compelling—the measure of the time commitment is a significant personal consideration, the uncertainty of being unrecognized or not remembering clearly enough someone you once stood beside in a shared bathroom every morning of your sophomore year, each of you brushing your teeth before class. The hesitation about reunion is perfectly natural, but it is also personally intimate—a kind of check on your powers of self-reflection—how am I the same self of my youth? And how much has that core self been used to shape the life I have been living?

Maxine Kumin, a New England poet of meticulous insight, offers an observation that translates to this occasion. In her poem “Family Reunion,” she assumes the role of the matriarch who never moved away. As the narrator notices the returning generations checking out their homestead’s familiar charms and inadequacies, she writes in the final stanza:

Wearing our gestures, how wise you grow,

ballooning to overfill our space,

the almost-parents of your parents now.

So briefly having you back to measure us

is harder than having let you go.

 

I can assure you that when you graduated from St. Lawrence, it was not so easy on this end to let you go. It was not because we doubted your promise, intelligence, or readiness, but that we came to understand each other the way close living requires. We understood that what you were taking from this place coincided with the precise moment you were also beginning to give back to it, even abundantly as students. Meanwhile, reunion time is for lifting up old threads of unfinished conversation and in so doing, you have a reasonable claim on measuring us, perhaps wondering how good the place ever was, still is, or how much better it is now.

***

There are numerous points of measurable interest for me to tell. I’ll begin with the admissions picture for the coming fall, defining best the purpose and life of the place. The class of 2021 will probably be the largest first-year class in our history, matriculating close to 700 students. I’m very proud that 120 of them are the first in their families to enter college. It will have students from 35 states and 29 countries. The class will be 12% U.S. students of color, 15% from North Country families, and 17% St. Lawrence alumni legacies.

About a third of our students participate in inter-collegiate varsity sports. We support 32 teams, not counting lively intramural and club activities. This year 10 St. Lawrence teams appeared in the nationally-ranked top-20 during their seasons of competition. Our equestrian team finished 5th in the nation, repeating a top-5 finish during the last 6 years, including 2 national championships. Our men’s squash team was 3rd this year at the nationals and our seniors in football, who didn’t win a game their first year, nearly went undefeated last fall. Our long tradition of Division-1 ice hockey continues to be a marker of national excellence and the unforgettable Appleton Arena remains a much-admired landmark, often called the Fenway Park of the ECAC.

I am asked all the time about the job market and graduate school opportunities for our graduates. Within nine months of leaving St. Lawrence, 97% of our students have been placed where they want to be. It doesn’t get any better anywhere else in American higher education. Further, it is not a new number. St. Lawrence has been consistent with this percentage for over five years. It correlates with the strength of our curriculum, the hundreds of experiential opportunities we offer, and the power of our alumni network. (By the way, the Princeton Review has named St. Lawrence a “top-10 in the nation” alumni network).

Another data point I hasten to mention comes independently from a massive study by the New York Times on economic diversity and student outcomes. It is based on millions of anonymous tax records, cross-tabulated and compared from many angles. The results show that some colleges are economically segregated and some are associated with income mobility. I am proud to say, or rather have it said, that St. Lawrence falls into the latter side of that division. In the overall mobility index, a measure that represents the likelihood of a student at St. Lawrence moving up two or more income quintiles, we are 18th in the nation out of 71 highly selective private colleges. This is extremely important to us. We move social capital like very few can or do.

A new generation of St. Lawrence faculty has entered the scene. We typically get our first choice in national searches for the best teaching talent in the marketplace. They are already accomplished scholars when they get here and they are multi-dimensional people who have an impressive range of intellectual versatility. Our faculty members are frequently quoted as experts for stories appearing in the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Associated Press, the New York Times, and Forbes magazine. Our science faculty currently holds over $1 million in current NSF grants, which is an all-time record for us. Most of this grant money supports research projects involving students as hands-on partners and collaborators.

Another important measure, particularly in the context of occasionally unnerving national news stories about American college life, is what the St. Lawrence faculty has been saying today about the quality and freedom of diverse speech on our campus. In three short declarative sentences, the St. Lawrence faculty adopted an eloquent statement of values this past academic year: “We value the pursuit of truth through careful consideration of evidence. We value diversity and recognize the inherent worth of every human being. We value putting our knowledge into action to benefit our communities.” Behind each sentence are brief premises, such as, “The pursuit of truth is not easy. It requires the free exchange of ideas, a wide variety of approaches, honest self-examination, and a willingness to confront our own assumptions.” St. Lawrence is an imperfect human organization, but we are sincerely, intelligently, and habitually trying to find our way with a moral compass.

***

In the end, what we are implicitly measuring is not so much our distance or speed at St. Lawrence, but the projection of our hope, our dream, and our ultimate confidence. Much of my work in the last 18 months has been to plan a lasting, long-term strategy formed by a few large, comprehensive ideas. We now know what those ideas must translate into—endow what we already do well—build a superb faculty and get the most promising students within reach of them; create innovative forms of liberal arts learning for the 21st century; expand the power of Laurentian connections to greatest good effect; and take care of our campus, to ensure its beauty, function, and sustainability as an ancient and enduring footpath of a lofty purpose traced in the most impressionable years. Take a look this weekend, for instance, at the recently renewed Herring-Cole Library and Reading Room, particularly the new special event and heritage space on the west side of the building.

The “Campaign for Every Laurentian” is the structure of this belief system of important ideas, expressing for each of us what matters and why at St. Lawrence in the next decade. It will take every Laurentian, every year, to achieve its high resolve. The fact that at St. Lawrence “everyone counts” provides sufficient inspiration and faith. So far, we have had tremendous, unprecedented leadership support. Three trustees have each committed $10 million apiece. At Commencement, we announced the largest gift in St. Lawrence history from Sarah Johnson ‘82 and her parents, Charles and Ann, an unrestricted gift of $25 million. Today, our total commitments exceed $100 million, which is only the beginning, not even the end of the beginning.

This campaign is only in part about fundraising, and not necessarily the larger part. It’s turning out to be mostly about defining the term Laurentian, how its mystic chords are tuned. I’ve heard many attempts to capture the essence of this distinctive kind of belonging. One friend has waggishly asserted that being a Laurentian simply means “no jerks allowed.” Graduating seniors were asked to describe their time here in one sentence: one of the best answers, perhaps recalling subzero nights walking home from the library, “If you don’t like the weather, make your own sunshine.”

I’ll submit an idea from a note sent to me a few days ago from another graduating senior—a fine young man from an old North Country family. His younger sister had faced an insidious cancer for the last twenty-four months, but on terms that made those years triumphant living that no one in Canton will ever forget. She died at the beginning of her brother’s Senior Week. And Laurentians were there to support our student and his family.

St. Lawrence was the only college this local boy applied to, though he writes, “I never dreamed of the possibilities in store [for me]. In my time at St. Lawrence, I was able to travel to five foreign countries to continue my studies and take my research to the next level. St. Lawrence prepared me to [be measured against] the brightest minds of my generation and gain entry into one of the best MD/PhD programs in the world. If there is ever anything I can do to repay even a fraction of what was done for me, I am always a call away.” Never far away—that defines a Laurentian. In the end, that’s why we all decided to get here for Reunion.