Our Testament of Dauntless Resolve | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Our Testament of Dauntless Resolve

Convocation 2017

The opening of the fall term at St. Lawrence is always energizing and infectious. During the summer interlude, a reserve of unrealized splendor and unfettered possibilities builds up within each of us. And yet, in a short while, as experience also reminds us, the work ahead in our classes, campus activities, and countless meetings for almost any purpose, will also at times feel daunting. Not today, or even next week, but we will at times grow tired, a portion of splendor remaining imprisoned, the better goals of our seeking out of reach. Our opening convocation must, therefore, serve to give each of us confidence that we have enough of what we need in wits and stamina for the weeks ahead—enough to declare at the very beginning a dauntless resolve.

A few weeks ago, I finished reading the extraordinary memoir of Vera Brittain called Testament of Youth, first published in 1933, but based on her coming-of-age experience as a volunteer nurse during the First World War. She spent four years working in hospitals, treating severely wounded soldiers and often tending their needs in the last moments of dying. Both her brother Edward and her fiancé Roland Leighton were killed in battle. Her book draws extensively from their letters and shared poetry; also her determination to be educated in a university (Somerville College at Oxford) informs some of the best writing in the book. Much of what she describes gives structure and basis to a later 20th century feminist perspective.

Several poignant sentences from Testament of Youth deserve close consideration, but one in particular gets my attention today. She writes, “There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think—which is fundamentally a moral problem—must be induced before the power is developed. Most people… wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.” Learning to think independently—or as the liberal arts world often says, to think critically, analytically, and creatively—is usually not defined as a moral problem. While I am struck by that different view of learning, I was also jarred by her insistence that such a function of education must also be “induced.” We tend, of course, to think of pedagogy as a form of encouragement, inspiration, discipline, coaching, and even contagion.

Moral issues are typically expected to be resolved by taking or refusing action based on the consideration of first principles. Any preliminary exertion of our minds, in order to get ourselves beyond a decision point, is not usually considered to be the achievement of moral ends in itself. Quality thinking, as most of us may still presuppose, is the active means to good ends, a matter of practiced functionality, but not the answer to a moral question. If you are like me, however, holding to the traditional legal distinction between thought and action, I suggest we reconsider our neutrality. Given the acute and frightening rebirth of anti-intellectualism in our society, how we think, how we think well, how others are thinking or not, makes this work at a liberal arts college, this work of developing minds able to achieve clear thinking, a moral problem, after all, one with significant urgency.

Does this kind of task in teaching young men and women today require a more muscular inducement than we may have realized, as Vera Brittain posits from a personal experience a century ago? I don’t know yet myself, but I recommend that we think about it together in the coming year. Is the St. Lawrence academic and community experience achieving the moral good of good thinking?  How our students think about themselves, each other, each other’s identities and cultures, and their shared natural world must constantly be understood as a requisite process prior to what they think, because that is what we ultimately owe them and the larger society they will soon enter.

David Brooks speaks to this issue in a recent column (NYT, 8/16/17): “I’m beginning to think the whole depressing spectacle of this moment…is caused by a breakdown of intellectual virtue, a breakdown in America’s ability to face evidence objectively, to pay due respect to reality, to deal with complex and unpleasant truths. The intellectual virtues may seem elitist, but once a country tolerates dishonesty, incuriosity and intellectual laziness, then everything falls apart.” We may resist Vera Brittain’s prescription of thinking being “induced,” but it implies the point David Brooks is now making—there is something immediate, urgent, and moral about our calling as a university community that faces the problem of “getting it right,” standing up for intellectual virtues; and the other kinds of virtues, too, such as justice, decency, and fairness.

Another important measure, particularly in the context of unnerving national news stories about American college life, is what the St. Lawrence faculty has been saying recently 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.

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Meanwhile, to do this work in the complexity of a residential college, and to feel sufficient support for it, we also need to know, understand, and be confident in how the university runs its affairs. The economic environment for American higher education today is more than moderately difficult; in plain terms, it’s much harder than anyone reasonably expected after the Great Recession. While many private institutions have proven themselves to be resilient, adaptive, and innovative—St. Lawrence being a notable national leader in these terms—the challenge has become so formidable that in a summer survey of college presidents, the number one worry, among many that are also named, is financial strain.

In our case, we are now in the process of shifting assumptions about our operating structure that has been in place for over a quarter century. As I have said before, our finances are a highway bridge that we can still cross safely, but we do so while knowing there’s a crack in one of the piers, which needs to be repaired before it gets worse. The bridge is open, but we have work to do on the part ultimately holding it up.

The older financial model here assumed the most optimistic margins and surpluses, based on larger endowment returns and spending percentages, based on greater family savings rates and student revenues, and based on more consistent public support for the public good we do. All of these reduced variables remain juxtaposed to the evergreen capital needs of the campus, the principal and interest on debt from another time, and the essential necessity of compensating devoted people doing excellent work in every corner of campus. If we didn’t recognize these circumstances and name them as a priority, we would justifiably call this matter daunting. Instead, I wish to offer, as an equivalent measure of our central “ground of being,” a testament of dauntless resolve about the university’s business affairs.

Our finances, reputation, and market position are strong. The credit rating agencies have said so, once again. But let’s not kid ourselves or put our heads in the sand—we will require over the next few years better operating margins than our forecasts show if we do nothing differently. This may mean hard, trade-off choices in how we allocate our resources, recognizing the dream of doing everything has wakened to a day of doing only the things we do best and perhaps better than anyone else. The exceptional initiative of an early retirement benefit for staff and faculty is one example of our financial model project at work.

Our dauntless resolve is reflected in the enrollment picture for this year, defining best the purpose and life of this good place. The class of 2021 is the largest first-year class in our history, matriculating over 700 students. I’m very proud that 120 of them are the first in their families to enter college. It claims students from 35 states and 29 countries. The class is 12% U.S. students of color, 15% are from North Country families, and 17% are St. Lawrence alumni legacies.

Much of my work in the last 18 months has been to plan a lasting, long-term campaign strategy formed by a few large, comprehensive ideas that warrant deeper financial support. 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.

I am happy to tell you that the days of our highly effective academic advising and support programs dwelling in the temporary Whitman Annex will soon become numbered. Owing to major campaign support, we have signed the first phase construction contract to prepare workspace for the IT staff’s relocation to the ODY Library; when that move is completed, the lower floor of Madill Hall will then be renovated for a new Center for Student Achievement. We are not increasing the campus footprint to do this project, which will certainly mark important progress toward our sustainability goals. Happily for everyone, we will remove permanently the current modular Whitman Annex building that will have served its singular purpose long enough.

The “Campaign for Every Laurentian” is the structure of this testament of important ideas, expressing for each of us the strategic goals of 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 are approaching $110 million, which ought to signal a bright dawn in a sunrise era.

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I give you finally another sentence from Vera Brittain for this occasion calling us to a renewed purpose and the hard work ahead. She reminds her readers that “At college, more than anywhere else, one was likely to make the friendships that supported one through life.”  We can induce them to think, but we can only show them by our own example how friendship is made by how we treat, respect, and care for each other.

At Commencement in May, a member of the class received his degree by crossing the stage in a wheelchair. A skiing accident in his senior year forever changed his life. Keenan Weischedel is a Laurentian of dauntless resolve. He was at our house recently for a summer alumni event and we talked extensively about his plans. He has every reason to dream big because he found friends for life at St. Lawrence. The months he spent at a Boston rehab center could have broken anyone’s spirit many times. Every single weekend, St. Lawrence students, in varying numbers and in organized rotation, drove from Canton to Boston to stand by their friend. And that is the best testament of all, I believe, in our resolve to teach and hope what this next year shall be at St. Lawrence.