Risking Success on the Modest, Kindly and Selfless | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Risking Success on the Modest, Kindly and Selfless

Remarks at Convocation - August 27, 2014

When you amble the streets of Berkeley and explore the University of California, the George Cunningham Edwards Stadium is hard to miss. It is named for a descendant of the American theologian Jonathan Edwards. Counted in the small class of first graduates, George Cunningham Edwards taught mathematics at the university for fifty years. The UC stadium is not named for a coach, a benefactor, or a governor.  Rather, it honors a teacher whose influence transcended his classroom. The inscription about Professor Edwards gives us timely understanding about some important work in the world, our work: “He believed in youth and youth made him its confidant—modest, kindly, selfless.”

On this first day of class in the new academic year, we begin with no better affirmation than a shared belief in the young people gathered here to learn. They need to feel our belief in them, which is expressed at St. Lawrence in the terms still admired and later immortalized at a great research university, in personalities that are modest, kindly, and selfless. The art of teaching along lines drawn by the human touch, in turn, ought to make students believe in us as their trustworthy confidants. When that recipe works, we have in hand the eureka elixir of St. Lawrence at its best.

At other colleges, there are other versions of how success is achieved. In 1917, when Robert Frost had first joined the English faculty at Amherst College, he summarized in his journal the purpose of teaching, which for him contained a severe admonition soaked with an implicit remedy. “What we do in college,” he wrote, “is get over our little-mindedness.” He was right, of course, because if we can’t get past this impediment, we have little chance of realizing the better ambition of believing in youth.

In this fresh start, we must take time to retrieve the memory and promise of what we believe in or risk perpetuating an insidious little-mindedness. And what each of must do individually in our new classes or first meetings with students, the entire university must also do in all the unseen, modest connections existing in our corners of thought and experience. Put differently, these successful, selfless transactions across campus give confidence and concreteness to our larger institutional progress and ambition. Let’s review some of our recent work.

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During the last three years, St. Lawrence has followed a map of its own making. The distance covered has been astonishing, going farther and faster than first imagined when sketching the initial waymarks of our travel. We did this while also coming out of the Great Recession. I’ve selected a few milestones to note on this occasion based on questions of measurement I posed earlier in the summer to alumni.

How have we accomplished our first purpose to enhance, broaden, and intensify the St. Lawrence experience for our students? We are known widely for our innovations in curricular structure and flexibility, particularly in cross-linking the liberal arts disciplines. Within the last three years, we have placed 80 students in our New York City Semester, an urban immersion experience like none other in the U.S. We have recently complemented our acclaimed Adirondack Semester with a spring term devoted exclusively to the theme of sustainability, blending large issues of safe food production with small-scale living and intense discussion. Another mark of distinction is the graduation requirement of environmental literacy. Last year we launched a new major called Business in the Liberal Arts, designed with a rigorous structure that takes an already existing double major pattern, such as Economics and Philosophy, and then hitches the academic package to internships. In only our first year, we have over 45 students who have declared this major.

The primacy of the student experience also incorporates a variety of campus living possibilities, which we have just increased by building a new residence hall to LEED silver standards with sustainable geothermal energy. The project was completed on time, on budget, paid up, and debt free.

While all this is being noted about student life, the St. Lawrence faculty is witness to life changes, too. Last year’s full-time faculty roster was the largest it’s ever been and we will remain committed to sustaining the size of our teaching ranks. In the last few years, we paid loving tribute to 24 senior professors who have retired, a gigantic intellectual legacy touching thousands of former students. Meanwhile, we have hired 35 new tenure-track professors; another 44 faculty members have also earned the privileges of tenure and promotion in this same short span. Last year we completed 10 new searches for full-time teaching positions; this fall we will begin recruiting and searching for another 12 full-time tenure-track faculty lines. This infusion of talent and energy is felt everywhere on campus. Nothing is more strategic for us than developing the next generation of master teachers.

Have we enlarged our reputation in recent years? Put another way, are we better known and more attractive to prospective students and potential faculty members? Today, in our student enrollment, we have the largest representation of states and countries ever in our 160-year history. We have added about 140 students to our population over the last four years, so that our total enrollment in round figures is 2,450. We have enough room for 2,500 students. Currently, 388 students on campus are alumni legacies.

The first-year class is among our largest during the last 30 years, even with a record number of 30 committed students in this admissions cycle taking a gap year, but who will be with us next fall. We have the highest diversity percentages in our history with U.S. students of color and international students making up more than a fifth of our student body.

Have we ensured the adequacy of our financial strength for the future? By all familiar yardsticks, the financial measures of American higher education today are certainly not prompting gleefulness. St. Lawrence, however, has proved its resiliency and discipline in terms recognized by credit rating agencies who have sustained our grade and outlook while reducing their confidence in many other colleges with much larger endowments than ours. In the coming year, our portfolio value will likely reach $300 million, the highest it’s ever been booked. We have finished with operating surpluses and strong cash positions over the last five years. But among the lasting effects and vital lessons of the recent economic recession is the fixed reality of tightness in all our operating margins, particularly the margin of error. I remain convinced that this reality of prudence, accompanied by “can-do” optimism, induces and inspires the best creativity.

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We have more metes and bounds yet to mark; we have more paths and roads still to open; we have more mapping and drawing to put on paper. It is time to exercise the impulse to dream bigger. We are in a different place from five years ago, a different moment from three years ago when we first had a map in hand. Much that is left undone requires larger resources in the future, so part of my work with our Board of Trustees this year will be to enter into preliminary discussions about how these powerful dreams can be supported, endowed, and secured.

Also this year, I wish to begin a series of “campus info informals” for faculty and staff to gather together monthly, first for an opportunity to exchange information and ideas about the university’s work, but then allowing equal time for a purpose that is strictly social. We have welcomed many new colleagues to the St. Lawrence community in a short time, so first-hand forms of communication about the current state of things seem essential and timely. For the good reason of ensuring our tradition of a strong, pleasant community, we need to know each other better.

Several important work assignments need to be accomplished in keeping with our principles of shared planning. I am asking the Institutional Strategic Assessment Committee (ISAC) to focus on the area of the map designated broadly as advancing and refining the student experience at St. Lawrence. Is there anything missing in our endeavor to get students ready? Who will make up the faculty and staff necessary for our success? What will that faculty need for its maximum effectiveness and distinctiveness? Are there programs not yet in existence that will differentiate St. Lawrence, programs or fields of study that we can do better than any other university?  In short, I am asking that we draft and discuss the Strategic Map 2.0; and that we work on this refreshed version with a sense of unhurried urgency. I intend to seek the Board’s advice and consent on the big picture at its February meeting.

In addition, I am appointing this fall a standing university committee on diversity and inclusion. As president, I will meet with this committee at the beginning and near the end of each semester. I expect this committee to meet weekly, perhaps at lunchtime, to guide the broad work agenda that the commission on diversity set forth in its report earlier this year. Its discussion, of course, must examine the question of institutional priorities based on the boulder-like touchstone of deepening and enriching the student experience.

I am also asking the Building and Grounds Committee to review the campus master plan with our chief facilities officer and consulting architect. Our recent intensive schedule of projects has now made necessary the wise habit of testing our construction and renovation priorities again, and developing recommendations upholding the beauty and best function of our campus.

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I am mindful that looming over these immediate special tasks is an immense question of risk that is both material and philosophical: What will the successful residential liberal arts college be expected to do in the next quarter century?  While I am all for bold ideas, our future must also cohere around a true north of tradition, perhaps no more than an etiquette of learning.

We will not succumb, for instance, to the short-cut temptation of saying we owe our students jobs, even though our current placement rate of 97% is unrivalled. We will not owe them any particular public status, even though we are famous for the intensity of our social education that allows students to form the closest bonds of affinity with us and with each other. Instead, we are obligated by a solidly simple tradition: to provide them substance, inquiry, and confidence.

Content matters in a St. Lawrence education. Great teachers know that you must always teach from the center of your material, from a body of knowledge. Our students need to know that big problems have been and can be solved. Substance counts and our students in both their knowledge and their developing competence must always bend toward solutions and, as Richard Feynman once said, the pleasure of finding things out.

Inquiry follows substance, just as doubt accompanies belief, just as answers invite questions. We owe them what T.S. Eliot called “the common pursuit of true judgment” that notes the difference between posing the right question and simply following a trivial curiosity. Inquiry here must exceed the boundaries of the informative to make room for the daring and abiding large issues about truth and justice, the origins of the universe, the beginnings of life, the meaning of love, or the quantum details of how the human mind works. In time, through the practice of the liberal arts life, a confidence is born that begins to understand what matters and why.

In asking about the future, I have, like the rower of an Adirondack guide boat, faced backwards to go forward. I don’t believe historians are the only academics to face this way. But we know where we’re going; and we’ll be using a map. We believe in youth and we know what matters to their ultimate happiness. Risking our success ought to be in our nature, for it is certainly in our curriculum. And yet, the irony is that the risk is best mitigated by a counter-intuitive certainty—that the modest, kindly, and selfless at St. Lawrence will prevail, be remembered and, in the end, make all the difference.