Spring Community Letter - April 18, 2011 | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Spring Community Letter - April 18, 2011

Dear Laurentian friends,

Every student should stand under the internal light of a turn-around college course. There is, admittedly, nothing sweeter than a “come-from-behind” victory. In my own case, the first instance of enduring the challenge and frustration born of near-failure occurred in English 101, the traditional “freshman comp” class that was designed to strip out all the bad habits of high school prose. I had never before been diagnosed with a case of purple adjectives until that particular entry point as a St. Lawrence student. As the old jazz master once said about love, “I had it bad, and that ain’t good.”

A week beyond the midterm of English 101, I had a shaky “C” left on the battlefield of a dismal swamp. The ground was so uncertain that it tipped south toward “D.” And then, I remembered something my father, a lifelong teacher, constantly preached, but never pressured: “good writers read great authors.” Just at this critical juncture in a course that would be forever determinative, I discovered George Orwell. It was not the Orwell of Animal Farm or Nineteen-Eighty-Four, but the Orwell of essays, “Why I Write” and “Politics and the English Language.” He had said, “good prose was like a window pane.” Suddenly, or so it seemed to me, my sentences began to pull the right cord; and the shades opened on a new day.

Forty years later, I found a reissued paperback of Orwell’s essays in an airport bookstore. On the flight home, I consumed again the diet that once had given me formative sustenance. And, in my circling back, I rediscovered an illustration Orwell had inserted to describe a moment of significant social change; one that struck me as particularly apt in my work today at St. Lawrence during a period of unsettled trends—financial, demographic, and cultural.

There was once a contest between two technologies, one known, one new. It was a controversy in the 19th-century between the nautical screw-propeller below the waterline of steamships and the more familiar paddle wheel steamer. “The paddle-steamers, like all obsolete things,” writes Orwell, “had their champions, who supported them by ingenious arguments.” At last, an enterprising admiral tied together each type of steamer, stern-to-stern. They were equal in tonnage and horsepower as their engines were opened up. The question was quickly settled.


There are new forces in higher education, some inside the academy and some surrounding us “in context,” as scholars often put it. American colleges have a history of old forces being pulled by new ones—the GI Bill in the 1950s, the growth of science in the 1960s, the expansion of coeducation in the 1970s, the success of affirmative action in the ’80s, the broadening of international studies in the 1990s, and the campus building boom—virtual and physical—in the last decade. As Orwell’s story reminds us, once and for all, an organization with a confident sense of its future is stronger than one wedded to its past, even a past no longer than five or ten years.

As we begin a new essay outlining the St. Lawrence of a nearby tomorrow, what emerging themes will most likely propel us, and do so in order to avoid the paddle-wheeler’s fate? While the St. Lawrence community has worked hard to establish a culture of thrift in the midst of high winds and waves upon deep economic waters, it has also, through its complex of energies, traditions, and explorations, gained a fresh moment to begin developing a culture of innovation. 

Our faculty is now engaged in a vital conversation that probably occurs only once or twice in a professor’s career, a discussion that considers the form and function of a liberal arts curriculum fit for a generation that will be living in the 21st century. In support of this exchange of ideas among our faculty members, and also framing a wider examination of other areas in University life, a second “Recession Response” task group has just produced a lengthy study and report called “A Sustainable Future for St. Lawrence University.” It is an extraordinary working paper, stress-testing our tightened financial options and laying out many clean lines of possibility in program, market, and institutional identity. We’re now gathering feedback on campus, but this work surely forms the raw material of continuing a larger planning process—a body of ideas that will invite much interest and reflection from Laurentians everywhere.

Last year, the acute demands upon an equivalent faculty-staff task group, formed in order to give a first-response to the crater-impact of the Great Recession on St. Lawrence, were the critical requirements of adjusting and realigning our annual budgets. It abides as a work still in progress and it will keep our strict discipline in place for the next several years. We are seeing, however, solid results in our operating performance, reducing expenses by 5% and holding back further revenue erosion. But the pressure on the University’s revenue streams and cash balances will remain severely heavy for at least 12 to 16 more quarters.

Meanwhile, we cannot stand still; the world moves, the day turns. Our new planning process is served by excellent models well known on campus—the St. Lawrence way—from the antecedents of a Middle States accreditation self-study and external evaluation, a comprehensive Student Retention Study and Plan, up-to-date market research results developed by an outstanding national consultant less than a year ago, and the exemplary faculty-staff cooperation in responding to the difficult recession economy. We are posing hard questions and listening carefully to the multiple reactions from around campus, taking our notepads to all corners from the maintenance shops to the academic departments, from the kitchen staff to the coaching staff, from student groups to back-office workers. This summer, for several intensive days, we will bring together on campus a representative group of community members as a “Strategic Mapping Council” to advance the route into the next decade.

As we continue to add voices in this important and expanding conversation, a shared vision now seems doable, almost visible. It is not a vision belonging exclusively to a board, a president, a faculty, or a particular constituency. Rather, it comes from overhearing each other often enough to realize that we share a common capacity to revere deeply what we already have, so special and even unchangeable. Our shared perspective, however, must also imagine and capture what it is we may become if we “actualized” (a word Orwell might dislike) our unique genius and fuller potential in revived terms. 

If anticipation can bend light around the road’s curve toward our shared vision, then let me suggest a few themes to expect:

*We will need more students (equal in ability and promise to our current classes), from more places, requiring more financial support—all in the name of “affording the opportunity.”

*We will need to tap more deeply our pioneering tradition of learning at St. Lawrence to ensure that students live the liberal arts life before they graduate—“enhancing a St. Lawrence education” by offering a wider menu of experiential development (internships, travel, study abroad, and research alongside faculty).

*We will need to include “green” as our third school color—our community is a microcosm of a world that must learn to adapt its habits and habitat to a changing reality; if our currently finite energy resources are not altered to become renewable, this generation of students will see history and the planet change in ways we’ve never dreamed. What we do in our next master facilities plan and in our curriculum must get them ready for a question that is theological in scope.

*We will need to serve alumni, recent graduates especially, with longer lines of learning, giving, and belonging than we have yet designed—the St. Lawrence mission must continue beyond Commencement Day to inspire ongoing purpose and consequence in “building lives of difference.”

*We will need to discover “new states” of belonging to the Laurentian circle—perhaps new partnerships with other institutions for seamless entry to graduate study, a fifth year at St. Lawrence for a second Bachelor’s degree, or our own specialized niches for advanced study. 


In all this, St. Lawrence, at this very moment, is like that awakened student we all should now recognize, the one initially surprised that even an elementary course could be difficult, the one finding a way to rally when feeling behind, but who finally aces the class. The “101 college course” taken by the University community during these recession years—learning hard lessons, measuring unfamiliar circumstances, and adjusting to different ratios—has started to make sense. As we think and talk, I hear the class saying, we can do this; we are resilient; the “A” grade is still within reach. 

And, as our students turn to the keen mindfulness of their own finals this spring, I hope many of them will teach themselves a lesson…of how really good they are at being students, better than they first knew.


William L. Fox