Standing in the Shadows | St. Lawrence University President's Office

Standing in the Shadows

Convocation 2019

My first word belongs to the newest members of our community who attend this convocation for the first time. And to them, I extend a greeting that includes a heartfelt pledge from all of us to make these early days and first years happy ones. I will say to you what I often find myself saying to prospective students who tell me in April that they plan to join the first year class in August. You will never regret this decision.

For those who enter this day with the familiarity and the experience of many years at St. Lawrence, saying “welcome back” is not saying enough. First of all, we were not long apart from each other during the summer recess. In reality, an extensive seasonal hiatus in the main work of the university is a fantasy. And yet, I am obligated by custom to remind you of our continuing central purpose that shall return all of us to teaching, advancing knowledge, pursuing scholarly activity, advising, examining, guiding, and inspiring our students, and caring for each other.

Plain-speaking, we constantly stand in the shadows of this place wherever we are, no matter the season; and what that means is my topic for this occasion.

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When I was within a few days of beginning high school, in the final flash of summer, a friend called and invited me to join him and his grandfather on a road trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. In those days, the board walk and perpendicular piers had the nightly feel of a state fair. We strolled the sites after dinner and my friend’s grandfather retired early to his hotel room, only saying don’t be late for breakfast.

What could two 14 year-old boys possibly do with time on their hands in old Atlantic City without a chaperone? We decided we had to see a show. As it turned out, The Four Tops were playing a late set on Steel Pier. With a 4-buck ticket we were in. This was the summa of the Motown sound and when the first measure of the plaintive finale was recognized, “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” the place went crazy and brought to pass three encores.

About twenty years ago that signature song was the title of a film documentary about the studio musicians who were generally anonymous, but together recorded more hits than Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys combined. These 13 musicians, white and black, were already accomplished jazz and blues artists, but went unrecognized and unknown for decades. They called themselves The Funk Brothers and, arguably, their creative back beat, unique bass line, blended guitar and piano responses, and the penetrating horn soloes formed the bedrock genius of Motown success.

The Funk Brothers represent a proxy for our own terms of understanding vital, creative work. We’ve been playing great music, but have not usually been the big name at the front of the main stage. The American residential liberal arts college seems to be standing in the shadows.

We stand in the shadows of a higher education economy that touches and affects us, but cannot be driven by us. We stand in the shadows of a marketplace that tilts toward the idea of mass education as the net efficiency of high volume and low price, which presumably ought to be every school’s bottom line purpose. We stand in the shadows of negative stories about university life, academic culture, and the canard of intellectual elitism.

And yet, like the Funk Brothers, we in the liberal arts world have had a disproportionate, sometimes less visible, though essential part to play in creating a very impressive body of work—our faculty are caring and innovative, our alumni are generous and loyal, our students are curious and hard-working, their parents are grateful and proud, our trustees are knowing and involved, and our staff are smart and wise. This music swings. Some of the best teaching in the country is found on our campus. Some of the most effective voluntarism by students anywhere on the continent occurs in Canton. Some of the nation’s cutting-edge campus programming began at St. Lawrence.

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Nevertheless, we avoid the shadows at our own peril. Let’s admit as the song does, we’re “getting ready for the heartaches to come.” What are we facing and how are we going to sing a new song in a strange time? We cannot ignore what the social prophets and educational economists are saying about us.

Higher education is facing some measurably seismic challenges. Richard Vedder ticks off several forms of adversity: “Huge increases in the cost to attend college are turning off both parents and elected officials. As the country becomes more polarized politically, the climate of higher education, where divergent ideas are explored and peacefully discussed, is under attack. Public resources for higher education are becoming scarcer as the population ages with growing health care priorities. The perceived value of a college education is under scrutiny with many believing that it is not worth the investment, despite all of the evidence to the contrary.”

An economist friend and retired college president says that the challenge can be distilled to a single strained maxim: a well-educated labor force, requiring that it be highly rewarded, is in recurring tension with income inequality. That is the biggest challenge today for American colleges. Over a stretch of 30 years, from 1992 to 2012, educational costs once represented 30% of median family income and then over time rose to 55%. Generally, the public has a very limited grasp of the complex reasons for this cost disease and these sorts of rate comparisons.

The broader criticism of education begins with the assertion that it should be focused on the practical, on employment readiness, and job attainment. About the liberal arts, the argument extends to an assumption that a liberal arts education is a starry-eyed indulgence meant for privileged students whose personal development is a deceit for cultivating elite objectives and upper class material values. And then, of course, we are feeling the winds of economic resistance, so that a liberal arts education, inside a residential community in front of a closely engaged faculty, is viewed as too expensive.

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The general analysis is not necessarily wrong, but it leaves out the voices of us who emphatically express faith over fear. We stand in the shadows, yes, but we are not standing still. We will be updating a strategic map that has served us well for almost ten years. It has guided our changes and measured our distances. And yet, there is a revived question bordering the map that warrants brief commentary in this hour—what must a liberal arts college do to prove itself today?

This particular question about our liberal arts core identity—a kind of Funk Brothers moment—depends on the opening bass notes heard by a wide audience eager for the consequential rhythm to disclose the melody of an educated society. We are the rhythm section of higher education. And there’s a lot at stake for all of us to ensure the best results possible in how we sound. One line of our music is the Campaign for Every Laurentian and the other is the more subtle campaign to enlarge and secure our excellent reputation.

We announced ten months ago the strategic purpose and goal of our comprehensive fundraising campaign. The target is $225 million. Today we have raised in gifts and commitments for future gifts over $160 million, which is 71% of our ambitious total. I remind you that this campaign is mostly about increasing our university endowment, now valued at $310 million; and the endowment directly supports faculty, programs, and students. Much is naturally fluid in a campaign, but, as we go along, only a quarter of the goal will be for capital projects. Most of it prefers people, not property.

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Secondly, we are not standing still in building a good report of ourselves. Our reputation, in the end, even more than our current and future resources, will be the most decisive set of chords in the music we are making today. “Didn’t I do the best I could now, didn’t I?” If we miss the crux of the whole song, we won’t be standing in the shadows, we’ll be overshadowed and passed by. Our good reputation is good news, but it’s never guaranteed and always fragile.

St. Lawrence now has a very public life. The most recent edition of the Princeton Review gives us top marks and extra credit in so many vital areas of doing well—our alumni network, our career services, our university management, our science labs, and our student government—all receive the highest commendation. We get overall excellent reviews in the results of the student experience with faculty.

We most definitely need this kind of public life to expand, but let me hasten to say it’s also a very dangerous time to be in the public eye for any reason, because for any reason, you can be sure, someone would take delight in our imperfection or embarrassment. One’s reputation can take a decade to achieve, but be compromised or lost in a day. There are a number of peer liberal arts colleges right now, each a cautionary tale, who have experienced this take-down moment and they, frankly, deserve better.

Just as institutions have a public life in all the varieties of media, so does every individual within the institution. Like it or not, that’s today’s reality, which means the sum of the parts never mattered more in effecting the whole. All of us as individuals, much like faithful donors to the annual fund, are making a contribution to the tangible quality of the university’s reputation.

When we say “every Laurentian counts,” we need to be fully aware of our lost innocence and how comprehensive that connotation has become. Nothing at St. Lawrence should ever inhibit the freedom of expression and thought. Nothing here threatens those protected rights and privileges; and yet, ultimately, that protection depends on an implicit covenant that each has made to each as a personal responsibility to respect the community of different human minds and souls forming a complex and diverse university.

I’ve always appreciated the distinction that Abraham Lincoln once made in this area of life. He said a person’s “character was like a tree, and his reputation like its shadow; the shadow is what we think of it, the tree is the real thing.”

Put differently, and ultimately, if we care for the tree properly, then there is nothing to fear in the shadow it casts. Reputation follows character. I hold an unrestrained faith in that abiding principle. And that is all we need to remember on this first day, as we gather again, while “standing in the shadows of love.”

William L. Fox
August 28, 2019