Remarks at Reunion 2014
May 31, 2014
The English poet laureate John Masefield never went to college. And yet, he wrote a lasting declaration that “there are few earthly things more splendid than a University.” And for St. Lawrence that splendor is expressed once again in the familiar ritual of alumni coming home for a visit.
All of us in today’s alumni assembly share a simple assumption. Going away to college, as we reflect upon it across a few years or many, never turns out to be a trifling moment in life. Coming to St. Lawrence University is an event you never forget and it holds true in a consistent sameness for each decade represented at our reunion. You remember defining yourself, at least in a first draft, in moments that may still be embarrassing or in the instant you found a surprising inner strength to do something well. The attachment to this memory of our college days enthralls us because it is the first time of being on our own, even before we were ready to stand upon our own feet.
At St. Lawrence, we found something that was both intimate and intimidating—a reassuring, supportive home for a brief period, but also an experience so large and mysterious that it was never fully comprehended, then or now. We were accepted here, made friends here, left a mark here; but we also discovered humbly how many smart, funny, creative, gifted, and kind people could exist all at once in a single place that for most of us turned out to be the smallest community we would ever inhabit. And yet, St. Lawrence is somehow bigger than we are, for it retains a magnificent magical attraction for each of us who come back for a visit.
When Walt Whitman sat on the Brooklyn ferry observing the other passengers, he apprehended a quiet affinity with them and imagined saying, as if at a college reunion “we understand one another, do we not?”
In my set of assumptions this morning, I quickly take note that you have returned to the St. Lawrence campus because something about this place causes you to care and makes you curious. I appreciate deeply your caring because not everyone is disposed that way in the scrum of public and political opinion today. So, in the face of skepticism, censure, and ridicule, when you come back to reunion, you are not only telling each other that you care about St. Lawrence, but you are also offering a public affirmation, casting a vote, or signaling your unequivocal confidence in what we stand for on this campus.
More than forty years ago, the sociologist Burton Clark commented that “the making of a first-rank liberal arts college appears clothed in difficulty, even hidden from view in…institutional aura.” He said that this kind of distinctive aura is formed by the “persistence of a unifying belief system… sustaining [leadership], a devoted faculty core, an allied student culture, and a supportive external social base.” Nevertheless, he insisted that a specific question remains open, how is it actually done? And that leads me to a brief discussion that I hope will satisfy your curiosity about what we are now doing at St. Lawrence and how we are fortifying our efforts to pursue broad and deep learning as a collection of diverse people gathered in a far-away place.
We have drawn and followed a map for the last several years. The St. Lawrence Promise, as we have named that map, has guided our strategy and measured our distances. If I may summarize our ambition and achievement, then let me express it as our map’s four quadrants of activity: 1) how can we improve the St. Lawrence experience for students? 2) how can we build a wider reputation of excellence to attract students from all over the world and also recruit the best scholar-teachers for the next generation of faculty? 3) how can we better engage and involve our alumni, parents and friends? And 4) how can we ensure our long-term financial strength?
How have we accomplished our first purpose to enhance, broaden, and intensify the St. Lawrence experience for our students? The starting place for addressing this question is the academic program driven by a faculty engine of creativity. 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 by focusing through the lens of science, history, and government on safe food production, responsible water use policy, and the future of renewable energy. Recently we modified our graduation requirements to include environmental literacy. This 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 hitches it to experiential learning, such as internships. In only our first year, we have over 45 students who have declared this major.
The primacy of the student experience must also incorporate the campus living possibilities. We have, as you can see, increased our housing capacity by building the first new residence hall in nearly fifty years. It will allow us to return former lounge spaces around campus to their original social and study purposes. We have just restored Herring-Cole to bring back a tradition of quiet study space in a landmark historic setting that has the small-scale feel of a grand reading room in a famous library. Gunnison Chapel will be fully restored and reopened in 2015. The Quad itself will not only have a more playable and level main lawn, but will add total green space with many more opportunities for outdoor campus events, or just the serendipitous moments of sitting on a stone wall with a good book or a good friend.
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 total population over the last four years, so that our total enrollment in round figures is about 2,440. We have created room for 2,500 students. Currently, 360 students are alumni legacies. The first-year class arriving in August will be among our top five largest during the last 30 years. 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. In other words, the world is coming to St. Lawrence, as we are also known by our presence in the world beyond this valley—40 years in Kenya, 50 years in France. Our retention, graduation, and placement rates are among the best in the nation—they come, they stay, they prepare, and they leave with many conceivable routes to walk in their life’s journey.
If I may also brag about our faculty, let me say that the tradition of excellence in teaching that we once knew as students continues in all the intrinsic ways alumni can appreciate. A new generation of faculty is emerging at this stage of our story. Since I’ve been here, 25 senior faculty members have retired, which taken together forms an intellectual legacy touching thousands of alumni; over the last five years, 34 tenure-track professors have been hired, and 44 other professors have earned the privileges of tenure, a demanding, rigorous process that takes six years from the first day of entering a classroom. This infusion of talent and energy is being felt all over campus. We’re not only educating well-prepared, well-rounded students, but we are also developing master teachers who are alive to the needs and questions our world must face in the coming decades.
Have we deepened our traditions of alumni continuity and belonging? There are several ways to speak about this critical component of a college community, about those who know us best and love us the longest. We are setting attendance records at our gatherings around the country and at our annual reunion on campus. We have more and more alumni becoming an integral part of our current efforts to prepare students for careers—an unprecedented number of internship placements because of alumni, and an uncountable number of network touches and informational interviews as our students prepare for the job market. Honestly, this is our secret advantage, our secret weapon in an ever-fierce field of competition. I hear about this active expression of allegiance with feelings of admiration and envy from parents, graduates of other institutions, and even college presidents. They ask, what is it about the St. Lawrence alumni? I can’t explain it in a single easy-to-get response. Most people assume the bonds are formed by the shared intensity of North Country weather. It’s not just the local weather, but rather, it’s the St. Lawrence climate, the atmosphere, the pervading milieu of optimistic founders.
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 approach $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. So, in supporting our priorities over the next few years, we are very mindful of measuring twice and cutting once as the carpenter’s ancient admonition reminds us.
As president, I must pay strict attention to other ways that will judge the health of the university. I hear from parents constantly, but not in the way you may imagine if you are thinking about aviation metaphors and the potential for hovering. Rather, I hear reports that say, “He’s never been this happy in his entire life.” Or “what stands out to me, as a lifetime educator, is that she was unfailingly encouraged and supported in her academic journey….St. Lawrence is a powerful experience.” And finally, a tribute I received this week from a father of a graduating senior. His story says a lot about the quality of our work. He writes, “A real measure of a man or woman is often seen in how that person treats other people, particularly people of lesser means or station. We had lunch on Sunday at… [a coffee shop] around the corner from school. It appears to be a family run operation, and it was Harry’s go-to breakfast place. As we were leaving—for the last time—the staff, including the guys in the back making the sandwiches, came out to shake Harry’s hand, slap him on the back, and wish him well as he heads off into the wide, wide world. It appears to me that Harry learned a lot of valuable lessons.”
I am very confident that this son of a proud father will be back for his class reunions and a slice of pie down the street. He has understood, as we all have, what John Masefield went on to say: “There are few earthly things more beautiful than a University…. There are few things more enduring than a University… and the stream of life will pass through it and the seekers will be bound together in the undying cause bringing thought into the world.”