The Stream of Life Passes Through It (WLF Reunion 2018)
I am grateful that Frank Piskor as the St. Lawrence president would occasionally bring together freshman students to read poetry from his personal collection of first editions, primarily the poems of Robert Frost and Edward Arlington Robinson. We all knew something of both poets, but it was Frank Piskor who also gave me the very first hearing of John Masefield. Masefield became the British poet laureate, a lifelong office he held for 37 years, though he had never earned a university degree. 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.
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.
The 20th century American poet Gwendolyn Brooks received more than 75 honorary degrees, but she also never completed college. In her own time and genius, she became famous on American campuses and classrooms. In her ode to Paul Robeson, there is something in the final lines that ought to express to us the deeper feelings of a college reunion: “that we are each other’s harvest: we are each other’s business: we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”
In my suppositions 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 toward colleges 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.
In thinking about our alma mater today, there is a confident familiarity about its work juxtaposed against an aura of mystery about the intricate machinery of a liberal arts college. I am asked all the time, how does such a place actually operate? It’s not exactly a business, a firm, an agency, a philanthropy, or even a single-purpose academy. And that leads me to a few comments that I hope will clarify your curiosity about what we are now doing at St. Lawrence and how we are fortifying our efforts to pursue broad and deep learning with a collection of diverse people gathered in a far-away place.
Over the last seven years or so, we have been guided by an imaginary map that has determined our strategy and measured our distances covered as a continuation of the St. Lawrence you have always known, at least in part, even a large part. If I may summarize our ambition and achievement, there are generally 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? 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. We offered this year a new minor in Public Health, doing so through the imagination and cooperation of 9 different academic departments. It received significant recognition and funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Within the last six years, we have placed nearly 200 students in our New York City program, an urban immersion experience for college students like none other I have found in the U. S.
We believe these and other recent curricular innovations exemplify a very large goal of our well-planned and readily supported “Campaign for Every Laurentian,” an all-encompassing St. Lawrence enterprise that will soon begin its public life this fall. The campaign already has achieved an immense vote of confidence with $130 million in commitments and gifts—a record pace and result by every measure.
The primacy of the student experience must also incorporate the campus residential, study, athletic, and daily living possibilities. Since many of you were last on campus, we increased our housing capacity by building with nearby North Country stone and digging into the earth to use geo-thermal technology, Kirk Douglas Hall. We have completely restored and renewed both sides of Herring-Cole Library and Reading Room to bring back a tradition of quiet study space in a landmark historic setting and to give us an elegant room for special events and ceremonies in the original library wing.
We will open this fall a new Center for Student Achievement, encompassing academic advising and support services, among several learning resource programs that will directly touch at least one-third of all students at St. Lawrence. It will be located in the handsomely remodeled interior of Madill Hall.
Meanwhile, we have turned our hopes to another heritage building on the west boundary of campus—the legendary Appleton Arena. Its renown became truly global when an NBC Sports broadcaster made numerous references to Appleton during the recent Winter Olympic Games. We engaged last fall the premier athletic facility planning firm HOK Architects of Kansas City. We now have a magnificent design that will preserve everything we love about the interior features, particularly the knotty-pine bench seating and the wood-slat barrel-vaulted ceiling. We’ve approached this project like restoring a cathedral. The lighting and sound system will see major improvements to allow for the high definition live-streaming broadcast of men’s and women’s hockey games.
The renewed Appleton Arena will also feature strength and conditioning rooms on par with top facilities anywhere in Canada or the U.S. and an extended, two-story south entrance that will give us many options for campus events and activities, even learning spaces. Until a few days ago, we only had the architect’s polished renderings, but I am happy and grateful that we now have significant, firm, tangible support for this important project. Tom Dolan ’74 and the Dolan Family Foundation informed us last week that St. Lawrence will receive a total of $10 million as a lead gift to accompany other support needed in the near future for the planning and construction phase of preserving and enhancing Appleton Arena. This news surely expresses again the magnitude of our bonds; it affirms a deep commitment to our St. Lawrence heritage and its enlarged hope and horizon.
Have we enlarged our reputation in recent years? Put another way, are we better known and more attractive to prospective students? Today, in our student enrollment, we have the largest representation of states and countries ever in our 160-year history—55 nations and 38 states. At present, 15% of current students are alumni legacies, an important positive indicator of our reputational strength among families who know us intimately. The first-year class arriving in August will be among the third largest in our history at 660 enrolled students.
We have been noticed more widely than ever before by many of the old-line college guidebooks. The Princeton Review named us this year the third best college alumni network in the nation, a good sign that the “magnitude and bonds” of the campus experience are carried out into the world in ways that differentiate Laurentians from many other places. Frank Bruni wrote a column in last Sunday’s New York Times (May 27, 2018) lamenting the ebb of liberal arts majors in history, philosophy, and literature while warning against the easy, tempting sellout to job-specific majors. His summary word ought to connect with us all: “Students who want to commune with Kant and Keats shouldn’t be made to feel they’re indulgent dilettantes throwing away all hope of a lucrative livelihood. They’re making a commitment to a [liberal arts] major that has endured because its fruits are enduring.”
Bruni could have been writing about St. Lawrence. And in fact, he has done so on several occasions, specifically mentioning St. Lawrence in public speeches and in his acclaimed book about colleges he admires and commends.
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-grasp 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, builders, and believers.
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 sometimes reducing their confidence in many other colleges with much larger endowments than ours. The St. Lawrence investment portfolio value is now $310 million, the highest it’s ever been booked.
And yet, I must tell you that we play in a league with other colleges that have two, three, and four times our current endowed resources. We have finished with adequate cash positions over the last five years, but our strategic budgeting must now respond to projections of expense run rates becoming increasingly faster than the growth of operating revenues. Among the lasting effects and vital lessons of the Great Recession that began in 2008 is the fixed reality that family median incomes stayed flat, at the same time those same families must now face college tuition. This has created tightness in all our university operating margins, particularly the margin of error. So, in supporting our priorities over the next few years, we are extremely mindful of measuring twice and cutting once as the carpenter’s ancient admonition reminds us. In other words, we track the pennies to ensure the dollars will be there.
As president, I must pay strict attention to other ways that will judge the health of the university. I hear from former students constantly, some only former by a couple of weeks. One member of the class of ’18 wrote a few days after commencement. She was prompted to write by her sense of gratitude and also a deeper-down realization. At that commencement occasion, I had used in my remarks the refrain from the Beatles wonderful song of 1968 called “Blackbird.” It’s the line “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
As she offered thoughts about “the long walks back from the library or the Hoot Owl,” she was grateful for St. Lawrence allowing her to try so many new things and for the friends made that will be lifelong. Finally, she wrote, “While I was out to dinner with my family [in Connecticut] the night of graduation, the song “Blackbird” started to play. All of us at the table immediately stopped and remembered your speech. It was at that moment I realized that the St. Lawrence connections and associations are everywhere…and they [seem more than coincidental or predictably] human in nature. St. Lawrence is simply everywhere and I am eternally grateful.”
I am confident that this young woman no longer waits for a special moment in her life to arise. She feels it already. When she returns for her own class reunions, she will understand 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.”