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  6. Convocation 2007

Sept. 4, 2007, Memorial Chapel

Opening Convocation Address

College Marshall Finlay, Chairperson Messa, Professor Stanhope, Student Forum President Rudin, Dean McCarty, members of the Class of 2011 and all members of the Union community, let me welcome you to the beginning of the 2007-2008 academic year: Union College's 213th year and my second year as its President! The first of these anniversaries is, of course, far more impressive than the second but I must say that I am pleased to have survived the rigors of the first year. A year ago, I had been warned at the Harvard Seminar for New Presidents that the inaugural year can be, like the first year of law school, very difficult. They didn't exactly say "look to the right of you, look to the left of you, and one of these people won't be here next year" but they came close! In any case, I'm happy to be standing before you today.

I would like to add my own words of welcome to the new employees of the College. We are delighted that you have decided to join us. I also want to offer my congratulations to those we've honored today: first to Professor Surman, recipient of the Stillman Award for Excellence in Teaching. This is an enormous honor. We honor you for your accomplishments in and out of the classroom and we honor you for what you represent in the best of all of us: that is, a commitment to creating a superior learning environment at Union College. I also want to congratulate the recipient of the Hollander Prize, Heidi Ching. Your performance today as with other performances I've been fortunate enough to attend, clearly indicate that you warrant this honor and are committed to making the most of your Union experience. We are extraordinarily grateful to you for sharing your gifts with us. Finally, congratulations to all of you who attained the Dean's List. This is no small accomplishment and we salute your dedication to the life of the mind.

While many of this past weekend's orientation events revealed some of what is best about college life, recent email notices to the Union community should make clear that this year's opening was also marked by the worst of contemporary college life. We live in a difficult time and face difficult challenges. Our tasks as educators and members of a learning community have become more complicated and multifaceted as a result. We are far from alone and my life, like the lives of many college administrators, now involves listserv and workshop discussions about responses to crises, and emergency planning has become an indispensable part of campus life. Educational communities will rise to the occasion, as will Union, and I ask for your cooperation and participation as our own campus planning unfolds over the course of the upcoming year.

'Grand Educational Project'

The Opening Convocation is a wonderful tradition. It is a time when we join together as a community to remind ourselves, before we get too far along into the busy-ness of the academic year, that we are part of a grand educational project that is now well into its third century and we should consider some of the challenges and opportunities before us.

While we mark the beginning of a new academic year, many of you are probably unsure when the last one ended. There was much going on over the course of the summer. The campus was abuzz with faculty and students engaged in scholarship and research. There were planned renovation projects as well as unplanned initiatives prompted by infrastructure failures (witness the ditch in front of the Reamer to repair ruptured water pipes). There were camps and educational programs of all sorts, campus open houses, and committee meetings.

However you mark the end of one academic year and the beginning of the next--whether by commencement, end of the fiscal year, or this convocation--I am pleased to say that we strengthened our institutional position during the 2006-07 academic year and we have the opportunity to advance Union even more in the year that lies ahead.

We had a very successful year in hiring. I am very pleased by the results of our searches across all areas of the college. Our new members of the faculty, staff, and administration are a fine group, exceptionally well-suited to their positions. It is gratifying to report that those we invited to join us seemed as anxious to be here as we were to have them. Our success in attracting these individuals indicates that Union is doing well. A Harvard University study revealed that, in addition to compensation, most faculty members weigh several other considerations in choosing to accept a position. These include the prestige of the institution, the ability to get one's work done, and the collegiality of colleagues. I suspect these same criteria extend beyond faculty members when it comes to deciding whether or not to accept a position. Our success in hiring would suggest that Union possesses these qualities and we must all strive to ensure they remain hallmarks of the Union experience. I thank all of you who participated in searches last year. There are few activities that are more important to institutional life. Your success is our collective success.

I might quickly add here that we have secured the services of Witt/Keiffer to assist us in our search for a new Vice President, overseeing Admissions and Financial Aid. I have assembled a campus committee and they will conduct a national search for the best possible candidate. Given our recent successes in hiring and having talked with Witt/Keiffer about this search, I am confident that we will be successful in identifying and recruiting an effective leader in this critical area of the College

ReUnion 2007 can be considered one measure of our improved alumni/college relations. We had a record number of people return for ReUnion in early June. More than 1,500 graduates and guests were here for the weekend festivities. In fact, the dinner on Saturday night was literally "sold out."

This is consistent with a trend that we saw in visits to Union alumni clubs across the country last year. We visited clubs in Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Sarasota, Naples, West Palm Beach, New York, Rochester, and Washington, D.C. We saw increased attendance at all these club events, increases ranging from 50 to 100 percent over past years.

'Increases in Annual Giving'

We also saw increases in annual giving. I am pleased to report that, by the end of the fiscal year, annual giving had exceeded expectations. During the strategic planning process, we had set a seemingly ambitious goal of increasing the total Annual Fund by $250,000 over the previous year. We doubled this aspired growth, and ended the year with an increase of nearly $550,000. We also saw substantial increases in unrestricted gifts and scholarships. Additionally, we saw a 1% increase in overall participation (bringing participation to 41 percent). None of this happens by chance. I would especially like to recognize our College Relations Office for their efforts to deliver successful Homecoming and Reunion Programs, re-build our alumni clubs, and simply do the daily work of maintaining close college/alumni ties. I would also like to thank everyone else who helped make alumni returns to campus so memorable. We are all the beneficiaries of your efforts.

Another, increasingly important, indicator of an institution's position is its endowment, which, in turn, dictates endowment income that can be applied to various budgetary needs and serves as our main institutional hedge against destabilizing tuition increases. At the time of our audit in August, our endowment stood at $369 million. Our endowment performance has ranked near the top of all colleges and universities and we can be grateful to our Trustee Investment Committee for their careful and insightful strategies. Thankfully, we were not as greatly affected by recent market turmoil as were many of our peer institutions.

The number of students who applied for admission and enrolled is a further indication of our position. Last year, we realized a record number of applications, with the total applicant pool increasing by nearly 500 students. Our incoming class stands at 563. For the first time in the College's history, there are more women than men in this class; 17 percent of them are students of color; they are academically talented and regionally diverse. And if you've been following the postings on the first year reading site, you know that many of them are intellectually engaged. Again, this did not happen by chance and I want to recognize our Admissions staff as well as the many others who helped welcome prospective students and families to the campus over the year: thanks to Facilities for maintaining one of the most striking campuses in America, thanks to food services for feeding record numbers at open houses, thanks to campus safety for answering their questions and guiding them in their often frustrating search for parking, and thanks to faculty and staff for taking the time to talk with them about the potential of a Union education.

'Strengthen the Foundation'

While all this suggests that Union is in a strong position, our Strategic Planning work last year revealed the need for initiatives to strengthen the foundation of what we do here, redouble our efforts to make Union an inclusive environment, and further develop the truly differentiating features of a Union education. Institutions that are complacent in today's educational environment are at peril and I remain grateful to all of you who participated in our strategic planning work: you've given us a critical tool that will allow us to attend to our deficiencies, focus our energies, and hone our educational mission. I have met with the heads of several Foundations over the summer and talked about our Strategic Plan. Their response has been uniformly enthusiastic. This is important affirmation of our planning efforts and it bodes well for us as we carry our message to prospective faculty, students, and staff as well as donors, foundations, and government agencies. It also points to the leadership we can provide to the academy-at-large if we are serious about and successful in realizing the aspirations outlined in the plan.

This year, we will continue efforts to move our planning from vision to implementation. We began work on skeletal work plans over the summer. You can monitor the development of these work plans on the Planning Blackboard site. Open meetings were held on several strategic elements over the summer and these sessions were well-attended. We will hold more sessions this fall as we try to refine and put flesh on these skeletal plans. These plans will be processed through the Planning and Priorities Committee and with the Trustees.

We are also developing other tools that will help us in decision-making. We have, for example, contracted with Dober, Lidsky, Craig, and Associates to develop a campus master plan. This plan will detail areas of need regarding space as well as identify priorities in the area of deferred maintenance. We are also working with a consultant to explore the possibility of extending and expanding our current capital campaign in order to fund strategic initiatives emerging from the plan.

All this is extraordinarily important to the future of Union College. No institution of higher education today, regardless of endowment size, can afford to operate without a clear understanding of need, without a clear sense of educational mission, or without a plan to move ahead. All funding sources--private and public--and accrediting agencies demand planning. We also expect that our efforts will elevate the quality and effectiveness of our own internal discussions regarding the prioritization of resources. Thus, it is urgent that we continue to be engaged in the ongoing planning work over the course of this upcoming year. I urge you to attend open meetings and think creatively about ways in which we can realize our aspirations.

Advance the Strategic Plan

We have made or are in the process of making a number of commitments that advance elements of the strategic plan and that should further strengthen Union. Last year, we opened two renovated academic buildings that have substantially enriched our campus. The Taylor Music Center, an all-Steinway facility, offers a state-of-the-art facility for our music faculty and students and should signal to the world that the arts are important to and thrive at Union College. Similarly, the new Bioengineering and Computational Biology facilities in the renovated Butterfield Hall bear witness to the amazing work our faculty do with students, providing undergraduates access to instruments ordinarily restricted to use by graduate students at other institutions. Taken together, these two facilities symbolize the seriousness of our academic mission as well as the distinctive range of studies that are possible at Union College.

Over the summer, we completed a number of projects that should also improve our learning environment. Most notable among these was the extensive work completed in the classrooms in the Social Science building. This renovated space is brighter, has a new air handling system, and boasts new furniture as well as two new electronic classrooms, one of which was funded by a generous grant from the Alden Trust. We hope that this too says something about our institutional priorities and strengthens the learning process that goes on in this key classroom space.

I hope you will all make an effort to visit these spaces, if you haven't been already. I hope they will excite you, as they do me, about what's happening at Union. I would be remiss if I didn't take this opportunity to thank all those who have worked on these projects, kept them on schedule, and perhaps most importantly maintained them while we mustered the resources to renovate them. I would also like to thank the members of neighboring academic departments for their great patience during the renovation process. I hope you feel that the outcomes were worth the inconvenience.

We also made a number of changes in the Reamer over the summer. Following a recommendation from Minerva Council faculty representatives and endorsed by the Faculty Executive Committee, we have created a central Minerva Office on the 3rd floor of the Campus Center. This new space, along with personnel changes in Student Affairs which will allow Tom McEvoy to focus full-time on supporting the Minerva House system, should help us move this program ahead.

I am particularly excited about a new Minerva initiative being introduced this year. First-year lunches will be served in each house from 12 until 2 p.m. every Thursday. This is an exceptional opportunity for faculty, administration, and staff to better know each other and first-year members of their houses. If you are not a member of a house, please contact Tom McEvoy. I, for one, always enjoy a "free lunch" and look forward to seeing you at these meals.

As you enter Dutch Hollow in the Campus Center, you will notice some changes there as well. In one corner, near the exit into Jackson Gardens, you will see the Class of 2007 fireplace. This provides a new social gathering space and will make my "fireside chats" sponsored by Student Forum more sensible! Opposite the fireplace, you will find a new food kiosk that will offer locally grown food as part of our efforts to bolster our commitment to sustainability, another foundational element of our strategic plan. This new food option complements the highly successful Ozone Café and I would expect it will be equally popular.

Environmental Commitments

This year we are making additional changes to advance the College's environmental commitments. A new "Eco-House" at the corner of Seward and Roger Hull Place opens this fall. This house boasts rooftop solar panels, a variety of devices to reduce water and electrical consumption, and "green furniture." We plan an educational component to this house as well as we will have the capacity to monitor its energy use in direct comparison to non-green companion space. This year, we are adding a new position in Facilities to help institutionalize, support, and expand our recycling program. In collaboration with the Student Forum, we will also contract for wind power, accounting for 15% of the total power that we purchase this year. And in June, I signed the American College and University Presidential Climate Commitment. In doing so, I join 300 other college and university presidents in committing to make immediate changes to reduce our environmental footprint and to develop a multi-year plan to do even more. This commitment dovetails with our efforts to develop a work plan for sustainability as part of the strategic planning process.

Given student, faculty, and administrative interests and given our location on the Mohawk River and just below the Adirondack Park, I would predict that we will see many opportunities to create educational and research experiences pertaining to the environment as well. In fact, we have already been asked by the Beacon Institute, a center whose mission focuses on the Hudson River and its major estuaries, to help them think about ways of developing a better understanding of the qualities and challenges of the upper Hudson and Mohawk rivers. I look forward to working with various campus constituencies to best take advantage of this and other emerging opportunities.

I am convinced that our response to issues related to the environment will be among those by which our era will be judged. I would ask each of you to commit to our efforts. We all bear responsibility for reducing our environmental impact and educating future generations. Recycling, for example, will be effective only if we all make an effort to recycle. We are developing a website that will report on our activities and progress and allow you to find ways of getting more involved.

Integrating Liberal Arts, Engineering

In June, we held an on-campus seminar to discuss ways of better integrating the liberal arts and engineering at Union. This emerged as a central differentiating element in our strategic planning discussions and, while engineering and the liberal arts and sciences have long been part of Union, it is now time to get serious about a more integrated educational experience. One could not help but be excited by some of the ideas that people had at the "Designing Union" seminar in June. Likewise, when I spoke about some of our aspirations with the Mellon Foundation, they were clearly excited about the prospect of Union taking a leadership role in this area. In fact, they provided a Presidential Discretionary award that will allow us to host a small conference, bringing representatives from like-minded institutions to Union and help support the development of integrative modules that can be imported into classes.

In my inaugural address a year ago, I talked about a report by the National Academies of Science that pointed to the need for this integration. We have an opportunity to make an enormous contribution here if we seize the leadership role we've been offered. This will undoubtedly be a theme you will hear about in the upcoming year.

Diverse and Inclusive

Finally, let me say a word about efforts to make Union a more diverse and inclusive place. I already mentioned that 17 percent of the incoming class are students of color. Additionally, we welcome our second group of Posse students in the Class of 2011. We also welcome many new international students to Union. More than 30 students from countries across the globe, including Davis World College students and exchange students, came to the President's House for a dinner last week. They all seemed excited to be here and they will add so much to our community.

We must do everything we can to ensure that these students experience Union College as their College. Following the recommendations of various committees, most recently the Commission on Building a Better Community, we will recruit and appoint a special assistant to the President this year who will help us in our efforts. I will also continue the Presidential Series on Diversity started last year. Maya Angelou will be our first speaker in this year's series, scheduled for October 22. Last year's events were well-attended but I hope that even more of you will participate in this series this year. I also hope that you will commit to participating in other activities related to the support of a diverse campus environment. We have reports from various campus committees that can guide our work. We also have outside reports and conferences from which we can learn. I will be attending, by way of examples, two conferences in New York City this October where best practices will be shared. The first is sponsored by the Teagle Foundation and will focus on innovative programs at Cornell, Hamilton, Hobart and Smith, and other colleges. The second brings together presidents from participating Posse schools for a similar purpose. My point here is that we have resources--both internal and external--for making this a better, more inclusive place. But, as with other areas I've mentioned, our success depends on the commitment and action of us all.

'Miles to Go'

I believe that we are building institutional momentum. There are many signs that support this conclusion. Indeed, there is much about Union College with which we can be pleased. But a claim of momentum is not a claim that we've arrived. We cannot afford to be self-satisfied. We have "promises to keep," as Robert Frost wrote, and "miles to go before we sleep."

Let me end where I began. I am delighted to be at here, grateful to all of you who helped us make gains over the course of the last year, and excited about working with all of you to keep our promises and to help Union realize its community and institutional aspirations.

Thank you very much.