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  6. Convocation 2008

Sept. 8, 2008, Memorial Chapel


College Marshall Finlay, Board Chair Messa, FEC Chair Stanhope, Student Forum President Bannister, Dean McCarty and all other members of our Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2008-2009 academic year!

I know it feels strange to begin the fall when we, in the Northeast at least, have only recently experienced the first few weeks of summer weather. My wife, Judith, and I recently attended a concert at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where performer Gillian Welch observed that she was feeling like a mushroom with all the rain. I don't know about you, but I can relate.

I have now completed two full years at Union. As I told graduating seniors at their Senior Banquet, I am humbled by the realization that when the Class of 2008 returns for its 50th ReUnion, I will still have 10 years to go before I tie Eliphalet Nott's record of presidential service. I'd say that his record of 62 years is safe!

I would like give a special word of welcome to those of you who are new to the Union community this year. To all of you who have joined us as employees of the College, I hope your experience at Union will be as wonderful as mine has been. To the new students among us, thank you for joining us and for being here today. Your attendance shows something of your commitment to being a member of this storied learning community. As I said in my remarks to you on Saturday, I believe you are in for a special four years.

I would also like to add my words of congratulations to this year's recipient of the Stillman Award for Excellence in Teaching, Professor Hal Fried. Excellent teaching, with all that accompanies this--learned study, effective communication, care and mentoring, and a personal love of learning and the life of the mind--is the cornerstone of a liberal education. Similarly, I want to congratulate those students who made the Dean's List. We all take pride in your accomplishments, as well.

In the time I have today, I would like to provide you with a brief "State of Union" as well as speak about some of the things that will occupy us in the coming year. I am pleased to report that our overall health is good and we have made significant progress on many of the goals articulated in our Strategic Plan. For those of you unfamiliar with the plan--which actively informs the decisions being made today at the College--I would urge you to visit the Strategic Plan Web site as well as the Blackboard site that reports on our continually updated work plans.

First, let me turn to Admissions. All of us should thank our Admissions and Financial Aid staff for a very successful year. They recruited another record number of applicants, stayed within our financial aid budget and yielded one of our strongest classes to date.

We received 5,271 applications from students wishing to join the Class of 2012. This is up from 4,837 applications the previous year. We accepted 39 percent of the students who applied, making this the most selective year in two decades. The incoming class is 50 percent men and 50 percent women. The percentage of historically under-represented students and international students in the incoming class both increased, bringing their aggregate representation to 21 percent. And the Class of 2012 is academically stronger. I want to congratulate our Admissions and Financial Aid staff, especially Ann Fleming Brown, who served as interim vice president last year.

A higher-than-expected yield for the Class of 2012 and increased numbers of transfer students are suggestive of the College's strengthening market position. If this pattern continues, and we will certainly monitor it, we may have to amend our predictive models of applicant behavior.

This will be but one challenge Admissions and Financial Aid will face in the year ahead. Perhaps looming largest is the growing challenge that families face in financing their children's college education. You may have seen the opinion piece that recently appeared in the Schenectady Gazette on this very topic. I have read many other like-spirited pieces that lament the burden of what seem to be ever-increasing tuition costs, compounded by reduced financial support from the state and national governments and harder-to-secure loans. Speakers at both the Republican and Democratic conventions talked about this as one of our nation's greatest challenges, and it should be of great concern to every person working in higher education today. It certainly is a concern to me.

The good news is that we have a strong leadership team in place in Admissions and Financial Aid. As you know, Matt Malatesta joined us this summer as our new vice president. Ann Fleming Brown will serve as our new director of Admissions, and Linda Parker, who joined us last year, will continue to serve as director of Financial Aid. This is an exceptionally talented leadership group and I am confident in their ability to face challenges and continue the enhancement of our Admissions profile. But make no mistake about it: it is all of our jobs to deliver an educational experience that attracts and retains students; and, it is all of our jobs to ensure we focus our energies and expenditures in a way that is mission-focused, thereby helping to control our costs.

The other bit of good news is that our endowment, at the end of June, stood at $400 million. While this is lower than the endowments of other prestigious national liberal arts colleges (we are 24th among our 32 comparison schools in terms of endowment per student), our endowment is envied by many schools. More importantly, the income produced by this endowment represents a critical and significant piece of our annual operating budget. Indeed, it remains our most important hedge against the use of tuition to cover the costs of a college education. Tuition covers only about 70 percent of the actual costs of a Union education. Endowment income and annual contributions to scholarships and other gifts largely make up the balance. No family pays the "full freight" of a Union education. Rather, everyone's education is subsidized by endowment income and gifts from generous donors.

As anyone who monitors their retirement accounts knows, the past fiscal year was a rough one. Despite the weak economy and dramatic market declines, Union's endowment actually grew by over 3 percent during the last fiscal year. This is in sharp contrast to the composite index for the same time period, which ended with a 7 percent loss. That means we outperformed the index by 10 percent.

According to the Wilshire Endowment Universe data, which compares our returns to the universe of other endowments, Union's endowment performed in the top 5th percentile for the past fiscal year. This is nothing short of remarkable and owes to the work of our own Finance Department, the gifted leadership on the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees and the wise counsel we've received from our investment managers. We should all be grateful to them as their success makes possible much of what we are doing at Union today. One only need imagine the consequences to us and to tuition-paying families had our endowment performance mirrored that of the composite index.

Growing our endowment, or more pertinent, our endowment income, was identified as a critical element in our Strategic Plan. It was viewed as an important aspect of preserving our institutional resources, and our success in this area will provide the necessary foundation upon which many new programmatic initiatives we want to pursue will be built.

At last year's Convocation, I mentioned work we were doing in the area of the environment and sustainability. Like our endowment, this is a key resource issue for the College and central to our Strategic Plan. I am pleased to report that we've continued to make significant progress. Perhaps most importantly, we now have a new Committee--U Sustain--to help us think about areas where we need to improve, innovate and invest.

We made strides to better establish a carbon-footprint baseline against which to compare our progress. I have established a Presidential Green Grant program aimed at encouraging innovative projects that will advance us. We continue to purchase wind power and staff our recycling program. We continue our commitment to using more locally grown food products (and I hope everyone has noticed the beautiful and bounty-laden "Octopus' Garden" on campus). Our newest building project, the Wold building, will be eligible for LEED Gold certification, and we are looking at a various ways of reducing our use of petroleum products.

Presidents of colleges and universities from all 50 states have now signed the Presidential Climate Commitment. I believe the greatest challenges facing all of us are two-fold: 1) we need to find effective ways of educating students to not only be aware of environmental challenges but, as John Cronin of the Beacon Institute suggested during his visit to Union last year, to also educate and equip them to develop the technologies needed to solve these challenges, and 2) we need to find ways of developing true alternative fuel sources to meet our energy needs. We at Union are well-situated to accomplish the first of these. Witness the work of Professor Ashraf Ghaly and Andrew Heisner, Class of 2009, who installed a PRC--that is, Previously Rubberized Concrete --sidewalk this summer on a walkway behind Memorial Fieldhouse. The pursuit of effective alternative energy sources will undoubtedly command our attention this year as well as in the years ahead. It is, in many ways, the challenge of our times.

Let me make one final note about what the Strategic Plan calls "foundational" institutional resources. It has been observed many times that one of our greatest institutional resources is our historic campus. We have a special obligation to history to maintain it, and it's in our self-interest to do so. As if evidence were needed, last week we hosted three dinners at the President's House for students and, one after another, they told of the irresistible pull this campus had on them when they first visited Union.

While we've made headway in recent years, many of our buildings remain in need of renovation and modernization. The Planning and Priorities Committee has spent many hours talking about the problem of "deferred maintenance." Our campus is not unique in facing the challenge of maintaining its facilities, and few colleges have really dealt with it, choosing instead to ignore it.

Thanks to hard work and creative thinking on the part of our Planning and Priorities Committee, our Board of Trustees, and our Finance and Administration staff, we will put into place a multi-pronged attack on our deferred maintenance backlog. First of all, we will use gifts from our Capital Campaign to address some of our facilities needs. Second, we will give priority to deferred maintenance projects in the allocation of any unused funds that exist at the end of each fiscal year. And third, the Board of Trustees has approved a borrowing plan that will allow us to apply as much as $3 million per year to priority projects for the next 10 years. Taken together, these approaches will address significant problems and improve and modernize many of our facilities.

We also have made significant progress in the areas that we believe differentiate Union. Union has long distinguished itself in the close working relationships that exist between faculty and students. If one has any doubts about the fruitfulness of this time-intensive process, he or she must simply attend the Steinmetz Symposium to witness the rich cornucopia of research projects, or talk to students who have returned, often transformed, by their faculty-led study away experiences, or visit our summer research labs--alive with students invigorated by their work with faculty. All of these are examples of what we mean when we say Union is "small."

But as our Strategic Plan makes clear, by "small" we do not mean "parochial." Indeed, we are making headway on our ambition to be more diverse and global. Following recommendations made by the Committee on Diversity and the President's Commission on Building a Better Community, I promoted Gretchel Tyson to the position of senior director for Campus Diversity and Affirmative Action.

In her new capacity, Gretchel has joined my senior staff, and her office is now located on the first floor of Feigenbaum Hall. Gretchel will help organize the continuing Presidential Forum on Diversity. She formed a Search Committee late last year to hire a director of Multicultural Affairs--another recommendation made by the Commission for improving our environment. I am pleased to report that this search was successful and that Karen Ferrer-Muniz joined the College in August. Her newly created office is located next to the Unity Lounge in Reamer, and she will provide important support to student groups working in the area of diversity and multicultural issues. Gretchel will also be introducing a new diversity training program. I would ask all of you to support this program with your participation. You will learn more about this in the days ahead.

We also renovated another space in Reamer over the summer to create a meditation and prayer room that will support students of many traditions. Our recent initiatives in the area of religious studies and support of our chaplaincy programs are, in many ways, critical to supporting a diverse cultural environment.

The Posse program, which enters its third year, has added great riches to our campus. I will join a team from Union, as I did last year, to go to Boston this fall to select "Posse 4." The Posse Program has brought remarkable students to our Union, students who have assumed leadership positions across campus. I want to thank those individuals who have supported the program and guided these students. It is changing our environment.

We have also made progress on our efforts to internationalize our campus and to ensure our students are ready to take their place as globally interconnected citizens. This year, we will realize the promise of the Independent Study Abroad Initiative. Seven students--Rachel Carson, Melissa McDonald, Richard Paikoff, Keely Craig, Tobias Leeger, Sara Jacobson and Jeremy Fitzhand are pursuing independent study under the supervision of Union faculty in locations across the world, including Russia, China, India and South Africa.

Last week, Judith and I hosted a dinner at our house for more than 50 international faculty and students. They come from countries that literally span the globe – from Iraq to Swaziland. I hope that you will all find ways of welcoming them to Union and learn from the remarkable perspectives they bring. This group includes our five Davis World College students. We were challenged last year by the Davis Program to increase our number in the incoming class to five, and I am pleased to report that we were successful in doing so. Please offer congratulations to Sarah Henderson Maneely; her efforts contributed greatly to our success. Sarah will be traveling extensively this year to increase Union's international profile and recruit even more students.

We also sent off our first group of Minerva fellows-- graduated seniors who will spend the year working with service agencies around the world to make a difference in the lives of people in need. Stephen Po-Chedley and Rebecca Broadwin are in Southern Uganda; Jonathan Hill and Robbie Flick are in Cambodia; Emily Laing and Alex Butts are in India; and Dave Shulman and Lara Levine are in South Africa. Each of these students made real contributions while on campus during their four years here. I have little doubt they'll do the same in their respective assignments. They will return to campus in a year, and we will all undoubtedly benefit as they share their experiences. You don't need to wait, however. I'd urge you to read their blogs, which you can find via the Union Web site.

When you consider all the students we send abroad; when you consider the large number of international faculty and students who are at Union; when you consider the rich array of international programming that takes place every year on this campus--from performances of classical Indian dance and Japanese drumming, to lectures, to culinary offerings--one cannot wonder if we are taking full advantage of the global presence we have at Union. While we must continue to do more to take Union into the world and bring the world to Union, I would challenge us all to more fully appreciate, more fully use, the rich opportunities that are already in our midst.

We have also rightfully claimed that our efforts to make the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering integral parts of a liberal education differentiate Union. In May, thanks to the support of the Mellon Foundation, we hosted a national symposium on Engineering as Liberal Art. Representatives from schools such as Smith, Princeton, Dartmouth, Lafayette, Swarthmore and others gathered on our campus to discuss challenges and share best practices. For those of you who missed it, the symposium was covered in last week's issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Two things were clear. First, there is a shared vision that being liberal educated in the 21st century should include an understanding of the "built" environment; and second, Union has a unique leadership opportunity, given our historic and prophetic role in launching this same vision. We will be working on proposals this year that we hope will provide additional support for our work in this area.

We are also making progress in using our past to inspire innovation and creativity. If you've been in the library or attended events in College Park Hall, you have likely seen the fruits of the Union Notables project. This project seeks to increase awareness of the remarkable people who have studied and taught at Union College. The project not only reminds us of what these individuals have contributed, but it inspires us to take up the opportunities each of us has to make a similar difference.

This year, we will focus Founders Day on Union's relationship to the abolitionist movement in the 19th century. We have initiated a number of projects aimed at preparing for or complementing Founder's Day. For example, Union will host a conference on the Underground Railroad. We also have students, faculty, and staff researching various aspects of the life of Moses Viney. Moses Viney was an escaped slave who came to Schenectady, where he was employed by Union College. Eliphalet Nott, whose abolitionist sentiments helped shape those of William Seward, secured Moses Viney's freedom, and Viney remained dedicated to Nott until Nott's death.

As yet another example, Tom McFadden secured an original early abolitionist sermon by Union's second president, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., which will be on display later this year. We will all learn much more about Moses Viney and Union's role in the abolitionist movement. More importantly, Union's historic role should awaken in us a commitment to respond to injustices in today's world.

In sum, we have made progress on nearly every priority area that we set out in the Strategic Plan. For every initiative I've mentioned, there are many others that have moved us ahead. While we have done much, our aspirations are to do more.

We have an enormous pool of talented, creative and dedicated members of our community who are interested in advancing key elements of our plan. However, our existing resources only allow us to do just so much. It has become clear to me, to the Planning and Priorities Committee and to the Board of Trustees that we need to increase the resources at our disposal. Thus, we will continue to aggressively build the strength of our annual fund contributions--a key element in the resources that have allowed us to do what we've done in the past two years. We will continue to build our endowment and, as I've said, our funds are in the hands of some of the brightest investment minds. And, we have determined that we must expand our current Capital Campaign. The Trustees, at their May meeting, voted to expand the current $200 million campaign to $250 million. This unanimous vote of the Board reflects confidence that our alumni and other friends of the College will see the importance that Union has to the formation of the young men and women who come to study here and in the impact that Union can have on the world around us. And it reflects confidence in all of us in this room.

We are already knocking on the door of $160 million, which leaves us with $90 million to go to reach our new goal. Over the past two years, through extensive travel and visitations, renewal of our alumni clubs, increased efforts at communication and other initiatives, we have built a firm foundation upon which the Campaign will build. The expanded Campaign will bring in the resources that will allow us to renovate tired facilities, expand the size of our full-time faculty, increase scholarship support and introduce new programs that will strengthen our strategic educational objectives.

We have the foundation; we also have the leadership. I am delighted to report that Steve Dare, who spent the last 10 years at MIT, has joined us as our new vice president for College Relations. Steve brings remarkable experience, especially in running campaigns, and I am confident that his leadership, combined with our remarkably talented and dedicated staff in College Relations, will ensure our success. You will hear much more about the expanded Campaign over the course of this academic year.

I hope you share my belief that we've advanced our strategic priorities. This has been a combined effort, the effort of a learning community to realize its ambitions and to make a difference. I want to thank all of you who have worked so hard to see that this happened. We cannot, of course, be satisfied with our progress. This year, we begin our work in preparation for the upcoming Middle States Reaccreditation visit. That work, along with the report we ultimately produce, will undoubtedly draw our attention, even more graphically, to all we've accomplished. It will also undoubtedly make clear where we need to redouble our efforts and determine how we will measure progress. I ask you all to respond positively if and when asked to help in the reaccreditation process. It is important to our future.

We all must continue to imagine, continue to reach, continue to pursue the things that will make Union a stronger institution and ensure that it takes a leadership role in areas that we believe make us who and what we are.

We have the opportunity, just as much as our predecessors, to craft a remarkable environment in which all our members thrive, to truly make a difference in the lives of the students who come here to work, live and study, and to become a beacon for those seeking an education well-honed to the needs and demands of the 21st century. I look forward to working with all of you to do all this.

Thank you.