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Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's convocation remarks

2010 Convocation

September 7, 2010

College Marshall Finlay, Trustee Walsh, Dean McCarty, Professor Walker, Student Forum President Churchill, and all members of the Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2010-11 academic year!

First off, let me offer my congratulations to Professor Tyler. The Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching is important recognition of your talents as an educator. To be selected for this prize, to be deemed excellent within a faculty and institution that prize great teaching, is indeed an honor.

Similarly, I want to offer my congratulations to Sonika Raj for being awarded the Hollander Prize. We honor your accomplishments and talents with this prize. What I just said regarding Professor Tyler applies to you as well. To be celebrated for your talents among the talented student members of the Union community is a high honor. I hope you will get to know Dean Hollander. If you do, you’ll be even more proud of the name you now carry with you as a recipient of this prize.

I have every expectation that 2010-11 will prove to be a memorable year. For one, we once again welcome a remarkably talented incoming class. Judith and I (along with our dog Winston) walked the residence halls on Saturday morning and spoke with students and their parents. These 559 newest members of our student community are excited to be here and they can’t wait to make their respective mark on our community. They were selected from the 2nd largest application pool in the College’s history; they are academically talented. 62% of them were in the top 10% of their high school classes, setting a new Union record, and their SAT scores tie our highest-ever figures. And, they further diversify our campus community and bring remarkable attributes with them. All the members of the Class of 2014 came to our house on Saturday night to serenade us with the alma mater. So, I can personally attest to one attribute: they can sing!

Would all the members of the Class of 2014, who are in attendance today, stand so that we can recognize and welcome you with our applause?

We had a great move-in weekend. The weather cooperated and the newest members of our community quickly settled in and began their orientation to their new home.   Judith and I hosted dinners for the Resident Assistants and the Orientation Assistants last week. They are great representatives of Union and if you saw them all at work over the weekend, you know they give generously of their time and talent. I’m not sure how many of them are here today but I’d ask all RAs and OAs, along with the Student Affairs Staff, to stand so we can thank them for the critical work they do on our behalf.

Judith and I also hosted a dinner last week for our international students and faculty. This year, we welcome many new members of our community who come from all around the world. They propel us toward our vision of a more globally connected Union. They bring a wealth of experience, interesting perspectives, and we are all better for their choosing Union. I would urge you all to make a special effort to reach out to them.

With the addition of the Class of 2014 and our newly arrived international students, we are blessed at Union to work with some of the finest learners. Similarly, we continue to add very talented new faculty and staff. I met many of our new faculty at a reception last week. They bring energy, new and exciting fields of investigation, new questions, new perspectives, and they will undoubtedly enrich our academic village. I want to add my welcome to those of you who are joining the Union community as employees. Thank you as well for choosing Union; we all look forward to working with you.

Did I tell you that I have every expectation this will be a memorable year? With wonderful raw materials – exceptional faculty, staff, and students – the educational process should indeed be memorable. It will be made even more so by the addition of our newest academic facility: the Peter Irving Wold Center for Science, Engineering and the Liberal Arts. That project, which has developed right before our eyes given its central location on campus, is on schedule and on budget (music to the ears of any college President). We expect to be able to move in over the holiday break and we will schedule a formal dedication of the building to coincide with this year’s ReUnion.

This project has been long in the making, with extensive study and planning, and I want to thank all those who have been involved in making it a reality: notably Dean Doug Klein who has served the project’s “shepherd,” members of the planning committee, our facilities and IT staff, our College Relations staff, and the careful architectural and construction work of EYP and Martini Brothers.

This building, some of the most significant new construction in years, will add over 35,000 square feet of office, teaching, and research space. It will also provide a remarkable new “town square” of sorts where members of our community can convene – formally and informally. It is space that will add a “wow” factor. It will better integrate the entire Science and Engineering complex with the rest of our historic campus. And, it will showcase areas of study that give substance to our claim that exciting and significant new work is occurring at the intersection of disciplines. The building, with its extensive use of glass, will serve as a beacon, demonstrating in deed – not just words – the exceptional opportunities here and reasons to choose Union as a place to study and work.

This project has been made possible by generous donors who have supported our current Capital Campaign. The lead gift was made by John and Jane Wold but many others have and continue to make gifts that will support the costs of construction and equipment and the future maintenance of the building.

I am happy to report to you that, as of August, we passed the 200 million dollar mark in the campaign. This is a remarkable achievement. As Frank Messa, Campaign co-chair along with Mark Walsh (who joins us today), likes to say: we have realized success despite violating all the things experts say can sink a campaign, including a change of presidents and a change in Vice Presidents overseeing development operations. Add to these the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression! I want to congratulate all of College Relations and Trustees Messa and Walsh for their efforts on our behalf and their success in the face of these challenges. They can rightfully take enormous pride in reaching this milestone.

The success of the campaign and the generosity of our supporters have allowed Union to move ahead when others have had to pause or retrench. In addition to the Wold Center, we will begin work on the renovation of the Social Science Building this year. When completed, Lippman Hall too will afford us remarkable new space within which the educational process will take place. As part of the Lippman Hall work, we will also be renovating Lamont House which will add to our stock of academic buildings and space. We will also begin work on the third floor of Butterfield Hall which will be home to our neuroscience program. The renovation and re-purposing of the entire Butterfield Hall has been a significant improvement in our academic facilities. It was made possible by grants from Howard Hughes and the National Science Foundation, government awards, and private donations. It too will not only create important teaching and research space now but it will serve to magnetize Union to future cohorts of faculty, students, and staff.

We have done all this when other schools have been forced to suspend projects. We will move into these exciting new spaces while others walk by capped foundations that stand as sobering reminders of plans put on hold. Did I say that I anticipate this will be a memorable year for Union?

Having crossed the 200 million dollar milestone, it is worth reminding ourselves of the many other ways in which the campaign has thus far transformed the physical and programmatic landscape of the College. Impressively, we have raised 37 million dollars in Annual Fund over the course of the campaign. Annual Funds are an essential component in the financial lifeblood of any educational institution. They serve as an immediate annual subsidy to the actual costs incurred. Without Annual Fund support, institutions like Union would be even more dependent on tuition and endowment income. And, much of what we are able to do by way of programs, people, and aid are made possible by those who contribute to our Annual Fund.

The unrestricted Annual Fund gifts over the past two years, in particular, spared us from having to seek additional cost-savings. Restricted Annual Fund gifts over the past two years made it possible for us to respond to the greater financial needs of our students and their families. Restricted Annual Fund gifts also made it possible for us to offer programs like Ethics Across the Curriculum and the Civil Rights Mini Term and support projects like the SAE Baja competition and Post-Katrina relief trips to New Orleans.

Remarkably, our Annual Fund last year – a year that can hardly be called “robust” in terms of the economy – reached an all-time historic high for the College and saw a 31% increase in unrestricted giving. This is nothing short of astonishing! We should all be grateful for this remarkable generosity and commitment to Union.

This kind of success doesn’t just happen. It happens only because people believe in the institution, its people and its mission. It happens only because the institution’s story is being told effectively. It happens only because of thousands of phone calls, letters, and visits. It happens only because record numbers of people turn out for and find well-organized and meaningful alumni events across the country. It happens only because record numbers of people come to campus and find inspiring family weekends and ReUnions. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank all of you who have helped deliver an experience worth supporting, telling a story that is compelling, organizing and participating in events that indeed inspire and motivate. In doing so, you have all been stewards of this remarkable place; and, you have our gratitude.

The Campaign has made possible other capital projects that have transformed the campus and we should remember them as we reach this milestone. They include:

The Taylor Music Center, an all-Steinway facility that has greatly enhanced the arts at Union.

Six named Minerva Houses – Beuth House, Golub House, Sorum House, Wold House, Breazzano House, and Messa House – supporting our efforts to bridge the social and intellectual lives of our students.

Messa Rink which has created one of the most exciting venues in college hockey.

The Viniar Center which did the same for other athletic programs.

Breazzano Fitness Center, one our most heavily utilized facilities, which gave reality to our claim to support the development of the “whole person”

Houses on Seward Street – including Delock House, Arthur Vining Davis House, Fitzroy House, Male House, Seward House, and Fasake House – that have transformed the western edge of campus and provided attractive housing options to our students.   Along with College Park Hall and the new playing fields there, these Seward Houses helped entice the Golub Corporation to relocate its headquarters there and attract new restaurants and retail activity.

In addition to capital projects, the Campaign has provided restricted scholarship gifts totaling 30 million dollars. At a time when family portfolios have declined in value and the cost of education has reached new highs, these scholarship gifts have been critical to recruiting the best and brightest and making a Union education accessible.

The Campaign has also provided program support and instrumentation. Witness the Steinway pianos in the Taylor Music Center, the sophisticated instruments found in the Center for Bioengineering and Computational Biology, the digital arts lab in Olin, and departmental program funds. These are just a fraction of the things the Campaign has already brought to our academic program.

The Campaign has thus far also added 83 million dollars to our endowment, including 20 million to support current faculty position, which (despite the strain put on it over the last two years) continues to provide an important revenue stream to support all of our operations.

It is indeed appropriate that we celebrate the 200 million dollar milestone. But, we have 50 million dollars more to raise before the end of 2012. While challenging, this is thoroughly “do-able.” In addition to securing additional and much needed Annual Fund commitments, the remaining funds-to-be-raised will provide us with other critically needed resources, including new faculty positions, prioritized by the AAC, that will expand curricular offerings. These funds-to-be-raised will also provide additional facility improvements that will further strengthen our educational environment. Much planning has already been done for these additional capital projects and we are already in conversation with donors. I thank everyone who has assisted in this planning and I look forward to reporting new campaign milestones and details of our successes over the next 24 months. Did I say this would be a memorable year?

2010-11 marks the 40th anniversary of co-education at Union. The fall of 1970 saw the arrival of women students on this campus – both transfer and first-year students. Union joined other schools in the northeast in making this change, a change that enriched our campus in so many ways. The upcoming issues of the Union Magazine will report on the experiences of some of these pioneering students. We will also mark the year with a number of speakers and events. There are several that are scheduled and I’d like you to be sure to mark them down on your calendars.

A panel of women graduates from Union will present on October 16.

Awista Ayub, author of However Tall the Mountain, will present October 19.

Rebecca Walker – author who was named by Time Magazine as one of the 50 most influential American leaders under 40 – will speak as part of the Presidential Forum on Diversity on October 28.

And, I am pleased to announce that Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law at Ethics at the University of Chicago and one our country’s most distinguished scholars, will be our Founders Day speaker on February 24.

You’ll hear more in advance of these and other events but I’d urge you to attend and celebrate. And as we celebrate the many ways in which women have enriched our campus community, I would hope that we’d all renew efforts to ensure that opportunities abound for them and that their experience at Union is free from stereotype, harassment, intimidation or violence, phenomena that unfortunately continue to mar the college experience of women nationwide. This too will add to a truly memorable year.

Over the summer, we received word that Union has been reaccredited by the Middle States Commission. This is an important milestone for us as well. Every ten years, institutions go through what amounts to an “institutional physical.” Many of you worked many hours and accumulated and analyzed mountains of data to prepare for last year’s reaccreditation visit. That visit, led by President Daniel Weiss of Lafayette College, yielded a remarkably positive report. The visitation team issued commendations to Union on its strong faculty, students, and administration. We were also commended for our assessment efforts, the broad support of our strategic plan, our broad based approach to addressing recent economic challenges, progress on diversifying our community, and our Minerva system, among many other things. On behalf of all of us, I want to thank Dean McCarty and Professor David Cotter who led our reaccreditation work and all those members of the Reaccreditation Steering Committee. We are all grateful to you for ensuring this outcome.

Middle States was not the only agency to think well of what happens here. Union did well in the various institutional rankings that were released over the summer months. While all rankings are flawed in one way or another, they inform decisions and shape perceptions. Happily, we:

Moved up in U.S. News and World Report (now 41 among national liberal arts colleges)

Maintained a top 50 position in Forbes (now 49 among all colleges and universities)

Were ranked highest among all New York colleges and universities by Businessweek, based on their study of “Return on Investment” (we were 13th overall).

Were once again listed among the nation’s top colleges by the Princeton Review and we did not appear on several less-than-desirable of their sub-lists. We did make their sub-list of “greenest colleges.”

Skeptical as we should be (and I certainly am) of these sorts of lists, we shouldn’t make too much of these rankings. However, there is no question that these various sources of information about colleges and universities consistently place us among the nation’s finest institutions. This will undoubtedly help us in many ways.  At the very least, these lists position us well for the about-to-begin search for next year’s incoming class, a class we hope will continue the trend of increasingly strong academic credentials, increasing diversity, and increasingly rich talents and gifts. I did say this can be a memorable year, didn’t I?

When I welcomed the incoming class on Saturday afternoon, in this very place, I urged them to make the most of the wonderful opportunities they have. I can’t think of a better message for all of us today and with which to end this convocation. We are a richly diverse community of talented teachers, learners, and workers. We live and study and work in a campus environment consistently judged as one of the best. We have state-of-the-art facilities and instruments and they will continue to improve. We have a breadth of study here that is envied by many and that allows for interdisciplinary investigations few institutions of our size can offer. While we are hardly the most heavily resourced college in America, we operate in an environment to which most institutions of higher learning can only dream and aspire.

None of this is a cause to be satisfied; we must always reach and we must always strive to be better. But it all causes me to make a plea as we opening the 2010-11 academic year: Let us all be worthy of and make the most of the remarkable community, the remarkable environment, the remarkable opportunities that we have. If we do, it will be a memorable year indeed.