1. Union Home
  2. About
  3. Office of the President
  4. In the News
  5. Speeches & Messages
  6. Inaugural Address

September 16, 2006

Inaugural Address

President Brody, Chairman Ciesinski, Mayor Stratton, Assemblyman Tedisco, Assemblyman Tonko, members of the Union Board of Trustees, honored guests and representatives of our fellow institutions of higher education and learned societies, community leaders, Union faculty, staff and students, treasured friends and family members: thank you for joining us today for this inaugural ceremony and this celebration of Union College.

First, let me assure you that I will try not to be overly long in my remarks. My father, who was a far more gifted public speaker than I could ever hope to be, once told me that you should discipline yourself to stay focused when you are addressing an audience and make sure that what you have to say is worth their time. He suggested that you do this by taking the time of your talk, multiplying it by the number of people in attendance, and then dividing it by a 40-hour work week. Translating that advice into our time together today: There are approximately 900 people in Memorial Chapel. Therefore, I will consume about 15 hours of our collective time, time that could be applied to a host of valuable endeavors, for every minute I speak! Following my father's advice, I will try to use my time and your time wisely.

Giving a few words of thanks and recognition is certainly well worth some of our time. I want to thank President Brody for being with us today and for his remarks. We have followed your distinguished career as an educator; we have witnessed the success of Johns Hopkins under your leadership; and we're aware of the important role you play in conversations within the academy. Thus, we are deeply honored by your participation.

I also want to thank the other members of platform party who brought greetings today as well as all those who participated in last night's symposium. Your presence and participation are greatly appreciated. Each of you is connected to me and/or Union in ways that have made the day very special.

I would be remiss if I didn't say a special word of thanks to Dick Roberts. His participation today in the face of profound physical challenges, was nothing less than heroic. I will always be grateful for the hand of friendship he has extended to me. He is a model of what we mean by the phrase, You are Union.

I want to thank the students who performed today. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us. I also want to thank all the students in attendance today. You are Union and this is as much your celebration as anyone's.

Let me also say a special word of thanks to members of the Board of Trustees, many of whom sit with me on the stage today. We at Union are extraordinarily fortunate to have a Board with great talent and devotion to this College. This inauguration ultimately reflects your vote of confidence in my ability to lead Union. I thank you for your confidence and trust.

Finally, let me say thanks to those who made this day possible. I want to thank our Faculty Marshal, Professor William Finlay, and the members of the Planning Committee who worked out all the details of this day. I want to especially thank Kathy Quinn and Dottie Pratico from my office for all their work. I want to thank the members of the Honorary Planning Committee who've made this celebration of Union possible by their support. And, I want to thank the staff at Union--from dining services to campus safety, from facilities to information technology services-- your work has truly been indispensable to the day. Your special care for Union is equally evident.

I want to introduce to you my wife, Judith Gardner Ainlay, and my two sons, Jesse and Jonathan. Would you please stand? Without their love and support, I would not be speaking to you from this podium today. Would you all join me in recognizing them with your applause?

If you will allow me, I also want to introduce two other people: first, my mother, Dorothy Ainlay and then my mother-in-law, Oneta Gardner. I would introduce all the rest of our family but that alone would take hours! Let me must say that Judy and I are overwhelmed by the turnout of our siblings, their spouses, their children, and their children. Even my sister and her family who live outside the country have tuned in to virtually participate in today's ceremony! We are delighted beyond words that you could be here today to help mark this occasion.

Serving Union: An Opportunity of a Lifetime

When Jim Underwood, long-time member of the Union faculty and interim President, addressed the Union community a year ago and spoke about the presidential search that was under way, he said the person who is ultimately selected will be a very fortunate individual.; I couldn't agree more; I truly am a very fortunate individual. I am thrilled to have been selected as the 18th President of Union College and I understand the weighty responsibility of leading an institution of such academic distinction.

Ceremonies such as this are steeped in tradition and symbolism. In shedding my own academic gown and taking on Union's academic regalia as I did moments ago, I signified my dedication to this institution and my acceptance of the responsibility that comes with the office of President. I stand before you humbled by the portraits of my 17 predecessors, each of whom accepted the same responsibility for leading this great institution. For the record, and to scale down expectations, I want to make clear that I have no illusions of matching or exceeding Eliphalet Nott's 61 years as President.

A Storied History

As President Brody so generously pointed out in his remarks, Union College is a storied place. Founded in 1795, we were indeed established during the presidency of George Washington. We were the first college approved by the New York Board of Regents. While still young by the standards of Europe, this places Union among America's oldest colleges. It is worth pausing to take note of some of its accomplishments.

Union was the first college campus in America to have been developed around a comprehensive architectural master plan. The French architect, Joseph Ramee, prepared his extensive campus plans for Union about four years before Thomas Jefferson drew his plans for the University of Virginia. Union's own Paul Turner, long-time professor of architectural history at Stanford University, tells us that the Ramee plan with its detailed drawings of gardens and a park-like campus, a central rotunda surrounded by an impressive green and matched colleges, and a semi-circular colonnade became the inspiration for many other schools. In fact, Union produced a large number of graduates in the 19th century who went on to become presidents at other institutions and many of them imported elements of the Ramee plan to their campuses. I think it fair to say that the genius of the Ramee plan is still evident today and campus guests continue to be impressed and seduced by its beauty.

Union was the home of a number of curricular firsts as well. For example, Union was among the first colleges in the United States to allow the substitution of French for the study of Greek in meeting graduation requirements. Union was also the first college to introduce engineering into the undergraduate curriculum. And, the first analytical chemistry laboratory course taught in the U.S. was introduced at Union by Professor Charles Chandler, who also founded the American Chemical Society.

Throughout its history, Union has educated extraordinary men and women who have gone on to make equally extraordinary contributions to their respective fields and to their communities. As President Brody pointed out, this is certainly true in politics. Numbered among Union's own are a U.S. President, a Supreme Court justice, a Speaker of the House, and Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury. Union has also produced seemingly countless foreign ambassadors, members of the U.S. House and Senate, military leaders, and federal and state judges. And, Union has produced graduates who have served as the governors of numerous states, including New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Wyoming, and South Carolina. Many Union graduates have also served their state assemblies with distinction.

Union has long been strong in the sciences and engineering, and it comes as no surprise that its graduates have made numerous contributions here, as well. Some, like George Westinghouse, became household names. Some, like Baruch Blumberg, winner of Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery of the hepatitis B virus, have received international acclaim. Others, too, like Kathy Magliato (one of a handful of women heart transplant surgeons in the U.S. today) or Ira Rutkow (who developed a surgical technique that is now the gold standard in the repair of hernias) have also been at the leading edge of their respective fields. Some, like Gordon Gould (inventor of the laser) turned futuristic vision into practical application. Some, like Daniel Gioseffi (developer of the Sylvania soft light bulb) or Solomon Deyo (chief engineer for the first New York City subway) simply transformed the way in which millions of people live their lives or move from place to place.

Union graduates have also left their mark on the world of education. Consider the college presidents that Union has produced. They include the founding presidents of Smith College, Knox College, Elmira College, Alfred University, Hope College and the University of Delaware. They also include the presidents of Brown, Bowdoin, Vassar, Hobart, Franklin and Marshall, St. Lawrence, Hanover, the University of Michigan and the University of Colorado. Countless faculty members at this country's most prestigious universities and colleges have held and hold the Union degree. And, Union has produced graduates who started entire academic disciplines, graduates such as Louis Henry Morgan, widely regarded as the founder of American anthropology and Franklin Giddings, one of the founders of American sociology.

Likewise, Union has contributed to American popular culture. President Brody was right to remind us to think of this college when you hear "Taps" played. The same is true when you hear "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" at the holidays, or the oft-repeated verse "Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home." All of these were authored or composed by a graduate of Union College. Think of this college when you rent a "Rocky" movie or watch the films "Raging Bull," "The Right Stuff," "Field of Dreams," "Sum of All Fears," "When Harry Met Sally" or "A Few Good Men," or when you watch the "Sopranos" or a re-run of "Seinfeld"; all these were produced or directed by a Union alum. Other graduates of Union developed major public institutions, such John Bigelow, whose work led to the creation of the New York Public Library. Others, such as Kate White, editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine, have not only shaped culture but shaped the American lexicon.

For each name I've mentioned or alluded to, there are scores of other graduates who have literally "made history." Whether it be in the halls of corporate America, the world of investment banking, startup companies, law, or the non-profit sector, you will find Union graduates taking the lead. So yes, Union's history is storied to be sure. But I would point out that with such a storied history comes great responsibility. Because of its history, Union must be more self-conscious and self-critical about what it does. Because of its history, Union must set the bar of accountability high. Because of its history, Union has an obligation to lead as it confronts today's educational challenges. And similarly, Union students and graduates, too, have a responsibility to be more self-conscious and self-critical, to hold themselves to a high standard, and to make a difference in the world they inhabit. Weighty responsibilities, I know, and I am mindful of this as I take on the Union colors.

Union: Well-Hewn to Make a Difference in Our Time.

Fortunately, Union is an institution that is well-hewn to live up to its responsibilities: to respond to today's challenges, to educate today's students, to make a difference in our time. Let me try to support this claim by briefly pointing to several contemporary challenges and why it is that Union is well-situated by virtue of its history and its institutional ethos to respond.

The first of these is the problem of fragmentation. We live in a world marked by conflict and misunderstanding, a world that sometimes feels as if it is being torn apart by things that divide us. My good friend, James Hunter, who has honored me with his presence today, has described one aspect of this fragmentation as the American "culture wars" in an influential book by the same title. Professor Hunter has argued that vibrant democracies depend on dialogue about differences but cautions that the politics of extremism, on both the left and right, have all too often come to characterize our political scene. Professor Hunter further cautions that, left unchecked, the polarizing effects of these same politics of extremism threaten to undermine the possibilities of real discourse and real democracy. Education, Professor Hunter tells us, can be a tool of the culture wars. Yet in my view, education at its best has the potential to play a key strategic role in counteracting polarization by emphasizing the value of dialogue, helping students understand difference without reducing it to "a matter of perspective," and celebrating mutual respect. It is no small challenge to achieve these qualities in any environment, and monologue is certainly easier than dialogue, but if not in higher education, where?

Much can be learned about an institution's ethos by looking at its origin stories. The origin story for Union is relatively unique among American colleges, especially those older colleges located in the northeast. At the time of its founding in the late 18th century, Union's name was understood to mean that several churches the Dutch Reformed, the Presbyterian, and the Episcopal had joined together in a common educational endeavor. Thus, from its beginnings, Union was non-denominational, unlike most fellow institutions of the day. Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth had, for example, been founded by the Congregationalists. William and Mary and Columbia were Anglican. Princeton was Presbyterian, Rutgers was Dutch Reformed, and Brown was Baptist.

From its origin, then, Union has understood that, despite difference, people can come together for a common educational cause. Let's not delude ourselves; Wayne Somers reminds us in his institutional history of Union that, despite this founding principle, Union has not always been a bastion of inclusivity. For many years, Union understood the diversity of its community in fairly narrow terms. Nevertheless, over the years, the genius of the founding impulse has broadened and the invitation to join in true dialogue has been appropriately extended far beyond what the founders of Union had in mind. This ethos a commitment to a common educational cause despite difference must animate our educational endeavor today. If not higher education, where? If not a school called "Union," what college or university?

Not surprisingly, a school that was the first to have a comprehensive campus master plan, tried to symbolically affirm this same founding ethos in its architecture. It is a source of great pride and inspiration to me that we find the Nott Memorial at the very center of campus. I would ask all of you to gaze at the Nott Memorial as you leave Memorial Chapel today. When the Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard University delivered last year's Founder's Day address, he spoke of its "commanding presence." I urge you to take in its commanding presence, its 16 sides, and its very location at the center of this historic campus. The Nott screams volumes about our institutional history and ethos and it serves as a sort of institutional compass. It reminds all of us at Union of our origin and our obligation to counteract all the many forces of fragmentation that too often operate in our world and pull us apart from one another. It should call us together and affirm the value of communities of difference, united in educational purpose and committed to the values of dialogical education. It should remind us that genuine dialogue becomes possible only when we humanize those with whom we disagree and when we profess and model the attending virtues of toleration and civility. It should motivate us to resist the polarizing effects of the culture wars and to be vigilant so as to include those who have not yet been invited to the table. Yes, Union is indeed well-hewn to make a difference in our time.

A second challenge facing us today is that we live in an increasingly complex, global world. The notion of a global economy is not new, of course, but as Thomas Friedman, author of the national best-seller, "The World is Flat", tells us: in this technologically sophisticated world with broadband connectivity stretching world-wide, email, and proprietary software that can separate work for remote development anywhere in the world, the global economy has truly been leveled. Friedman humorously notes, that "while he was sleeping," the global economy went from Globalization (version) 1.0 to Globalization 3.0. Accordingly, he argues that living in today's world not only requires an understanding of the interconnectedness of nations and corporations, it also requires an understanding of the way which individuals are collaborating and competing globally. This phenomenon effects far more than the world of business. What can be said of the world of business can also be said of the world of ideas.

It can certainly be said of the world of science and engineering. In fact, the National Academies of Science have declared that the "death of distance" (whereby, they argue, information and competitors are now a mere mouse-click away) has made it more difficult to compete and prosper in the areas of science and engineering. In their report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the National Academies emphasize the need to build up sufficient human capital; "sufficiency," they maintain, is not a matter of numbers (although increased numbers of scientists and engineers would be a good thing); "Sufficiency" is a matter of developing scientists and engineers who are well-educated, work easily with colleagues across the world, and who have a capacity for innovation. Without all these qualities, scientists and engineers, no matter what their numbers, will not be sufficient to the task of contributing to or succeeding in this new world.

Is American higher education preparing students equipped to enter into this flat and distance-dead world? Many critics would suggest that we are not. Evidence of the growing concern was the cover of the February 2006 issue of Time magazine, which asked the provocative question: Is America Flunking Science? Given Union's constellation of resources, curricular programs and ethos, we are well positioned to respond to the educational needs of this new world. Part of this owes to our history of innovation. After all, in an early recognition of the changing world of the 18th century, Union broke ranks with its fellow institutions of higher learning and chose the French language to voice its college motto (Sous les lois del Minerve nous devenon tous freres). Similarly distinguishing itself by its curricular innovations, Union set itself apart from most other colleges by allowing students to substitute French for Greek in meeting both application and graduation requirements and, in the first half of the 19th century, by introducing engineering alongside the liberal arts course of study. Through its "contemporary" approach to language and its "balanced" approach to education, Union came to symbolize the simultaneous appreciation of the liberal arts, humanistic study, and the appreciation of newer fields and an interconnected world. Innovation became central to Union's history and it, too, is part of its educational ethos.

Over the past six months, I have encountered numerous "emblematic characters" that are part of the Union story. For me, these emblematic characters say volumes about Union's educational capacity. One of these is Franklin Giddings, Union Class of 1877. I confess I was drawn to him because I am trained as a sociologist and Giddings is regarded as one of the founding figures in my field. He held the first chair in sociology in the United States (at Columbia) and was a founder of the American Sociological Association, serving as its third President. Giddings is often credited with having transformed sociology into a research science and he was basic reading during my own graduate days. What has become particularly interesting to me about Giddings is the fact that he was educated as a civil engineer at Union College. While this surprised me at first, it came to make perfect sense the more I understood about the balanced education he received here. At Union, his studies in engineering taught him the value of mental discipline and empirical grounding. At Union, his humanistic studies guided him to ask fundamental questions about the nature of human experience. His "balanced" education at Union gave him the necessary educational background to imagine the new field of study. The ethos of innovation at Union, clearly internalized by Giddings, gave him the necessary catalytic spark.

We will need to continue to draw on this ethos of innovation and instill it in our students as we respond to the new challenges posed by globalism. We will need to draw on this ethos of innovation and instill it in our students as we try to meet the demand for individuals who are capable of imagining solutions well outside prescribed ways of thinking. But be assured of one thing: Union is indeed well-hewn to make a difference in our time.

I would like to briefly address one additional challenge that we face as educators in these early days of the 21st century. This third issue is not unrelated to the first two. Much has been said and written about the need to educate men and women who will be engaged citizens, bound to high ethical standards, and willing to place personal interests second to the common good. This is not a 21st century problem alone, and many cultural critics, especially in the second half of the 20th century, have lamented evidence suggesting an increasing narcissism and amoral bent in American culture. More recently, Robert Putnam, in his book, Bowling Alone, has offered substantial evidence that Americans are less connected to one another and to the idea of working together for mutual benefit. All this would, of course, prove disappointing to deTocqueville who, in an earlier century, cited the American propensity for civic association as a great strength of our democracy (deTocqueville, I might add, was first published in America by another Union alum!).

Once again, many commentators look to us in higher education to find ways of re-cultivating people's sense of social-connectedness and civic commitment. Let me once again turn to one of Union's emblematic characters: William Seward. Seward is regarded as among our nation's most effective Secretaries of State. There is a resurgence of interest in Seward today given the popularity of Doris Kearns Goodwin's recently published book, A Team of Rivals, which focuses on the administration of Abraham Lincoln. As those of you who have read the book know, Goodwin explodes the commonly held view that Lincoln was a bumbling or naive politician. Instead, she paints a picture of a President who managed to hold together an administration of political thoroughbreds, a team of political rivals, through his remarkable leadership skills and understanding of human frailties and insecurities. The clear winner of the best supporting actor role in this drama is William Seward. As Goodwin recounts, Seward was the hands-down favorite to win the Republican nomination in 1860. He was best-known among the contenders and he was regarded by many as the most gifted and the most effective communicator. So sure were Seward and his supporters that he'd win the nomination that cannons were set around his home in Auburn, N.Y., in preparation of the celebrations that would follow the news of his selection. For a variety of reasons, including the suspicion that opposition to slavery would make him unelectable, the convention turned to Lincoln, and dealt Seward the greatest disappointment of his life. What is astonishing in this age is the manner in which Seward responded. Rather than retreating to his home in Auburn, Seward took to the road, tirelessly campaigning for his former political adversary. More impressive is the fact that he accepted Lincoln's offer to serve as Secretary of State and that he became Lincoln's most trusted and influential advisor. It is Seward, in fact, who is credited with helping Lincoln shape his own position on slavery, ultimately leading to the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seward demonstrated what it means to subordinate self-interest to the common good. While he was fully capable of jealously and self-interest, Seward understood that his aspirations were subordinate to the larger cause of social justice. Seward, I would offer, is another emblematic figure. He was not one to "bowl alone." He understood the value of community, the self-sacrifice that sometimes comes with committing to the common good, and the virtue of rising above personal disappointment.

How much better our world today would be with more of the likes of William Seward! We at Union need to remind ourselves that Seward walked this campus and was formed here. Seward, too, is part of the Union legacy; his life also informs our institutional ethos. He should serve as an inspiration to us. His legacy should serve as a call for us to create an educational environment within which the formation of tomorrow's Sewards is both possible and likely to occur. There are undoubtedly many ways of ensuring this. Richard Light, who delivered the keynote at last night's symposium, has written that a critical role for educators is to "get in the way" of each student. By this, I think Light means that educators need to interrupt the busyness of students' lives and create a space for them to evaluate and re-evaluate their choices. While Light offers this role up in a somewhat different context, I think it has application here. We must find ways of getting in students' way, creating space for them to think about the very meaning of the common good, what it means to submit to a cause that transcends personal ambition. If not possible in a place in the shadow of William Seward, then where? Yes, Union is indeed well-hewn to make a difference in our times.

A Charge to All of Us.

In saying that Union is well-hewn to make a difference, I am emphatically not saying that we've solved the challenges of difference or globalization. Nor do we have the secret to scientific or technological proficiency or the production of an engaged citizenry. What I am saying is that because of our historical legacy, because of our long-standing and enduring dedication to liberal education, to philosophy, the arts, great works of literature, the social sciences, science, and engineering, and because of our institutional ethos hewn from that history and our balanced view of education Union is well-positioned to address the challenges confronting the academy today. In fact, our history, our particular educational configuration, and our ethos oblige us to do so. But it is up to us, today's stewards of Union, to translate history and ethos into initiatives and programs. We can find lessons and inspiration in Union's past, but it is not up to the College's emblematic characters to develop curricular or co-curricular programs or create a campus culture that address the challenges posed by 21st century life. This task is left for us. This is what it means to take responsibility for our history and to breathe life into our ethos.

I am relieved to tell you that I believe today's Union has the talent, the appetite, and the will to wrestle with these challenges and envision such programmatic responses. In a moment I will end this ceremony by reading to you a charge issued to Union students by the first President of the College, John Blair Smith. I hope you will find that his charge speaks to you over the two hundred years that have passed and that it resonates with my remarks today. His charge should serve as a directive to all of us. In taking on the garnet robe of Union, I understand my opportunity to lead and I pledge that I will do my part in shouldering our responsibility.

Thank you.