Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's convocation remarks

Publication Date

College Marshall Finlay, Trustee Chair Walsh, Trustees Messa, Lippman and O’Brien, Dean McCarty, Professor Walker, Student Forum President Patel, and all members of the Union Community: Welcome to the start of the 2011-12 academic year!

Let me begin with some thanks and congratulations. First of all, I want to thank Frank Messa who has served us all well as Board Chair these past four years. Frank, we appreciate all that you’ve done for Union and trust you won’t stray far. I also want to welcome Mark Walsh as our new Board Chair. Mark has served as Vice Chair of the Board, Chaired the Board’s College Relations Committee, and Co-Chairs our Campaign. Like Frank, Mark’s daughter was educated here, graduating last June, so he also brings a parental perspective. We all look forward to your leadership, Mark, and to working with you to take Union to yet new heights.

I want to offer my congratulations to Professor Marso. The Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching recognizes your talents as an educator and the inspiration you provide to our students. To be so selected from among a faculty of gifted teachers is a high honor and we celebrate with you.

I also want to congratulate Elana Korn on receiving the Hollander Prize. Thank you for your performance today and for bringing your gifts to Union. We are all enriched by what you add to our community. Thanks also to Professor Catravas for accompanying Elana. You and Dean Hollander give substance to our claims to integrate fields of study others consider disparate.

I want to thank Professor McMullen who played the organ processional and will play the recessional as we leave the building. Time and time again, you add so much to our public events and you so generously share your talents with us. You have our appreciation and our admiration.

Last year at this time, I said I thought we would have a memorable year. I trust you will agree when I declare “we did.”

For one thing, we added some of the most significant new space in Union’s history. The Wold Center was dedicated during ReUnion in May but it had already emerged as a campus centerpiece. The architects, Einhorn, Yaffee, and Prescott, promised a building that would fit into our historic design. As testimony to their success, I had an alumnus celebrating his 50th ReUnion stop me in front of Wold and ask “has this building always been here?” Having said this, nobody entering through its doors can doubt that it’s new. The state-of-the-art labs were abuzz with activity from the moment the building opened. The new MacLean Atrium began to take on the feel of an “academic town square” just as the designers had promised (I’d be the first to admit that the Starbucks coffee bar helped ensure this outcome). Faculty held office hours there, laptop computers could be seen on every table, student working groups collaborated on projects, and wide-eyed tour groups were clearly taken in by it all. The Steinmetz Symposium poster session, held in the atrium, was a huge success. The space was alive with animated conversations about research. Could we have hoped for more?

Over the summer, work was completed on the old Social Sciences Building, the new Lippman Hall. I thank the entire community for its patience as we completed the renovation of this building. I think you will all agree, as you find your way into the building, that it is greatly improved in terms of both function and aesthetics. I suspect the new classrooms and seminar rooms will soon be counted among our most popular and effective. We will dedicate the building during Family/Homecoming Weekend but I hope you find your way into the structure well before then. Jim Lippman is here with us today and this gives us an opportunity to thank him for his generosity and support.

Throughout the construction of both the Wold Center and Lippman Hall, our Facilities Department has been exceptional. They worked well with architects and contractors to ensure successful buildings. They tried their best to minimize noise and other disruptions. They worked hard to ensure that deadlines were met so as not to impair our academic program. They worked hard to see that the building and surrounding green space and courtyards were as attractive and functional as the rest of this beautiful campus. I would ask you all join me in showing our appreciation for what they’ve done and what they do with our applause.

As if these facilities were not enough to make last year memorable, we recruited a remarkably talented incoming class. They are academically accomplished with average submitted SATs of 1300. They come from 30 states and 12 countries. 19% of the students in the class represent domestic multicultural diversity. 5% of the students in the class are international. Both figures reflect success in progressing toward important strategic goals for the College. To give you a sense of our progress, in 2005 12% of the incoming class represented multicultural diversity and 2% were international. I’d ask all the members of the Class of 2015 to stand and let us congratulate you on your admission to Union and welcome you as members of the community.

I’d also ask you to join me in a round of applause for Admissions staff and all those who helped achieve such a successful outcome (faculty, program directors and departmental chairs, alumni, tour guides, singing groups, etc.). You have represented Union well and you’ve strengthened our community by your efforts. We are all grateful.

I am happy to report that we were also very successful in our fundraising efforts last year. It is notable that both the Wold Center opened with commitments that fully fund its construction as well as establish an endowment for its ongoing operation. The same will be true of Lippman Hall. Given that our fundraising for these projects occurred during a recession, this is nothing short of amazing.

Also amazing is the fact that we reached our goal for the Annual Fund last year. As of the end of the fiscal year on June 30th, we had raised $4 million in unrestricted funds. This was an ambitious goal that set an all-time record for the school and provided essential operating dollars. On behalf of the entire Union community, I want to voice our thanks to the alumni and friends of the College who believe in what we are doing here, believe in the potential of the students who come to study here, believe that Union makes a difference, and believe that we are worthy of their financial support. You are right to have confidence in this institution; we are beholding to you for your support.

I am also pleased to report that we begin the final push in our Capital Campaign with $225 million committed and with confidence that we will achieve our $250 million goal before December of 2012. I reported to you last year on all the things the Campaign has thus far supported. Much of what we now assume is Union was made possible by this Campaign and the remaining $25 million dollars will further transform the school we know today. Specifically, if we are successful, we will add and renovate facilities, create new faculty positions, and provide additional scholarship funds that will help keep Union accessible. Again, I’m confident that we will be successful and I look forward to standing in front of you a year from now to announce plans for the celebration of the Campaign’s completion.

Many people have given generously to get us to a point in this Campaign that consultants viewed as impossible for Union. To those who have supported the Campaign, we also offer our thanks and we praise them for embracing our vision for the College. We can all be grateful to the staff in College Relations for communicating effectively about our vision and what goes on here. We can be grateful to all those who have developed relationships, made visits and phone calls, planned and executed memorable events, and otherwise advanced our fundraising efforts. It is certainly not lost on me that our successes owe not only to generosity but to the hard work and efforts of many. And, I would be remiss not to specifically thank Mark Walsh and Frank Messa, Campaign Co-Chairs, for their tireless efforts and personal generosity.

Our students did very well in competition last year. Union took top recycling honors in Recycle Mania, collecting the largest amount of recyclables per person and edging out Rutgers. Our Model UN team received Outstanding Delegation and Outstanding Position Paper awards. Union was one of only 10 colleges to receive both honors in this national competition with 5,000 students and 340 schools competing. And, our Union team placed 5th out of 75 teams in the SAE Aero East competition held in Marietta, Georgia and tied for 1st in the operational availability category – one of only 2 teams to have 100% successful flights.

Of course, I must also acknowledge the remarkable successes of our athletic program last year. Two of our teams, men’s hockey and lacrosse, made the NCAA tournaments for the first time in their team histories. Other teams, such as softball, won league championships and individuals distinguished themselves in various ways. And, as we’ve come to expect at Union, our athletes distinguished themselves with their academic performance and their generous support of the community, raising funds for noble causes, tutoring young students in Schenectady schools, and befriending the city and its residents in other ways. We have much to be proud of at Union when it comes to our athletic program.

I congratulate the student-citizen-athletes and their coaches, and I thank the senior leadership of our athletic programs for setting a standard that reflects the values of our institution. I also congratulate the students who had success in academic competitions and thank faculty who mentored and guided them. As to success on the field, ice, court, water, and track, and other arenas of competition this year, all I can say is “Go U!”

So what will the year ahead bring? I am counting on it being another memorable year and I think you can as well. I’ve already alluded to the fact that we expect to announce additional facility improvements, enhancements in our academic programs, and continued success in building our financial resources. For the students here, I hope it will be a year where you discover new authors, other ways of knowing, your voice, and perhaps your passion.

It will be a year with some emotion. In just five days, the nation will mark the 10th anniversary of what has come to be known as “9/11.” The day will undoubtedly evoke painful memories and deep emotions. I hope that here at Union, it will be a time for reflection, for healing, and for affirmation of those virtues that bind us together.

It will be a year in which we work through implementation details for the new Union Honor Code. The Honor Code received overwhelming support from the faculty, the Academic Affairs Council, and Student Forum. The Code is strong affirmation of our institutional values. I want to thank all those who have worked hard and long to advance this work.

This summer, the new cluster computer donated by IBM was installed in the Peschel Computer Center. This gift was intended to coincide with the opening of the Wold Center but its potential application and significance extends well beyond any one building or any one field of study. It is the largest capacity computer on any liberal arts college campus. I applaud our IT staff and members of our faculty for seeing the possibilities and embracing the possibilities that this computing power provides. There is no question that the technology gap between liberal arts colleges with an active research agenda – like Union – and research universities has grown. With this advanced tool, we have been given the chance to demonstrate what can be done in teaching and research within our sector. Union can embrace our historic role and provide national leadership here while enhancing our own teaching and scholarship. This is just one instance where opportunities abound in the year ahead of us.

In the upcoming year, we will also take steps that will better leverage our location in Upstate New York. Schenectady continues its “renaissance.” We see evidence of this in our own neighborhood with the decision of the Schenectady Museum on Nott Terrace to stay where it is and enhance its profile and programs, the opening of a new restaurant on the same street, and the work beginning on the old ALCO site on the western side of campus. Perhaps most ripe with possibility is General Electric’s decision to make Schenectady an “alternative energy headquarters” which gives the city a remarkable opportunity to build a regional identity around sustainability.

It also gives Union remarkable opportunities that relate to our location on the Mohawk River. I have served this past year as a member of Congressman Paul Tonko’s Mighty Waters Task Force and chaired its Education and Research Committee. The Congressman hopes to gain more federal support for the waterways in the district he represents – the 21st Congressional District of New York. Think about it: the 21st District includes the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, and the Erie Canal. These are among the most historic waterways in the country and the rivers remain critical to New York today. The Beacon Institute and a number of Hudson River colleges and universities have already established educational and research programs that focus on that key waterway. We are the logical institution for doing the same with the Mohawk. As John Cronin of the Beacon Institute argues, you cannot understand the Hudson without understanding the Mohawk and we know far less about the latter. Our own John Garver spoke about changes in the Mohawk, prompted by hydrological changes in the Schoharie Creek, in an article in Sunday’s Gazette. Professor Garver pointed to the need to understand what he termed New York’s “forgotten river.” Opportunities for interdisciplinary study abound!

Our proximity to the Adirondack Park also creates enormous opportunities for interdisciplinary study as well as recreation. As I announced in an email sent to the Union community last spring, we have taken steps to begin building linkages to the Adirondacks. We are just weeks away from closing on the former home of environmentalist Paul Schaefer and PROTECT! – an advocacy association focused on the Adirondacks. When we do, we will have secured a 9,000 square foot facility that will provide a retreat space, a place for special programming and classes, and the largest library collection on the Adirondacks outside of the Adirondack Park. Located just 3 miles from campus, the facility is surrounded by the 110 acre Reist Sanctuary which offers marked trails and a rich array of vegetation and wildlife. As I also informed the community last year, we have been gifted 10 acres on the northeastern side of Lake Piseco in the lower Adirondack Park. A number of groups have already gone to Piseco to consider possibilities and planning is underway for class trips and possible mini-terms at the site, making use of the Irondequoit Inn which is adjacent to the property we now possess. Like the waterways that surround us, the Adirondacks offer remarkable opportunities for recreation but they also offer a rich source for research, scholarship, and creative work. Faculty and students working in environmental studies, biology, history, political science, sociology, anthropology, literature, visual arts, and music among other fields will find that opportunities abound.

Our proximity to Tech Valley also provides remarkable opportunities: opportunities to partner with innovative companies and unparalleled educational and career opportunities for our students. We have a long, if sometimes underutilized, relationship with Tech Valley institutions such as General Electric and IBM. In the past, the GE relationship led to luminaries such as Charles Steinmetz, Irving Langmuir, and Ralph Alpher teaching at Union. What can this relationship – given our proximity to the alternative energy production facilities in Schenectady and the Research and Development facilities in Niskayuna yield today? Further, we’ve only scratched the surface of the possibilities that can come from working with IBM. Three of our students spent the summer as interns at their global research facilities in China and Switzerland. The Kelly computer room provides the technology that will allow them to stay in touch with their overseas mentors. The “smarter planet” and “smarter city” initiatives are inherently interdisciplinary and have many potential local applications. If we choose to, we can partner with IBM and the Beacon Institute and help monitor the Mohawk with advanced technologies. And, our relationship with a new player, Global Foundries, is only now developing. This relationship too offers promising internships as well as other collaborative possibilities. Opportunities certainly abound!

Finally, our proximity to Albany and state government beckons us to find ways of turning this to our educational advantage. Internships in the executive and legislative branches of state government as well as with advocacy groups and agencies can provide rich learning environments. And, New York government offers an opportunity to study decision making in the face of complex, contemporary challenges. Opportunities truly abound!

Any one of these areas of opportunity, if seized and developed, will better leverage our location. Combined, they offer distinctive and unsurpassed opportunities for educating our students and position us well for attracting students and faculty to Union, not in spite of where we are but because of where we are. We cannot simply claim the advantages of location; we need to grab hold of the opportunities that will make the claim real. And, the time is right to do so.

I look forward to this year of opportunities with great anticipation. And, I look forward to our work together. Have a great year and please join us for the community barbeque that follows.