Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks Saturday

Publication Date

We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, a beloved space for many graduates of Union College. Memorial Chapel was completed in 1925 – commissioned by President Richmond and designed by the illustrious architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White. For those interested in the history of architecture, this firm designed a number of New York City landmarks, including the New York Public Library, the Washington Arch in Washington Square Park, and a series of private clubs – the Harvard Club, University Club, and Metropolitan Club. Memorial Chapel was intended to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars up to that time, especially the then recent conflict of World War I.

Over the ensuing years, the Chapel has evolved into our primary ceremonial space, notably inaugurations of Presidents, Opening Convocation, Founder’s Day, the ReUnion alumni convocation, Baccalaureate, and more recently, the Greek and Senior Athletic award ceremonies are all held here. It has also become a place for remembering the passing of all graduates of the College and other members of the Union community.

The “memorial” aspect of this space may explain part of the emotional hold it has on people. It’s a point of pride for our community that we care deeply about one other and about those who have lived, worked, and studied here. Union is a place of deep and enduring relationships. It is appropriate to talk about it in terms of “family.” And, for this reason, each year at the Baccalaureate ceremony, we take time to honor those members of the Union family who died during the preceding year. We do so again today. Their names are listed in the program and I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their many contributions, and their love of Union with a brief moment of silence.

Thank you. Tomorrow you will receive a “dip” (or diploma) from your alma mater. Once you do, that lyric from the Ode to Old Union, which we will sing at the end of today’s ceremony, will mean much more to you. Tomorrow will be a day for celebrating what you’ve accomplished and for contemplating the “commencement” of your life after Union. The ceremony will end with me issuing a charge to you, as the President has issued a charge to graduates every year since the first commencement. Appropriately, my remarks tomorrow will be more forward looking than are my remarks today.

Today, I’d like you to focus on remembering and reflecting on the past four years. As I talk, I’d like you to recollect those many books you’ve read, classes you’ve attended, conversations you’ve had – crossing campus, late night in a dorm room, or while eating in the Ozone Café, “Dutch” or the “Skeller.” As I talk, I’d like you to recollect the games you’ve played, concerts or theatrical and dance productions you’ve performed in, works of art you’ve created, lectures you’ve listened to, and exhibits you’ve toured during your time here. I’d like you to remember your mini-terms or terms away. I’d like you to recollect labs, poster sessions, research, and presentations. As I talk, I’d like you to remember internships and volunteer activities. Have you started remembering? Your generation has mastered the art of multi-tasking so I confident that you can remember while you listen!

One of the most widely read publications on higher education is The Chronicle of Higher Education. It comes out once a week in print copy and every weekday morning in electronic form. I always scan the articles and try to read at least several of the news stories or featured pieces to start my day. On Monday of this week, there was a piece by Mark Edmundson that drew my interest. I spoke about it with the faculty on Thursday night and I’d like to talk about it with you today.

The piece was entitled “Can Music Save Your Life?” Edmundson is a University Professor (a prestigious appointment) at the University of Virginia. He teaches in the English Department and he’s an expert on 19th century American and British Literature. So a piece authored by him on music caught my attention.

Edmundson begins by posing the question: Who hasn’t at least once had the feeling of being remade by music? Who is there, he continues, who can’t link a particular song to personal change – a new phase of life, a new opportunity, a new relationship? Let me conduct a quick poll: can I have a show of hands from everyone who can link a song to a new relationship or to one that ended or to some other significant life event?

Sometimes, Edmundson goes on to observe, a song or piece of music itself seems to change your whole perspective, challenge your categories, make you rethink things, maybe even rethink your self. He goes on to recount – as an example of a song that changed him -- the first time he heard Bob Dylan play “Like a Rolling Stone.” Do you know the piece? If you don’t, ask your parents about it: I suspect they all do. The song begins with the lyrics: “Once upon a time, you dressed so fine, threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?” The lyrics continue:

“People'd call, say, "Beware doll, you're bound to fall,"
You thought they were all a’kiddin' you.

You used to laugh about
Everybody that was hangin' out.
Now you don't talk so loud,
Now you don't seem so proud,
About having to be scrounging your next meal.

How does it feel ?
To be without a home ?
Like a complete unknown ?
Like a rolling stone ?

These lyrics may not grab you like it did Edmondson (it might help if I sang it but “dream on”). Let me provide a little context that may help you see why this song was so noteworthy at the time of its release. The year was 1965. The other music on the “hit parade” were tunes like “Farmer Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter” by Herman’s Hermits, “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “My Girl” by the Temptations, and “Downtown” by Petula Clark. All memorable songs to be sure but I doubt that I have to read the lyrics of those hits to make you see that lyrics like “How does it feel to be a complete unknown, without a home, like a rolling stone?” prompted a young Edmundson to ask: “huh?” “what does he mean?” and play the song over and over again, seeking an answer.

Edmondson notes that he wasn’t alone in his reaction. He recounts that Bruce Springsteen was 15 in 1965 and first heard the song on the radio while riding with his mother in her car. Springsteen spoke at Dylan’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and argued that Bob Dylan and “Like a Rolling Stone” changed the face of rock and roll music forever. For Springsteen himself, the song represented a moment of profound change: “it was,” he remarked, “like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” “Like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Now that’s a piece of music that can rightfully be said to have “remade” Bruce Springsteen.

By now, you are probably asking “Where’s President Ainlay going with this?” What does this have to do with memories of games, presentations, conversations, and the like during my four years at Union? Well, my point is really rather straightforward: I hope that over the course of four years you can remember not one but numerous instances when “somebody kicked open the doors to your mind” the way that “Like a Rolling Stone” did for Mark Edmundson, Bruce Springsteen and many others, like Steve Jobs and, yes, me. I hope things happened over your last four years that prompted you to ask “huh?” “what!?!”

This is where you should let the memories spring forth. Was it a book? Was it a poem? Was it a lecture? Was it an idea you’d never considered before? Was it an elegant formula? Was it a breakthrough in a lab? Was it a comment a friend made at 2 o’clock in the morning? Was it a painting or piece of sculpture you viewed in the Mandeville Gallery or perhaps while touring a museum in Paris, London, Madrid, or some place else in the world? Was it something a coach said at a key point in competition, a goal you scored, a dive or a double-play or a last minute basket you made, or a come-from-behind win? Was it a painful moment of defeat or failure? Was it preparing food in Campus Kitchen? Was it tilling soil in the Octopus’ Garden? Was it the Empty Bowls project at Proctors? Was it reclaiming a city park for children to play? Was it a question that someone asked while you were presenting at Steinmetz? Was it a look of gratitude from a victim of Hurricane Irene? Was it a simple word of thanks from a child, eager to learn, who you tutored?

Was there a moment or were there many moments when “somebody kicked in the doors to your mind?” Moments that “remade” you? Moments that deepened your self-understanding or your understanding of the world of others?

I truly hope so. I truly hope that you feel transformed by your experience at Union. I hope you feel “remade.” I hope that you can already look back on your Union years and point to experiences, events and conversations that changed the way you look at the world, experiences, events, and conversations that changed you.

That, after all, is what education, self-development, formation, and becoming are all about. That’s what Union aimed for and I hope we delivered.

And, I also hope that you will never lose your openness to new ideas, to the possibility of being remade, to learning. That too, is an earmark of a Union graduate.

Keep remembering; and, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I look forward to handing you your “dip.” It will be special and I’m honored to share the moment with you.

Thank you.