Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's convocation remarks

Publication Date

College Marshall Finlay, Trustee Chair Walsh, Trustee Messa, Dean McCarty, Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee: Professor Bucinell, Student Forum President Reilly, and all members of the Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2012-2013 academic year!

Let me begin by congratulating our Hollander Prize recipient, Warren Thompson. Thank you for sharing you musical talents with us today. I want to thank Dean Hollander for creating this prize. I want to thank Professor Catravas for accompanying Warren today. And, I must thank Professor McMullen for once again providing wonderful processional and recessional music to dignify this occasion.

I also want to offer my congratulations to Professor Motahar, recipient of the Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. The Stillman Prize honors your accomplishments as an educator. I know from countless alumni who have voiced their appreciation for your teaching that the honor is well-deserved. You can rightfully take great pride in receiving this prize as it is a high honor indeed to be selected from among a faculty of gifted teachers. I know we are proud that you carry on your craft here at Union.

One of the great virtues of college life is that fall represents a moment of renewal; a time when the community re-convenes and re-forms with the addition of a new cohort of students, faculty, and staff. I have always loved this sense of new beginnings and it’s one of the reasons I have walked the residence halls on move-in day every year since my first year as a new faculty member.

This year was no exception. I once again enjoyed watching the unloading of vehicles and the helpful hands extended by veteran students to new students and their families, carrying loads of items up many flights of stairs. I was moved by the sometimes emotional scenes of parents taking leave of their sons and daughters. But most of all, I was struck by the overwhelming sense of excitement and opportunity that pervades move-in weekend.

I would like to add my welcome to all new faculty, staff, and students who are joining the Union community this year. I hope you will find it as special as I do – an academic village of sorts, with a remarkably rich history and educational vitality. You have every reason to be excited and I hope you do indeed see the opportunities ahead of you.

You join us at a very special time in Union’s history. In fact, I’d venture to say that this will be one of those years we will look back on and say “I was there when,,,,” What will be so worth remembering? First off, in welcoming the Class of 2016, we welcome students who emerged from the largest applicant pool we’ve ever had and who gained entrance to Union after the most selective admissions process in our history. It is also the most international class with 7% of the class coming from countries outside the U.S. All of our incoming students chose Union over many other great schools and we chose them because of their wonderful academic accomplishments and potential to enrich this community.

2012-13 will also be remembered as the year during which Union implemented its new Honor Code. The Honor Code reflects years of work on the part of many in the Union community. It is a powerful statement about our commitment to the seriousness and integrity of the learning process. I want to thank all those who worked so hard to develop the Code, the policies, and procedures. I also want to thank all of you who will see to its implementation this year.

This fall, we will complete the largest comprehensive campaign in the College’s history and will have raised over $250 million dollars. This accomplishment will place us among the largest campaigns successfully completed by top-50 national liberal arts colleges. We will have opportunities to celebrate this accomplishment once we’ve surpassed our goal which could happen any day now and certainly should happen sometime this fall. My thanks to everyone who has helped us reach our goal by talking to donors, preparing proposals, cultivating relationships, and otherwise sharing our educational vision with alumni and friends. You have made history and have much to be proud of as we end the You are Union campaign.

And, this year, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Joseph-Jacques Ramée’s design of the Union campus. I suspect that many of us, while appreciating the beauty of the Union campus, take both the genius and the accomplishment of the Ramée design too much for granted.

Thus, it is worth reminding ourselves that Ramée’s vision for Union was groundbreaking (pun only partially intended), forged in the early days of our country and of American higher education. If you want a good accounting of our campus design, I’d recommend the writings of Paul Turner, Union alumnus and architectural historian at Stanford, who has written extensively on both Ramée and American campus planning. Dr. Turner has a wonderfully succinct chapter on our campus design in Wayne Somers’ Encyclopedia of Union College History, a more extensive discussion in his book on Joseph Ramée, and he places the Union design in broader historical context in his definitive book on campus architecture, entitled Campus: An American Planning Tradition.

For a closer-to-home “expert,” I’d recommend Jim Underwood, long-time member of the Union faculty, former Dean of the Faculty, and Interim President. He continues to learn new things about the origins of the Union campus, popping into my office from time to time with the most recent discovery, and he has – along with Matt Milless and Ellen Fladger – provided us with an enormous service by selecting and educating a group of Union students who will serve as historical guides to the Union campus. I think some of those students are with us today and I’d ask all those involved in this important project to stand and be recognized. Seek them out, ask them about what they’ve learned, what they will be doing, and take a tour. I’m certain that you will learn a great deal!

As we kick off the 200th anniversary celebration of the Union campus design, allow me to recall something of the architectural history and legacy of Union. In 1812, at the age of 48, Ramée came to the United States at the invitation of David Parish, a financier who made a considerable fortune and who was determined to develop communities near the Canadian border on the southern bank of the St. Lawrence River. Parish brought Ramée from France in order to design his communities. To visit Parish’s land in the “North Country,” Ramée traveled from Philadelphia on poorly developed roads, on rivers, and through primitive forests. His “adventure” was likely made more complicated by the fact that he spoke little if any English. Nevertheless, Ramée was apparently taken by the natural beauty he encountered and developed a number of architectural plans for houses, parks, and estates.

After three months, Ramée returned to Philadelphia with David Parish. They returned through the forests between the St. Lawrence and Utica and then traveled east along the Mohawk River toward Albany. Enroute, they stopped in Schenectady and, as was his way, Parish sought out the town’s most distinguished citizens. Among them was Eliphalet Nott, then the young and relatively new President of Union College (having been selected as the 4th President of Union just 6 years earlier). Union College was already an institution of note, being the first to be granted a charter by the New York Board of Regents.

The encounter between Parish, Ramée, and Nott proved timely as President Nott was already contemplating the expansion of the Union campus, which was then located in the Stockade area, to land that he had acquired, overlooking the Mohawk River. Ramée stayed only a few days in Schenectady before continuing his travel and the major design work for Union took place in Philadelphia and in correspondence with President Nott and his senior advisors. Yet by 1814, the first two buildings on the new Union campus -- North and South College (now home to four of our Minerva Houses) – were completed and ready for occupancy. These two buildings alone would have been worthy of architectural note with faculty houses on both ends of the two structures and student rooms in between; a design that sought to maximize the close relationship between faculty and students that still characterizes our educational approach today. Yet Ramée envisioned much more for the Union campus.

The Ramée design for Union was a complex work and incorporated buildings, large open green spaces, and gardens. It is his “comprehensive” campus design that constituted the groundbreaking nature of the Ramée vision. And, it drew immediate national attention. Drawings for the Union campus were displayed in Philadelphia and a widely distributed engraving was made. David Parish boasted in 1815 that the Union plan was “unrivaled in the United States.”

Ramée’s stay in the United States lasted just four years. Yet his mark on American architecture, especially campus architecture, was made. Ramée, working in concert with Eliphalet Nott, saw an opportunity to do something that had never been done before and in the process transformed the landscape of American higher education.

Paul Turner has commented to me that he believes the Union campus to be the most historically significant in America. This claim is based on two elements: first, it was the first campus to be designed with a master plan and second, elements of the design were reproduced on campuses across the United States by the many Union alumni during the 19th century who became college and university presidents, including the 1st presidents of distinguished schools such as Smith College, the University of Michigan, the University of Illinois, and the University of Delaware. According to Turner, they all internalized Ramée’s architectural vision and incorporated pieces of it into their own campus plans.

The genius of Ramée rests not only in the physical beauty of the campus; it also stems from that fact that this campus has a remarkable (some would say an unsurpassed) capacity to create a sense of what humanist geographers and social psychologists talk about as “place identity” or “place attachment.” People have made careers out of distinguishing between and studying these concepts and I don’t want to do them an injustice by glossing over their work here. Suffice it to say, however, that both studies of place identity and attachment reveal how it is that physical locations grab hold of people and become critical to their self-understanding. Scholars suggest that for place identity and attachment to form, social bonding must occur, memories need to be forged, and emotion must be triggered. Ramee anticipated all this by creating a built environment that seems to foster strong social connectedness, embed itself in memory, and provoke an outpouring of emotion. What a powerful architectural achievement! What a legacy for us to enjoy!

I should add that Ramée was not the only significant architect to shape the Union campus. Edward Tuckerman Potter designed the Nott Memorial, departing from Ramée’s original concept but leaving us with one of our most cherished structures. Potter also designed the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut and the Reformed Church in the Stockade area here in Schenectady. He also worked with the original Ramée drawings to create the design for the President’s House here on campus. The distinguished New York City firm of McKim, Mead and White were engaged to design Memorial Chapel in 1920. This firm had been responsible for many architectural landmarks, including the Boston Public Library, the West Wing and East Wing of the White House, the New York Public Library, and Washington Arch in Washington Square Park, just to name a few. The firm of George B. Post and Sons was responsible for the design of Alumni Gymnasium, home to the Breazzano Fitness Center. Post and Sons also had a fine architectural legacy which included the first 10-story building in Manhattan, the first building in Manhattan to include an elevator, and such iconic structures as the New York Stock Exchange. And more recently, Charles Kirby and a team from Einhorn, Yaffe, and Prescott (EYP) designed the Wold Center, balancing the historic campus design with state-of-the-art labs as well as research and teaching spaces. Charles Kirby is doubtless one of the most accomplished designers of science buildings at work today and we are, once again, the beneficiaries.

Everyone who has done architectural work on the Union campus has struggled what Paul Turner describes as “opposing” architectural forces – that is, the pressure to remain true to Ramée’s plan, on one hand, and to build facilities that are up-to-date, on the other. I think we’ve balanced these opposing architectural forces reasonably well in our recent work on campus. The Wold Center is again a case point. So too is the Taylor Music Center. Located in the north colonnade, with its signature arcade, it balances the historic Ramée-designed exterior with the state-of-the-art Emerson concert hall, electronic keyboard classroom, and is an all-Steinway facility. Similarly, the newly renovated Lippman Hall preserves the architectural integrity of the Ramée-inspired exterior while revamping the interior space in ways that are conducive to contemporary teaching and learning. Thus, our approach has been to turn the seemingly oppositional architectural forces of the Ramée design and up-to-date facilities to our advantage, simultaneously respecting tradition while creating innovative space – an approach entirely consistent with our strategic plan and our institutional identity.

And, we continue our work to preserve and improve the campus. We open this fall with a newly renovated academic building: Lamont House. The building is now home to Anthropology, Classics, Philosophy, and Religious Studies. When you enter Lamont, I think you’ll be impressed. Again, many of the notable architectural features, including a stunning center stairway leading to an equally stunning stained glass window, have been retained. Yet the offices, classrooms and common areas are clearly “up-to-date.” Lamont is significant new academic space and will soon, like Wold, Lippman, and Taylor, become an integral part of campus life. We will host an open house at the new Lamont during the common hour (12:55- 1:45) on September 11th.

Last June, we broke ground on the new Henle Dance Pavilion. This exciting new facility – made possible by a lead gift from David (Union Class of 1975) and Joan Henle – is located behind the Arts and Music buildings and will be connected to Yulman Theater. If you walk into that area of campus, you will see that the foundations are in place and the building itself will soon take shape. The building responds to the needs of our rapidly growing dance program and will provide remarkable new practice and performance studio space, a costume shop, new faculty offices, and a magnificent lobby overlooking Jackson’s Gardens. It will offer unparalleled views of those gardens, one of Union’s great treasures. It will also help create an “arts quad” which should prove a significant new outside gathering space. All this will be ready by May of this academic year.

We will also hold a ground-breaking ceremony during Homecoming for the new Wellness Center that will be located across from the softball field and connected to the Breazzano Fitness Center. Thanks to lead gifts from Bill Wicker (Union Class of 1971) and John and Nancy Eppler-Wolff (Union Class of 1975), we will soon begin construction on this much needed facility. The space occupied by Health Services and the Counseling Center in Silliman Hall has become inadequate to our needs and the new Wellness Center will provide a far more suitable home to these critical services. It will also allow us to better promote the full range of fitness and wellness programs the College offers.

Add to all this our recently completed renovation of Butterfield Hall and our deferred maintenance work on other campus buildings and our grounds. We have done much to preserve and enhance our historic campus. And, we will do more. We will do more because this is our obligation to this historic place and our obligation to the rich educational legacy that is Union College.

During this anniversary year, I hope that you will join in our efforts to both celebrate and steward the Union campus. Specifically, I’d ask you to do five things:

First, join in the various celebrations that will take place over the course of the upcoming academic year. The celebration begins today and will continue with the open house for Lamont next week and groundbreaking for the Wellness Center during Homecoming. It will continue with an alumni symposium focused on campus architecture and a special exhibit showcasing our treasured Ramée drawings. We will produce a special exhibit catalog that will contain both reproductions of the drawings and analytical essays. This catalog will be worth your attention. And, as I said earlier, take one of the tours of campus. Come to Founder’s Day in February as it too will be a critical part of our celebrations. And, come to the dedication of the new dance pavilion during ReUnion next May. Join us as we celebrate!

Second, join in on continuing discussions related to future building projects. We continue to plan for renovations of the Humanities, Arts, and Science and Engineering buildings as well develop strategies for improving our dining and residence halls. These projects will occupy us for years to come but the planning is before us now.

Third, as we plan for future projects, help us think through the best ways to balance our concern with our historic architecture and the College’s commitment to carbon neutrality. Support the efforts of U-Sustain as this important campus group thinks about the best ways of reducing our carbon footprint and incorporating alternative sources of energy. This is critical to achieving our strategic goals and, by being successful here, we can serve as a model for other institutions just as the Ramée plan did in the past.

Fourth, commit yourselves to being active stewards of this campus. We are all remarkably fortunate to live and work on such an historic site. For me, such good fortune comes with an obligation: that is, I believe we are all obliged to see that this campus is maintained, preserved, and passed along to those who will come to live and work here after us. As a steward, take pride in this campus, its buildings and its ground; as a steward, don’t abuse it by littering; as a steward, see that it is not vandalized; as a steward care for it. I would ask you all to join me in eliminating the need to use precious institutional resources to pick up litter or repair damage so that these same resources can be more meaningfully applied to enhancing educational opportunities.

Finally, I would urge you all to walk our historic campus and see it anew. Appreciate the way in which this campus embraces you. Savor the ways in which the colors of its walls change over the course of the day. I recently walked the campus with two long-time friends who have seen many campuses over the course of their academic careers. They remarked “THIS, is what a college campus should look like.” That observation is as true today as it was 200 years ago. Take pride in that.

Again, welcome to the start of this academic year. It will be one that we will remember years from now. I wish you all well and I invite you to join us for a community barbeque that immediately follows this convocation.

Thank you.