Text of Acting President Therese McCarty's Convocation address

Publication Date

College Marshal Finlay, Trustee Chair Walsh, Trustees Messa and O’Brien, Dean Hayes, Professor Bucinell, Student Forum President Harris, and all members of the Union community, especially those who are new here: Welcome to the 2013-2014 academic year!

I’d like to extend a special word of thanks to the Union College Chorale and the Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir, Professor John Cox, and Professor Palma Catravas. Thank you for sharing your musical talents with us today and for choosing a piece that expresses so vividly the potential for hope and faith to triumph over oppression. And, I must thank Professor McMullen for once again providing wonderful music as College Organist that adds so much to this occasion.

I also want to offer my congratulations to the dean’s list students for your impressive academic achievements and to Professor Weisse for being awarded the Stillman Prize. Carol, the Stillman Prize honors your accomplishments as an educator. You challenge students and support them in meeting that challenge. Your teaching addresses questions that are fundamental to our understanding of what it means to be human. You find ways to help students engage with people and organizations beyond Union’s gates, both locally and internationally. Congratulations and thank you.

As we celebrate the opening of the year, let’s recognize and welcome our community’s newest members. In the past year, many new faculty and staff members have joined offices throughout the campus. Their names, positions, and offices are listed on the last page of the Convocation bulletin. To our new colleagues, we all hope that you quickly feel at home here and that you find this to be a place in which your work is fulfilling. Please stand for a round of welcoming applause. Next, I would like to recognize this year’s transfer students. We hope that coming to Union represents an exciting next step in your education and that you find yourselves both challenged and supported here. We are happy that you have chosen Union and we are eager to get to know you.

And last, but not least, it’s time to welcome the magnificent class of 2017! You are a talented and diverse class. You will learn a lot from each other and the rest of us will learn a lot from you. I would like especially to take note of the fact that the percentage of the class made up of international students is at a record high, at eight and a half percent and the percentage of the class made up of students from outside the northeast U.S. is also at a record high, at nineteen percent. I would like to ask everyone from the northeast U.S., including members of the first-year class, to make a special effort to welcome those whose homes are far away. Would the Class of 2017 and our new transfer students please stand to be recognized?

To all of our new students, I want you to know that the people you are joining in this college community look forward to working with you. In fact, Union’s mission statement says, “Faculty, staff, and administrators welcome diverse and talented students into our community, work closely with them to provide a broad and deep education, and guide them in finding and cultivating their passions.”

How do we do this? How does our campus community guide students through their educational journey at Union? There are three words that we can use to sum this up, which I want you to remember: notice, choose, and tell. We help students to notice what they are interested in, we help them to articulate those interests, to tell about them, we help students to make choices inside and outside the classroom and we help them to tell about those choices as well.

Consider what you might notice and choose. Having noticed that you enjoy working in Octopus’s Garden, you might choose to take a course on the chemistry of food for one of your common curriculum science courses. While reading the article in last Sunday’s New York Times on gender equity at Harvard Business School, you might notice that you are pretty interested in these issues and take our introductory course in Women’s and Gender Studies. While studying economics, you might notice that you have a particular interest in how the software for carrying out econometric analysis works and choose to take a computer science course to learn more about programming. Partway through your environmental science major, you might notice that you are particularly drawn to the ways in which people use words to express the tragedy of environmental degradation, so you choose to add an English minor to your studies. While taking art history courses, you notice that you are particularly interested in Japanese art, so you start taking Japanese and choose Union’s term abroad in Japan to pursue your interest.

If you tell people about the interests you are developing and pursuing, other people will be able to help you with the noticing and choosing. And ultimately, as you choose a career and apply for jobs and graduate school, being able to tell about your particular interests will be very helpful to you.

Pretend for a moment that you are an attorney at a law firm interviewing students for summer positions. You ask the students you’re interviewing to summarize their educational experiences and future plans. Here are the answers you hear from two students.

• Student 1 says, “I’m a political science major. I’m planning to go to law school because a lot of people in my family are lawyers and law school is something I can do with my major.”
• Student 2 says, “I am very interested in the experience of immigrants. I’m majoring in political science. I’ve also taken French and some theater and dance courses. I’m planning to write a thesis on the effect that the arts have on the politics of immigration in France. I studied abroad in Greece, where I took a course on immigrants and nationalism in Europe. I’m planning to go to law school, where I would like to have a concentration in immigration law.”

Which of these answers would you prefer to give in an interview? How did these responses come to be so different? Student 1 may not have noticed as much about his or her interests and therefore may have had a harder time making meaningful choices. Or it could be that Student 1 has had a similar experience to Student 2, but hasn’t thought about the importance of articulating it clearly.

One word of caution here: I don’t mean to imply that everything a student does has to fit into a neat package. Students should experiment with different directions and with subjects or activities that don’t seem to fit. For one thing, this can be a great source of creativity as well as a way to gain a broad understanding of the world. At the same time, keep in mind the benefits of being able to notice your interests, make intentional and meaningful choices, and tell others about them.

There are lots of people on campus who are dedicated to helping students to notice, choose, and tell. Along with the faculty, who advise students both formally as assigned advisors and informally every day of the academic year, staff members in offices such as student affairs, academic services, international programs, the Becker career center, the Academic Opportunity program, and Schaffer library advise students on a regular basis. I would like particularly to mention the value of writing as the means to better noticing, choosing, and telling and the important role that the Writing Center plays in assisting students.

Keep your eye out for a new Union Advising website and app in the next year or two that will help students develop their particular Union stories through a process of noticing, choosing, and telling. The committee working on this project will pilot this program with a group of students and faculty this fall and then will move towards implementing it campus wide.

The College, as a whole, engaged in a similar process of noticing, choosing, and telling last year, which we call strategic planning. We now have a new Strategic Plan for the College, affirmed by the Board of Trustees in the spring. It’s fair to say that strategic planning is about noticing, choosing, and telling and that this process results in a narrative, like Student 2’s, that tells us more than “Union is a small college in upstate NY.” So, what can we, as a community, “tell” about the “noticing and choosing” that happened in the strategic planning process? Here are some highlights of what the strategic plan tells us about Union’s educational values:
• Academic quality continues to be of fundamental, central importance in our community. In upcoming years, maintaining and improving academic quality will require that we continue to foster close relationships between students and faculty. Also, in this time of rapid change in the ways in which technology is used in higher education, supporting academic quality will require that we figure out what learning technologies support our educational mission and what ones don’t.
• A Union education is exceptionally broad and deep. Union builds intellectual foundations, provides disciplinary depth in a wide variety of majors and encourages students to make connections across disciplines in a variety of ways.
• A Union education prepares students to make important contributions to questions and problems that are significant to humanity through development of skills in both thinking and taking action.
• Renovations in classrooms, labs, and residence halls are important for supporting academic quality.
• Union College educates the whole person, through living in a residential community that links academic, extracurricular, and social life and that engages mind, body, and spirit.
• Union embraces a broad definition of sustainability, applying that concept to all of our resources.
• Union is personal and people here develop a strong sense of place while also being diverse and global.
• Union draws from its distinguished history in inspiring and guiding our future.

This list is informative about Union, but it’s not very easy to remember if we want to tell Union’s story without having to carry note cards around. One way to tell Union’s story without the note cards is to use the short phrase, “Think, Connect, Act” as a way of helping to organize what we tell about education at Union. Union students learn to think deeply and broadly, they connect disciplines, they connect theory and practice, they develop and connect both local and global perspectives, and they act by being innovating in making contributions that matter to humanity. You may have noticed that there are new banners on the light posts around campus with phrases from our strategic plan. They’re a good substitute for note cards in describing Union’s priorities. The banners flesh out what lies behind “Think, Connect, Act.” The phrases on them tell us that Union students, faculty, and staff are:

• Asking questions that matter
• Engaging mind, body, and spirit
• Sustaining resources
• Reflecting personal and diverse views
• Thinking locally and globally
• Educating broadly and deeply
• Integrating thought and action
• Furthering a history of innovation
• Contributing to humanity

So, why does it matter that we keep all of these values and priorities in mind? When we undertake projects, if we do so with the full range of our educational objectives in mind, we will go farther towards achieving our goals.

For instance, when we renovate residence halls, we need to ask ourselves, how can we design them not only to create a good quality residential environment, but also to support academic quality, to be sustainable, to fit with the college’s history while also being innovative, to enable interactions that build students’ contact with people of diverse backgrounds and perspectives? Imagine yourself as a designer of residence halls walking past the banners thinking about how to connect these priorities to your project.

Another example of how the values articulated in the strategic plan can inform how we undertake a project can be seen in this year’s celebration of the opening of the Wicker Wellness Center. The Wicker Center houses health services and counseling services and places these in proximity to the Breazzano fitness center, creating possibilities for partnerships that keep us healthy in mind and body. Being a community dedicated to academic quality, the opening of the Wellness Center is an opportunity to focus our attention on learning about the academic field of public health, to learn about both local and global public health issues, to learn about the history of public health and wellness in our community, to be inspired by the very significant innovations and contributions that Union alumni have made to public health. We can make this personal for students by helping them to learn more about what fosters good health here and in their own present and future neighborhoods and by helping them to explore possible careers in public health. All of this will happen this year through the Presidential Forum on Diversity in October, Founders’ Day in February, a Mandeville Gallery exhibition this winter, a Symposium on Careers in Public Health and Wellness in April, and events throughout the year sponsored by the Wicker Center and Student Affairs offices.

And a third example of how our educational values can inform what we do at Union comes to us through a special focus on the humanities this year and next. This focus is prompted in part by a collective sense of urgency. The central and historic role of the humanities in education at a national level appears threatened in various ways. We need to determine how we can best promote and support study of the humanities here at Union given this broader context. Our current focus on the humanities is also prompted by the upcoming complete renovation of the Humanities Building, which will reopen next year as Karp Hall. Again, we can ask what the values in our strategic plan tell us about study of the humanities at Union. We care about both breadth and depth, so we need to keep departments strong even as we explore connections, such as those we will see at events that relate the humanities and engineering this month. We care about academic quality and gaining different perspectives, so we bring excellent speakers to campus, such as the renowned public intellectual Andrew Delbanco, who will deliver the Common Curriculum Convocation address on September 22. We make the humanities personal as faculty sit with small groups of students in class, leading discussions that change students’ lives. Study of the humanities brings opportunities for gaining global perspectives, for integrating thought and action, for being creative and innovative, in fact for supporting every educational value we hold dear.

Whether you are designing residence halls, improving community health, promoting study of the humanities, working on other major upcoming projects such as the renovation of the Science and Engineering complex and the Visual Arts building, choosing courses to take, picking topics for research projects, making new friends, working with new colleagues, cast an eye at our new banners from time to time and ask yourself if the ideas you see there can make a good experience even better.

I have used two different three-word phrases this afternoon: “Notice, choose, and tell” on the one hand and “think, connect, act” on the other. How do these relate to each other? I offer “notice, choose, and tell” as a general blueprint that anyone can use to develop and communicate one’s own educational story. I offer “think, connect, act” as a shorthand version of Union’s particular educational story. Students, as you notice, choose, and tell throughout your time at Union, keep “think, connect, act” in mind so that your story becomes a story that embodies the hopes and aspirations that Union College has for you. This means taking up the challenges to think that are presented to you by the faculty, the staff, and your fellow students. In doing so, you will come to understand yourself and other people better; you will learn to analyze, to question, to reflect, to debate, to see an issue from a variety of personal and diverse perspectives, and to develop your thinking through writing and other forms of creative expression. And when you are thinking, keep “connect” and “act” in mind. Connect what you learn in one class with what you learn in another class. Connect with other people; learn about their perspectives and ideas. Connect with Union’s past, knowing that you are part of a historic and innovative educational tradition that started over 200 years ago. Connect local and global perspectives.

Act by discovering. Act by devising solutions to important problems. Act by expressing yourself through writing, art, theater, dance, and music. Act by going places, in our community and abroad. Act by trying new subjects and extra-curricular activities. Act ethically, by being honest, by treating others with kindness and respect. And know that the rest of us here at Union are striving to do the same, thinking broadly and deeply, connecting in distinctive and innovative ways, and acting purposefully to make contributions that matter. That’s what it means to be part of the community that is Union College.