2014 Convocation Address

Publication Date

College Marshall Finlay, Trustee Chair Walsh, Trustees Messa, Newell, Dicerbo, and O’Brien, Dean McCarty, Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee Professor Bucinell, Student Forum President Saperstein, and all members of the Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2014-2015 academic year!

We had a spectacular move-in day on Sunday. The weather could not have been better with blue skies and low humidity. And, spirits could not have been higher. You could sense the excitement of new beginnings everywhere you walked. That carried into Memorial Chapel for the welcome and to the steps of the President’s House for the singing of the alma mater. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the entire community, to thank all those staff, faculty, and students who set the tone, directed cars, moved the boxes, got students and their belongings to the right room and students and their families to the right orientation sessions, oriented, modeled sustainable choices by recycling cardboard, and created the gateway for the Class of 2018. As they say, “it takes a village.” And, you demonstrated by your words and actions that, as a community, we can accomplish great things when we put “shoulder to the wheel.” If you played any of these or other roles in move-in weekend, please stand so we can recognize you with our applause.

Let me add a special welcome to all new members of this Union community. We are excited to have you join us and I hope that your time, like my time at Union, proves to be remarkable and special. As I begin my ninth year as the President of Union (just 53 years to tie President Nott), I can honestly say that my appreciation for this place, the people who call it home, and our distinctive mission within higher education continues to grow. I hope you will find Union, as I have, to be a welcoming environment, a supportive community, and one in which you can thrive.

Speaking of thriving, let me add my congratulations to those students named to the Dean’s List. Thank you for your academic seriousness of purpose. Congratulations also to Drew Ivarson for receiving the Hollander Prize. It’s been my privilege to get to know Drew as a Henle Scholar and a talented student who, like the person who created the Hollander Prize, bridges many fields of inquiry. Thank you for so generously sharing your instrumental and vocal gifts with us – not just today but on so many occasions. You embody our institutional goals and demonstrate the effectiveness of the educational niche we occupy. Heady stuff, I know, for such a modest person.

I would like to congratulate Professor Andrew Morris as the newest recipient of the Stillman Prize. Last spring, I had the privilege of having lunch with one of those who created the prize, Abbott Stillman. He explained that great teaching had been a hallmark of his own Union experience, that he’d witnessed the effects of great teaching on others as a trustee of Union, and that he hoped the prize would keep great teaching at the fore of our institutional priorities. I know Prof. Morris well enough, I’ve seen him in action enough, to know that he possesses those very qualities that the Stillman family wanted to celebrate in creating this award. Thank you for what you do and for who you are. And, I extend my thanks to the other finalists for the Stillman Prize and to all of you who make up the remarkable faculty at Union. To you members of the Class of 2018, you have much to look forward to as you encounter the talented members of the Union faculty!

And all of us have much to look forward to as we get to know the Class of 2018. Members of the incoming class come from 25 states and the District of Columbia and from 15 countries spanning the globe, making the class one of the most geographically diverse in the College’s history. Measured any way you choose (class rank, SAT/ACT scores, etc.), this is also one of the most academically talented classes in our history. While disappointing to some who were not invited to join the incoming class, I’m pleased to report that we hit our admissions target without going to the wait list. This is a significant indicator of our current position within higher education as so many institutions had to go to their wait list to fill their classes. I would be remiss if I didn’t thank Matt Malatesta and our Admissions staff as well as all of you who served as tour guides, participated in open houses, hosted overnight visitors, took time to talk to prospective students and their families, and kept this campus looking so beautiful. Again as they say, “it takes a village;” it takes community working together.

While I’m offering words of thanks, I want to thank College Relations for their excellent work on last year’s Annual Fund. The final figures are in and we once again made history. Our unrestricted Annual Fund efforts topped $4.5 million. This is nothing short of remarkable when you consider that 9 years ago, we were receiving half that amount of unrestricted support. This is an important subsidy to our operating budget and an important factor in our ability to offer the education that we do. Similarly, our success in the restricted Annual Fund, which supports scholarships and other initiatives, has helped us meet the financial need of our students. There’s much work that leads to such results: from phone calls to personal visits, from effective events here on campus to meaningful events at alumni clubs across the country, from telling the Union story through communications to sharing glimpses of the Union classroom experience during Homecoming and ReUnion and through alumni education. In other words, the credit for this success extends well beyond one responsibility center; yet again, it takes a community. Yet again, we put “shoulder to the wheel” and accomplished great things. Thank you all for helping this important work.

We have much to look forward to in the year ahead; more history to make. The renovated Humanities Building, now Karp Hall, will open in the winter term. Like Lippman Hall before it, the Humanities building’s interior has been completely reworked while the external façade has been preserved. It is now fully accessible and boasts new teaching space, offices, and common areas. You will notice a new openness upon entering the building from Hull Plaza. You will find a new media room and an impressive performance classroom. Both will allow for remarkable new teaching/learning opportunities. You will also find new faculty offices wherein that special relationship between teacher and student will be kindled. And, you will find an abundance of student study and work space. I think you will be impressed by all that you find. I want to thank Nic Zarrelli for his coordination of the design and logistics work as well as Christine Henseler and Judith Lewin who served as Department chairs for Modern Languages and English respectively. These people, along with the faculty who imagined, demonstrated remarkable patience through the construction process, and who will breathe life into this exciting new space in the coming months and years, deserve our thanks and admiration.

The renovation of the Humanities building was much needed and is evidence of our ongoing efforts to maintain, preserve, and enrich this historic campus – key to our strategic plan and key to attracting the likes of the Class of 2018. The renovation of Karp Hall comes at an important time for other reasons as well. First, it is intended to be an affirmation of Union’s continuing belief in and commitment to the important place of the humanities in this learning community. The humanities – just as with the social sciences, sciences, arts, and engineering – are essential to the curricular experience we want to create at Union. The humanities play a critical role in helping us engage enduring human questions, explore ethical issues behind technological advances, and understand the perspectives of others and our common humanity. Philosopher Judith Butler said it well in her commencement address at McGill University, noting,

The humanities allow us to learn to read carefully, with appreciation, and with a critical eye; to find ourselves, unexpectedly, in the middle of the ancient texts we read, but also to find ways of living, thinking, acting, and reflecting that belong to times and spaces that we have never known. The humanities give us a chance to read across languages and cultural differences in order to understand the vast range of perspectives in and on this world. How else can we imagine living together without this ability to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known, and to understand that, in some abiding and urgent sense, we share a world?

Thus, the humanities are integral to preparing the kind of students we believe are needed to respond to 21st century challenges and to shape our collective future. By renovating the Humanities building, we affirm the enduring importance of the humanities not just to a Union education and to the kind of community we want Union to be but to affirm the importance of the humanities to all those educators beyond our gates who watch what we do. I cannot thank Trustee Douglass Karp and the entire Karp family enough for their support this project. When the building opens, we will undoubtedly sponsor an open house that I hope you will all plan to attend. We will also hold a formal dedication ceremony later during the year and, again, I hope you’ll be there for what promises to be a historic moment.

This summer, we began work to create more apartment-style housing options for our students. We acquired additional properties on Seward and will begin renovating these houses as we have others in the past. We also acquired some additional properties on Park Place. Some of these properties will be removed to create green space; others will be renovated in a manner similar to the Seward properties. Additionally, we are seeking permits from the city that will allow us to begin construction on a new upper class apartment building that will provide approximately 80 beds. It will be located on the corner of Roger Hull Place and Park Place. It will not just be living space; it will complete a corridor of Union-owned buildings on Roger Hull Place that will pull College Park Hall closer to campus; it will also provide meeting spaces and common areas that we hope will serve as a community hub. Assuming the city provides approval for this project, we will commence construction in October and hope to open the new apartments in the fall of 2015. I want to thank our Residence Life staff and the student focus groups that participated in discussions about how best to structure this space. Our work to the west of campus is part of a larger effort we will be making to improve our residential and dining facilities. As a residential liberal arts college, our approaches to housing and dining are important just as are our approaches to academic space. You will hear more about all this as plans unfold and I urge you to participate in discussions that will be aimed at shaping future projects in ways that maximize our sense of community and support our strategic objectives.

We will also continue planning and fund raising for our next academic building projects. Considerable work has already been done by way of planning for the renovation of the Arts Building. With the completion of the Henle Dance Pavilion, we are poised to complete the arts complex at Union. The renovation of the Arts Building will do just that. The Visual Arts faculty have toured other facilities and worked with architects and our own Facilities Department to plan for these renovations. I am confident that we will secure the necessary support for this project and I’m confident that it won’t be long before we put shovel into the ground. I want to thank the department chairs who have seamlessly worked on the project: Chris Duncan and David Ogawa. I’d also like to thank the entire Visual Arts faculty for taking such a keen interest in the planning – this bodes well for the finished product.

Planning will also continue this year for the next phases of the renovation of the Science and Engineering complex. We secured the services of Einhorn Yaffee and Prescott (EYP) who guided our work on the Wold Center. They are working with the Center 2 space committee and the Science and Engineering faculty to identify the best approaches for improving these critical facilities – in fact they just held a series of discussions last week. Mike Vineyard and Nicole Theodosiou (from Physics and Biology respectively) have provided great leadership and we’re indebted to the entire membership of the Center 2 space committee. Through their work and the expertise of EYP, we will choose an effective path forward. The full renovation of S&E will require resolve and steadfast attention to fundraising. Again, I am confident in our ability to get this done and confident in the support we will receive through awards and donor generosity.

As we pursue all this work, we will avoid fundamental disruptions to the Union experience. Our Facilities Department, ably led by Loren Rucinski, will continue to be vigilant about the staging and timing of projects in order to ensure that we continue to improve our facilities while not tainting the special experience that we all have with this beautiful campus setting (did I mention that the Princeton Review listed us among the top 20 “most breathtaking” campuses?). We have many reasons to be grateful to Facilities. They carefully maintain this campus and play a critical role in the renovation and construction projects we undertake. They also respond to unanticipated crises. Witness their herculean response to the recent flooding of the circle in front of Old Chapel. Many of us had to adapt to the inconveniences posed by that event in August (I, for one spent memorable nights at the Hampton Inn with no water in the President’s House). But Facilities successfully minimized the impact on our community and worked quickly to restore critical services after resulting damage to the Skeller, the basement of Hale House and the basement of South College. I can tell you they spent many long hours, removing water and silt, making sure services were restored, making sure our scheduled August Open House went off without a hitch, and making sure we were ready to open this past weekend. They will spend many more hours ensuring that the Skeller is restored and reopened. On behalf of all of us, I thank you.

Our efforts to renovate and build, as I’ve said, are about preserving and enriching this beautiful campus; but our efforts are also about defining this community and what we value as well as creating the very space in which we can congregate. Programming also affords opportunities to gather as a community. Witness the power of coming together today for a convocation and witness the power of Founders Day as a celebration of our history and an affirmation of the hold that Union has had and continues to have on us. There are many other opportunities and I urge you to seize them.

I would like to call special attention to the Union College concert series. Music has an awakening power, it can calm, it can inspire, it can soothe. Indeed, psychotherapists point to the effectiveness of music in addressing many psychological challenges. But sharing musical experiences pulls people together as a community and the Union concert series is one of the greatest opportunities we have to be awakened together, calmed together, inspired together.

This year marks the 43rd season of what is certainly among the treasures of Union College. The series begins October 16 and runs through April and will feature many new and returning artists. For those of you who don’t know about this series or perhaps know but need reminding, it is a series held in this very space – a space widely regarded as having remarkable acoustics for chamber and classical music – and it brings both established musical luminaries and promising artists to our campus. Concert series director, Derek Delaney, tells me that artists touring Europe will often ask one another, “have you played Union?” You may think I exaggerate but I don’t. What a remarkable opportunity this is for members of our Union community, the city of Schenectady, and the Capital Region. Many of the artists in the series have just or are about to play at Carnegie Hall in New York City and the series provides an opportunity to listen to world class music in a relatively intimate setting. This year’s program will feature people like Sophie Shao, David Finckel and Wu Han, the Brentano String Quartet, Jonathan Biss (who, by the way, helped select the beautiful Steinway Model D that graces our stage), and the Emerson String Quartet. I’d urge you to get the concerts on your schedule. Be soothed, inspired, and calmed. Bask in the power of experiencing this treasure of Union together.

Of course, this concert series isn’t the only opportunity to hear fine musical performances. I would urge you all, but especially new members of our community, to watch for the opportunities provided by “Taylor Time” in the Emerson Concert Hall and the regular performances of our Union chorale, orchestra, a cappella groups, and the Gospel Choir. And while I’m at it, let me urge you to take advantage of the arts more generally at Union – from exhibits in the Mandeville Gallery to dance concerts in the Henle Dance Pavilion, and plays in Yulman Theater. You will notice that our new curator of the Mandeville Gallery, Julie Lohnes, has started placing art installations at many locations around campus. Her installation in Schaeffer Library caught the eye of many and you can look forward to more. My point is that we are surrounded by an abundance of rich opportunities.

Yes, communities thrive when they experience things together and plan where they are going. They also thrive when they remind themselves of where they’ve been. Let me call your attention to a special exhibit planned for the winter term that will explore Union’s role in the American Civil War and the life of Abraham Lincoln. Led by Professor Emeritus Tom Werner and Professor Andy Foroughi, this project is sponsored by the Union Notables Committee which has been responsible for creating the poster-sized displays that feature members of the Union community and document their impact on the world. As historian James McPherson reminded us in his Founders Day talk several years ago, Union’s historical role is remarkably rich and I can promise you that the exhibit, which we anticipate opening in February in the Nott Memorial, will astound you. It will also help you “to see beyond where we are, to find ourselves linked with others we have never directly known.” And, it will also remind us of the difference Union expects us to make.

Speaking of making a difference, I’d also like to enlist your help in strengthening our community this year. Over the summer, Union’s Senior Diversity Officer and Title IX Coordinator, Gretchel Hathaway, participated in a conference call with members of the White House staff. They announced a new initiative that will be launched by mid-September that is aimed at reducing sexual violence on college and university campuses and asked us, along with other colleges and universities, to join in partnership with this effort. We indicated that Union will indeed join the White House initiative, titled “It’s On Us.” Put simply, the idea is for each college and university community to take responsibility for preventing sexual harassment and sexual and relationship violence. We are aware of efforts at the state level as well to get this message across at all colleges and universities. As part of our own efforts, we will be expanding educational programs as well as our bystander intervention program. We seek to enlist and train members of our community to intervene in situations where sexual harassment or sexual violence appears about to occur. As President Obama suggests, “it’s on us” to stop harassment, to stop relationship violence, and to stop sexual assault. Let me be perfectly clear: There is no place for these behaviors in our community. Familiarize your self with our policy on sexual misconduct, relationship violence, and sexual harassment. And, join us in supporting the White House initiative; let’s once again “put shoulder to the wheel;” truly, it’s on us.

I’d like to end my remarks by focusing on what you’ve hopefully seen as a theme in what I’ve said today: Union as a community. When we chose to attend or work at Union, we chose to be part of a community. Our Mission Statement declares in its opening line that “Union College, founded in 1795, is a scholarly community.” Convocation is a good time to recall this. After all, “convocation” means the calling together of a community. We hold it every year, along with the community barbeque that follows, to reconvene our community after the passage of the summer months and to recommit to our membership within it.

In choosing Union, we chose a place of study, a place of work. But, we chose more than that; in choosing Union we chose membership in a particular community. And, as Robert Bellah reminded us years ago in his book Habits of the Heart, strong communities are marked not by sameness (those are what he called “lifestyle enclaves”) but by a commitment to transcend difference and work toward a common good. We took different paths in our journey to Union. We come from different states, different countries, different religions, different genders, different sexual orientations, different races, different ethnicities, different economic situations, etc. But, in choosing Union, we chose to appreciate those differences, we chose to care for one another no matter what our differences, we chose to advocate for one another no matter what our differences, and we chose to protect one another no matter what our differences.

This is the essence of Union. It flows, of course, from our institutional origin story. As you probably know, Union is differentiated in being founded by 3 different religious groups instead of being founded by just one (as were Harvard, Yale, and Princeton). It’s the meaning of our name: “Union.” Our founders insisted that, whatever their differences, they could form a common education community. And, this sentiment remains central to our institutional identity and mission today. Our Mission Statement proclaims that we welcome diversity; our Strategic Plan emphasizes that it is remains an institutional priority. Why? Because we are stronger for it.

Interestingly enough, in a conversation around the dinner table the night before last June’s Commencement, U.S. Ambassador Dr. Deborah Birx told us that the genetic diversity of the United States provides protection against the world’s global health threats, protection that is less a part of homogeneous populations with less genetic diversity. In much the same vein, Scott Page, in his book The Difference, argues that diverse perspectives similarly strengthen a group’s ability to find solutions to complex problems. Yes, diversity strengthens us as living beings and as a community. But it most strengthens us when we harness it for the common good.
When I welcomed the incoming class on Sunday, I asked them to look to the left and look to the right and to pledge to do everything they could to ensure that every member of the class of 2018 had a successful, safe, and meaningful experience at Union. I’d ask you all to do the same this afternoon. As we reconvene for the 2014-15 academic year, I’d ask you to appreciate one another, protect one another, advocate for one another, care for one another. Put shoulder to the wheel for our common good. By doing so, we honor our community and we honor membership in it. By doing so, we honor the essence of “Union.”

I wish us all a wonderful year!