President Stephen C. Ainlay's 2015 Convocation Address

College celebrates start of its 221st year
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President Stephen C. Ainlay's 2015 Convocation Address


President Stephen C. Ainlay


College Marshal Finlay, Trustee Vice Chair Henle, Trustees Messa and Durkin, Dean McCarty, Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee Professor Bedford, Student Forum President Levine, and all members of the Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2015-2016 academic year!

We had a spectacular move-in day on Sunday. While plenty warm, our community once again kicked into high gear and helped students and families make the transition to Union. For over 30 years, since my first days as a member of the faculty, I’ve walked the residence halls on move-in day. I love the sense of new beginnings, the coming together of community, and the opportunity to personally welcome new students and their families. I was once again impressed with the many students, staff, and faculty who worked to make the day go so well. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the entire community, to thank all those staff, faculty, and students who helped. If you played a role in preparation for or during 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. I was able to welcome you on Sunday but let me add that I hope you will find Union, as I have, to be a welcoming environment, a supportive community, and one in which you can thrive.

I offer my congratulations to Max Caplan for receiving the Hollander Prize. Anyone who has heard Max play – whether it be with the jazz ensemble in the Emerson Concert Hall or here in Memorial Chapel when he accompanied our vocalist during the Alumni Convocation, know how remarkable he is. Thank you Max for so generously sharing with us. We all look forward to hearing more of your offerings throughout the upcoming year.

I’d like to take a moment to single out two members of the Union faculty. We ordinarily acknowledge the recipient of the Stillman Prize at the Opening Convocation. The Prize recipient is announced at Commencement so I’m not “spilling the beans” to say that Professor Claire Bracken is the recipient. However, Professor Bracken is on leave this term so we’ll celebrate the award at Founders Day in February. Nevertheless, please join me in acknowledging her and all the Union faculty who have committed their lives to enriching the lives of their students. I’d also like to single out Professor Steven Rice, the recipient of the Brate Advising Award. Advising is such an important role for our faculty and I continue to meet alumni who voice their gratitude for the relationships they built with their advisors and the central role they played in their time at Union. Please join me in congratulating Professor Rice and thanking all the faculty for this aspect of their role at the College.

I’d also like to recognize another award that was presented during the summer. Each year, we present the Unitas Community-Building Award to someone at Union. If the recipient is a student, we present it on Prize Day in the spring. If the recipient is an employee of the College, we present it at Opening Convocation. This year’s recipient is A.J. Place from the Student Affairs Division. A.J. isn’t here to here to receive our recognition. However, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to recognize his many contributions to building a stronger Union community. AJ was selected because of the central role he played in the development of the highly successful Next Step Social Justice Retreats, his participation in our Bystander Intervention initiative, his participation on the Sexual Assault and Harassment Committee, and his co-founding of the LGBTQA+ Committee among other community building/strengthening initiatives. I’d ask you to join me in recognizing A.J. Place.

While we are on the topic of community building, let me congratulate everyone who works to advance diversity at Union. This has been one of our highest priorities at Union and it has featured prominently into the two strategic plans we’ve prepared over the past ten years. We’ve received two Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Awards from Insight Into Diversity. We are awaiting final word regarding a possible third award. So many students, faculty and staff have worked together to achieve this outcome. I’d especially like to recognize Gretchel Hathaway, our Chief Diversity Officer, for spearheading our work but I know Dr. Hathaway would want to recognize the many others who have helped advance this priority.

I’d also like to recognize two members of our faculty who were recently named as being among the 100 Inspiring Women in STEM by Insight Into Diversity: Professor Ann Anderson of Mechanical Engineering and Professor Mary Carroll in Chemistry. What a wonderful and well-deserved honor for both them and for Union.

We will continue our efforts to make Union a more diverse and inclusive place. We will also continue efforts to ensure that Union is safe for everyone. I’d like to reiterate what I said last year: there is no place for sexual violence, abuse, or intimidation in this community. Thanks to all of you who increased consent awareness last year and who participated in our bystander intervention efforts. Several faculty committees have been charged with considering ways of reinforcing our community’s expectations and we are searching for a full-time Title IX Coordinator who will report to the President’s Office and whose responsibilities will include prevention and awareness education. We expect to complete this hire early in the term.

We have much to look forward to in the year ahead; more history to make. This fall, we open a new residence hall, Garnet Commons. We also reopen the Skeller in the lower level of Old Chapel, and we reopen Olin Hall. Let me say a few words about each project. As planned, we completed work on Garnet Commons. This 80-bed apartment style residence hall is wonderful! It fits well into the neighborhood and provides students with an important new housing option. It also completes the Union corridor between College Park Hall and the historic center of campus. I hope you’ll take time to visit and appreciate this wonderful new space. Thanks to Amanda Bingel and the Residence Life staff and all the students who participated in focus groups that helped design the space. Hopefully, it reflects your vision. Also, thanks to all of you who suggested names for the building. I especially appreciate the many recommendations to name it after Judith and my dog, Winston. “Winston Hall” would have baffled historians for years to come but I assure you he’s deeply honored that you thought of him.

We had a few unplanned projects last year as well. We began last year with a flood that totally destroyed the Skeller – a beloved space for many students and graduates. The flood also wiped out the mechanicals under Old Chapel, Hale House, and South College. Per usual, our facilities team leaped into action and they’ve put things back in order and, in fact, improved things. It’s beautiful space, preserving some important memories and reworking the equipment in ways that should improve the Skeller experience. We also had unanticipated water damage in Olin Hall that sent students running from classrooms and faculty and students running toward labs to protect fragile equipment. While this closed half of Olin for a long period of time, I’m pleased to say its back in operation. I toured the facility last week and I think you’ll be amazed.

For all the work they do every day to maintain this beautiful campus, for all they did to bring the Garnet Commons on line, and for all they did to respond the Old Chapel flood and damage to Olin Hall, please join me in thanking our facilities staff and all the faculty, staff, and students affected by the damage and repairs for their patience and resilience. There was also much work done by our Information Technology folks to complete all this – you’ll be pleased with the new technology in Olin in particular. Please thank them as well.

We will continue efforts to improve our campus over the course of the academic year. We have already vacated the Visual Arts building and have started work on a complete renovation. As many of you already know, this is among our most historic buildings. It was built in 1852 and was envisioned in Ramee’s original campus plan. When it opened, it housed the departments of what was then referred to as “natural philosophy” (or Physics and Chemistry). Correspondingly, it was originally called “Philosophical Hall.” Arts moved into the building in 1972 and there were major renovations undertaken in 1982. It has long demanded attention and I’m pleased to say that a portion of an $11 million gift from the Feigenbaum Foundation provided a leadership gift for this project, allowing us to move forward.

The building will be “offline” for all of this academic year but completed and opened for the fall term of 2016. When it reopens, the renovated and expanded Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts will have new galleries, studios, offices, and classrooms. Importantly for anyone who has had classes or taught in the building, it will have all new mechanicals. Gone will be those excessively cold or hot spaces. In their place will be spaces that allow for the making of art and the study of art history. In their place will be a blending of traditional tools, such as darkrooms, and new tools, ranging those that allow for the creation of digital images to 3D printers that allow faculty and students to explore new art forms. In their place will be classrooms equipped with sophisticated multi-media tools that will allow faculty and students to better explore and appreciate the rich and diverse history of art. I want to thank the Department’s Chair, David Ogawa, and members of the Visual Arts faculty for the many ways in which they prepared for and imagined this renovation. We are all in their debt and we all share in their sense of anticipation of what’s to come.

I note that the reopening of Visual Arts will complete the renovation of all the major academic buildings on the historic quad. This has been among my highest priorities as President and I believe we are stronger for it. We aren’t finished, however. They say it’s a sign of a College’s health when there’s always construction going on. If true, we’re as fit as can be! We have engaged the architectural firm Goody-Clancy to help us imagine the possible improvement of dining in the Reamer Campus Center. We have been developing plans that would expand dining space, better serve our students by providing more food options, create spaces in which the production of food is more “on display,” and provide a better overall dining experience by reducing wait times and improving access. Although we’ve made great progress in conceptual designs, the planning work is still underway. I appreciate the input that so many of you have provided to this conceptual work and I look forward to sharing more information about this project after the Board of Trustees has an opportunity to deliberate its merits.

As I reported last year, we have also continued to work with the architectural firm, EYP as we plan for the continuing work on our science and engineering facilities. EYP was responsible for the Wold Center, an important phase of this ongoing work, and they have collaborated with our Center II space committee which has been charged with helping guide future work on S&E. Plans have changed significantly over the past twelve months. And, while we continue to refine those plans, it is clear that this will be the single largest project (in terms of both square footage and cost) in the College’s history. For all of us charged with securing the monies that enable improvements, S&E will, if approved by the Board of Trustees, also require the greatest fund raising effort for a project in Union’s history. As daunting as the planning and fund-raising seem, I believe it is a project essential to maintaining our historic leadership role in the STEM fields and to Union’s future.

I believe this, in part, because much of the space, quite frankly, is getting “tired.” The Science and Engineering Center, consisting of five interconnected towers, was built in the late 1960s and dedicated in 1971. At that time, it represented a remarkable step forward for the College – bringing together departments that had previously been located in various older buildings and providing then modern labs and classrooms. Suffice it to say that over the intervening 44 years, science education has changed, instrumentation as well as faculty and student research have become more sophisticated, and, well, age has taken its toll on mechanical systems and the physical structure itself.
Happily, our science instrumentation has, by and large, kept pace with new developments, our faculty is absolutely first-rate, and the faculty/student relationships that continue to develop within S&E are unsurpassed. Thus, Union has continued to enjoy positive evaluations of our STEM and laboratory experience. But new ways of teaching, new collaborations across fields, higher standards, and changing technologies – just to mention a few catalysts for change – require that we improve S&E in order to continue the effective education of our students and the active research agenda of our faculty.

Over the last ten years, we’ve transformed our academic spaces for Music with Taylor, for Dance with Henle, for Social Sciences and Humanities with Lippman, Lamont, and Karp, for the Arts with Feigenbaum, and for the sciences and engineering with Wold and Butterfield. S&E looms as the proverbial “elephant in the room.” Every project we’ve completed has led to stronger admission behavior and higher regard for what we are doing here. But imagine Union’s position if we undertake S&E!

The completion of S&E won’t end construction; we have much more to do. But with it completed, we will be THE college of choice for students who wish to study electrical engineering AND music, art AND chemistry, economics AND environmental engineering, ethics AND 3D printing, and so on. We are positioned to be THE college of choice for students who want a deep education and yet sense the power of integrating fields of study when seeking a better understanding of the world. Students seeking this kind of opportunity are remarkable students, students equipped to take on 21st century challenges and supply innovative and creative solutions. This has been Union’s vision for some time but we have been building the resources – the faculty, the students, the facilities, and the instrumentation – that make the possibilities obvious and compelling. I heard this from so many students and parents this past weekend.

The challenges and opportunities for all of us rest in making the best possible use of our remarkable resources and to keep this vision at the fore as we plan our course of study and our approach to education. With little need to worry about overly hot or cold classrooms, we should think about courses and a curriculum that truly ensures depth, rigor, and breadth. With no need to worry about the adequacy of our labs and studios, we should turn our attention to designing an educational experience that fosters creativity and innovation – what Walter Issacson has described as the building blocks of genius. Imagine the possibilities!

To help us think about all this more deeply, we will launch the Feigenbaum Forum on Innovation and Creativity this year. As part of the Feigenbaum Foundation gift, an endowed fund was established and the income from that fund will enable us to bring speakers to campus who can talk about innovation and creativity and how these qualities are fostered. Our first speaker in the series will be Howard Gardner, a recipient of the highly-coveted MacArthur genius award and a distinguished professor of psychology at Harvard University. He is the author of many books, including Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi. He is the perfect person to frame the series. I hope you’ll all choose to attend his lecture on November 3. It promises to be very special.

When I spoke to the Board of Trustees at their August retreat, I talked to them about Union’s 12th President, Dixon Ryan Fox. Fox served Union between 1934 and 1945 and Fox Residence Hall is named in his honor. I identify with Fox in many ways: he was an academic, he wanted to rekindle Union’s sense of history; he and his wife cared deeply for and appreciated the significance of the President’s House, adding the distinctive wallpaper in the dining room and the formal gardens that we still appreciate today. He died suddenly of a heart attack while on a fundraising visit (I don’t identify with that aspect of his presidency). He was working on a book about Union at the time of his death. In what proved a title with double meaning, Union College: An Unfinished History, Fox talked about the importance of Union’s mission not only to students but for the world in general. He emphasized that Union’s distinguished history paved the way for future chapters that would prove even more remarkable.

I’d end my remarks today by focusing on the message embedded in the title of Fox’s book. It is up to us to write those next chapters. Union College, as remarkable as it is, is truly is an unfinished history. Each generation has the opportunity to surpass the accomplishments of those who went before, always remembering that they are advantaged by what their predecessors accomplished during their time here, when they took up the obligation and opportunity to steward this remarkable place. It’s our time now, we’ve accomplished much in the past decade and Union has never been stronger – measured by financial well-being, strength of its faculty, staff, and students, the quality of its infrastructure, and even its clarity of mission. Yes, Union is an unfinished history and we have the opportunity to breathe life into its distinctive mission, to write those next chapters, and to establish our continued significance to the world. I know you’ll join me in making the most of our opportunity in the year ahead.

I wish us all a great year!