Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks

Publication Date

First, let me thank Ben Saperstein, Student Forum President. I’d also like to thank Diane McMullen and the many students who shared their musical gifts with us, the wonderful student speakers, Professor Barbanel – our faculty speaker, Emily Tong, and the members of the Commencement Committee who are listed in the program.

We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the beloved spaces of Union College. The building was a project of President Richmond who wished to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars leading up to what was then the most recent – World War I. The building was designed by the distinguished architectural firm, McKim, Mead and White, and was completed in 1925.

Memorial Chapel is certainly architecturally pleasing and it’s acoustics are splendid, as any musician will tell you, but its “specialness” resides more in the fact that it is the ceremonial center of Union; notably it’s the site of presidential inaugurations, the first meeting of incoming classes, and the annual Opening Convocation, Founder’s Day, the ReUnion Alumni Convocation, the Greek and Senior Athletic award ceremonies, and yes, Baccalaureate. It has also become a place for remembering the passing of all graduates of the College and other members of the Union community. We do so again today. The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff that have died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program. I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. [Silence] Thank you.

In his new book, titled The Road to Character, columnist David Brooks distinguishes between what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” As he puts it, “resume virtues” are skills you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. “Eulogy virtues,” he argues, are the qualities that get talked about at your funeral, ones that presumably exist at the core of who you are. “Resume virtues” might include your majors and minors or skills, such as familiarity with the Microsoft Office suite. “Eulogy virtues” might include qualities such as kindness, integrity, and loyalty. Sadly, Brooks goes on to argue, the larger culture that surrounds us seems to encourage a greater concern for resume virtues than eulogy virtues and too many people, as a result, live lives characterized by what Brooks calls “moral mediocrity.”

Now, one of the things I like about David Brooks is that, while he can be a tough cultural critic, he seldom leaves the reader without hope or without a way out of the situation he describes. This is true of his discussion of character. Brooks details a path by which one can build character and transcend moral mediocrity. I won’t go through his entire argument (you should read the book) but I would draw your attention to one practice that he thinks is particularly important and even foundational to many of the other practices he advocates. I think it’s worth keeping in mind as you stand here at the threshold between life-at-Union and life-after-Union.

Brooks advises that one needs to “quiet one’s self.” He describes this as the practice of “muting ego.” He tells us that in order to avoid moral mediocrity, we need to recognize that we are not the center of the universe. We are, instead, part of something larger. This is not an argument that we are all “cogs in a system.” It is an argument that we are better people if we recognize that our lives must be nested within a larger purpose – a purpose that eclipses our own ambitions, our own successes.

This should not feel like “new news.” You chose Union College, at least in part, because you wanted to be part of something larger. You certainly knew Union was one of nation’s oldest colleges. Union’s been at education for a long time and when you joined this college, you became part of the long flow of a distinguished institutional history. This fact alone should lead to a certain humility – something Brooks argues is essential to the formation of character.

And, in choosing Union, you chose more. You chose to be part of a college whose institutional DNA contains the belief that we can transcend our personal impulses in support of a much larger common purpose. That’s precisely the story of Union’s founding: at a time when most colleges were attached to a specific religious tradition, three religious groups came together in the late 18th century and, despite their theological differences, pursued a common educational agenda.

You’ve been reminded of this, I trust, each time you passed the Nott Memorial with its 16 sides supporting a single common dome. That marvelous structure reminds us of our institutional origin story and provides architectural testimony that Brook’s assertion is Union’s assertion: we come together from different backgrounds and we are on different life journeys, but we become one in our support of a larger cause, a commonly-held purpose.

What is that common purpose? At Union, it’s the belief we are a community, that each of us matters, and that together we are unstoppable and that together we can do great things. Each of us brings strengths to the table; but we are even stronger together. At Union, it’s the belief that a great education prepares you with both deep knowledge in your chosen field of study and broad knowledge of the ways in which multiple fields of study approach a problem. At Union, our common purpose is rooted in a belief that ideas matter and that they should inform our choices and our actions. At Union, it’s the belief that we study ideas to become the authors of ideas. And at Union, we believe that concern for others (whether on campus and beyond our gates), reaching out to others in times of need, and making the world a better place are top priorities. These are the things of eulogy virtues.

Don’t imagine this is commonplace. Many of your generational peers will graduate from schools where this sense of larger purpose and the specific qualities of Union’s purpose are absent. Good for you that you had the wisdom and the character to choose to be formed in an educational environment that has long aimed at creating resume virtues and eulogy virtues, developing qualities that enable our graduates to succeed and transcend moral mediocrity.

Stay with it. The good news is that you’ve already taken some big steps toward “quieting your selves.” It’s been cultivated – through both the curriculum and your life outside the classroom – within you. The good news is that you’ve already started this important practice of character development. Thus, your challenge isn’t to start anew; your challenge is to continue these practices after you graduate. But make no mistake about it, Brooks is right in asserting that it will take effort and resolve to continue what you’ve started given the busy-ness of the world you are about to enter.

Let me close by giving you some final advice that is less about the rest of your life and more about the next 12 hours. In the ½ day that remains to you as a student at Union College, I’d urge you to reflect upon and savor your experiences of the past four years. You’ve been one of the lucky few to have experienced Union; savor that. When you decided to come to Union, you chose life-time friendships. Savor those friendships. They won’t end tomorrow; they will endure so long as you work at it. When you chose Union, you chose to develop caring relationships with faculty and staff; savor those relationships and know they too will endure so long as you work at it. When you chose this college, you signed onto more than four years, you signed on to a life-time membership. Reflect on that; savor that in the hours that remain to you as a student of Union College.

And while Brooks is right in suggesting that you “mute your ego,” it’s ok to feel pride when I hand you your “dip” from alma mater and you become a graduate of Union College. You’ve done well, you’ve accomplished a lot, we’ve accomplished a lot, and you have both resume and eulogy virtues to show for it. Tomorrow will be a special day and I’m honored to share the moment with you.

See you in the morning!