Convocation a time for reflection, celebration

Publication Date
Union College Convocation Introduction

Union formally opened its 222nd academic year Tuesday with a Convocation ceremony that celebrated recent accomplishments while reminding the campus community of the challenges and opportunities ahead.

President Stephen C. Ainlay completed his 10th year at Union in June. In reflecting on the anniversary, he highlighted a number of things the College has achieved in the past decade, from becoming a more sustainable campus to being a more diverse, inclusive and safer place.

The College enhanced its academic integrity with an Honors Code, continued to recruit outstanding faculty and doubled the size of its Annual Fund, which subsidizes the actual costs of educating students.

Ainlay noted the College also built or renovated 14 major structures over the past 10 years. Among the projects were the Taylor Music Center, Lippman Hall, Karp Hall, Peter Irving Wold Center, Henle Dance Pavilion, Wicker Wellness Center, Kelly Adirondack Center, Breazzano Fitness Center and the recently completed Visual Arts building, which has been renamed the Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts.

He noted Union’s recent inclusion in the college guide, “The Hidden Ivies,” which highlights exceptional schools that offer a broad liberal arts education, and its recognition as one of the top producers of Fulbright Scholars.

In enumerating these accomplishments, Ainlay emphasized that none would have been possible without the support of the entire campus community.

“I hear over and over again from people who have been coming back to Union many times since their graduations, sometimes very long ago, that the College has never looked better or seemed more vibrant and alive,” Ainlay told the standing-room-only crowd gathered in Memorial Chapel.

“What can I say other than “congratulations, well done, and again, thank you.”

But the College, Ainlay stressed, is not content to “rest on our laurels or become complacent.” Work is progressing on plans to overhaul the Science and Engineering Center to help fulfill Union’s aim to be the premier institution offering arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering.

“Make no mistake about it, this will be an expensive undertaking, and the Trustees have made clear that we must secure sufficient commitments before we can put shovel in ground,” he said.

In closing, Ainlay reflected on how the world is as fractured, if not more so, than when he assumed the presidency in 2006.

“The tone and tenor of national politics have only accentuated the sense of things falling apart, and the tragic loss of life across far too many American cities and conflict across the world have only served to remind us of divisions that separate people,” he said.

But he said institutions like Union play a critical role in developing the capacity for discourse and in fostering mutual understanding and respect. He urged members of the campus community to take advantage of the opportunities to embrace different ideas within an atmosphere of mutual respect.

“To be liberally educated is, at least in part, to confront ideas and ways of knowing that are sometimes new to you or even at odds with what you’ve come to believe,” he said. “A diversity of viewpoints is important to the intellectual health of any college. I hope that we preserve an openness to learning about different viewpoints even when it makes us somewhat uncomfortable.

“At the same time, I would argue that this can be done in ways that seek understanding of the other’s point of view, and in ways that honor and preserve principles of mutual respect. Espousing a point of view need not be about humiliating or dehumanizing others. Calls for freedom of expression should not provide cover for language and behavior that are intended to be hurtful or hateful.”

Also at Convocation, Ainlay welcomed the Class of 2020. The 563 students were selected from record 6,647 applications, one of the most competitive admissions cycles in the school’s history. The students represent 29 states and 23 countries, with nearly 30 percent international or from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s also one of the strongest academically, with two-thirds of the students ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class.

Ainlay acknowledged William Keat, professor of mechanical engineering, as the winner of the Stillman Prize for Excellence in Teaching. Keat joined Union in 1996. The prize was created by David I. Stillman ’72, Abbott Stillman ’69 and Allan Stillman in honor of Abraham Stillman, father and grandfather. It is given annually to a faculty member to encourage outstanding teaching.

Jermaine Wells, Learning Environment Services coordinator, received the UNITAS Community-Building Prize, given in recognition of a person who has helped foster community and diversity at Union. Wells, who joined Union in 2005, was honored for his willingness to “go the extra mile” in sharing his expertise in AV and IT technologies. A musician, Wells was also honored for sharing his talents and knowledge of hip hop and other genres by performing at campus events and lectures.

Strom Thacker, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, recognized the students who made the Dean’s List last year. Their names are on a plaque that will be displayed in Reamer Campus Center.

Padma Yawen Yang ’18 received the Hollander Prize in Music, established by Lawrence J. Hollander, dean of engineering emeritus. An interdepartmental major in Asian Studies and Modern Languages and Literatures, Yang studies the guzheng, a traditional Chinese string instrument. She performed a stirring rendition of Zhan Tai Feng (“Battling the Typhoon”) by Wang Chang-Yuan.

The convocation opened with remarks from William A. Finlay, College marshal and professor of theater and dance; Frank Messa ’73, life member of the Board of Trustees; Peter Bedford, John and Jane Wold Professor of Religious Studies and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; and Audrey Hunt ’17, Student Forum president.

Accompanied by Professor of Music Dianne McMullen, the Class of 2020 led Ode to Ole Union to close the ceremony. An all-campus barbecue followed on Hull Plaza.