Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's Convocation remarks

Publication Date

College Marshall Finlay, Trustee Messa and his fellow Trustees, Dean Thacker, FEC Chair Professor Bedford, Student Forum President Hunt, and all members of the Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2016-2017 academic year!

I’d like to give a special welcome to the new members of our community. Whether you are a member of the class of 2020, a student transferring to Union from another school, a new member of the faculty, or a new administrator or staff member, we are pleased that you decided to join us. While I’m admittedly biased, Union is a special place and I hope that you will find it to be a place where you can grow, thrive, and succeed.

I want to congratulate the Deans List students. Making the Dean’s List is a significant accomplishment and you can be rightfully proud. I also want to congratulate Padma Yawen Yang on winning the Hollander Prize. Your performance today was another reminder of the remarkable talents our students bring to Union and a reminder of the importance of celebrating those talents as a community. In much the same spirit, I want to again congratulate Jermaine Wells on receiving the UNITAS award. Jermaine has so generously shared his talents, and I’m glad that he could be recognized and celebrated today. And, I want to congratulate Professor William Keat on receiving the Stillman Prize. You, like prior recipients, represent the special teaching talents of the Union faculty. Anyone who has attended a Steinmetz presentation by one of your students, and I have, gets a glimpse of the close relationship you develop with them and the ways in which you awaken their intellectual curiosity. Again, congratulations to each of you.

I want to thank everyone for their preparations for the upcoming academic year. I mean, of course, all the faculty who’ve prepared courses while engaging in scholarly pursuits, administrators and staff who designed and are now implementing orientation programs, facilities personnel who have readied buildings and prepared the grounds, coaches who have prepared their teams for competition, and dining services personnel who have prepared menus and readied our dining halls. I also mean Pre-Orientation leaders, Residence Assistants, Orientation Assistants, members of our athletic teams who carried boxes and refrigerators, sustainability students and lacrosse team members who helped recycle over the weekend, Minerva students who cooked breakfasts on move-in day, and all other students who smoothed the transitions of our new student members to their new home. Thank you all for your commitment to the College.

I completed ten years of service as President as of June 30. Like any anniversary, mine prompted reflection and I marvel at our combined efforts to strengthen Union. Together, we’ve accomplished quite a great deal during the past decade. Let me just give you a taste: We’ve completed two strategic plans that instead of being “put on the shelf,” have actually guided our work. We’ve made significant progress in our efforts to become more sustainable, reducing our carbon footprint and our path to carbon neutrality. We’ve diversified our campus community and our community has also become far more global. In fact, we are now the most diverse in our history. We established Multicultural Affairs and Title IX offices to make Union a more inclusive and safer place. We’ve dramatically increased the volunteer hours we provide in the city and thereby increased our presence and our impact. We’ve enhanced academic integrity with a College Honors Code and continued a longstanding commitment to recruiting outstanding faculty. We’ve steadily grown our applicant pool to what was the largest ever this past year, resulting in the most selective admissions process in our history. We nearly doubled the size of our Annual Fund – a direct subsidy to the actual costs of educating our students. We completed the largest campaign in Union’s history and one of the largest for any liberal arts college, raising $258 million. That campaign enabled us to strengthen our facilities. Indeed, we’ve built or totally renovated 14 major structures during the past ten years. Let me take a moment itemize them for you because it’s easy to forget just what we’ve done: Taylor Music (renovation/new addition, 2006); Butterfield Hall (renovation, 2007); Breazzano Fitness Center (renovation, 2008); Lippman Hall (renovation, 2011); Peter Irving Wold Center (new, 2011); Lamont House (renovation, 2012); Kelly Adirondack Center (new acquisition, 2013); Wicker Wellness Center (renovation/new addition, 2013); Henle Dance Studio (new, 2013); Memorial Fieldhouse (renovation, 2014); Karp Hall (renovation, 2015); Garnet Commons (new, 2015); Co-generation Facility (new, 2016); and, Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts (renovation/new addition, 2016).

I want to thank all of you who helped tell the Union story to and recruit prospective students, all of you who recruited talented faculty, staff, administrators, all of you who planned buildings, constructed buildings, and raised funds for these buildings, all of you who defined or secured support for faculty lines, scholarships and programs, all of you who implemented programs that have made Union a more inclusive and safer place, and all of you who breathed life into programs, offices, and buildings. I also want to thank all the many benefactors who believed enough in the College and our vision for what it could be to support us. 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.” What can I say other than “congratulations,” “well done,” and again “thank you.”

It is worth spending a moment on the opening of the new Visual Arts building. As I noted in last year’s Convocation remarks, this is among our most historic buildings, so “new” needs to be placed in quotes. The “new” Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts is completely renovated and boasts a spectacular new addition as well. When you walk into this building, you will likely be struck by a number of things, an abundance of display spaces in the hallways and galleries, snorkel hoods – ordinarily associated with science buildings – offering improved air handling in studios. You will also notice sophisticated welding stations, dark rooms, and woodworking spaces, studios and classrooms with grand views of Jackson’s Garden out one side and of the Nott Memorial on the other. Hopefully, you’ll also notice that the building preserves longstanding ways of making art and also offers new artistic media for our students and faculty to explore. And everyone will undoubtedly appreciate the vastly improved air HVAC systems that make classrooms and studios useable year round. We will be dedicating the building at the October Homecoming/and Family Weekend, and I hope you’ll join us for the official opening and tours.

The work on the Visual Arts building completes our work on the arts complex, which includes Yulman Theater, the Henle Dance Studio, Taylor Music Center and the Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts. A by-product of our facilities work in this area is a new quad that is framed by these buildings and that provides important new outside space.

When we opened Karp Hall, I suggested that it should affirm our belief in the continued importance of the humanities to liberal education. The opening of the Visual Arts building should similarly affirm the continued importance of the arts. To punctuate this point, we will focus this year’s Feigenbaum Forum on Creativity and Innovation, initiated just last year, on the arts. I’m pleased to announce that this year’s Feigenbaum Forum speaker with be Maya Lin, a designer and artist who is well-known for her works of sculpture and land art. She perhaps most famously designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D. C. and remains very active. Among the many honors she’s received was the National Medal of Arts, awarded to her by President Obama in 2009. Mark your calendars for what promises to be a special evening. The Feigenbaum Forum will be Oct. 27 at 5 p.m.

I’d also remind you of the many other opportunities throughout the year to celebrate the arts at Union. Watch for exhibits and lectures in the new Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts, of course. The Mandeville Gallery on the second floor of the Nott Memorial also continues to sponsor compelling exhibits. While I’m promoting events, I’d call special attention to the exhibit of works by our own Professor Charles Steckler. That exhibit runs from Sept.21 (when there will be an opening reception) to Dec. 11. I’d also call attention to the wonderful student exhibits displayed in both the Wyckoff Gallery on the 3rd floor of the Nott Memorial and in the new gallery spaces in the Feigenbaum Center for the Visual Arts. For new members of the community, go to these exhibits and support the arts more generally. Get out to Taylor Time, and get out to the Chamber and International Artist series in Memorial Chapel, and get out to the Winter Dance Concert, and get out to our theater productions in Yulman Theater. You’ll be amazed and, as I said in my welcome to the Class of 2020 on Sunday, you’ll become more “learned.”

Our investment in the arts along with previous investments in the humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering have put Union in a remarkable position within higher education. It is not accidental that some of the world’s best students are attracted to Union in record numbers. This is a direct result of what we’ve established here: remarkable faculty, teaching and engaging students in research in outstanding facilities, and using world-class instrumentation across an incredible range of disciplines and, increasingly, at the intersection of fields of study.

Because of all of our work, Union is emerging as the college of choice for students interested in STEM fields and who understand the need to wrestle with centuries-old questions that great works of art, music, and literature pose. Because of all our work, Union is emerging as the college of choice for students interested in the humanities and the arts who know that new technologies are changing their chosen fields of study and career paths. Because of our work together, Union is emerging as the college of choice for social science students who want to explore the impact of technological change on inequality or the social history behind the making of art, or who understand that design methods, once the domain of engineers, can change the way in which we approach and understand the social world as well.

Happily, the remarkable position we occupy today within the academy is being recognized. Just last week, a new edition of a book, entitled The Hidden Ivies, listed Union as one of what they describe as part of a “distinctive cluster of colleges and universities of excellence.” The authors, Howard and Matthew Greene, go on to say of Union in particular that the “combination of liberal arts and science and engineering makes Union a rigorous academic environment for undergraduates seeking a wide range of coursework across the humanities, social sciences, arts and STEM fields.” Such affirmation is gratifying, of course, and validates the aims set out in our strategic plans. And I’m pleased to report that we are busily doing more. Two Mellon grants – a Presidential Discretionary Grant that took faculty to China and Our Shared Humanities Grant that strengthens linkages between disciplines – are enabling us to go beyond what we’ve accomplished.

Our inclusion in The Hidden Ivies is not the only indicator that our work and strategic vision have strengthened Union. Last year, by way of another example, we were added to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s list of top producers of Fulbright Scholars. This is both testimony to the strengths of our students, the compelling nature of their course of study, and the mentoring by faculty and others that leads them to apply. I congratulate Lynn Evans, our director of National Scholarships and Fellowships, as well as the recipients of Fulbrights and other prestigious prizes, and the faculty who identified, encouraged and mentored top candidates. Again, I hope that we will build upon last year’s success in this area as well. We have extraordinarily talented students at Union who should be seeking and receiving prestigious awards like Fulbrights, Goldwaters, Watsons, Marshalls and Rhodes. Students: Resolve to learn about these opportunities early on in your careers here and pursue them. Faculty, staff, and administration: Encourage those students you believe would be good candidates for these kinds of awards and encourage them to pursue them.

Yes, despite all we’ve accomplished, we have more work to be done, and we need to take advantage of the momentum we enjoy. For those of you who have been around campus during the summer months, you’ve seen work underway near the Science and Engineering complex. The work that’s being done both addresses some long-needed utilities work and prepares the way for extensive improvements we hope to make in our science and engineering complex. Time has taken its toll on the complex’s systems, and teaching and research in the sciences and engineering have changed. An excellent faculty and sophisticated instrumentation have made up for deficiencies in space but the time has come to address our facilities needs.

The Wold Center, dedicated in May of 2011, was the first phase of what we’ve known would be a far larger project. A planning group has been working with the architectural firm, Einhorn, Yaffee and Prescott, on the re-design of the S&E complex. I’m happy to report that, after many tours, discussions and plan iterations, we have arrived at a design that will advance science and engineering education and will set us apart. It’s also a design that will also cause the least disruption possible to our campus and the teaching of science and engineering. This project is exceptionally important to Union, our standing within higher education, and to our desire to be the premier institutions offering arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences and engineering. The project will be, in my mind, an academic facilities “capstone” and will further strengthen our appeal to prospective students and faculty.

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.” Thus, I along with our College Relations staff have been traveling the country, indeed the globe, in an effort to secure the necessary support. I’m pleased to say that we’ve received substantial and enthusiastic support and our conversations with a number of prospective supporters continue. We will formally announce our progress at appropriate times in the months ahead.

The 2016-17 academic year will also provide opportunities to remind ourselves of our historic role in higher education. We will celebrate the 200th anniversary of Phi Beta Kappa at Union College. Union’s chapter, the “alpha” chapter in the state of New York and one of the earliest nationwide, was established May 1, 1817. We can be rightfully proud of this anniversary and we will be celebrating it in a number of ways. I’m very pleased to announce the John Churchill who served 14 years as secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, just stepping down this past summer, will be our Founder’s Day Speaker in February. I hope you will again mark your calendars and watch for related programming.

This will be a return visit to Union for Dr. Churchill. He was last here in the fall of 2006 when he brought greetings from Phi Beta Kappa at my inauguration as president of Union. I’ve gone back to the remarks I made at that ceremony and I’ve been pleased to see that many of the hopes I had for Union have become reality. In one section of the talk, I spoke of my hope that Union could model and affirm the value of dialogue even in the face of difference and while celebrating mutual respect. I noted, “We live in a world marked by conflict and misunderstanding, a world that sometimes feels as if it’s being torn apart by things that divide us.” And, I went on to argue that “education at its best has the potential to play a key strategic role in counteracting polarization by emphasizing the value of dialogue, helping students understand difference without reducing it to “a matter of perspective, and celebrating mutual respect.” And, I noted “it is no small challenge to achieve these qualities in any environment, and monologue is certainly easier than dialogue, but if not in higher education, where?”

Ten years later, the world certainly appears as fractured, if not more so, than it did ten years ago. 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 has only served to remind us of divisions that separate people. Yet through it all, I continue to believe in the role of education, especially at places like Union, in developing the capacity for discourse and in fostering mutual understanding and respect. But this requires resolve.

In the past week, I’ve received dozens of emails from people who wanted to be sure I saw the letter written the Jay Ellison, the dean of Students in the College at the University of Chicago, to incoming first-year students. In his letter, Dean Ellison informs students of the university’s commitment to academic freedom and warns that they should be prepared to deal with uncomfortable ideas and that the university does not condone “safe spaces” where students retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own. Within minutes of the Chicago letter going viral, Morton Shapiro, president of nearby Northwestern University (and former president at Williams), issued an op-ed piece in the Washington Post defending the need for safe spaces, especially when asking students to confront difficult issues. And, Brown President Christina Paxson provided one of the most reasonable arguments I’ve seen in this regard in her own Washington Post editorial that appeared in my inbox this morning.

In my view, 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. 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.

As we enter the 2016-17 academic year, I’d urge you to take advantage of some of the campus opportunities that allow you to engage different ideas within an atmosphere of mutual respect. As faculty, I hope we create this kind of atmosphere in the courses we teach. And, I encourage students to enroll in courses that expose them to new ways of thinking about the world and that may take them outside of their comfort zones. Similarly, take in speakers who challenge us to think anew about things. I’d also encourage you to find opportunities in the so-called “co-curriculum.” An easy first step is a ride in one of the Office of Multicultural Affairs’ “cabs” (Connecting Across Boundaries). These golf carts will run between September 6 and 23, and it’s an initiative explicitly focused on bringing people from different backgrounds together to begin conversations. Or, join in “DDD” (Dinner and Discussion around Diversity), sponsored Union’s Office of Religious Life, which allows people to explore a spiritual or ethical questions from different perspectives. Or, participate in student-run Identity Dialogues (“ID”), which explore identity in the atmosphere of what our own Jason Benitez describes as “safe discomfort.” Or, join the annual Social Justice Retreat, where participants explore difficult issues in honest dialogue.

Union is not immune from the forces that fracture the world-at-large, nor should we ignore them. Nevertheless, it’s worth our continued efforts to be a place that commits itself to free and sometimes difficult inquiry while holding to the notion that it’s also important to understand, respect and affirm fellow members of our community.

I wish us all a great year!