President Stephen C. Ainlay's Commencement remarks

Ainlay was featured speaker at Union's 224th Commencement
Nott Memorial
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President Stephen C. Ainlay's Commencement remarks

  • Commencement

Before I begin my remarks, some thank yous are in order. First, I want to thank the Trustees for bestowing our honorary degrees. I know I speak for Judith, I should say “Dr. Ainlay,” when I say we are very proud to hold these degrees and to “graduate” with the Class of 2018. I don’t know if it’s occurred to you, fellow members of the Class of 2018, but we’ll be coming to your ReUnions from here on out!

I’d also like to thank the Trustees that sit behind me as well as family and friends who have made the trip to Schenectady to be part of this day. They have provided us with such incredible support during our time at Union. And, members of the Class of 2018, you also have many to thank for helping you reach this day. In particular, you too owe a debt of gratitude to family and friends. Like our family and friends, yours have been there to encourage you and they’ve supported you with their love and in so many other ways. I would invite you all to stand, turn to face your family and friends who are in attendance today, and join me in thanking them with your applause.

Your experience at Union would not have been as transformative, as meaningful, or as fulfilling if it weren’t for the faculty, many of whom sit under the colonnades to my right and left. They, along with a host of administrators, coaches, and staff made your experience what it was and I’d ask you to join me in thanking them too for all they have done to enrich your years at Union.

This is a special day for you and for me. It marks the end of one chapter of our lives and the beginning of a new one. Yes, we are “commencing” together. You were more efficient than I was – you finished in four while it took me twelve years. Like many if not all of you, I’m finding the moment bittersweet. Like many if not all of you, I’m wondering if the relationships that I’ve made will last. Like many if not all of you, I know that I will miss being part of this place. And, like many if not all of you, I have questions about what comes next, what the world beyond Union holds by way of both challenges and opportunities.

You have an open horizon ahead of you – a life full of possibilities and opportunities. I know that this can be both exciting and a little unnerving at the same time. After all, the world within which you will start your careers, form relationships, and establish families is a world in flux. As Thomas Friedman said when he spoke last fall in Memorial Chapel, yours is a world that is in the midst of rapid, even exponential change. That change – driven in part by technological advances – is challenging our most fundamental social institutions – family, education, workplace, government, and community. It’s also a world in which genuine discourse seems all too rare and relationships between people, leaders, and indeed countries seem strained. All this can seem daunting and leave one feeling somewhat adrift.

So as you commence the rest of your lives in such a world, how will you keep your bearings? Well, I come with good news. Your Union experience has prepared you well for the world that awaits you. Your Union experience, or more specifically the qualities that have been cultivated here, will serve you well, providing a navigational tool that should keep you centered and help you focus, understand, prioritize, act, and thrive in the years ahead.

I love the history of Union. I suppose that’s not a newsflash. And, you most likely expect me to talk about it. Well, I won’t disappoint you. I hope you’ve had a chance to visit the current exhibit in the Mandeville Gallery in the Nott Memorial. The exhibit, “Probability and Uncertainty,” features early scientific instruments from Union’s collection. Among the instruments on display is a device commonly called “Hadley’s Quadrant.” There’s an illustration of the device inside the last page of your Commencement program. “Hadley’s Quadrant” is a bit of a misnomer as the device is really an “octant.” Nevertheless, thanks to a system of mirrors that increased its usefulness, it was an important development in navigation. John Hadley, a British mathematician, invented the device in 1730 and it became the navigational gold standard well into the 1800s. Sailors depended on it to figure out just where they were.

As you well know, Union College was chartered in the spring of 1795 and teaching began in the fall of the same year. Almost immediately, a committee was formed to identify the books and apparatus that would be necessary for study and teaching at the newly formed College. The list they generated led to what is now known as “the first purchase” the books and apparatus they acquired formed the basis of what we now think of as the Union Library. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it was indeed the navigational gold standard of its day, Hadley’s Quadrant was among the items in the first purchase.

My advice to you today is let your own Union educational experience serve as your Hadley’s Quadrant; let the experience you’ve had here help you navigate the world in much the same manner as Hadley’s quadrant helped sailors navigate the seas.

And how will your Union education serve as the equivalent of Hadley’s Quadrant and help you navigate the world? Hopefully, it begins with your preparation as “t-shaped learners.” Andy Boynton, writing for Forbes, discussed the difference between “I-Shaped” and “T-Shaped” people. Boynton noted that T-Shaped people are “better at fostering the diverse connections and conversations that bring exceptional ideas to the surface.”

We intentionally designed a course of study at Union that provided you with a T-Shaped education – a deep education AND a broad education. We aimed at cultivating deep proficiency – in physics, classics, art history, music, sociology, psychology, modern languages, and a host of other fields – while also exposing you at the same time to many different ways of knowing the world.

When Friedman was here, he insisted that a Union education – a T-Shaped education – is precisely what you will need to navigate the rapidly changing world he described in books like The World is Flat and Thank you for Being Late. He declared emphatically that a Union education has equipped you to ask the right questions – a characteristic he views as the true measure of intelligence in the 21st century. Friedman is right: being T-Shaped will help you navigate the world by knowing what questions to ask and then combining what others might see as disparate ideas to offer up solutions.

But there is more to your experience at Union that will help you navigate the world. Consider the campus architecture that has surrounded you for the past four years. If you are like me, it was the feeling that this campus evokes that first drew me in. I couldn’t have put my finger on just why it had such a pull on me when I first stepped on to the Union campus but I’ve come to appreciate that the campus plan is all about community. That’s the genius of Eliphalet Nott and Joseph Ramée, still evident today. It’s the large horse-shoe layout of the historic center campus, embracing us as it does with its “arms.” It’s the Nott Memorial, the campus centerpiece with its 16 sides supporting a common dome, reminding us of the value of being a diverse community that simultaneously affirms our common humanity, demanding that we understand one another and treat one another with respect.

Hopefully, Union’s architecture has been etched it into your mind along with the life lessons it quietly teaches. If you learned anything beyond what you learned in the classroom, I hope it’s the value and importance of living in, believing in, sustaining, defending, preserving, and protecting community, a diverse community, even in the face of the pressures that threaten to diminish it or tear it apart. Like the intersection of disciplines within a college, the intersection of different ways of seeing the world within a community is a mark of strength not weakness. Hold on to what Union’s historic campus architecture teaches. It will help you strengthen and repair the communities you are about to join.

We sometimes forget that Nott was more than a memorial. He was a remarkable person in so many ways. One hundred and fifty-two years after his death, his spirit continues to animate much of what goes on here. It was and is difficult to categorize Nott. He was at once clergyman, inventor, and educator. As clergyman, he shepherded communities in Cherry Valley and Albany, New York, and he delivered a eulogy for Alexander Hamilton that became an influential statement on the nature of citizenship. As inventor, he figured out how to make a stove that burned anthracite and successfully competed with the stoves invented by Benjamin Franklin. As an educator, he was “ahead of the curve,” adding sciences to the classical curriculum, allowing modern languages to satisfy graduation requirements, and bringing engineering into a liberal arts curriculum. He was the 19th century model of a “t-shaped” individual who, as I’ve said, was intentional about forming a community of teachers and learners.

Nott’s 62 years as Union’s President were undoubtedly rewarding but they were also challenging. The College battled through near-constant financial challenges. Nott was criticized by leaders of the other major educational institutions of his day for his progressive ideas. Rapid industrial and urban growth, along with increasing conflict leading up to the American Civil War likely made it feel, at times, like the world was falling apart.

This probably helps explain Nott’s motto which became near synonymous with this extraordinary person. "Perseverantia vincit omnia" or “Perseverance Conquers All.” Nott would declare it, in Latin, when addressing graduates at each Commencement and he would write it on notecards, sending it to alumni and others who were oftentimes facing great personal or professional challenges in their lives. While the motto was particularly meaningful to Nott, who did indeed persevere through many challenges, it still has currency for us as we face the 21st century. Rapid change, conflict over fundamental values, a sometime sense that things are falling apart. That was Nott’s world and his challenges are remarkably familiar to us today and so is the importance persevering.

So there you have it; three qualities that are in the DNA of Union and that will help you navigate, thrive within, and contribute to the world that you are about to enter: be t-shaped, be a builder of communities, and persevere in the face of challenges.

There are plenty of examples of all three qualities in our alumni, those who crossed this stage ahead of you. Their life stories have been source of inspiration to me over the past 12 years. But you need look no further than your own class, the Class of 2018, to find inspiring examples of all three of these core qualities.

Looking for examples of t-shaped learning? Consider the “Learn Something/Teach Something” Program that provided grants for faculty, students, and staff to learn about something new and then teach about it. The program encourages intellectual exploration outside of one’s comfort zone. It’s about t-shaped learning and it’s a model for lifelong learning – after all, one of the best ways to learn is to teach – and the program was the brainchild of the Class of 2018. Or consider programs like the new clinical immersion program at Albany Medical College that asked students to combine engineering innovation with patient care, which almost invariably led them to confront accompanying ethical questions. Six members of your class participated and it was certainly about T-shaped learning.

You honed your own T-Shaped development by taking courses like “The Processed Pixel” which combined computer science and digital art, “Culinary Chemistry” which studied the science behind cooking, and “Social Identities and Science in the Genomic Age” which explored the relationships between science and cultural understandings of race and gender. Our admissions materials have declared “things come together at Union College.” They certainly do and it’s all about T-Shaped learning.

And you’ve modeled T-shaped learning in your choices of majors and minors. I asked the Registrar’s Office to provide me with a list of your majors and minors. What a full banquet of academic pursuits! You’ve combined Electrical Engineering with Dance, Sociology with Music, Computer Science with Philosophy, Anthropology with Psychology, Geology with Spanish, Biology with Theater, Economics with Environmental Science, Policy and Engineering, Managerial Economics with Political Science, Psychology with Classics, English with Film Studies, and Physics with Latin American and Caribbean Studies. And the list goes on.

Your class has also demonstrated a remarkable capacity to build community. You turned out for all manner of community events. You turned out in unprecedented numbers at large-scale rituals, like the Opening Convocation and Founders Day, and you turned out for more informal events that simply allow people a chance to be together. You voted for community with your feet time and time again. And, you helped build a particular kind of community, one that promotes dialogue, understanding, and respect. That’s what your commitment to the Interfaith Youth Corps was all about. That’s what the Leadership in Diversity (LID) Committee which brought together student clubs to discuss diversity matters affecting the Union community was all about. That’s what Dinner and Discussion About Diversity which provided a supportive venue for exploring difficult topics was all about. You led and supported these organizations and thereby helped build a diverse and inclusive community.

You also proved to be builders of the larger community that surrounds us. You tutored STEP students and captured the imaginations of Schenectady youth. You mentored those same young people in programs like My Brother’s Keeper. You gave them their voice and empowered them with programs like Writing our Communities. You aided fellow citizens in their quest for social justice by reinvigorating NAACP. You took seriously the admonition: to whom much is given, much is expected.

And throughout your Union years, many of you faced challenges but you persevered. You’ve overcome disappointing athletic seasons, financial challenges, illnesses and injuries, misunderstandings, and even the loss of loved ones. You persevered in the face of hardship and persevered when the rewards of hard work weren’t immediately obvious. Regrettably, some of you had to persevere when confronted with ignorance and bias but you turned those situations into opportunities to educate. You persevered because you believed in the possibility of continuous improvement. You persevered because it’s who you are, Class of 2018. And, when those around you encountered hardships, disappointments, and loss, you were there with words of encouragement and support, allowing them to persevere as well. President Nott would be so pleased. I am so pleased.

While the qualities of t-shaped learning, commitment to community, and perseverance in the face of life’s challenges abound among the Class of 2018, don’t imagine that the people you’ve been fortunate enough to call friends and classmates are commonplace. Don’t imagine that the curricular and co-curricular opportunities you’ve had are commonplace. Don’t imagine that a faculty who asks us to explore both disciplinary depth and the intersection of fields outside of their own is commonplace. Don’t imagine that this College is commonplace. You have had something special these past four years, you have been formed within a special educational environment, you have been surrounded by, supported, and mentored by special people, and you are members of a special class, the GREAT Union College Class of 2018. Lean on this experience, this place, and your classmates, when life inevitably disorients you. Lean on this experience, this place, and your classmates, when you need re-centering or reminding of just who you are and what you bring to the table. Lean on this experience, this place and your classmates as you re-establish civil discourse in divided communities. Lean on this experience, this place, and your classmates as you update, repair, and reimagine those fundamental social institutions that are failing to keep up with change.

Yes indeed, Class of 2018, let Union be your Hadley’s Quadrant. You are equipped to face the challenges ahead of you and the world needs you and what you bring more than you know.

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