President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks

Publication Date

First, let me thank Jasmine Nakkab, Student Forum President. I’d also like to thank Diane McMullen and the many students who have shared or are about to share their musical gifts with us. Let me also thank the wonderful student speakers and our faculty speaker, Professor Goldner. Thanks is also in order for Emily Tong, Mary D’Amelia, Diane Meyers, 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 special spaces at 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. It is architecturally significant, being a project of the renowned firm McKim, Mead, and White. It’s said they modeled the acoustics after another of their projects, Boston’s Symphony Hall. Perhaps that why chamber music groups all around the world ask one another: Have you played Union? And, Memorial Chapel is the ceremonial center of Union. Notably it’s the place where you sat with your families, were welcomed when you started your Union education. It’s appropriate that we gather here again for your Baccalaureate.

The “memorial” function of the Chapel has expanded over the years such that we now remember here the passing of all graduates of the College – not just those killed in wars – as well as other members of the Union family. We do so again today. The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff who died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program. They are not just names; each has a story. I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. Thank you.

Like our other speakers today, I would like to share some thoughts about your Union experience. I won’t speak long as you’ll hear much more from me tomorrow at Commencement. But I would like to “center you” so to speak and give you an assignment.

I have long enjoyed the writings of Jill Ker Conway. Conway is perhaps best known for her series of autobiographies which began with the memoir, The Road from Coorain – a book that details her journey from a remote sheep station in Australia to her studies at Harvard where she received her Ph.D. in 1969. She went on to teach at the University of Toronto until 1975 when she was appointed the first woman president of Smith College (I should note, by the way, that the first President of Smith was a Union alumnus, Lauranus Clark Seelye). Jill Ker Conway served Smith College for ten years (1975-85) and then became Visiting Scholar and Professor at MIT. She received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama in 2013.

I met Jill Ker Conway when she led the visiting team that conducted the reaccreditation of Holy Cross while I was still there. She was and is a powerful presence.

When I came to Union, a friend bought me another of her autobiographical memoirs – this one called A Woman’s Education: The Road from Coorain Leads to Smith College. That memoir, like her other writings, is powerful and recounts her path to Smith, struggles related to her husband’s illness, and the challenges and joys of her presidency.

In one particularly poignant passage toward the end of A Woman’s Education, Conway recounts telling the Board of Trustees that she was stepping down from the presidency and then walking the campus, back to the President’s House. She said that her usual preoccupation with the things that needed to be done – bricks that needed re-pointing, roofs that needed replacing, etc. – suddenly vanished and she saw Smith as a whole, not pieces to be fixed. She saw it instead as a place of remarkable beauty. She observes “it hit me that I was leaving and that it was going to be harder than I thought.”

You and I share something in common with Jill Ker Conway, a bond of sorts. For me, the worries about deferred maintenance are about to be lifted from me. For you, the next paper, the upcoming test, the physically draining practice – these too have been lifted from you. And, as a result we can more clearly see Union as a whole, not just an assemblage of parts. Yes, we too are leaving and it’s going to be harder than we thought.

For all of us, it has been our great fortune to call Union home. And while the future is full of remarkable opportunities and there is something exciting about things new, there is much about leaving Union that will undoubtedly sadden us. Friendships. Close working relationships with mentors. The luxurious opportunity to discover new ideas and new ways of knowing the world that surrounds us. A campus that changes at different times of day and in different kinds of weather and yet is always striking in its beauty. Yes, we are leaving and it’s going to be harder than we thought.

So here’s the assignment. Over the hours that remain, before I see you tomorrow on the Commencement stage and hand you your diploma, I’d like you to focus on all that has been so special about Union. That can start with this space, think about the special moments you’ve had in this ceremonial center. As you walk out the front doors, take in the majesty of the Nott Memorial. Visit your favorite spots on campus, those places where you sought solace, those places that made the world seem right. Tell those friends you’ve made here just how much their care for you has mattered. Tell those faculty members who challenged and inspired you that it mattered to you. Like Jill Ker Conway, the distractions have been lifted from us – from both you and me. Like Jill Ker Conway, let us take the opportunity we now have to see Union as a whole, as a place of remarkable beauty. And let us all be enormously grateful that we are now able to call it home.

As you fulfill my assignment, don’t be maudlin. The next chapters of your lives will be exciting and you need not leave Union completely behind. You can and should take pride in having completed the rigors of a Union education. You’ve done well, you’ve accomplished much, you’ve given much, you’ve learned much, and you’ve established relationships that will survive the test of time. I can tell you this, I’m grateful to have walked the same path with you on our respective life journeys.

As hard as it is to leave, know that you are ready, we are ready, for the next step and you will always carry Union with you. It will mean a great deal to me to give you your “dip” from alma mater tomorrow.

See you in the morning!