Union College Inaugural Address: David R. Harris

Publication Date
David R. Harris addresses the crowd.

Thank you for that warm welcome. Let me begin by thanking John Kelly and the Board of Trustees for this opportunity, the community for welcoming us so warmly, and my family, especially Anne, for keeping my confidence high and my humility even higher on this improbable journey. I also want to thank all who have spoken and performed today. I want to acknowledge the mentorship of Presidents Monaco and Martin, as well as the kind words and lifelong friendship of Jon Kaufman. Although they are not able to be here today, we nevertheless want to share our appreciation for the many ways President and Mrs. Ainlay facilitated a smooth transition. Looking at the beautiful Nott Memorial, I cannot help but think of President Hull and his dedication to preserving this iconic place. Last, a special note of thanks to Darcy Czajka, Bobbi Nelson, and Pam Guidi from my office, and all of the members of the Inauguration Planning Committee and broader Union community who created this special weekend of events.

Today is a historic day for Union College. In looking at me and the portraits of my predecessors, we can appreciate how far Union and society have come, while also being mindful of how far we still have to go. As we have seen at the national level, whether a barrier has been punctured or broken is sometimes only clear with time.

A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the themes of this address with a faculty member. She mentioned that some members of the Union community had asked her what the purpose of an inauguration is. Everyone understands that there is a new president, but why do we have three days of activities and gather to hear an address? These are good questions. They interrogate the implicit assumptions of this weekend’s events, and even more critically, inquire about the role the president plays at Union College. I also appreciate the questions because they are an excellent example of the core of what we do as an academic institution—subjecting orthodoxy to the scrutiny of those who think otherwise.

So let me begin by addressing the purpose of this weekend. You have already heard other speakers share their reasons for participating today. I would add that this weekend is a celebration of Union College—what it has been, what it is now, and what it can be. It is also a celebration of you, and all of the other people who have shaped this College for nearly as long as the United States has existed. What it is not is a coronation. The president of Union College is the leader of a community. There is much he or she can decide, but the president’s authority is not absolute and his or her perspectives should be questioned, albeit respectfully and constructively.

As I shared with the search committee, I see leading a college as similar to leading a group bike ride. A leader should articulate a vision for where the group will go, and even identify the route the group will take, but unless the leader is flexible and sensitive to the capacities and preferences of the riders, as well as the direction of the winds, the condition of the roads, and the heat of the day, the leader may be quite lonely when he reaches his destination.

Today, I have the pleasure of sharing with you where I believe we should go, and some roads that will get us there. It is not the definitive path Union College will take over the coming years, but rather the framing of a conversation. I need to understand better your dreams and passions, and we all must stay alert to changing conditions that will require us to recalculate our route.

President Fox made a similar point in his 1934 inaugural address, albeit with different imagery. He observed that when one gives an inaugural address, “his testimonies rest on vague impressions gained from distant view, and he speculates upon the future without that rectifying glass whose lenses time and trial alone can grind for him”. It is in this context that I share my perspectives and anticipate eagerly the many ways that our community will engage in healthy discussion in the days, weeks, and years to come, beginning with this evening’s inauguration events.

Learning from My Predecessors

Over the past few months I have spent a lot of time reading about Union College, as well as meeting with students, faculty, staff, alumni, and members of broader communities. I developed the outlines of a vision, but before writing this address I decided to compare my emerging thoughts with those of my predecessors. The idea was not to “cheat” from those who had already completed the assignment and been deemed successful or not, but rather to learn from how they approached the task. I read all 13 surviving Union College inaugural addresses. Seeing the college through their eyes, at the point when they had to articulate their visions, was invaluable. Allow me to share a few observations.

First, much has changed. For example, when President Smith delivered Union College’s first inaugural address in 1796, he did so in Latin.

Second, much has remained the same, probably more than most people would expect. Many presidents, including President Aiken in 1869, have argued for the importance of the liberal arts, in response to pressure for pre-professional and applied programs. Many presidents, including President Fox in 1934, have argued for the importance of small colleges, as large universities have attracted ever more students, attention, and resources. Many presidents, including President Davidson in 1946, have argued for innovation, acknowledging that colleges and universities can sometimes be too wedded to tradition.

Third, reading the inaugural addresses, with the benefit of hindsight, makes clear that laying out a vision requires humility. Despite their brilliance, none of my predecessors knew what the college and its graduates would face in the years ahead. I wanted to scream to President Day, who shared his vision in May 1929, to look to Wall Street in 5 months. I wanted to implore President Fox, who shared his vision in October 1934, to look to Poland in 5 years. I wanted to yell to President Martin, who shared his vision in October 1965, to look to Haight-Ashbury in 1967; to the Lorraine Motel, the Ambassador Hotel, and the Democratic National Convention in 1968; as well as the Watergate Office Building in 1972. I read President Hull’s 1990 address with the knowledge that the world would soon change radically, as the internet became fully commercialized just five years after he shared his vision.

Reading the inaugural addresses also inspired humility for another reason. We live in uncertain times, with many wondering how partisanship, inequality, climate change, globalization, and other challenges will impact America and the world. I don’t have any special insights into where we are going, but I do know that Union College presidents have faced far greater uncertainty in the past. I think of President Smith, who in 1796 offered a vision for Union at a time when British rule was a very recent memory. I think of President Aiken, who in 1869 mapped a course for the college at a time when the country was trying to rediscover what it meant to be one nation. I think of President Bonner, who in October 1974 shared his vision just two months after Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment and removal.

I speak today knowing that there has been much change and much stability across our 223-year history, and that as with any journey, we don’t know what conditions await us. Given this uncertainty, how do we chart a course forward? What will position our community to excel in the future? What will set us on the path to becoming the preeminent, residential, liberal arts college?

It was only a few weeks ago that I realized the key to answering these questions had been in front of me the whole time metaphorically, and now that I wear the Union College medallion, it is in front of me literally. It is just 11 words. Those who have been part of this community know them well. Let me now share my vision, with the help of the 11 words that are our motto. I am confident that as these words have served us well for 223 years, they will also guide our path forward regardless of what twists and turns await us.

Guided by the Motto

Sous les lois de Minerve nous devenons tous frères et sœurs

Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters

Let’s begin by considering the first 5 words: “Under the laws of Minerva”. Minerva is a Roman goddess with multiple domains, but her chief association is with wisdom. The first part of our motto is therefore quite bold, asserting that we are in pursuit of wisdom. I love that our emphasis is on wisdom. After all, what is wisdom? It is something that requires deep knowledge, but also experience and judgment. Acquiring wisdom usually means facing challenges, making mistakes, and learning from them. We all know people who have great knowledge, but are not effective. When we complain about our leaders, our frustration is usually with a lack of wisdom, not a lack of knowledge.

There is a wonderful section in Scott Page’s most recent book that cites and extends a passage from T. S. Eliot’s poem, Choruses from the Rock. Page identifies the “Wisdom Hierarchy”:

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Where is the information we have lost in data?

Wisdom is what will serve our students well regardless of how job markets and cultures change over the coming decades. Wisdom is what will allow our faculty to excel in research and teaching, regardless of how the questions they explore and the students in their classes change in the coming decades. Wisdom is what will guide our staff and administrators to make choices that will benefit not only today’s Union community, but also those who will walk these paths in the years to come.

Some might conclude from this focus on wisdom that there is little value in data, information, or knowledge, and that we should encourage people to pursue wisdom exclusively through a range of experiences. This perspective, which is endorsed increasingly through words and actions throughout our society, is both misguided and dangerous. Data, information, and knowledge are the foundations upon which wisdom is built. They are not always manipulations of the powerful. They are not always something to be negotiated. They are not always fake.

Our students must continue to pursue a well-rounded education, with course work in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, the sciences, and engineering. They must be exposed to a range of theories, perspectives, and methods. They must learn how to make an argument, and how to tell if a point has been proven. We must be more intentional about how courses and time spent outside of traditional academic pursuits align to advance wisdom. The goal of a Union College education is not to enter with a life plan and avoid anything that could possibly disrupt it. Rather, the point is for students to find out who they want to be by exploring many paths. Many of us know that it was a course we did not want to take that opened our eyes to a new path, or helped us better understand why the path we were on was the right one. Students, one goal of a Union education is to prepare for the day when someone asks you why you have committed to your chosen path. That person may even be an older version of yourself. Life is rarely linear and rarely goes as planned. A Union education must provide our students with the skills, experiences, and judgment, in short the wisdom, to face whatever comes their way.

My friend Jon Kaufman shared several observations from our time together as undergraduates, but he spared you the details of my own academic journey. Perhaps because I was a first-generation student with significant financial aid, I entered college thinking that I had to know what I wanted to study and that it had to map directly onto a career. I began in journalism, but after only a few weeks decided that civil engineering was a better path for me. Near the end of my second year I was so unhappy as a civil engineering major that I left college. This crisis of confidence pushed me to reconsider my guiding question. Rather than work backwards from a career to a major, I began thinking about what excited me. I realized that I was passionate about understanding people, societies, and social change. Journalism had addressed my areas of interest, and engineering had satisfied my need for precision and rigor. Knowledge, experience, and adversity combined to give me the wisdom to see that social policy was the path for me. I had no idea that path would lead to this day.

We must also support and encourage our faculty, who often need to learn new approaches or form new partnerships in order to achieve their research and teaching goals. This was a central theme of last night’s academic symposium. Teams that confront complex tasks are more effective when they include people from different perspectives; people who can approach challenges from different directions, and reveal what is obscured from any one perspective.

At Union, there are many examples of faculty who have moved beyond the familiar to develop research and teaching that extends beyond narrow knowledge. One recent example is “The Art & Science of Painting”, which is co-taught by Professors Mary Carroll and Louisa Matthew, and is cross-listed as Art and Art History 205 and Chemistry 90. Another example is the research and course offerings of Professor Lewis Davis. Although trained as an economist, he has expertise in culture, and is developing greater depth in one of the most important and most understudied topics of our time—religion, all from an economics perspective. Encouraging faculty breadth, while not losing sight of the imperative for disciplinary depth, is critical to the future of the college.

What I am describing may sound easy, but all who have tried to pursue the unfamiliar know that doing so usually involves stress. The returns can be great, but so too are the perceived risks. What if I’m the person in the class who needs extra help, instead of the one who answers every question? What if I offend people by asking about their culture? What if I fail?

If we are to achieve our pursuit of wisdom, we must all learn to become more comfortable being uncomfortable. Not only is that what we commit to in our motto—Under the laws of Minerva, it is also our institutional heritage. Union College is one of the oldest colleges in the country, but it was also the first to be non-denominational. Our name refers to the coming together of people from several faiths to form this new college. The founders did not stay in their cultural comfort zones, as did the founders of most other colleges at the time. Drawing on knowledge, as well as trial and error, they discovered a different way to become a leading college.

Our founders identified and achieved a challenge, the Union College Challenge, if you will. As we pursue wisdom, it is incumbent upon all of us to follow their lead. To do so we must learn to become more comfortable being uncomfortable. In the spirit of this Union College Challenge, and in my own pursuit of the laws of Minerva, I have made two commitments for the remainder of the fall term.

First, I commit to listening to a center-right podcast each week and posting my reflections online. The first step in getting out of one’s comfort zone is to acknowledge what makes us comfortable. When I am walking my dog Hershey, I am usually listening to a podcast, and it is often political. Given that I am an African American, I am a sociologist, and I was a political appointee in the Obama Administration, it probably comes as little surprise that my preferred podcasts tend to be center or left of center—New York Times, NPR, Washington Post, Slate.com. Adding a right-of-center podcast to the mix will push me to better understand how others see the world. It will sharpen, and may even change, some of my perspectives.

Second, I commit to taking at least three yoga classes each month and sharing my reflections online. My approach to physical activity has always been to go as fast and as far as my body would take me. As I get older, that is not as far, not as fast, and not as pain-free as it used to be. Yoga has been suggested by my wife for years, but I cannot imagine spending my scarce workout time doing poses in a room. Listening to my wife and my body will likely benefit me physically and mentally. Yoga is also a good complement to my first commitment—right-of center-podcasts. It is likely that I will need to find new ways to stay calm.

Now that I have declared my commitments, I urge you to join me. I encourage everyone in our community, and beyond, to identify how you might stretch yourselves. What can you pursue in your studies, your work, or your personal life that will push you in a healthy and responsible way? What will be your Union College Challenge? I will be using #unioncollegechallenge to share progress towards my commitments, and to seek support and guidance from fellow travelers. I encourage you to do the same so that as a community we can support and celebrate one another. Later this weekend we will share more information about how to get involved in the challenge, as well as how we will recognize those who meet the challenge. For now, I will just say that it involves limited-edition coins. I suspect that through this formalization of the Union College Challenge, we will all become better adherents to the laws of Minerva, and see benefits personally and in our community.

The founders were wise to focus on Minerva, but the second part of the motto is at least as powerful: we all become brothers and sisters. The original motto did not include any mention of sisters. It was only in 2015, during the administration of President Stephen Ainlay, that the motto was expanded to acknowledge that the student body has included women since 1970.

In both its original and revised forms, what I find so powerful about the motto is that it refers to brothers and sisters, not men and women. Men and women is about individuals. Brothers and sisters is about relationships. One can be a man or a woman alone, but brothers and sisters only exist in relation to other people.

I have one sister. We are very different people, but there is a connection that persists despite the distance and time that separates us. Being siblings means that we take pride in one another’s accomplishments, and are there to lend a hand when all is not well. It means that we defend one another from threats outside the family, and help one another navigate challenges within the family. We are honest with one another, sometimes to a fault, but we know that the purpose of the honesty is to make one another better (well, usually). It is instructive that you can change your major, you can quit your job, and you can divorce your spouse, but you cannot formally dissolve your relationship with your siblings. Brothers and sisters are forever.

The emphasis on brothers and sisters in our motto acknowledges that to truly succeed at Union College, and to pursue wisdom, we cannot go it alone. We must learn from one another, and the disparate paths that have led us to this special place. We must ask for help from one another when times are tough, and offer support and guidance when we see someone struggling. We must not forget that the connections we make here will be there for us in the future, and that we have an obligation to do what we can to advance this place and support those who follow us. Like brothers and sisters, our connection to the Union community is forever.

Brothers and sisters is part of our motto. It is an ideal, but it is also a reality. In my short time at Union, I have been impressed by the many examples of our commitment to being brothers and sisters.

I see what it means to be brothers and sisters in the Feigenbaums. Last week I had the privilege of visiting the Feigenbaum Foundation. Sadly, Armand '42 and Donald '46 are no longer with us, but I was able to spend time in their old conference room talking with people who knew them well. Armand and Donald grew up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts during the Great Depression. They were able to attend Union College with financial help. The brothers enjoyed great success professionally, but never forgot the important role Union College played in their lives. When they died, their foundation donated $11 million to Union College. We are proud to have the Feigenbaum name associated with one of our arts spaces, a behavioral economics professorship, a forum that brings world-class speakers to campus each year, an administrative building, and a need-based scholarship for one student in each class.

I see what it means to be brothers and sisters in Eliphalet Nott and Moses Viney. As anyone associated with Union College knows, Eliphalet Nott was our fourth president. He holds the record as the longest-serving college president in United States history (1804-1866). What fewer people know is the story of Moses Viney and Eliphalet Nott. Viney was born a slave in Maryland in 1817. He escaped to Pennsylvania and then found his way to Schenectady, where he met Eliphalet Nott in 1842. Viney worked for Nott as his coachman and messenger, and lived in a small structure on campus. One day, after the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, Viney saw his former master’s son in Schenectady and knew that he was at risk of being returned to slavery. Nott sent Viney to Canada and was eventually able to secure his freedom. Upon Viney’s return to Schenectady, he continued to forge his special bond with Nott. In Nott’s later years, as he became more incapacitated from a series of strokes, it was Viney who gave Nott massages and carried him from his study to his bedroom each night, up the stairs in the house where I now live. Despite Nott’s complicated early relationship with the institution of slavery, he and Viney were able to sustain a twenty-five-year relationship that saw transitions in who received assistance and who provided it.

I see what it means to be brothers and sisters in the Community Pre-Orientation program. Last week I had the pleasure of joining a Community Pre-Orientation group for a morning of service and fellowship at a church on Hamilton Hill. These first-year students and their pre-orientation advisers chose to spend a few days working with their brothers and sisters in the local community. They remarked that they had been warned about going into parts of Schenectady. All observed that engaging with people in the local community forced them to challenge their assumptions, developing a deeper understanding of themselves and others. In the years ahead, we will find new ways to facilitate broader and deeper connections between Union and its surrounding communities. As President Martin observed in his 1965 inaugural address, “In a quieter and slower age, the iron fence that surrounds the 100 acres of this college marked an enclave setting it off from the rest of the world. Today it only marks the bounds of real estate.”

Last, I see what it means to be brothers and sisters in the welcome gift I received from our students. On my first day in the office, there was a beautiful journal waiting for me on my desk. The cover read, “President David Harris. We Welcome U”. I thought it very nice that someone had given me a personalized journal, but I must admit to lamenting that this would be a little-used gift. I am not big on paper, and I do not keep a journal. I then opened the book and discovered both my error, and powerful evidence of how very special this place is.

The first page reads: “This personalized journal is a welcome present on behalf of the student body”. The next page contains a long note of welcome from Sarah Taha ’19, who I later learned organized this project. Next is page after page of welcome messages from students. Many are lighthearted, like the page that includes separate notes from each of the Khazen twins. Some are calls to action, like the message from an anonymous student who asks me to help reduce the amount of racism on campus. There are a lot of invitations from sports teams, clubs, and individuals, which I look forward to accepting, but it will take a little time. The last page is a note from a graduating senior. She writes:

Welcome home! Wishing you all the best as you embark on your Union adventure. Looking forward to hearing and seeing all the positive changes you make to campus. Our students have amazing ideas and I highly suggest that you not only listen to them, but seek them out to encourage positive change on campus. Wishing you all the best.

What is most compelling about these and other stories of Union brothers and sisters is the deep sense of connection and caring that is evident across people, across generations, and across communities. In the years ahead, we must continue to live up to this second part of our motto by ensuring that there are more brothers and sisters of all backgrounds here. Both because what we offer is so special, and because a diverse community benefits all, it would be unacceptable to limit membership to those who are fortunate enough to have been born into privilege. In addition, we must ensure that all are full members of the community and that we push through our stereotypes and discomfort, to appreciate what all members of the community have to offer. After all, that is what it means to be brothers and sisters.

At Union College, students, faculty, staff, and alumni are brothers and sisters in our academic disciplines and professional associations; we are brothers and sisters in our fraternities and sororities; we are brothers and sisters in our sports teams and clubs; we are brothers and sisters with those who share our ethnic identities and class backgrounds. We will continue to be brothers and sisters in these and many other ways, but first and foremost and for the rest of our lives, we are brothers and sisters in Union. Brothers and sisters in Union.

Under the laws of Minerva, we all become brothers and sisters.

Thank you for the honor and privilege of working with all of you to build on what you have created, and what has been created by all those who have walked these paths and loved this community for 223 years. It’s going to be great ride. Onward!