Convocation remarks by President David R. Harris

Publication Date

Every Sunday evening, I look at my calendar and consider what will occupy my time over the coming week. Often, I also look back at what I thought I would be doing the previous week. I never cease to be amazed by how often the previous week was dominated by something unexpected, something that required me to pivot in directions I could not have anticipated. In preparing for this address, and for the start of the academic year, I was thinking about my weekly exercise, albeit at a different level. One year ago, I delivered a convocation address that previewed a year of finalizing our strategic plan, of pursuing the resources required to achieve our vision, and of taking actions that would raise Union to even greater heights.

Looking back, it's clear that last year was not that straightforward. We did complete our strategic plan in October, launched a capital campaign in February with the largest gift in Union's history, $51 million from Mary and Rich Templeton, and we made progress on key aspects of our strategic plan. Students learned more about themselves in the world, both in and beyond the classroom. Faculty excelled in research and scholarship that enabled them to contribute substantially to knowledge, policy, and practice, as well as in the classroom. Staff combined creativity and determination to keep our campus and community functioning in ways large and small.

But just as is the case of my calendar, our most recent days, weeks, and months have been dominated by challenges, opportunities, questions, and decisions that none of us foresaw in September, 2019. The rapid emergence of COVID-19 as a global pandemic disrupted what we hold dear as a community, but how we've handled this disruption has made me proud of them ever to be Union's 19th president. Students have persevered through a term that deviated from expectations, yet they continued to stay connected to one another, to faculty and to staff. Over the past several days, while wandering around campus, I've encountered returning and new students who, despite the unusual circumstances, they exude joy, anticipation, and yes, a little uncertainty in ways that are both familiar and much appreciated on a campus that has been too quiet for too long.

Faculty and staff have put aside some of what they planned to do over the past six months so that they could pursue new and innovative ways to achieve familiar goals under very uncertain and unfamiliar conditions. They did so while caring for sick or vulnerable friends and family, while juggling parenting and work responsibilities as primary and secondary schools and extracurricular activities closed, and managing the many other stresses associated with the global pandemic. Throughout, countless members of our campus and alumni communities focused on what they could do to ensure that their Union brothers and sisters, as well as this school we all hold so dear, would thrive and not just survive.

The financial consequences of the pandemic limit the ways we can acknowledge what you've all done, but on behalf of the college and all who are part of our community, I extend my heartfelt and sincere appreciation. Thank you.

Now, as we begin this new academic year, we see both the fruits of our labor, and that the year ahead will require unparalleled commitment, flexibility, patience, and goodwill. It will require that we follow health and safety protocols at all times, not just for a few weeks or in some circumstances.

Among other actions, first, we must wear a mask when six feet of distance cannot be maintained outdoors, or when we are inside and not in our private rooms or offices. Second, we must seek to remain six feet of distance from others, regardless of whether we're indoors or outside, and regardless of whether everyone's tested negative for COVID-19. We must remember that a test tells us whether we've been exposed up to that point, but provides no information about any subsequent exposure. Third, we must avoid gathering in large groups. Fourth, we must attest, before engaging the campus, that we do not have symptoms associated with COVID-19, and must not come to work or leave our residences if we suspect we're ill. Fifth, we must participate in regular testing if we'll be on campuses term. And sixth, we must remain vigilant, even when doing so has become tiresome, and when we, as individuals, suspect the risks may have faded.

This year will be like no other in Union's history, as we began and perhaps end an academic year with severe limitations on our interactions. This will be the year in which we continue to identify what's most important to us and use our collective wisdom to find new ways to achieve it while keeping one another safe. It will be the year that demands a novel, all-encompassing Union College challenge that none of us would have selected. We must become comfortable being uncomfortable. We must celebrate our victories, support one another when we stumble, and in the process, develop insights into ourselves and one another that will enable us to thrive as individuals and as a community, now and for many years to come.

We've all heard about colleges and universities that have faced COVID-19 outbreaks over the past few weeks, and we've also heard about many that have been forced to end on-campus activities. What we hear about less is those schools that are, at least thus far, proceeding with very few infections and very little spread. The difference is partially attributable to luck, but it's also the result of planning and actions by the school and by every individual. We are starting this year in person. With your partnership and persistence, I remain confident that we can also complete the year on campus.

So what I've described thus far is necessary for a successful year, but it is far from sufficient. The goal of our year is not to survive the myriad challenges COVID-19 presents. It is to achieve our shared vision for Union College in the time of COVID. We must be a college that is deserving of the exceptional staff, students, and faculty who have joined our community. We must achieve individually and collectively the goals established as part of our strategic planning process. We must remain motivated in the future by what motivated us in the months before COVID-19 dominated conversations in every part of the world.

This must be a year when we continue to ask fundamental questions about diversity, inclusion, and equity. When we accelerate the work that has been underway at the college for decades, and that was the focus this summer, of our Race, Power, and Privilege Presidential Initiative. We must balance our love for Union and all it has enabled with a frank acknowledgment of the cultural ruts that have been worn into this campus over the more than 225 years in which our conception of inclusion was far narrower than what is required now and will be required in the future. We must understand how these ruts, in what is considered a typical Union experience, enable some to have relatively smooth and assured paths through Union, while others persevere despite a daily struggle for acceptance of their identities, their experiences, their perspectives, and their centrality in Union's story. We must act with wisdom, empathy, courage, and impatience to change Union, not so that it is unrecognizable, but so that it recognizes fully and equally the preferences, passions, and contributions of all who call this campus their home.

This must be the year when we deliver on the potential enabled by the Templetons' transformative gift to establish Union College as the place for undergraduates who want the depth to be an accomplished engineer and the breadth to be a leader. It must be the year when we leverage existing and new resources to definitively and unambiguously establish that attending a liberal arts college with engineering and computer science provides unparalleled opportunities to prepare to lead across multiple tomorrows, regardless of whether you major in history, biomedical engineering, economics, chemistry, or combinations of these and other disciplines that some would find peculiar.

This must be the year when we deliver on the promise, the full promise of a residential education model, something that COVID-19 has made us value and appreciate more than ever. It's the promise to develop students as whole people through what occurs in classes, enhanced by what they learn and experience in residential halls, through research, on teams and in clubs, and in the local community, and in all the other pursuits that fill the many hours each week that students are neither pursuing their studies, nor asleep.

This must be the year in which we begin to rebalance the faculty's responsibilities as educators with their responsibilities as scholars. The demands of an abrupt move to remote learning, and the necessary closure of campus for several months created an imbalance that is neither desirable nor sustainable. For generations, the reputation of Union College has been enabled, in fact, it's been enhanced by the scholarship of its faculty, by the critical skills and life lessons students learn while working on faculty research projects, and by the synergies of our teacher-scholar model. We must work to be sure that this will continue to be the case despite immediate demands that sometimes pull us in other directions. And this must be the year when we take a long, hard look at the administration of this 225 year old institution. We must ask how structures, policies, and processes enable us all to achieve Union's core mission, both now and into the future. In all this, we must be unafraid to engage with one another in difficult conversations, to ask hard questions, and to listen with respect and with a shared sense of purpose.

So after we do all of this and more, we will gather for next year's convocation in Memorial Chapel. We'll reflect on the 2020-2021 academic year, and we'll see it as a year in which we made real and lasting progress on personal and shared goals, as a year full of joy, as a year in which the aspiration of developing every student to lead with wisdom, empathy, and courage, now and across multiple tomorrows, was solidified. And perhaps as an afterthought, we'll recall there was also the year we faced the challenges of COVID-19 and emerged with our integrity, our community, and our aspirations intact.

Thank you for listening in advance, for your partnership on the unprecedented year that awaits us all.