2009 Convocation

Sept. 8, 2009, Memorial Chapel

College Marshall Finlay, Board Chair Messa, Faculty Executive Committee Chair Walker, Student Forum President Haviland-Eduah, Dean McCarty, and all members of our Union community: Welcome to the start of the 2009-2010 academic year!

I must begin with a confession of sorts. Last spring, as we were approaching ReUnion and Commencement, I made a pact with the weather gods. I pledged (far too casually as it turns out) that if we could just get good weather for these two events, I wouldn't ask for anything more during the summer. Well, whoever was listening seems to have taken me at my word, having delivered stunning days for ReUnion and Commencement and an extraordinarily wet rest-of-the-summer for everyone living east of the Mississippi river. I had no idea that my simple request for a couple of nice days would have such an enormous impact on so many people for so long!

First, let me add my greetings to all the new members of our community. I want to welcome the new employees of the College. I hope that you will find Union to be a hospitable community, one that provides you with ample opportunities for fulfillment. I also want to welcome our newest students members of the Class of 2013. You join a vibrant learning community and I hope that this will be a time of remarkable intellectual growth for you.

I want to congratulate Connie Schmitz once again for being the recipient of the UNITAS Community Award. One of our virtues as a small liberal arts college is that we are a community and, like all communities, we are made stronger by the contributions of our members. Connie has done so much, not just beautifying our historic campus but in cementing relationships. I want to commend Bill Zwicker, this year's recipient of the Stillman Award for Excellence in Teaching. If you read the September issue of the Union Magazine, with its focus on alumni/ae of the College who are in the film and television world, you will note that every one of them talks about faculty members who made a difference. In presenting Bill with the Stillman Award, we celebrate the difference he has made as well as the difference Union faculty in general make to the experience of our students. Finally, let me thank Heidi Ching, this year's recipient of the Hollander prize. Heidi is an exceptional talent and I am very grateful to her for the many ways in which she has shared her many gifts with us.

I am now in my fourth year as Union's President. For those keeping track, I have served longer than Union's second President, Jonathan Edwards, Jr., longer than Union's third President, Jonathan Maxcy, longer than Union's fifth President, Laurens Perseus Hickok (that is, if you don't count the time he supported Nott's final years as President), and longer than our sixth President, Charles Augustus Aiken. I am, roughly speaking, tied at three years with Union's first President, John Blair Smith and I am approaching the service records of Frank Parker Day and Thomas Bonner. In short, I can no longer lay claim to being Union's new president.

The length of my tenure has been sufficient enough to give me an even clearer sense, than when I first arrived, of where we stand as an institution, in terms of both our strengths and the challenges we face. We are blessed with a historic and beautiful campus and an impressive legacy of educational innovations. Over our 215 years, members of our faculty have distinguished themselves as teachers and scholars, making important discoveries and advancing knowledge in their fields while changing students; lives. We have and continue to attract some of brightest students entering college. We have a workforce that is dedicated to this College and that demonstrates care in so many ways. And, Union's alumni have distinguished themselves by their leadership in many areas, including politics, industry, engineering, finance, education, music, energy, law, health care, and popular culture. Thus, we enjoy an enviable position within the academy.

Having said this, if we are to become the institution we want and need to be, I believe we must assert more strongly just who we are, not just to the outside world but to ourselves. We must build more resources in order to better enable and support what we do. We must reorient aspects of our culture that work against our fundamental mission as an academic institution. We must gain a greater sense of our institutional voice. We must have greater self-confidence. And, we must share our innovations, our lessons learned, and our expertise, providing guidance to an academy-at-large that is hungry for leadership and eager to hear what we have to say. Perhaps most fundamentally, we need to assert the primacy of our educational mission and re-center our life together around the academic enterprise.

Joseph Jacques Ramee and Eliphalet Nott, like Thomas Jefferson working in Virginia, conceived of this campus in the early days of the 19th century as a sort of academic village. It's large green, surrounded by a horse-shoe configuration of buildings linked by arcades and anchored by a large central rotunda were all intended to facilitate, in today; language, a learning community.

We are right to remember this vision for Union inasmuch as our identity. Today that image that we hold of ourselves and project to others should remain that of an academic village and learning community. This may seem self-evident. However, this understanding of Union must shape the way that we think about the College, prioritize our time, energies, and resources, and communicate expectations to prospective new members. All members of our community should understand that we are (as our Mission Statement proclaims), a scholarly community, which provides a broad and deep education. We are about the life of the mind. We are about igniting an intellectual flame that lasts a lifetime. We are about intellectual growth. We are an academic village. For me, these are not platitudes; they are marching orders.

For one thing, these assertions imply that we must do all that we can to bring the most talented faculty and students together. Dean McCarty reports that we were once again very successful in our departmental searches last year. We recruited wonderful new faculty, many of whom I met at a reception last week, who will undoubtedly add much to our community. I know this doesn't just happen. I know that hiring well takes time and commitment. I want to commend and thank departments for their successful searches. You have strengthened our village.

Likewise, we have enrolled an extraordinarily talented group of students. Today, you will see students wearing t-shirts with the words to "Ode to Old Union" printed on them. These are members of the Class of 2013.By all accounts, the Class of 2013 is among the strongest classes, academically speaking, that we've ever enrolled at Union.

This is good news after a tumultuous year in higher education, prompted by an even more tumultuous year in the global economy. All in all, Union fared well. We had the third most applications in Union's history, once again hovering around the 5,000 mark. While somewhat fewer students enrolled than our models would have predicted, the class is strong by any academic measure. Over three quarters of the class ranked in the top 20 percent of their high school class; and, the average SAT scores were up 20 points over last year's record setting numbers, with an average score of 1920 (or 1290 on the 1600 point scale). And, they are the most diverse incoming class in our history: 20 percent are U.S. students of color and four percent are international students. With this class, our overall student population is also richly diverse from a geographical standpoint, with students representing 38 states and 34 countries.

From a budgetary standpoint, I should add, that we stayed within our financial aid budget and retain contingency funds to deal with any necessary adjustments prompted by changing family circumstances. Thus, when you add the larger than expected number of students in the Class of 2012 and the increased number of transfer students we;ve had, we remain on a solid financial footing going into this year.

As long as the general economy remains volatile, we will undoubtedly see some volatility in our admissions picture. I want to thank Matt Malatesta and his staff for their efforts to ensure the academic quality of our students and for their commitment to diversifying our community. I want to urge everyone to continue to support the Admission Office;s efforts by participating in open houses and more generally assisting them in their outreach to prospective students and their families. They have ambitious goals for increasing the size of the applicant pool (and hence improving selectivity) and further diversifying Union. It is in all of our interests that we support their work. They too are building our village.

In addition to bringing talented faculty and students together, we must make every effort to preserve, indeed enhance, the student-faculty relationship that develops in the classroom, in the lab, and in co-curricular activities. This begins with ensuring that we have a sufficient number of faculty.

To be clear, I believe that we must increase the size of our tenure-track faculty. Thus, we have set this as one of the highest priorities for our expanded Capital Campaign. I am grateful to the departments which submitted proposals for positions. I am also grateful to the members of the Academic Affairs Council who reviewed and advanced proposals. We now have in hand compelling arguments for new endowed faculty positions that will significantly enhance our academic programs, both disciplinary and inter-disciplinary. And, we have already started discussions about these proposals with potential donors.

These new positions will improve our student-faculty ratio, one measure commonly used by ranking systems to determine the quality of institutions. They will also add important new human resources to support what we are already doing as well as new curricular initiatives. In this regard, I am pleased to report that the State has recently approved new majors in Bioengineering, Religious Studies, Asian Studies, and Environmental Science and Environmental Policy. These newly approved majors will provide important and exciting curricular options to our students.

In addition to adding positions, we must continue our efforts to enhance the spaces within which teaching, learning, and research takes place. The Taylor Music building, dedicated during my first year, has proved an enormously successful project. In addition to being a far better home for faculty and students, it has become a popular venue for all sorts of activities. Emerson Hall, within Taylor, has been a most remarkable venue for jazz concerts, senior recitals, classical Indian dance, Japanese drum concerts, and conversations with the likes of Alan Horn, head of Warner Brothers studios. If you haven;t been to anything there, by all means go.

We broke ground late last academic year on the Peter Irving Wold Science and Engineering Center. This LEED Gold building will, when completed, provide us with more than 30,000 square feet of new space, including much needed office, teaching, and research space. It will better integrate our science and engineering complex and its dramatic atrium will provide views of teaching-and research-in-action and provide us with a new venue for academic programming as well as space for informal meetings between students and faculty. I would urge you to take a look at the website focused on this project which details floor plans and provides a virtual fly through of the planned structure. We expect to dedicate this new building in September of 2011. We have tested for geothermal wells, moved utilities, and completed significant site preparation work already. And construction is not far away. No new building happens without some disruption and I appreciate the patience of the entire community as we create this new and exciting academic space.

In hopes of minimizing disruptions to the same area, we are planning to complete renovations to our Social Science building, Robert Lippman Hall, during the same time frame. This is one of our most heavily used classroom buildings and the planned renovation follows improvements already made in the lower level classrooms and the building;s air-handling systems. Social Science, constructed as it was in the late 1960s, was certainly ready for renovation. I think students and faculty alike will attest to the difference that was made by the earlier improvements and, when completed, the upper two floors will offer greatly enhanced space. I have personally lived through such disruptions while I was a department chair and know that this project too will demand patience.

This summer marked the beginning of the new deferred maintenance initiative approved by the Board of Trustees. Their creative and ambitious plan has already yielded significant improvements to our campus in general and to academic spaces in particular. You will notice, for example, the much improved facade of the Visual Arts building which had stucco applied to its south side this summer. You may not notice, but we made important structural improvements to the main performance space in Yulman Theatre. We also started renovations to the facade of Bailey Hall and are installing a new environmental control system in the Schaffer Library Archives, providing better protection of some of the College's archival treasures.

While these new and newly renovated academic spaces will enhance teaching and learning at Union, there is much to be done. Along with new faculty positions, we have also given high priority to additional academic building projects both new and renovated spaces as part of the Campaign. I will also ask the Planning and Priorities Committee to give high priority to improving academic space if and when contingency funds that have been set aside to weather the economic storm become available for re-purposing.

This multi-pronged approach to improving academic space will allow us to continue to make both steady and sometimes dramatic progress toward building the kind of educational facilities that a vital academic village requires, even as we continue our work to address holes in our operating budget that have resulted from the global economic downturn.

I need pause and take stock of just where that economic downturn has left us. As you know from my communiques regarding Union's own financial picture in the wake of the downturn in the economy, our endowment has suffered. Like all of higher education, we were reminded this past year that endowments are not "rainy day accounts" but rather subsidize the real and current costs of educating men and women. Our endowment has suffered far less than those of many other institutions but it has suffered nonetheless and we have been taking appropriate steps to ensure that the College retains a balanced budget in the years ahead.

As of the end of June 2009, our endowment was down by approximately a quarter of its value a year earlier. We won;t know until October or November what the final value of the endowment was at the end of our last fiscal year but it is clear that 1) our endowment did better than the endowments at many other schools and 2) that our endowment ended in a better position than we would have predicted six months earlier.

I want to commend our Trustee Investment Committee and our advisors. While nobody likes losses, our endowment portfolio has been skillfully managed and our portfolio is appropriate diversified. Unlike many other schools, for example, we had very limited exposure in what are termed "illiquid investments," highly speculative investments which have by and large suffered huge losses. Correspondingly, we have been able to avoid some of the enormous difficulties faced by other schools. I have great confidence in our Investment Committee and we all owe them a debt of gratitude for their steadfast attention to our investments.

Having said this, we will face consequences as a result of the losses we did sustain. The reduced value of the endowment as of June 30 will result in a smaller infusion of dollars into our operating budget in future years. Thus, as I've already informed the community via emails, we've taken steps to reduce our expenditures and will continue to identify areas of cost savings in order to ensure that we continue to operate with a balanced budget. Consistent with my assertion that we must hold to our identity as an academic village and learning community, we have made efforts to minimize the effects of our cost-savings efforts on the academic program.

I want to thank all members of the community for your understanding and I appreciate the many words of support you;ve offered and your affirmation of our decision to try and preserve people's jobs while looking for other cost savings. I especially want to thank members of our Planning and Priorities Committee for all their efforts as well as the efforts of many working groups that have deliberated difficult issues and passed along recommendations to the P and P. We will continue our work to achieve balanced budgets and I will continue to communicate our progress throughout the upcoming year.

Asserting the primacy of the academic experience at Union implies more than adding faculty, attracting academically talented students, improving facilities, and making prudent decisions regarding cost saving moves. We will continue to do all these things and they will help build the infrastructure of an academic village. But asserting the primacy of the academic experience also implies that we dedicate ourselves to being academic villagers. The primacy of the academic experience, in other words, has implications for how we think of ourselves (not just how we think of Union), relate to one another, invest our energies, and spend our time.

As faculty members, we must continue efforts to intellectually engage our students. As I travel the country meeting with alumni of the College, I can't help but be impressed by the number of people who take time to tell me about the difference a faculty member made in their lives. We must never forget, however, the important role that we play in opening the world of ideas for students, in honing their writing, speaking, and research skills, in enlarging their capacity to think critically about the world around them, in helping them work collaboratively (an increasingly important attribute in the world they will enter), and in helping them find that about which they can be truly passionate.

If we are to ensure that students become academic villagers, as opposed to mere academic passer-bys, we must be certain they are engaged. If we are to ensure that students become academic villagers, we must be certain that they are challenged. And if we are to ensure that students become academic villagers, we must ensure that they are well-advised and mentored.

Students-as-academic villagers must commit to thinking of themselves, first and foremost, as learners, engaged in the process of intellectual formation. College life offers many opportunities but you should never forget that your primary status and identity must remain that of a learner. Prioritize your time with that in mind. Seek to get the most out of the classes you take. Relish the opportunities that this College offers and it does so in great abundance to listen to visiting speakers and artists who will further enrich you. And, beware the sirens of the party scene. Avoid the self-destructive and community-destructive behavior that inevitably comes from the excessive consumption of alcohol and substance abuse. Such excesses which have become a sort of epidemic on college and university campuses nationwide threaten the very notion of an academic village. They certainly sap intellectual energy and such excesses make it impossible to be true academic villagers. And, it is through being true academic villagers that you will develop what is perhaps the most enduring and prized quality of those who are liberally educated: that is, a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.

A love of learning that lasts a lifetime: that should be the quality that manifests itself in all of us who staff this academic village. It is not enough to make the trains run on time. We must always remember why the trains are running in the first place and where they are headed. We must ensure that we communicate this notion of Union as academic village in all that we say in our publications and in our decision-making. And, all of us too should relish the opportunity to be villagers and avail ourselves as well of the many opportunities to confront new ideas, be inspired by works of art and music, and to engage in the exchange of ideas. This is why we should prize working in an academic environment.

If we faculty, students, staff and administration commit to these things, Union will be true to the vision of its founders; if we do these things, we will receive support; if we do these things, our academic reputation will be strengthened; if we do these things, our own lives will be immeasurably enriched.

Again, I welcome you all to the start of what promises to be an exciting new academic year. Let it be a year of renewed commitment to our education mission, to our academic village. And, I hope that you will all celebrate our academic village by joining me at the community cookout to be held on Rugby Field immediately following the Convocation.

Thank you.