Convocation

Mark D. Gearan

President Mark D. Gearan
Convocation
August 29, 2016

Our Chair of the Board of Trustees Tom Bozzuto reflected that HWS taught him to become a perpetual student.  And he noted that ‘space – and place – matters’ urging us to find and build the community here with faculty, staff and students.

Dr. Greg Vincent said “HWS changed my life.”  And he urged students to get involved, to be engaged and offered advice that he gave his own high achieving children:  Be yourselves, challenge yourselves to own this place and this community and to build your own Board of Directors.  He reminded us of the golden rule his parents observed to him:  “Treat others as we wish to be treated.”

Hobart Student Trustee Zach Gratten recalled a speech by Wynton Marsalis invoking jazz as a metaphor for the “song of your life” noting that your professors will become the backbone of that song.

William Smith Student Trustee Sydney Gomez recalled her own tearful departure with her mother at Orientation – and how she took ‘leaps of faith’ of involvement taking advantage of all that HWS has to offer and reminded all of us that ‘everything will be okay’.

And Professor Nan Crystal Arens told us that you are here to transform. She urged you to get involved, utilize the dedicated faculty she had stand before you.  And she stated that You are now part of the HWS family and counseled:  “Reach out to any of us.  Anybody you see surrounding you right now.  And we’ve got you.”

All great advice – from the Chair of the Board of Trustees, Student Trustees, Faculty member and Distinguished Alumnus.

Allow me a few final words of reflection.

The year ahead will be an important one for Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  We will engage in important strategic thinking about our future that will inform a leadership change and plans for the next chapter of HWS history.

All of this will be accomplished with a deeply engaged community that has worked tirelessly in recent years to:

Revise a curriculum;
Prepare a Master Campus Plan;
Successfully present our curricular and co-curricular life to peeraccreditors who praised our effort;
Manage our resources prudently amidst challenges in higher ed;
And thought carefully about how to enhance a genuine culture of respect on our campus.

And for me – as we enter this critical year – I take inspiration from our two founders – Bishop John Henry Hobart and William Smith.   They evidence our mission to prepare students to lead lives of consequence.

Consider the life of Bishop Hobart – he came here to what was the western frontier of New York State – and selected Geneva on Seneca Lake as the place to start a college.  It was 1820 and he formed Geneva College, which was later renamed Hobart College in his honor.

Clearly, he was a visionary leader imagining this charge.  He would go on to preside over the New York diocese and ordain the first African American Episcopal priest in New York state – the second in the nation.

Consider William Smith -  Born in poverty in England and emigrating to the United States in his 20s.   He built a successful nursery business here in Geneva and when he was 88 years old – with little formal education; never married and with no children; but inspired by the women’s rights movement in nearby Seneca Falls and Geneva’s own Elizabeth Smith Miller, Anne Fitzhugh Miller and Anna B. Comstock (those names sound familiar to Hill residents?) – he wanted to found a women’s college.  And recall that this was long before women could even vote in our country.

And so for me – Bishop Hobart and William Smith share a common ideal – one of opening opportunities, broadening access and building a better community.

In this context, I am reminded of the powerful words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. who said: 

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Both Bishop Hobart and William Smith represent our ideals of opening doors and opportunities to generations of students – bending that arc toward justice.

While always a goal, has it always been perfect?   Of course not.

But today – we continue to commit ourselves to building an inclusive campus community – imbued with a genuine culture of respect – honoring our heritage while imagining our future.

And for me, that is the excitement that we enter the year ahead – mindful of that proud heritage but also knowing, as President Obama has observed, that that arc doesn’t bend on its own.

Campus visitors will add to our community dialogue in the year ahead.  The author of the common read – Claudia Rankine – will be here to reflect on her book “Citizen” as we discuss important topics of race and class.  Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa who introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act into the Senate delivering part of his speech in sign language so that his brother could understand it – will be on campus to reflect with us the importance of access and disability.

In the classroom and outside the classroom, in the dining rooms and student residences – we have the privilege to collectively work together.

I have been intrigued and have been thinking about the theme of the Fisher Center for the Study of Women and Men this year is “No Place Like Home.”

For in many ways – we can define that home.   This 165 acre neighborhood that we all inhabit.

A recent book by Harvard Professor of Government Nancy Rosenblum, “Good Neighbors – the Democracy of Everyday Life”, discusses the moral, ethical and democratic dimensions of neighborliness dating back to the very concept of good neighbor and John Winthrop’s 1630 admonition to ‘love thy neighbor’.

From literature to philosophical argument, Rosenblum underscores the imperative of home as the place with “no exit” and “an underappreciated moral and psychological phenomenon.”

She writes:  “The phenomenon of neighbor relations so infuses American literature that our greatest writers and thinkers have written about neighbors.  Neighbors are not just people living nearby.  Neighbors are our environment.  They are the background to our private lives at home.”

So let’s begin this year committed to our neighbors here on campus, here in Geneva and around the planet. 

Let us take inspiration from someone who arrived on this campus as a newcomer and faced difficult times when accepted and faced difficult times with her peers – I speak, of course, of Elizabeth Blackwell.  But she persevered and today remains a pride point for the Colleges as the first American woman physician.  

So each time you walk by the beautiful sculpture on the Quad, perhaps each time you are having a challenging day – walk by Professor Aub’s beautiful sculpture and take inspiration from Elizabeth Blackwell’s life.  Take her example of hard work and perseverance.

And recall Dr. Blackwell’s words which are engraved in granite at the base of the sculpture, written from Geneva in 1847.  I have always valued her writing and I hope her words will have resonance today and always for the Classes of 2020.  She wrote:
“I cannot but congratulate myself on having found at last the right place for my beginning.”

To the Classes of 2020 – the beginning you commence today flows from a long and proud heritage.  Take advantage of every day here.  Take advantage of every faculty and staff member who are here for you.  Take advantage of our web of alums and parents dedicated to your success.

For this is a special place.   And you will make it an even better place.

Good luck.

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.