A few months ago, Professor Susan Henking shared with me a fascinating book titled “Coming Together, Coming Apart” by Elizabeth M. Bounds, an assistant professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.
In a chapter titled “Chaos or Community?” Bounds observes the power of the word “community” in today’s U.S. society. “It is invoked in seemingly contradictory places,” she writes, “Among conservative leaders championing traditional values, among blacks trying to reclaim a ghetto neighborhood from poverty and despair; among Christians or Jews describing their congregations, among middle class persons seeking a spiritual experience or connections along the information superhighway.”
Bounds argues that “when invoked in these economically and politically varied locations, community is a powerfully suggestive, yet vague, term. Are all these people who use this word talking about the same thing?” she asks.
In her analysis of the possible meanings and “variety of uses for the concept of community” – she concludes they all “point to a yearning for change from current social conditions, or from what is perceived as the dominant characteristics of contemporary society.” And are “reactions to a sense of uprootedness which is countered by seeking roots/connections through forms of association which preserve particular memories of the past, a measure of stability in the present, and particular expectations for the future.”
As we gather today for Convocation and the presentation of the Elizabeth Blackwell Award to a woman of remarkable achievement -- I suspect we could have a similar discourse on the many varied ways we would describe the Hobart and William Smith Community.
And while we will not settle that matter here and now – it is appropriate at the beginning of our academic year, at a time when many of us – especially incoming students, new faculty and staff colleagues are seeking roots after being uprooted and moving here to Geneva -- that we commit ourselves to build a community of inclusivity, a community of scholars and students and staff joining together in pursuit of academic excellence, a community that rightfully prides itself on tolerance and openness, a community that believes that difference is a leaven that enriches our life together and better prepares us all for the multicultural world in which we live.
A community that works hard to admit students and hire administrators, faculty and staff from states across the country and many foreign countries as well as from all strata of society, both foreign and domestic, and from diverse faith traditions.
A community that is engaged with the issues of our time and is open to different perspectives and serves as a safe space for debate.
A college community that engages with the Geneva community and shares our talents, resources and, in turn, benefits from this exchange.
A community that respects one another in the classroom, in the residence halls, on the playing fields – whether faculty member, secretary, student, president, dean or housekeeper we all have a responsibility to this place – and to each other.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said: “This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited a large house, a great ‘world house’ in which we have to live together – black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Moslem and Hindu- - a family unduly separated in ideas, cultures and interests, who, because we can never again live apart, must learn somehow to live with each other in peace.”
Hobart and William Smith have inherited this large, great house of a campus in which we are fortunate to live. We have the chance this year to build the kind of community in which we can all take pride.
This year as we welcome one of the best prepared classes ever admitted to the colleges, dedicate the Finger Lakes Institute, open new student residences on Emerson Hill, cheer on the Statesmen and Herons, welcome an extraordinary group of new faculty and staff colleagues, implement the recommendations of the Middle States Commission along with our own strategic plan, amass the financial resources to secure our future and enhance the student experience,
Let us all ask ourselves the question: what are we doing to build community at Hobart and William Smith Colleges? How are we working to create the kind of environment of academic excellence that we prize? How are we working to engage each other and our Geneva neighbors?
Today – in this space – we come together as a community to begin our academic year. We have valued the tradition of this Convocation and convened to remind us all of our joint pursuit in the coming year.
But we also gather today to honor an American whose life is a testament to building community – one person, one bridge at a time. Bishop Barbara Harris personifies the qualities of the Elizabeth Blackwell Award and we welcome her to our community – and recognize her many personal and professional achievements.
Convocation Address, President Mark D. Gearan
September 7, 2004