The Circumstances of Our Pomp
Near the middle of the Inauguration of Mark D. Gearan as the 26th president of Hobart College and the 15th president of William Smith College on October 22, a videotape rolled on the 20- foot-wide screen left of stage. The video was populated by Washington, D.C., notables - media and politicos, mostly - who'd known Gearan as director of the Peace Corps, or before that as a member of the White House staff.
They took turns offering the new president well. Most also seized an opportunity to crack wise.
"Mark Gearan a college president?" asked NBC's Tim Russert. "Come to think of it, no place better to train for dealing with rowdy behavior than the Clinton White House!"
"When I got the message that I was being asked to go on camera to talk about Mark Gearan's presidency," said Representative Barney Frank, "I got a little nervous, because my expertise in discussing presidencies on camera recently has been to defend them against impeachment. I didn't think it was likely that Mark could have gotten in so much trouble so quickly."
Added the syndicated columnist Mark Shields: "Where again will we in Washington ever find the kind of insight Mark Gearan brought to bear on understanding Washington in the early, chaotic, disorganized days of the Clinton White House? It was Mark Gearan, on background, not for attribution, who said, "Watching the Clinton White House staff is like watching eight-year-olds play soccer. They chase the ball but nobody plays position."
No amount of frivolity could distract from the seriousness of the occasion, however. From President Clinton himself: "No one embodies [a] spirit of service and dedication more than Mark Gearan. Mark - or should I say, President - Gearan, congratulations again on your well-deserved honor. Hillary and I thank you for your continued friendship and counsel; and wish you, Mary, Madeleine, and Kathleen the very best on this wonderful new adventure."
There were other signs that this would be something other than a typical inauguration. Having announced that the Chorale would lead the 1,600- member audience in a singing of the alma maters, Master of Ceremonies (and Board chair) Charlie Salisbury '63 paused coyly and then added that a surprise accompanist had been retained.
"Mr. President?" he beckoned, and the honoree himself, an accomplished pianist, left the stage to assume his position at the grand.
Another fresh touch was a procession of 65 international flags that preceded the ceremony in Bristol Field House, carried by HWS students who either hail from or attended programs in foreign lands. This was a nod to the Colleges' emphasis on internationalism.
Yet, for Mark Gearan himself, this was largely a time to proclaim and further the Colleges' legacy. In his comments he invoked Elizabeth Blackwell, and invited the assembled to build on history.
"How we feel today," Gearan said, "may best have been first expressed by Elizabeth Blackwell in a letter from Geneva in 1847: 'I cannot but congratulate myself on having found at last the right place for my beginning.'
"We gather today as the changing colors of fall and the briskness in the air mark the start of a season and the close of a century. As these fine colleges prepare for their second and third century, this Inauguration ceremony symbolizes more than a transfer of leadership, for it also is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on our past as we plan for the future.
"Twenty-five times before us, students, faculty, alums, trustees, and citizens of Geneva have gathered to observe this rite of passage.
"Twenty-five times before us - in times of Civil War, World War, Cold War and no war, single-sex education and coordinate colleges, semester, trimester, Western Civ, Baccalaureate Essay and goals - the Hobart and William Smith family has each time gathered to mark a new moment, a new era, a new chapter in this history of this remarkable institution. . .
"From the first visit of Bishop Hobart to Geneva - coincidentally at the very same age I enjoy today - to the vision of William Smith, we meet today at a different juncture. No longer are we subject to the hair's-breadth escapes of a suspense story. No longer is our future dependent on an act of faith. And while the years ahead demand the unequaled tenacity of our past - and, I would hope, unequaled panache - we reach this point due to the remarkable generation of men and women who have given us this legacy, this history, this moment.
"Do not misread my cheer as sophomoric observations, but join me in rejoicing and celebrating our shared moment. Let us all, together, enter the new century grateful for the past and with an unparalleled excitement to mark our time here together. . .
"The question then for all of us: What then to make of it? How do we honor the past, build upon it, and leave this remarkable place a better place?
"From the 19th-century concerns for accessibility for all economic classes to the 20th-century founding of William Smith College to provide access for women, to the 21st-century imperative of providing access to a diverse student body, HWS has led. And that, as the Psalms proclaim, is a 'goodly heritage.'
"What, then: a presidential inaugural address without stating problems (or, in our 90's parlance, challenges)? Of course there are and will be. Indeed, any institution without challenges is an institution without a future. But as we begin this new chapter, let us commence with an assessment of our strengths and celebrate them.
"Let us build upon our commitment to a liberal arts education, for we know that in the 21st century the skills of effective communication - both written and spoken - critical thinking and argumentation; the ability to reason quantitatively with appreciation for the arts, science, and culture; and an intellectually grounded foundation for ethical judgement and action will be prized areas of knowledge and qualities of mind and character.
"Let us build upon our commitment to community service - an ethic that runs through the very fabric of this institution, dating back to President Jasper Adams, who told students 'never to forget' that while we are 'born to a great, a splendid inheritance . . . there is a corresponding trust. Our fathers have done much for us,' he wrote, `we should do something for the benefit of future.'
"Let us build upon our commitment to off-campus study - a distinction that we enjoy - so that our graduates leave Geneva as global citizens mindful of cross-cultural differences and appreciative of diversity. Into the global economy and the multi-cultural societies they will go as leaders, not only of this great nation, but many others.
"Let us build on our commitment to diversity in our student body and our faculty, for we know that in the 21st century a well-educated man and woman will understand and see our diversity as a strength for our country.
"Let us build on our commitment to a campus life of intellectual vibrancy and options for community engagement from the athletic fields to the stage and dance, from political clubs to the juggling club, for in the 21st century our graduates will benefit from the leadership roles that exist at Hobart and William Smith and the partnership we have with students in the full range of decisions large and small.
"Let us build on the excellence of our faculty. For their years of scholarship and genuine concern for our students we honor them. They have prepared our students well.
"Let us build on the dedication of our staff. From the dining halls to residence hall, the upkeep of our grounds to the care for our administrative matters, we are exceptionally well served.
"For all our colleagues - faculty and staff - they should be honored, for in the 21st century our campus community would do well to observe Mr. Scandling's [Saga co-founder Bill Scandling '49] successful management philosophy cited in his book: Assure employees of fairness and the opportunity for individual self-expression and continuous personal growth.
"Let us build on the phenomenal loyalty of our alumni and alumnae who have supported these colleges with their hearts, resources, and time. From our trustees who exhibit such commitment on an ongoing basis, to a graduate who refers a star student, we have a treasure trove in their commitment. The 21st century HWS must have their ideas and efforts.
"Fifty years from now, a future HWS president will be preparing for his or her inaugural address, and what will be said of our time? Did we honor the past and build upon it? Were we bold? Did we work in community with trust in each other's good faith even while we were disagreeing? Did we seize the opportunities of our real momentum, quality students, financial stability, academic reputation, and tremendous alumni and alumnae support?
"What is important to me is that we will be able to say with truth and humility that we made a difference, that we worked together, that we honored the past, and that we made sure that Hobart and William Smith remained filled with both tenacity and panache. My friends, this is our time. Together, let us seize the day.
"Ladies and gentleman, on behalf of my family I thank you most sincerely for the honor of today's events, the outpouring of good wishes, and the opportunity to be of service. To again quote Elizabeth Blackwell: 'I cannot but congratulate myself on having found at last the right place for my beginning.'"
? Dana Cooke
The Circumstances of Our Pomp
Winter 2000 Pulteney St. Survey