Convocation 2006

President Mark D. Gearan, Opening Remarks
August 30, 2006

Mr. David Deming, Board Chair, Ms. Maureen Zupan, Vice Chair Members of the Board of Trustees, Dorothy Wickenden, Dave Rickey and his family.  Provost Amott, Deans Baer and DeMeis, Professor Conroy-Goldman, Chaplain Adams, Student Trustees Maggy Sliwinski and Adam Chaput, last year’s recipient of the President’s Medal, Dr. George Abraham.

Members of the Faculty, Staff, our Geneva neighbors and students of Hobart and William Smith Colleges: Welcome.

We begin the academic year with this time-honored tradition of Convocation exercises. Each fall generations of young men and women have traveled from across the globe to this beautiful campus to embark on their intellectual journey. They have come to Geneva for a broad liberal arts education in a residential living and learning environment preparing them for lives of meaning and consequence.

In times of Civil War, world war, social unrest, massive societal inequality, good economic times and the Great Depression—they have come for this beginning. Walk by Professor Ted Aub’s magnificent sculpture of Elizabeth Blackwell that graces the Quad—it quotes a letter Blackwell wrote in 1947 from Geneva: “I cannot help but congratulate myself for having found at last, the right place for my beginning.” 

And so, too, for us on this glorious day like generations past, we pause to come together as a community—faculty, staff, students, Genevans—to mark our start and our beginning.

Our graduates have gone into the world utilizing their experiences from inside and outside the classroom to make a difference in their professions, their communities, their families. So we begin today with gratitude to faculty members, staff and students—past and present—who have distinguished Hobart and William Smith.

We gather intentionally as a community—the Board of Trustees, our faculty, staff, coaches, students. This is a place filled with the energy of colleagues who have taught and supported students for decades as well as a place welcoming new faculty and staff for this academic year. This is usually the time of year when Music Professor Nick D’Angelo reminds me that he has been teaching here at the Colleges longer than I have been alive.  From our library staff to dining services to administrators across campus–we all benefit from their longstanding commitment.

We take this official start of the year to hear from a distinguished speaker–Dorothy Wickenden, William Smith Class of 1976 and the Executive Editor of the New Yorker. I invited Dorothy to campus with respect for her important role in our national dialogue on key issues and her continued commitment to her alma mater. Dorothy knows us well and her experience here as a student and how that has informed her work as one of our nation’s top journalists will be instructive.

We will recognize her many achievements with the awarding of the President’s Medal—and remind all of us going into this year of the importance of civic engagement, the value of ideas and civil discourse on the critical issues of our time.

Inspired by Ms. Wickenden, we will have the chance to do our part in examining important issues of the day—in the classroom, at the Fisher Center lectures, at the Genocide Series and during the President’s Forum lectures and Radio Show.  Many ways to examine issues, hear from others, form your own opinions.

We are fortunate to have Mr. Dave Rickey join us as well. A Geneva native and son of a son of Hobart, Mr. Rickey and his wife have turned their lives to important philanthropic efforts, and we will recognize his commitment to his hometown with the President’s Medal.

Mr. Rickey stands as an example of someone who has reached across the arc of time in his lifetime—to give back quite literally to this community its schools, its library and Boys and Girls Club. While others have moved on and out—Mr. Rickey has never forgotten his Geneva roots.

Like Mr. Rickey, we will have the chance to involve ourselves in Geneva this year. Our first-years started Saturday with service work in the community. Our Day of Service will be on October 14 for the entire community. The Public Service Office in Trinity Hall is an active place to find ways to make a real difference in the lives of real people.

For the Colleges this is an extraordinary moment in our history. I make this bold statement out of my belief that we have the chance to build upon the energy and success of recent years and deepen our commitment to the values we hold important. We are in a fortunate position to take on these responsibilities and confidently address the challenges we have as well. I am confident about the future for Hobart and William Smith for many reasons.

First, we have a remarkable group of volunteer leaders in our Board of Trustees who work with other alums, parents and friends of the Colleges in a shared commitment to our success. At its spring meeting, the Board of Trustees elected David Deming, Hobart Class of 1975, to serve as its Chair, following the successful tenure of Mr. Charles Salisbury, Hobart Class of 1963. With Ms. Zupan and others, David Deming will bring his many skills and unfailing commitment to Hobart and William Smith, and we thank you for taking on this assignment.

I am confident because of the distinguished faculty who bring a remarkable commitment to our students’ success in their classroom and labs. I now have the benefit of seven years of conversations with our alumni and alumnae across the country—and can report on the defining experience that our alums have in their engagement with our faculty and the transformational opportunities they enjoyed as students here. New faces join us this year to forge this new chapter in our institutional history and we welcome them.

I believe our future is an especially bright one because of the extraordinary staff colleagues we have at the Colleges. Their commitment to our students is obvious as they actively join in mentoring students in a variety of ways.

And I am especially confident for our future because we begin this academic year with a dynamic student body. As you know, the Classes of 2010 came to campus on Friday drawn from one of the most selective admissions cycles in our history, and they have, in turn, made their own history with their robust size, strong academic preparation and impressive co-curricular leadership skills. Welcome to the Classes of 2010.

Allow me the chance to offer my own perspective for the year ahead, to outline some of the critical projects we must undertake or continue and how we can all join together to make a difference here.

At a strategic level, this is a critical year for us to advance the roadmap we worked on together. Our commitment to excellence must motivate and inspire all of our work. We have set a course to be known for the quality of our students, faculty, staff and graduates.  With our 2010 plan, we must insure that we meet this test and recruit the next generation of students from around the country and the world to reflect the diverse community we aspire to be. We must insure that we prepare for this with faculty and staff support and appropriate physical spaces for academic, residential and administrative needs. And we must engage our alumni, alumnae and friends of the Colleges in our aggressive plans for a world class liberal arts institution set in this marvelous place committed to the values of service and equity and global understanding.

Recent initiatives have shown impressive results but we must work together for the next level of excellence at the Center for Global Education, the Center for Teaching and Learning with our new Director Dr. Susan Pliner, the Finger Lakes Institute and its promise to make an important environmental difference in our region and the Salisbury Center for Career Services.

For the first time, we begin this academic year with a newly renovated Admissions Center to welcome prospective students and their families to learn more about HWS. Let us use this new Center as the vehicle to continue our ascent among the nation’s top liberal arts colleges and work to inure that we will offer our distinctive education to young men and women from any background based on their promise to achieve rather than their ability to pay.

This year we welcome Professor Eugen Baer as the interim Dean of Hobart College. With Dean Baer and Dean DeMeis, we have two longtime faculty members with vast experience at the Colleges. I am confident that we can use this year to design a 21st century approach to student services while enhancing the heritage and vitality of our two college system.

With creative new programs in our Learning Communities and Common Ground program we have fresh thinking and initiatives that will serve us well as we move forward.

Next, our community has been engaged in an extensive effort to address our technology and operational needs for students, faculty and staff. This has been taxing for many and it will continue to be hard work, to be sure. But we must keep sight of the fact that our 21st century campus can only move forward with these investments and critical implementation. Last year at this time, I noted that this will be starting, and I am grateful for the progress to date. 

The year ahead will require key decisions for our campus plant and facilities so that we’re prepared for our strategic direction to welcome new students, faculty colleagues and staff. 

As we plan for the future, we will have the rare privilege to be a part of history here as we open the renamed de Cordova residence Hall and in November officially dedicate the Goldstein Family Carriage House and the Katherine D. Elliott Studio Arts Center at Houghton House.

I am committed to use this year to deepen our resolve to diversity and in the weeks ahead I will be speaking about a campus wide committee to work with me on this mission-central topic.

Our community will be strengthened with our involvement in the observance and celebration of the William Smith Centennial that we mark this year for the early charter and formal year of 1908. Anniversaries offer us the chance to recall our history and energize us for the next set of challenges.

Critically important for our aspirations this year will be the success of the Campaign for the Colleges, which we will launch on September 21st in New York and here in Geneva on November 4th. This multi-year campaign will garner the resources necessary to build our endowment to insure greater access and excellence as well as address the capital deficiencies on our campus—from the performing arts to a true campus center. This campaign begins with inspiration from our achievements over many years and with a commitment to generations to come.

And finally for students—it is ironic that we welcome the Executive Editor of the New Yorker to these ceremonies since last year I read an article by Nichols Lehman in the New Yorker regarding my college roommate, Hugh Hewitt. Some of you may recall that I had noted our lifelong friendship despite our wildly different political beliefs. 

The point remains with me this year in my hope that you will utilize your time here and take advantage of the many experiences. The writer Paul Loeb invokes the image of his cross country coach urging him to get beyond his individual comfort zone - the pace at which he could run forever but would never win a race. It’s a good image for me, and I invite you to think about it this year.

Get out of your comfort zone. It might the comfort zone of your political party.  It was for me. It might by your team, your dorm, your club. Take advantage of the many experiences here that count: inside the classroom with a talented faculty; around the world with our expansive study abroad programs; with athletic teams, club sports, organizations and activities; in Geneva with the myriad ways to serve and make a difference; in thinking about internships and your next steps. This is a place of limitless possibilities for you. Seize the day.

Recall the words of Gloria Steinem:

“As for who we will be - the answer is:  We don’t know… But we do know that growth comes from saying yes to the unknown.”

We all have a remarkable privilege being here at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva at this time. We have the chance to build a community and embark on this journey of learning and living together.  We have the chance to say to ourselves and the world that we fashioned an exemplary community that learned from each other, invested in each other and cared about each other.

When the Nobel Prize Winner John Hume visited campus for the President’s Forum, he noted that inscribed on US currency is the Latin phrase “e pluribus unum”—out of many, one. That, is seems to me, is our opportunity this year. How can we come together from our many different perspectives and learn from each other to form a true Hobart and William Smith community.

This summer I was fortunate to spend a vacation in Ireland with my family. In visiting the many historic sites in Ireland that make up is rich history, we visited a cemetery in Cork where Bobby Sands, the 27 year old republican leader, was buried after his 66 day hunger strike.  The marker on his grave carried this quote regarding his struggle:

“Everyone, republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play.  No part is too great or too small.  No one is too old or too young.”

Bobby Sands words are simple, but important. We all have our part to play this year. Whether student or faculty, coach or librarian, B&G colleague or president—we all have a part to play in making this a community of engaged dialogue, active scholarship, competitive play, global understanding and community service.

And like many important efforts, it begins with a single step to reach out to one another, to get out of your comfort zone, become involved and engaged.  That—it seems to me - is the lesson from Dorothy Wickenden, who not too long ago was in your very position beginning her days at William Smith, or Dave Rickey, who grew up not too far away from this campus. Two lessons of engagement in ideas and community that are worthy of our reflection.

Martin Luther King, Jr. always reminded his colleagues:

“Take the first step in faith.  You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

Today is that first step.

With gratitude for our rich history and the important legacy that we are entrusted with—and with excitement about this defining moment in our history—I open this academic year and invite our Student Trustees Adam Chaput and Maggi Sliwinski to the podium.