Mark Gearan

September 1, 2014
Mark D. Gearan

Chair of the Board of Trustees, Maureen Collins Zupan, Provost Ufomata, Deans Baer and Gallouët, Student Trustees Caroline Demeter and Nick Stewart, Professors Newell and King, Chaplain Lesley Adams, and our distinguished guest Dr. Christopher Beyrer.

Members of the faculty, staff and students of Hobart and William Smith and our Geneva neighbors… Welcome to Convocation.

On this Labor Day, we especially honor the working men and women of this country.

We honor the workforce who have served Hobart and William Smith for nearly two centuries and who in many ways – both literally and figuratively – have built this institution.  Their dedication and commitment have allowed for the opportunities we enjoy today, and we thank them and honor them on Labor Day and every day.

Today we gather in a beautiful place, in an area where ancient glaciers carved bodies of water into the land millions of years ago creating the rolling hillsides and lakes we now call home. In this spot is the ancestral home of the Seneca Tribe of the Iroquois Nation whose system of democratic governance influenced the creation of the United States Constitution.  Just a few miles down the road is Seneca Falls, the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement that led to a revolution of equality and to the creation of William Smith College. Look around at the homes and farms that line the streets and roadways of Upstate New York and you will see important stops on the Underground Railroad to freedom.

And this is where we begin this year’s academic journey, surrounded by nearly 100 flags representing the home countries of students who have traveled to Geneva for their education, and the countries where our students are today studying abroad. 

We are joined by the dedicated faculty of the Colleges whose commitment to students is matched by their intellectual agility and desire to do good and relevant work. We are joined by our staff who have devoted their professional lives to ensuring that Hobart and William Smith thrive.

We gather to begin the academic year and to welcome our first year students and new faculty and staff to our community. Welcome to a place that Professor Nan Arens described this summer as one that values the search for the intersection of compassion and justice. Welcome to a place that cherishes equality and democracy, to a place that makes the study of gender central, and to a place that celebrates difference in all its forms.

But we begin this academic year with a challenge.   And one that will require a shift in our individual and collective behaviors and thinking.  This summer, our campus received significant national media attention as Hobart and William Smith were drawn into the center of the nation-wide dialogue regarding sexual assault on college campuses. As an institution of higher education that always strives to improve, our response must mirror our mission – to seek advancement and knowledge and to provide leadership on a defining social issue. And as we acknowledge that the Colleges have systems, policies and caring professionals that exceed the standards at many other institutions, we are called to do more. We are called to be better.

I recall the honor of hosting Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai when she came to campus in 2008 to accept our Elizabeth Blackwell Award.   Dr. Maathai knew our campus well, of course, since she sent two of her children to Hobart and William Smith.  Dr. Maathai said: “There are opportunities even in the most difficult moments.”  She would know. She fought intolerance and ignorance to create a movement in Kenya that has spread around the world, one in which peace is inexorably tied to environmental justice and sustainability. She was a firm believer that even small acts – the planting of a tree, for example – can make a long-term difference, changing the trajectory of a person, a nation, and even the planet.   The Nobel Prize Committee recognized this by making her the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

I have kept Dr. Maathai’s words close in the past several weeks as I have joined with many members of our community to identify opportunities in this difficult moment.  And I have been heartened by the outpouring of ideas and support from students, faculty, staff, parents and alums, who have worked in collaboration and in good faith. They all seek to make this great place an even better place.   And so we have expanded our Title IX office, revised our policies, increased training around sexual misconduct and bystander intervention, and identified a suite of tasks designed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of students. Importantly, we have begun the hard but essential work of moving beyond mere compliance with the law to the creation of a campus model that values inclusion and social justice. The momentum behind this work has been purposeful and forward-leaning, and I am grateful to the many in our community who have made this a priority.

But I believe we can and should do more - for we have a strong history of exceeding the required.  Indeed, advocacy is a defining part of the history of Hobart and William Smith Colleges. We have an environment that values critical thinking and empathy toward one another. The Colleges had the first programs in LGBT studies and men’s studies in the nation. Our women’s studies and Africana studies programs were among the first in the nation. More recently, we have created a social justice minor and committees that have looked at inclusive excellence.  Students have rallied around a new effort – Hope Happens Here – designed to foster an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion. These efforts over many decades have resulted in significant, measurable change on our campus. But it’s time to do even more.

In reviewing the work we must accomplish, I recalled a pod of first-year seminars that previously existed at HWS titled “A Culture of Respect.” That phrase resonated with me as I believe we must think about our overall campus climate – and the challenges that exist here as well as in society at large.   From class, to race, to sexuality – underneath all of these challenges to building a sense of community is the need the imperative for greater respect.  A culture of respect. It’s time to reaffirm our history, to capture the energy of this moment and foster a culture of respect on our campus.

A culture of respect is one in which empathy, civility, diversity and truth are valued and practiced.

A culture of respect in one in which we seek to see the world from multiple perspectives,

to participate in dialogue that lifts understanding and that cultivates a practice of listening,

to understand marginalization and isolation as the byproduct of prejudice and hate,

to show leadership and intervene even when it is inconvenient and especially when it is difficult,

to fight oppression while we also guard against bigotry in our own thoughts and actions.  

But we cannot cling to abstracts. If we want to be better, we are called to do more.

And so today – I call upon the entire HWS community – students, faculty, staff, alums – to join in this effort.  I challenge all of us to engage in the honest, robust and respectful dialogue that will be required to model programs and initiatives to better serve our students.   We have the opportunity to be leaders in this contemporary social issue – honoring our legacy of engagement and activism.  We have the opportunity to channel our renewed focus and energy on these issues and create the campus community that we all aspire to be a part of --- embued with respect, empathy, civility and compassion.  One that truly prepares students to lead lives of consequence.   I will ask everyone to join us in this effort.   We need your ideas and perspective.

Our full campus dialogue must address five areas that will be essential for our enhanced culture of respect. 

First, as all of higher education joins with policy makers and others to address the issues of sexual violence – how do we create a climate of safety and respect that engages appropriate social behavior while addressing necessary interventions around high risk behavior?   How do we insure that all students feel protected with policies and procedures that are fair, understood and compassionate?    How can the entire campus be engaged with training and awareness assisted with technology and the benefits of a campus climate survey?

Second – as the Colleges commence a campus master plan – how can we insure that our physical spaces, social, academic, and residential foster a culture of respect?   How can we plan to enhance what is already a beautiful campus and insure that it meets the needs of 21st century student life?

Third – how can we take advantage of our nearly 200 year history of progressive movements and tackling intolerance through what is learned in the classroom and outside the classroom?   As coordinate colleges, we are in a unique position to leverage the heritage and the reality of gender based support to our students.   How can we utilize that legacy for today’s and tomorrow’s Hobart and William Smith students?

Fourth – In a campus that appropriately prizes debate and pursuit of the truth – how do we foster civil and respectful dialogues across our differences?   How do we utilize the benefits of social media while thwarting the deleterious aspects of the medium?   How do we model civil discourse that allows for these hard but essential conversations?

And Fifth – as our faculty reviews the curriculum this year, how do we insure that the academic program continues to inspire us individually and collectively and enhance our culture of respect?  How can our curricular options add to our understanding of these issues with a deepened understanding of today’s world, economy, demographics and privileges.

In the coming days, I will appoint a Steering Committee comprising students, faculty, staff and alums who will guide our efforts.   All campus constituencies must be engaged if we are truly to have the kind of inclusive dialogues that are essential.   And let’s be honest with ourselves:   the summer months have left us with a desire, a yearning, a demand for meaningful change.   But it has also left us with an opportunity to engage these topics of campus culture with purpose and conviction.    Let us seize that opportunity.

This responsibility may seem immense – but it is also exciting.   We have the chance to enhance the culture of this very special place and model a campus dialogue that honestly discusses these issues.  As Dean Baer frequently reminds incoming first year students –  they have just four Falls and four Springs on this campus.   In many respects – a short time.   But an essential time for us to get it right.    And that is our charge.   In so doing, we will bring honor and authenticity to our oft stated goal:  preparing students to lead lives of consequence.

And so I open the academic year with enthusiasm.   I am grateful for the engaged work of so many of our students, faculty and staff.  I am grateful for the leadership of our Board of Trustees and alumni and alumnae networks.  And I am grateful for the kindnesses extended to my family in recent weeks.

We have work to do.   But take pride in the dedicated faculty, staff and alums who are committed to this place in substantial ways.   Take energy from the dynamic student body – those newly arrived and returning students…

And be inspired by this moment as we embrace our collective work to ensure that we learn, teach, work and live in a culture of respect.

Thank you and good luck this year.