As this issue of Bates Magazine appears, we have welcomed the Class of 2005 to the College. It is a remarkably gifted and diverse group; these new students come to Bates at a time of particular institutional recognition and appeal. You may have learned that the Class of 2005 is larger than we had expected with more students accepting offers of admission than we’ve experienced in the past. In fact, the volume of applicants, the selectivity exhibited in determining membership in the class, and the percentage of those accepting offers of admission and matriculating, each set new records.
As we open our 147th academic year, inspiration is in no short supply. It comes from the ready mix of students returning or starting new; from faculty returning from leaves — if not from the short breaks from their research tasks – to once again give full attention to their students. It comes from those who provide services to our students, as they remind each other of “what we learned last time” and how they might anticipate this issue or the next, for this generation of students. The collective inspiration created at Bates is made so manifest as the new year begins. I’m sure that you recall the excitement and anticipation in your own experience.
Perspective, too, is an important lesson of the season. In my remarks to the new class, I told them how a common element of conversation, early in the academic year, is often one faculty member’s comment to another: “I met my first-year seminar students; you won’t believe that they didn’t recognize Janis Joplin, or the Tet Offensive. It’s all part of pre-history for them: the civil rights movement, World War II, and hula hoops.” (I was reminded myself that these students, born in 1982 and 1983, have no recollection of Baltimore winning a World Series!)
Indeed, as we come together each fall, we are reminded of the importance of differing perspectives and experiences. We learn again that there’s a difference between living it and reading about it. The students who arrive in the fall bring to our community a wealth of experiences and interests not all shared by those already here. Because they are not all shared, they are more interesting and more valuable, not less so.
A common perspective, however, is to expect the demands at Bates to be unreasonable — at least students will initially consider them so. They will be expected to read more, to write more, to criticize more, to analyze and synthesize more than they think any reasonable person should expect.
I told the new students that Bates is a demanding place; and it ought to be. What they offer as best efforts will often be returned with the request that they do better — if they don’t have that experience, they’ve been cheated. Colleges like Bates that profoundly care about education make profound demands. As students, they shouldn’t strike a bargain for less.
I share with you, alumni and friends, the same admonition. Our achievements are profound; and our inspiration to excel permeates who and where we are as a College — at the center — and we ought not to bargain for less.
Our strengths have always been in the ideas, the culture, and the people who comprise the College. We have relied on our collective aspirations and spirited good will. As the recent New England Association of Schools and Colleges reaccreditation report concluded, because we are “egalitarian, respectful of every individual, becomingly modest…, wary of adornment,” as well as broadly consultative, participatory, and academically rigorous, we are appreciated as “a College of genuine excellence.” All the while, the report noted, we are “aware of the limitations imposed by a comparatively small endowment.”
I recently visited with presidents of many of our overlap institutions, reviewing the direction of challenges to our institutions. Coming away from those discussions was a shared judgment of Bates’ stature. Heard were exactly the themes you have thought central to the College: “Bates appeals because of its ethos, yes; but most important is that it is a College that ‘works the student’s head.’ Its expectations of academic rigor and achievement distinguish it.”
The momentum and direction of the College are extraordinarily positive, confirming Bates’ objective of claiming the center of what it means to excel as a residential liberal arts and sciences college. Our qualities and values, and our focus on intellectual achievement, egalitarian tradition, and commitment to service are vitalized by the scale and character of our campus. Combined with the strengths of our faculty, students and curriculum, they reinforce the energy and diversity of the community.
To continue to excel, we must continue to progress, and where we deem it wise, to change. We must add to the contexts for learning, both on and off the campus. We must be better at helping students find and make connections among what is now present, as well as to what they forge beyond Bates. We must be clearer regarding how “learning here” is reinforced by “learning away” and by “learning beyond” Bates.
We must deepen our understanding and use of service-learning and the opportunities for applied research. We must consider how the College is extended into the Lewiston-Auburn community and how the community permeates our place. We must continue to lead in exploring how new technologies enhance our efforts and those of our students: Web-based discussion groups, new forms of collaborations, and online access to multiple resources. And, we must consider and design the opportunities and expectations of residential life and an engaged academic community for the next generation of our students.
As we strengthen the College’s community of interests and expectations, we do so, in part, by gaining greater diversity. We must succeed in drawing students, faculty, and staff from the nation’s deep and extended pools of talent, and use the integrity, size and quality of our community to create a context in which we honor differences as a standard of excellence.
Staying at the center of what it means to be an excellent liberal arts college requires that we serve as the center — as the point of energy or confluence that moves or influences the greater part. We must influence the extended community beyond the campus — locally, as well as being a national and international leader. We must generate aspirations through the practice of our being both apart (from conventionality) and connected (to the potential of the several rings of community).
We must practice using the energy of the center to locate and to encourage the tension of competing forces and ideas. The values and ideals we champion are all at the center. It is the only place for the College to be.