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2002 Convocation remarks

President Elaine Tuttle Hansen

Thank you Dr. Elders, and welcome to the Trustees, faculty, staff, students, friends and guests who have assembled today.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime thrill for me to stand before you at my first convocation, at the outset of this new academic year. Because of my novice status, I will offer today neither a status report nor an agenda for the year ahead, but rather a few comments about my own perceptions and expectations-what brings me to Bates, what I believe Bates is and can be-and a few predictions, directed chiefly at my fellow first-years, the class of ’06, about what you can expect to happen in your time on campus.

What brings me to Bates? In some sense it is what brings everyone to Bates: The word it out, Bates is hot, and it does not take a vast amount of research or insight to see that the College is a flourishing, dynamic place that attracts people of good judgment and sound educational philosophy. Then too Bates is in many ways much like most of the other places I have lived and learned since I, like some of you, was 17 years old: Mount Holyoke College, Hamilton College, and for the last 22 years Haverford College. These and at most a couple dozen others comprise the great small colleges that occupy a unique and prominent place in the vast landscape of American higher education. Their status and reputation is all out of proportion to their physical size and the numbers of students who are lucky enough to attend. You wouldn’t be here today unless you knew as well as I do why these select liberal arts colleges as a group are so special and valuable, and why anyone would be proud to work at any of them. Each nonetheless has its own character and traditions, and what really brings me to Bates is the conviction that among a number of wonderful colleges, Bates stands out as a particularly virtuous and inspiring place. Let me explore in a little more depth just two qualities that have struck me from the outset of my interest in Bates as distinctive or at least especially intense here, and that have so far withstood the test of a modest familiarity.

First, as some of you will have heard me say before, Bates is an extremely OPEN community, in multiple senses of the word.

To be open in the most literal sense is to be accessible, not fenced in or locked up or closed down. As you all know, Bates was founded by Freewill Baptists with abolitionist principles on this fundamental idea of openness, at a time when almost all other small colleges were closed-to all women, and to people of both genders from many racial, religious, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike most of its peers (except for the women’s colleges), Bates never sanctioned the exclusive social organizations found on most American campuses, fraternities and sororities. And this founding openness is refracted today in several aspects of the college, including the marked demographic changes in the Bates student body over the last few decades; our ongoing efforts to provide continued access despite issues of cost and financing; our interest in building a complex, multifaceted, educationally rich community of students and faculty here in a region that is not very racially or ethnically diverse; and the exemplary interest of Bates students in study abroad, and of international students in coming to Bates. (I said I wasn’t going to talk about an agenda for the year yet, but I do want to note parenthetically that we face together a challenge to another aspect of our literal openness as we implement policies and structures that reflect our concern with safety and security, in a community that will flourish most fully if all interactions are based on collegiality and trust.)

Bates’ openness in the literal sense is vital because it makes possible an intellectual and social culture that is open in another sense: permeable to the influx of new thoughts and viewpoints, unprejudiced, able to be responsive to ideas and people who challenge us and therefore help us grow. This openness, like the more literal commitment to accessibility and inclusiveness, is not a given and does not happen at Bates without effort. A close-knit community can feel very much like a closed-minded community; the force of institutional inertia at a small college with a distinguished history can be great; and even the increased selectivity of a college like Bates can threaten its openness in some ways. One unusually strong dimension of the Bates experience that militates against these threats to openness is of course the College’s commitment to community partnerships, to service learning, to reaching out and seeking to connect the academic center of the institution to what we sometimes call “the real world.” Perhaps the most important force for intellectual openness, moreover, is the Bates faculty, who exemplify the value and the challenge of intellectual reach and imagination, scholarly curiosity and creativity, pedagogical exploration and curricular innovation.

Bates is I believe also open in another figurative sense of the word-and “open” in this usage was one of Jane Austen’s favorite words for characters who stand at the moral center of her universe, people who are frank and sincere and honest, not self-deceiving, pretentious, hypocritical or duplicitous. Openness in this sense is equally critical to learning, to service and citizenship, and to leadership, because in that open marketplace of ideas I’ve said we must cultivate, you need people who first are willing to listen and entertain new ideas but then are able to take a stance, in light of what they learn, and be both sincere and candid about their own beliefs. Being open-minded, in other words, doesn’t absolve you of the need to come to a convinced position, after deliberation, about what’s right in particular situations, or of the need to speak your mind and stand up for what you honestly believe, and take responsibility for your choices. Liberal arts colleges in general are places where strong engagement and a sense of obligation to self and community are encouraged. I trust you will join me in ensuring that this work of participation and responsibility goes forward at Bates.

A second aspect of the Bates culture that attracted me is its poise, and again I use the term for its multiple meanings, beginning with the primary sense of balance. This campus does a good job of maintaining equilibrium or creative tension in areas of sometimes competing and conflicting value. One such area that I’ve already touched on is the commitment of the College to service and service-learning. Not only does this commitment keep us open intellectually and ethically; it also helps us defend against charges that a liberal arts college is an old-fashioned bastion of idealism irrelevant in a postmodern age. Yet at the same there is always a danger that an institution of higher education could stray from its academic center, if for example it was too responsive to a culture that places so little value on the life of the mind. Bates has done a fine job to date of steering between irrelevance and idealism, on the one hand, and an over-emphasis on either the practical or the marketable on the other. We need to continue to seek balance and interaction between learning as a means to other goals and learning as an end in itself.

Another healthy but precarious poise that I see at Bates and that I trust we can together maintain is the balance between individual development and personal freedom, on one side of the equation, and responsibility to others and the need to build and enhance the communities we live and learn in, on the other. There are many reasons why these two compelling needs can become imbalanced, and some of those reasons reflect the positive forces I mentioned earlier: Because we do value inclusiveness and question easy assumptions about any one dominant cultural or moral view, never has it been harder to identify shared values and norms. But I see and admire many efforts at Bates to balance individual fairness and social justice, and to understand that the development of a thinking self in relationship to others is the challenge of a lifetime.

Let me mention very briefly two different but related senses in which Bates is poised: First, like a poised individual, Bates is an institution that is truly humble and often speaks of itself as unpretentious, but on closer inspection has a great deal of dignity, self-confidence, and self-possession in its modesty. Second, I have an image of Bates as a place that is poised like a dancer or a hummingbird might be said to be poised. “Poised” in this sense has both a negative and a positive connotation. It can suggest that there is a kind of fragility to our position, that we are delicately hovering or teetering on some brink. This is not the moment to talk about competition and comparative endowments or the effect of other market pressures on colleges today, although it would be naïve not to recognize the precariousness of almost any institution of higher education, no matter how solidly grounded, at this point in time. But if I am right that we are neither off balance nor resting on our laurels, then we can see Bates instead as poised in the positive sense, poised for action, standing ready to aim the talents and traditions of the institution toward the clear goals before us, to leap forward with grace and agility.

There are many other things about Bates that attract me, and I look forward to learning more about what attracts and holds each of you in your loyalty and commitment to Bates, because your loyalty and commitment is critical to the future of the institution. But now I want to turn to my promised predictions, offered with some confidence even though I have yet to meet most of the students in this assembly, about what is happening and will happen to you at Bates:

First, you will work intensely during your time here, but you will often be unable to draw a clear line between work and play, because if you are lucky-and most of us here are-you fill find out what work you love, and you will do it.

Second, you will learn something about the vastness of the universe of knowing and the limited nature of your own place and perspective in that universe, at the same time that you choose to study deeply in one very small domain of knowledge. When you graduate you will be able to say “I know what I know, and I know how to find out what I do not know” with both humility and confidence.

Third, you will make friends in a way that rarely happens before or after your college years. No other college system in the world is quite like the residential campus: we wrench you out of comfortable homes, where fewer of you have had to share bedrooms than at any point in human history, where you have eaten meals prepared to your specifications served at times coordinated to suit your busy schedule, and we thrust you into communal life with complete strangers. You will grow from this odd system partly because you are going to be deprived of the familiar and plunged into difficult interpersonal situations with little to guide you at important times. As psychologist Pat Gurin has argued, “complex thinking occurs when people encounter a novel situation…for which they have no script.” And you will grow because you will find among some of the strangest of these strangers a handful of people who are soul mates, with whom you form lifelong bonds. The deepest conversations and insights you have and the relationships that arise from them will happen often by chance, by random juxtapositions and intersections of people like and unlike yourself coming and going, sometimes pausing to talk and learn, living interesting lives together. As I said before, it is vital that we maintain at Bates a culture of open, respectful and cooperative interaction, so that you have every opportunity to find each other, and hence to find yourself.

Fourth, I predict (and hope very much) that you will develop a close intellectual relationship with one or a few adult members of this community. In doing so you will need to remember that the old-timers are very different from you in many ways. We-I slide into the first person plural here-are more various in age, ranging from a few in our late 20s and a few in our late 60s. When some of us were at places like Bates there were no personal computers or CD players, and no AIDS. Some of us even ironed our clothes and would not dream of wearing a black dress to a prom. Now we go to bed just as you are starting to wake up, and we get up when you are ready for bed. We are, in short, likely to seem old and cranky at times, so be patient with us. We have very high expectations of you, and our years of experience suggest that while you may complain about the pace of our courses, the length of our assignments, and the harshness of our grade, very few of you will let us down.

My fifth and final prediction is that what you get out of the academic year to come, and indeed out of your entire four years at Bates, is almost entirely up to you. You will be assisted, I trust, in your quest for liberation and education by some of the rest of us-teachers who inspire you, peers who stimulate and define you, deans and custodians, secretaries and administrators who are here to help, in matters large and small-and people at Bates are more helpful, more interested in you, than staff I have met on any other college campus. Unforeseen events and unfortunate circumstances may disrupt your plans and aspirations, but you are developing the resources to adapt and respond and overcome adversity. In the end it’s what you do, what you bring to Bates and put into your work and play here, that matters most.

For all of us newcomers, Bates is something we’ve been consciously or unconsciously looking forward to and directly or indirectly preparing for most of our lives, and this is such an exciting time. Despite my propensity to making predictions, I know that part of the excitement lies in the fact that the road ahead always curves out of sight, and we really cannot know what lies ahead. But with trust in our collective capacity to take the spirit of this campus forward in our own distinctive ways, I am honored to convene the 148th year of Bates College.

1. Gurin, P. (1999). Expert report of Patricia Gurin. Gratz, et. al. v. Bollinger, et. al., No. 97-75321 (E.D. Mich.) and Grutter, et. al. v. Bollinger, et. al., No. 97-75928 (E. D. Mich.) www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/legal/expert/summ.html


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