2004 Convocation remarks
President Elaine Tuttle Hansen
Let The Games Begin
It is my very great privilege to call you together today on behalf of the entire Bates community.
For those of you who are new to this community, I’d like to report that last year at Bates was a lot like other years on this and every other college campus—it consisted of “some routine, some drama, and a lot left hanging” (to borrow a line from Stanley Fish). Today I want to mention just four broad issues that were “left hanging” at the end of 2003-04. Those of you who are not so new will appreciate that my list is by no means exhaustive of all the important things going on at the College, but it highlights some of our most prominent “works in progress,” in which we are most eager to include those who are just joining us.
First, the goals of a Bates education
Last fall, the faculty took up the formidable challenge of reconsidering what is sometimes called “general education”—the aspects of the curriculum and the requirements that affect all students, independent of their majors, and form the distinctive backbone of a liberal arts and science education. You have all chosen to come to an institution that talks about the value of both breadth and depth in your studies; that tries to think about your education holistically; and that believes training for a particular career is less important, at this stage, than preparation for multiple careers and responsibilities and for leading textured, examined lives. There are many possible ways to acquire the habits of mind, skills and knowledge you will need throughout your lifetime, and this year the faculty continues its aerobic discussion of how to build strong but flexible curricular muscles that will support your exploration and discovery at Bates.
If our so-called “Gen Ed” discussion focuses on what you might think of as the intellectual infrastructure of the College, another pending issue turns attention to the physical infrastructure of the campus. Faculty, staff, students, and trustees have been working together with an architectural planning firm for over a year now to re-examine the quality and capacity of our spaces. Our plan will be presented in detailed form later this fall, but we already know what the priorities and form givers for the first phase will be. Student housing and residential life activities, including a dining facility, top the list. We will be true to the Yankee frugality that Bates has always exemplified; we do not seek to convert the campus into a country club, and we are committed to stewardship of the environment as well as the budget. But we believe that form can influence and enhance function, and we have a wonderful opportunity, as we focus on questions about how new facilities should be situated and designed, to talk openly, and with a willingness to change, about how our buildings and grounds can express and enhance our mission.
As my reference to Yankee frugality suggests, Bates is an awesome institution in part because we do so much with so little. But looking forward we have to worry about the growing gap between the super-rich colleges and the more moderately endowed, like Bates. Without more resources, we will not keep up with our needs in financial aid for a talented and diverse student body, in support for a dedicated faculty of first-rate teacher-scholars, and in facilities that adequately house outstanding students, faculty, and staff. Bates came later than most of the other colleges many of you considered to the realization that frugality was not enough, that fund-raising was critical; along with our New England values went pride in our independence, self-reliance, and polite reluctance to talk about money. But pride of another sort—pride in our extraordinary level of accomplishment—now motivates us to ask for the support an institution of this caliber deserves.
You’ll be hearing a lot on campus this fall about the public phase of this campaign, as we seek to educate our community more broadly about the financial needs of the College and why a gift to Bates is so important. I just want to remind you today that you are a vital part of one argument I make for giving: the multiplier effect. Bates has an extraordinary track record of educating people to do “good work”—work that is excellent, and work that makes a difference in the world. And so a gift to Bates keeps growing and giving through the contributions of our students and alums to the greater social good.
Finally, you may hear the word “reflection” used frequently at Bates to refer to yet another issue “left hanging” from last year, an issue that is unlikely to be resolved completely by different requirements, better buildings, or more money. We all struggle with the problems of finding time to reflect, to pause and think in the midst of busy, active, engaged days. You’ve been racing all your lives to get here, and now you must stop and ask why. If you don’t have time to contemplate this question, you’ve short-changed yourself, and Bates is poorer too.
Many elements of your Bates experience may seem to conflict with this advice, because this is a place where the message of engagement and activism is heard loud and clear. But as our distinguished speaker Paul Loeb reminds us, “we can also stay fresh by reaching within” (The Soul of a Citizen, p. 216). Ways of reflecting are personal and as different as we are all different. Some of us reflect by reading, some by talking to others, some by listening to music, taking a walk, or staring into space. But we all long for time, and as an institution, we want to find ways to permit reflection time—if we can’t do it here, then where?
Last year at this time and in this place, I closed my remarks by sharing a folk-tale celebrating the virtue and possibility of paying sustained reflective attention that I came across during my summer vacation on the island of Kauai. When I tell you that I spent my vacation this year in a somewhat less exotic destination—on the Jersey shore—some among you may doubt that I found much inspiration to bring back home. But in fact my time in the Garden State was filled with fascinating news and riveting cultural spectacles: it was the week that Charley devastated Florida, Governor Richard McGreevey came out and resigned, and the games of the 28th Olympiad began. While there is rich food for thought in all three of these events, the Olympics seems to offer the most instructive lessons for a college campus to ponder.
There is so much fresh historical knowledge to glean, for instance, from the media’s creative efforts to reinforce the invented tradition of a link between ancient and modern Greece. Plutarch told us that Alexander the Great “looked with indifference, if not with dislike” upon athletes, but we had to wait for an NBC commentator on the opening ceremonies to give us the up-close-and-personal reason for this anti-sports bias: “Alexander the Great was a sprinter in the original Olympics but in fact he wasn’t very fast. Athletically he was just Alexander the So-So.” It is equally informative, surely, to be reminded of the timeless lessons of Greek drama: again during the opening ceremonies we heard that “Oedipus, as you know, is the tragic Greek king who killed his father and married his mother, a sequence of events that seldom turns out well.” And in between checking on the NBC Web site to see what would be chosen as the Kleenex Moment of the Day, many of you perhaps spent time as I did marveling at the semantic resourcefulness and subtlety revealed in the fine distinction between Heineken, the Official Beer of the Olympics, and Budweiser, the Official Malt Beverage Partner (with thanks to Dave Barry, who called this to my attention in one of his irreverent columns from Athens).
But setting aside the dubious historicism and the rampant commercialism, the doping scandals and the judging errors, as the rain fell and the Olympic coverage continued on five channels, I found myself thinking most seriously about an analogy between the four years that an athlete spends preparing for the next Olympics and the four years you spend in college. There are certainly some Olympic ideals that I might charge you to emulate in your time at Bates: the principle of a sound mind in a sound body; the celebration of international friendship and understanding; the valorization of hard work, focus, and dedication; the quest for balance between individual initiative and obedience to the group, and between pride in national origin and commitment to notions like excellence and fair play that transcend patriotism.
Some fundamental differences between the rush for Olympic gold and the pursuit of a Bates degree seem even more interesting, however, than the similarities. In the four years that now stretch between Athens and Beijing, the class of 2008 will be working hard not in competition for a single prize, but in cooperation with others for a reward that is available to everyone who stays the course. While there may be a few moments of healthy competition along the way, at the end of the road we stand ready to hand out 467 mortarboards, not just three olive wreaths. Moreover, while the kind of focus and hard work that Olympians embody is a worthy means to achieving goals that you may have, now and in the future, your ends are broader and far more complex. At Bates, you are preparing yourself not to nail the performance of a lifetime, but to achieve and contribute over the course of a long, productive existence. And perhaps most importantly you are not required to reach perfection in a pre-scripted routine; rather, you are asked to cultivate some basic skills and then encouraged to use them freely, independently, and creatively, constructing an undergraduate experience and then, again, a life, that is your event, and yours alone.
At the convocation of this new academic year, the College invites you to experience the joys of effort, commitment, creativity, and achievement. Let the games of our next Bates year begin.