A Sense of Fair Place

Celebrating the many notions of Bates ‘place,’ the inauguration of Elaine Tuttle Hansen was a swirl of music, ceremony, and intellectual vigor.

By H. Jay Burns and Doug Hubley

A few wooden stakes go deep into the Quad soil near the steps of Coram. Just the heads stick out, but not so high as to catch a mower blade during the growing season. Unless you flopped down on the ground some warm day and bruised your backside on one, you might never know they’re there.

But Facility Services workers know they’re there, and for a very good reason: Each May, they string rope between the stakes, and the rope helps guide the precise placement of the grandstands that cozily seat about a thousand parents and friends for Commencement.

The stakes make a pretty good metaphor for the way Bates revisits most of its annual events. We all have our tickle files and, again speaking metaphorically, we’ve all driven various markers into our routines that remind us how to put on annual shows like Reunion or Commencement.

Before the inauguration of Elaine Tuttle Hansen on Oct. 26, the last presidential inauguration at Bates was 13 years ago (when the youngest current Bates students were 5 years old). And while the basic traditions and rituals of an inauguration are well-known in academe, no one at Bates wanted to go search for the old stakes. “We saw the weekend as an opportunity to show the new President the intellect, vigor, and the breadth of the College she had come to lead,” said Judy Head, who worked with the 33-member Inauguration Committee of faculty, students, alumni, and staff.

To paraphrase part of President Hansen’s inaugural address, the ritual of an inauguration may look to the past for guidance, but its spirit is prospective, not retrospective. As she put it, an inauguration affords opportunities “for expressing our hopes and aspirations, our desire for change, and our will to improve.”

So it came to pass that Hansen’s inauguration weekend last October was planned and cultivated like a good Maine garden: not overwhelming to the visitor (or the gardeners), but variegated enough to delight wanderers among its offerings.

Talks and performances on Friday orbited loosely around the theme of “A Sense of Place,” giving the weekend its intellectual component. In a nod to Chaucer, a literary favorite of the new CEO, Associate Professor of French Kirk Read introduced the Friday sessions with the declaration that “Bates is a place of pilgrimage this weekend.”

“There are stories to tell,” Read continued. “The cast of characters is rich, the telling broad, diverse and inspired.” Sure enough, from afternoon through evening, poetry and prose, music, image, and dance filled the Olin Arts Center Concert Hall. Presenters considered everything from the role of women during Bates’ early years (merely tolerated, said presenter Celeste Branham, dean of students) to the architectural history of Coram Library, a building with a surprisingly public and cosmopolitan sensibility (see “On and Off Quiz,” page 4).

Insight into the symbolism and science of the Bates campus trees was offered in a lyrical format from Sharon Kinsman, associate professor of biology (an adaptation of her presentation begins on page 32). In the evening, dance and talk mingled as presenters considered the jarring emotions felt upon leaving one’s familiar place. “If we succeed as teachers at Bates, we instruct [students] in the languages of many different ways of looking at the world,” said Professor of Russian Jane Costlow. “We divide them; we complicate their lives; we teach them to question allegiances to what is ‘native.'”

But some allegiances needn’t be questioned. Earlier, around 3 o’clock, three elderly alumni turned up at Olin. The sign on the Concert Hall door requested late arrivals to wait until intermission. A helpful staffer suggested the guests watch the program downstairs. There, they found a high-tech setup: a Sony liquid-crystal-display projector taking the feed from a digital video camera upstairs, beaming the event into a classroom appointed with comfy theater seats. So there the three alumni sat, watching the presentations from upstairs on video.

At a guess, the three belonged to classes of the 1930s – an era when, thanks to the Depression, “a Bates man was known by the patch on the seat of his pants,” to borrow an expression from the late K. Gordon Jones ’35. One wondered how much sense of place the trio felt while watching the show in something resembling the bridge of the starship Enterprise; but that question was laid to rest as the Inauguration Choir, directed by Professor of Music Marion Anderson, took the stage.

In two medleys, the choir sang hymns typical of the era of Bates’ founding, followed by College songs integral to student life in bygone years: “The Alma Mater,” “The Bates Smoker,” and the pugilistic “The Bobcat.” The choir sounded wonderful, but sweeter still was the sound of the Bates songs sung by the three other voices, quiet and purposeful, as the three alumni chimed in. Now there’s sense of place.

Saturday dawned cold and wet, but it was all congeniality and light as Trustees, faculty, and delegates gathered around breakfast treats in Alumni Gym and the Gray Athletic Building. Here the spaces’ usual sweaty pursuits had given over to, so to say, a “robic” exercise. With an academic procession the grand prelude to the Inauguration, the task at hand was getting participants into their robes and other regalia. “Herding cats” was a phrase heard from various organizers.

When colleges send delegates to inaugurations, Harvard (represented at the Hansen inauguration by the Rev. Peter Gomes ’65) is typically hailed as the oldest institution represented. But the Crimson, which also lost the Ivy League football title this past fall, chalked up another loss as Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College, founded in 1517, nipped Harvard by 119 years to claim the distinction as most senior college present. (Oxford’s delegate, Pierre Hecker, earned his D.Phil. there and is now visiting assistant professor of English at Bates.)

The public appeal of a college inauguration has to lie at least partly in its spectacle. “Pomp and circumstance is why people stay up all night to watch British funerals,” quipped Gomes, who delivered the ceremony’s invocation Saturday. The rains curtailed a bit of pomp, however. The plan was for the academic procession to issue forth dramatically from Alumni Gym and go through the 1910 Gateway en route to ceremony site Merrill Gymnasium. Hopeful planners even imagined the morning sun, rising over the nearby medical center’s D’Youville Pavilion, bathing the procession in a certain inaugural radiance.

But, as we natives like to say, welcome to Maine. The downpour forced a more direct route, so, with piper Evan Ackerman ’05 taking point, the procession marched from Alumni right onto Central Avenue, umbrellas shielding gowns, hoods, and caps. The umbrellas added an interesting visual note, though one observer was heard to complain that the Bates faculty had never before yielded to the elements in such a way. (But at least they still willingly walk to class through three feet of snow, uphill, both ways.)

In something like the old Clark Kent-to-Superman switcheroo, Merrill Gymnasium ducked into a metaphorical phone booth Wednesday and emerged on Saturday as Inauguration Theater. The transformation was stunning, a masterful alchemy of visual effects. Darkness hid the utilitarian periphery of the gym, and a ring of 80 flags – representing the home nations of Bates faculty, students, and staff – hung from the ceiling in a ring around the audience. All the bright light was focused on the stage, illuminating a gorgeous symbolic tableau. At center stage was the table laid with the symbols of Hansen’s office. At stage left and right stood trees native to Maine, representing the natural place we had heard so much about on Friday. Looming over it all was a plush deep-garnet backdrop with the Bates seal, seven feet across, glowing on it like Gotham’s Bat sign against the clouds.

The ceremony itself advanced with measured pace, ringing words, and traditional choreography. The musical courses skipped ’round the world from Ackerman’s Celtic pipes to the clong and thump of Javanese gamelan to the let’s-dance rush of the steel pan band’s conclusion. Midway through came a made-to-order composition by William Matthews, Alice Swanson Esty Professor of Music, who gave Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Dwell in Possibility” an intriguing post-modernist setting (see sidebar).

Hansen’s inaugural address, of course, sustained the weekend’s theme of “place” – specifically, Bates as a place of possibility. “This is the promise of the College to each incoming student: You will be changed by Bates forever,” she said. “You will explore identities that you have not yet imagined and that will have a profound effect on the rest of your existence; you will focus your attention not only on knowing and doing but also on being, confronting at a formative moment the most serious questions all human beings should have the opportunity to ask and the freedom to answer: Who am I? Who might I become?”

But Hansen also used “sense of place” as a departure point to examine issues that, brought down to the nuts-and-bolts level, could well define her presidency. She described how dedicated purveyors of the liberal arts education are facing “two uphill battles at once: We need to reformulate the public value of the kind of education we offer at the same time that we figure out how it can be offered more broadly.” As one element of the strategic plan, she said, “we will recognize and hold the fine line between a place of possibility and a place of entitlement.

Finally, sounding a theme that resounded like angel song for many, Hansen cautioned her listeners about “an obstacle to the pursuit of possibility for ourselves and our communities…that we have yet to overcome, even at Bates: time.”

“We’ve done a superb job at Bates of creating a culture of engagement, of making and finding time for expanding possibilities through doing more,” Hansen said. “But we have not yet fully admitted, let alone solved, the widespread problem of fostering a culture of reflection – not as a self-absorbed retreat from reality where we shore up any erosion of our sense of entitlement, but as a spirited advance toward what sounds so quaint: moments of woolgathering, daydreaming, improvisation; opportunities for the random and serendipitous to take us by surprise and move us to new discoveries.

“We need time alone and time with others that is undisciplined time – time to listen, speak, think, imagine. What I am talking about is endangered because it looks like unproductive time, the rarest of commodities in a world that measures everything by its outcome. American culture is obsessed with measurable achievement, the bottom line, with ranking and competing.”

Seated nearby during Hansen’s address was the Rev. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard. He heard Hansen’s call for reflection and liked the message.

“In all this gyrating and seeming industry of our lives, we don’t often hear about the interior life,” he said later. “The liberal arts college is the only place where you have permission to contemplate. Contemplation is a virtue, not an absence of something.”

For Gomes, who is also a Bates Trustee, Hansen’s theme invoked a new way of thinking about the alma mater. “Modern college presidents seem to encourage the idea of always looking over one’s shoulder,” said Gomes. “But I don’t think she looks at Bates apologetically.”

The past 25 years of Bates have been a “breathless” period of ascendancy for Bates, suggests Gomes. “I think Bates can now enjoy itself a bit. We don’t have to achieve other people’s benchmarks; that can be destructive to the soul. Perhaps we have achieved some maturity as an institution. Perhaps it is time for Bates to stand on the mountaintop, rather than seeing itself as carrying the burden up the hill.”

Later on – a few hours before the evening inauguration gala, as the rainstorm still swirled around Garcelon Field – the Bates football team found itself on its own mountaintop, a mile-high peak of elation. Gathered at center field celebrating an improbable victory over Colby, the team shouted out its traditional post-game victory song, the “Fight on for Bates”:

“So fight for Bates and glory, give us more, more, more!”