2007 Baccalaureate address

Building at Bates

The theme of your Baccalaureate ceremony — “seasons” — offers us a wonderful metaphor for celebrating the natural process of change that you have experienced over the last four years. Since fall of 2003, you have changed, the world has changed, even the Bates curriculum — largely unmodified for the previous quarter century — has changed.  

And most visibly, over the course of the last few months, the physical appearance of an important part of our campus has changed. In the midst of this season of steel and brick, I see another wonderful metaphor to explore today: architecture and building as analogues for the design and development of a life, and particularly the fabrication of  well-educated graduates of a great liberal arts college. For the Class of 2007, I offer seven ways of reflecting on this comparison.

The Rev. William Blaine-Wallace (left) and President Hansen enjoy listening to the student band The Nancies during the Baccalaureate processional.

First and most obviously, in both construction and educational development, we belabor the foundations. All last summer Rand Field was a muddy pit on which nothing seemed to be happening, and the first thing that appeared in constructing the new dining Commons was a big hole in the ground. But in this all-important foundational stage, before the visible edifice arises, the builder takes care of underground steam and sewer lines, stormwater catch basins, and other things we rarely notice again, unless they go wrong.  The more ambitious the structure, the firmer the substructure must be.

St. Augustine underscores this aspect of our metaphor when he speaks of building a virtuous soul: “Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.” For many years, you have been laying your deepest foundations. Today is the culmination of two decades of an ambitious effort to establish basic habits, fundamental skills and well-grounded principles of mind and soul that will support you every day of your life. You won’t think much about their underlying existence, but with these in place, you are ready to do great things.

Second, to make something beautiful, to create something new, it is, unfortunately, often necessary to make a mess, and to destroy something old. Right now the construction sites at Bates are ugly: chain-link fences, heavy machinery, porta-potties, rubbish heaps, dusty ruts and forlorn stumps.  Men in hardhats with bulldozers have obliterated part of the world we were used to and loved.

As you emerge from Bates today, by contrast, your appearance is sleek and polished and beautiful; your creative thesis is neatly printed and bound. But in getting you and your intellectual life to this point, you have all gone through untidy moments; you may have had to destroy some things, you may have lost others. While you pause to enjoy your completion of the B.A. or B.S., it is important to remember that you are never finished making a mess. At every stage of the self-fashioning that has come before and lies ahead, the old almost always begrudges the new; seamless, painless transition is rare.

Third, the history and development of our college infrastructure involves planning, programming and design processes so complex that it’s impossible to say exactly when they actually began or who is responsible for them. Was the new residence hall born the day I signed a contract to undertake a comprehensive Campus Facilities Master Plan, or the day a committee approved the schematic design, or the day the contractors broke ground? Or does it in fact go back further, even all the way back to the Freewill Baptists who, in scorning fraternities and sororities, established some particular principles of residential living that emerge today in aspects of our plan? 

So too many years of planning on the part of many people shaped your life before and at Bates. Think about the parents and grandparents who gave you good genetic material, the families that raised you, the teacher or friend or guidebook that first pointed the way to Lewiston, the framework of interests and attitudes you fashioned in high school, and the generous funding of the last four years, whether from an unknown Bates alum or an industrious parent or a rich uncle. Since it is impossible to say exactly when your identity as we know it today started, or who is responsible, it is a good day to thank everyone, known and unknown, for their part in raising your accomplished, promising self.

Fourth, great architects have grand visions. They keep their eye on the big picture; our architectural consultants began by showing us broad strokes and rough sketches. And indeed, “Design informs even the simplest structure,” as William Strunk and E.B. White observe in another context: “You raise a pup tent from one sort of vision and a cathedral from another.” So it goes in forming a life. How often have you floundered because you didn’t know where you were going in a paper, a project, a relationship? 

But fifth, the devil is in the details. The building can’t just look good, it has to “work good.” If you have ever lived in a room where someone put the electric outlets in the wrong place, you know why we spend so much time and effort in construction projects thinking about the smallest item, checking and double-checking. So too in any life some exciting grand scheme may be foiled by a minor problem, a minute wrinkle, a mere small matter. You have to have big guiding ideas and principles, but you also have to care deeply about detail, accuracy, precision.

Sixth, while a site is under construction, it is hard to tell what the finished product is going to look like, although some rush to judgment. I had an e-mail from a member of the Bates community at an earlier stage of the work on Rand field expressing concern that we had chosen to build a dorm out of concrete block. My own sense of how this is all going to look has changed frequently, depending on where we are in the process. I assume, furthermore, that even when the residence hall and Commons are built and we are using them on a daily basis, they will continue to evolve, and really only the test of time will tell us whether they are good buildings or even great buildings.

Caps and gowns may conceal that you too are unfinished.  You still have a lot of growing to do; you will evolve, and your greatness will emerge only over the course of many years. I hope you will remember that about yourself and others before passing judgment, before declaring victory or admitting defeat. 

Seventh, the design and appearance of a building is more than lines and shapes; any structure reflects and expresses values.  Why is the new dining Commons so big, and what does the large open size of its central eating space say? Why is the ceiling made of recycled wood? Why does the fireplace lounge have moveable walls for displaying artworks? Each of these elements represents a careful choice, based on what we told the architects about our principles and aspirations. We want to be a richly diverse group of individuals, but we also want to come together daily to eat and socialize in one space. We care about sustainability. We invite the provocative, even the outrageous, but we think they should occupy a place that people enter because they consent to the educational value of being provoked and outraged.

So too the most mundane things you do express the values and goals you have consciously and unconsciously adopted. Your education has made a difference not only to the facts you know and the skills you have but also to what we usually think of as your character.

It has been my joy and my privilege to serve as president during an important phase in the construction of the Class of 2007. On the bedrock of a Bates education, may you build enduring and inspiring lives.