2008 Convocation address

An Invitation to the Bates Table

I am pleased and honored to convene another academic year on this glorious first day of classes. We are all energized by this season of fresh starts, catching up with old friends and preparing to make new ones, and this is an especially grand moment for the Class of 2012, for whom all that searching and waiting is finally over.

In the face of uncertainty and complexity, you’ve made one of the most consequential choices of your life, coming up with a brilliant answer to the tough question that haunted you for at least the last couple of years: Where should I go to college?

And if we succeed in the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education, making choices in some ways will get harder, not easier.

This is just the beginning, however, of making momentous choices about how to lead your life. And if we succeed in the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education, making choices will in some ways just get harder, not easier. The goal of a Bates education is to complicate and ambiguate and ultimately deepen your understanding of almost everything, and thus to strengthen your capacity both to reflect and to act.

I know that we may have already overwhelmed our new students with many well-intended speeches brimming with good advice, which as they say is more blessed to give than to receive. So today I will make my speech as short as I can — although not perhaps as short as you would wish — and I will offer you no advice at all. Instead I’d like to talk about two broad issues that call us as an academic community to the collective task of making difficult and important decisions in the months ahead.

Members of the Bates faculty pass in front of Hathorn Hall as they process to Convocation, led by mace bearer (far right) Sawyer Sylvester, professor of sociology.

First, I want to call your attention to our ongoing engagement in strategic thinking about the future of Bates. Five years ago, we began by focusing on the built environment, and the first phase of the Campus Facilities Master Plan, adopted in the fall of 2003, has brought us a new residence hall, the new dining Commons and Alumni Walk.

As this initial phase approaches completion this year with the renovation of Hedge and Roger Bill into academic buildings, it is time to dust off the plans for the second phase.

As this initial phase approaches completion this year with the renovation of Hedge and Roger Bill into academic buildings, it is time to dust off the plans for the second phase and reexamine our options in the light of what we have achieved and what has changed. I hope you will all stay tuned for invitations to learn about and participate in this next phase of facilities master planning.

At about this time last year, I also asked faculty, staff and students to join me in another collective planning process addressing the more intangible structures that house our dynamic, ambitious intellectual community. In the face of change within and beyond this community, we asked how to sustain and adapt the core educational principles that make us great so that they carry us into an even greater future. What and how do we preserve, and what and how do we innovate and transform?

By now you should have seen a letter from me summarizing how far we have come in our planning work, and I won’t repeat its contents here. I thank everyone for the tremendous energy you have already devoted to this work, and I am eager now to hear reactions and suggestions. For students, the plans we make will shape your experience of Bates over the next four years, and you have an opportunity to participate in that shaping. For faculty and staff, the aspirations and priorities we articulate now will enrich our intellectual environment for many years to come. Beginning with open meetings this Thursday and Friday, there will be ample time in the next few weeks for productive discussion.

Now let me turn to a second topic that speaks in a different way to complex choices we must make as individuals and as an educational community. Last spring we announced a theme of reflection and action for this year, Nourishing Body and Mind: Bates Contemplates Food. Two special circumstances motivated this theme: First, the new building in which we eat opened in February, and second, we received an anonymous gift of $2.5 million to our recent campaign, Endowing Our Values, from a Bates alum who wished to endow the additional operating costs of a seemingly mundane and largely invisible value, serving more local, organic and natural foods.

These circumstances call heightened attention to the already outstanding commitment of Bates’ Dining Services to sustainable, local purchasing and operations. Initiated in 1986, ours is one of the longest-running such programs in the U.S. Even before our wonderful new gift, the College was already purchasing about 22 percent of its food from local farmers and vendors. Our concern with sustainable and healthy choices doesn’t end with buying and cooking and eating this food; 80 to 84 percent of our waste goes to a food bank or a pig farmer or is composted or recycled; even our used fryer oil is used in making biodiesel.

To help the Class of 2012 enter into our contemplation of food, this year’s summer readings address our theme: Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, and Steve Ettinger’s Twinkies Deconstructed. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I did and are anxious to join us in learning more about both the food system at Bates and the larger food system in which Bates is embedded. In some cases that learning will actually mean confronting how little we know about confounding issues ranging from dependence on petroleum and diet-related diseases in the U.S. to threats like species extinction and global hunger.

Why is a strong, healthy food culture so important, both to individuals and communities; and what is the relationship between how we eat and how we think?

Addressing both the complexities and limits of our knowing, in an article the Feb. 25, 2008, issue of The New Yorker entitled “Big Foot,” Michael Specter writes, for example, about the difficulty of measuring carbon emissions accurately enough to allow consumers to make truly informed choices. The international supermarket chain, Tesco, set out to label its products with a measure of their carbon footprint that could be compared as simply as their price or nutritional profile. But echoing Michael Pollan in In Defense of Food, Specter argues that the nutritional profile itself is a falsely comforting attempt to measure the immeasurable. “The calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex,” he writes. “To sum them up on a label will not be easy,” adding that “because neither the goals nor acceptable emissions limits are clear…morality is often mistaken for science.”

Specter observes that the well-intended locavore may be confused because “many factors influence the carbon footprint of a product: water use, cultivation and harvesting methods, quantity and type of fertilizer, even the type of fuel used to make the package.” A study of the global wine trade last year, he points out, might surprise Americans who think it is better for the environment to buy wine from California rather than from overseas. “Sea freight emissions are less than a sixtieth of those associated with airplanes, and you don’t have to build highways to berth a ship.” So it may be “more ‘green’ for New Yorkers to drink wine from Bordeaux, which is shipped by sea, than wine from California, sent by truck,” and the “green line” for this principle may extend all the way to Columbus, Ohio.

Even as we contemplate these and so many other issues as complicated as the carbon footprint of our food, we also want to explore together this year some other meaty questions of particular importance to an educational institution. Why is a strong, healthy food culture so important, both to individuals and communities; and what is the relationship between how we eat and how we think?

Addressing such questions, let me offer two stories, one fictional and one factual, one from the early 20th century and one from the early 21st century, one about the most celebrated universities in the western world, Oxford and Cambridge, and one about the greatest college in northern New England.

The first story is told in the opening chapter of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, introducing Woolf’s argument about the relationship between money, space, and creative thought. The fictional “I” in this story contrasts two meals she is served while visiting a fictional university dubbed “Oxbridge.” Her visit gets off to a bad start when she is prevented from entering the library because “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” Things get better when our narrator moves on to lunch at one of the venerable Oxbridge colleges for men, and she regales us with the details of her glorious feast, beginning with the fish course:

…soles, sunk in a deep dish, over which the college cook had spread a counterpane of the whitest cream, save that it was branded here and there with brown spots like the spots on the flanks of a doe. After that came the partridges…with all their retinue of sauces and salads, the sharp and the sweet, each in its order; their potatoes, thin as coins but not so hard; their sprouts, foliated as rosebuds but more succulent. And…wreathed in napkins, a confection which rose all sugar from the waves. To call it pudding and so relate it to rice and tapioca would be an insult. Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul,…the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. No need to be anybody but oneself….[H]ow good life seemed, how sweet its rewards…how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind….

After a long afternoon we presume recovering from this culinary and conversational enchantment, our narrator moves on her evening meal at the neighboring Oxbridge women’s college, where she is staying. This is a much newer institution, recently founded on a small endowment to promote the radical idea of higher education for women, and the food is different:

Here was the soup. It was a plain gravy soup. There was nothing to stir the fancy in that. One could have seen through the transparent liquid any pattern that there might have been on the plate itself. But there was no pattern. The plate was plain. Next came beef with its attendant greens and potatoes — a homely trinity, suggesting the rumps of cattle in a muddy market, and sprouts curled and yellowed at the edge, and bargaining and cheapening and women with string bags on Monday morning. There was no reason to complain of human nature’s daily food, seeing that the supply was sufficient and coal-miners doubtless were sitting down to less. Prunes and custard followed. And if anyone complains that prunes, even when mitigated by custard, are an uncharitable vegetable (fruit they are not), stringy as a miser’s heart and exuding a fluid such as might run in misers’ veins who have denied themselves wine and warmth for eighty years and yet not given to the poor, he should reflect that there are people whose charity embraces even the prune. Biscuits and cheese came next, and here the water-jug was liberally passed round, for it is the nature of biscuits to be dry, and these were biscuits to the core. That was all. The meal was over.

The narrator draws this lesson from her two meals:

The human frame being what it is, heart, body and brain all mixed together, and not contained in separate compartments…a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.

My second story is a true story about a small college founded to redress the educational inequities and exclusions of gender, class, religion and race long perpetuated in places like the great Oxbridge or in its American imitators. This independent, contrarian college was meant to provide room for women and others previously locked out of the collegiate libraries of the world, and it too was established with a modest financial endowment.

We will skip over about 150 years of meals whose fame has not outlived their digestion, although we can imagine, having heard the stories, that uncharitable vegetables and ample jugs of water were strongly featured. And we will also not delve into the social and spatial arrangements for dining at this small college, except to note that women students of my generation were the very first to be allowed to eat in the same dining hall with men, starting with an experimental Sunday brunch for which proper dress was strictly required.

Professor of Sociology Sawyer Sylvester cradles the Bates College mace. An ancient symbol of power and authority, it is borne by the senior faculty member leading the academic procession. The Bates mace was fashioned by Leverett H. Cutten of the Class of 1904 and is engraved with the names of the Bates presidents. At the top is a large garnet, the gem and color of the College.

But as the 21st century dawned, this small college, richer by far in both tangible and intangible ways than it once was, took note of its cramped and shabby dining facilities, built originally for a student body of 600, now feeding 1,700 in spaces cobbled together by renovations creating seven or eight levels, inefficient and uninspiring to say the least. In that facility a staff largely drawn from the local community had heroically defied the material conditions to produce good food — and we should pause a moment to celebrate that this dining operation was still part of an educational community, not outsourced to a corporation as at most other colleges.

Staff members participated in developing the capacity of students to interact in a respectful way across traditional boundaries and to learn from a diverse range of interpersonal relationships. High-minded students also learned to live with the fact that tables were hard to come by, that the noise was deafening and the smells persistent; the mere fact of dining together had cemented so many friendships that generations were deeply attached to their quaint quarters.

Then one day architects came to lead the community in planning an up-to-date, ecologically aware, adequately sized and truly sustainable dining infrastructure, bringing with them the idea of “distributed dining” — multiple facilities spread around the campus, with food courts and fast-food franchises, popular today at most colleges and universities. To their surprise, however, these independent, contrarian students unanimously resisted the idea of making their campus more like a shopping mall and asked instead to continue dining as a committee of the whole, in a single new Commons. They hoped for a space as much like the old one as possible, only bigger and brighter and better equipped for cooks and servers to work in, a space where once or twice or even three times a day they would come together to dine well, to linger unhurried in rational intercourse, to feel the glow of that lamp in the spine that inspires us to think well and love well.

To their surprise, however, these independent, contrarian students unanimously resisted the idea of making their campus more like a shopping mall and asked instead to continue dining as a committee of the whole, in a single new Commons.

The new Commons building at Bates is thus at the heart of our campus and of our educational vision. It reminds us that a liberal education prepares a whole human being for life. Today, in the high-speed, high-tech, competitive and distracting world where we eat too much and too fast and too often alone, it’s critical to ensure that respectful and ethical human interaction is still at the core at Bates. There are many more stories to contemplate about food at Bates. Think about the quality of the 27,866 meals, on average, served on campus by our Dining Services each month, and think about our participation in the Farm Fresh Connection or our students and alums who work at Lots to Gardens or the Lewiston Farmers Market; remember the Bates connections at Borealis Breads and Cold Spring Ranch and Spelt Right Baking.

When I first convened a group of 20 or so faculty, students, and staff last spring to brainstorm about contemplating food in the coming year, we were quickly and delightfully overwhelmed by how much is already happening and how wide is the network of Bates’ engagement in food. So many Bates faculty, students, staff members and alumni are clearly, in their own characteristically modest unsung way, part of a movement — national and international — that is challenging the problems of our food system. By contemplating food, we want to celebrate and tell even more fully these and many more powerful stories about Bates and food. As Douglas Bauer reminds us in Death by Pad Thai, “What makes the subject of food the scrumptious stuff of story is not the perfect balance of the recipe or the genius of the chef; it’s the narrative of what’s humanly at stake as we sit down to eat; what thoughts and emotions are stirred, revived, put in play, by the table we’re called to, by those who call us to it.”

I am delighted, this afternoon, to call you to the Bates table, and to an academic year that will include some self-reflective conversations about as well as some conspicuous consumption of great food, with great friends and great ideas, a year of taking stock, making visible, raising consciousness, learning more, challenging ourselves to honor and broadcast and build on what we’re already doing and what we dream of doing. Our learning and our doing, our reflection and our action go to the heart of the college’s mission as a residential undergraduate liberal arts institution. By feeding body and mind together, we will make better choices in the face of complexity.