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Convocation 1999Convocation 1999
Ithaca College, August 23, 1999

Good morning. I am pleased to welcome you all here today -- trustees, faculty, and staff. And a very special welcome to all new Ithaca College students. I am honored to officially welcome you on behalf of the entire Ithaca College community. We are delighted that you have chosen to study here and confident that you have made a good choice.

This is a very exciting time in your lives, one filled with opportunity for intellectual and personal development. It is a time like no other -- when you will live and learn in a residential community, with students from different places around the country and the world, students from different backgrounds, with different opinions. It is a place where you will establish friendships that will last a lifetime: I graduated from college before you were born and, like many other faculty and staff, I remain close to many of my college friends. I hope that you will develop such lasting relationships while at Ithaca College.

I want to recognize all the faculty and staff who are here today. Thank you for coming. The commitment you show by your presence is a sign to our new students of the commitment you show to them and to their education, day in and day out. Students, seek these people out. Our faculty are among the best and the brightest and are committed to teaching. They also are interesting individuals, so invite them to lunch or stop by their offices just to chat. Our staff are equally committed to supporting your academic and cocurricular endeavors. Get to know faculty and staff as teachers, mentors, and colleagues.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Students, I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak with you today. It is the only opportunity like this that we will have during your time here.

Although I am not caught by the millennium bug as much as some others, this is a remarkable and historic time, all the hype notwithstanding.

In June we said farewell to the last graduates of this millennium. Today we say "welcome" to the last class to enter Ithaca College in this millennium. In thinking about what to say to you today, I thought it would be interesting to go back 1,000 years, to see what has changed and what has not -- but the scope of that reach was just too great, and I knew that I did not have all week to talk with you. So I decided to look back 100 years.

I reviewed some headlines from the media in 1899 and from this year. Here are a few that caught my attention:

1899

  • Secretary of state John Hay convinces Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan to agree, reluctantly, to an "open door" policy in regard to trade with China.
     
  • At the first Hague Peace Conference, delegates from 26 countries reach no agreement on methods of arms control and disarmament.
     
  • The Boer War breaks out in South Africa.
     
  • In Addyston Pipe & Steel Company v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that negotiations between corporations to eliminate competition violate the Sherman Anti-Trust Act.
     
  • A cholera epidemic begins.
     
  • The publication of University of Chicago professor John Dewey's School and Society marks the beginning of the progressive education movement.
     
  • William Henry Pickering discovers the ninth moon of Saturn.

1999

  • President Bill Clinton to renew normal trade relations with China.
     
  • The U.S. hopes to improve faltering relations with India and to convince it not to proliferate nuclear weapons to defend itself against arch rival and neighbor Pakistan.
     
  • Kosovo crisis: a team of reporters discovers chilling evidence of Serbia's well-organized, vicious killing machine.
     
  • Microsoft antitrust case.
     
  • Massacre at Littleton [Colorado] High School.
     
  • The Kansas Board of Education deletes evolution from the curriculum.
     
  • The Hubble telescope yields data for recalculating the age of the universe.

As we reflect on these, we see that we have made significant advances in some areas. Some stories remain in the news -- space advances, for example -- with the focus on the latest discovery or development. On the other hand, these headlines also teach us that some issues and challenges seem intractable: they linger and seem very difficult for us to resolve satisfactorily. Looking ahead, we know that many difficult and significant issues will continue to need the attention of society -- this nation and the world.

In the world of higher education, as we look over the same 100 years, we ask: What is different? What transcends the passage of time? I will limit my remarks to these four themes:

  • changing demographics (diversity and pluralism)
     
  • technology
     
  • higher education and the development of leadership
     
  • liberal education (learning)
Plus ça change (The more things change)

The first two themes -- changing demographics and technology -- reflect significant changes over the century.

Changing demographics

Over the past century, opportunities for college or university study have expanded tremendously. One hundred years ago a college education was reserved -- with a few exceptions -- for the elite, especially for sons of the wealthy. Since that time, there has been an expansion in the number of colleges and universities, in the numbers of students attending college, and in the diversity of the student body. In 1899, 237,592 people nationwide were enrolled in institutions of higher education. In 1998, projected enrollment was 14,590,000 -- 6,324,000 men and 8,266,000 women. (Final official figures for 1998 are not yet available.) In the late 1800s, Ithaca College enrolled fewer than 100 students. In 1903, there were six graduates.

Higher education gender and racial/ethnic demographics continue to change. There has been a notable increase in the participation rate of women, even as recently as the past thirty years. Women are taking their places in college classrooms, but female students still are under-represented significantly in leadership positions on college campuses across the country, although this has not been the case at Ithaca College. Women still confront many old stereotypes, even with respect to certain disciplines and fields of study. The numbers have improved. However, women still have to prove themselves in ways that men do not.

The multicultural dimension of campuses also is changing, but it is nowhere near what it should be. We need to work hard to have our college campuses reflect more closely the multicultural nature of our communities. Many barriers -- subtle and not so subtle -- still exist, regardless of any institution's efforts to recruit faculty, staff, and students of color. While you are here, you will hear much about diversity and Ithaca's commitment to broadening diversity on our campus. In the words of James Freedman, former president of Dartmouth College, since

Brown v. Board of Education [of Topeka, Kansas] "it is clear that educational opportunity is the single most important element in achieving economic advancement and fulfilling one's personal promise." ( 1)  

There are other reasons why diversity is important to us all. A commitment to diversity is a commitment to academic excellence. The quality of your education is enhanced by the breadth of experiences, views, and opinions of those with whom you live and learn. Again, quoting Freedman, colleges and universities "have committed themselves to seeking out the widest pool of talent from among the nation's youth in an effort to strengthen minority representation in their student bodies and thereby to serve the ends of social justice and educational quality." ( 2)

 

Diversity offers powerful new learning opportunities that are essential for each of you to become leaders, personally and professionally. As Freedman puts it so well, "Diversity means much more, however, than a commitment to racial diversity. It means creating a pluralism of persons and points of view. It means encouraging unconventional approaches and unfashionable stances toward enduring and intractable questions." (3)

 

We have a responsibility to graduate students who are aware of and sensitive to racial, ethnic, cultural, and gender issues -- graduates who have the knowledge and skills to live effective lives in a multicultural society. Regardless of the communities from whence you come, you will leave Ithaca College to live and work in a multicultural and global society where your understanding of others and your appreciation of the richness of diversity will be essential to your capacity to live a life of integrity. Our challenge is, in the words of Freedman, "an educational one: to foster learning among students of diverse backgrounds by encouraging discourse, tolerance, civility, and engagement." ( 4)

 

You will discover many programs and activities here that are designed to promote such discourse and to foster such engagement. We have been doing quite a bit of introspection and talking -- College-wide -- about developing more effective ways to attract and retain faculty, staff, and students of color; and diversity is one of nine priorities in the current institutional planning effort. I invite you to join these efforts. In the coming months you will hear about a number of initiatives as well as a host of programs coordinated through the Office of Multicultural Affairs, the Ithaca Opportunity Program, the Diversity Awareness Committee, the Office of the Provost, and the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity. Our annual Unity Day is on Thursday, September 16, and we will hold the Unity Relays on Saturday, September 18. You will hear more about these events, and I hope to see many of you there.

Technology

While demographics change slowly -- in some ways too slowly -- no one would criticize technology for a slow pace of change. In the past millennium, century, and decade, advances in technology have changed the way we work and the way we communicate. Your generation grew up with these developments, while others of us find our world changing in ways that both excite and annoy us.

On college campuses, technology provides an exciting and rich complement to the personal side of learning and teaching. It brings you access to limitless information, but it is no substitute for human interaction.

While you are here, exploit the advantages of technology. Use it to expand your intellectual reach and to enhance your own learning. However, don't let it lull you into believing that judgment and critical thinking are unnecessary. Don't assume that technology is more than a tool. Even with such a tool, you must be able to reconcile seemingly contradictory data and to make sense of it. Increased access to data and information makes it even more important to know how to discern what is worthwhile and what is not.

Don't allow the availability and accessibility of technology to mislead you into minimizing the importance of person-to-person communication. (I heard a story recently about two students in a residence hall room who communicated with one another by e-mail.) In today's workplace, the quality of an applicant's interpersonal skills is as important to an employer as the other knowledge and skills required for any position. People who lack the ability to communicate and to work effectively with others are often ineffective in their work, notwithstanding their level of technical knowledge. The inability of people to communicate with one another and to work effectively together remains at the heart of workplace problems. You are joining a new community. Seize the opportunities here for social and interpersonal development.

Plus c'est la même chose (The more they stay the same)

The second two themes -- higher education and the development of leadership, and the value of liberal education -- have held constant across the century.


Higher education and the development of leadership

The notion of college graduates as leaders never changes. Today, as in 1899, society looks to college graduates to take their places as society's leaders -- because of the knowledge and intellectual skills they acquire through their education and because of the commitment they develop to share their knowledge generously for the improvement of society. College-educated individuals are not better than others. Rather, they have a special responsibility to society because of the educational privileges they have enjoyed. As you begin your college education, you do so within the context of this expectation. You will be expected to take your place -- without any sense of superiority or entitlement, but rather with a sense of responsibility. Part of an education is learning how to be good citizens. Year after year, studies of college students show that the greater their level of engagement, the better their academic performance and the quality of their overall college experience. Get involved on campus and find ways to become part of the greater Ithaca community.

In addition to what you will study in your formal programs, you will develop your character as future leaders. You will encounter many opportunities to get involved and to practice leadership, and you will face many situations that will test and shape your character. The values of honesty, ethics, integrity, compassion, consideration, and courage are only a few that will be important to you as student leaders and citizens. Ithaca College is a place where it is safe to try, to test, to understand your strengths as well as your limits. We do not really know you yet, so if there are some bad habits that you would like to cast off, this is the time and the place. This is also the time and place to develop two other dimensions of yourself. Take time to develop your reflective side -- taking time away from the world of noise and activity, learning to appreciate quiet and solitude and what you can learn there. Balance that with developing your playful side as well (though I may ask you to tone it down in a few months). Developing these dimensions will help your perspective during these exciting yet intense years.

Liberal learning

The value of liberal learning transcends. When we look at higher education over the millennium and the century, the lasting value of liberal learning is obvious. Whatever your major program of study, the liberal learning component of your experience here is the common thread that unifies your Ithaca College education. It connects you with over 37,000 Ithaca College grads and with the students who entered Ithaca College in 1899.

The acquisition of knowledge and the ability to discover new knowledge are at the heart of the academic experience. In his book Academic Duty, Donald Kennedy, former president of Stanford University, says, "The university is above all else about opportunity: the opportunity to give others the personal and intellectual platform they need to advance the culture, to preserve life, and to guarantee a sustainable human future. Could anything possibly matter more than that?" (5

)

Increased complexity in our world, rapid acceleration in the pace of change, and the need to address previously unknown challenges underscore the importance of liberal education. One hundred years from now, when we all gather again, this will still be true.

You need to focus on developing effective intellectual skills and ways of knowing. Ultimately, what is worth knowing is how to know, how to interpret, how to think critically -- the capacity to discover new knowledge and to understand found knowledge in new ways. We need to value knowledge, reason, and rational discourse as vital to our future. These are the essential characteristics of a liberal education. We learn these through the traditional liberal arts disciplines in arts, humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences and in those dimensions of professional education where one focuses on how knowledge is discovered and how facts relate to one another across disciplines -- those transferable skills in research, discovery, and approaches to knowing that extend beyond the content itself.

Recently I heard a story about a president of a national bank who said, "There are two kinds of graduates: those with usable skills and those with strong backgrounds in liberal education who can puzzle out the future of the bank."

In the years ahead you will be called upon to use your capacity to learn more than the facts that you will master here. The facts that you will master serve as the basis for developing those lasting intellectual skills. It is essential that you become critical thinkers with the capacity for lifelong learning. Ultimately, this is the purpose of your undergraduate education.

Liberal learning is the best preparation for life. It prepares one to make better sense of events and to make order out of experiences. Liberal learning has withstood the test of time because, in the words of Freedman, "liberal education is a process of inquiry, not a fixed body of knowledge, and its goal is the achievement of those intellectual and moral capacities that will enable students to lead lives that are thoughtful, reflective, inquisitive, and satisfying." (6)

 

Liberal learning takes on an even more critically important role in this time of significant change and explosion of knowledge. With the need for society to continue to advance and develop and continue to address those intractable challenges, we will need to rely on liberal learning to help us deal with new and unfathomable situations.

You are here because you have the capacity to meet the challenges that you will encounter. We know that you have accomplished much so far in your life -- academically and in life outside of school. Because of that, we know that you will succeed here at Ithaca College. There is nothing more fulfilling than to be challenged and to meet that challenge. Freedman captures the sense of the ultimate challenge of a college education when he writes, "By the time they are graduated students, [they] should feel that they have been exposed to an educational process of such transcending reach and transforming power that they have been challenged in every segment of their being." (7)

 

I hope that your Ithaca College experience will offer you such a challenge and that each of you will rise to meet it.

Do well and enjoy.


Notes 

  1. James 0. Freedman, Idealism and Liberal Education (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1996), p. 61. [back to text]
     
  2. Ibid. [back to text]
     
  3. Ibid., p. 63. [back to text]
     
  4. Ibid., p. 67. [back to text]
     
  5. Donald Kennedy, Academic Duty, quoted in Change (July/August 1999), p. 22. [back to text]
     
  6. Freedman, p. 56. [back to text]
     
  7. Ibid., p. 4. [back to text]