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Inaugural AddressInaugural Address
President Peggy Ryan Williams

Ithaca College, March 28, 1999

Chair Muller; trustees; faculty, staff, and students of Ithaca College; Congressman Hinchey; family and friends: good afternoon. It is wonderful to see all of you here today.

Thank you, Chair Muller and fellow trustees, for giving me this opportunity to serve as president of this fine institution. I am very excited to be part of this engaging and lively academic community. I am honored, and also humbled, as I look forward to our work together.

Today marks a new stage in the life of Ithaca College. It is a day for all of us to celebrate what we do, to reflect on the strength and history of our traditions and on our collective sense that, as a result of our past, we are poised to shape the future in a considerable and positive way.

Before proceeding with my remarks, I would like to thank the many friends, teachers, mentors, and colleagues who have been, and continue to be, so important to me in my personal and professional development. To avoid the risk of overlooking someone, I will not identify you by name. I am confident that you know who you are. And thanks to the many newfound friends and colleagues here at Ithaca, who have been so helpful to me in making the transition over these past nine months.

However, I will take this opportunity for a few special thanks: first, to those who delivered kind greetings this afternoon; to members of the board of trustees of the VSC and Trinity College of Vermont for enabling me to serve five institutions in that state; to my parents, Carol and Fred Ryan, for their confidence and encouragement over the years; to my husband, David, a wise and supportive friend; and to the many here at Ithaca who worked so hard to make today happen.

Introduction

In thinking about what to say today, I decided to take this occasion to share with you what is always on my mind as I carry out my responsibilities as an educator. I will talk with you today about "Knowing and Knowing Better: Education for Self and for Community," my expectations for how our students will be enhanced by their educational experience at Ithaca College. In my remarks I will occasionally refer to three books:

  • Composing a Life, Mary Catherine Bateson
  • Common Fire: Lives of Commitment in a Complex World, Laurent A. Daloz, Cheryl H. Keen, James P. Keen, Sharon Daloz Parks
  • To Know as We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker J. Palmer

I envision that each IC graduate will possess two capacities:

  • "knowing," the capacity to know and to keep knowing, and
  • "knowing better," the capacity and commitment to share one's knowledge for the benefit of others

What I have called "knowing" is the capacity for learning; what I have called "knowing better" is the capacity for citizenship. "Citizenship" here refers to the responsibility of the individual to the larger society --- family, friends, and all persons, known and unknown to us, with whom we share this planet.

Paradox

In the development of a "capacity for learning," one's focus is inner-directed, on realizing individual potential, while the capacity for "citizenship" requires an orientation to other, in relation to self, and a sense of connectedness with other. Development of each of these capacities is equally good and important. However, development of both capacities suggests a paradox, one that we as educators must resolve and help students to resolve.

Let me explore the two dimensions of this paradox and then return to my sense of its resolution.

Capacity for Learning

The capacity for learning focuses on the development of an individual's intellectual abilities. In the teaching-learning process, we enable students to discover their intellectual abilities and talents; to hone and develop those that come easily, as well as those that seem more out of reach; to develop a sense of self as learner; and to develop positive habits of mind and habits of inquiry.

Educating students to develop a capacity for learning requires that students learn content and subject matter, as well as intellectual processes. What students learn about a given discipline will help them launch their lives as scholars and professionals. However, it is the extent to which they develop their intellectual processes that will sustain them and help them grow and develop over the course of a lifetime. As educators, we have a responsibility to see that students are exposed to a balance of content and process in their academic experiences. This is what we can do to best prepare students to face and adapt to a rapidly changing world, where the speed of change is not likely to diminish.

As Bateson reminds us, "Surely the central task of education today is not to confirm what is but to equip young men and women to meet the change and to imagine what could be, recognizing the value in what they encounter and steadily working it into their lives and visions." As we challenge students intellectually, let us be circumspect about content requirements, attentive to breadth of exposure, and conscious about creating opportunities for reflection.

Beyond formal curriculum and program structures that provide the basis for students to develop a capacity for learning, the College community and all of its members can demonstrate the importance of this capacity for learning by our own behavior and example. What do I mean? The College is, in effect, a laboratory, and all that students experience here will shape their lives in some way.

If students can see all of us as learners who

  • have as many questions as answers,
  • seek new challenges,
  • take risks, individually and organizationally,
  • demonstrate that new ideas always have a place and that decisions can be made anew, and
  • are open to what others can teach us,

We can, in a very powerful way, model the capacity for learning that we desire for our students and, in so doing, insure that we and the institution will continue to grow and develop.

What I have just described as the capacity for learning is a critical, exciting, and self-serving dimension of the educational experience. In working with students to develop this capacity, however, we must guard against an overemphasis on individual development to the exclusion of the development of the capacity for citizenship. The question of education for what? is a critical one. It matters what we do with the knowledge and understanding we have and develop. The development of individual intellectual capacities that can serve one so well throughout a lifetime must be balanced with the development of a sense of, and commitment to, the larger society.

This brings me to the importance of developing the capacity for citizenship, or, as I stated at the outset, "knowing better."

Capacity for Citizenship

Citizenship is defined as the development of a sense of civic and social engagement and responsibility. It rests on a firm foundation of a sense of "other" and a sense of "connectedness" with other. In their research on individuals who have made a lifelong commitment to fostering and serving the common good, Daloz et al. found that "the single most salient pattern . . . was what we have come to call a constructive engagement with otherness," coming to know "someone who was significantly different from themselves." And as different as the individuals were who were studied, they held in common "a concern for a future that includes everyone, a conviction that regardless of difference, everyone counts."

Students can and must develop these perspectives throughout their experiences here, in order to develop into individuals who will live lives of integrity, with consideration for others at the heart of all that they do. The college community is the ideal place to develop and practice habits of good citizenship. Daloz et al. remind us: "Higher education is not essential for commitment to the common good, nor does it guarantee it, but a good college education can play a

crucial role. At their best colleges and universities provide a place where students may move from ways of understanding that rest upon tacit, conventional assumptions to more critical, systemic thought that can take many perspectives into account, make discernments among them, and envision new possibilities."

I have thought these ideas to be important for some time, and the recent study of 1997 freshmen, by the Higher Education Research Institute, brings the issue of capacity for citizenship into sharper focus. This national survey has been conducted for 31 years. Students entering college in the fall of 1997 demonstrated the lowest level of interest in civic engagement in the history of the survey. Their low level of "political interest" was "paralleled by their increasing disinterest in activism." While 75 percent cited getting a better job as the number one reason for attending college, only 31 percent cited becoming a community leader as an important objective. Although no one can argue with the importance of getting a better job, we, as educators, have a responsibility to help students understand that there is more to earning a college degree than financial gain. In the words of Winston Churchill, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give." If we do not show this to students, it is significantly less likely that they will take their places in society as fully responsible and ethical leaders.

To that end, we must teach-explicitly and implicitly-that the quid pro quo for a college degree is assuming responsibility for sharing one's knowledge for the benefit of others.

Parker Palmer challenges us in this way when he asks whether "we are educating students in ways that make them responsive to the claims of community upon their lives. . . . Are they simply learning to compete for scarce rewards as isolated individuals, or are they learning how to create communities of abundance in their lives as both learners and citizens?"

We must nurture this orientation among students in a number of ways:

  • teach it explicitly in some courses;
  • provide opportunities for service learning, volunteerism, and leadership experiences-on and off campus;
  • recognize that the classroom is a microcosm of the larger community and that interactions within that setting are instructive with respect to the notion of community-in terms of how we encourage participation of all and expect differences of opinion and respect for same.

Like the classroom, the college as an organization is also an example of community, perhaps the closest, most accessible example for students beyond the family. The way we develop the college as a community and the way the college interacts with the larger community beyond it can serve as powerful examples for our students. Every day students are exposed to the "hidden curriculum," as Palmer points out: "We know that students learn as much from the 'hidden curriculum' of institutional patterns and practices as from the formal curriculum of concepts and facts, so education would be more truthful if our schools themselves became more reflective of the communal nature of the realities we teach."

As with modeling the "capacity for learning," everyday work and actions by members of the college community can model the capacity for citizenship. Ithaca College is what I describe as a voluntary community: the odyssey to this port of Ithaca has been ordained by ourselves and not by the gods. Students, staff, and faculty alike are here by choice. No one made us come and no one makes us stay. This gives us special opportunities to deliberately build community.

We build community

  • by modeling interdependence, inclusion, and a sense of trust;
  • by living out the belief that the community is strongest and at its best when there is diversity of background, ideas, and experience;
  • by engaging in difficult dialogues and living with differences of opinion while we study and work side by side;
  • by treating each other with respect, civility, dignity, and compassion;
  • by engaging as active members of this community to make it better;
  • by exhibiting a sense of larger purpose in the work we do, a sense of connection to the larger society;
  • by applying acquired skills and knowledge to the service of the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

Yesterday the College community engaged in a day of community service. It was a terrific day --- an example of fulfilling individual and institutional responsibilities of good citizenship. It is not the only day of the year when individuals and groups from the College engage in such activities to benefit others. Rather, it was a purposefully intense effort to celebrate our long-standing commitment to the idea of service and to make a public pledge to keep this commitment --- this ethic of social responsibility --- alive and thriving in the years ahead.

Resolution of Paradox

In educating our students to be effective leaders, we must enable them to develop

  • a capacity for learning --- knowing
  • a capacity for citizenship --- knowing better

In each of these dimensions, formal academic and cocurricular programs play an important role. In each of these dimensions, as well, the College and its members serve as important role models: we are all learners and must continue to be if we are to meet the challenges that lie ahead, and we all play an important role in the development and sustainability of the College as a healthy and effective community. We all have the opportunity and the responsibility to live lives of good citizenship.

Our work is public, as it should be, and it provides rich examples for students of what professional life and organizational work are and can be. What students experience here, at this critical stage in their development as responsible human beings, will be instructive to them long after they leave us. Let us all commit to making this community a model of the kind of communities that we hope students will affect in their own lives.

What, then, of the paradox I mentioned at the outset: Are the goals of individual development and social responsibility contradictory notions? The tension between individual development and social responsibility is central to the dynamics of human life and the continuous negotiation between individual and society. Education begins in the appropriation of skills for the development of self, but both those skills and the self are, finally, defined in relation to larger structures of organization, the community, or the state. In my view, the capacity for learning has, as its ultimate aim, the capacity for citizenship.

Parker Palmer brings these two notions nicely together in his concept of an "ethical education":

Ultimately, an ethical education is one that creates a capacity for connectedness in the lives of students. Education has always been defined as the development of certain capacities (for example, critical thinking and the tolerance of ambiguity) that allow the educated person to live more productively and more at peace in a complex and demanding world. But these vital capacities are sometimes taught in ways that break community rather than build it. Critical thinking becomes a tool for disengagement, and tolerance for ambiguity becomes cheap relativism. . . . Critical thinking can be taught as a mode of citizen participation, and tolerance of ambiguity can be taught as a way of listening to others without losing one's voice. But if community is not the foundation stone of the educational enterprise, these skills will quickly degenerate into the capacity for disconnectedness that is so characteristic of educated people today.

Parker continues, saying:

At this crucial moment, we have an opportunity to revision [sic] education as a communal enterprise from the foundations up --- in our images of reality, in our modes of knowing, in our ways of teaching and learning (and I would add our ways of working). . . . Such a revisioning would result in a deeply ethical education, an education that would help students develop the capacity for connectedness that is at the heart of an ethical life.

In such an education, intellect and spirit would be one, teachers and learners and subjects would be in vital community with one another, and a world in need of healing would be well served.

And so, rather than be resolved or solved, the paradox must, like belief, be lived. Education is there to guide us as we embrace the paradox; education fails when either aspect of the paradox --- the individual or society --- becomes predominant.

Thank you.