Our students, too, are empowered codesigners of their educational experience, and master theory to express their truth. We saw this so profoundly yesterday, through the partnership between Professor Kathleen Mulligan and acting student Fiorella Fernandez. Kathleen’s project, called Searching for Ancestral Voices, asks her students to inhabit another life, another way of being in the world. Fiorella’s expression of this task was to connect with another generation—her grandmother—to express the essence of her existence, to open a portal into an elder’s past.
Practice. Within the deep practice of theory, there is often difficulty and struggle. Practice requires a diligence of study, the vulnerability of courageous intellectual inquiry, the power of taking risks and of being open to challenge long-held assumptions.
It is important for Ithaca College—and all institutions of higher education—to provide a brave space for the practice of theory. Inherent in this responsibility is a commitment to honor different kinds of knowledge, and different ways of seeking it.
I am reminded of the work of political scientist Scott Page and of Lani Guinier, a law scholar and civil rights theorist, researchers whose philosophical and empirical approaches explore the power and potential found in working with cohorts, in recognizing the sophistication and knowledge that lies beyond academic merit. Their research demonstrates so well what happens when boundaries are erased. When we open our definition of knowledge to encompass its practice and creation in unlikely places—and through unlikely connections.
Because the reality is -- as my dear mentor, colleague, and friend Dr. Nancy Cantor often reminds us -- not everybody starts on first base. Students don’t arrive on campuses with the same social capital, with the same confidence, with the same knowledge base. And many students have to fight for a seat at the table. We were horribly reminded of this in September, with the federal decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, which enables “dreamers” to pursue their educational aspirations in the United States.
We see that struggle, too, in the experiences of first-generation college students, who don’t always have a path to follow; Who arrive at a college campus, as I did, with the sense of displacement that comes with landing in a very unfamiliar place, a space that doesn’t always expect to change with you.
I was reminded of that experience when I learned the story of Clarice Jones, the first known student of color to attend the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, who graduated in 1912. I imagined what it must have been like for her; I felt connected to her.
It is difficult to be the first, to open these doors, either as an individual or as an institution. But it is necessary.
If we in higher education fail to take risks, to broaden our scope, we fail our society. We help perpetuate a narrow worldview, one that demands an attitude of distance and disengagement. In our country right now, we are seeing what happens when people hide—when they act on their fear, their bias, their rigidity of thought. In these situations, there is no creative practice, there is only dogma.
To move past this, we must build educational models that force us to look in the mirror, to think about how we can test the boundaries of who gets to be a scholar, who gets to be an educator, who gets access to educational spaces. We move past these barriers through transformative initiatives like The Posse Program, which shaped my own undergraduate experience by providing me a faculty mentor and a cohort of Posse scholars who were invested in my success.
When boundaries disappear, we can realize the full potential of a residential college campus where everyone is welcome to practice deep intellectual inquiry, and everyone is empowered to collaboratively create and consume knowledge.
Performance. Ithaca College’s deep roots in the performing arts continues to infuse the spirit of our great institution. But for us to thrive over the next 125 years, we must continue to expand our definition of what it means to perform.
Performance is ultimately about being responsible for our future, for modeling what our ideal world will look like. When we drive toward this ideal, we can fulfill our responsibility to be a private college that truly serves a public good.
One way we do this work is on campus, by crafting a residential college experience that pushes the envelope of established practice. I look forward to developing a model here at IC that positions us as a leader in creating an innovative, inclusive student experience, while acknowledging the cross-sector learning opportunities that a residential college can provide our faculty and staff.
Our location and our networks also make this possible. We exist in a rich educational ecosystem here, one that includes a robust community college that spans two counties, a high caliber K-12 experience, and a land-grant Ivy League institution. We have community partners who are committed to the promise of this city, this town, and this region. We have an engaged, deep, and talented alumni base of partners who are commited to serving as mentors and volunteers. The possibilities for productive, transformative collaborations are limited only by our gumption.
When we scale up these connections, we allow people to participate fully in a broad, active learning community; we inspire the development of bravery, courage, respect, empathy, and humanity. When we do these things—when we perform in this outward-facing way—we build partnerships that change us and change our world.
This weekend, we are celebrating the evolution of Ithaca College: how we began, the multitude of ways we have grown, and our hopes for the future.
There are many examples where evolution is used as a justification for oppression. For the supremacy of one species over another, one ethnic group over another. That’s not us. Our evolution is equity. Our evolution is inclusion. It is growth. It is our acknowledgement and celebration of our past. It is an eager anticipation of what will happen next.
I’d like to go back to that vision that Tom Grape shared with me many months ago—a vision of collaboration, of togetherness. It reminds me that success is not about competition—it is about the company you keep.
And as I look around, I can say with great confidence that we are keeping some amazing company right now.
All of us here have the power to create an exceptional future for higher education and for this country. This is an incredible opportunity—and we cannot let it pass us by.
Let’s work together to advance a vision that affirms our humanity. Let’s be daring. Let’s be confident. And let’s step – arm in arm – boldly into the future.