Convocation 2002

Ithaca College, August 26, 2002

Good morning, faculty, staff, students, trustees, and guests. Welcome to the 2002 -- 2003 academic year.

Ferrol Sams' novel, The Whisper of the River, begins with these words:

He hopped into the front seat of his father's Buick . . . . Despite a flicker of cold fear way deep inside, he felt confident. After all, he was Peter Osborne Jr. He was the last of his line, the bearer of the name, the hope of the future, and a light on the mountain. He was going off to college. (Ferrol Sams, The Whisper of the River, page 14)

We are here today to welcome all new students -- many of whom, I imagine, share Peter's conflicting emotions -- to Ithaca College. I bring you all warm greetings from members of the College community, including close to 50,000 alumni whose ranks you will join when you graduate.

Each year as we welcome new students into this academic community, faculty and staff take this occasion to reflect on our roles as educators and to recall why each of us has chosen to be here. Students, you are here to learn and to develop. We, faculty and staff, are here to support you in that exciting endeavor and to help you achieve your academic and personal goals. We promise you the opportunity for success and we pledge you our commitment to support you along the way.

This is a time filled with great hope and with a sense of a new beginning. Students, you are embarking on a journey, one with bumps, turns, and rainbows. You have a goal: to earn an undergraduate degree. However, it is the journey on the way to that goal -- how you shape it and how you experience it -- that will define the quality of your intellectual and personal development and your overall college experience.

You represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. You come from many places around the country and around the world. Because of these diverse qualities and traits, you will enrich our community with the unique perspectives you will bring to the classroom, to discussions in the residence halls, and to overall campus life. Relish this special time in your lives and the opportunity to be full-time learners. It is both a labor and a luxury to take four years to learn and to reflect on the world of ideas and on your hopes and dreams. It should also be life-changing.

As a class, you are very special in many ways. Academically, you represent the strongest group of new students in the College's history. For those of you who participated in auditions as part of the admission process, I know that our faculty were very impressed with your talents. As a group, you have an impressive record of leadership, athletic prowess, commitment to community service, and much more. We welcome you and the gifts and the promise that you bring to this community.

As you look to further develop your gifts and promise, you must also continue to develop your sense of responsibility. Today I want to talk about responsibility, specifically as it relates to the concepts of community and intellectual discourse.

Intellectual discourse and community

In coming to Ithaca College, you join a community of learners. We are a residential community and you will experience college as a learning community, both in and beyond the classrooms and laboratories. You will live and learn with students from diverse backgrounds who have different life experiences and who hold different value systems.

Each of us comes to this community with our unique experiences, backgrounds, and cultures. We all contribute to what Ithaca College is -- we all learn from one another and support each other in our learning. In order for communities to be good places for living and learning, members must respect one another and their differences. Understanding and acceptance of those who are different from you will come about when you treat others with respect and when you are open to what they believe and say. In the words of Provost Peter Bardaglio at the August 22 faculty orientation, "Deep learning is rooted in embracing differences."

As a new student at Ithaca College, you are joining an intellectually lively community. You are here because you will make significant contributions to the College in all its dimensions. Colleges are engaging and vibrant learning communities. Our collective work -- students, faculty, staff -- involves the ongoing development of our intellectual capacities, our habits of the mind.

We love to think, to talk about ideas, to be constructively critical, to search for new knowledge, and to find meaning in all that we experience. Playing with ideas and imagining possibilities is our work, as impractical as that may sound (as it is). You come to Ithaca College with intellectual skills already developed, and by the time you graduate you will be an even more sophisticated thinker and intellectual.

Ingredients for an effective, active learning community include:

  • a willingness to exchange ideas
  • an interest in playing with ideas
  • a respect for difference of opinion
  • the confidence to develop your own ideas
  • a willingness to listen and to change one's view
  • and much more

Healthy intellectual environments also require collective responsibility to be civil and respectful in interactions and exchanges with one another. However, civility and respect for different opinions are not synonymous with failing to speak up for your beliefs. This is true even if one's opinion is not a popular one. Rather, the perceived majority opinion must respect the rights of others to differ and allow them to do so openly, safely, and respectfully.

College is an exciting place to be -- the exchange of ideas and intellectual discourse are at the heart of the academy.

These principles and ideals probably sound quite simple and agreeable to all of you as I speak about them today, theoretically or in the abstract. However, I chose to discuss these ideas today because of some things we learned about ourselves last year, when discussion and exploration of lively and controversial issues tested our principles of open-mindedness and respect for different points of view. Over the course of the last year, we experienced situations where individuals with "liberal" points of view felt harassed or unwelcome, as well as times when those with "conservative" points of view felt equally on the "outs" or the object of ridicule.

It was a lively year of discussion and debate across the political spectrum. Debates about topics ranging from the events of 9/11 and the resultant state of world affairs to the state of feminism in 2002 tested our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression. When we heard or read things that disturbed us -- about issues that were confusing, troubling, and highly emotional -- we needed to remind ourselves of the principles of intellectual discourse that we uphold and value.

In the words of Ruth Simmons, president of Brown University, we had to remind ourselves that "the protection of speech that is offensive or insulting to us is one of the most difficult things that we do. While confidence may be found in silence, truth cannot dwell there" (Christian Science Monitor, December 26, 2001). The free and open exchange of ideas only works when the nature of the discourse is civil, when the rights and feelings of others are respected, and when differences are celebrated.

Students, your Ithaca College experience will enable you to further develop your capacities to think critically; to appreciate diversity of background, outlook, and opinion; and to engage in intelligent, informed, and respectful discourse.

As we begin this new academic year and as you begin your life at Ithaca College, it is important for each of us to commit to be active learners, to jump into conversations and debates with enthusiasm and good intentions, and to be mindful of our commitment to mutual respect. This is how we will learn and grow.

Practical advice

And now I also have some practical advice for how to make the most of your college experience. Students, you are surrounded by opportunity, much of which is not obvious to you at this time.

  • Take a course that you would not take ordinarily beyond your primary field of study. Often the course we remember is one that had nothing to do with our major. For example, I remember vividly a physical geography class that I took as an elective.
  • Get involved in community service as a volunteer. Many of you have already started on this course in high school. At Ithaca College, we are committed to being good neighbors with the city and the town. There are many opportunities for you to do good for others. Some of you have already begun to get involved in community service here, through your participation in the Community Plunge program late last week. Many more opportunities lie ahead for all of you.

    As I meet Ithaca College alumni in my travels around the country, I am struck by the important volunteer work that they are doing in their communities and by how their student experiences here shaped that commitment.

  • Participate in an activity that you never thought of before -- it could end up being your career.
  • Incorporate at least one international experience into your program, and explore other opportunities right here on campus to broaden your knowledge and understanding of the world and of other cultures.

    Explore other opportunities to study elsewhere, at our center in Los Angeles for students in the Park School and at our center in Washington, D.C., which serves students in all academic programs.

  • Attend music, theater, and other arts events on campus and in the community because these are enjoyable and enriching experiences and because you may never again find yourself in a community so replete with such opportunities.
  • Ithaca College is well known for its outstanding athletic programs at the intercollegiate and club level. Consider participating. Students do pick up new athletic interests during their college years. If you are not gifted in this way, then support our athletes by attending their games and meets.
  • Play a role in student government and the numerous clubs and organizations on campus. No matter how many situations in which you are a follower, be sure there is at least one in which you are a leader -- we need both.
  • Enjoy these wonderful surroundings for both exercise and reflection. Take a walk or a run on the trails up behind the Terraces residence halls, enjoy all that the nearby state parks have to offer, relish the beauty of the waterfalls right here in town, and relax by the shores of our chapel pond.
  • Whatever you do, have fun: that is a critical ingredient for a successful college experience.

My message is a simple one. Take advantage of all the opportunities that are here for you -- in and out of the classroom -- to learn as much as you can about yourself, your interests, and the world in which you live. Make a commitment to change the world in small and large ways, and begin that work here.

As you begin your studies, remember that doubt and uncertainty are part of the learning process. If you go through your Ithaca College experience without being challenged or stretched, without feeling uncomfortable, or without changing your mind about some long-held opinion, then we will have failed to provide you the experience that we intend to provide. Were you to leave here the same as you came, to what end the college experience?

You start your college days with enthusiasm and a history of success. We welcome you to this learning community not as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge from someone else but rather as individuals responsible for your own learning and as contributors to the learning of others in and out of the classroom -- faculty, staff, and fellow students alike.

We are delighted that you have chosen to study at Ithaca College, and we look forward to learning and growing with you. Do well and enjoy.