Convocation 2004

Ithaca College, August 23, 2004

Thank you, Board of Trustees Chairman William Haines. Good morning, everyone, and a special welcome to all new students. We are delighted you are here.

Since joining Ithaca College, I have had the privilege of welcoming seven classes of new students to campus. I know from personal experience that each class is unique, and I am certain that you will leave your own distinct mark on this institution as well.

You are an exceptional group of people. I am, however, reminded of what Robert J. Kibbee, chancellor of the City University of New York, said: "The quality of a university [or college such as ours] is measured more by the kind of student it turns out than the kind it takes in" (New York Times, July 27, 1971). I agree with Mr. Kibbee: it is the job, it is the mission, it is the obligation of every one of the 1,300 Ithaca College faculty and staff to provide you students with an exceptional educational experience -- an education that broadens, strengthens, and inspires you.

If we succeed, and if you take full advantage of your time here, you will leave this campus wiser, more knowledgeable, thoughtful, mature, grounded, and sure of yourself than you are today. It is our job to ensure that when you graduate from Ithaca College, you will be prepared to make your way in the world.

You have worked hard to get here, and your parents and families have sacrificed to make it possible for you to attend Ithaca College. I have a few suggestions that will help you to succeed here and make the most of your college experience.

  • Take a course that you would not ordinarily take, beyond your primary field of study. Often the course we remember is one that had nothing to do with our major.
  • Get involved in community service as a volunteer. You can help others right here in the neighborhood by joining in our outreach efforts at the South Hill Elementary School or the Longview senior community center. You can also help on a national level, by participating in our fall or spring break service projects.
  • Incorporate at least one international experience into your program. Study at our London Center or one of our programs in Scotland, Ireland, Spain, Japan, Australia, or Singapore. Also consider studying at one of our centers in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
  • 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 with so many opportunities.
  • Consider participating in one of our outstanding athletic programs at the intercollegiate, club, and intramural levels.
  • Play a role in student government and the many clubs and organizations available to you on campus.
  • If you like the outdoors as much as I do, I encourage you to fully explore our nearly 800-acre campus and to see what the many nearby local and state parks have to offer.
  • And, finally, whatever you do, have fun; it's a critical ingredient for a successful and memorable college experience.

You are here at college to develop yourself -- intellectually and personally -- and to leave here prepared to participate and contribute to your community and the larger society.

A college education is a privilege, not a right. I believe that the privilege of attending college comes with certain responsibilities, responsibilities to yourself and to society. I believe that the privilege of attending college comes with responsibilities you have as a member of this campus community and responsibilities that you will have after graduation.

You begin your life at Ithaca College in a year of a national election. For most of you this will be your first opportunity to vote for members of Congress and for president of the United States. Some among you may not yet be of voting age -- others of you are citizens and residents of other countries. All the same I encourage you to bring your perspectives to the dialogue that will take place about democracy and about politics. All of you will have a unique opportunity to vote in November -- more about that later.

Webster's dictionary describes democracy as "government by the people." I like this simple, four-word definition. It doesn't talk about Washington, D.C., about Congress, the White House, the Supreme Court, the armed services, or any other governmental institution. At the heart of this definition is the acknowledgement that you and I are the government!

Democracy is not a political party or a legislative body. Government exists at the will of the people of this nation. We decide what we want our nation to be. We decide how we want to live. We decide how things will change and how things will stay the same.

This definition of democracy suggests that you and I are active participants in the democratic process. Sadly, our collective actions do not live up to this definition. Many students abdicate their right to vote to someone else. In the last presidential election, 18-24 year olds were half as likely to vote as many other adults (Gannett News Service, February 18, 2004). Do you want other people deciding what your future will look like? I don't think so.

According to the Gannett News Service, the percentage of young people who vote has been falling since 1972. But there is hope. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that "the tide of student political opinion is shifting," and noted that interest in this year's presidential election among young adults is higher than it was four years ago.

Among the general population, most voters have already chosen their candidate. According to a New York Times/CBS news poll, 79 percent of those surveyed have already decided who they will vote for in November. That figure was just 64 percent in July of 2000 (New York Times, July 25, 2004).

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reported that 20 percent of voters say they are still open to being persuaded by a presidential candidate. That compares with nearly 33 percent in past campaigns (New York Times, July 25, 2004).

Why have we as a nation become so divided -- and voters so intractable? It comes down to the issues that people are passionate about and the depth of that passion. The war in Iraq, abortion, the environment, tax cuts, gun control, homeland security, health care, same-sex marriage, the economy, and a host of other issues have hardened opinions and left little room for moderates.

The fact that such a large percentage of voters have already made up their minds makes young voters like you all the more influential in the November elections. According to a recent poll by the Kennedy School of Government's Institute for Politics at Harvard University, 41 percent of college students currently identify themselves as independent (Chicago Tribune, May 16, 2004). In other words, you and 13 million other students of voting age could well determine who will occupy the White House next term.

Many of you here today also belong to another potentially influential block of voters in this year's elections. There are more than 40 million single women in this country who are of voting age. Women traditionally vote in greater numbers than men. But this is not historically true for single women. Unfortunately, single women are what the Los Angeles Times calls "voluntarily disenfranchised."

More than half of the single woman of voting age -- more than 20 million women -- did not cast ballots in the 2000 presidential elections (Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2004). In a survey taken soon after the 2000 presidential elections by pollster Anna Greenberg, 65 percent of single women said they viewed the country as "seriously off on the wrong track," and yet many of these very same women have left it to others to get the country back on track. According to Anna Greenberg, many single women think their votes don't matter. That assumption is simply not true.

As columnist George Will pointed out in a recent article, the result of the last presidential election would have been reversed by the switch of a mere 269 votes in Florida and fewer than 22,000 votes in New Hampshire, Nevada, or West Virginia (Hartford Courant, July 26, 2004). Likewise, Democratic strategist James Carville believes that less than three percent of the electorate is likely to decide who becomes president in 2004 (Business Week, June 14, 2004).

There are many people sitting on the sidelines of our democracy. According to Business Week magazine, among the 172 countries with democratic elections, the United States ranks 139th in voter participation. A little more than half of the 186 million Americans who are eligible to vote for our nation's leader do so. That is a very sad fact. In essence, 50 percent of the adult population is deciding for the other half what the future of this great country will look like.

I hope that things will be different this year and that you will be part of that difference. We have reason to think so. According to the Pew Research Center, 45 percent of Americans said that the outcome of the 2000 presidential election was important. This year, 63 percent said the outcome was important. Clearly people care about what happens in this year's elections and are getting engaged in the process. That's just what we need for the democratic process to be strong.

In his book Soul of a Citizen  (1999), Paul Rogat Loeb, a guest lecturer here on campus last fall, says that America has all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship. He is on a mission to get people involved again in their communities, fighting for the social issues they care about. He believes, as I do, that we need to heed the warning of former University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, who said: "The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment."

Loeb encourages us to fight cynicism and to believe that we have the power to define and redefine our nation's priorities, to right wrongs, and to change things for the better. To do so, you and I must accept that the democracy (democratic process) is a work in progress. We must accept that it will only remain strong if it is constantly evolving to address the changing desires and needs of the people it represents.

As author Terry Tempest Williams puts it: "Democracy invites us to take risks. It asks that we vacate the comfortable seat of certitude, remain pliable, and act, ultimately, on behalf of the common good" (Orion magazine, March/April 2004). Her words are true for a well-established democracy like ours, as well as for countries where democracy is a new concept.

This summer I cycled 800 miles through Eastern Europe, spending time in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. The people of those nations are working to establish their priorities and to define their own brand of democracy. Despite our long history of democracy, America must work just as hard to ensure that its democracy is healthy and continuously evolving.

You will have a number of opportunities to be an active participant in the democratic process. This fall you will find many election-related events here on campus, from voter registration to debates and forums sponsored by academic departments and student organizations. A college campus is an exciting and informative place to be in an election year.

As an experiment we will hold our own trial election just prior to the national presidential election. All current students -- including those of you who are citizens of other countries as well as those of you who may be too young to vote -- and all faculty and staff will have the opportunity to cast a ballot for president, just days before the nation goes to the polls. Stay tuned for details.

I hope that you will participate in our experiment. I hope that you will learn about, and debate, important national issues. I hope that you will evaluate the candidates and determine which one best represents your values and priorities, which one best represents your hopes and dreams for this country.

Finally, to all those eligible to vote, accept your responsibility to be among those who vote on November 2. By doing so, you will be among those who shape the future of this nation. By doing so, you will have taken an important step towards becoming a responsible citizen, something that will serve you well at Ithaca College and as a citizen of the nation and the world.

In closing, welcome to Ithaca College. Our outstanding students, faculty, and staff are eager to get to know you. I encourage you to challenge yourselves and to take advantage of the multitude of exciting academic and cocurricular opportunities that await you. This is a wonderful institution. These next few years will be some of the most exciting and fulfilling years of your life. Enjoy them -- and do well.