2001 Baccalaureate Address

President William Adams, May 26, 2001
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and family of graduating seniors, and--above all else on this occasion--members of the class of 2001, welcome to this Baccalaureate service, the first formal moment of this Commencement weekend and celebration.

Because this is my first Baccalaureate at Colby, I did some looking into its history. And here is what I found.

The Baccalaureate service has a long and distinguished history. Indeed, it seems that we have gathered in this way for as long as students have been graduating, that is, since 1821. So Colby presidents have been rising to address the senior class at this service for 180 years.

"But one thing I am sure has not changed very much over the past 180 years, and that is the urge that presidents have on such occasions to say farewell. The language has changed, but the desire to offer meaningful and memorable parting words has not."

Of course, the nature of the occasion, and especially of these presidential remarks, have changed a good deal over that time. Because Colby's first 13 president were Baptist ministers, the president's address was typically a sermon. And the sermons weren't short. This was the moment, it seems, when presidents shared nearly everything that had come to them during the previous year on a variety of weighty subjects. Imagine the self-control required of those graduating seniors, especially when the weather was hot.

I hope you will be relieved to know that I do not intend to follow in this aspect of the tradition.

The tradition began to change in 1908 with the election of Arthur Jeremiah Roberts as Colby's 14th president. Roberts wasn't a minister; indeed, he wasn't even a Baptist. Worst of all, he was an English professor. Knowing that all of this might prove difficult for his nomination, the search committee polled the full Board to learn its mind. Several Trustees responded with high concern, demanding to know where exactly Roberts stood with regard to certain questionable social activities, including card playing and dancing.

Knowing how concerned the senior class was this year with my views on certain social activities, I want to declare in this very public moment that I am completely in favor of dancing. Indeed, I have even danced among you, at the inaugural ball. And I am open to invitations to low stakes poker, if any games are planned before you go.

As Colby became a more diverse community, this event and address became more secular in its form and meaning. The end of the sermon, in other words, and of a precise religious orientation. But one thing I am sure has not changed very much over the past 180 years, and that is the urge that presidents have on such occasions to say farewell. The language has changed, but the desire to offer meaningful and memorable parting words has not.

And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of goodbye, which consists of several closely related thoughts. I have no hope they will be memorable, but a little that they will make sense.

The first thought is quite personal. This is my first Commencement at Colby. And for that reason, the class of 2001 will always occupy a very special place in my memory.

In this regard, the predominant feeling I have toward all of you is gratitude.

Thank you, first and foremost, for serving as teachers of the new president. Like new students, new presidents need help, and you have been wonderfully helpful in every way.

Thanks for your patience. It must have been challenging at times to put up with my unavoidable ignorance, which you have helped to dissipate.

Thanks for your careful teachings about the unique rhythms of this place, and for introducing me to its distinctive culture and concerns.

Thank you for your candor and frankness when you knew I just didn't get it.

Thank you for not believing every rumor about champagne on the library steps.

Thank you for the phrase 'Brohibition', which I now attribute, rightly or wrongly, to your class, and for the T-shirt that followed. The phrase and the shirt are now included among my most treasured possessions.

Thank you for demonstrating your affection for Colby, which taught me much about its soul.

And thank you, especially and finally, for letting me see your talents shine in so many places and so many ways--in the classroom, on stages and playing fields, and in the studio, among others: it was inspiring to watch you. In your company I was reminded steadily of the meaning of what we do here.

"This is my first Commencement at Colby. And for that reason, the class of 2001 will always occupy a very special place in my memory."

Beyond acknowledging my special feelings for this class, my remaining thoughts arise rather naturally, I hope, from the interesting emotional and intellectual junction at which you now find yourselves. That junction, of course, connects your Colby lives with what comes next. Tomorrow you will walk from this place into that exotic and shimmering place called "the real world." At the risk of being ponderous--the most common vice of Baccalaureate addresses, I am sure--I offer the following thoughts about that world and how it is connected to the one you are about to leave.

Some of you depart here with a passionate and full sense of what you will and must do, very likely because of something you became acquainted with here. Others among you can look forward to that discovery at some point in the future.

Wherever you find yourself in this spectrum of self-knowledge and certainty, I predict that the world that now summons you will be one of surprises, especially in terms of the work you do.

The surprises will arise from several sources. One of the newer but now permanent features of our economic circumstances is the pace and relentlessness of change. Organizations come and go at a dizzying clip, and so, too, do occupations. Most of you are destined to have multiple careers in numerous and different places. On top of that, you will find that your professional inclinations are subject to their own rhythms and the serendipity that always affects our lives. All of which will assure you of professional engagements and challenges you can not now imagine.

To cope with the element of surprise, I recommend several things, first among them a very full sense of irony. What I mean by irony is a readiness and tolerance--maybe even an appetite--for unexpected turns and redirection. For the real world is a pretty ironic place, in professional and most other ways that matter.

Along with irony, I urge upon you the vivid recollection of what you acquired here. What we have tried above all else to do is to empower you--to help you develop the kinds of intellectual capacities you will need in any kind of life and circumstance. Remember just how powerful and various your intellectual possessions really are, and how many worlds are now open to you because of those powers. In the bracing circumstances in which you will live and work, your greatest assets will be your ability to think creatively and powerfully about complex problems, your ability to speak and write with clarity, persuasion, and conviction, your ability to sort through complex moral issues, and your ability to learn. Suppleness and agility and strength of mind are now your greatest virtues.

Regardless of what you do in it, my second prediction about the real world is that you will find it to be very stretching. In ways you cannot now imagine or visualize, your professional and personal commitments will require you to reach and grow and stretch beyond your known limits. Most of you will face a steady diet of moments when something is asked or demanded of you that you are not completely sure you can deliver. And then you will reach into your internal reservoir of capacity and energy and find what is needed.

"I hope that among the lessons you have internalized is the caution that there are no abstract theoretical answers to the thorniest questions, but only answers discovered in the living of real and committed lives."

My third and last prediction about the real world is that of all the stretching things you will have to do, the most stretching of all will reside in realms most familiar and obvious. These realms reveal themselves in a set of persistent questions: what does it mean to be a good friend, wife, husband, parent, lover; what does it mean to be a good citizen; what does it mean to be a good human being?

The questions sound abstract, but they are really among the most practical you will ever have to face. Addressing them will require you to struggle with both personal inclinations and social arrangements that make the answers difficult to achieve.

Here, too, in ways both planned and unplanned, I hope your lives at Colby--in and out of the classroom--have helped you prepare for these morally complex and testing moments. I hope that among the lessons you have internalized is the caution that there are no abstract theoretical answers to the thorniest questions, but only answers discovered in the living of real and committed lives.

Surprising, stretching, morally complex and testing--those are my predictions about what you will find in the so-called real world. And by now you will not be very surprised to hear me say that in these respects, the real world is not all that different from this nearer world you have been a part of for the past several years.

If we have done our work well, all of you been surprised in some way and at some moment by the intellectual journeys you have taken; all of you have been stretched in some way; all of you have been impressed with the hard work of living with other people. Your experience here has not been so much a different world as it has been an imaginative and highly condensed variation of what awaits you.

One of the things you will find waiting is a large and interesting community of Colby alumni and alumnae who remain a part of this place and who are in large part responsible for having made it the kind of place it is. You will find these people throughout your lives, in all kinds of obvious and unlikely places.

As you meet them, I hope you will be reminded of how much the past and future of Colby depends upon the continued affection and loyalty of its former students, parents and friends. This is the last and maybe most important connection between this world and the world to which you now depart. The future strength and reputation of this wonderful place will in many ways depend upon you. In a new and powerful way, Colby belongs to you, and its well being will have a lot to do with your active and constant affection.

When your collective predecessor, the class of 2000, arrived on this and many other college and university campuses five years ago, there was much discussion of the special significance of the class of the new millennium. I will confess to you that the arrival of your class—the class of 2001—had far greater significance for me. And I will also confess—this may be a Baccalaureate first--that that the source of that significance was a movie—2001: A Space Odyssey—directed by the great British filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick.

"The future once imagined is now; a time once so mythically distant has arrived."

The film was released in 1968, as the country sank deeper into the rancor of the war in Vietnam, and it had a lasting impact on me and others in my generation. The impact had in part to do with the film's revolutionary technique, but more profoundly with its story and its "futurism"--the simultaneously jolting, magical and hopeful vision of what was in store for all us, particularly in the realm of technology, which was then beginning to change the world in so many ways.

That was 1968; it is now 2001. As I look out upon this class, I am struck again, as I was when you arrived, by the warp of time. The future once imagined is now; a time once so mythically distant has arrived.

Without stretching things too much, I want to turn this uncanny sensation into a parting observation and piece of advice.

The observation has three pieces, as follows: the future belongs to you; you will get there sooner than you think; and when you get there, you will find only yourselves (and other people like you) to sort it out.

The advice is singular: seize this opportunity that is now before you. You have so much talent and energy, you are so well prepared, and the world needs your thoughtful engagement and determination to make a difference.

Let me end in the mode of gratitude. Thank you for the many things you brought to this place during your years here. Thank you for letting us watch you grow and flourish among us. Thank you for representing Colby to the many other worlds you now enter and to the many people you will now engage.

Good luck to you, safe journeys, and farewell.