2005 Baccalaureate Address

President William Adams, May 21, 2005
Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of the Class of 2005, welcome to this Baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby's 184th commencement.

As my faculty colleagues know, this occasion always prompts me to call attention to the tradition we continue here today. The Baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. Indeed, we have been gathering in this particular way for as long as students have been graduating—since 1821, to be exact.

"If any period at Colby can be called historic, then, it is certainly yours. And I am sure that future classes will look back with envy and astonishment upon your experience."

The program has changed, of course. And I also remind each class that the first 87 Baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were Baptist ministers. The Colby histories indicated that their Baccalaureate sermons were long.

For better or worse, I am not a Baptist or a minister, though I do admire the toughness and conviction of those early predecessors. I am also not inclined to deliver sermons, though you must have wondered about that several times during the past four years.

But here we are, gathered in this special place and in this special company. Faculty colleagues process in their robes; the seniors gather for nearly the last time; the president rises from the pulpit to speak. It has been so for 184 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.

A part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell. But this gathering also reminds us of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened—between students and teachers, and students and classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president has the task of saying something meaningful about all of this in a time frame not exceeding 20 minutes. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, let me now summon my own form of farewell on behalf of all those gathered here today and others who have touched your lives at Colby.

In thinking about your time at Colby, I must confess to feeling a kind of personal connection with your class. For like my own generation’s College experience, yours, too, was profoundly marked and shaped by extraordinary things happening far from Mayflower Hill.

You know, I am sure, what I mean by extraordinary things. No future graduating class at Colby is likely to experience the startling surprises you have experienced. For it was here, in your time, that the curse of the Bambino was finally broken. It was here, in your time, that the “idiots” staged the impossible comeback against the evil empire—“my daddy,” as Pedro Martinez put it so creatively. And it was here, in your time, that the New England Patriots won not one, not two, but three world championships in professional football.

If any period at Colby can be called historic, then, it is certainly yours. And I am sure that future classes will look back with envy and astonishment upon your experience.

I hope it is not unseemly to make such lighthearted observations in the shadow of other events that have also defined your time at Colby. I do so in part because those other events are so dark and deeply confounding. It is best to approach them a little obliquely, and with the understanding that our lives are lived in several dimensions, including the lighthearted.

I am also aware that at this very moment, at Baccalaureate services and commencements around the country, college presidents and speakers are weighing in on the meaning of September 11, 2001, and all that has followed. As you probably know, you are now officially known as the “class of September 11,” as television and radio journalists around the country have been telling us for the last week or two.

How does one speak about these events without resorting to clichés and hyperbole? Simply and directly, I suspect, and with apologies in advance for the inadequacy of words to describe fully what the events mean. Here is my own offering, with all the appropriate caveats.

"More than ever before, the simple exercise of democratic citizenship in this country is a worldly matter, in the literal and figurative senses of that word."

First, I am certain that that morning four years ago will be etched forever in your individual and collective memories, as it is in mine. And I am also quite sure that September 11, 2001, will become that singular generational event you will recall among friends and classmates when you meet them out in the greater world, or when you return for reunions at Colby and gather under tents on warm June evenings. “Where were you when you heard…?”

For my generation, the roughly analogous moment was the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. The event was in itself unforgettable and mesmerizing. But it was also the beginning of a period of turmoil and conflict that changed all of us, forever, in both good and bad ways. My memory of that one day is tangled up, then, with the thick sense of an entire era and time of life.

The kinship I feel with you has to do with this sense of living in an extended period of fateful events. We do not know how these events will end, but only that we will be very different when they do. And this, I would suggest to you, as I did to the Class of 2002, is the deeper meaning for you of September 11. In the midst of an otherwise perfectly ordinary day in Maine, history abruptly entered your lives. The familiar concerns and preoccupations of everyday life—exams, athletic contests, friendships and romance—were suddenly displaced by a drama of vastly different proportions. For an extended moment, distant events replaced local time and history. Our personal biographies were suddenly and weirdly connected to places and people we thought and knew little about. And we were reminded, in a terrifyingly graphic way, of our personal and collective vulnerability to forces outside our immediate control.

This uncanny encounter with history is now a part of your identity as a class. But beyond that obvious fact, what does it have to do with your future?

Several things are obvious to all of us. The world has become a tougher place in many ways; its parts are more interdependent and closer to one another than ever before; and, most importantly, it will demand your attention and judgment and involvement in new and unprecedented ways. More than ever before, the simple exercise of democratic citizenship in this country is a worldly matter, in the literal and figurative senses of that word.

"You were engaged in the things that mattered here on Mayflower Hill—your academic work, your commitments outside the classroom, your friendships. But always hovering in the background was that larger drama and reality of history in the making."

The years following September 11 have not been any less stretching in this regard. For most of that time—your time as College students, like my own—the United States has been at war. And during that time you have been exposed to a more or less steady stream of startling reinforcements and extensions of the harsh lessons of September 11. Of course, life in all its other forms went on, as it should have. You were engaged in the things that mattered here on Mayflower Hill—your academic work, your commitments outside the classroom, your friendships. But always hovering in the background was that larger drama and reality of history in the making.

Now, on the verge of your departure, that reality is closer than ever before. I would not blame you if you are wondering how the degree I will lay in your hands tomorrow relates to the sorts of things you will encounter on the day after.

Those things are not limited, of course, to politics and history, They include the more familiar and prosaic things that all of us expect to have to sort out in life: a meaningful and rewarding professional life; engagement with the communities we inhabit; happy and satisfying personal lives. How well are you prepared to grapple with all of these things? Indeed, are you prepared in any way at all?

The answer is emphatically yes, I think, but not always in ways that will be immediately apparent. By way of demonstration and encouragement, let me offer some real-world examples of what I mean.

Consider, first, an article that appeared in the April 12 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled “Future CEO’s May Need to Have Broad Liberal Arts Foundation.” The Wall Street Journal, I should note, has not built its reputation on warm and fuzzy optimism or a particular friendliness to liberal arts colleges. But in the case of this article, a very definite sort of optimism is attached to the prospects of students from places very much like this one.

“The route to the top (of the corporate ladder),” the article begins, “is changing, management experts say.” One of those experts is Peter Veruki, head of external relations at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. He defines the new route to success in this way. “It’s about maturity and leadership,” the article continues, “rather than about how many accounting courses did you take…. Companies are going to start to look at the fundamental value set of an individual and their basic education. Did they study philosophy and culture and history rather than just accounting, finance and engineering?”

And here’s my favorite part: “Fast-forward 20 or 30 years,” this expert goes on, “and we’re going to find business leaders who maybe majored in philosophy rather than business.”

Not everyone aspires, I know, to become a CEO. But for all you humanities majors out there, and there are many of you, I hope this perspective provides a general sense of encouragement, if not vindication. I will be happy to share a copy of the article with your parents.

For the social scientists among us, there is the compelling example of Dan Harris, Colby Class of 1993, and your Commencement speaker tomorrow. Dan is now an important correspondent at ABC News, and he has covered some of the most demanding international stories of the past several years—your College years—in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Pakistan. I don’t know what wisdom Dan will offer up tomorrow, but his professional success says much, I think, about his capacity to learn, to communicate, and to understand new and complex things. Like the philosopher king of The Wall Street Journal article, Dan Harris is a pretty good case for the vocational relevance of the liberal arts.

"The sorts of professional demands and opportunities the world is about to place before you will be remarkably varied, rich and complex. In that sense, the breadth and versatility of your intellectual journeys here give you certain important advantages."

If Dan’s case is too exotic, we can look a bit closer to home and to an occupation a bit more down to earth—the professional football coach. I mentioned earlier the splendid New England Patriots, who have given you so much to feel good about, unless you are from Indianapolis, or St. Louis, or Philadelphia. Consider the case of Bill Belichick, the remarkably successful coach of that team. Belichick, as everyone knows, has redefined the role of head coach in the NFL. At the heart of that redefinition is Belichick’s braininess. Commonly referred to as a genius, Belichick wins, the theory goes, because he can think better and faster and more deeply than anyone else around him. He has given the term scholar-athlete new meaning.

And where, we might ask, did Bill Belichick develop these awesome intellectual powers? At Michigan? No! At USC? No! At Miami? Certainly not! Bill Belichick went to Wesleyan, that juggernaut of college football. And what did he major in at Wesleyan? Economics! Knowing as I do that institution, I am sure that Belichick’s studies included very full doses of the arts and sciences, in addition to economics.

Finally, there is the remarkable case of Rocco Landesman, Colby Class of 1969, and one of the honorary degree recipients you will meet tomorrow. I have encountered few careers more fascinatingly varied than Landesman’s. He now heads one of the most important production groups on Broadway, and in that capacity he has brought to the stage some of the most successful and critically admired plays and musicals of the past decade. Before that Rocco ran a mutual fund company, taught literature and criticism at Yale, and had a barn full of thoroughbred race horses. All of which demonstrates to me that you can do pretty much anything you want with a Colby education.

I suspect not one of these remarkable people knew what he would be doing 10, 20 or 30 years after graduation. And it probably was not obvious to them in what ways they had been prepared to succeed in the ways they did. And that is the point, really. The sorts of professional demands and opportunities the world is about to place before you will be remarkably varied, rich and complex. In that sense, the breadth and versatility of your intellectual journeys here give you certain important advantages.

Of course, only part of your lives will be lived in the professional realm. A great portion of your satisfactions and challenges will play out in more private spaces and encounters of all kinds. And here the question of how prepared you are takes on a very different sort of meaning. After all, part of what we have tried to do here is to prepare you to encounter life, art, and ideas in the thoughtful way of liberally educated persons.

I was powerfully reminded of this fact last Wednesday evening when I attended the Maine premiere of the fine HBO film Empire Falls, which, as you know, is based on the wonderful novel by Colby parent and sometime faculty member Rick Russo.

As many of you also know, Empire Falls is the story of a mill town in Maine that has seen better days. More particularly, it is the story of the intensely personal histories and relationships of the inhabitants of this town as they struggle with the harsh circumstances around them. Above all else, it is a story of personal tragedy and redemption and the struggle to find meaning and love in places that do not easily accommodate them.

"Never underestimate the quality and utility of what you have done here as a platform for engaging and understanding the thorny problems that will surely come your way in the years ahead. In ways you cannot now imagine, your Colby experience will return again and again to serve you."

Several things struck me about the vision embodied in this very good movie. The first has to do with the essential fragility of the things we care most about and where we experience our most intense satisfactions and vulnerabilities—our friendships, our families, our personal histories. In Empire Falls that fragility is ascribed to a volatile mix of personal failure and weakness, on the one hand, and the larger forces of an impersonal and somewhat malevolent fate, on the other. And when things go wrong, the ruin at first seems nearly complete.

The second striking thing about the story’s vision is its fundamental and hard-won optimism with respect to the human capacity to endure and to rebuild from the ruins. This is the powerfully redemptive part of the story and the source of its basic hopefulness. Just when there seems no hope left in Empire Falls, the world comes back in to a kind of order where love and decency and respect are possible again.

The third and last thing that struck me in watching the movie has to do with the redemptive power of art itself. What I realized during and after Empire Falls is that one of its great achievements and gifts is its own insight, its perspective and truth, if you will, on the moral dilemmas of the lives it imagines. Through its insight, the story is itself a medium of the redemptive process—a mirror in which we see ourselves better than we did before. Like all great works of art and literature, it inserts us more deeply into our own experience of the world.

My hope is that in subtle but real ways your Colby experience has provided you with a greater capacity to encounter and reflect upon the intensely personal dimensions of life in this way. Reinforcing that capacity has certainly been part of our intent. I am not sure when and how you will become aware of it. Perhaps in recalling a particular work of art or literature you encountered at Colby; perhaps in encountering new works with greater understanding because of your practice here. But I am sure the capacity matters in a deeply existential sort of way.

This is beginning to sound a good deal like a sermon after all, so it is probably time to stop. So let me sum up in the following way.

In a variety of ways, from the personal to the occupational to the political, I predict that you will be steadily surprised and delighted by how well and often the intellectual foundation you have built at Colby will serve you. Never underestimate the quality and utility of what you have done here as a platform for engaging and understanding the thorny problems that will surely come your way in the years ahead. In ways you cannot now imagine, your Colby experience will return again and again to serve you.

And so too, I trust, will your sense of belonging to one another and to Colby. You carry this connection with you in your memory and feelings, and in your relationships with classmates and teachers. And now you can also look forward to encountering it among other Colby graduates. Like all large and extended families, this one has lots of members. You will find them in every place you work and live, and you will discover in their presence the part of you that is still here.

As you do so, I hope you will come to feel a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. For as alumni, this place really does belong to you in a new and powerful way. Its future well being will depend increasingly on your affection and support, as its present strength depends on those who have preceded you.

Thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment to this place. And thank you, above all else, for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting and promising time in your lives. That is why we are here, after all. And it is work in which we achieve our most important satisfactions.

Good luck to you all; God bless you; and goodbye.