2010 First-Year Assembly Address

President William D. Adams, September 7, 2010

Listen to President Adams' Remarks (31:47)

Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and—above all else today—members of the great Class of 2014 and transfer and exchange students—welcome to Colby and to this assembly, the traditional and highly ceremonial start to the academic year. And congratulations on surviving one of the weirdest weeks of early September weather we've had here in anyone's memory, a week that included a record-setting heat wave and a close encounter with Hurricane Earl.
 
Knowing how important traditions are to students, I want to begin by remarking briefly on the tradition we continue here today.
 
Each new class of Colby students is welcomed in this way, and in this place, to the Colby community and experience. We have been doing this for a very long time—nearly two hundred years—and in very much the same way. Faculty lead the way, dressed in formal academic regalia. This is one of the first of your many encounters with them. Their presence symbolizes the heart of the enterprise and what we are up to here—students and teachers gathered together in extended conversation about the world and things that matter. Of all the encounters you will have at Colby, your engagement with faculty is surely the most important.
 
We will return to this place on the eve of your graduation for the baccalaureate service, when the president and faculty, looking very much as we do now, will bid you farewell. These are the symbolic bookends of your experience with us. And they suggest a kind of symmetry to your Colby careers that I know you will appreciate by the time they are concluded.
 
What will happen to you between these bookends? What, exactly, is in store for you at Colby? And how can you take best advantage of the opportunities that lie before you?
 
I want to hang on to the idea of tradition just long enough to observe that one of the notable things you will experience over the next several years is the celebration of Colby's 200th anniversary—our bicentennial—in 2013. We'll be talking a good deal more about this important historical marker in the reasonably near future, but it's good for you to know that it's coming and to begin to feel connected to Colby's long and distinguished history. For in just a few more years, you'll be the guardians of the College's legacy.
 
It requires a considerable effort of imagination to connect to our earliest days. You may have felt like you were making a real effort to get here when you first visited Colby or when you arrived here last week. Contemplate, then, the passage of Colby's first president, Jeremiah Chaplin. After his election by the Board of Trustees, he journeyed from Boston to Waterville by boat, which explains the otherwise mysterious fact that a replica of his ship, the sloop Hero, sits atop the library tower in the form of a monumental weathervane. The voyage from Boston by way of ocean and river took nearly one month.
 
Chaplin was a Baptist minister and an alumnus of Brown and in the early years of the College ran the place pretty much by himself. Indeed for the first several years he had no help at all. The student body consisted of roughly a dozen young men, and Chaplin taught them all. The course of studies included grammar, arithmetic, geography, logic, and, of course, theology—lots of it. A second faculty member was hired in 1821 to teach languages. During his 15 years as president, Chaplin handed out diplomas to a grand total of 84 students. By contrast, there are now more than 20,000 living Colby alumni.
 
For most of our history, Colby's campus was also quite different, as well. Indeed, and as some of you know, it was in an entirely different place, in downtown Waterville on the banks of the Kennebec River, just north of the intersection of what is now College Avenue and Main Street. During the time of the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s, Colby's leadership became increasingly concerned about the viability of the College, surrounded as it was by the railroad, the river and the rapidly growing Waterville community, then a thriving mill town. In a moment of both courageous vision and desperation, the president and Board of Trustees resolved to move the campus to an entirely new location here on Mayflower Hill. That courageous act probably saved Colby for those of us who came after and who have benefited from its strength and excellence.
 
So things have indeed changed a great deal, in these and other ways, over the past 200 years, and it's hard sometimes to feel that we're studying and working at the same place. And yet, in several important ways things are not so different.
 
One of the most important ways in which things remain constant is the fact that Colby's existence and fundamental well-being have depended on the enduring care and support of its alumni—that is to say, its former students—over now nearly two centuries. In that long span of time, there have been good times and bad, times when the College seemed to be rolling easily along and others when its very existence was in doubt. But the care and affection of alumni have been constant factors in our longevity and success.
 
One of our fundamental hopes for you while you're here is that you will develop a keen sense for both the College's history and for the many ways in which your experience here is grounded on the hard work and generosity of those who have preceded you. You have begun to meet them already. They are present in the buildings that carry their names, in the classrooms they have equipped with technology, and in the programs they have made possible. Soon you will begin to meet them in person, when they return for homecoming this fall and other gatherings of various kinds. I urge you to introduce yourselves.
 
In short, you are now part of community that lives in time as well as in space. As we become members of the extended Colby community, we become a part of something larger than ourselves, and we are obliged not just to understand that fact but eventually to find the ways in which we too can be bearers and champions of the Colby legacy.
 
What you share with the extended Colby family, in addition to the experience of Mayflower Hill, is the excitement of being part of an important and thrilling intellectual enterprise, of belonging to a community devoted to exploring ideas, to investigating the past, to valuing artistic and cultural expressions of various kinds, to exploring and debating important political topics and social issues, to investigating and understanding every facet of the natural and human worlds around us. There was a time when all of these things would have been identified under the rubric "the life of the mind," which is still apt but for the fact that the adventure we are engaged in is every bit as much about the world as the mind, about what's happening around us, about the things that we and others care about, about the meaning of it all.
 
And here is a second and even more important way in which we are not so different from Jeremiah Chaplin and those students who gathered in his living room almost two hundred years ago. Throughout Colby's history, our elemental hopes for students have remained remarkably constant. It's your intellectual growth—the growth of your minds and your capacity to think and to communicate—that most concerns us, and it is to that growth that we are most energetically and constantly committed. And so must you be, if you hope to get that maximum benefit from the time you spend here.
 
You will experience this growth in all kinds of interesting ways, no two exactly alike. Colby's academic program is remarkably rich, and each of you will come to know it from a slightly different angle.
 
We certainly hope and expect that you will grow from your exposure to specific disciplines and programs. It may be that your intimate acquaintance with biology, or computer science, or art, or economics, or Chinese—and in some cases more than one of these—will lead to a career in that field. Whether it does or doesn't, we are very sure that your learning a great deal about one or several areas of human knowledge is a very good and necessary thing.
 
But as important as your deep acquaintance with specific subjects here will be, it is not the most important aspect of your academic experience and intellectual development. Our deeper hope and expectation is that wherever you end up in Colby's interesting array of programs, each one of you will experience a more general kind of intellectual empowerment that will serve you throughout your lives after Colby.
 
Nearly 20 years ago, Colby's faculty agreed to describe these capacities under the rubric of the "Colby Precepts," which encapsulate our vision of what a liberal arts education is all about. I urge you to look carefully at the precepts, now and periodically as you make your way through Colby. As you do so, I hope you will ask yourselves how you are doing in terms of the specific aspirations the precepts set forth.
 
Of all the intellectual powers we hope you will acquire here, three are especially important for you to keep track of: your ability to write and to speak with clarity, conviction, and power; your ability to think about and through complex problems and issues—to analyze, criticize, synthesize, and integrate; and, finally, your ability to exercise your imaginations and creative powers.
 
These basic capacities—to communicate, to think, to imagine and create—are among the enduring and most fundamental goals of the liberal arts experience. As your teachers, we need to be thinking constantly about how our specialized interests and work are exercising and enlarging those capacities. As students, you need to be constantly checking in on and evaluating your progress. For nothing will matter more in your lives after Colby than your ability to communicate, to think, and to imagine and to create. Together, these capacities form the most elemental meaning of your intellectual empowerment.
 
What we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to the sort of empowerment I am describing is passivity. Nothing is more certain to constrain your growth here than the notion that you will learn by way of quiet osmosis—by sitting attentively in classrooms and laboratories and listening politely to others. Listening matters greatly in certain ways and moments—I will come back to this shortly—but the real key to intellectual empowerment is intellectual engagement.
 
By engagement I mean in part a certain attitude on your part—inquisitive, curious, eager, excited. But engagement also implies your involvement in certain activities. First and foremost are the opportunities Colby offers you to engage faculty and to work directly with them in real and consequential forms of scholarship. You will also find that your academic programs are loaded with other opportunities for engagement—advisory groups, discussion groups, lectures, and manifold opportunities to participate in informal intellectual encounters outside the classroom. You will also find opportunities to engage in practical learning and public service of various kinds—in Waterville, central Maine, and beyond—where the work of the classroom gets tested against the material of the real world. Your investment in these activities will be returned to you again and again, and nowhere more meaningfully than in the permanent fortification of your basic intellectual capacities.
 
Even as we focus on intellectual empowerment, we are also intensely aware that intellect severed from moral energy and passion is cold and lifeless. It's not our job to advance any particular set of values in our teaching; indeed, as I will suggest in a moment, a necessary part of our work is to inspire you to question beliefs and certainties, including your own and those of others around you. But please do not confuse such questioning with moral cynicism. Our desire is not that you come away from Colby without conviction, but that your convictions become more thoughtful and reasoned, and that you understand the broader context in which values and value systems originate, develop, and interact.
 
One moral sensibility that I am sure we would all agree is essential to the sort of educational experience we aspire to provide is your inclination to be involved in the world around you. Whatever the particular object of your public enthusiasms, you should know that the desire to influence events, along with the skill to do so, belong among the fundamental goals of liberal learning. Your generation's emergent idealism—your desire to make a difference—is in this sense a very good thing, and I hope it will continue to grow while you are with us.
 
Here, too, there is a striking link to Colby's early history. In the early 1830s, the Colby community was swept up in the antislavery movement that was gathering momentum and followers across New England. Colby students led the way here in Waterville, inspired in part by the example of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a graduate of the class of 1826 and one the great abolitionists of the era. As some of you know, we celebrate Lovejoy's legacy annually by inviting a distinguished journalist to the campus. Stay tuned for announcements about this year's convocation.
 
Our appreciation of the importance of civic and moral engagement brings with it certain obligations. The first is an appetite among all of us for new ideas and a tolerance for intense but civil debate, exchange, and disagreement. When large and important topics are at issue, the family discussion here can be a little noisy. And indeed it should be, for we cannot really understand ourselves or the important questions of the day without challenging one another and ourselves.
 
But this appetite for debate and exchange must always be tempered by our common commitment to respect. Even when you disagree most energetically, even heatedly, your capacity to summon a fundamental regard for one another is essential to continuing our work together. We may disagree with one another, but we must always have an eye to the more fundamental things we have in common.
 
As important as it is, respect will not protect you from feeling a certain level of intellectual discomfort, at times deeply personal, as you make your way through Colby. Inevitably, and perhaps especially in your interactions with one another, your fundamental assumptions and beliefs are going to be challenged here. That's the way it should be. If everything you currently think about the world remained comfortably in place throughout your time here, we would have failed you in a most serious way. You need to remember that. And you also need to be able to engage in the hard but rewarding work of staying open and engaged in spite of your discomfort.
 
This is where listening comes in. Your capacity to listen, really listen, to one another is terribly important. I predict that at some point someone's words or beliefs will strike you as so wrong-headed, so entirely off-base and clueless, that you will want to walk away or start shouting, never mind listen. But that is precisely the time to catch yourselves and summon your best listening skills.
 
The flip side of listening, of course, is speaking to others in a way that invites their listening, conversation, and further response. You can't really benefit from new and unfamiliar people or ideas unless you are prepared to get to know them. That requires real exchange, conversation, dialogue. And conversation demands patience and persistence. It also demands a way of expressing yourselves that invites response and that is from the outset respectful.
 
What's ultimately implied here is a delicate balancing act between two very powerful values. Because our educational mission requires the unconstrained exploration of ideas and the questioning of received wisdom, we place an extraordinarily high value on the freedom of expression. But it's terribly important to remember that our commitment to free expression is not a license to say whatever comes into our heads, in any tone of voice, no matter how smart or compelling or important it might seem. The academic freedom that we value and protect exists alongside our concern for community; the one is incomprehensible without the other. At times these values exist in uneasy tension. But one never trumps the other.
 
Respect, curiosity, tolerance for discomfort, and the capacity to engage in extended conversations about demanding, perhaps threatening, topics—these are some of the requirements of membership in a community of learners, teachers, and truth-seekers. This is at once a different enterprise, and certainly a more delicate enterprise, than we confront as citizens of the public world. That public world is a pretty rough place at times, and it must have a very high degree of tolerance for even the most offensive utterances. But at Colby we can and do have different and higher standards of behavior. Those standards are not enforced by speech codes and or explicit regulations. But they are and should be made evident in the personal and institutional expectations we have of ourselves and one another, and by a kind of candor in our interpersonal relations about what is appropriate and inappropriate, respectful and hurtful, civil and uncivil. I am sure you will live up to these expectations.
 
In this particular dimension of community, Colby is a fundamentally different place than it was when Jeremiah Chaplin sat around the table with his students nearly 200 years ago. Our appetite for questioning authorities of all kinds—intellectual and political—far exceeds the appetite that characterized the College in those days. Even more important, we are a far more diverse community than the Colby of the 19th century. Indeed, we are far more diverse than the Colby of even a few years ago, as Parker Beverage noted earlier.
 
This diversity has many dimensions. It includes our ethnic and cultural differences, our diversity of national origins—witness the flags of nations that decorate this ceremony today—and our differences of belief, values, and thought, among other things.
 
This diversity is a very good thing, of course, for we are convinced that our differences enhance dramatically the educational experience we are able to provide. So appreciating our differences is part of the College's agenda, and it must be part of yours as well.
 
This sounds easy, but in practice it can be very hard, for really valuing our differences necessarily throws us outside our comfort zones and into other zones where unfamiliar assumptions and perspectives prevail.
 
Being able to listen carefully for and to those different assumptions and perspectives is vital. And so too is your continuous awareness of the fact that your own experience of the world is neither universal nor identical to the experiences of others. All of this implies, and finally requires, real sensitivity on your part and a certain thoughtfulness and deliberateness in the ways you interact with one another.
 
You will notice the common themes running throughout these remarks. The first has to do with your initiative, energy, engagement. Your teachers, and all others on the campus who support their enterprise, are ready and waiting for you. But we need you to connect to us and this environment with all the energy and passion that you can muster.
 
The second theme is the importance of your adopting a spirit of openness to all that you are about to encounter here, openness to personal change and growth, openness to the new and unfamiliar, and openness to your interesting differences. If you can sustain these forms of openness in your time at Colby, then you will indeed be able to take advantage of the many riches that are here.
 
I know that some of you are already nervous about how your choices here might influence the career opportunities you will have when you leave Colby. And if you're not worried, I'll bet some of your parents are. I hope you won't permit this anxiety to interfere with the openness I am counseling.  
 
I say this for several reasons. The first is that the path from a specific course of undergraduate studies to professional opportunity, success, and satisfaction is not as straight and narrow as some believe. The second, and much more important, is that the development of the fundamental intellectual capacities I've touched upon will be much more decisive in your professional lives than anything else you might do here. Just this morning I met with a Colby parent who shared with me the good news of his son's recent elevation to a position in the office of the chief executive of the firm where he works. Completely unprompted by me, this proud parent noted that his son had been promoted on account of the writing and speaking abilities he had developed at Colby. You'll be interested to know that he majored in mathematics and minored in creative writing.
 
So instead of narrowing the aperture of your academic investigations at Colby, let me suggest that the best place to take your career concerns is to our Career Center. Roger Woolsey and his colleagues have devised a wonderful four-year program, Colby Connect, that will insert you into the sorts of preparatory exercises that will serve you well as you contemplate life after Colby. I urge you to stop by the center in the next month or so to begin this important conversation.
 
Several years from now, when we meet again in this place, you will be on the verge of assuming your places in the world beyond Colby. Between now and then, you have a singular opportunity, one that will never be repeated in your lifetimes, to focus exclusively on learning and the development of your talents, interests, and basic intellectual capacities. I urge you to seize it.
 
Welcome to Colby, then, and to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery. I will see you again in several years to offer some perspective on what we have experienced together. In the meantime, don't hesitate to stop by my office, to talk to me when you see me on the campus, or to ask me to lunch. I'll buy. We're all teachers here, in our own ways, and I'll do my best to be involved in your lives.
 
Good luck, thanks for listening, and have a wonderful first year at Colby.