2012 First-Year Assembly Address

President William D. Adams, Sept. 4, 2012
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Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and, above all else today, members of the great Class of 2016 and transfer and exchange students—welcome to Colby and to this assembly, the traditional and highly ceremonial start to the academic year. 

Knowing how important traditions are to students, I want to begin by remarking briefly on the tradition we continue here today.

For at least sixty years, all new Colby students have been formally welcomed in this 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 an 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.

You will return to this place on the eve of your graduation for the baccalaureate service and address, 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 conclude.

Both of these moments—saying hello and farewell—usually involve advice from the president. That probably can’t be helped, given the timing and nature of these events. What I can promise is that in your four years here, there will be only two such moments. The rest, including our future interactions, will be much more spontaneous and interactive. You’ll find my office hours posted on my website, by the way. Please come by, if only to talk and introduce yourselves. No more complicated or compelling reason will be necessary.    

Even as this event sustains a long tradition at Colby, there is something different and special—indeed unique—about this particular First-Year Assembly. As you’ve been told many times already, Colby is celebrating its bicentennial this year. So you are coming to us at an auspicious and unrepeatable moment in the long history of the College. No other class will be able say that it arrived in the year of our 200th birthday. And for better or worse, no other class will be able to say it heard the president’s bicentennial First-Year Assembly address. 

If that thought makes you a little nervous, imagine how I feel. I’ve been spending time in the library’s special collections room looking over presidential addresses from important moments in Colby’s history, and guess what? They’re all there—speeches from the 50th, 75th, 100th, 125th, 150th, and 175th birthday celebrations—preserved in perpetuity for future historians and curious future presidents.

I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too: this better be good. I will do my best. In case things don’t work out, and unlike all of my predecessors, I will have the opportunity to erase my hard drive.

I’ll begin by pointing out that the place in which we’re gathered, Lorimer Chapel, was the first building erected on the Mayflower Hill campus. It was started in 1937 and is named for the father of George Horace Lorimer, Colby Class of 1898, and editor for a time of the highly regarded magazine, the Saturday Evening Post. With a single gift, Lorimer covered the entire cost of this building. This is a theme you will find repeated around the campus and in what I offer up today. 

It’s hard now to imagine Colby being anywhere else than here, on Mayflower Hill. But not so long ago this assembly would have been held on the downtown Waterville campus, probably in Memorial Hall, along the banks of the Kennebec River. It was there that Colby had its beginning and where it developed into something resembling the institution we know today. Memorial Hall once housed the Lion of Lucerne, which now has its home on “the street” in Miller Library. The lion is definitely worth a visit, by the way. It is a very moving tribute to Colbians who lost their lives in the American Civil War. 

The First-Year Assembly seems to have started on the old campus in 1939, just before the beginning of the move to Mayflower Hill. The Colby Echo of October 4, 1939, notes the invention of this tradition and goes on to note that the convocation was followed by a group photograph and a tour of the campus. It also notes that activities the following day included a campus picnic and an “illustrated address” on Colby’s history by Professor Herbert Carlyle Libby. 

You’ll be glad to know that I don’t intend to burden you with a history of the College, never mind an illustrated one. But I am intrigued by the notion of a brief audio tour of the campus as a way of piquing your interest and encouraging your further explorations. 

So here are a few things of note on Mayflower Hill: 

When you leave here today, have a look at the summit of the tower on Miller Library. You’ll notice a beautiful and very large weathervane in the shape of a sailing vessel. It’s an image of the Sloop Hero, the ship that brought Colby’s first teacher, minister and later president, Jeremiah Chaplin, to Colby in 1818. Chaplin was the first faculty member appointed by the Board of Trustees following the granting of the charter by the State of Massachusetts in 1813 to the Maine Literary and Theological Institute, Colby’s name at the time of the founding. Chaplin sailed from Boston on June 20th, 1818. He brought with him his wife, Marcia, five children, and seven students. The trip took five days. Marcia was seasick throughout.

When Chaplin arrived, there were no buildings, no other faculty, and no students beyond those traveling with him. No one in this small, heroic band had the resources to pay for college, let alone start one. So one of the first things Chaplin had to do was raise the funds necessary to create the essential building blocks of Colby. When he wasn’t teaching and doing everything else associated with administration, Chaplin traveled to towns and villages throughout New England seeking what were then called “subscriptions”—gifts supporting the enterprise from people completely unaffiliated with the College but committed to higher education and its significance to the common good. In this respect, at least, the life of a college president hasn’t changed very much.  

If you find yourself standing in front of the library admiring the Sloop Hero and pondering what Waterville was like in 1818, turn around and walk toward the flag pole. Just below it you will find a foundation stone from the nearby Albion home of one of Jeremiah Chaplin’s best students and Colby’s most famous graduates, Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Class of 1826. After leaving Colby, Lovejoy became a renowned journalist, newspaper owner and editor, and one of the fiercest opponents of slavery in the country. Lovejoy was murdered by an angry mob in Alton, Illinois, in November 1837 after publishing a series of powerful editorials condemning slavery and those who supported it. Today Lovejoy is often hailed as the first martyr to press freedom. 

Lovejoy was the product of the potent abolitionist movement that flourished among Colby’s students in the 1820s, 30s and 40s. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but it was after one particularly noisy and raucous abolitionist demonstration that Jeremiah Chaplin decided he’d had enough of the life of a college president. He resigned on July 31st, 1833. 

From the Lovejoy stone head further down the hill toward Lunder House and the Diamond Building. Just before you cross Mayflower Hill Drive, on your right, you might want to stop to look at the memorial to Arthur Jeremiah Roberts, president during the first decades of the 20th century and one of Colby’s greatest leaders, especially during the perilous passage of World War I. The memorial was originally erected on the old campus and later moved to Mayflower Hill. It’s marked off by a piece of the old fence that surrounded the downtown campus.  

And then there are the names—dozens of names—on virtually every one of our buildings. They all have stories. Some of these names belong to Colby’s former presidents—Johnson, Roberts, Strider, Piper, Cotter, Champlin, Bixler—and some to other important figures in the College’s history. Those of you living in Mary Low will want to know that your home is named after Colby’s first woman graduate, Class of 1875. Mary Low and Louise Coburn, Colby’s second woman graduate and first woman trustee, led the fight against the College’s backsliding on the ideal of coeducation in the 1890s. 

You’ll notice other names commemorating acts of generosity that brought the Mayflower Hill campus into being—Anthony, Mitchell, Schupf, Lorimer, Diamond, Miller, Pugh, Grossman, Lunder, Alfond, to name a few. Among the most recent of these is the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center, named after roommates from the Class of 1968 who came together to fund this important new home for alumni activities and programs in honor of their friendship. You’ll find a lot of Colby history on the walls in the alumni center—affectionately known as SSWAC—and I hope you will take a few minutes to visit there sometime soon.

At the very summit of this pyramid of Colby philanthropists is of course Gardner Colby himself, for whom the College was renamed in 1864. Colby was not an alumnus of the College, but through his personal relationship with President James Tift Champlin, and in memory of an act of kindness shown his mother by our first president, Jeremiah Chaplin, Colby saved the College from almost certain ruin during the Civil War with an extraordinary gift of $50,000, a huge sum in those days. Colby made several additional gifts over the following three decades, during which time he also served as a trustee.     

There are many more such stories, but you can see where I am going with this, I am sure. It’s to make the point that Colby’s existence and its fundamental well-being have depended since the beginning on the enduring care and support of its alumni and friends over now 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 and friends 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 of both the College’s history and for the many ways in which your own 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, among many other places. 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. 

And so you are now part of a community that lives in time as well as in space. As you become members of the extended Colby community, you become a part of something larger than yourselves. Your presence here obliges you not just to understand that fact but eventually to find the ways in which you too can be bearers and champions of the Colby legacy. 

For most of us, of course, assuming the Colby legacy will not involve the grand gestures of philanthropy I’ve noted. But there are many other forms of engagement and support that are just as important and consequential. You should know, for instance, that each and every year nearly one half of all living alumni contribute to the Colby Fund—the annual giving program that goes directly to the support of the operations of the College and, by extension, to each and every one of us. And hundreds of alumni are involved every year in myriad volunteer activities of one kind or another—serving as career counselors, conducting interviews with prospective students, and organizing and attending Colby events in cities around the country and throughout the world. These opportunities, and more, are waiting for you on the other side your campus experience. 

In this sense, remarkably little has changed here over the last two hundred years, in spite of the vast changes in Colby’s stature, its resources, its physical setting, and the extraordinarily important changes that have occurred in the curriculum. What remains true is that the affiliation you began last week is one that will endure for the rest of your lives. 

It’s also important for you to know that the intellectual adventure you begin today is still played out in much the same way it was when Jeremiah Chaplin arrived in Waterville with his first seven students. This is still a place where the educational mission and experience is realized in close encounters among students and between students and faculty in the focused setting of a residential campus. The world around us is changing very rapidly in this regard. Think of the stir caused in recent years by grand announcements about virtual learning at major research universities. But here, the notion of an embodied, face-to-face form of education, rooted in the practices of conversation and dialogue, prevails.  

Two qualities are especially important to our individual and collective success in this face-to-face setting. Because we’re in the historical mode, and at the risk of being a bit old fashioned, I’ll call these qualities the cardinal virtues of the residential liberal arts college community. The first is the passionate and committed engagement with the intellectual work we do together; and the second is civility—our capacity to engage in this work in a deeply respectful and supportive way. Let me elaborate on each of these virtues.

Calling the work we do here together “intellectual” may seem excessively narrow and a bit cool, but I really mean to invoke something very broad, exciting, and thoroughly emotional. As an intellectual community, ours is an enterprise devoted to the exploration of ideas, to investigating the past, to valuing artistic and cultural expressions of every kind, to understanding and debating important political topics and social issues, to investigating and understanding nearly 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.  

Passionate and committed engagement is a key virtue for at least two reasons. First, we’ve learned a lot in recent years about the relationship between the intensity of student engagement in college and both achievement and satisfaction. The research can be distilled pretty simply: the more actively and intensely you’re engaged with your work here, and the more varied the forms of engagement, the more meaningful, richly rewarding, and successful you, and we, will be.   

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 work with faculty in real and consequential forms of scholarship. Intensity of interest is one of the things that faculty respond to best, and when you express your interest you will find that this faculty will be very responsive indeed. 

You will also find that your academic programs are loaded with other opportunities for engagement outside the classroom—lectures, advisory groups, discussion groups, and manifold opportunities to participate in informal intellectual encounters with other students. And you will find opportunities to engage in practical learning and public service of various kinds—in Waterville, central Maine, and beyond—where what you learn in the classroom gets tested against the stuff of the real world. As we celebrate Colby’s relationship with Waterville in the context of the bicentennial, these forms of engagement are especially important.

What we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to the sort of engagement I am recommending 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 your intellectual growth here is your personal and passionate engagement. 

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 your values 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 enthusiasms, you should know that the desire to influence events, along with the skill to do so, belongs among the fundamental goals of liberal learning. 

Which brings me to virtue number two: civility. 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 fairly 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 completely 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. 

Our appreciation and practice of civility is especially important in light of the growing diversity of the College. As you’ve heard from Terry Cowdrey, yours is one of the most diverse classes in Colby’s history. You come from all over the world and from different material circumstances and cultural backgrounds. You have a great deal in common, but it’s also important to be mindful of, and interested in, the ways in which you are different. 

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 valuing 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. 

Let me make one last observation relating to the bicentennial celebration. Reading in the Colby histories this summer, I was reminded of the fact that every particular moment in the history of an institution like this one is profoundly limited in certain ways. Sometimes these limits are material in nature, but just as often they are limits on our moral imaginations and the things we value and desire.  

My reading also reminded me of how important student initiative is to breaking through those limits and to creating the conditions for real change. Over the long course of Colby’s history, students have been crucial actors in the evolution of the College. This is not to say that students have been alone at the forefront of important developments, but it’s hard to think of a really important shift in outlook or culture or organization that occurred without student engagement.

So you can make a difference here. That's part of the value of being at a place as small and generally responsive as this one. Individual and group initiative have consequences here, and that’s generally a good thing.

It also brings with it certain obligations. The first has to do with learning about how the College really works. That will take a bit of time and perseverance—it’s a pretty complicated enterprise, as it turns out. But you will be better prepared and able to make a difference if you understand how things happen around here. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.    

It’s also worth recalling that many of the important changes that have occurred at Colby involved events and broader movements in the world around us. It’s sobering to know that the major crises in the College’s history came during times of war, when the educational enterprise was seriously threatened by wartime necessity and scarcity. The abolitionist cause that swept through the student body in the first half of the 19th century was consequential in another way, and so too was the long, sometimes unsteady march toward true coeducation, spurred on by Mary Low’s and Louise Coburn’s dramatic gesture in the 1890s. Like many places, Colby experienced both the swelling hopes and profound disappointments of the 1960s and the antiwar and counterculture movements. And the legacy of the civil rights movement echoes to this day in the College’s unfinished work on behalf of diversity and equity.

While Colby sometimes feels like a world apart, it really isn’t. And of course it can’t and shouldn’t be. You will find your own points of reference and connection. And in doing so you will understand how deeply relevant what you do here is to the world "out there" and in which you will be, we hope, committed and consequential actors. 

Four years from now, when you gather again in this place for the last time, 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 on the development of your talents, interests, and basic intellectual capacities. I urge you to seize this opportunity with all the zeal and energy you can muster. You won’t be sorry for the effort.

Welcome to Colby, then, and to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery. 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. 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.