2009 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 23, 2009

This ceremony also reminds us of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened—among students and teachers, and among students and classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

Members of the Board of Trustees, Colby overseers, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of this great Class of 2009, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 188th Commencement.As some of you know, the baccalaureate service has a very long history at Colby. We have been coming together in this particular manner since 1821—for as long as students have been graduating from the College.

Of course the program has changed with the times. I remind each class that the first baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. The Colby histories indicate that their baccalaureate sermons were very long and stern.

We no longer have the sermon, and I am not a minister, though you may wonder about that by the time I am finished. Still we continue to meet in this special place and company. Faculty colleagues and trustees process in their robes; the seniors meet as a class for nearly the last time; the president rises to speak. It has been so for 188 years, and so it will be, I am sure, for at least that many more.

Part of the reason for our commitment to this tradition has to do with the timeless urge to say farewell, and to do so in this somewhat private and focused way.

But this ceremony also reminds us of what these years have been about and where the most important things have happened—among students and teachers, and among students and classmates, in both formal and informal places and ways.

The president is supposed to say something meaningful about all of this in a time frame not exceeding 20 minutes. And so, as 18 Colby presidents have done before me, I want to offer my own farewell by sharing some reflections on your time here, and especially on your most interesting, not to say tumultuous, senior year.

That year began somewhat ominously with the onset of the global financial crisis that rocked higher education and almost every other enterprise in this country. Just about the time you arrived on campus last fall, the country’s credit markets, and then its stock markets, and finally all of its markets went into a profound swoon—the most profound, we are told, since the Great Depression.

The College was forced to react quickly and in unprecedented ways. You became accustomed to a steady stream of e-mail messages from me regarding the extraordinary challenges we faced. By way of the information that we shared, as well as the relentless media attention that attended the crisis, we all became familiar with a new lexicon of economic terms—liquidity, credit default swaps, mortgage-backed securities, derivatives. Here in Waterville there were budget cuts, program reductions, worries about our endowment and fundraising, and nervousness about the admission season and financial aid.

I’m betting that your memories of this past year, and indeed of your college experience in general, will be strongly influenced by the remarkable shift in the American political landscape that you both witnessed and engaged, irrespective of your politics.

Beyond the College’s and the country’s economic problems, I know that this turmoil had a more immediate and existential dimension for you. Especially as the end of the year approached, I am sure you started wondering how the troubled waters of the economy might affect your prospects after graduation. What will become of me in this challenging new landscape? How will I cope? What will I do?

I’ll return to these questions in a moment. But before I do it’s worth noting that the impact of outside events on the shape and emotions of your last year at Colby was not entirely negative. I’m betting that your memories of this past year, and indeed of your college experience in general, will be strongly influenced by the remarkable shift in the American political landscape that you both witnessed and engaged, irrespective of your politics.

I’m thinking, of course, of the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. I recall very clearly attending Waterville’s Democratic Party caucus last year with my daughter, Carmen, who was about to turn 10. I wasn’t sure what to expect, having never attended a party caucus in a presidential season in Maine. What I saw was an enormous crowd—including many Colby students—waiting patiently to get in the door of the clearly overwhelmed auditorium at Waterville High School.

Your enthusiasm for political engagement continued into the fall elections. I was enormously proud of the way this campus, and this class in particular, responded to the opportunity to be involved in such an important election, irrespective, again, of your political views or party affiliations. In all my time in higher education, I cannot recall a moment when students were more passionately engaged in the electoral process or in a presidential campaign.

Of course, like you, President Obama inherited a world different from the one he looked forward to even six months before his inauguration—a global financial crisis, the collapse of the American automobile industry, and a widening war in Afghanistan and Pakistan being just a few of the alarming surprises. His fortunes, and yours too, will be determined in part by circumstances significantly beyond his immediate control and by how well and creatively he responds to those circumstances.

I won’t insult your considerable intelligence by telling you not to worry about these circumstances and that everything will be all right. But I do want to insert some optimism into the picture by reminding you of some the truths of your experience here and how that experience affects your prospects in the time that lies ahead.

The source of my optimism is something else that you and the new president have in common: you are the beneficiaries of a first-class liberal arts education. Yours took shape here in this small and beautiful place in central Maine; Mr. Obama’s at a less well-known private university in New York. But you now share with him the intellectual capacities that only a first-class liberal arts education provides.

Lest this sound a bit contrived for this occasion, consider the following story. Earlier this spring I had the pleasure of visiting a distinguished Colby alumnus, Peter Rouse ’68, in his office in the West Wing of the White House. As some of you know, Pete is one of President Obama’s closest political advisers, and he was kind enough to spend about 45 memorable minutes with me in his office in early April.

I had a lot of predictable questions for Pete, about both the current political landscape and what he thought about his boss. On the latter subject, Pete was, not surprisingly, approving. But one thing he said was both unexpected and memorable. The most impressive thing about the new President, he observed, is his ability to engage and understand very complicated and previously unfamiliar issues. From Pete Rouse’s point of view, it is the President’s capacity to grasp quickly the essence of whatever is before him that constitutes his true political gift. He described Mr. Obama as the smartest person he’d ever known in politics, and he said that his talent for making sense of new and complicated subjects makes him perfect for the role of President of the United States, where something new and enormously difficult arises about every 15 minutes.

My point here is not about political values or ideology, but about a certain kind of intelligence. Whatever our political perspective, we should regard Pete Rouse’s assessment of Mr. Obama’s mind as good news. I hope you also see the important connection to what you have accomplished here and how that accomplishment will affect your futures.

What I ask you to consider is this: the degree that you will receive tomorrow is at least as much about a general form of intellectual empowerment as it is about specific forms of knowledge—about the realization of your innate potential as thinkers, writers, speakers, creators.

Each and every one of you has been required to think hard and clearly about complex matters of real substance; to write and speak clearly and persuasively about things that matter; to exercise your imaginations in all kinds of interesting and difficult ways….As a result, your minds are fundamentally stronger than they were when you arrived.

Of course that is not to say that the good and specific work you did in various academic programs and disciplines at Colby was somehow beside the point—either intellectually or professionally. On the contrary, it is only through these very specific forms of intellectual engagement that the more fundamental brand of intellectual empowerment I am trying to describe is available. But wherever you ultimately found yourselves in the curriculum here at Colby, we intended for you to experience a common regimen of intellectual challenge, exercise, and accomplishment. Each and every one of you has been required to think hard and clearly about complex matters of real substance; to write and speak clearly and persuasively about things that matter; to exercise your imaginations in all kinds of interesting and difficult ways.

As a result, your minds are fundamentally stronger than they were when you arrived. And the basic intellectual virtues I am talking about—thinking, communicating, understanding, imagining—are the things you will need most “out there” in the “real world,” irrespective of your professional destinations. I am certain that the meaning and utility of these gains will become more apparent and important to you as time goes by.

Lest this sound a bit too cool and lifeless, I hasten to add that one of the forms of imagination that we have eagerly encouraged here is your capacity to insert yourselves into the moral dimension of experience—your own experience as well as the experiences of people very different from you. By the moral dimension I mean that zone of deep meaning and significance—the values and the goods—by which people know and explain and justify their lives, and through which they encounter their most important and demanding choices, conflicts, dilemmas, satisfactions.

I am sure that the work—the exercise—of moral imagination in this sense was at times obvious to you, inside and outside the classroom. If your undergraduate experience was anything like mine, you will find that some of your most enduring memories of college will include those late night conversations with friends about the really big things—politics, God, truth, justice, love, racism, the future of the planet—and those more formal moments in and around classrooms where your personal convictions were rocked, affirmed, or forever altered.

But the stretching of your moral sympathies and imagination was at issue in many other, perhaps less obvious, places and ways—in your exposure to different languages and cultures, to the works of literary and artistic imagination, to the histories of peoples and places both strange and familiar, and to matters of social and political justice, to name just a few. Indeed, one of the abiding ambitions of almost every part of the educational enterprise here was to equip you to be able and sympathetic interpreters of moral life and conflict—your own and those of others.

In a closely related way, we have also been eager to encourage your willingness and capacity to be informed, committed actors in the public realm. Caring about the commonweal, and being able to act intelligently and effectively for the general good, are certainly among the virtues we celebrate at Colby. They also are integral to the oldest and most persistent understandings of the liberal arts.

Many of you have experienced the value of this kind of engagement in your time here, and it is certainly one of your most admirable achievements. It may have come in the form of a close encounter with a distinguished public figure; it may have come in some kind of community service; it may have come on the campaign trail; it may have come in an internship or a research project or a summer job. Whatever its source, we hope that both the inclination and the capacity to advance the public good are among the things you have acquired here and will take with you as you leave.

As I remarked earlier, the challenges that lie ahead for you are in some ways unprecedented. Indeed, I will be candid in saying that I cannot recall a commencement when there were so many things for seniors to worry about. But I am just as convinced that your work and successes here provide a wonderful foundation for you to answer those worrisome questions with which I began: what will become of me; what should I do; how well will I do at what I choose to do?

My strong hunch is that the new order of things that you now confront will reward disproportionately the problem solvers, the thinkers, the communicators, the creators. The old scripts are largely gone, and we need to write new ones. You will be the authors of these new scripts, and you have from Colby all the tools you need to be very, very good writers in this highly metaphorical sense.

In addition to the toolbox, the world ahead of you will also call upon the moral imagination that has been part of our work with you. One of the most notable things about the recent economic dislocations is that the shortcomings we experienced were not only technical and organizational, but equally, and simultaneously, ethical. It’s easy to see this in the rearview mirror. There was too much private interest at the expense of public interest; too much interest in material well-being and too little interest in other, sturdier forms of professional and personal satisfaction; too much temptation and too little self-control.

The new landscape that is taking shape before you, and before all of us, will thus require not only your now much sharper wits—those elemental intellectual capacities that constitute the core of a liberal arts education. It will also require knowing where you are in the landscape of moral hazard and opportunity. We’ve gone through an extended episode of sloppy values. I’m hoping your class will take us in the direction of greater clarity about what really matters.

I of course concede that a roaring economy—even one based on false underpinnings—would have made your post-graduation picture distinctly more attractive in certain ways. But if there is a bright lining in this crisis, it is the opportunity it gives you to be less focused on the pursuit and production of wealth and more focused on politics, service, giving back, and the search for the most satisfying and consequential, as opposed to lucrative, forms of work.

Tomorrow Greg Mortenson will give your commencement address. The fact that your class representatives chose this distinguished philanthropist and educator for this occasion says something important about your values as well your future. I cannot imagine a better person to deliver a commencement address in this place and time. And I cannot imagine a better role model for you—for all of us—with regard to how we make choices in the post-financial-crisis era. You have already participated in a dramatic political shift. You now have the chance to participate in an important cultural shift as well—a shift in what we value, personally and collectively, and to how thoughtfully we pursue our professional and personal aspirations.

“As best I can tell,” Eric [Hansen ’97] writes, “there are two approaches to making your dream come true. First, the professional plan: Decide at an early age what your goal is and take the necessary steps. Study chemistry at MIT, intern at Stay Puft, and then win a Nobel Prize for inventing the perfect chocolate-chip marshmallow….The other approach is bohemian, a more exploratory route popularized by Joseph Campbell’s catchphrase ‘Follow your bliss.’ If you stay true to your heart, …‘doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.’”

If the story of Greg Mortenson’s pursuit of his professional aspiration, beautifully told in Three Cups of Tea, is a bit too grand or exotic to be reassuring today, consider the advice of Eric Hansen ’97, whose story about life after Colby appeared recently in Outside magazine, where he now works. The title of the story is “I love my job,” and in it Eric describes the somewhat circuitous path he followed before finding his “bliss” as a professional writer.

“As best I can tell,” Eric writes, “there are two approaches to making your dream come true. First, the professional plan: Decide at an early age what your goal is and take the necessary steps. Study chemistry at MIT, intern at Stay Puft, and then win a Nobel Prize for inventing the perfect chocolate-chip marshmallow.”

“The other approach,” he continues, “is bohemian, a more exploratory route popularized by Joseph Campbell’s catchphrase ‘Follow your bliss.’ If you stay true to your heart, Campbell promised in the 1988 PBS series about his ideas, ‘doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.’”

Eric Hansen’s path was certainly exploratory. He spent time in the wilderness in Washington watching for forest fires; reporting the local news at a small-town newspaper; becoming a nature photographer; working as a barista at Starbucks; witnessing and experiencing real suffering and hardship at NGOs in Nepal and Calcutta; and then, finally, his bliss—becoming a staff writer at Outside. About this final stroke of good fortune, Hansen confides that his mentor at the magazine advised him not to draw attention to the fact that he had so little relevant experience and to “keep your head down.” “I followed the editor’s instructions—what I lacked in talent, I made up for with hustle.”

What I like about this story is Hansen’s candor about the role that serendipity, patience, the willingness to take chances, and heroic effort played in his success. It’s as good a recipe for professional satisfaction as I’ve heard, and it fits perfectly with what I’ve been trying to say about work, success, and choices—stay true to your heart, walk through the open doors, and hustle.

I’m beginning to sound more and more like a Baptist minister, so I’ll try to wrap up this talk before it becomes a sermon. Allow me to do so by sharing three parting thoughts.

The first has to do with the greater Colby alumni community of which you are about to become members. As you make your way into the wider world the day after tomorrow, you should be comforted by the fact that you have almost 25,000 potential advisors, networkers, and mentors out there waiting for you to join them as members of the extended Colby family. 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. Call on them for help, advice, and friendship. I know you will find them eager to know you. This is one of the most important and enduring benefits of belonging, as you now do, to a community such as this.

As you meet these people, I hope you will come to feel, as they do, a keen sense of responsibility for Colby. As alumni, this place now belongs to you in a new and powerful way. Its future well-being, and its future generations of students, will depend on your affection and support, as its present strength depends on those who preceded you.

My second parting thought relates to yet another way in which your experience as seniors has been tumultuous. I wish very much, and I bet you do too, that the tumult you encountered this year had come wholly from outside the College. Alas, we know it did not. As I have said before, I regret the events of April 12, and I regret especially that they occurred during your final weeks here.

I won’t rehearse those events or what we have learned about them since. But I do want to offer my perspective on how Colby students, and your class in particular, reacted to this blow to our sense of community.

My perspective is a mixture of admiration and gratitude. The admiration extends to how quickly and how well you came together as students to express your support for one another and your concern about the events themselves. You modeled a kind and intensity of solidarity and support that I have not seen before at Colby, crossing, as it did, so many ranges and forms of difference among you.

I think I speak for every one of my faculty colleagues here in saying that we are very grateful to you for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting and promising time in your lives. For it is in this exhilarating work that we find our most important satisfactions and realize who, in fact, we are.

My gratitude extends to the civility with which you made your thoughts and feelings known to me and to others. I have spoken often enough about civility for you to understand that I mean something other than, and deeper than, mere politeness. What you said and thought was almost always conveyed in a way that was respectful and that invited response and dialogue. Our conversations did not always conclude in agreement, and I was, and am, fully aware of the nature and strength of the criticisms you offered. But we were able, most of the time, to talk and to understand our differences. I thank you for that, and for the things you taught me about student perspectives on a number of issues. I am sure that we’ll all do better as a result.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby and that now leave with you. But as I hope these last remarks make clear, no farewell of this kind would be complete with an acknowledgment of what you have given to Colby.

I think I speak for every one of my faculty colleagues here in saying that we are very grateful to you for letting us be involved in this remarkably interesting and promising time in your lives. For it is in this exhilarating work that we find our most important satisfactions and realize who, in fact, we are. In other words, for us, too, this enterprise is about the realization of potential. So thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment.

Tomorrow is a more public day and occasion, with happy crowds of family and friends looking on. And the sun will be shining. In the meantime, I’m grateful, we all are grateful, for this one last chance to think quietly and a bit more privately about where we have been together during these past four years.

Thanks for listening and good luck to you. I look forward to seeing you at your reunion five years hence, when we will also be celebrating Colby’s 200th anniversary. I know it will be a grand affair.

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