2013 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 25, 2013

Members of the Board of Trustees and trustees emeriti, Colby overseers, faculty and administrative colleagues, parents and families of graduating seniors, and of course, above all others, members of this great Class of 2013, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 192nd Commencement.

Every baccalaureate is special, but this one is particularly meaningful as we conclude the celebration of our bicentennial. Four years ago at your First-Year Assembly, I previewed this alignment when I alerted you to your distinction as the bicentennial class. And now here we are, a bit older, certainly wiser, and more deeply aware, I hope, of the remarkable legacy of work and commitment that has brought us to where we are now.

I hope you won’t mind if I indulge the historical impulse one last time by sharing a bit more about the history of this baccalaureate service and address. But first, a word about T-shirts.

For reasons I do not fully understand, students often think of me when they think about making T-shirts. The first version of the Bro shirt appeared in 2003, when some very enterprising and spirited students coined the phrase “Stop Brohibition” and printed it on handsome blue T-shirts. I used that T-shirt in my baccalaureate address that year, to the great pleasure of the graduating class, I might add, and I pulled it out again in 2011, when I offered it up—in clear jest, I thought—in return for a large gift to the senior class gift drive. At the end of the weekend, I received a testy e-mail from an interested party wanting to know where to get one of these collector items. There was no mention of a gift.

“It’s not the way I imagined ending my career at Colby—on a spit at the senior class barbecue.”

I am pleased to report that a new model of the Bro shirt has appeared, just in time for this address. It’s a very clever advertisement for the Farnham Writers’ Center. On the front it reads, ominously, “Let’s eat Bro.” This was the side I saw first, and it made me a little anxious about the state of student culture at Colby. I know that administrators are not always at the top of students’ popularity list, but cannibalism? It’s not the way I imagined ending my career at Colby—on a spit at the senior class barbecue.

But then I turned the shirt around and found this on the back: “Let’s eat, Bro” followed by the phrase, “Commas save lives.” I was so relieved. And impressed! By the humor, first and foremost, but also by the wisdom: commas do save lives, or at least sentences. And a good sentence is worth a lot.

Of course, as almost graduates of Colby, you know the importance of commas and the other elements of good writing. One of the things we have tried to do here together is to make you powerful and fluid communicators. As I will say a bit later on, you will find that enormously useful in the years to come.

And just to be clear, this particular T-shirt is not for sale, though the Farnham Writer’s Center may have more to give away. Or sell!

And now back to history. We have been coming together in this way for a long time, since 1821, in fact—for as long as students have been graduating from the College. Of course, the program has changed a good deal. The first 87 baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were Baptist ministers. And they were ambitious with respect to both the content and length of their remarks.

Consider the baccalaureate coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the College. President J.T. Champlin delivered an address of some 10,000 words on August 2, 1870, relating in significant detail the history of Colby since its founding. The address was delivered in the First Baptist Church in Waterville, where most of the baccalaureate sermons were delivered before the move to Mayflower Hill in the 1940s. President Champlin was clearly providing one final test of the patience and physical endurance of the members of the senior class. You’ll be relieved to know that I do not intend to test you today, in this or any other way.

At the baccalaureate on the occasion of the 75th anniversary, President Beniah Longley Whitman delivered a sermon of roughly the same length on July 25, also in the First Baptist Church. He struggled to reconcile Colby’s religious orientation with the rise of Darwin’s theory of evolution. He conceded, creatively I think, the truth of Darwin’s vision of how the natural world works, but not the idea that Darwin’s theory makes religion and faith irrelevant. “There is no more glory in having a body made in an instant,” he said, “than in having it made in a million years…. The way that was good enough for [God] is good enough for me. Why should He hurry?” Why indeed.

President Arthur Roberts delivered the baccalaureate address at the centennial celebration on June 27, 1920. You’ll note the calendar moving closer to our own, which must have pleased those in attendance, owing to the difference in average temperatures in Waterville in June and July. The title of his address was “Give and It Shall Be Given to You.” In a variety of interesting ways, Roberts tried to make a single point: what you get from all phases of life is exactly proportionate to what you give—to the level and intensity of your engagement. I echoed this sentiment, unknowingly, in your First-Year Assembly address when I said that “what we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to your intellectual empowerment at Colby 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 lectures, seminars, and laboratories and listening politely to others.” Give and it shall be given to you.

Notwithstanding this echo, much has changed at Colby over the course of two centuries. And no change stands out more clearly than the gradual erosion of the religious identity of the College. In 1895, President Whitman spoke for all previous presidents and several to follow when he said, “Fellowship with God is the great end of life.” Now, 125 years later, we may lament or celebrate the absence of such intense religious conviction at the heart of our enterprise. But it’s clear that we will never have this particular certainty again.

But even here, something of an echo persists. It can be heard in the belief, pervasive at Colby, that a life committed narrowly to the private pursuit of personal happiness is not the fullest sort of life. Don’t get me wrong—I believe in the pursuit of happiness and in the individual liberty that grounds it. We are all well-schooled in the promises of our Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. But like virtually all of our forebears, religious and otherwise, we believe that we have definite obligations to people and issues and places beyond our private spheres of happiness.

In lots of different ways, Colby’s programs have tried to steer all of you to some sort of encounter with such obligations. Civic engagement programs are abundant at Colby. And so, too, are the many ways in which your academic work required you to exercise your moral imaginations and sensibilities, inserting yourself into lives different from your own and attempting to understand what defines and animates them.

You’ve certainly demonstrated your interest and capacity in such matters. Many of you worked with the Colby Volunteer Center in a variety of projects in the Waterville and the surrounding community. Roughly 20 percent of your class participated in Colby’s remarkable mentoring program, Colby Cares About Kids. Others among you have been committed to environmental causes, including efforts to make Colby a greener, more sustainable institution. And some of you wanted to make Colby a better place by reminding us that we are not yet the fully inclusive and representative community that we need and want to be. You know that some in our community did not always agree with your criticisms or your methods. But we never doubted the authenticity of your beliefs or the importance of the goals you sought, and still seek, to achieve. As it has been for 200 years, Colby is a work in progress, and we have a lot of work left to do. I know that you will continue to help us.

The pragmatic needs and concerns of the world—the world of work and careers, for instance—has also been of intense interest to us. Indeed, everything you have been doing at Colby has been preparing you for that world, whether you knew it or not, and probably not always in the ways you expected.

And here comes my first and perhaps most important piece of advice. As you contemplate stepping out into the world of work or graduate and professional school the day after tomorrow, the first thing you need to do is get rid of any bashfulness you might have about having attended a liberal arts college and having attained a liberal arts degree. Indeed, I urge you to be confident about the full relevance and utility of what you have done here.

That confidence is appropriate for several reasons. First on the list is the fact that you have completed a demanding course of studies in one of the best liberal arts colleges in the world. You have met the requirements in your major (in many cases more than one major or a major and a minor), and you have satisfied the general education requirements of the College. You will know this is true tomorrow when I hand you your diplomas.

What I ask you to consider is this: that degree is not so much about specific forms of knowledge or meeting requirements as it is about a more general kind of intellectual empowerment—the realization of your innate potential as thinkers, writers, speakers, and creators.

This is not to say that the challenging work you did in various academic programs and disciplines at Colby was somehow beside the point. 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, you experienced a common regimen of intellectual calisthenics. 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, and to exercise your imaginations in all kinds of interesting ways.

As a result, your minds are fundamentally stronger, more capacious than they were when you arrived four years ago. And the basic intellectual virtues that 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. The confidence and self-assurance I counsel today has everything to with these basic intellectual acquisitions. I am even more certain that the meaning and utility of these gains will become more and more apparent and important to you as time goes by.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, consider the honorary degree recipients who will receive our praise tomorrow. They are all Colby graduates, in keeping with the bicentennial celebration. And they demonstrate more powerfully than my words ever could the value and power of the liberal arts education you are about to conclude.

Our speaker, Gregory White Smith ’73, was an English major at Colby and then went to Harvard Law School. Following Harvard, he did what any ambitious Harvard law graduate would do—he wrote five New York Times best-sellers and won the Pulitzer Prize for his biography of the painter Jackson Pollock.

David Bodine ’76 is the senior investigator and chief of the Genetics and Molecular Biology Branch at the NIH Human Genome Research Institute. At Colby, David majored in biology and credits his undergraduate research with Colby faculty as the key to the successful launch of his brilliant scientific career.

Eleanor Duckworth ’57 was a philosophy major at Colby and then studied with the great educational theorist Jean Piaget in Paris and Geneva. She went on to teach at Harvard, among other places, where she became a national authority on education reform.

After majoring in philosophy and government at Colby, Kenneth Ongalo-Obote ’94 entered public life in his native Uganda, ultimately becoming a member of parliament, where he has done path-breaking work on women’s rights.

And speaking of service, Captain Erik Quist ’99, an economics major at Colby, left his promising business career to join the Marine Corps. He served three tours of combat duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his experiences in the Marines prompted his companion in life, Elizabeth Ann Czernicki Quist ’98, to help found the Semper Fi Fund, which is devoted to helping wounded servicemen and women and their families. Liz also will be honored tomorrow.

Not far from the Quists, in Washington D.C., Pete Rouse ’68 has spent most of his career laboring in the vineyards of public service and has risen to the exalted position of senior political advisor to the President of the United States. Pete majored in history and covered sports for the Echo. After Colby he went to the Kennedy School at Harvard and from there into public service.

And last but certainly not least, Savas Zembillas ’79, who heads the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Pittsburgh, has become one of the most prominent leaders of his church in the United States. At Colby, Savas majored in English and philosophy, and was known for his interest in punk rock and acting.

What a group! And what interesting and diverse lives and careers! From those lives and careers I draw the following instructive, and I hope reassuring, conclusions: (1) philosophy majors rule!; (2) Harvard owes a great deal to Colby; (3) the path between a Colby major and one’s professional destiny and success is serpentine, at best; (4) life is long, and the turns in the road favor those with the broadest and strongest fundamental intellectual capacities; and (5), and maybe most important, President Roberts was right on target in his baccalaureate address in 1920: “Give and it will be given to you.” With respect to the ideals of service and giving back to the community, it’s hard to imagine a more exemplary group of individuals than those we honor tomorrow.

We talk a lot about social networking these days, by which we most commonly mean the new virtual media that surround and invade our lives in increasingly obvious and sometimes worrisome ways. But there is another kind of social networking that you now have access to. It is much older, more traditional, and probably more effective than Facebook or LinkedIn. I am referring of course to the networking done by Colby alumni and alumnae, among whom you will be counted tomorrow. That community now numbers well over 25,000 in the United States and around the world. 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 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. This place now belongs to you, as alumni, 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 and students depend on those who preceded you.

I can’t resist one last historical reference. In his baccalaureate address in 1920, President Roberts had this very same notion of caring and giving back when he wrote: “If the fire of affection for Colby now flaming in your hearts is to be kept steadfastly burning through the years, you must form and practice the habit of doing something for the College. Give and it shall be given to you.”

You have a very good start on the road to giving back. Almost 80 percent of this class has already given to the senior class gift drive and you have exceeded your revenue goal by almost $1,000. Thanks for this early and impressive expression of generosity.But why stop there? For those of you who have not yet contributed, it’s not too late. There’s still time between now and tomorrow morning.

But giving back need not consist exclusively of philanthropy. Hundreds of Colby alumni volunteer annually, serving as admission interviewers, class agents, advisors for the Career Center, and more. Some of you have met with them already. Your future association with Colby can touch many parts of your lives, and we hope that it will.

And of course you also take your friendships with you. I can assure you that they will endure. At every one of the many stops I make on my annual tour of the country, I’m always impressed by the strength of the ties that bind classmates. These too are permanent acquisitions.

Several days ago, I asked a member of your class if there was anything in particular that I should mention in this address. He thought for a moment and said, “relationships.” I am sure that he meant your friendships, but he was also probably thinking about all of the relationships you’ve had here at Colby—with faculty, with members of the administrative staff, with our colleagues who work in the dining and residence halls, with your coaches and mentors and perhaps alumni as well. All of these relationships are part of your Colby experience and soon-to-be memories. But they are not just memories. They last, and they are here for you to reengage and extend when you’re ready.

I’ve spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby. But no farewell of this kind would be complete without an acknowledgment of what you have given to us.

I think I speak for every one of my faculty colleagues when I say 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 we are. For us, too, this enterprise is about the realization of potential, and about relationships. So thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, for your commitment, and for letting us into your lives.

Tomorrow is a more public day and occasion, with happy crowds of family and friends looking on. 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.

I look forward to seeing you at the next alumni event in your neighborhood and to learning of your accomplishments and your reflections on your Colby experience.

For now, good luck to you and please keep in touch.

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