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William D. Adams, May 27, 2006
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 2006, welcome to this Baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby's 185th Commencement.
Some like to say that Colby has no traditions. But at this moment, you are experiencing an important Colby tradition. The Baccalaureate service has a very long history here. We have been gathering in this particular way for as long as students have been graduating—since 1821, to be exact.
The program has changed, of course, along with the times. I remind each class that the first 87 Baccalaureate addresses at Colby were delivered by presidents who were also Baptist ministers. The Colby histories indicate that their Baccalaureate sermons were very long.
We have not continued with the sermons. But we continue to gather in this special place and 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 185 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—your teachers—and others who have touched your lives at Colby.
I am reasonably certain that this is the first Baccalaureate service at Colby that has featured New Orleans jazz in the procession and recession. The intrinsic value of the music is reason enough to feature it in this way, I suppose. But we selected it for other obvious reasons, as well. I hope it will not seem too contrived if I linger for a moment on what happened late last summer in New Orleans as all of us were returning to Colby. There will be a connection, I promise, to what we acknowledge here today.
In one sense, of course, what happened was quite straightforward. One of the largest storms in recorded history passed directly through a major American city, leaving death and catastrophic destruction in its wake.
But all of us who watched—and who didn’t?—the remarkable and nearly instantaneous reports of Katrina and its aftermath know that something else happened, something vastly more complex and difficult to name.
It’s certainly reasonable to regard this vastly more complex thing as a kind of revelation—“a striking disclosure of something previously unknown or not realized… of something previously disguised or concealed”—as the Oxford English Dictionary defines that term. Of course, the term revelation also takes on a Biblical tone that seems apt when you are talking about a great and terrible storm with dreadful consequence and meaning.
Among the things previously “not realized” and “disguised or concealed” was, first and foremost, the devastating evidence of how race and class contributed to the human meaning of Katrina. Seeing those aerial shots of people stranded on roads and rooftops—principally people of color and poor people—caused in me, and I bet in many of you too, the uncanny sensation of witnessing events in some other and much more forlorn part of the world. And yet, they were not in another part of the world: they were here, in this country, a place of immense wealth.
Following this initial shock of recognition, a kind of shame set in among Americans. What must other people around the world be thinking of us now? What must we be thinking, about ourselves? How can we talk about equality and opportunity and freedom with a straight face?
In this and many other communities, shame helpfully and quickly gave way to the impulse to do something. You and your fellow students raised more than $35,000 to support displaced students in Houston. Some of you also traveled there to help out during Jan Plan. The College opened its doors to several students from colleges in New Orleans. There was a genuine, extended period of solidarity with those in trouble.
But as the story unfolded further, another thing “previously disguised or concealed” came to light. We learned that at least some part of the physical damage done by Katrina was caused by the gradual erosion over many years of the natural barriers in the Mississippi River delta. The sheer physical growth of the city, in other words, had in some sense doomed it, or at least made it more vulnerable.
And to put further shape to this ecological aspect of the revelation, we learned that the storm itself might have been the expression of an increasingly violent cycle of disturbances linked to the phenomenon of climate change. Not only had human activity altered the natural landscape of the region; it was changing global weather patterns in ways that are likely to bring more and more threatening natural events to that place and other places, as well.
And so, in the end, the revelation of Katrina offered this perfectly contradictory and ironic picture. On the one hand, it disclosed the immense power of our activities and interventions—the reshaping of vast natural forces and systems; on the other hand, it symbolized our frailty and futility in the face of the most ordinary and reasonable expectations about fairness, equality, and security.
I raise this matter for several reasons, besides the musical connection, to which I will return. First, to remind all of us how large, complex and demanding are the challenges you face as a class about to head out into the world. And second, to say something about your capacity to meet those challenges.
The challenges probably require no further description or editorializing from me, except to note that the road ahead will inevitably pass through some very large and thorny public places that you will not be able to avoid, wherever your careers and personal lives take you.
But I am sure it is worth saying more about your capacities to cope with these public matters, especially as they relate to your experiences here at Colby.
Four years ago in this very place, at the first-year convocation, I talked to all of you about Colby and the kinds of things you might expect here. I am sure you don’t remember now, but one of the things I said to you was that you—as individuals and collectively—could make a difference here. As you prepare to leave us, it’s appropriate, I think, to remind you of some of the ways in which you succeeded—ways related to the chords already sounded.
Colby has become a distinctly better environmental citizen since your arrival, and that is in large part because of your efforts. A vision of Green Colby has blossomed during your time on campus, and members of your class were leaders of the Environmental Advisory Group. Some of you led the formation of the Green House, the first Dialogue House at Colby. The Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center—the first really green building on the campus, and the first higher education facility in Maine to win the LEED certification, was completed during your time here. The College’s recycling program was immensely strengthened over the past four years, primarily because of student interest and pressure. In short, Colby is now more conscious of its environmental obligations than ever before.
Also in your time here, students, and your class in particular, became more involved in the local community. Especially in light of other aspects of the town-gown relationship that have not been so happy this year, it’s important for you to know this and to be proud of it. The South End Coalition became a permanent fixture in Waterville because of your efforts. And from its very beginnings you have been eager participants in the impressive Colby Cares About Kids program. Many of you were involved in courses in which service learning played a key role, and a good number of you were involved in the inauguration of the Goldfarb Center Student Advisory Board. The concert on the last day of loudness raised more than $17,000 for the Harold Alfond Cancer Center. In these and many other ways, you contributed to a place that needed your help and deeply values your efforts.
Last but not least, Colby has become a more diverse and inclusive community during your four years here. I know that you have grown weary, at times, of hearing me talk about this topic. But it’s worth noting that the school you leave is a far better place, in this regard, than the one you found when you arrived. That may not be especially clear to you now. The conversation about inclusion and valuing differences is a noisy and sometimes awkward one. But in the midst of all the heat, I believe there has also been some light. I think you will find that some of that light will be available to you in the places to which you now depart. I predict that the conversation about differences and inclusiveness in those places will be at least as lively and urgent as it has been here.
It is a statistical certainty that your class is the most international ever to have graduated from Colby. And I believe it’s the first to select an international student as its speaker. Also notable is the fact that the first Posse graduates from Colby this weekend. We have certainly valued your presence and contributions here.
If this list of your successes is a bit too weighty and abstract, let me share with you some more concrete and lighthearted changes you might also wish to take credit for:
My principal point here, in both weighty and lighthearted expressions, is simply this: I hope that the changes you have witnessed or prompted here have taught you something about your capacity as actors. As you contemplate the future and all that it brings, don’t minimize the powerful potential you have as individuals and members of groups to make things different and better for all of us.
And don’t underestimate the value of the intellectual experiences and successes you have had here. 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 foundations 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. Call upon them for help, advice and friendship. I know you will find them eager to know you—it is one of the greatest benefits of belonging, as you do, to a community like this one.
I hope you will come to feel a keen sense of responsibility, as they do, 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. It is in this wonderful, exhilarating work that we find our most important satisfactions.
Some of you know, I am sure, that Louis Armstrong, the great jazz cornet and trumpet player, was born and raised in New Orleans. Somewhere along in his illustrious career, Armstrong recorded his own version of The Saints Go Marching In, a song he must have heard first in a street band parade in his hometown in the early 1900’s. In the spirit of this day of promise and looking forward, in this chapel that echoes so much of our history, and in the spirit of joy, as well as grief, that has emanated from New Orleans in the past and in this year, it’s certainly fitting to recall the special lyrics that Armstrong put to this traditional tune. And to recall that in dealing with future moments of adversity, we could all do worse than listening to Louis Armstrong:
“We are traveling in the footsteps
Some say this world of trouble
When the revelation comes
When the rich go out and work
When the air is pure and clean
When we all have food to eat
When our leaders learn to cry
Good luck to you all; God bless you; and goodbye.