2006 First-Year Assembly Address

President William Adams, September 5, 2006

Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and—above all else today—members of the great class of 2010 and transfer and exchange students—welcome to Colby and to this assembly, the traditional and highly ceremonial start to the academic year.

Since traditions are important to students and to the College alike, I want to begin by remarking briefly on the tradition we continue here today.

As I mentioned the day you arrived, you can also look forward to learning that the Colby community is a community in time as well as physical space. First and foremost, that means that the bonds you form here—with one another and with the College—will endure for the rest of your lives. In this way, Colby is a community you will carry with you over time. But ours is a community in time in yet another sense. Everything you see and experience here on this campus connects you to Colby students who have preceded you and who, as alumni, continue to care about this place and to support it in many different ways.
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 and in very much the same way. The faculty lead the way, dressed in formal academic regalia. This is the first, or nearly the first, of your many encounters with them. And it symbolizes the heart of the enterprise and what we are up to here—students and faculty gathered together in a kind of extended conversation about the world and what matters. Of all the encounters you will have at Colby, this one—your engagement with faculty—is surely the most important.

In commenting on this tradition, I also mean to alert you to the fact that 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 a private farewell. These are the symbolic bookends, as it were, 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.

The bad news about these bookends, I suppose, is that each of them involves presidential advice—first and last words, as it were. The good news is that I will offer you such formal advice only twice—at the beginning and at the end of your time here—and on each occasion I promise to be brief.

In between I will do my best to get to know you and to observe your many activities and accomplishments. Please introduce yourselves as we encounter one another on the campus. And please come to my regularly scheduled student lunches or visit me during my office hours. The times are posted on my Web site. Through these and other means, I hope to meet and speak with each and every one of you during your time here.

If this moment is indeed a bookend, with another to look forward to when you graduate, what happens in between? What is this place like, really? What's in the books? What will happen to you here? What can you expect?

These are hard questions to answer, in some ways, because it's not a simple place that you have come to. Colby is small and compact, in many obvious ways. But for a small place it's also remarkably complex.

The diversity of your own backgrounds, interests and formative experiences is a fair introduction to this complexity. As Parker Beverage has already pointed out, you offer to one another and to us a remarkable array of personal characteristics, talents, points of view, backgrounds, and perspectives from which to learn. And yet you have the very important opportunity in the years to come to create and experience a kind of community that transcends your differences.

The College is a lot like you—teeming with intricate and intricately different stories, inclinations, points of view. And the challenge of the College is also your challenge—understanding and valuing your differences in ways that bring you together instead of dividing you; building community out of seemingly incongruous pieces.

By way of introduction to your coming years with us, then, its this challenge—building solidarity and unity among differences—that I want to speak to you about today. In doing so I hope I can say some things that will be both useful and memorable. But in addition to being helpful, I also want to alert you to one of our most important expectations for the ways in which you interact and relate to one another. This expectation is both fundamental and constant; it defines a basic standard of behavior, to which we hold ourselves, and you, accountable. For that reason alone, I hope you will listen carefully.

Given our immediate surroundings—the College chapel—and my previous references to Colby's history and traditions, I hope it won't seem too far reaching if I begin by calling up a distant but significant bit of influence on the College's founding.

As some of you certainly know, and like most of the leading private colleges and universities in the United States, Colby was founded in the early 19th century by religious leaders and parishioners who were deeply committed to higher education. So committed, indeed, that they had the courage and faith—some might say the gall and lunacy—to build a college in the wilds of Maine in 1813, nearly two hundred years ago.

I urge you to contemplate for a moment what that meant. I am sure some of you thought the ride up Interstate 95 from Portland or Boston or New York was long! Imagine what it was like getting here in 1818, when Jeremiah Chaplin was elected Colby's first president. The roads were so bad that Chaplin and his family took a boat from Boston. The trip took three days, the last spent slogging up the Kennebec river from Augusta. Appropriately enough, the vessel that brought the Chaplins was named Hero. A small replica now sits on top of Miller Library, reminding all of us of the difficult physical conditions of our founding.

Chaplin, like the founders of Brown and Colgate and Bucknell and Bates and other places not too dissimilar from us, were Baptists. For the last century or so, this College, like the others I mentioned, has been thoroughly secular and welcoming, indeed prizing, a broad array of religious background and outlook among students and faculty alike. But in the matter of building community in the context of difference, there are several aspects of this distant heritage that are worth recalling.

I am thinking in particular of the important influence of Roger Williams, one of the founders of the Baptist church in America, on the sensibilities of Colby's founders and early leaders. As some of you might know, Williams was a complicated and demanding person. He arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 and got into trouble with the ruling authorities in Boston almost immediately. I am sure that part of the problem was Williams's edgy and difficult temperament. He was obviously someone who came naturally and quickly to the work of questioning authority. But there were deeper philosophical and political issues that divided him almost immediately from the ruling authorities of the colony.

Specifically, Williams was fiercely committed to two very challenging ideas. The first was the idea that political authority and ecclesiastical authority—church authority—were two fundamentally different things. For Williams, the purposes of the church and the purposes of the state were very different. And because they were so different, their spheres of operation and influence had to be kept be kept separate and distinct.

This idea of the necessary separation of church and state is of course one of the cornerstones of American democracy, and we take it as a given. But in Williams's time and circumstances—the 17th century theocracy of the Massachusetts Bay Colony—it was a disturbing notion. The Puritan divines and their followers had come to the American continent precisely to construct a "city on a hill"—a political community that was also, and simultaneously, a religious community. Nothing seemed more self-evident to them than the merging political and religious institutions.

The second difficult idea that Williams championed was that within the confines of the church, individual believers had to be given wide latitude—a space of private conscience and choice—to forge a personal relationship to God and path to salvation. In other words, Williams was not only opposed to political leaders meddling with religious matters. He also argued that church members needed a certain liberty with regard to the important questions of faith and salvation. Freedom of conscience—what Williams sometimes called "soul liberty"—was a notion that had implications both within the state and the church.

Williams respect for the conscience of the individual had powerful and in some ways corrosive implications for both institutions. He embraced a vision of the state that was deeply tolerant and open to differences of all kinds, especially religious differences. He was one of the first prominent Christian thinkers to imagine a political community containing fundamentally different religious communities—Christians, Jews, Muslims, and, very importantly, Native Americans, with whom he had uniquely deep and positive relations. The principal virtue of such a state was what Williams sometimes referred to as "true civility," by which he meant not so much a grudging tolerance as a deep and sympathetic regard for the forms of human faith and religious engagement.

Within the church itself, Williams—like his spiritual fellow traveler Anne Hutchinson—represented a more compassionate, less rule-laden and judgmental vision of religious authority than was typical of the more conventional Puritan community of his time. The path to salvation was to some degree an individual journey, supported but not wholly determined by the church and its leaders.

What's important to keep in mind about this instinctively democratic sensibility was that Williams was also and always deeply committed to the practice of religious community. His commitments to "soul liberty" and "true civility" made no sense outside the small, face-to-face collective settings in which he lived and worked. Williams was no Thoreau, musing on conscience and liberty in splendid isolation. He was not an anarchist or a libertarian. His difficult thinking and commitments evolved within the small collective space of believers and their relationships, expectations, mutual obligations, and dependencies. No matter how deep the tug of conscience, Williams knew that conscience was hollow without spiritual fellowship.

Why does any of this matter now, in a place and time so vastly different? And why should it matter to you at the start of your college careers and experience?

What's compelling about Williams's life, I think, is how he voiced and managed the tension between an enormous regard for the promptings of individual conscience, on the one hand, and the values and demands of community, on the other. And it's in modeling a way of coping with this tension that his life remains instructive to us.

For we too live with a similar sort of tension. It's not exactly the same, of course. As I have already tried to say, our world and its preoccupations are in many ways light years away from 17th century Providence. But there is an analogy, at least, that's worth considering.

When you arrived here last week you joined a small, face-to-face community with a single overarching purpose. Now that you have spent most of a week in close quarters with one another, I probably don't need to elaborate on the intensity or importance of the physical aspect and intimacy of this place. But it is certainly appropriate to recall, especially today, the purpose of this proximity. All of us are here to do one thing and one thing only—to advance your capacity to understand the world and your place within it in serious and lasting ways. In pursuing this end, you will be engaged, along with us, in the enterprise of exploring the forms and frontiers of knowledge and distinguishing the true from the false, even as we argue about what these things are and mean.

We know that the routes you will follow in achieving this purpose will be highly individual, even idiosyncratic. Your independence and initiative in this regard will certainly be encouraged. But we also know how deeply each one of your individual paths can and should be affected by your classmates and fellow students. Your individual successes, as well as your ability to learn from one another, will have a lot to do with your appreciation and willingness to practice what Williams called "true civility." Let me share some thoughts on what that might mean.

First, the educational promise that you present to one another won't be realized without a good deal of effort in the arena of mutual respect. Because of your differences, this will be harder than you might think. But nothing else will be possible without it. Even as and when you disagree most energetically, even heatedly, your capacity to summon a fundamental regard for one another will be essential.

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 very major 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.

Third, 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, 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 a response and is from the outset respectful.

Respect, curiosity, tolerance for discomfort, and the capacity to engage in extended conversations about demanding, perhaps threatening, topics—these are some of the elements of what we might think of as our own, contemporary version of Roger Williams's "true civility."

Needless to say, civility understood in this way has profound implications for the ways in which we talk to one another—in the classroom, residence halls, on the playing fields, and even, maybe especially, within the electronic media that pervade our lives. Indeed, civility in this sense constitutes the rules of engagement at Colby, as it were, rules you will be expected to observe.

Because our 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 that you remember that our commitment to free expression is not a license to say whatever comes into your heads, in any tone of voice, no matter how smart or compelling or important it might seem. The freedom that we value and protect exists along side 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.

In order to make this a bit clearer, let me refer to a real life example. We have been known to experience here some anxiety about the tone of certain exchanges between students on what is known—at times ironically—as the Digest of Civil Discourse. If you have not yet encountered the digest, you will soon. It's an electronic billboard for opinions and pronouncements about all kinds of things—politics, morality, the government, war and peace, music and, from time to time—I know this will surprise you—the inadequacies of Colby's administration.

As I say, we have had occasion in the past to fret about the tone and, well, the civility of the digest. Last year, we became so concerned about one entry that we contacted privately the author—a student—and shared our concerns about the tone of his entry. I was expecting to hear some kind of regret, or at least hesitation, on his part. What we heard instead was a rather spirited defense of free speech and strong assertions about the constitutional right of free speech. "After all, it's a free country," he noted.

The exchange ended there, but if I had to do it over again I would say something like this. Actually, Colby is not the same thing as "the country," and the framework for our interactions, as well as the source of our rights and obligations, is not the Constitution. We are instead a community of teachers and students joined in an educational enterprise. What grounds that enterprise is a both a commitment to a certain kind of freedom, including free expression, and a commitment to civility, on the other.

This is at once a different enterprise, and certainly a more delicate enterprise, than we confront as citizens of the public world. That 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 speech police. But they are and should be made evident in the personal expectations we have of ourselves and one another, and by a kind of candor in our inter-personal relations about what is appropriate and inappropriate, respectful and hurtful, civil and uncivil. I am sure you will live up to these expectations.

The tension I have been trying to describe—between "soul liberty" and "true civility," as Williams put it—is real and challenging, and dealing with it will have something to do with your success here. But in the end I predict that tension is not what you will remember most about your experience here. Two things will be paramount in your minds as you leave Colby and as you look back on your time here—your relationships with faculty and the friendships you form with one another. This is as it should be, of course.

As I mentioned the day you arrived, you can also look forward to learning that the Colby community is a community in time as well as physical space. First and foremost, that means that the bonds you form here—with one another and with the College—will endure for the rest of your lives. In this way, Colby is a community you will carry with you over time. But ours is a community in time in yet another sense. Everything you see and experience here on this campus connects you to Colby students who have preceded you and who, as alumni, continue to care about this place and to support it in many different ways. 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 and other gatherings of various kinds. I urge you to introduce yourselves.

You are now a part of a very large extended family. Like most families I know about, we have our disagreements, differences, and competing ideas about the meaning and shape of the family business. But we share a common devotion to this place and the work we do here. Welcome to the family, to which you will make your own distinctive contributions.

The intensity of the communal experience upon which you are now embarked should not keep you from taking advantage of the opportunities the College provides for you to become involved in another community that is nearby. Waterville and central Maine are wonderfully interesting places with all kinds of interesting opportunities and challenges. One of the things I hope you will do in your four years here is to get to know this community and to include it in your sense of place.

I recommend this kind of civic engagement not simply because I feel that you have contributions to make—you surely do—but also because I know how much you can learn from getting to know your neighbors. I know you will find them welcoming of your interest and involvement.

Well, that's the end of my advice—the first "bookend" I referred to at the outset. Several years from now, when we meet in this place again, you will be on the verge of assuming your places in the world beyond the campus. Between now and then, the entire point of your being here is to get ready for that moment and for doing things of consequence in what follows.

Welcome to Colby, to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery. I will see you again in several years to offer some perspective on what you have experienced. In the meantime I will try hard to refrain from giving you more advice.

Good luck and thanks for listening.