2009 First-Year Assembly Address

President William D. Adams, September 8, 2009
Faculty and administrative colleagues, returning students, and—above all else today—members of the great class of 2013 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.

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.  Faculty lead the way, dressed in formal academic regalia.  This is the first, or nearly 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 extended conversation about the world and what matters.  Of all the encounters you will have at Colby, the ones with faculty will surely be the most important.

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 farewell.  These are the symbolic bookends of your experience with us.  And they suggest a kind of symmetry to your Colby academic careers that I know you will appreciate by the time they are concluded.  

Every class of Colby students begins and ends its time here in this way, but this is distinctive—indeed it is unique—in one very important respect.  For in 2013, the year of your Commencement, we will be celebrating Colby’s 200th birthday.  The Class of 2013 is the only one that will have the distinction of graduating in that momentous year. You are the bicentennial class.  

As we approach the bicentennial moment, there will be plenty of public reflection on Colby’s long and distinguished history, and so I won’t burden you now with lots of facts.  But as a way of introducing you to what we’re up to here, I’d like to say a few things about what has remained constant over the past 200 years, and also what has changed, in obvious and not so obvious ways. I promise to relate these things to what is surely the most pressing question on your minds: now that I really am in college, as opposed to thinking about it, what can I expect?

So much has changed in Colby’s fundamental circumstances and its surroundings over the past two centuries that it’s hard to imagine that anything remains the same. Think, for a moment, about what Waterville and central Maine must have been like in 1813. If you thought it was hard getting here today, imagine how hard it would have been 200 years ago. Colby’s first president, Jeremiah Chaplin, arrived by boat on the Kennebec River, which explains the otherwise completely mysterious fact that a replica of his ship, the Sloop Hero, sits atop the library tower in the form of a monumental weathervane. The voyage from Boston to Waterville took nearly one month.

Chaplin, a Baptist minister and an alumnus of Brown, was hired to run the place, teach religion, and ensure the good behavior of students. He didn’t have a lot of help. Indeed for the first several years he had no help at all. There were roughly a dozen students in those years, and Chaplin taught them all. The course of studies included grammar, arithmetic, geography, logic and, of course, theology—lots of it. A second faculty member was hired in 1821 to teach languages. During his 15 years as president, Chaplin handed out diplomas to a grand total of 84 students.

You’ll be relieved to know—I certainly am—that the president no longer teaches theology.  Even so, and for reasons I can’t quite fathom, some students do appear inclined to think of me as a minister.    

It’s hard to imagine that this college bears any resemblance to the one Chaplin and his students struggled to create. And yet, what they were doing then, and what we are doing now, is fundamentally the same thing, in several important ways. I want to talk briefly about two of them: intellectual empowerment and community.  

Throughout Colby’s history, our elemental hopes for students have remained constant.  It’s your intellectual growth—the growth of your minds and your capacity to think and to communicate—that most concerns us, and it is to that growth that we are most energetically and constantly committed. And so should you be, if you hope to get that maximum benefit from the time you spend here.  

You will experience this growth in all kinds of interesting ways, no two exactly alike.  Colby’s academic program is remarkably rich, and each of you will come to know it from a slightly different angle.  

We certainly hope and expect that you will grow from your exposure to specific disciplines and programs. It may be that your intimate acquaintance with biology, or computer science, or art, or economics, or Chinese—and in some cases more than one of these—will set you on a path that leads to a career. Whether it does or doesn’t, we are very sure that your learning a great deal about one or more areas of human knowledge is a very good and necessary thing.

But as important as your deep acquaintance with specific subjects here will be, it is not the most important aspect of your academic experience and intellectual development. Our deeper hope and expectation is that wherever you end up in Colby’s interesting array of programs, each one of you, and in very much the same ways, will experience a more general kind of intellectual empowerment that will serve you throughout your lives after Colby.

Nearly 20 years ago, Colby’s faculty agreed to describe these capacities under the rubric of the “Colby Plan,” ten precepts that encapsulate our vision of what a liberal arts education is all about.  The faculty is talking once again about these precepts and whether or not they adequately convey our contemporary understanding of a liberal education. But I urge you to look carefully at the precepts, now and periodically as you make your way through Colby.  As you do so, I hope you will ask yourselves how you are doing in terms of the specific learning objectives the precepts set forth.

Of all the intellectual powers we hope you will acquire here, three are especially important for you to keep track of: your ability to write and to speak with clarity, conviction, and power; your ability to think about and through complex problems and issues—to analyze, criticize, synthesize, and integrate; and finally, your ability to exercise your imaginations and creative powers.  

These basic capacities—to communicate, to think, to imagine and create—are among the enduring and most fundamental goals of the liberal arts experience.  As your teachers, we need to be thinking constantly about how our specialized interests and work are exercising and enlarging those capacities.  As students, you need to be constantly checking in on and evaluating your progress.  Nothing will matter more in your lives after Colby than your ability to communicate, to think, and to imagine and create.  Together, these capacities form the most elemental meaning of your intellectual empowerment.

What we as teachers know is that the principal obstacle to the sort of empowerment I am describing 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.  Listening matters greatly in certain ways and moments—I will come back to this shortly—but the real key to intellectual empowerment is engagement.  

By that 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 on the list are the opportunities Colby offers you to engage faculty and to work directly with them in real and consequential forms of scholarship. You will find that your academic programs are loaded with other opportunities for engagement—advisory groups, discussion groups, lectures, and manifold opportunities to participate in informal intellectual encounters outside the classroom.  You will also find opportunities to engage in practical learning and public service of various kinds—in Waterville, central Maine, and beyond—where the work of the classroom gets tested against the material of the real world. Your investment in these activities will be returned to you again and again, and nowhere more meaningfully than in the permanent fortification of your basic intellectual capacities.

Even as we focus on intellectual empowerment, 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 values and value systems 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 object of your public enthusiasms, you should know that the desire to influence events, along with the skill to do so, belong among the fundamental goals of liberal learning.  Your generation’s emergent idealism—your desire to make a difference—is in this sense a very good thing, and I hope it will continue to grow while you are with us.

Here, too, there is a striking link to Colby’s early history. In the early 1830s, the Colby community was swept up in the anti-slavery movement that was gathering momentum and followers across New England.  Colby students led the way here in Waterville, inspired in part by the example of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a graduate of the class of 1826 and one the great abolitionists of his era. The Lovejoy Building is named for Lovejoy, who became America’s first martyr to freedom of the press. Look for information about the Lovejoy Convocation, to be held later this month, to learn more about him.

President Chaplin was critical of the anti-slavery movement, and his skepticism ultimately cost him the confidence of the student body and the Board of Trustees, leading to his resignation in 1833. But – I assure you -- you  needn’t run the president out of town to find ways of connecting to the world outside the campus. Indeed, I think you will find support in this regard from me and from most others here who care about your education.

The third thing we hope and expect for you here at Colby is the experience of a deep and lasting sense of community.  In one way that prospect is not hard for you to grasp.  As orientation and COOT veterans, you have some sense by now of the potential for building friendships here at Colby.  I can assure you from my work with alumni that the relationships you build in the coming years will endure for the rest of your lives.

But there is another, somewhat broader and deeper sense of community available to you here.  It includes your close friends and your feelings for one another, of course, but it also includes all of your contemporaries here on Mayflower Hill.  It even extends, in ways I think you will come to understand and value, to those who have preceded you.     

Somewhere near the heart of this sense of community is the solidarity and affection that flow from having experienced together, and in one place, the important intellectual and personal changes I’ve been trying to describe.  These feelings will be evident to you in the pride you take in your class and in your attachment to this campus, which figures so prominently in the memories and feelings of virtually every alumnus and alumna.  
 
Sooner or later, these elemental feelings of solidarity and affection will extend to fellow graduates of Colby from every class and generation.
As I mentioned the day you arrived, everything you see and experience here on this campus connects you to students who have gone before 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 this fall and other gatherings of various kinds.  I urge you to introduce yourselves.  

What you share with this extended Colby family, in addition to the experience of Mayflower Hill, of course, is the excitement of having been part of an important and thrilling intellectual enterprise—of belonging to a community devoted to exploring ideas, to investigating the past, to valuing artistic and cultural expressions of various kinds, to exploring and debating important political topics and social issues, to investigating and understanding 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.”  But 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.  

This sense of common involvement in something that really matters—in an educational enterprise conducted at the highest level—is exciting, exhilarating, and dynamic.  I hope you will come to feel its full force, for no college experience is really complete without it.  But it will demand certain things from you.  

The first is an appetite 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 noisy and a little raucous.  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 one another.  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 discomfort, at times deeply personal, as you make your way through Colby.  Inevitably, and 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 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, 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 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.  

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 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 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.

In this particular dimension of community, Colby is a fundamentally different place than it was when Jeremiah Chaplin sat around the table with students here nearly 200 years ago. Our appetite for questioning authorities of all kinds—intellectual and political—far exceeds the appetite that characterized the College in those days. Even more important, we are a far more diverse community than the Colby of the 19th century. Indeed, we are far more diverse than the Colby of a few decades ago.

This diversity has many dimensions. It includes our ethnic and cultural differences, our diversity of national origins—witness the flags of nations that decorate this ceremony today—and our differences of belief, values, and thought, among other things.

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 appreciating and 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.  

In addition to these several senses of community, I hope that you will develop a strong sense of place at Colby.  As some of my earlier comments suggest, I have no doubt that you will become very attached to the place called Mayflower Hill—this campus in all of its physical expressions.  The loyalty and attachments of Colby alumnae are strongly influenced by memories of this remarkably beautiful campus, and yours will be too.  This is one very important dimension of the sense of place that I hope will grow in you and remain with you after you leave.  

But there is another dimension of place that really matters and that I urge you to get to know—one that lies just outside the physical boundaries of the campus.  That place is bound up with Colby’s history; I hope that it will become a part of your history here, as well.

During the time of the Great Depression in the 1920s and 1930s, Colby’s leadership became increasingly concerned about the viability of the College in its original campus setting on the banks of the Kennebec River, just north of the intersection of what is now College Avenue and Main Street.  That location was at the time surrounded by the railroad, the river, and the rapidly growing Waterville community, then a thriving mill town.  In a moment of both courageous vision and desperation, the president and Board of Trustees resolved to move the campus to an entirely new location.

The story of Colby’s migration to Mayflower Hill is a long and interesting one.  You can find it compellingly told in the history of Colby written by former Dean of the College Earl Smith.  The bookstore has copies, and the library does too.  The key moment in that story was the decision by the town officials and a group of interested citizens to purchase three farms just on the edge of town, which were subsequently donated to the College.  It was an act that probably saved Colby for those of us who came after and who have benefited from its strength and excellence.

Because our lives on Mayflower Hill are so intensely focused on our work with one another, it’s sometimes hard to recall the ties that bind us to Waterville and central Maine.  But your experience here will not be complete if you do not develop a sense of place that includes this community.  
      
As you already know from one of your exercises during orientation, there are several ways you can pursue this sense of place.  The first is the easiest—make your way, often, to downtown Waterville and explore Main Street.  As you do so, keep in mind that you are not in a shopping mall or a big box store complex.  It’s infinitely more interesting than that and vastly more real.

A second and much more substantial opportunity will come in the myriad forms of civic engagement and community service afforded by Colby-Waterville connections.  I recommend this form of 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 and being involved in their lives.  I know you will find them welcoming of your interest and engagement.

A third opportunity comes in the form various venues the College provides for you to explore this beautiful and fascinating region of Maine.  Whether it’s skiing at Sugarloaf, or trips to Portland and Augusta, or visits to the coast and nearby lakes, a great deal is in store for you if you take the time and make the effort to get out.

You will notice the common theme running throughout these remarks—your initiative, energy, engagement.  Your teachers, and all others on the campus who support their enterprise, are ready and waiting for you.  But we need you to connect to us and this environment with all the energy and passion that you can muster.

Several years from now, when we meet again in this place, you will be on the verge of assuming your places in the world beyond the campus.  Between now and then, you have a singular opportunity, one that will never be repeated in your lifetimes, to focus on learning and to develop your talents, interests, and basic capacities.    
                         
Welcome to Colby, then, and to this community of intellectual life, friendship, exploration, and discovery.  I will see you again, right here, in May 2013 to offer some perspective on what you have experienced.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to stop by my office, to talk to me when you see me on the campus, or ask me to lunch. I’ll buy. We’re all teachers here, in our own ways, and I’ll do my best to be involved in your lives in helpful and appropriate ways.     

Good luck, thanks for listening, and have a wonderful first year at Colby.