2008 Baccalaureate Address

President William D. Adams, May 24, 2008

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 the Class of 2008, welcome to this baccalaureate service, the first official moment in Colby’s 187th Commencement.

As some of you know, the baccalaureate 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.

Of course, the program has changed 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 sermons were very … very … very … long.

We no longer have the sermon, you will be pleased to know. But 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 187 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 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, let me now summon my own form of farewell on behalf of all those assembled here today.

My summing up and farewell begin on an intensely personal note.  I want you to know something about my very special feelings for this class.  In a way I hope to make clear, these feelings are relevant to the spirit of this commencement weekend, which is of course dedicated to the celebration of your accomplishments and many virtues, both individual and collective.     

Specifically, I want to thank your great class for two important, indeed life-changing contributions to my professional development and happiness during this past year. 

And here I must enter the confessional mode.     

Confession number one.  Ever since coming to Colby eight years ago, I have harbored a secret longing to enter the Mr. Colby contest. Yes, that’s right, Mr. Colby—the real Mr. Colby.  Owing to the dignity of my office, and also to the slightly inconvenient fact that I am not a student, this secret longing seemed as futile as it did inappropriate.  And so, for nearly eight long years I was imprisoned in silent misery—secretly, helplessly, hopelessly longing for something I could never have. 

Until, that is, a most creative and talented member of your class found a way to help me without breaking the rules of the contest or compromising the dignity of my office.  Well, perhaps the dignity of office was just a little compromised.  But it was certainly for a good cause.  And besides, Little Miss Sunshine is a family movie. 

For those struggling to follow—and I am not sure I want the trustees to follow—there is a bootleg tape of the event floating around in the Colby student community.  For all I know, it may also be on YouTube.  As I think about it, I am sure it is on YouTube. 

In any case, it was plenty exciting, thrilling actually, to play a small part in the Mr. Colby contest.  But imagine my surprise and emotion when my host won the contest!  Mr. Colby of 2008!  From the Class of 2008!  I was deliriously happy.  I couldn’t sleep for days.  And I hope it is not vain to imagine that my participation contributed in some modest way to his success. 

Confession number two.  I owe to your great class a second dream come true that may exceed the first in the intensity and fullness of its personal meaning.  For the past thirty years or so, I have been playing the air guitar and the air piano and singing in the shower while pretending to be Tom Waits. These private moments were expressions of an important fantasy—let’s call it a delusion-—to stand in front of an audience and actually be Tom Waits, if only for a moment.  But, as with the Mr. Colby contest, I never imagined that I might actually get to do it, with backup singers no less, in front of a captive audience. 

Enter the Colby Eight and its talented arranger and leader, also a member of this great class.  Without his mind-reading and kind invitation to participate in the spring concert, I would still be singing only in the shower and in my dreams.  But now, a whole new world and career has opened up before me—Tom Waits impersonator at birthday parties and weddings.  Thank you Colby Eight, and thank you Class of 2008, for so much undeserved happiness in a single year! 

You see what’s happening here, I’m sure. Mr. Colby, the Colby Eight, the Class of 2008. Really cosmic.  In my mind, at least, and I hope in yours too, we are forever joined in this magical confluence of numbers, planets, the music of the spheres.

But I digress from the sermon I am meant to be delivering and from a serious point that lies at the center of what we honor and acknowledge here today.  It has to do with this interesting notion of potential.     

For as long as people have been talking about the meaning of liberal education, there’s been strong agreement that the ultimate purpose of the enterprise is to support, encourage, and inspire its participants to become more fully realized human beings—to gives us the means of actualizing our potential, to become who we really are.  As a place devoted to the liberal arts and liberal learning, it’s Colby’s specific mission to engage, encourage, and empower students in the lifelong enterprise of becoming the best, most fully realized human beings they can possibly be, irrespective of where they live or what they ultimately choose to do. 

Looking back over your four years here, what can we say about your success in this critical chapter of your lifelong enterprise?

Looking out upon this audience of accomplished and nearly graduated seniors, it’s a little hard to believe that you are the very same students who gathered in this place a bit less than four years ago to hear my official welcome to the College.  It’s likely you recall very little about about that day, and especially about what was said, but I hope you won’t mind my sharing some brief recollections of your first-year convocation and related observations on how you have changed in the four years since.

To begin with the most obvious difference, I am eager to point out that you have learned how to dress for the occasion.  I recall your somewhat eclectic approach to fashion the last time we gathered in this way.  Look at you now! You look terrific in black, by the way.  It’s so hip, so… well, New York.  And I am fascinated by the fact that all of you came to roughly the same decision about what to wear today.  I hope this suggests that we have been successful in shaping your sartorial judgment.   

But it’s not just the clothing that signals how much you have changed.  I remember well that “deer in the headlights” look that greeted me as I stood in this spot four years ago and shared some thoughts on the nature of community at Colby.  Perhaps it was just the sleepless nights of COOT that I was seeing, but I don’t think so.  In any case, there is about you now a kind of confidence and self-assurance, a sense of self-possession, that impresses.

That confidence is appropriate and richly deserved.  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), and you have satisfied the general education requirements of the College.  You will know this is true tomorrow when I hand you your degrees.

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, creators.   

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.  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 clearly and hard 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 ways. 

Your minds are fundamentally stronger than they were when you arrived four years ago.  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. 

So my hunch is that, whether you know it or not, the confidence and self-assurance you are radiating today has a lot to do with these intellectual acquisitions.  And I am even more 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 others.  By the moral dimension I mean that zone of deep meaning and significance—the values and standards and goods—by which people know and explain and justify their lives, and through which they encounter their most important and demanding choices, conflicts, dilemmas, and 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 is 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.  Who among you, for instance, will ever think about cafeteria trays in quite the same way?

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 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, is certainly among the virtues we celebrate at Colby.  It is also 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 a campaign trail or in the Maine caucuses this past election season; 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.

Of course, caring about community and learning how to live with others are not things that belong exclusively to the classroom.  Each and every one of you has understood in your daily lives here, I hope, the challenges of living in a close community.  We value the brand of liberal learning we practice here at Colby precisely because it requires this kind of direct, existential learning. 

Four years ago, in that distant moment of the first-year convocation address, I shared with you my views on one of the more important challenges collective living at Colby provides—the challenge of our differences, of our diversity.  I defined that diversity very broadly, including the places we come from, our visions of what matters, our ethnic and cultural heritage, our social and economic backgrounds and circumstances, our genders, and our sexual orientations.  And I predicted that the facts of our diversity would present at one and the same time a difficult challenge and a wonderful opportunity.  I also counseled you that the educational promise of this diversity would require your openness, patience, persistence, and, above all else, your civility—your willingness to engage, talk, listen, and understand one another in the context of a shared place and purpose.   

I am not sure how you assess your own success in this aspect of the educational enterprise at Colby.  Our senior exit survey data over the past several years raises important questions about the confidence of seniors on this very important matter of cultural competence.  But as with some of the other competencies I have been discussing, I want to bolster your confidence by saying I think you have done pretty well.

My evidence is somewhat anecdotal, and I know that not everyone here will share my view that it counts as evidence.  But it seems especially significant to me that in the wake of a public episode of cultural insensitivity this spring semester, representative groups from the student body, and from this graduating class in particular, came together in a discussion of race, race relations, and cultural understanding that is unprecedented in my experience at Colby.  Students who felt deeply and quite reasonably offended by the words and actions of other students came together with those who had offended to explain their feelings and to seek resolution.  It was a brave moment for both groups. And a resolution was achieved.  It wasn’t perfect; we have much more to do.  But it was step toward greater understanding and self-awareness.

If this sort of encounter seems rarified, the kind of thing that only college campuses, in their inward-looking and preoccupied way, can afford to think about, I ask you to consider the current moment in American political life, when we seem to be so close to some kind of threshold with regard to the conversation about race and gender in our society and their roles in public life.  I cannot recall a moment at once so promising and worrisome, as if to approach the prospect of some kind of fundamental change we must risk regression and reversal.

Whatever our political preferences, I think most of us would agree that the moment is pivotal, and that it will test all of our cultural resources and competencies.  Let us hope that it really is the case that the class of 2008, at Colby and elsewhere, emerges from its educational experience with a heightened sense of the urgency of these matters and with the resolve to take the country to a new and better place.         

I am sure that this brief summary of some of the more important changes you have undergone in your time here has been compelling, and that you now have a much better hold on who, exactly, you are.  But I sense a question in the air, pervasive in this room, certainly, but even more insistent on the lawn outside this chapel, where parents are gathered and listening attentively: that’s all very nice, President Adams, but what about the job?

Well, you will certainly be encouraged and relieved to know that, according to a recent USA Today article, graduating seniors this year can count on a “welcoming job market as employers seek to replace a baby boom generation reaching retirement age.” The article goes on say that “employers are planning to hire 16 percent more college graduates than they did a year ago.” The article also notes that more than half of employers surveyed intend to offer signing bonuses to “sweeten the deal” for graduating seniors. “It’s a great job market,” one executive noted, “and students know it.  We are in a war for talent…”

I hope that makes all of you feel a lot better about next Tuesday.  Being a member of the baby boom generation, as are a number of my faculty colleagues in this room, it certainly did not make me feel better, since your success is apparently coming at our expense.  But we are certainly happy for you.

Another recent article in the New York Times confirms my conviction that in this war for talent, the graduates of liberal arts colleges like Colby, and particularly you philosophy majors out there, have a real edge.  In case you didn’t see it, the article describes the interesting national trend of rapid growth in philosophy enrollments and departments across the country.  At least a part of this boom is attributed to the perception on the part of students that the intellectual skills associated with philosophy—analysis, writing, critical thinking—provide an advantage in the marketplace.  “[S]tudents,” the article notes, “said that studying philosophy, with its emphasis on big questions and alternative points of view, provide good training for looking at larger societal questions… .”

I was a philosophy major, so of course I agree.  But the point is really not about philosophy.  It’s about the simple truth that being smart, engaged, articulate, thoughtful, and able to think critically and creatively are always the most valuable attributes in any kind of work.

You should also be comforted by the fact that you have more than 20,000 potential advisors, networkers, and mentors out in the world waiting for you to join them as members of the extended Colby alumni 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—it is one of the greatest benefits of belonging, as you 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.  Think for a moment about the physical changes you have witnessed in your time on the campus: the Diamond Building, the Pulver Pavilion, the Schair-Swenson-Watson Alumni Center, the Bill Alfond Field.  When you think about it, and I hope you will, you will realize that the most profound and moving changes have names associated them—the names of the people who made them possible. Some of these individuals are in the room with us today; others are here in spirit. Wherever they are, this aspect of our community is one of the truly remarkable things about Colby. And I am sure that its celebration is one the constant purposes of this baccalaureate service. 

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 have preceded you.

I have spent a lot of time today talking about things you have acquired here at Colby and that now leave with you.  But no farewell of this kind would be complete with an acknowledgement of what you have given.

Several nights ago, the seniors and a number of others here had the pleasure of being present at the presentation of the Bassett Teaching Award at the senior class dinner.  In his remarks following dinner, the very deserving recipient of that award, Professor Mark Tappan, made a point of talking about his commitment to the pedagogy of Paolo Freire, the great Brazilian educational theorist.  Freire believed that true education is essentially “dialogic”, that is, it requires the reciprocal contributions of teacher and student.  For Freire and Mark Tappan, the most powerful form of learning happens when the learner is also a teacher and the teacher is a learner.   

I think I speak for every faculty colleague 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 wonderful, 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, though I must say that our potential is a bit more worn than yours.  Nevertheless, I think Freire is right that the teacher grows and flourishes along with the student.  So thank you for your hard work, for your achievements, and for your commitment to this place. 

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 am 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.   

Thank you for listening; good luck to you all; and goodbye.


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