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"Hit the ground running"
It’s the last step Skidmore ever asks its students to take, it requires about four seconds of their time, and it’s easy as pie. Coming offstage at Commencement, with that cherished diploma secure, each new-minted grad stops in front of a Skidmore banner, plants both feet squarely on a pair of footprints taped to the concrete floor, and smiles for the photographer. This year, on May 16, a record number bounded offstage for that split-second pose—684 undergraduates, including 37 from Skidmore’s University Without Walls, and 18 grads from the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program.
To help the Class of 2009 cope with all they’re stepping off into—war and recession and job prospects darker than the inside of a mortarboard—a series of honorary-degree recipients and other speakers offered their best advice, ranging from an environmental wakeup call to an artistic insight to a virtuosic defense of liberal arts.
Financier and conservationist Carter Bales pulled no punches: “Mankind is the ultimate nuisance species.” Cofounder of the private-equity firm Wicks Groups of Companies, Bales is also an activist for the Climate and Grand Canyon Trusts, the Echoing Green Foundation, and the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology, and Innovation. Human activity is rapidly degrading nature, he warned, with “global weirding” already resulting in floods, droughts, wildfires, species extinction, rising sea levels, and more. Unless we want to “say goodbye to life on earth as we know it,” he said, we must cap carbon emissions, mandate energy efficiency, invest in new green technologies, and support trees and grasslands.
Artist Fred Wilson, the day’s second honoree, noted that “curiosity takes you to unexpected places.” Wilson’s own curiosity has been expressed in transformative artworks that explore racial bias, gender, class, politics, aesthetics, and museums. His work has been widely exhibited—high spots include the 1993 biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the 2003 Venice Biennale, and the major retrospective of his work that played Skidmore’s Tang Museum in 2002. Drawing on his three semesters on campus as the 2004–06 Luce Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Object Exhibition and Knowledge, Wilson observed that students leave Skidmore “with curiosity, creativity, and compassion.”
Selected by the senior class to deliver the faculty address, Gautam Dasgupta presented a spellbinder whose title said it all: “Consumptive Knowledge: The Ravishments of a Liberal Arts Education.” A member of Skidmore’s theater department since 1990 and co-founder of PAJ, a journal of performance and literary arts, Dasgupta told his own scholarly story, starting with undergraduate years in mechanical engineering in India and his New York City graduate life in literature and theater, all underscored with dry humor and delivered in language of rare splendor (“this day, redolent of pageantry, unbounded promise, and rapture”). Dasgupta told the students, “Know all you possibly can, from philosophy and politics to literature and biology, for there is no telling where your next great idea is to come from.” His eloquence never flagged, right down to his final words: “I wish you graduates…the ecstasies of enchantment.”
So, after they hit that photographer’s mark, what’s the next step for the Class of 2009? To do what Carter Bales demanded, Fred Wilson suggested, Gautam Dasgupta inspired, and trustee chair Janet Lucas Whitman ’59 positively commanded. “You have your work cut out for you, but with a Skidmore education, you’re equipped to hit the ground running,” Whitman said crisply. “Now get to it!” —BM