Inauguration Address: Love's Labor Found
Let me begin by expressing sincere thanks to all of you who have gathered here today
to help us celebrate not simply the inauguration of an officer of the College, but
more importantly, the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of an idea—an idea that
evolved into this extraordinary institution that today is Skidmore College.
So to Chairperson Sue Thomas and other members of the Board of Trustees and trustees emeriti, members of the faculty, staff, and administration, current students, alumni, parents, delegates representing so many sister institutions of higher learning (with a special word of greeting to President Song of China's Qufu Teachers University who has traveled so far to join us today), as well as governmental and civic organizations, those who have contributed musical selections to enhance this ceremony, families of former Presidents—John & Bettina Moore, Ruth Wilson, Anne Palamountain, Helen Porter, Gary Smith—personal friends and colleagues, and friends of Skidmore from the community, I say thank you for joining us. To former Presidents Porter and Studley: thank you for being present; our task is to build upon your accomplishments
Let me also extend a special word of gratitude to Bob Boyers, James Longenbach, Mary Lynn, and Laurence Thomas, who yesterday challenged us to reflect on the future of higher education, as well as to Mark Lewis and Mary Burgan, who have inspired us today by their words. And finally, let me acknowledge the good work of all those who participated in the planning and realization not only of this inauguration but of all the events of this week (for example, all the hard-working folks in Facilities Services, Food Services, and CITS)—most especially Michael Sposili and the members of the Inauguration Committee and from my office, Liz Bourque, Jeanne Sisson, and Susan Weeks. Finally, let me thank the members of our family who have joined us here today: the Millards, the Cavanaughs, and most especially Elizabeth, Jason, and Marie Glotzbach. Your support means more to me than you could know; I simply could not do this job without it.
Last May, you invited me—and with me, my confidante, partner, and toughest critic, my wife, Marie Glotzbach—to serve Skidmore College as the seventh in a line of distinguished Presidents. Today, I formally and most enthusiastically accept the responsibilities of this office. I do so with relish, with energy, with profound respect for the achievements of so many who have created the Skidmore we know today, and with unfailing optimism for the Skidmore of the future. Or to put it another way: Sue, now you're really stuck with me.
I also accept with deep humility and awareness of my own limitations. Indeed, the beginning words of a prayer from the Jewish tradition seem most apposite: "Lord I stand before you poor in word and deed." That truly is how I feel in standing before you today. The water indeed is wide, and I cannot swim over alone. Consequently, in order to fulfill your expectations and help us achieve our collective dreams, I must depend upon all of you for assistance, for support, for inspiration, and of course for criticism when I go wrong. (I surmise that our faculty and staff will be well up to that task.) The broad and deep community that is Skidmore can carry all of us. And I assure you that what we cannot begin to imagine as individuals we shall accomplish if we choose to pull together.
As human beings, we all at least occasionally find ourselves poor in word and deed. And yet for those of us who devote our lives to higher education, our limitations and failings are subsumed in the realization that we participate in an enterprise far grander than our personal shortcomings would otherwise allow—an enterprise that is collaborative and inspirational to the core, and one that represents some of the most important work human beings can undertake: educating young persons at their point of transition between late adolescence and early adulthood. As a liberal arts college, Skidmore is committed to providing its graduates with both the essential skills and an entree to the accumulated knowledge that our species has collectively developed over the course of recorded history. This is no small undertaking. And I do not exaggerate in saying that upon the success of our efforts depends the future of the world. The future of the world perhaps sounds a bit strained or pretentious. But who will address the extraordinarily daunting challenges facing us if not the young people now preparing to take their place as leaders in business, the arts, science, government, education, and the not-for-profit sector of tomorrow's world? And who will prepare them if not us? Indeed, Skidmore is uniquely positioned among our sister colleges to perform this work because the value of creativity is deeply ingrained in our history and it permeates our thinking today.
We must not, we cannot fail our students, simply because human knowledge is not like a recessive gene that can remain hidden in one generation and yet emerge to be expressed in a subsequent one. Rather, a generation that fails to gain access to some area of knowledge will be incapable of providing it to its successors. That indeed is a lesson of Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose—there may be nothing more powerful than knowledge, but it is paradoxically fragile, always in danger of being lost for eternity. A similar observation holds true for the development of new knowledge, new works of art, or new solutions to global problems: None of these can occur without a base of information and skills that others have developed. True creativity cannot occur in a vacuum, and creative thought does matter.
It is, then, our task and our privilege as educators to inspire in each successive generation of students the passion for knowledge or artistic creation that led those of us here on the faculty to make teaching and learning our life's work. It is the task of the rest of us who have grown to love Skidmore College and who work to support the central labor of teaching and learning to lend our efforts to this work as well. But the work is not always—and perhaps not often—easy. Certainly our students know this best of all. One of our new admissions postcards captures this reality quite graphically: On the front is a photograph of a young woman bent over her desk writing, an intense expression on her face. The caption reads, "PAIN." Turning the card to its obverse side, we read: "IT HURTS. The throbbing rolls through your brain like a line of thunder boomers. Who said Advanced Calculus would make it rain? Check the weather."
So what passion can inspire us to make the effort on a daily basis to do this most difficult work of teaching and learning: to meet our classes, to grade the papers, to keep our scholarship or creative work moving along, to deal with administrative challenges, to keep Skidmore College functional and well-maintained in times of scarce resources? Let me suggest three sources of such inspiration that are available to each of us in the extended Skidmore family.
First, I am certain that many of us, at some crucial moment in our lives, have been inspired by a teacher; and the more fortunate of us have had this experience on multiple occasions. But to make this point more concrete, I want to pause for thirty seconds and ask each of you to think back and identify just one such teacher in your past —someone who has had a transformative influence your life.
I hope that a name and recollection quickly came to each of you. In fact, I suspect that a number of us may have thought of a Skidmore professor, perhaps even someone present here today. That obviously is not the case for me, but still, my experience may not be atypical. Mark Lewis already has told us one story. Now it's my turn:
In my junior year at Notre Dame, as an unfledged but eager philosophy major, I asked a professor I had come to know, Dr. Fredrick J. Crosson, to sponsor a directed study on the main work of the twentieth-century French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty: a 456-page book entitled The Phenomenology of Perception. Merleau-Ponty was a contemporary—indeed, a friend and colleague—of Jean-Paul Sartre and wrote Phenomenology of Perception about the time when Sartre was completing Being and Nothingness, the early 1940s. I knew that Dr. Crosson had studied with Merleau-Ponty in Paris in the late 1950s, and I was eager to study with someone with so direct a connection to the source. Fortunately, he agreed to this project, and we spent the spring of 1971 meeting on Thursday afternoons, working through one chapter per week. Think of it as my Thursdays with Fred and Maurice.
I will not attempt to summarize this complex philosophical work, but I do want to provide a few relevant details. Merleau-Ponty's book is about an unlikely philosophical topic: the body of the perceiver, that is to say, each of us. This topic is unlikely because traditionally philosophers have been expected to write of more lofty conceptual matters. Indeed a dominant rationalist tradition in Western Philosophy reaching back to the Greeks, holds that human beings are best understood as disembodied knowers (as spirits in a material world), with Descartes as an archetypal example. An equally venerable but opposite tradition, the materialist tradition, holds that thinking can be explained as a physical operation described, ultimately, in the same terms that the science of physics uses to explain the behavior of falling bodies and the like. (Think of the radical behaviorists of the twentieth century.) Much of the history of western philosophy (and psychology as well) can be viewed as an oscillation between these two incompatible alternatives, rationalism and empiricism.
Merleau-Ponty, by contrast, charted a middle course, a third way, describing the body as experienced—the body as lived—as an entity that was not explainable in the terms of either the rationalist or empiricist alternatives.(1) Moreover, in making his case, Merleau-Ponty employed the data of empirical psychology (including the best neuropsychology of the time) arguing that neither of the traditional alternatives could explain the observable data of language learning, perception, the effects of certain kinds of brain damage, and more generally the way we physically operate in a perceptually rich environment.
I say all this because that semester's introduction to the work of one philosopher set me on a path that led through graduate study and fifteen years of teaching and research. Although I never wrote an article dealing solely with Merleau-Ponty, his was an explicit or implicit presence in virtually everything I did write. That influence on my life continues today. It is serendipitous that Merleau-Ponty's refusal to restrict his discourse to traditional philosophical topics, narrowly conceived—the power of his appeal to psychology, to art, to music, and to neuroscience—as well my own experience in interdisciplinary teaching and research, resonates so strongly to what I see as a unique ethos of this institution: Skidmore's breadth, its interdisciplinarity, its predilection not just to teach, create new knowledge, and make works of art but to synthesize those processes of teaching and creation in uniquely original and meaningful ways.
But the truly salient point of my narrative is this: When he agreed to work with me, Fred Crosson was not only a professor but also Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He was incredibly busy, and offering a directed study to some wet-behind-the-ears philosophy undergrad surely was not in his formal job description. On the other hand—as is the case with so many Skidmore faculty members—he understood his job in vastly broader educational terms. And in his passion to share his own love of philosophy, he saw his mission as helping students learn. Certainly, my experience in college and with Fred Crosson is unique to me, but I suspect it was structurally not very much different for a number of you. That youthful passion of mine for Merleau-Ponty's philosophy, stimulated by Crosson's knowledge, his own passion for teaching, and his excellence as a mentor and role model, reinforced my sense of the academy; not simply as a locus of intellectual life, but as a vibrant and indeed supportive community of kindred spirits. My experience working with him truly was transformational, and he no doubt would be pleased to learn that two of my own former students have continued on to earn Ph.D.s, specializing in the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty—just as generations of exceptional Skidmore faculty have passed their knowledge, and their passion for that knowledge, along to many of you and thousands of others.
And I know, not just from personal conversations and intuition but also from documents such as the Distillation Report, that this is precisely the case at Skidmore. The work of the Skidmore faculty in the classroom, laboratory, or studio and, even more, in our mentoring, advising, and collaboration, has inspired and nourished this passion for learning in our own students yesterday, it does so today, and it will continue to do so in the future. This summer, Marie and I met a young alumnus in San Francisco who said that literally everything he values as an adult he learned about at Skidmore. Those of us not directly involved in teaching and learning at Skidmore especially need to keep such narratives in mind. For they help us focus on the core work of the College and in doing so enable us to see the value of our own efforts in contributing to the transformational experiences of our students.
This talk of passion leads me to introduce a second source of inspiration: Skidmore's unique heritage, a heritage both present throughout our history and sedimented (to borrow a word from Merleau-Ponty) into our very buildings and grounds. For colleges too are embodied entities; they are communities of brick and mortar as much as communities of learning.
One hundred years ago a fifty-year-old widow of independent means stepped outside of her own job description, narrowly conceived. That is to say, when Lucy Skidmore Scribner founded the Young Women's Industrial Club to meet the educational needs of the middle- and working-class women of Saratoga Springs, she did not need to go to the trouble. No one expected her to do so; no one would have criticized her for thinking it was someone else's problem. But Mrs. Scribner perceived a social need and responded to it in the context of a personal mission to leave the world a better place than she found it.
As we know, it took nineteen years for the institution Lucy Scribner founded to evolve into an accredited college, another forty years for Skidmore to acquire the land that became the site of the present campus and begin making that transition, and another ten years still to reach the decision to admit men. But throughout those years and to the present day, the College has held to its own middle course, its own third way, we might say, as charted by Mrs. Scribner and her successors—a course that initially combined practical instruction (in the beginning business and other "industrial arts") aimed at providing young women the wherewithal to obtain gainful employment as well as "cultivation of such knowledge and arts as may promote [students'] well-being, physical, mental, spiritual."(2)
This dual legacy of hand and mind, praxis and episteme, remains apparent in Skidmore's broad curriculum that offers students choices among a full range of traditional majors in the letters, arts, and sciences, along with selected professional majors and strong interdisciplinary programs. More tellingly, it is reflected in our culture of encouraging students to make their own choices, to define themselves through curricular options that serve their individual needs and respond to their interests, resulting in both expected and quite unexpected combinations of majors that students pursue with a purpose. Over the years, Skidmore has sent forth its alumni into the arts, sciences, law, medicine, and education. Her graduates have included an ambulance driver in France during World War II, generations of nurses, officers of charitable foundations, social workers, investment bankers, members of the media, writers, artists, and contributors to the entertainment industry. Our students marched for Franklin Roosevelt, protested the Viet Nam war, and stood in silent vigil to commemorate the victims of 9-11. Going back to Mrs. Scribner herself, the history of Skidmore College is a story of individuals making unordinary choices and extraordinary differences in the world. Creative thought has indeed mattered in their lives. Creative thought also has mattered to students who have completed our Higher Education Opportunity Program, and who over the years have graduated at rates approximately 15% higher than our overall student population. It has mattered to readers of Salmagundi, to students and teachers in our summer arts and writing programs, and to students who have completed degrees through our University Without Walls and the Master's in Liberal Studies programs. It has mattered to our students who have studied in China at Qufu Teachers University or in our London program.
Yet these statements, as true as they may be, have not yet captured Skidmore's uniqueness. So let me try a different description, excerpted from the 1961 Charge to the Architects and Planners of the new campus by former Chairperson of the Board, Josephine Young Case. Mrs. Case began her two-page statement with the following admonition:
"You will design a campus which will provide for both student and teacher a feeling of freedom and wide horizon, and you will provide the physical opportunities for attaining that freedom in the mind and that horizon in the spirit.
"You must allow space for contemplation and for play; privacy for thinking and study; and a pervasive atmosphere which will be at the same time serious and gay, somber and warm, traditional and forward-looking, made up of time past, time present, and time future."
The architecture that resulted is both physical and symbolic, incorporating intentional traces of the old campus, in the choice of red brick, in our tree-lined main quad whose path lights suggest the street lights of old Saratoga Springs, and even in the semicircular windows that crown Scribner library and echo the decorative semicircular windows so characteristic of the Victorian structures on the old campus. So even on the present campus, we live, quite literally, in the midst of our history as we create our future.
A third source of inspiration, one that Marie and I have felt virtually everywhere since we arrived, is Skidmore's unique sense of community. In talking with alumni from the '30s to the '90s, to our most recent graduates, in talking with current students, members of the faculty, members of the staff, and trustees, we hear a similar theme: Skidmore is a College that inspires love. A number of our employees, across all areas of the College, have worked here for more than thirty years. Our alumni find it easy to connect across the generations. Our students immediately learn that they are members of a close-knit, caring community, and our faculty members speak about the connections they feel with their students and with one another. This expression of community is so powerful and apprehensible that even prospective students visiting campus can sense it, and it correspondingly drives numbers of them to know that this will be their place too!
My use of words such as "love" and "passion" throughout these remarks has been quite intentional. In one of the first philosophical treatises on education, Plato's Republic, the character Socrates provides his own list of attributes that characterize the most promising of young students—those who are capable of attaining the highest levels of knowledge and thus are worthy of being admitted to the theoretical institute of higher education that he is describing. The first such trait identified is "a constant passion" [emphasis mine] for any knowledge that will reveal to them something of that reality which endures forever and is not always passing into and out of existence." Here Plato employs the same word that signifies passion between a lover and a beloved. In short, the true student, according to Plato, must be smitten with the desire to learn.
Now, it would be a stretch to argue that all students enter Skidmore with such a passion—just as it would be a stretch to suggest that I entered Notre Dame in that manner—but it's not at all a stretch to claim that many, perhaps most of our students, graduate with that passion. Again, the sentiments in the Distillation Report make that clear, as does our research; and, although I'm quite reluctant to validate it, so does the US News college rankings—in which Skidmore is cited for graduating a significantly higher percentage of its classes than the data of our entering students would forecast. Clearly, something very special happens here during a student's four years that literally transforms her or him and is not infrequently inspirational. Passion is engendered, in part by what our faculty members do and how they do it, by the care and commitment of our staff, by the very place itself, and by our heritage and the indomitable spirit of the institution.
But as with the fragility of knowledge, so the fragility of academic communities themselves. We must recognize that Skidmore, as with so many colleges and universities across the country, faces challenges—very real and daunting challenges—that must be addressed over the coming years. Many of us know these all too well: ensuring adequate funding to sustain our enterprise; compensating our faculty and staff in a manner that satisfies comparative norms; controlling our costs; maintaining our financial aid so that the students who can most benefit from a Skidmore education are able to matriculate here; supporting a governance structure that is representative, participatory, fair, and above all, functional; recognizing that we can't do everything well, and having the wisdom and conviction to decide what we should and should not do; providing more adequate resources for departments and units that are both critical and critically under-supported; making meaningful assessment part of our professional lives; and finding ways to make it possible for our faculty to both teach small classes and labs and still closely mentor and advise individual students. Maybe I would have been better advised to specialize in stoicism, but I would like to assure you that without underestimating the gravity of these challenges, I remain supremely optimistic.
So let me outline the ambitious agenda that lies before us, an agenda that will build upon our proud heritage that grows out of many conversations that already have occurred, and that will continue to be shaped by conversations yet to come. For the only agenda that will be completed is the one we create and embrace together. This agenda will not be accomplished in the near term, but it clearly continues our tradition of making no small plans. And it is essential that we do so because, as former President Palamountain eloquently stated twenty seven years ago, "Institutions such as colleges cannot and do not enjoy equilibrium: they either grow, in quality and/or quantity, or they decline. These are the only two alternatives." (3) And I affirm to you today that I did not come here to preside over the decline of Skidmore College!
Academic Vision: The notion that creative thought matters captures an important dimension of who we are. My own first encounter with this phrase came in reading the prospectus for the presidency of Skidmore. It struck me then, as it continues to strike me now, as a unique apostrophe that underscores the power of hand and mind, of embodiment, of the third way. But we have not yet fully realized the potential of this idea. As I have said on another occasion to our faculty, understanding just how to enhance creativity across our curriculum and for each of our students may be our greatest challenge. Just what does it mean for us, and how do we do it? I would love to see us take up these questions collectively and see where they lead us.
Here is an idea that could become part of this conversation: Quite reasonably, we tend to interpret the phrase creative thought matters as creative thought is important, creative thought counts. But it also admits of a second possible reading, one that emphasizes its final word: creative thought must be made material. For an uncompleted thought—the building that is designed but never built, the novel envisioned but never written, the peace plan that is promulgated but never put into practice—remains decidedly unreal, a chimera, an illusion. (4) Truly creative thought must be embodied . Who can teach this lesson better than our artists who quite literally give their ideas material form? It is the special mission of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum to embody thought as well—to give concepts physical shape and texture and in doing so, quite literally, to create new ways of knowing, hence the forthcoming Luce Professorship of Fred Wilson. If this notion sounds elusive, then I would encourage you to visit the Tang and experience the death penalty exhibit (which was created by two of our students in collaboration with a faculty advisor) or Nayland Blake's challenging exploration of sexuality, race, and interpersonal relationships. We are charting new academic territory with the Tang, and I for one am eager to see where it will lead us in the future.
Other curricular ideas are also presently in play in lively discussions of the emerging Academic Vision Statement under the very able guidance of Dean Joseph and the members of the Committee on Educational Policies and Planning. Without at all attempting to preempt that conversation, let me add my support for the direction in which it is moving and highlight several features. I believe that we do need to pay increased attention to the crucial and formative experiences of our students during their first year, both as we mentor them in advising and as we bring them into our academic community in introductory courses. The latter need to be owned by all members of our faculty, with active leadership from our senior faculty. As we focus on the communication skills of our students, let us constantly remind ourselves that we write not just to convey our ideas to others but more importantly to develop— that is, to realize, to embody—our ideas in the first place. Moreover, students need to learn that writing is very different across the disciplines— writing in history looks quite different from writing in psychology or writing in business. So we need to make an increased commitment to own the teaching of writing across all our courses and at all levels in the curriculum. The same can be said for the elusive but all-important value of critical thinking.
Diversity and Global Thinking: All of us who live in the twenty-first century—and most of all young persons just entering adulthood—need to be adept travelers in a multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural, global milieu that scarcely could be imagined even a decade ago. Moreover, given the now-widespread recognition that increasing the diversity of a college community brings it new vitality, it is important to be clear about how concerns with diversity fit into the larger framework of fundamental values.
Liberal education puts in play a multiplicity of ideas, viewpoints, and cultural perspectives. Enhancing the diversity of a college or university advances this project because persons from different identity groups frequently experience divergent forms of life that expand the range of ideas and insights they bring to the table. At the same time, even though we all are shaped by our backgrounds, we need to remind ourselves that we cannot read the quality of one another's character from color, ethnicity, cultural background, sexual orientation, religion, or any other such traits. Each of us is a unique individual, with a rich personal story that needs to be heard before we can be understood, much less judged. Most important of all, the deep affinities we share as human beings influence us far more profoundly than do our sometimes more apparent differences. Ultimately these commonalities simply matter more than do our dissimilarities.
These realizations support the Academic Vision Statement's attention to the issues of citizenship broadly conceived. Josephine Case concluded her Charge to the Architects with the words, "One thing we do not want for our new campus and that is walls or gates. For we want the world to enter." We still want the world to enter Skidmore, and we want Skidmore's students and faculty to enter the world, bringing a global perspective to their work. At the same time, all of us need to understand the dynamics of race, ethnicity, gender, culture, sexual orientation, and so on as they historically have played out in America and continue to do so today. I would situate these two projects—gaining a global perspective and understanding domestic issues of diversity—as part of a larger overarching agenda, but they nonetheless represent quite distinct kinds of inquiry. So as we follow through with the commitment to diversity articulated in the Strategic Plan, we need to pursue the complementary goals of becoming a more diverse and open community and continuing to develop our capacities of cross-cultural and multicultural understanding.
The umbrella of citizenship also encompasses an increased commitment to community involvement, particularly as that involvement advances specific educational goals for our students under the broad heading of internships and service learning. One noteworthy example is the Expanding Horizons program in conjunction with the Schuylerville School System that at once provides assistance to the Schuylerville students and learning opportunities for our own students. We are presently exploring ways to increase such opportunities. And in fact, it is my goal that each of our graduates leaves us not only having earned a degree but also having identified a social cause that she or he finds personally compelling—his or her own way to leave the world a better place.
Academic Departments and Programs: Josephine Young Case included one additional comment in her Charge that merits our attention:
"Buildings do not cause academic programs, but they can impede them. Therefore, all [the] learning rooms [of the new campus] must be so placed and so designed that the campus expresses the unity of knowledge. Access between departments must be easy, so that students moving through this rich array feel from the first a single impact, and gather from the harmonious interplay of disciplines some inkling of the universality of human experience." (5)
Regardless of what we might say today about Case's references to the unity of knowledge and the universality of human experience and even noting the very real vitality of Skidmore's present commitment to interdisciplinary, I am not convinced that we are have fully realized the promise in Case's vision. Both our students and our faculty would benefit if we were to take a fresh look at the functioning of our academic departments and interdisciplinary programs. Departments especially need to see themselves not as walled city-states but rather as cells in a common living tissue that survive only because of the permeability of their external membranes. Departments are the local instantiations of larger disciplinary communities, and as such they represent crucial concentrations of expertise that are valuable in their own right and provide essential support to interdisciplinary.
But to do their work well, academic departments and interdisciplinary programs must be open communities that bring their disciplines to campus both in their formal curricula and informally through reading groups, colloquia, symposia, and other activities that bring students and faculty members together around topics of interest. Indeed, every major and program should have a clear answer to two important pedagogical questions: First, what kind of substantial independent project will each student complete by the end of senior year? And second, what does it mean for a student to be a major or minor, that is, how are students invited to engage with the discipline—beyond completing the formal curriculum? The most ambitious goal would be for us to think systematically about how departments and programs can move students from membership in an undergraduate learning community to membership in a disciplinary learned community.
I also would like to open a dialog with departments to help them do a better job of informing students about career options our major programs open to them. This is not a point about our curriculum; it is not about somehow making the liberal arts more vocational. My motivation is rather to free our students to pursue their own passion for a liberal arts major, secure in the knowledge that at a later time that major will help them construct a successful professional life.
Shared Governance: Let me acknowledge that the members of Skidmore's faculty, support staff, and administration frequently feel stretched beyond capacity, and today I am envisioning a future that will ask even more of all of us. I cannot make this request without addressing the question of resources. I will return to questions of finance in a moment, but for now let me address a question of an even more precious resource: time. Skidmore has a deep tradition of community involvement in institutional decision-making, a tradition that is woven into the fabric of this community; however, it is clear to me and to many others as well that our present formal governance structure simply makes inordinate demands on the time of too many members of our community. This burden falls disproportionately, though not exclusively, on the faculty. Later on this year, I propose to work with the Committee on Faculty Governance and other groups as appropriate to search for ways to continue our tradition of strong shared governance with a more efficient structure that makes fewer demands on our time. As part of this project, let us devote increased attention to taking collective responsibility for the tenor of our shared discourse. And let me acknowledge that any changes we collectively decide to make in our formal governance structures must be predicated on increased levels of mutual trust—a goal toward which we already are moving together.
Resources and Strategic Planning: Lastly, as we continue to set our course for the future, we must deepen our analysis to ensure that we understand the cost of each potential initiative we envision. We need to factor in a plan to ensure the upkeep of our beautiful campus that is now beginning to age; we need to build a new music building not only to support that program but to provide a large gathering space where we can bring the world to Skidmore; and we need to create new student housing to make this campus even more residential than it is at present. Even more importantly, we need to set and achieve strategic goals regarding compensation for all those who work at Skidmore. A few moments ago I referenced some of the challenges that impede our path to achieving these and other goals. In response to those challenges, we have made difficult choices already this year, and in all candor I must say that more such choices lie ahead of us. Even so, my remarks today have continued in the Skidmore tradition of making no small plans—envisioning a future that at present is simply not affordable. In the past we have marched ahead often not knowing how the necessary resources would be forthcoming.
Skidmore always has been an institution on the edge, surviving by cunning and audacity, by a willingness to take risks and pursue objectives that sometimes seemed to defy rational thought. This history of risk-taking and institutional audacity has served us well in the past, and we have modeled these values for our students to their great benefit. And in the process, we have created a school that is competitive with some of the finest and most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation. By any measure, we are today—as we have not always been before—in the game. Unfortunately, our collegiate playing field includes institutions with one or even two hundred years' more history, with thousands more alumni, and with endowments millions of dollars richer. We cannot contend successfully on this playing field by trying to imitate our competitors. That is why we must know just who we are and make the unordinary choice to go our own way. We have done so successfully in the past. If we continue on our present positive trajectory and successfully communicate precisely what we do and how we are different, we can become known and respected as a unique model for collegiate higher education in America.
However, it is time for us to realign our thinking about Skidmore in one fundamental way: Given our present financial realities and even with a willingness to make difficult decisions to control our costs, we cannot realize our dreams without a significant infusion of new resources—primarily in the form of increased endowment. Our endowment has grown substantially over the past decade, and superb management by the Investment Committee has protected our corpus during the recent economic downturn. Still, our current endowment remains insufficient to take us where we need to go over the coming years. One of our Board members—a person whose own generosity to the College has been remarkable—recently observed that our community has never been asked to support Skidmore at a level beyond what they thought they were able to do. I say to you today that that era must come to an end. If we are truly to compete at the topmost tier of selective liberal arts colleges, if we are to fulfill our potential and our promise as a unique and compelling institution where the presence of creative thought permeates the warp and woof of our communal fabric, we must persuade the extended Skidmore family as well as other friends of the College to see us as worthy of substantially higher levels of support than we have received in the past. We must ask our alumni and friends to step forward and demonstrate their own passion for Skidmore in ways that are historically unprecedented. I am prepared to ask for such levels of support, and I trust that I can count on the affirmation of this community in doing so.
Let me conclude by returning once more to the theme of risk: Lucy Skidmore took a risk in founding her original club and then a second one in positioning it to become a liberal arts college. Closing the nursing program was a risk. Creating an entirely new campus was a risk. Admitting men certainly was a risk. Adopting the Liberal Studies curriculum was a huge risk when it was introduced. Building the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery was a risk. Adopting a radically new Admissions recruiting strategy was a risk. And proclaiming to the world—first through Admissions and now institutionally—that creative thought matters may be the most significant, and most important, risk of all.
Although I'm old enough to appreciate the virtue of caution, I hope I never forget that a considered and prudent risk can be an enormous tonic for the spirit. Several years ago I found myself standing at the crest of a Mammoth Mountain black diamond ski run at 13,000 feet with my son Jason (who does not know fear). It was a very windy day; the hill was mostly ice. I was not altogether sure I could negotiate it. But at the same time, having committed to the ride up, I was painfully aware that there was no other way down. I still can recall the feeling of dropping over the edge, the adrenaline rush, and the eventual realization—somewhat delayed, in my case, being a philosopher—that I hadn't been killed, followed by the subsequent and overpowering urge to go back up and do it again. It is no exaggeration to say that that is precisely the way I experienced the directed study with Fred Crosson so many years ago: anxiety to the point of queasiness in anticipation, wondering just what I had gotten myself into, uncertainty whether I could do it, and then great exhilaration over both the experience itself and the final result. More recently, at the beginning of the current semester, I had a conversation with one of our students—a senior sociology major—who described her own impending senior seminar in precisely the same terms. It is one of my goals as President that each of our students should have at least one such academic experience prior to graduation, preferably many more than one.
Many of them are up to this challenge. At a recent gathering of new members of the Honors Forum, I addressed a series of questions to the group that included "Who among you will write a Pulitzer prize-winning novel?" (And that that group of students collectively had already written more than seven novels.) Later on a young woman came up to me and said, "I know those were rhetorical questions, but I want you to know that you were talking about me: I'm going to write the Pulitzer prize-winning novel." That is why we are here: to ensure that the confidence and native talent so evident in that young woman is buoyed and seasoned by knowledge, by understanding, by perspective, and by the skills to take her as far as her inherent ability, desire, and commitment may lead.
So let us never lose our taste for taking risks, and let us never forget that to love is to take the ultimate risk. Within the academic community we know that danger. We know that our scholarly or artistic pursuits can fail us: that the answer to one's most important question can remain elusive; the muse can fail to settle lightly on one's shoulder. Revealing one's passion for one's discipline to one's students is to risk a most profound form of rejection for it involves laying bare one's soul. Teaching is psychologically dangerous work. Setting our sights on a Skidmore that will set a new national standard for its distinctive kind of educational experience is to commit ourselves to a very unordinary and risky choice as well. We take those risks because to succeed is to know the joy of the gods.
1. For example, he wrote that the "experience of one's own body runs counter to the reflective procedure which detaches subject and object from each other, and which gives us only the thought about the body, or the body as an idea and not the experience of the body or the body in reality." Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1962), pp. 198-99.
2. Constitution of the Young Women's Industrial Club, quoted by Joseph C. Palamountain Jr., "'Such Growth Bespeaks the Work of Many Hands': The Story of Skidmore College," address to the Newcomen Society, 1976, p. 10.
3. Palamountain, p. 20.
4. This is hardly a novel realization. Karl Marx (who derived it from Hegel) emphasized it in his theory of production.
5. Lynn, p. 246.