Service before self
Thank you, Charles, for your kind remarks. Thank you to Rotary Education Foundation President Greg Grieco and to the Marketing Committee and the Foundation Board for this honor.
Congratulations to Kari Cushing and the Franklin Community Center. Kari, thank you for your leadership in enormously important work to help the less fortunate members of the Saratoga region. Skidmore College is very happy to support the Community Center through the annual Skidmore Cares initiative and in other ways throughout the year.
And let me say it is a very special honor—and quite a humbling experience—to share the stage today with Florence Andreson. Florence is a proud and incredibly supportive Skidmore alumna; she is an Trustee Emerita; and she has served in a number of volunteer roles at the College across many years. Throughout her time in Saratoga Springs, she has provided extraordinary service to our community and to the Rotary Club, in particular. Congratulations, Florence. You are one of my all-time heroes.
My own resume does not obviously fit the profile of those who are recipients of this award. When Marie and I came to Skidmore fourteen years ago, we created a division of labor in which she concentrated more on the relationship between the College and the city, and I kept my focus on organizations that support higher education. (Indeed, Marie received this award several years back, and I'm just now catching up. This is, in fact, the typical situation in our house: I'm used to being the trailing spouse.)
But each of these areas of endeavor is important to us. We deeply respect and cherish the Saratoga Springs community, both as a place to live and as a wonderful location for Skidmore College. Marie has worked—and continues to work—to ensure that Skidmore is a good and supportive neighbor. And the many opportunities for volunteer activity that Saratoga Springs affords are important to our students, faculty, and staff.
By contrast, my service has been focused more on supporting the enterprise of higher education itself—especially in small liberal arts colleges such as Skidmore—through national higher education associations. These organizations help to shape the broader conversation within the higher education community about how best to do our work of teaching and learning. They also engage legislators and others on topics as diverse as accreditation, other forms of regulation, and student aid (such as Pell Grants). And finally, they provide professional development opportunities to college administrators, helping them better understand the challenges we all must address and enabling them to perform at higher levels in their positions.
These things are important, because college and university administrators support the central work of educating our young people, which I believe is some of the most important work that there is to do. All too often today, our colleges and universities are tarred with the general cynicism and suspicion that currently attaches to so many once-venerated institutions. There is an image of college life that is epitomized in popular culture in images of football, fraternities, frivolity, and their sometimes more serious consequences. Fun is certainly a legitimate part of the undergraduate experience (though Skidmore does not have a football team, and I am very glad that we do not have fraternities or sororities). And some of the internal disputes in higher education can seem downright silly when caricatured in the press.
But I would be the first to admit that there are indeed things that happen on our campuses that legitimately prompt hard questions and merited criticism. Colleges and universities face many difficult vexing issues that reflect deeper troubles in our society and that we are all working hard to address. So let me just say two things about why the primary educational work we do is so important, and why so many of us see what we do not just as a job but as a vocation—a calling:
First, it is not an exaggeration to say that everything we have learned as a species across nearly four millennia of recorded history—the accumulated knowledge, cognitive skills, and wisdom of the human race—must be transmitted from generation to generation if it is to be preserved and, ultimately increased. This process of transmission, when everything we human beings have learned over time is carried forward from one generation to another, reaches its peak in the moment of an undergraduate education. Not that undergraduates can master this enormous body of knowledge by commencement day, but rather they have to learn to appreciate the breadth and depth of these human achievements, and even more importantly, they have to learn how to learn—so they can keep learning, preserving, and adding to human knowledge over their lifetimes. As a college president, I attach the highest value to this educational project, and I feel a deep corresponding responsibility to help carry it forward.
Secondly, our society is increasingly prone to evaluating the worth of who we are and what we do in purely economic terms. David Brooks, for one, has written insightfully and critically of this tendency. In my world, this concept of value manifests itself as an unexamined narrative that views a college education entirely as a personal good measurable purely in economic terms—as a personal investment with a monetary return that accrues primarily, or perhaps even exclusively, to the individual who earns a degree. Of course, a college education is and should represent a personal economic good. It should lead to a good job and a meaningful professional and personal life, and the actual data demonstrate that, by and large, it does.
But at the same time, we need always to remember that a college education is also intended to be a social good, one that should accrue value to the larger society and not just to the person earning the degree. This is why Skidmore's mission statement includes the aspiration that we prepare our students to be "informed, responsible citizens." This commitment means that we expect our graduates to contribute—to give back—to their communities, their nations, and ultimately to the world in ways that increase the general good.
Every fall at Skidmore's Opening Convocation, when we welcome our new students, I challenge them to live up to this part of Skidmore's mission: to find their own cause—their particular way of leaving the world a better place than they found it. We try to keep this idea alive throughout their four years at the College and in our graduates' continuing lives as alumni. In my own work with higher education organizations, I have tried to advance these values as well.
And here the mission of Skidmore College, my own service within higher education, and the guiding principles of the Rotary organization perfectly align. With the many community projects the Saratoga Springs Rotary Club sponsors and supports, both in Saratoga Springs and around the world, and through the scholarships you fund, you demonstrably increase the overall measure of social good.
Your good work exemplifies Rotary International"s commitment to "encourage and foster the ideal of service as a basis of a worthy enterprise"—always emphasizing "service before self." Today more than ever, it is enormously important that each of us actively support this understanding of service as a primary value, and defend the underlying concept of social good, because, sadly, it is under attack from all sides—most especially from those who see the world solely in terms of their own gains and losses and who do not acknowledge the basic fact that a civil society depends upon mutual goodwill and the sharing of common concerns, not just for ourselves alone but for all our fellow citizens together.
"Service before self." What would our nation and, ultimately, our world look like if this imperative were more broadly celebrated and embraced than it currently is? Let us continue to work together to find out.
Thank you, again, for this wonderful award.