Brighter Together: The Shared Past, Present, and Future of Lawrence & Appleton (January 26, 2022)

Good morning, Rotarians,

Let me begin by saying, thank you for the good work you do every day to make Appleton and the Fox Cities a better, brighter, and more compassionate community. Rotary has a long and proud tradition of building alliances and serving its neighbors. Your work truly makes a difference.

At Lawrence, we do not take lightly the need to nourish community, to build those important partnerships that strengthen us as a whole—intellectually, economically, culturally, and emotionally. We have a saying at Lawrence that we are brighter together, and I believe in my heart that that applies as well to the many ways Lawrence interacts with its neighbors in the Fox Cities.

In the nearly seven months since I arrived at Lawrence, I have been taken by the connections between the university and this place we call home. We are celebrating Lawrence’s 175th anniversary in 2022, a milestone that puts an exclamation point on the many ways in which Lawrence and Appleton have grown up together. As those of you with a love of local history may already know, Lawrence is named in honor of its founder, Amos Lawrence, and the city of Appleton in honor of his wife, Sarah Appleton Lawrence. 

It was on January 15, 1847, that Lawrence Institute was granted a charter, one year before Wisconsin would become a state, and six years before Appleton would be incorporated as a municipality. Upon his first visit to Appleton in 1857, in a letter back home to his wife in Boston, Amos Lawrence described the location of the university this way: “The streets extend along the high banks of the river, and the views up and down the river are picturesque and almost grand. The roar of the water over a succession of falls adds to the effect.”

Amos Lawrence, quite obviously, took to Appleton immediately. His beautiful description of the landscape still holds true today.

The Lawrence campus was but a single building in those early days. Situated on 84 acres on the eastern edge of Appleton’s downtown, the campus now includes 60 instructional, residential, recreational, and administrative facilities. The Fox River runs through the heart of campus. It truly is a gorgeous setting.

But, of course, there is much, much more to Lawrence University and its place in Appleton than those picturesque river vistas.

Lawrence today remains what it has been for much of its history—an undergraduate college of the liberal arts and sciences with a conservatory of music. With an enrollment of nearly 1,500 students, it continues to honor the vision of its founders and build on the heritage of excellence in undergraduate education. It is annually ranked among the nation’s best private colleges and is the top liberal arts college in Wisconsin, drawing students from nearly every state—including students from the Fox Cities—and nearly 40 countries. 

In 2018, Lawrence contracted with the consulting firm Appleseed for an Economic and Community Impact Study. The results gave us data that reflect how intertwined Lawrence is with the surrounding community. The study showed that Lawrence’s economic impact in the region totals more than $70 million annually. Students from the Fox Valley receive more than $1.4 million in financial aid from Lawrence. Our students, faculty, and staff contribute more than 10,000 hours of community service each year as we continue to build partnerships with area nonprofits and the Appleton Area School District.

That’s but a small sample of our community connections. Also consider these:

Through our Lawrence Community Music School, formerly known as the Lawrence Academy of Music, more than 1,500 area children and adults annually take private music lessons or perform in orchestras, ensembles, and choirs. The school has been an important part of Lawrence’s outreach to the community for nearly 150 of our 175 years.

The Conservatory of Music’s annual Jazz Celebration Weekend, meanwhile, has brought thousands of high school and middle school students to campus each fall for two days of high-level instruction with our world-class faculty and special musical guests. It just marked its 40th year.

A music education team led by Conservatory faculty, students, and alumni partner each year with Mile of Music to offer free interactive music experiences throughout the popular four-day festival in downtown Appleton. It’s an element that separates Mile of Music from almost any other music festival in the world.

Fox Cities residents are frequently invited to campus to hear guest speakers on a wide range of important topics, allowing us all to listen and learn and hopefully think a little deeper about issues that affect this world—locally and globally.

Our Athletics department hosts summer camps for Appleton area youth each summer, bringing dozens of Fox Cities children and families to campus to learn from our coaches and student-athletes in the Banta Bowl and Alexander Gymnasium.

A partnership between Lawrence’s education department and the Appleton Area School District regularly puts new Lawrence graduates into Appleton classrooms for year-long student-teaching assignments. Many of those graduates go on to be hired full time as Appleton teachers.

And one of my favorite examples is spearheaded by current senior and Kaukauna native Molly Ruffing. Ruffing, a psychology and English double major, works for our Center for Community Engagement and Social Change and runs our VITAL program. VITAL stands for Volunteers in Tutoring at Lawrence and matches Lawrence student tutors with K-12 students in the Appleton Area School District. Molly also created a new education-focused program called First of Many, a first-generation student mentorship program with her alma mater, Kaukauna High School,

Sadly, the Covid pandemic put a pause on many of these interactions. I eagerly await the day, hopefully very soon, when Lawrence can again open its doors to the community, inviting everyone back for theater, opera, music, and dance performances in Memorial Chapel, Stansbury Theater, and Harper Hall; to the impactful art exhibits that grace the beautiful Wriston Art Gallery and the convocation addresses that are so integral to our traditions; to the many public resources housed within Seeley G. Mudd Library; and to the athletic events that bring excitement and camaraderie to Alexander Gym, the Banta Bowl, and other spaces where our student-athletes compete.

I am also eager to extend our community outreach and partnerships across our community. I’d like for Lawrence to create new service opportunities with area non-profits through our Center for Community Engagement and Social Change; pursue internships with local businesses through our Career Center; and launch new continuing education classes taught by Lawrence faculty and open to Fox City community members.

Suffice to say, Lawrence’s commitment to serving the community and being a part of the community has never wavered.

That community partnership extends to Bjorklunden, Lawrence’s beautiful 441-acre educational retreat in Door County, where summer seminars on a robust and eclectic range of subject matter are open to the public. Residents from all over Wisconsin, including the Fox Valley, partake enthusiastically in those seminars, many coming back summer after summer. Most of the seminars are led by Lawrence faculty or alumni, who bring expertise from their areas of study, research or passion.

Speaking of Lawrence alumni, they are now more than 20,000 strong, living and leading and changing the world in places near and far. They have generously supported Lawrence through the years with their time, talent, and gifts, and many of them continue to graciously connect with and mentor our students as they prepare to launch careers.

Among our alumni is a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and a former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice. Four Lawrence alumni have been appointed by U.S. presidents to serve as ambassadors throughout the world. Our Conservatory alumni perform on some of most acclaimed stages in the world, from Broadway to Paris. And they can be found in classrooms and boardrooms, leading community nonprofits and guiding Fortune 500 companies. 

Many of our alumni live right here in the Fox Cities. The Appleseed study showed that 5 percent of area residents with bachelor’s degrees are Lawrence alumni. In fact, I would not be surprised if we had some Lawrence alumni in our audience today.

And as many of you know, Appleton’s current mayor, Jake Woodford, is a proud 2013 graduate of Lawrence University. I’ve had the opportunity to meet with Mayor Woodford on multiple occasions and have walked away impressed with his sincere commitment to serve the people of Appleton and to nurture the long-standing connections between Lawrence and its home community.

As we look to the future, Lawrence is not immune to the many challenges facing higher education. The Covid pandemic has posed new anxieties for colleges and universities across the country, and Lawrence is no exception, but our resolve is strong to build smartly and strategically on our 175 years of history and prepare to meet the needs of students today and long into the future.

That resolve includes our commitment to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything we do. From the time we recruit a new class to the time we bid them farewell at commencement, we will make Lawrence a welcoming place for all of our students. We are trying to live those words every single day.

That commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion extends to the greater Appleton community as well, as we work with city leadership, including Appleton’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Coordinator Timber Smith, and important partners like Imagine Fox Cities to ensure that all of our students feel at home here in Appleton. We need them to feel embraced and respected, whether they’re on campus, on College Avenue, or elsewhere in the Fox Cities. That hasn’t always been the case, and it’s imperative that we all work together to make the commitment a reality.

Those cannot be hollow words. They have to play out every day, in everything we do. As community advocates through your work with Rotary, I know you understand the importance of unity and fairness and community-building, and I thank you for living those ideals in your personal lives, your work lives, and in your community advocacy.

We must do this together. A healthy Lawrence is good for Appleton, and a healthy Appleton is good for Lawrence.

As it has for all of its 175 years, Lawrence remains an important part of this community. We cherish our role in this community. We cherish the intersection of our shared histories and our shared interests, and we look forward to an even deeper relationship as we build a strong, vibrant future for generations of students to come.

We are, after all, brighter together.