When I arrived in Appleton and at
Lawrence over two years ago, I cherished the warmth and the welcome that this
community offered to me. Many people had told me that the Fox Cities were special,
somewhere that everyone could call home. I did not believe this was possible until
I experienced it myself. Staff in the Post Office, neighbors I met on the
street, community leaders, and many more extended their hands and opened their
hearts to me and, I am sure to many of you.
However, events over the past few
weeks also suggest that this warm and welcoming embrace is not extended to all
members of our community. Many students of color, as well as those who identify
as LGBT, have shared experiences with me that do not live up to our community
aspirations. At times, they have been harassed and insulted on our streets and
in our stores. Their experiences mirror those of other residents in our area.
Lawrence students took to the
streets two weeks ago to focus our attention on our need to become more
tolerant of difference. To become more inclusive as a community. I want to
thank many of you who sent me messages that supported our students’ courageous
efforts. But others have posted comments that underline our need to change.
I think itis time for us to include
all of our residents in this warm and welcoming community. I believe that this
is who we want to be. The vast majority of Appleton residents want to sustain
this type of community, but we will need to work harder to reach that goal.
During the past few weeks student
activism, Expressions of Acceptance micro-‐operas, the Convocation, and other
activities have encouraged us to consider racism on our campus and in the
surrounding community. Themes raised here have echoed recently at other
universities around the country.
For example, a number of Lawrentians
took to the streets of Appleton to raise awareness about acts of racism that
they have encountered downtown and in other parts of the local community. Their
protest was met with support, but also with skepticism from some Lawrentians as
well as some Fox Cities residents. We need to understand that when we deny or
ignore the existence of painful and dehumanizing encounters, great and small,
which members of this community have experienced and continue to experience, we
undermine the core values of Lawrence. We must awaken to the reality that
confronts members of our community every day.
Convocation speaker Ta-‐Nehisi
Coates reinforced themes raised by our own students and alumni. He made it
clear that systemic injustice is real, and that it predates the formation of
the United States. His charge to us was also clear:
One of the things I really, really want to urge you, as young
people here today, is to understand that all of us —black, white, whatever —we
live underneath of our history. And so when you see these people, you know,
shouting “black lives matter,” which seems like the most obvious thing in the
world, they’re not just shouting at something that happened on tape. They are
shouting at a long, lengthy history that begins in 1619,and has effectively
Lawrentians have tried for many
years to make their community more inclusive, a place in which all students,
faculty and staff can truly feel at home. But we need to keep working at it. Every
one of us needs to face the truth directly .We need more change on campus and
in Appleton if we are to live up to our aspirations to create a welcoming and
supportive community for all. We cannot refuse to take notice of the routine
acts of aggression and malice that make members of our community, the Lawrence
community, feel like outsiders.
As we enter the 10th week
of the term I realize it would be difficult to deepen our discussion of these
issues before winter break. But when we return in January, we must pick up this
conversation; we must work together to fashion a community that will feel like
home for all of us. In the meantime please contact me or other members of the
administration if you would like to suggest ways to help us with this crucial
task. I am confident we can continue to make progress.
I hope each of you has a successful
end of the term. I look forward to seeing you after the New Year –if not
Thank you Kathrine Handford for providing an organ prelude that sets the stage for this and every convocation. Thank you Phillip Swan, Steven Sieck and members of the freshman class for beginning our year with such beauty. I look forward to many future performances. And thank you, Howard Niblock, for your thoughtful selection of today’s opening and closing words.
I also want to thank Tim Spurgin and the Convocation and Commencement Committee for assembling a provocative and engaging series. I hope you will join me in attending all convocations this year.
Welcome to the freshman class and our seven tenure line colleagues who moved to Appleton this fall. You will create the future of Lawrence. For the rest of your lives you will represent this university in all that you do. Thank you for joining us and renewing what it means to be a Lawrentian.
It is an absolute pleasure to be here today with you to celebrate the opening of our 167th academic year. I begin, grateful for the work last year by many colleagues to enhance the education we offer, and to the larger Lawrence community who, by virtue of their recordbreaking investment in the future of this university, will allow us to make Lawrence more affordable. These efforts and others have given us extraordinary momentum. Thank you all for helping us sustain the exceptional education we offer.
I want to dedicate this talk to the 147 students who died at Garissa University College in Kenya last spring. We have reached a critical moment as a global community when a sectarian conflict can boil over into a terrorist attack on unarmed students who are trying to simply better themselves through education. We must stand with every other higher education institution to make our campuses safe from such violence.
It was a year of many remarkable events for Lawrence and for me, but what stands out most in my mind is a conversation that took place in a sexual misconduct working group meeting in July. As I mentioned in an email to our community a few weeks ago, a group of us met frequently this summer to update our sexual misconduct policies, procedures, and educational strategies in an effort to respond to issues that students raised last spring.
During the meeting a conversation began about the new web site. I suggested we post a rap video performed by a young man who lamented his having stood silently by, as a friend described a sexual assault. This video had a profound effect on me and I hoped the message would have the same impact on members of our community. Many in the working group thought this was a good idea. But one colleague asked, “Does the rap contain swear words?” I was then informed: we do not include content on our web site with profanity in deference to students and parents who would prefer not to hear this language.
At that moment my blood began to freeze. My mind ran to all the provocative literature and film with swear words that I have consumed. And I thought what have we done? How can it be appropriate for a college to self-censor our content in this way?
There have been many moments this past year where members of the Lawrence community have felt hurt, objectified, and unsafe in response to other people’s views or comments expressed on campus, in the classroom, and on social media. Students, faculty, and staff have approached me with concerns about speech or action in relation to their identity. But does this mean we need to self-censor to the point of eliminating swear words to ensure all members of our community feel safe and supported? Or might we, instead, find balance between engaging on one hand with different, sometimes uncomfortable ideas and language, and on the other creating a supportive and welcoming campus community where all members can thrive?
We are not alone with the problem raised by self-censoring. In an interview last fall, actor and comedian Chris Rock said he had “stopped playing colleges . . . because they are way too conservative. Not in their political views – not like they’re voting Republican – but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of ‘We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.’ Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
President Obama opined on this topic at a town hall meeting this past Monday in Iowa. He stated, “I’ve heard some college campuses where they don’t want to have a guest speaker who is too conservative or they don’t want to read a book if it has language that is offensive to African Americans or somehow sends a demeaning signal towards women, and I gotta tell you, I don’t agree with that..” He went on, “I don’t agree that you . . . have to be coddled and protected from different points of view. Anybody who comes to speak to you and you disagree with, you should have an argument with them, but you shouldn’t silence them by saying you can’t come because I’m too sensitive to hear what you have to say. That’s not the way we learn.”
The view that extreme sensitivity has taken over campuses is not limited to politicians and comedians. In a New York Magazine article called “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say: How the language police are perverting liberalism,” Jonathan Chait chronicles a number of incidents at UCLA, Harvard, Michigan, Mount Holyoke, and Stanford among others. He sums up this trend: “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ‘80s and early 90’s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.”
He argues that we, as faculty and administrators, have overreacted to this movement with trigger warnings and campaigns to eradicate microaggressions. He recalls one professor at a prestigious university telling him that, “just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her student’s sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma –- or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy –- merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration.”
Trigger warnings have been defined as “alerts that professors are expected to issue if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response.” And microaggressions have been defined as “small actions or word choices that seem on their face to have no malicious intent, but that are thought of as a kind of violence nonetheless.”
Chait is not alone in raising the alarm. Many recent books and articles have been published claiming college communities have curtailed freedom of speech.
Not all efforts to sanitize the educational environment come from the political left. For example, this fall an entering Duke freshman started a Facebook campaign against the assignment of a book that Lawrentians know well, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. This student objected to it “because I think sexuality is becoming more and more commonplace in our culture, and that’s a risk. Universities like Duke . . . risk isolating or even discriminating against people with conservative beliefs.” Another student posted “I am a Christian, and the nature of Fun Home . . . violates my conscience due to its pornographic nature.”
Fun Home has caused a stir on many campuses. Among other incidents of censure, state legislators in South Carolina proposed to cut government support for the College of Charleston in response to the inclusion of Fun Home on a reading list. At Lawrence two years ago, I found Bechdel’s convocation speech riveting but in no way subversive of core human values.
In a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Hiding from Scary Ideas: Do students really need cookies and Play-doh to deal with the trauma of listening to unpopular opinions?” Judy Shulevitz, tried to explain why so many people feel the urge to minimize controversial topics: “Safe spaces,” she said, “are an expression of the conviction, increasingly prevalent among college students, that their schools should keep them from being ‘bombarded’ by discomforting or distressing viewpoints.” She cites events at Brown, Columbia, Oxford, Northwestern, and Smith to illustrate her point.
Shulevitz is not concerned that free speech has been diminished, or that we have become too politically correct. She worries that this trend limits the power of the education we as colleges can provide. She understands that, “keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive.” But she believes: “it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision. Shield them from unfamiliar ideas, and they’ll never learn the discipline of seeing the world as other people see it. They’ll be unprepared for the social and intellectual headwinds that will hit them as soon as they step off the campuses whose climates they have so carefully controlled. What will they do when they hear opinions they’ve learned to shrink from? If they want to change the world, how will they learn to persuade people to join them?”
As Shulevitz suggests, we in the academy are not alone in our struggle to discuss topics where strong opinions vary widely. For example: Starbucks tried to foster a conversation about race earlier this spring in response to the troubling events in Ferguson and elsewhere across the country. They launched an advertising campaign and they asked baristas to write phrases like “Race Together” on customers’ orders. That effort was dismantled by the buzz saw of public opinion.
A recent article in The Atlantic by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” takes this argument one-step further. They warn that, “Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.” They insist that the demand for trigger warnings and avoidance of microaggressions “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm. The ultimate aim, it seems, is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’ where young adults are shielded from words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.”
Anyone who interferes with this effort is punished, even if the interference is accidental. The authors call this impulse “vindictive protectiveness”; they believe it “is creating a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”
As a result, they believe the campus environment “prepares [students] poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong . . . And [it is] bad for American democracy, which is already paralyzed by worsening partisanship.”
Voices from management theory support this concern. For example, in the Harvard Business Review, Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes explained that: “disagreements sparked by differences in perspective, competencies, access to information, and strategic focus within a company actually generate much of the value that can come from collaboration across organizational boundaries. Clashes between parties are the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made. So instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and, just as important, institutionalize mechanisms for managing it.”
A recent research project by the Pew Charitable Trust also illustrates the need to discuss different points of view if society is to solve pressing global problems. The study discovered some interesting disagreements between scientists and the American public. For example, 88% of scientists believe it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, but only 37% of U.S. adults agree. Maybe more pressing issues: 87% of scientists believe climate change is mostly due to human activity but only 50% of U.S adults agree. And 82% of scientists believe growing world populations will be a major problem but only 59% of U.S adults agree.
Is it not the very core of our mission to discuss these issues even if they may offend members of our community?
Lukianoff and Haidt state that colleges must find a way to “balance freedom of speech with the need to make all students feel welcome.” This is an admirable objective for us but we need to find our own path toward this goal.
This balance is not easy to find for any of us personally, let alone at an institutional or societal level. Early in my career when someone noticed my wedding ring, the usual question was: what does my wife do? The question felt like a microagression. Why would someone assume I was straight? In fact, probability would dictate that I am straight–so it was a normal assumption. I now draw the line when someone persists in calling my spouse my wife, even when I have clearly given his name. Which, by the way, still happens about 20% of the time.
Providing a welcoming and supportive campus community is a Lawrence hallmark. But we need to sustain open discourse even as we navigate a campus where difference rather than similarity is the norm. We need to study problems from multiple vantage points, even if they are ones that go against closely held beliefs. We need to assume the best of other people, and also to become more educated.
We will find this balance, together.
Last winter in an opinion piece in The Lawrentian a student wrote that in her experience, “Lawrence has changed me irrevocably. It has arranged and rearranged the very fibers of my being. I didn’t really know that it would when I first arrived here. . . And while my formation is not yet over, Lawrence has already made me who I am and who I will be.”
To provide this kind of transformative education we must redouble our efforts to teach and attempt to understand the provocative, the unexpected, the different from ourselves. We must also work together to create a more supportive community, and to broaden the different views we hear and learn.
In the recent song, Brave, Sara Bareilles says: Say what you wanna say, And let the words fall out, Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.
I understand that what I am asking is not easy– especially in today’s world. But I believe we are brave enough to take up the challenge.
Again, thank you for all you do to sustain this vibrant learning community we call Lawrence. I look forward to another year of education, growth, and celebration.
It is an absolute pleasure to be here today to celebrate the opening of our 166th academic year. I want to begin by thanking you, the Lawrence and Appleton communities, for a first year of learning, growth, and forward momentum for this University we hold so dear.
I specifically want to thank Kathrine Handford for today’s excellent organ music, Phillip Swan, Steve Sieck and members of the freshman class for beginning our year with such beauty. I look forward to many future performances. I also want thank Tim Spurgin and the Convocations and Commencement Committee for assembling a thoughtful and provocative series for this year. I hope you will join me in attending each Convocation.
I start today needing to provide a disclaimer. I received many insightful responses to last fall’s convocation speech, Crossing the Threshold: Community as Curriculum. One that stood out for me came from a member of the class of 2014 during my first open office hours. He explained that I did not understand Lawrence’s culture. I had laid out a number of ideas in my convocation speech, but I had not followed up with a concrete plan to change the university in response to those ideas. This senior then informed me that my window was closing; I needed to get to it right away!
I have found our students uniformly smart about how change happens in the world — and certainly at Lawrence. (The only moment I debated this view was after reading a comment in the Lawrentian that I was the best looking man on campus. We may need to reconsider how we teach aesthetics.) But I return here today with ideas about the challenges that face higher education and how they affect our present and future – again without a strategy to implement change starting tomorrow. I hope you will give me a pass for lack of planning, and continue to engage with me and with each other on the ideas discussed at all our Convocations.
Ferdinand Tonnies, a German sociologist, starts his seminal book, Community and Society, published in 1887, with a deceptively simple idea about human interaction. He wrote, “Human wills stand in manifold relations to one another. Every such relationship is a mutual action . . . These actions are of such a nature that they tend either toward preservation or destruction of the other will or life; that is, they are either positive or negative.” Tonnies believed that successful social connection requires speaking and listening. Without this engaged interaction, human connection would be destroyed.
Over the past twenty years, many have mourned the decay of human interactions. Robert Putnam, for example, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, assembles voting patterns, survey data, affiliation to religious and social service organizations, and other information to show that American society has slowly lost its social cohesion. For example, he writes, eighty percent of Americans said we had become less civil in a survey taken in 1996. In a 1999 survey two thirds of Americans said that civic life had weakened in recent years and that our society was focused more on the individual than the community.
This general concern reappears in the writing of many people who believe we tend to associate, to live, to interact mostly with people like ourselves. Charles Blow, in the New York Times, coined the term “self-sorting” to describe the trend to live grouped by race, education, and income.
Faith Popcorn, a futurist hired by many corporations to determine social trends lists “Clanning” – the tendency to belong to a group that validates one’s own belief system – as one of the seventeen trends that reveal the future. Just from one vantage point, political beliefs: we now gravitate to red or blue states, and we choose car brands, stores and news media according to our political views. We do this, she thinks, because we need to find a familiar anchor in an unstable world.
These trends affect us personally, but how do they affect those of us who care about higher education and the campus communities we foster? Essays collected by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann and Harry Lewis, former deans of Harvard College, argue that we in higher education are at least partially responsible for this trend. The editors write: “colleges and universities have a broad responsibility for the future of citizenship. They have become the central switching stations of life in the United States and other democratic societies.
Free societies will not thrive,” they warn, “unless colleges . . . understand that the civic health of the nation is one of their central responsibilities.” They believe that colleges have over emphasized the preparation of students for careers – instead of educating them to be citizens.
In another essay in this collection, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, former president of Bates, suggests that liberal arts colleges have a unique role in this effort to educate an informed and skilled citizenry. Hansen argues that colleges must teach listening: “Listening is a powerful and difficult skill,” she writes, “learning how to listen to what is unfamiliar or disturbing to received opinion and commonly understood ways of thinking should be essential to . . . higher education.” For her, even listening is not enough. We need to learn to engage with speakers who have “unfamiliar” or even “disturbing” views.
This skill needs to be taught in college, she believes, because the dialogue that results will strengthen our civic life.
Hansen’s view has been echoed by many including Father Ted Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame, who supported the university’s invitation to Barack Obama to speak at commencement in 2009 — even though the president was clearly pro-choice and the university’s public stance is pro-life.
He said that Notre Dame should offer a crossroads of ideas. Universities must be, “a commonplace where people who disagree can get together, instead of throwing bricks at one another” he said where they can discuss, from different perspectives, the difficult problems facing society today. “Solutions are going to come out of people from universities,” he predicted. “They aren’t going to come from people running around with signs.”
Hansen and Hesburgh both argue that in order to create citizens, colleges and universities need to fight the trend toward self-sorting, or clanning. We need to open up dialogues on our campuses to the widest possible range of views.
It is time for colleges and universities to ask whether we are succeeding in creating environments where students learn to listen to views different than their own. Maybe even disturbing perspectives. But, the list of cancelled commencement speakers this past spring, cancelled because campus communities disapproved of them, indicates that we need to work with students, faculty, staff and alumni—to create the “central switching stations” our societies need: to shape environments where we can learn to listen—even to what is “unfamiliar, even disturbing.”
Instead, at colleges like Haverford, Rutgers, and Smith, communal opposition to opinions outside the campus mainstream led, last spring, to declined or rescinded commencement speaker invitations. In response some commencement speakers insisted on the central role universities must assume as communities where opposing opinions are discussed, evaluated, and debated.
Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, whose invitation to Harvard’s commencement incited many to demand a retraction by the university, used much of his speech to discuss this theme. He said, “Tolerance for other people’s ideas, and the freedom to express your own, are inseparable values at great universities. Joined together, they form a sacred trust that holds the basis of our democratic society . . . that trust is perpetually vulnerable to the tyrannical tendencies of monarchs, mobs, and majorities.”
Others also spoke out against the “tyrannical tendencies of majorities” to control campus speech. The most moving example, I believe, was Ruth Simmons, commencement speaker at Smith. The first African American president of Smith and later of Brown, Simmons was asked to substitute for a commencement speaker who in the end declined her invitation because of campus objections.
Simmons offered a personal experience to illustrate her main argument: “One’s voice grows stronger,” she said, “in encounters with opposing views. My first year after leaving Smith, I had to insist that Brown permit a speaker whose every assertion was dangerous and deeply offensive to me on a personal level. Indeed, he maintained that Blacks were better off having been enslaved. Attending his talk and hearing his perspective was personally challenging but not in the least challenging to my convictions about the absolute necessity of permitting others to hear him say these heinous things.”
“I could have avoided the talk as his ideas were known to me, but to have done so would have been to choose personal comfort over a freedom whose value is so great to my own freedoms that hearing his unwelcome message could hardly be assessed as too great a cost.”
Simmons continued to develop her view of the essential role universities must play to create environments that allow dialogue to thrive. She said, “Universities have a special obligation to protect free speech, open discourse and the value of protest. The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise.” Many of us here can cite experiences like Simmons’ – moments when hearing opinions different from our own reinforced – or changed our conviction. As she said, this activity is central to who we are as a university. It’s an activity that must not, as Bloomberg warned, be censored.
In the end what does this mean for us, here, at Lawrence? As a community, we clearly believe that a Lawrence education should prepare Lawrentians for more than career success. As we say in our mission statement: “Lawrence prepares students for lives of achievement, responsible and meaningful citizenship, lifelong learning, and personal fulfillment.” Many, if not all of us, would also agree with Bloomberg, Hansen and Simmons that engaged listening, and openness to a wide range of views are essential skills. We depend on students learning these skills to fulfill the aspirations described in our own mission statement.
But do we live up to the expectations we place on ourselves and that others suggest are necessary to fulfill our mission? I know that faculty here work hard to include a broad range of views in the classroom. And conflicts over speakers have rarely happened here. But are we a place that invites a range of opinions? Have we created an environment in which unfamiliar, maybe even disturbing perspectives on crucial topics are heard? Or does much of what we discuss here in Appleton reflect views that are comfortable to us?
On the central questions that face society today like: the definition of marriage and gender, the role of religion in society, the moment when life starts and ends, the level of human impact on the environment – are we mostly hosting speakers and guests who represent the viewpoints of the campus majority?
There have been moments in our history when we took full advantage of our location in a purple state, when we hosted speakers with dramatically different political beliefs. An extreme example of such inclusiveness occurred when students invited George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder and head of the American Nazi Party, to speak on campus in 1967. The invitation caused much campus unrest.
In response to one of the many letters President Tarr received against Rockwell’s speech he stated, “At some age each person must decide what he wishes to hear and read. Certainly young people have arrived at this point in life when they enter a college or university. To tell the students that they cannot invite Mr. Rockwell, despite what he represents, is really to tell our students that they should not decide these important matters for themselves. This is hardly in keeping with the quality of a university education.”
Many alumni who were on campus at that time cite this event as transformative in their Lawrence experience. Certainly sitting in that audience provided for many in our community an experience like the one President Simmons had in her first year at Brown.
To be sure, hearing thoughtful views that reinforce our own perspectives provide the reassurance Faith Popcorn suggests we hunger for at a time when the world feels turbulent and unsafe. But the tendency to reinforce existing views and opinions in no way reaches the goal of creating a “central switching station” for democracy and does not teach us how to listen to views that are unfamiliar or even disturbing.
Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times: “ As we pepper students with contradictory information and competing philosophies about college’s role as an on ramp to professional glory, we should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency fuels the little and big misunderstandings that are driving us apart.”
For us to create the Lawrence we aspire to, we all, including me, will have to put aside our desire for reassurance in these troubling times and encourage debate from diverse perspectives on the critical issues that face the world. I do not doubt that working to better foster such a campus environment will cause pain for some, if not many of us as Simmons related, and as many alumni urgently insisted in the weeks before Rockwell spoke on our campus.
But if we are successful, we will learn the skills we need. They are essential skills. They can help us all to prepare ourselves and one another, — “for lives of achievement, responsible and meaningful citizenship, lifelong learning, and personal fulfillment.”
I believe we can act, influenced by this debate happening in our society. Let us find ways to enrich the dialogue we offer and engage in on this campus. If we succeed, we will be nourishing the roots of democracy here and in the world. I look forward to speaking with each of you on how we can accomplish this goal.
Thank you for joining us today and best wishes for an excellent academic year.
The beginning of the academic year always brings a sense of hope for what we can accomplish together, and a sense of expectation that our learning this year will transform us, and the college.
In recognition of Rik Warch’s death on Saturday we will start today with his voice, one very familiar in this Chapel. Our 14th President believed “that the collegiate model of higher education transcends the curriculum and the academic program of the institution. Among the attributes that make the liberal arts college distinctive are those that emanate from the fact that it enrolls a predominantly “traditional” undergraduate student population, that it is of a size that makes its claim to community realizable (if not always realized), that it is in the main, residential and coeducational, and that it intends the student undergraduate experience to be whole rather than bifurcated into curricular and extracurricular segments. Further, the liberal arts college seeks not only to prepare students for lives of career and work, but also to equip them to develop as private persons and as public agents.” Thus, for us the community we create is part of our curriculum.
Rik’s quotation raises at least three important questions for us. Have we realized true community here at Lawrence? What are the challenges we face as the concept of a “traditional” undergraduate population is in a state of nearly constant revision? And what would it mean for us to more adequately prepare our students to become public agents?
I begin this talk knowing the limits of my analysis. I have been with you for less than three months and I am still learning Lawrence, its history, traditions and community. On the other hand, fresh eyes can sometimes provide new insights about who we are and what challenges we face.
The move to Appleton this past summer provided many opportunities to accumulate knowledge and encounter new experiences. For example, the first time someone told me to park in “the ramp,” I thought why not park in the spaces on the level floors? Then, I realized, that here “ramp” meant the entire parking garage. And of course there is our love of intersections with four way stop signs. We hardly ever have them in New York; there, only loud arguments could decide who got to the stop sign first. I actually had to look up the driving instructions to figure out how to navigate these intersections.
I am also artfully trying to use new idioms like “A Horse Apiece” in common conversation. For example, in Andrew Commons, the distance between the salad bar and the grill station is now a horse apiece to me. And after eleven weeks here I almost have the nerve to wear my Packer’s jersey given to me by the president of Princeton, which includes my last name and my Princeton honorary class numbers. I am sure everyone will believe number 83 on the Packers has the last name Burstein.
Being here has given me an opportunity to see how gracious, welcoming, and supportive we can be to newcomers. Members of the Lawrence and Appleton communities have gone out of their way to explain the area’s traditions, unwritten rules, and language. This process of accumulating membership has given me ample opportunity to cross the threshold into Lawrence, like many of the new students in the Chapel today, and also to consider the state of our community.
My move to Appleton has also led me to rethink what community means in our time. Social, economic, and technological changes in the last 50 years have also changed communities. The common characteristics around which communities were organized – some might call them superficial characteristics such as gender, race or place of origin – have been transcended by a new understanding of commonality defined in part by a sense of shared purpose. In these new social structures individuals who may be very different from one another decide to participate. Elliot Deutsch describes this new version of community in the following way, “We have said that a person participates in communities . . . It requires a certain openness and sensitivity … a willingness to contribute to the evoking of a special atmosphere or presence which becomes the basis for further personal involvement. Participation … is a mode of being together with others in such a way that something entirely new is engendered. “
Deutsch’s definition of community clearly fits institutions like Lawrence. We are a voluntary community, formed more by active participation than by common beliefs, geography or origins. But have we created what he calls a special atmosphere or presence through our participation?
In part, we have. As Rik stated in many of his writings, we believe education takes place through our residential community. Learning is transmitted from faculty to students directly and also in classroom dialogue, in residence halls, in the Warch Center, and in the Mudd Library. The playing field, campus activities and community service also provide ways to better understand ourselves and the liberal arts and conservatory curriculum. This learning community is carefully tended by faculty and staff and nurtured by all Lawrentians.
We have much to be proud of. Our social norm — to have students from different class years live together in residence halls and to eat together at one location — has created a strong, distinctive campus cohesion. Almost everyday I am struck by this unified identity. This sense of Lawrence as a coherent whole also permeates faculty and staff. As I met with colleagues this summer, common themes, hopes, and aspirations clearly outweighed individual or disciplinary concerns.
Yes, we have the physical divides of College Avenue and the Fox River, we have pedagogical differences between the Conservatory and the liberal arts and science departments and we have different agendas for administrative units. But the sense of a shared Lawrence is palpable. It is one of our clearest strengths. This interconnected community of ideas, hopes and support is unique in my experience, and an aspect of this college we should nurture whenever we can.
To be fair, there is one topic of disagreement I found in conversations with academic departments and programs and students– that is our academic calendar. The trimester system is not universally loved. I have heard many conflicting suggestions of how we can improve the situation. For example, someone suggested we should consider having classes on the weekends, which I am sure all assembled would support wholeheartedly. This response has confirmed for me that this is a topic I should avoid for at least a couple of years.
Nevertheless, I believe we can—we need to—build on our strength as a cohesive community. Our own students tell us why. Data from the student climate survey, which was administered by the President’s Committee on Diversity Affairs in 2007, 2008, 2011 and 2013, underline areas for improvement. Between 84 and 96 percent of the respondents over that four-year period said they felt comfortable, accepted, and safe on campus, and intellectually stimulated. This is a stunningly good appraisal of our community. But some areas raise concerns. For example, a surprisingly high percentage of our students whose religious faith is an important part of their identity said they experience discrimination on campus.
These concerns were also voiced in comments collected annually. For example, one student wrote last year on the survey, “People seem pretty dismissive of the opinions of those with religious beliefs. I don’t feel comfortable talking about my religion here.” Another stated, “I feel that as a Christian, and as a practicing Catholic in particular, I am looked down upon here at Lawrence University because it is overall a largely secular institution. Many students view my religion as a joke, and the culture in general is not at all accepting of Catholics, unless I am with a group of people who are Christian as well.” This is one of many similar issues raised by students of different groups.
The tone of these comments repeats itself in the sample, and underscores the complexity of a community that is created through participation rather than centered around common characteristics. A community in which difference, rather than similarity, is the rule. I hope we can use this information, which will be disseminated by the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity Affairs, to frame a campus conversation in which we can, paraphrasing Deutsch, participate openly and sensitively. This dialogue will not only strengthen Lawrence; it will also provide an opportunity for us all to learn from one another.
We also need to make sure that social cohesion does not prevent us from offering opportunities to learn from others with radically different opinions. When I think back to my college education, I remember a guest lecturer in my German history course who argued that the Holocaust was overblown and needed to be put back into the historical arc of European history. Other students and I tried to mount opposing arguments after the lecture but the speaker had a much better grasp on the period then we did. The lecture motivated me to study that point in history and form my own opinions rather than to accept either the view of that historian or the prevailing societal view.
I used this example on the Princeton campus when LGBTQ students asked me how I could be a senior member of the administration and allow a tenured faculty member to provide the intellectual and philosophical inspiration for the No On Marriage organization, the largest organization in the United States fighting same sex marriage. I believed that as long as he supported alternative views in the classroom, this faculty member provided an opportunity for students to research and better understand their own views. In the end, discussion with this faculty member did not make me change my own decision to marry, but it did make me think through my motivations, their legitimacy, and the societal impact of my decision.
I have heard criticism from a number of Lawrentians who believe we do not provide enough opportunities for our students to hear opposing views. They believe we stick to our normative arguments. Certainly many of us have similar views on a number of issues and it is unclear whether we invite speakers and scholars to provide alternative perspectives. If we truly intend to prepare students to be public agents in a complex world and to prepare students to work with people very different from themselves, then we must provide access to the diversity of opinions that exist in our world today.
A student last spring encapsulated for me another strength of our community, he called it “humbleness.” In a conversation about what kept him at Lawrence he described, in rather moving terms, this college as a place where students rarely compete with each other except on the playing field. Elliot Deutsch addresses the same topic in slightly different terms. When describing how participants approach their role in communities, he states, “. . . there is a peculiarity in this vulnerability, this exposure of personhood, which is that real openness, as distinct from superficial good fellowship, comes from a strength of spirit, that special non-egocentricity which transcends potentially destructive egotism. “
Coming from an east coast, Ivy League environment, I have seen how egotistic competitiveness can hamper learning and community connection. I am very interested to see how education is different when intense competition is absent from the classroom. I agree with Deutsch that egoism — the practice of talking and thinking about oneself excessively because of an undue sense of self-importance — inhibits learning and intellectual exchange. As the student I spoke with last spring said, this special aspect of our community is a prerequisite for our unique intellectual discourse. And for the fostering of the community we have made here.
Rik understood and described this special and important feature of intellectual discourse at Lawrence. He stated, “By intellectual community I mean … a place where ideas are taken seriously and where a common curiosity and a spirited exchange about ideas of importance and influence are central and significant. Such a community is not a place where each individual only does his or her intellectual thing apart from and hence uninterested in others, but where we have conversations across disciplines, beyond disciplines, and where we understand the life of the mind to be an experience of pleasure and of purpose. It is a place, in short, where individual intellectual competencies flourish, to be sure, but where communal intellectual concerns thrive as well.”
Through my conversations this summer I have asked many of you how we can better support communal intellectual concerns. I wholeheartedly agree with Rik that pursuit of knowledge, irrespective of disciplinary boundaries, is essential to the intellectual community we strive to be. I believe our humble approach to learning makes us uniquely prepared to pursue this goal.
In one of my last conversations with Rik we discussed the need to both celebrate who we are and motivate Lawrence forward. The strength of the community we have created gives us much to celebrate. It also provides unique opportunities for students and the rest of us to learn and grow. But we can certainly enhance what so many have worked to build – the “special atmosphere” Deutsch so compelling described. I believe we are up for this challenge and I look forward to joining with you in this endeavor.