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Commencement Remarks by President Ralph J. Hexter

May 16, 2009

Welcome. This day belongs to our graduating students, but permit me to invoke presidential privilege and call for the first of many rounds of applause for the students themselves.

Graduating students of Hampshire, you know well that all of Hampshire takes pride in your accomplishments and rejoices with you today. I think we should also recognize some folks without whom none of you would be graduating. First, let us recognize the staff and faculty, every one of them, who are such dedicated and loyal members of the entire Hampshire community? Let’s give them a generous round of applause.

Let’s not forget your parents and families, without whom you would not have completed this journey, indeed, probably would not have started it. Students, faculty, and staff all together: let us give a heartfelt round of applause for the parents, families, and friends of our students who were gracious enough to let us come together as a community and learn together for these past few years.

This is a day of applause, of laughter and joy. We have, inevitably, to face a few “farewells.” Even as we welcome new members to the board, we trustees are bid farewell to some very dear friends, Hosea Baskin and Meredith Miller, who have served two full terms, and Robin Mount, who has served three. Florence Ladd, too, served a full measure and then some, since we craftily added a few years by making her Chair of the Board and then prevailing upon her to stay a year after that, since we depend so much on her wit and wisdom. We also salute Renee Freedman, who leaves the board after serving as Hampshire’s first staff trustee but fortunately is not going out of “on-call” range, and Brian Van Slyke, who served on the board for the past two years—the first as student trustee alternate and recently as student trustee. Let us give them all a warm round of applause.

We also say good-bye to several dear faculty who have guided students and shaped Hampshire with their wisdom for many years—Merle Bruno, Bob Coles, and Wayne Kramer. We likewise bid final farewell to another key administrative figure, Gai Carpenter, who oversaw the Library virtually since the opening of the college and in more recent years added Information Technology to her portfolio. Thanks to one and all for loyal service to Hampshire College. You will all remain in our thoughts.

I must mark one more key transition. After eleven years of extraordinary service as Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, next year Aaron Berman finally gets to experience one of those sabbaticals so many of which he’s signed off on as dean. You all know that he’s a great scholar and master teacher, and I am proud to say that I am one of his more recent students. Like every great teacher, he has the knack of making me think that I’m creating knowledge, whereas he’s subtly engineered all along exactly what I come up with—for example, governance review, sudden shifts in reporting lines, vast expansion of the senior administration, and surgical budget cuts. Aaron, you are a genius to have come up with all this and made everyone think, myself included, that these were the president’s ideas! Amazing! Fortunately, after your well-deserved research and refreshment year—by refreshment, I refer to the brew recently created in his honor, which Amy is already studying in the context of the history of American brewing—you will return to teaching. And since you are an alumnus and Hampshire parent twice over, we can keep you in our loving embrace for many years to come. 

Many of you know that our next Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty—and this is now confirmed by a vote of the board—will be Professor of Biological Anthropology Alan Goodman. Let us welcome and celebrate our new dean!

Yes, I too have been a student. In good ol’ fashioned Hampshire fashion, I’ve been here four years and I’m nowhere near ready to graduate—at least no one has told me I was graduating. I’m still transitioning from Div I to Div II, even if Central Records—curiously—has no record of this whatsoever. However, several hundred other students, thank goodness, managed to define and complete their work plans so that in a few moments I will be handing diplomas to many of those who began their study when I had been president for only a few weeks. I really had a sense of our time together last weekend, when I was signing diplomas and reading the names of students I had advised, had breakfast with, or otherwise interacted with over our time here. Very good memories.

Each year I have a deeper and greater sense of what is so special about Hampshire. That’s what I want to talk about today—I guess if it were a movie, it’d be called “There’s Something About Hampshire.” Of course, like that other movie, there are comic touches—I mean, what other college would have a president who dons a wetsuit and undergoes the adventure of the dunk tank to get you guys to pony up $20.09 each, and, graduating students, if you haven’t done this yet, stand right up and walk over to the desk over there and take care of it. We take credit cards. Hold onto that receipt because without it I don’t hand you the special disinfected scroll today….  Just joking! The scrolls aren’t actually disinfected.

But I digress. I mean, honestly, didn’t I look great in that wetsuit? Check out the video!

No, the ways Hampshire is a special place are very serious and important, and I’m going to get heavy now, ‘cause it’d be insane for me to try stand-up with [student moderator] Nick [Lane], [student speaker] Unique [Robinson], and [parent of graduating student and keynote speaker] Bobcat [Goldthwait] right here. I mean, give me a break. It’s possibly why one alum is matching each $20.09 gift with $2500, and then two faculty and then a staff member were inspired to add their own challenge grants. We are amazing, and sometimes we forget that and go all silly and apologetic, with that very lame throwaway line “That’s Hampshire.”

I hate that. “That’s Hampshire” means something very different to me, and I know it does to you, too. It means high ideals and high expectations, high intensity and high-levels of engagement. Over the four years I’ve been here I’ve encountered many individuals—faculty, staff, students and alumni—who live and work at these levels of engagement. I’ve experienced countless moments that bespeak Hampshire’s distinctive creative and intellectual daring. I couldn’t begin to catalogue them, although I had fresh occasion to think about them just last week when Dean Berman and I spoke to a series of faculty who had recently been reappointed and promoted. I think not only of the impressive quality of what they are doing that the world sees directly—the publications, presentations, performances and installations, tempting (I might add) three institutions to seek to recruit three professors from our midst just this year!
One of our greatest retention tools—now I speak of the challenge of retaining faculty– is the degree to which our curriculum and our teaching lives here rest on interdisciplinarity at a very deep level, and another great retention (and recruitment) tool for faculty is the Hampshire student. Repeatedly the faculty I spoke with talked about their own students, and how engaging with their students, both in courses and in advising relationships, helps stimulate and shape their own thinking and what they in turn bring to the world. I think of one of a faculty member who said she wouldn’t want to be anywhere else—and she would most definitely have options if she wished to explore them. I think of the philosopher who talked about how some of the students in her classes were pushing the very bounds of philosophical thought, and how challenging this was both in itself and in helping them gain the maturity and depth to build on their critiques and make them weightier still so they could be heard and attended to in the field as they entered it themselves. I think of the pride of a professor of music in the accomplishments of a couple of Div III students who found new voices and new things to sing, and put complex and compelling performances together that did just that. I think of the intensity of students learning new languages at Hampshire and completely astonishing visitors not only by the seriousness of their effort but by what they had achieved, in record time. I think of other visitors astonished by what students in the Lemelson Center are doing at the intersection of design, art, and technology.

Of course there are myriad stories of engagement in communities near and far, some accomplished term-time, others during breaks—amazing stories, amazing lessons, amazing impact.  Do we sometimes overlook such things, or do we discount them by thinking about each one of them as if it were an anomaly, an individual accomplishment somehow contrary to the whole? Each is of course an individual accomplishment and unique, but let’s also think a moment about the curriculum and the institution that enables, inspires and treasures such achievements. These are not exceptions, however exceptional they may be. All of this is Hampshire, and we should be more cognizant of it.

We are very independent-minded, even stubborn. I’ve been an advisor myself who found himself annoyed at a student who wasn’t following my advice, who kept trying to write a book instead of a more focused and more scholarly Div III—until, one day, there was an emergent book manuscript in my in-box, somewhat rough around the edges perhaps, but entirely respectable for an agent to look at and submit to a for-profit press. Our students often exceed our expectations.

All stories do not have such unalloyed happy ends, but part of our system, even our philosophy, is to permit student risk-taking, which means we are opening ourselves up to the possibility of a certain degree of failure. If we are going to stand by this philosophy, we should do so with our eyes open and take responsibility, each and every one of us, both to see that risks are successfully run much, much more often than not, and for the fundamental privilege to work in an institution that permits such risk-taking, however controlled. We need to cherish our college for the exceptional opportunities it provides for intellectual freedom, which also means not abusing that freedom and letting it degenerate into license. And we have a further responsibility, the true importance of which has only recently dawned on me: the responsibility to show to one another and to the whole world that we take our responsibility seriously, that we are exercising our freedom with appropriate seriousness of purpose, and that we do not take for granted this rare and precious freedom to take risks.  

Some weeks ago I attended a gala dinner celebrating Amherst ABC, our own community’s special version of the wonderful “A Better Chance” program. Honorary co-chairs included local college presidents, local, state and national government figures, and ABC alumnus and Governor of the Commonwealth, Deval Patrick. The occasion was Amherst ABC’s fortieth anniversary. We will be celebrating our own fortieth in a year. There are other similarities, most significantly, the way both programs began with a dream and chose to do things somewhat differently than just about anyone else. In the case of ABC, by far the greatest number of chapters—some 90 percent—are associated with private schools; only a few make use of public schools, and Amherst’s was only the second to try this model.

It’s been a great success, and as I listened to some of the alumni who tried to squeeze news of college and post-graduate education and successful careers and reminiscences into the few minutes allotted them, I was particularly struck by the message of one. He referred to what he called a “sense of implied responsibility.” What he meant by the phrase was the way, from the beginning, students and alumni felt responsible for the future quality of the institution and, for that reason, for the very reputation they themselves created for Amherst ABC. Which very much resonated with me as I thought about many discussions going on in higher education circles and the broader public, and with much of the discussion we engage in on our own campus, whether about the need for faculty better to convey their high expectations of students, or about a certain kind of self-disregard, whether real or stylized, some students’ project.

Hampshire has been called one of the most notable experiments in American higher education of the last fifty years, and rightly so. Over the years, and particularly near the college’s opening, many students, some sitting here as alumni now in their mid-fifties, made that implied responsibility explicit. They had to do well in law school or medical school, because they were the first Hampshire student to get on the basis of those peculiar transcripts with narrative evaluations instead of grades. Their successes paved the way for all who came after.
 
It’s now the twenty-first century, and of every institution of higher education, certainly of every liberal arts college, it is being asked: what is the value of your graduates? The question is put particularly sharply of any institution that has a distinctive profile. We have no reason to be defensive; far from it. We have a growing cadre of highly accomplished alumni to point to. But we cannot let the alumni do all the work for us, especially as they are scattered about the world and it is not always clear to the world who our alumni are. We who populate our beautiful south Amherst campus—faculty, staff, students, alumni—all have an opportunity—and I would go further: an obligation—born of privilege, to exercise responsibility so that the value of our freedom, of our calculated risk-taking, is evident to one and all.

There are many ways to parse this responsibility just as there are many excellences to celebrate. One could regard this implied responsibility, for example, as a part of our responsibility to maximize our resources; in other words, an argument from sustainability. One could also see this responsibility as involving an obligation to model, for one another as well as for a sometime skeptical, sometime incredulous world that beholds us, the highest degree of respect for difference, including difference of opinions. Whatever position we advocate, as individuals or as organized groups within the greater polity of Hampshire, will carry more conviction to the extent we can convincingly represent that Hampshire is a place where we respect one another; where there is no “orthodoxy” that is so zealous that it effectively squelches expressions of dissent and discourages the kinds of honest debate and discussion that are so productive in both a learning community and free society. We all have a responsibility to counter this picture, which may, I regret to say, have some basis in reality.

It matters because Hampshire is such an extraordinary place. As I was listening to one of our faculty expand on the remarkable intellectual, creative, serious and original work that comes into being here through exchanges involving students and teachers, I suddenly thought of the ancient Greek “omphalos”—and what Ralph talk would be complete without at least one classical reference? These beautiful grounds, once largely fields and apple orchards, became in my mind a sacred precinct of learning and self-exploration, a site on the earth where seekers come to inquire about all manner of things and experience all manner of revelation and self-discovery. Only, in contrast to what Delphi might have wanted the Greek world to think, there is no one oracle; we are mutually oracular, and return to the world beyond to carry within ourselves the lessons we have learned from one another.

You, I predict, will prove my point. Congratulations, and thank you for four wonderful years.

 
 

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