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Speeches and Writings / 2007/2008 Archive / Commencement Address: May 17, 2008
 

Commencement Address: May 17, 2008

Welcome. It is a great honor to stand before you today and speak to you. This day belongs to our graduating students, but let me invoke presidential privilege to call for the first of many rounds of applause for them.

I think it’s more than fitting that we also recognize some folks without whom no one would be graduating. Graduating students of Hampshire, you know well that all of Hampshire takes pride in your accomplishments and rejoices with you today. You know how hard they worked to make it possible for you to study here. Can I turn the tables for a moment and ask you to 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 an enormous round of applause.

And, students, there are some other folks here without whom you’d have had a heck of a time being here today: your parents and families. Students, faculty, and staff: let’s all now give a hearty round of applause for the parents and families of our students who were gracious enough to lend them to us for a few years.

Yes, this is a day of applause, of laughter and joy. We have of course, almost inevitably, to face a few “farewells.” We trustees are bidding farewell to a few of our number, even as we prepare to welcome new board members. We bid farewell to one of our founding faculty, Nancy Lowry, who is retiring from the School of Natural Science. We bid farewell to a member of our senior administrative team, Michelle Green, who for two years now has served as Dean of Student Services. I want personally to thank Michelle for her enormous efforts. She probably wondered what kind of “friend” I was when she arrived only to face a looming crisis on her first day, if one of the happiest sort. Working with her superb staff she managed to convince one and all that the Howard Johnson’s on Route 9 was just a more distant resident hall, and that Amherst College was a branch campus, filling some of its empty dorm rooms with Hampshire students. Subsequent challenges, if sometimes less daunting in terms of logistics, involved greater emotional investment, often deep pain, and most had to be resolved, to the extent they could be, in deepest confidence. Michelle has worked tirelessly with students in need, parents in puzzlement, anger, and sometimes grief, earning the respect of her staff, colleagues, trustees, and, I can tell you, our NEASC visitors. Extraordinarily fast study, dazzling number cruncher, organizational genius, generous but honest mentor, peerless writer and editor—she alone can slash her way through my German prose and untangle the Medusan serpents’ nest of my clauses—and individual of unimpeachable integrity, Michelle Green—each of us should thank you for more than any one of us can know. I certainly do. Even though we are lucky enough to have her full efforts through July, at the end of which of our incoming dean Dawn Ellinwood arrives, please join me now in giving her a full-throated Hampshire send-off.

I referred to grief, and we are all too mindful of other departures, yet more painful permanent losses. Soon after the beginning of the spring term we learned of the death of one of our students, Dora Magrath, after she had returned to her home in St. Louis. Losses of individuals are as incomparable as individuals are themselves. Dora was special in so many ways, and the silencing of her beautiful and caring voice touched so many of us deeply. Over the following weeks, I communicated frequently with Dora’s parents Linda and Mike. The spontaneous outpourings of affection and expressions of sympathy from all at Hampshire were immensely meaningful to them. People came from all over the world to her funeral in St. Louis to “honor her,” as her father said, and I want to thank personally those of you who traveled there from Hampshire.

As news of her passing sunk in, I realized with a shock—as so often, though often not in such tragic ways—how small the world is and how much of it the Hampshire family contains. I recalled that when I met Dora the first time she shared with me an uncanny connection: she had often been the babysitter for the daughter of one of my very closest high school friends and his wife, friends who also live in St. Louis and who knew Dora through their synagogue. My friend, and Michelle Green’s for that matter, had known Dora since she was 12, especially since the time she would spend hours with his own daughter, 5 at the time, who was recovering from serious surgery. Dora helped paint his daughter's nails. Sometimes it's the small things that stand out that we never forget.
 
I visited Linda and Mike a few weeks later, for grief does not subside with a memorial service. Linda and Mike spoke warmly of Hampshire and are going to remain members of our community. They both work for social justice, and I know I will always stop to see them and will look for other ways for them to bring the messages I know they want Dora’s life and her time at Hampshire, and on earth, to have for us all. Let us observe a brief moment of silence as we think of Dora and indeed of all those who have been meaningful to us, whether here or elsewhere, who have passed away.

Commencements, endings, beginnings—these are all liminal moments, marked by significant ceremonies in all cultures. Ours is no different in that regard. It is at such moments that one tries to bring together in thought things that have been or seem torn asunder, the living and those no longer living, for example, past and present. Sober thoughts are mixed with giddy excitement, righteous anger and frustration at imperfections and incompletion blend with hope.

Like a life of learning, never ending until it is ended by forces beyond our control, so a college is a work in progress. One of the joys of Hampshire is that we cannot possibly be seduced by the illusion that our work is complete. We are still within arm's reach, figuratively speaking, of our founding, and we have been talking productively now for over two years about the ways we want to understand our mission today and for the immediate future, whether our language is one of “re-radicalization” or revisioning. The process, the dialogue, goes forward, as it should, as it must. We have had important new inputs this year, and like so many of the oracles I know from my classical studies, they do not say any one thing simply. Now they may not be quite so deviously ambiguous as the one the Lydian king Croesus received at Delphi as he faced the Persian king Cyrus in war. He was told that if he took to the battlefield, he would destroy a great empire. Croesus took this as proof that he could vanquish Cyrus. He was wrong, but the oracle wasn’t. It was his own Lydian empire Croesus destroyed, not the Persians’.

Fortunately, neither NEASC, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and our regional accrediting agency, nor the Wabash study of student satisfaction, nor our industrious new Vice President Mark Spiro as he spits out a growing stack of reports are Delphic in their ambiguities, nor do we have an army arrayed against us. NEASC gives us a clean bill of health, indeed, a strong endorsement—but points out areas we need to attend to, areas our own extensive and truly candid self-study in almost every case highlighted. The Wabash Study of student satisfaction, focused on the first-year in its first phase, is clear enough—we have a lot of work to do. The devil is in the interpretive details, leading us to seek further data and to think carefully, analytically, and dispassionately in concert.

Much remains to be clarified, but one of the things I strongly suspect we will be doing a lot of thinking about might best be described as expectations. My sense of Hampshire continues to evolve. Even as I conclude my third academic year at Hampshire College, I fear I’m nowhere near the completion of my Div II. Nonetheless, I can see that we send ourselves very mixed messages about what we expect of one another, and are often conflicted about what we expect of ourselves and of the institution as a whole. In many areas and on many occasions, we are demanding, and rightly so. As soon as I arrived and for the first time heard someone remark dismissively about some administrative snafu, “Oh, that’s Hampshire,” I stopped short and I stopped the speaker. That’s not the tone we want “That’s Hampshire” to have. Elsewhere I took on the “whatever” attitude. We can’t be, and don’t want to be dismissive and negligent about our institution. Sure, let’s understand what barriers might have stood in the way of better execution of some task, let’s try to give the individual we’re working with the benefit of the doubt, but with the intention of working together to improve the situation, whatever it is, and make it better going forward. Let’s understand, of course, that one can’t always improve everything all at once, but let’s put our shoulders behind the effort.

That’s for business matters. I’ve been studying the reports and listening to some faculty begin to talk about the Wabash study, and I think there’s a gathering consensus that we need to come “out of the closet” about the high expectations we have for our students. I know that we do have those expectations. It may be that for some time, and in some contexts, we thought that if we were too explicit about them, this would be construed as being overly directive, as not giving students room to discover how to work independently. This is no doubt an area where careful articulation of messages is crucial, but no group knows better than our graduating students, who, each and everyone of them, has recently rung that Div Free bell, that there is no contradiction between high expectations and independent work. Indeed, to get through one’s Div III, a student has to embody the highest expectations she or he has for the project at hand, high expectations shared by the faculty committee. Congratulations to all of you who have succeeded! What I expect of the Hampshire you are now leaving behind—in a certain sense, but will continue to be part of and not leave behind in another, fuller sense—is that we will work hard until we succeed at conveying our highest expectations in a way that reinforces and in no way contradicts our expectation for the development of true independence of mind, of creative spirit, and of expression.

Great Expectations. I could launch into another digression, but I will keep the wordy professor of literature in check. I want to conclude by thinking about high expectations, of institutions, of one another, of ourselves, in the context of idealism and activism. These are also hallmarks of Hampshire. Every year we have dialogue and debate about a host of issues, and many—also for good reasons—are recurrences or continuations of discussions and debates that have occurred in prior years. Some are focused on injustice that is most in evidence elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the world, Darfur, say, or in our country, as in the continued and often growing inequities in resources, reflected in turn in differential educational opportunities or, with shocking starkness, in the patterns of incarceration evidenced by American prisons. And America does lead the world in incarceration, by any measure! Not a “first” to be proud of.

Some are focused on injustice that is felt right here on our campus. Groups of students primarily, in some cases with the participation of faculty or staff or both, have raised questions about how we are living up to our own ideals. It is right to have high expectations. So Students for Justice in Palestine have called on the board to look closely at its own stated standards for socially responsible investment and ask whether it is appropriate to continue investment in certain multi-national corporations who profit directly from activities in violation of international standards of human rights, U.N. findings, or both. I don’t know what the answer to this question is, but I know it is right that we be held to high expectations of clarity and consistency. It’s also an opportunity for reflection, review, even self-criticism, which as I continue to emphasize, are important elements of critical rationality and moral thinking, for individuals as well as for institutions. What are the sources of these policies and principles? Do we, where “we” may be “the Hampshire community” on some matters, “the Hampshire board” on others, mean precisely this today, in today’s world, or do we now want to mean something else? We should expect a lot of our selves and of others, and we should also not be surprised if our high expectations lead to change and growth.

Certainly one of the areas on which we spent a lot of time and thought this year was diversity and inclusiveness in general and anti-racism in particular. Active anti-racism has been an explicit presidential and personal commitment for over a year now. It appeared as one of the items on the “to do” list I submitted to the board at the beginning of the academic year, just as it was an element of “Making the College 2.1” released last fall. It falls in the purview of the Special Presidential Assistant for Diversity and Multicultural Education Jaime Dávila, a position created a year ago. I regard it entirely appropriate that our entire community hold the college, and the administration, to high expectations in moving this commitment forward. I believe those who organized Action Awareness Week now regard the Active Anti-Racism Administrative Action Plan that emerged from our discussions as something with which we can all be satisfied—as a plan, a map, a first step. It is a kind of blueprint for moving forward on what must be an evolving process. My expectation for us all—and I do not think it too high—is that we will work together and, again productively, move ever closer to what we hope for, even as we understand that each imperfection and each stumble, however frustrating, however discouraging, must be turned into an occasion for renewed effort and progress.

Let me add one final high expectation of my own for Hampshire. Just as there is no contradiction between the high expectations that we have of students, on the one hand, and our commitment to guide students to ever more independence in their work, on the other hand, so there should be no contradiction between the passion with which we advocate for a position we believe in and respect for the opinions of others, even those who do not agree with us. This is too large a topic to treat fully today, and for some time you’ve been saying, “When will that man stop already!” Some fear that a Hampshire “orthodoxy” already exists on certain issues, and I would regret it if the vigor and quality of debate on our campus have been reduced by a narrowing of the range of opinions represented on campus. Even more would I regret any implicit or explicit restrictions on expressions of differences of opinion. On numerous occasions I have cited the “Principles of Discourse” first annunciated by President Greg Prince in 1989-1990. These are very high expectations I think we should hold ourselves to especially as we engage in sharing our views. Let me turn them into questions of ourselves.

1) Do we value truth and the process of seeking truth as ends in themselves?
2) Do we accept responsibility to articulate a position as close to the truth as we can make it, using to the best of our ability all available evidence, and the rules of reason, logic and relevance?
3) Are we listening openly, recognizing always that new information may alter our position?
4) Do we welcome evaluation and accept and even encourage disagreement and criticism even to the point of seeking out for ourselves that which will disempower our position?
5) Do we refuse to reduce disagreement to personal attacks or attacks on groups or classes of individuals?
6) Do we value civility, even in disagreement?
7) Do we reject the premise that the ends, no matter how worthy, can justify means that violate these principles?

Few in the world live up to these seven principles all the time, and it is a challenge even for so intellectual and principled a space as a college. Still, this is the last place I would want to hear again a phrase I actually think has become rarer since I arrived, the dismissive “That’s Hampshire.” My high expectation for Hampshire—and I hope you will join me in sharing it for the Hampshire to which you will look back now as alums—is that it will always be a place where we can answer yes to all seven questions. Where we use evidence and analysis, eschew dogmatic and reductionist statements, practice interpretive charity—in other words, a sincere attempt to try to understand how close to our own another’s position might be. Where we use rhetoric in the service of rationality. Where we end debate—even if we are only suspending it for the day—with civility. Where we do not to turn our backs literally or figuratively on one another when we do not meet with easy agreement.

You can be part of this Hampshire as you make your way in the world, and in doing so, you can help Hampshire have even greater impact beyond our hilly and beautiful Amherst campus. I have the greatest of expectations. Thank you, and above all, congratulations.

 
 

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