2003 Convocation Address
Convocation Address by President Durden
In just a few moments, all new students will ascend the Old Stone Steps into Memorial Hall to "sign in" to the College. Four years from now, you will reverse this symbolic action by descending the Old Stone Steps to receive your diploma and thereby move into the broader world to become the next generation of citizen leaders. Our seniors are but a few short months removed from that traditional walk out into the world.
As you "sign-in" to the College, you will pass an extraordinarily important milestone in your lives. You will become an official Dickinsonian with all the privileges, opportunities and responsibilities this designation carries with it for a lifetime. As an alumnus and as President, I commend you on the wisdom of your choice and I welcome you into this remarkable community of individuals who share both a history and a future.
I am keenly aware that your choice to attend Dickinson also carries with it great expense and that you, and your families, are making significant sacrifices to give you this opportunity. Please know that this investment is reciprocal. Dickinson also made a choice when it accepted you, and it will also make a substantial monetary investment to provide you with the best liberal arts education available.
The truth is that the cost of educating each of you is not the $36,000 comprehensive fee that is so often quoted. In fact, it is $46,000! The College assumes the $10,000 gap from the proceeds of our endowment and from funds given to us by grateful alumni. Every single one of you-even those of you who have not received any financial aid-is receiving a sizeable contribution from Dickinson College. It is a measure of the high expectations we have for you.
"Signing-in" to the College is one of Dickinson's most important and meaningful traditions which we inherited from the oldest European universities. You may be asking yourself at this particular moment why we engage in rituals such as convocation and ask that you "sign in" to the College. After all, it is the end of a long and busy weekend. You are tired. You are dazed. You are in the midst of adjusting to a new living arrangement and forming new friendships, and you are anticipating with excitement or trepidation the academic challenges that will confront you when classes begin tomorrow.
Traditions, however, are extremely important. They are the connective that holds together our continuum of experience as Dickinsonians. They link us to a common past and bind us together in common pursuit. Moments such as this demand that we stop momentarily the hectic pace of our lives to reflect on the meaning of our actions. They remind us of the choices we have made that brought us to this community and of the responsibilities and opportunities that are inherent in those choices. They are the moments in time that will soon become the special memories to which we return time and again to remind us that our roots are intertwined with the very founding of our country and that we are extremely privileged to be a part of this historic legacy.
We have, as you will soon learn, many traditions at Dickinson. These are not meaningless, empty rituals that call up an outdated, wistful past. To be meaningful, rituals must have contemporary relevance. The traditions we choose to honor and perpetuate at Dickinson serve a distinct purpose as connections to a useful past that provide direction for the future. Permit me to take a few more minutes of your time to explore briefly some of the traditions and symbols you will encounter and ultimately embrace as a Dickinsonian.
The symbolism of ascending the Old Stone Steps to sign in to the College is directly linked to the history of the building-which we call Old West. This tradition is particularly relevant this year. Less than one month ago, we began what will be a two-year celebration of the 200th anniversary of this venerable structure. You will have many opportunities to learn more about this historic building, but allow me to give you just a brief history of Old West which is, itself, a testament to the resiliency and resourcefulness of the Dickinson spirit.
Construction of the first building on this site was begun in 1799. That building was nearing completion when it burned to the ground in early 1803. The trustees of the College, with typical Dickinson grit and determination, immediately decided to rebuild the structure. They were inspired to do so by the example of Princeton University, an 18th century sister institution, which had raised money and rebuilt Nassau Hall immediately after it was destroyed by fire. In remarkably short order, the Dickinson trustees secured the personal financial support of no less than 17 members of Congress, President Thomas Jefferson, Chief Justice John Marshall, five members of Jefferson's cabinet, four members of the Supreme Court, the Consul General of France and the Spanish Ambassador. The design of the building was provided, free of charge, by Benjamin Latrobe-the same architect who designed the U.S. Capitol and Princeton's new Nassau Hall-an impressive group of supporters for any college or university at its founding!
These individuals understood the importance of a distinctively American form of education-and they were willing to invest their personal funds to ensure its success. Through these early contributions to Dickinson College, the Rushes, Dickinsons, Jeffersons, Marshalls, and Madisons of this world signaled simultaneously their enduring investment in you and your future accomplishments. For Dickinsonians, this is our most defining obligation and sense of purpose. These are expectations vested in us by the idealistic founders of this country.
It was their intention that generations of students-including those of you here today-would carry out their vision and bequeath to future generations the same opportunity that has been given to you. By ascending these stairs, you are, therefore, perpetuating a purpose that was envisioned by those very individuals who founded our democracy and led it through its earliest, and most challenging years. It was in this very building before you that James Buchanan, President of the United States from 1857-1861 and a Dickinson alumnus, studied as an undergraduate. You, we, share common ground.
When you sign into the College in Memorial Hall, you are joining the ranks of an impressive group of alumni who preceded you. They include a U.S. President, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, countless members of Congress, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, diplomats, teachers, writers, doctors, artists, scientists and even a few college presidents. These are the Dickinsonians with whom you will soon share a common bond and their accomplishments are a mere preview of the achievements of your generation.
As you enter Memorial Hall, be sure to take notice of the marble lion at the top of the stairs. He, too, is a Dickinson tradition. This lion once belonged to John Dickinson himself. The figure of a lion is part of the Dickinson family crest and this little fellow was one of John Dickinson's most cherished possessions. He was very much attached to the lion and carefully had it moved with him as he traveled to his various homes.
There is no doubt, therefore, that the lion was present in Dickinson's life as he debated, both publicly and privately, the momentous decisions faced by this nation in the spring and summer of 1776 and was most likely in the very room in which he drafted the Articles of Confederation. 1776 was a time of personal conflict for Dickinson. The man who had so eloquently written the colonial justification for revolution could, in the end, not bring himself to sign the Declaration of Independence.
The lion, therefore, symbolizes our heritage and, more importantly, our spirit. He is with us for all official transitional events at the College-such as today and Commencement. He gently, yet visibly reminds us to challenge constantly preconceived notions even if we end up reconfirming the status quo, to ask the difficult questions with civility, to engage actively big ideas and, ultimately, as for John Dickinson, to act according to our well-argued convictions-even if they cost us dearly-as it did him for not signing the Declaration.
For first-year students these Dickinsonian values will challenge you immediately and well into your years here; for seniors, this year will represent time to reflect upon and solidify the habits of mind and action gained at Dickinson and prepare you to take them out into the world with full confidence.
These traditions are significant because they heighten our distinctiveness. There are other rituals and symbols, however, that we have consciously jettisoned. They were traditions without sincere relevance and integrity and, as such, had become meaningless. Let me give you one most immediate example of a tradition in such transition.
Faculty and returning students may wonder what has become of the purple academic regalia I usually wear as president of Dickinson College on such ceremonial occasions. When I returned to Dickinson four years ago as president, I was told that the robe was a mark of honor and distinction in the history of the College. It originated-as related to me-centuries ago from a supposed gesture of the French ambassador to the United States in the early 19th century of a gift of a brilliant purple patch of cloth to the then-president of the College for our institutional support of the French Revolution. What an honorable, universal reason for wearing such a robe even today! However, I was educated at Dickinson to question received knowledge, and so this summer I began that task.
Needless to say, the French Revolution connection is patently false-it is mere rumor; it is totally lacking in integrity. In reality, it appears that this regalia was adopted only in the 1940s by a well-intended prior president who explicitly stated in the official record of the Dickinson Board of Trustees that he wished to mimic the practices of some of the Ivy League colleges that designated a distinctive official academic garb for their president. Clearly, however, this purple presidential robe is vested with no direct or long-standing symbolism associated with the College-no historic legacy-other than a very early mention in a letter of Dickinson's first president, Charles Nisbet, of a "purple silk coat" directed to him by an unknown person, perhaps good-naturally reminding him through the color and the elegance of the article of his support for the monarchy during the French Revolution. Purple, as you know, is the universal color representative of royalty-a color our founder, Dr. Rush-a revolutionary, opponent of hereditary aristocracy and deflator of pomp and perk-would abhor in association with his distinctively American college!
This whole issue of introducing a purple presidential robe into the context of Dickinson's long history-spanning four centuries-disturbs me. Firstly, Dickinson does not need to imitate any other college or university. We are distinctive in our own right! Secondly, purple, as a color historically associated with royalty and privilege, is simply misrepresentative for the president of a revolutionary college. Thirdly, our historic legacy is indeed inexplicably wed to the very revolutionary, common-sense, practical disposition of our country at its founding and, in that spirit, Dickinson's aspiration has always been the honest presentation of accomplishment-of "what is in fact earned" of "what is," not of what "merely appears" or is fleetingly "said to be." The John Dickinson family motto is, in fact, "To be, rather than to seem!"
We have consciously eschewed the trappings of unnecessary pomp and circumstance-of invented elaboration and distinction-that exaggerate human accomplishment and defy the simple notion that you are what you have honestly earned. Perhaps this institutional disposition, one lacking pretense, but exhibiting high accomplishment and durable pride and sophistication, is why aspiring first-generation college students-those who have had no direct family member graduate from a college or university-have historically attended Dickinson. It certainly was that way for me and my family decades ago. Even today, even among you, we welcome first-generation students in far greater proportions than attend other nationally prestigious liberal arts colleges.
Our founder, Dr. Rush was so fundamentally committed to lack of pretense and modesty that he outspokenly refused to have his name associated with anything to do with the College. After all, he chose to name the college Dickinson College rather than Rush College. He even refused to permit a building to be named for him. On June 27th 1810, Rush wrote a letter responding to the suggestion of a trustee to name Old West after him in appreciation for a recent monetary gift to the College. "The trustees of our College are at liberty to apply my donation to it to the financing of the hall or to any other purpose they may judge proper," Rush wrote. "I request only-nay, I insist upon no public notice or private being taken of it. Should I hear my unworthy name being stained upon any of your walls, I shall employ a person to deface it."
On the basis of what I have learned about the actual origins of the purple robe, I have decided, as of today, to abandon it. I have chosen instead to wear, as president, the Dickinson primary color-representative of the institution from which I honestly earned my undergraduate degree and which I now so proudly serve as its president. By so doing, I have brought to a rightful halt a practice that was on the verge of becoming an unquestioned tradition and that, in fact, stood in direct contradiction to Dickinson's fundamental identity and sense of purpose. The Dickinson "red" I wear today is deeply rooted in the College's history from almost its very beginning. It is based on the rival red and white roses that had been adopted as representations by two competing literary societies dating back to the 1780s!
Traditions, then, like many of life's perceived truths, deserve to be questioned and may, in fact, be found wanting in integrity and in need of revision. However, far too many people vigorously defend assumed "tradition" at all cost, without personally investigating the veracity of that claim-a most curious type, indeed, because their favorite statement always appears to be, "It must be tradition, because as far as I can remember and from what others tell me, it's always been that way." What is "true" for them is simply what they know at the moment-that most recently heard or read-no questions, no doubts.
A liberal education-that very distinctive type you receive at Dickinson-compels you, me, our faculty and our graduates to behave otherwise. We by our shared learning are compelled to question-we are compelled to find our what in fact "is," before we act upon merely "what may be." We are compelled to lean into and live the correct meaning of the "liberal" in liberal education.
A recent article in the New Yorker magazine compared the programming on National Public Radio with that found on the talk shows that now dominate the airwaves. The author praised National Public Radio for its willingness to pursue "the aspirational ideal of objectivity," and to be "open-minded and urbane, with a preference for empirical inquiry over dogmatic conclusion-mongering." These are also the objectives of a Dickinson liberal arts education.
In other words, liberal education favors a life of rational argument and integrity with accompanying civility based on "what is" rather than a life skillfully crafted on rumor, pretension, invention, preconceived bias and what is clearly not. The latter-like the ubiquitous talk shows-may, indeed, be momentarily entertaining. Rumor and unexamined claims are always easy and invigorating, but they are ultimately dishonest, unfulfilling and unworthy of pursuit.
A desired first-year college "habit of mind," as established by the American Association of Universities and The Pew Charitable Trust is precisely the ability about which I speak today-it is that essential and elemental. I quote from Understanding University Success: " . . . critical [first-year] skills include the ability . . . to discern the relative importance and credibility of various sources of information."
And now, as you begin to ascend the steps of Old West to "sign in" to the College, take a moment to pause, reflect upon and absorb the meaning of this tradition and those others that I have mentioned or mentioned and rejected. It is not simply one more thing you have to do for orientation, it is a much more symbolic occasion-it signals the beginning of your journey as a Dickinsonian. It is a journey full of opportunity, challenge, obligation and excitement. It is a journey with which I, as an alum, am intimately familiar, a road I share with you-just a few decades down ahead of you-- and of which I am exceedingly proud.
I welcome you as the newest members of the Dickinson community. I am confident that your accomplishments as the citizen leaders of your generation will carry forth into the future Dickinson's distinctive and historic legacy. I also now ask senior representatives to come forward, take positions on the Old Stone steps both to witness and greet your beginning and to signify and proclaim to all present the passage of their class-the Class of 2004-down these steps in just a few months.