2004 Convocation Address
Convocation Address by President Durden
In less than an hour, all new students will ascend the Old Stone Steps into Memorial Hall to "sign in" to the college. Four years from now (shorter for transfers), 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. Seniors, I hardly need to remind you that you are but a few short months removed from that traditional walk out into the world.
The symbolism of ascending the Old Stone Steps to sign into the College is directly linked to the history of the building directly before us which we call Old West. This tradition is particularly relevant this year as we continue to celebrate the 200th anniversary of this wonderful structure which has been designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Old West was intended to be more than a mere physical presence. It was constructed to be a symbol for a distinctively American liberal-arts education-one in which learning was valued by the degree to which it would ultimately be useful to build a just, compassionate, democratic society. New students, as you enter this building, you assume that commitment.
This intention was materially underscored by the personal monetary donations towards its construction by our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence; our namesake, John Dickinson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution; President Thomas Jefferson; Vice President Aaron Burr; Secretary of State James Madison; and, Chief Justice John Marshall. By ascending these stairs, you are, therefore, perpetuating a purpose that was envisioned by those very individuals who founded our democracy and intended you-Dickinson students-to be our nation's future leaders.
When you sign into the College in Memorial Hall, you are joining the ranks of a prestigious group of alumni who preceded you. They include a U.S. President, a Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court and several associate justices, countless members of Congress, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, diplomats, teachers, professors, writers, doctors, clergy, military leaders, artists, scientists, philanthropists, sports and media executives and even a few college presidents. They will be a willing part of your network for accomplishment through life.
These are the Dickinsonians with whom you will soon share a common bond, a shared set of dispositions towards knowledge and life. For new students, these Dickinsonian dispositions will challenge you immediately and persist throughout your years as a student. For seniors, this year will represent time to reflect upon and solidify perspectives gained at Dickinson and prepare you to take them out into the world with full confidence.
At Dickinson, we offer a distinctively American education that is to be distinguished from that offered in other countries. At Dickinson, we educate not merely for the communication of facts, but as importantly for the advancement of character and to develop a set of favorable habits of mind and disposition that will be shared for the benefit of both the individual student and the community.
The dispositions that we share with you at Dickinson are well-articulated and highly distinctive. They define, in part, the prestige which comes to us and to our College. You will soon encounter many of these dispositions as you engage in your academic pursuits-habits of mind such as interdisciplinarity and connectivity leading to the creation of new knowledge through close faculty-student collaboration; contextuality-viewing discrete knowledge in ever larger frameworks; and learning by engaging the world-that is, field studies, which Dickinson College introduced to American higher education in the mid-19th century interpreted in a contemporaneous manner.
Today, I wish to address four other dispositions-high accomplishment pursued modestly; speaking out passionately for what you know to be true and believe important; tenacity in the face of opposition; and global sensibility. These dispositions are also our aspirations for you. As members of the Dickinson community, we make every effort to exhibit in all our activities these dispositions. But like any group of diverse individuals, we are imperfect and we, too, have our low moments when our ideals are unrealized. I encourage you to seek example upon our better actions.
Let me turn to the first disposition: High Accomplishment pursued Modestly. Dickinson's historic legacy stems directly from the very common sense, unadorned disposition of our country at its founding. In this spirit, Dickinson's aspiration institutionally has always been the honest presentation of accomplishment. Our goal is to present ourselves and our accomplishments as "what is, in fact, earned" or "what is," not what "merely appears to be." The John Dickinson family motto is, in fact, "To be and not to seem." We wish the same academically and personally for you as Dickinsonians.
As an institution, we have consciously eschewed the trappings of unnecessary pomp and circumstance that exaggerate human accomplishment and defy the simple notion that you are what you have honestly earned. Perhaps this institutional disposition-one shunning pretense, but pursuing high accomplishment-is why the College has historically attracted students of all socioeconomic backgrounds who prefer to equate effort with success as a solid virtue for life, including a large percentage of first-generation college students. Today, we continue to welcome first-generation students in significant proportion-22 percent of the Class of 2008, as defined by either the mother's or father's families, fall into this category. These bright and highly aspiring students whose families prize education for social mobility simply feel comfortable with Dickinson's disposition towards achievement and its display.
Unfortunately, some Dickinson students have not always acknowledged the importance of this disposition. For decades, and even today, some Dickinson students-notably first-generation students themselves-spread a myth that is patently untrue. They persist in the belief that all students who attend Dickinson come from socially prestigious New England boarding schools, that all students here are super rich and that all drive BMWs. In other words, they seek to portray Dickinson as a "college only for super rich kids."
You are sure to hear this said by and about Dickinsonians. While there are some students among you who fit this description-as would be expected at a leading liberal arts college-you are not all from identical backgrounds. Our college is, in fact, far more textured. Allow me to provide you with a few statistics:
69 percent of the Class of 2008 receive some form of financial aid;
48 percent qualify for need-based financial aid;
66 percent graduated from a public high school; and
20 percent-one of every five-is either a student of color or an international student.
Today, Dickinson enrolls approximately the same proportion of economically challenged students, as defined by the federal government, as does Pennsylvania's largest public university, Penn State-13 percent. What Dickinson possesses is an invisible and increasingly visible diverse community of students who come from a wider and wider variety of socio-economic, cultural, racial and religious backgrounds.
The world's most outstanding students-young people such as you-will only attend colleges and universities that actively create a campus community of learning and dialogue amongst the fullest range of peoples-a rich variety of socio-economic backgrounds, cultures, ethnic identities and beliefs. They know full well that only out of these broadly representative learning communities will come those leaders prepared for accomplishment in the incredibly diverse world that is the 21st century.
We must ask ourselves why some Dickinsonians persist in creating a myth of pretense and exclusiveness for themselves and our College. Actually, it is a common affliction of human beings in general and is not found exclusively at Dickinson. It is particularly acute among your age group and is the product of two closely related factors: status anxiety (which is richly described in Alain de Botton's most recent book of the same title) and peer pressure.
Botton defines "status anxiety" as "a worry so pernicious as to be capable of ruining extended stretches of our lives." We worry that "we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society and that we may as a result be stripped of dignity and respect." It is "a worry that we are currently occupying too modest a rung or are about to fall to a lower one." Not to achieve status will result in "humiliation: a corroding awareness that we have been unable to convince the world of our value and are henceforth condemned to consider the successful with bitterness and ourselves with shame."
If one succumbs to "status anxiety," one begins to live a life of "seeming rather than being." At Dickinson, we encourage you to act otherwise. Be solid enough in your personal identity to think for yourselves. Be guided in your choices here by the strength that comes from such self knowledge.
At Dickinson, to know who you are and to act upon that knowledge without succumbing to undue and manipulative peer pressure is a supreme virtue. I trust that you are all sitting here today because you welcome this disposition and want it to guide your life. However, during your first year of college, peer pressure will challenge you. It will move some of you-as well as many other first-year students at other colleges and universities-to engage in foolish and ultimately dangerous behaviors. These behaviors all too frequently are reflected by an irresponsible consumption of alcohol and abusive, sometimes criminal, behavior towards others sitting right now with you in your new community. It is well-documented that exaggerated alcohol use is closely linked to abusive, violent behavior towards others and that such behavior can lead to negative interaction gender upon gender.
Peer pressure and related abusive behaviors often challenge mutual respect and shared community values. Our community cannot tolerate such actions as they become habit. Sadly, more than a few students across the country compromise their undergraduate years and forfeit their young lives. At precisely this point, I urge you now to get a grip as soon as possible on the absurdity of status anxiety and peer pressure. Discuss them and their potential effect with your new classmates here at Dickinson. Make them a subject of extended, late-night conversation. Embrace instead a Dickinson disposition of self-knowledge and independent thought guided by community values.
At Dickinson, liberal education does not intend you to abdicate judgment in favor of others' opinions and to be at the mercy of those who intend you to be actors on their own foolish stage. As Dickinson Professor David Strand once urged his students, "Be extraordinary rather than merely ordinary." Do that by being yourself. Again, as our College's namesake, John Dickinson, would put it, "Be, rather than seem."
A second Dickinson habit of mind is to speak out passionately for what you know to be true and believe important and to do so in an informed manner. At Dickinson, we seek what is fact, not merely what seems to be. This habit of mind demands great self-discipline. A Dickinson liberal-arts education asks of you a life of rational argument and integrity. Our community asks that you argue on the basis of what is, in fact, the case, rather than what you might like the case to be.
This disposition requires of us restraint and hard intellectual work. We must learn to listen carefully and to investigate thoroughly before reaching a conclusion. We must understand when a situation is fueled by rumor or invention and to recognize what are preconceived biases and ideologies of our own, as well as others. That is, we must be mindful that long-standing personal destructive agendas are not irresponsibly interpreted into what are most properly public situations requiring inquiry, balance and objectivity. We must engage in the act of common human decency by going first to the source of an issue of reputed controversy to gain another perspective beyond those in circulation. We must make certain that we speak not merely from a single point of reference-which is simply exercising good scholarly technique-and to argue ultimately with the utmost civility by questioning the issue and not engaging in personal attacks.
As Dickinsonians, you will be leaders in your generation. Leaders spend the majority of their effort trying to change minds-the minds of others and, just as importantly, their own minds. For in minds reside patterns of behavior and out of them arise organizations that must engage change. Nothing is more complex, time-consuming and fraught with pitfalls and general anxiety than the process of changing minds and organizations. Change is not determined by a single, fluid event. Change is a process-always a work in progress-open to vicissitudes of human interpretation and alteration through time. If mistakes are made in the process of change-and they always are-they need to be acknowledged and corrected. The process of change may need to be examined in whole or part. And if change brings about positive results, they need to be celebrated.
Despite what is inevitably positive and negative in the process, the key to successful change ultimately is to keep moving toward a shared long-term strategic vision, to not lose sight of it, and over time, to fulfill it. A good leader recognizes that nothing is as necessary and natural to the vitality of an organization than change, despite the inevitable anxiety and uncertainty, as well as mistakes, produced while moving through it.
Our third disposition is tenacity in the face of opposition. Dr. Benjamin Rush began our College in the late 18th century during and out of revolution-the American Revolution. Dickinson is the first American college or university chartered after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783 formally ending the war. Dr. Rush persisted in his commitment for a distinctively American university in the face of extreme financial scarcity and vicious political and theological opposition by the administrations of both the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University which did not want our college to come into being. To all that negativity, personal rather than objective, Dr. Rush simply stated again and again, "All Will End Well."
As you see, Dr. Rush brought his dream to reality and we are here today-financially strong, academically prestigious and widely recognized as one of America's leading liberal arts colleges. We are here because of his prevailing optimism, courage and healthy ambition in the face of opposition.
Another striking example of this defining Dickinson disposition is that of our first female student, Zatae Longsdorff. Zatae was the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Longsdorff, who lived near Carlisle and had four daughters. In 1884, Dr. Longsdorff encouraged the College to become a coeducational institution, promising that he could provide a vanguard of young women who would be able to compete successfully with the male students-young men who were not at all supportive of enhancing the student population with young women.
Zatae, the oldest daughter, was completing her first year at Wellesley College when Dickinson decided to admit women. The following year, Zatae entered Dickinson as a sophomore and quickly lived up to her father's promise that she could hold her own with the male students-in fact, more than hold her own.
Zatae's greatest test came the following year when she competed for the College's most coveted honor-the Pierson Oratorical Prize. Male students loudly protested the fact that a woman was even allowed to compete. The College historian, Charles Coleman Sellers, tells us, "So much harassment had been brought to bear before the actual event, that when the night arrived her father hired special police to watch the campus. It was a tense moment as the little figure stepped before the audience in her black silk dress with bustle and train . . ." This dress, by the way, is still in the College Archives.
Zatae went on to win the contest by delivering an oration entitled "Hand Workers versus Head Workers." By so doing, she exhibited incredible mettle and tenacity in the face of opposition. She stood her ground and advanced, by personal example, that in which she firmly believed-equality and the high accomplishment of women.
Zatae left Dickinson with a degree and went on immediately to earn a medical degree. She became the first female president of the American Medical Society and a state legislator in New Hampshire. She was also a resident physician on a Native-American reservation in Blackfoot, Idaho and was the first female in United States history to chair a national political party convention.
Zatae is a Dickinsonian-as are you now.
Our final disposition is global sensibility. Many of you here today chose Dickinson because of our nationally and internationally recognized global education program. But we, at Dickinson, go beyond mere program. We offer you global sensibility. Those individuals who comprehend and embrace intellectually and emotionally a global sensibility are those who will lead in the 21st century.
What exactly is global sensibility? For Dickinsonians, it is the pursuit of all academic and co-curricular activities in a context that takes into account that which is occurring in other nations and among other cultures. It is a fundamental humility that exercises a check upon the imperialism and unilateralism of our own provincial ideas and is based upon the recognition that other nations and cultures have notions we must gather from afar and integrate into our own pursuit.
It is a respect for the myriad ways of acquiring knowledge that are gained through the mastering of more than one language-not merely English. It is a recognition that the English language has limitations and does not deliver all areas of knowledge we need for substantive, creative contribution. It is an obligation-through education and experience-to be comfortable and confident in the world, regardless of location.
It is this sensibility that we offer you at Dickinson. This is a sensibility that requires a certain type of college, a college, in general, defined years ago for America by Ralph Waldo Emerson and which so aptly describes Dickinson today. "Colleges," Emerson wrote, " . . . have their indispensable office-to teach elements. But they can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill but to create; when they gather from afar every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and, by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame."
Embracing global sensibility is, for you, a priceless advantage and privilege for a life of high accomplishment in the globally complex world that is the 21st century. Dickinson College gives you that world and the opportunity to set your hearts and your mind on flame.
And now, as you, the Dickinson Class of 2008 and other new students, ascend the steps of Old West to "sign in" to the College, take a moment to consider that those students who are most successful academically and socially at Dickinson College are those who take initiative and embrace those distinctive dispositions and habits of mind about which I spoke today. They are those students who assume for themselves the responsibility to engage the world. They recognize opportunity and they choose to meet it more than halfway. They "own" their education.
Your pathway to success at Dickinson-as later in life generally-will reside in the choices you make. To be a Dickinsonian is not a passive proposition. It is a passionate commitment to a way of life that meets the world and its people head on. It embraces them through a multitude of languages, with shared humanity, mutual respect, global knowledge and experience. Like thousands of successful students who have gone before you through the centuries, I know that you will engage and choose well.
I welcome you as the newest members of the Dickinson community and am confident that your accomplishments as the citizen leaders of your generation will carry forth our historic legacy.
Senior class representatives, will you now please come forward and take your positions on the Old Stone Steps both to greet the Class of 2008 and to proclaim to all present the passage of your class-the Class of 2005-back down these steps in just nine months.