New Student Orientation
Sign-In Ceremony - August 25, 2005
Remarks of President William G. Durden '71
Members of the Class of 2009 and other new students, parents, family members and friends, welcome to one of Dickinson College 's most cherished traditions. At the close of this brief ceremony, our new students will ascend the Old Stone Steps into Memorial Hall to "sign in" to the College and begin their lifelong journey as Dickinsonians. Four years from now, you will reverse this symbolic action when you descend these same steps to receive your diploma and move beyond these limestone walls into the broader world to become the next generation of citizen leaders.
Many parents here today fully understand the significance of the step their son or daughter is about to take. Sixty-seven of our first-year students-ten percent of the incoming class-have 92 legacy connections! They are following in their parents' and other relatives' footsteps and choosing to become Dickinsonians. This generational passing of the baton should be reassuring to all of us. It is yet another measure of the College's enduring influence on the lives of its graduates.
The tradition of "signing in" dates back to the earliest years of our College and before that was practiced at European universities. In the early 19 th century, signing in took the form of a pledge as students committed themselves in "truth and honor to observe and obey all the laws, rules and regulations of the college." Later on, the matriculation book, as it was called, evolved into a directory containing a variety of useful facts and information about each student. The matriculation ceremonies appear to have been somewhat somber occasions for oratory, providing the speaker with the opportunity to guide the impressionable minds of new students with sermons such as "Keep Striving for Righteousness-Be Not Afraid to Say No."
I promise you no such exhortations this afternoon, but I would like to comment briefly on the significance of this important tradition. The symbolism of ascending the Old Stone Steps to "sign in" to the College is directly linked to the history of the building before you. Old West, as we call it, was first occupied in 1805, exactly 200 years ago. The building was intended to be more than a functional facility. It was constructed to be a symbol for a distinctively American liberal arts education-one in which learning would be ultimately "useful" in the development of a just, compassionate democratic society.
The original structure burned to the ground before it was even occupied. College officials immediately undertook the task of reconstructing the building. Those who chose to donate personally to the reconstruction and, more importantly, the type of education that would be conducted in it, underscore the distinctiveness of a Dickinson education. They included: President Thomas Jefferson; Vice President Aaron Burr; Secretary of State James Madison; our namesake, John Dickinson; and our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. By ascending these stairs, therefore, you are perpetuating a purpose that was envisioned by those very individuals who founded our democracy and intended Dickinson students to play a central role in the development of the new nation.
Thousands of Dickinsonians have preceded you up these stairs. They include a U.S. President, a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court as well as several associate justices, countless members of Congress, CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, diplomats, teachers, professors, writers, doctors, religious leaders, artists, scientists and even a few college presidents. These are the Dickinsonians with whom you will soon share a common bond, a shared set of dispositions toward knowledge and life.
Dickinson 's connection to the founding of our nation is further symbolized by the presence of the marble lion you will pass as you enter Memorial Hall. This lion belonged to our namesake, John Dickinson. History reports that Dickinson was extremely fond of the lion, transporting it with him as he traveled among his various homes. The lion was most likely present when Dickinson drafted the "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania ," the pamphlet which provoked widespread American protest against England . Dickinson also probably had the lion with him when he chaired the committee that drafted the Articles of Confederation. The lion very probably stood watch as Dickinson coined the phrase "United we Stand" while writing America's first patriotic song, and again as he agonizingly decided not to sign the Declaration of Independence, believing the colonists were not yet ready for active resistance. Later a signer of the U.S. Constitution, Dickinson very likely had the lion with him when he suggested the formal name of our country-The United States of America .
At the close of our ceremony this afternoon, you and your parents will gather for a farewell reception at the base of the statue of our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush. You will learn much, I dare say, about Dr. Rush over the next four years. Today, however, the symbolic presence of both Rush and Dickinson reminds us of our distinguished revolutionary heritage and the privileges and responsibilities you will assume as you become a Dickinsonian.
As you "sign in" to Dickinson , you become the heirs to a proud revolutionary tradition and you "sign on" to become a leader of your generation. As an alumnus, I envy you the journey on which you are about to embark. Today, as you become a Dickinsonian, you are about to enrich your lives in ways you can not yet imagine. Embrace the opportunity the next four years present to you. Willingly accept the responsibilities that come with being a Dickinsonian-fulfilling them will be their own reward. Begin, today, the life of high ambition, commitment and personal enjoyment that Dr. Rush intended for all who ascend these stairs to "sign in" to Dickinson College .