President Nugent's Welcoming Reception Remarks
Made to members of the Kenyon community on the occasion of her first visit to campus after having been appointed President of Kenyon CollegeFebruary 4, 2003
Good afternoon, and thank you. I am deeply honored to be named the 18th President of Kenyon College. Notwithstanding David's very kind remarks, I am also humbled by the enormous responsibility of leadership for this wonderful college. If I am to be able to shoulder that responsibility, it can only be with your support, drawing on your knowledge and experience and love of this place, and depending on your collaboration as we move forward, trying to make the best choices and build the brightest future for Kenyon.
Given this opportunity with so many of us gathered together in convocation, I would like to take a few minutes now at least to begin the process of getting to know one another. It seems to me that if I were sitting in your seat, I'd have little interest in punditry from the president-elect on the state of higher education. Even less would I care for pronouncements about Kenyon College from someone who cannot possibly know the college yet as well as you know it yourself. But I think I would be curious to begin to get a sense of who this person is and what her first thoughts about Kenyon are.
I have decided to talk with you today about what will probably seem an unlikely topic. Indeed, it's very possible that I will never speak about this again. But, as I have been thinking about Kenyon over recent months and weeks, I have come to feel that a community and a college like this can only flourish and achieve its full potential if it is deeply grounded in a foundation of...love. Now, clearly I have in mind here neither the syrupy stuff of Hallmark cards nor the romantic clichés of pop lyrics, but something much graver, more spiritual and stronger. This afternoon, I want to consider this phenomenon of love under three headings, from the more to the less abstract: the love of learning, the love of Kenyon, and love for one another.
I think that many of us might agree that a love of learning underlies higher education in general and perhaps even more particularly the liberal arts education. But what do we mean by "love" in this instance? Well (perhaps not surprisingly), I would look at it in Greek terms. We're not thinking of eros, erotic love, and I'd say it's not quite agape either -- that kind of brotherly love or charity which the early Christian community considered to underlie its fellowship. No, the love of learning seems to me better characterized as philos, a Greek term from which we have so many English derivatives: philosophy, philanthropy, even Philander...but we won't go into that today. Philos covers a spectrum of meanings, including friend or family member. It essentially means what is dear to you, so close and important to you that you think of it as virtually a part of yourself.
It is this love of learning, it seems to me, which the College intends to impart. And I'd venture a little farther, to say that it is a love not only for academic subjects. More, it is the recognition that learning-not only during our time on campus as students or faculty members-is something we want to be an integral part of ourselves throughout our lives. To me, there are few more moving expressions of this lifelong zeal for learning than the lines of Tennyson's "Ulysses":
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untraveled world whose margin fades
Forever and forever when I move...
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought....
The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
This shared desire for a life of continuous learning binds us together in a special way. Of course "college" itself means, etymologically, what is brought together or bound together.
And that brings me to the second love of which I spoke: love of the College itself. This love of Kenyon has already been brought home to me concretely. I cannot tell you the countless hours of e-mail and phone conversations that David Horvitz and Buffy Hallinan and Joe Klesner -- among others -- have already logged with me. Why should they devote all these hours to the college? Because they truly love it. I mention these three individuals because, through the process of the presidential search, they happen to be those with whom I have had most conversations up to now. But I want to say at once that I fully intend for those conversations to become more and more inclusive, as I have the chance to come to know more of you. Already, there are many of you whom I have in mind and with whom I want to continue conversations briefly begun.
I think, for example, of Joan Slonczewski -- who asked me a question to which she deserved a much better answer than I had. This brought home to me an area in which I need to learn a great deal more from many of you. I think of Jane Martindell, who asked me a couple of tough questions to which I think no one in higher ed has the answers right now-but we must work together to come closer to solving some of our students' complex issues. I think of Tom Lepley, who rightly directed my attention to a dilemma that all campuses confront as our physical facilities become more and more complex, so that each wonderful contribution to the campus also requires more of us. I think of Pat Urban, who reminded me of the importance of hearing many voices. And of Matt Cass, who took seriously the challenges of being the first woman president. And I think of Tom Susman, who noted a certain irony in the phrase "Claiming Our Place." "What stands so firmly at the heart of Kenyon," he said, "IS our sense of place." These individuals and many others whom I have had the opportunity to meet, seem to me deeply imbued with the love of this place that is Kenyon College. I have only just embarked on "learning in the company of friends," and I know that the learning and the circle of friends will continue to grow in the future.
Finally, I spoke of love for one another. For a community that is this small, this tightly focused, this set apart on "the Hill," I believe a sense of love for one another is a precondition not only for success but for survival. What do I mean by love in this context? Well, it can manifest itself in many ways. One is empathy -- a genuine effort to understand one another's views, even to try them on, rather than rushing to intolerant or confrontational interactions. A second is placing the highest value on civil discourse -- even if we disagree (which, of course, we will), let it be as joint seekers after truth in a way that does no irrevocable damage to our relationships with each other, but leaves us free to undertake together other such searches after truth in the future. Third, this love will manifest itself in a predilection for forgiveness rather than resentment. If our community is to sustain itself and achieve its highest aspirations, I believe this kind of commitment to one another will, however implicit at times, lie at its heart.
Turning again to the tale of the Odyssey, there is a quality which, in Homer's account, Odysseus and Penelope share: it is called homophrysune; we could translate it as "like-mindedness." This does not mean they are a starry-eyed romantic couple. As you know, the final books of the Odyssey show them capable, at times, of inflicting acute pain on one another. Yet underlying that still there is a bedrock of like-mindedness, a shared understanding of goals. It is this quality which, when it's absent between Odysseus and his men, leads to disastrous and destructive outcomes. By contrast, the homophrysune of Odysseus and Penelope sustains them through hardship, uncertainty, and even disagreement. I would venture to say that the Kenyon family seems to me to partake of homophysune to a remarkable degree. And that bodes well for the odyssey we will undertake together.
One of the earliest attempts to understand our universe in the Western tradition is that of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Empedocles. He posited that there are two fundamental forces in the world: Love (his term is philia) and Strife. Strife, in his philosophy, is responsible for destruction, and Love for generation. Many centuries later, a poet who means a great deal to me, Dante Alighieri, set out on another grand attempt to understand our world within the quite different tradition of Christian thought. His work, The Divina Commedia, attempts nothing less than a complete account of heaven and hell; its final line concludes with "l'amor che move il sole e l'altre stelle": that love which moves the sun and all the stars. If the phenomenon of love is indeed -- as these two very different thinkers believe -- such a fundamentally constituent element of our Cosmos, I hope you will feel, with me, that it is worth exploring how it informs and sustains our College.