President Nugent's Opening Convocation Remarks to the Class of 2011
Good afternoon! Welcome (to our newcomers) and welcome back!
This event is a great tradition at Kenyon, where we begin each academic year by greeting new and returning members of our community and re-dedicating ourselves to the work we carry out together at the College.
Many of us who are not new at the College this fall, last saw one another in this setting of KAC at the kick-off event for our campaign, on the evening of June 1. That gala event, with more than 1500 people in attendance, was a big success and a lot of fun. It would be wonderful if some of the excitement, energy, and purpose of that evening can continue with us through this coming year.
As you know, the theme for the College's campaign is: We Are Kenyon: The Drive for Excellence. And, as we embark on this academic year, I want to say a bit about both parts of that phrase, beginning with the "Drive for Excellence." I know some of us are really inspired by the kind of "onward and upward!" spirit of that phrase, and probably some of us wonder: "Why do we always have to be driving forward; couldn't we just take a rest and be content with being as good as we are?"
I want to tell a little story about that. It was told to me this summer by Richard Light, who will be coming to Kenyon as a guest speaker on September 5 and 6. I hope many of you will take the opportunity to come and hear him for yourself. Light is a professor who, for more than 20 years, has studied the best ways for students to succeed in college. He does this, not by theorizing, but by asking students. By now, he has interviewed thousands of students over the years. He is on the faculty of Harvard, and so he has worked most with Harvard students. But many, many colleges around the country have drawn on his work and benefited from it--it is clearly not Harvard-specific.
Most recently, he carried out a set of interviews involving several hundred sophomore students. They were literally moving in for their second year of college, the way our students are moving in this week. Richard Light and his colleagues asked these incoming sophomores about their freshman year. How had it gone? What were they most pleased about, least pleased about? Open ended questions, like that. The students who were being interviewed comprised two distinct groups. One group of these sophomores had been extremely successful in their first year at Harvard; the other group was barely holding on at the college.
After hundreds of interviews, Light told me, a single distinction became glaringly clear. One group of students said, "Well, I was pretty successful in high school, and so I thought that, when I came to Harvard, I better just keep on doing what I was doing and not mess up a good thing." Those were the students who were failing. The other group of students, who were succeeding at the college, said "When I got here, I realized there were all kinds of things I wanted to do. I wanted to keep playing football, but I also wanted to get involved in student government, and being engaged in my religious community is important to me, and so on... So I realized, early on, that I was going to have to learn to do some things differently, in order to accomplish all I wanted to do." Now, we're talking Harvard sophomores here. Clearly, all of them must have been successful in high school. But the ones who continued to succeed were the ones who realized that they were confronting new challenges--and opportunities--and that they probably needed to change to meet those.
Of course, Kenyon is an institution, not an invidual college student. And yet, I think Kenyon is in some ways like those college sophomores. We too, like the students, face the reality that excellence does not stand still. I doubt that Coach Steen would be very happy with a swimmer who said, "I like my time for this event; it's a good time; I'm just going to try to maintain that speed." Nope. Coach is going to keep asking you to get faster, to get better, to drive for excellence. In Professor Mauck's summer science work with students, he's not likely to say, "That was a really good experiment. I'm satisfied with those results. Let's just stop experimenting now." No, each experimental result is going to lead to a further question, a further hypothesis, a way to learn even more...
In the library, we can't say, "Now, this is a really nice collection. Let's just stop here." We can't do that, because the information we need keeps growing--and changing. (In fact, Mike Roy and I will be asking a faculty group to help us understand more about how information is changing in today's world and how Kenyon needs to respond to that.) I think most of us know--and chuckle at--President Peirce's famous remark when Peirce Hall was completed in 1929: "We now have all the buildings we will ever need." By way of contrast, Joe Nelson recently told me that a faculty member asked him when the construction projects would be over, and Joe said, "Never." And he's right. Even if we did indeed have "all the buildings we would ever need," in time each of them would need to be renovated--as we're seeing now with Peirce Hall, after three-quarters of a century.
Excellence does not stand still. And it calls us, by its very nature, to move forward, to reach higher.
Of course, Kenyon is not an individual college student pursuing excellence. We're many, many different individuals. "We are Kenyon": the other half of the phrase. What does that mean? First, it's not as simple as it sounds. On the one hand, Kenyon is nothing but the individuals who comprise it--you and me. And yet, that's not the whole story. There is something that is "Kenyon" (maybe a standard of excellence?) that transcends you and me. Because--for almost two centuries now--Kenyon has endured, even though the individuals who make up the College obviously change over time. In fact, that's what we're celebrating at the beginning of this 183rd academic year: the new faculty, the new staff members, the new students who will come to be a part of the collective "Kenyon." This is an annual cause for joy: we are continually refreshed by new members of the community. And it's also part of this natural cycle that some people will leave the college each year.
What, then, does "We are Kenyon" mean, and how is it related to "the Drive for Excellence"? In my mind they're indivisible. The College can only achieve excellence because each one of us commits to something larger than ourselves and contributes by striving for excellence in whatever it is that we do. And we won't really achieve excellence, I believe, unless every one of those individual efforts that you make, as a member of this College is recognized and valued. This sounds kind of daunting. Do we each need to be somehow "hard-driving" in pursuit of excellence every moment? Just thinking about it makes me tired...
No, striving for excellence isn't--and shouldn't be--a matter of exhaustion; I think it's more a matter of making thoughtful choices. Let's return to Professor Light's college students. In essence, what the successful ones recognized was that, in the new environment of college, they had to make good choices about how to use their time, so that they could fulfill their potential, we might say: achieve their "personal best." Similarly, I think you and I (as the collective Kenyon) will achieve excellence, if we consistently try to make thoughtful choices about how best we can carry out our work. This means, for example, going beyond the mantra "This is the way we've always done it" to ask whether it's the best way. It means being willing to experiment, to take some risks, even to fail from time to time. That's okay. We tried something and we learned something. After all, that's what education is about.
Today, I see excellence absolutely everywhere around us in the College. Certainly, faculty are continually trying to improve their teaching--creating new courses, changing their syllabus, trying new pedagogical techniques, exploring new fields of study. And teaching is the central mission of the College. But everything--and I mean everything--that supports that mission is crucial to our success. When one of us finds a better way to maintain our beautiful buildings and grounds, or improves a process in accounting, or schedules our classrooms more effectively, or goes the extra mile on a maintenance request, or creates award-winning publications, or provides broader access to research materials, or reduces paperwork, or enhances recycling, or any number of other recent initiatives that staff members have undertaken...that person is contributing to Kenyon's drive for excellence. In fact, each of us, in making these kinds of thoughtful choices, is also making a very tangible contribution to our campaign. And, collectively, we can be really proud to declare, "We are Kenyon."
Now, I'm going to end on kind of an odd note. And it's all Patrick Gilligan's fault. Patrick and I periodically exchange reading recommendations, and this summer he recommended to me a book called How. Many of you know that I believe stories are often able to convey our meanings obliquely better than we can convey them directly. I think this reading may convey better than I can in my own words what I'd like to say to each one of you about being a part of Kenyon.
The story begins the book, and it describes how a professional cheerleader for the
"The day I started it, I already knew what I wanted. I knew what was gonna happen, but nobody else in the stadium did.
First thing, I hit my drum. See, the drum shows energy and emotions; it shows I am personally involved with the fans. They see me sweating, they see the energy, they see that I love the game, and that I love the team.
So that day, I had to tell them what I envisioned. It's so important to set the cheer up. If everybody doesn't do it, it won't go. You have to have almost total participation for it to go, and that's the point. I pounded the drum and I started screaming. " Here is what we're gonna do. We're gonna stand up and throw our hands in the air. I want to start with this section, and we're gonna go to this section," and I yelled down to the next section, " I'm gonna start it and it's gonna keep going."
I knew it would die. I didn't know how far it would go before it died, but I knew it would. No one had ever seen this before. So I prepared them. I told them that when this thing died, I wanted all three sections to boo as loudly as they could. I couldn't reach out to the whole stadium myself, but I thought as a group we might. Then I said, " We're gonna start on three, this section first; then you're gonna go, and get ready down there." I yelled as loud as I could, and the first section stood and threw their hands in the air...then the second section...the third...the fourth; it went about five sections and then it died.
Right on cue, three sections just went "Booo! " and I pounded my drum. I was screaming and waving my arms. They saw me flailing my arms and they got the idea. So I started it a second time and it went about 11 sections--about a third of the way around--and it died behind home plate. Suddenly, the hugest "Booooo!" you ever heard came out. It focused everybody, and so I said, " We're gonna try it again." No, I didn't say "try" -- I said " We're doing it again," and I started it a third time.
By the time I looked around, all three decks in the stadium were doing it, all in unison, throwing up their hands, a giant wave of human energy going around the stadium. It swept behind home plate. It kept going, and it got stronger and stronger. The people were screaming and yelling. It came around, went behind home plate and then all the way through the outfield, through the bleachers, and back to our section, and it just kept going. It swept right back, and it got even more powerful. Everybody was going crazy. Nobody had ever seen this before.
The great left-fielder for the A's, Ricky Henderson, was coming up to bat at the time. He looked up and saw this thing going around and around the stadium, and he stepped out of the batter's box and adjusted his gloves for about two minutes, watching this thing. He just stood there, looking at this thing, adjusting his batting gloves. I don't know how many times it went around--four, five, six times--it was that powerful.
After the Wave, the crowd was noticeably different. They knew they'd helped out. They felt the energy. That's the thing I saw that day, leading the Wave--the added energy that it brings to the stadium or the arena or whatever venue. The fans start feeling that they are part of the game and they're adding to it."
It's the beginning of a great year. Let's go out there and make waves.