Convocation 2008
Convocation 2008

Return to Program and Remarks

Lloyd ChapinLloyd W. Chapin
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty
September 3, 2008

Welcome to this fall academic convocation celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Eckerd College's founding and the forty-ninth year of classes. President Eastman is with us in spirit and looks forward to joining us on campus next week.

The Lamp of Knowledge you see located here at the front of the room, created by Professor Brian Ransom, has a somewhat checkered history. It has been a part of the Ceremony of Lights welcoming new freshman since 2004. But at least twice it has flickered out during that ceremony because of a faulty wick and had to be re-lit. The Lamp also appeared at Convocation in 2004 and 2005, but then operations were suspended out of concern that once again it might become the light that failed. When Dean Annarelli and I told President Eastman this summer that we would like to continue to use the lamp in the Ceremony of Lights he told us "You guys like to live on the edge!". When we reported this conversation to Anne Wetmore, Director of Student and Family Relations, her response was "Don't worry. If anything goes wrong, we'll give Dean Annarelli and you a nice going away party."

Perhaps I am so fond of the Lamp, in spite of the President's wise reservations, because our experience with it is consistent with my almost lifelong and somewhat defensive sense of colleges and universities as centers of illumination, islands of light, always threatened by extinction from various dangers. I can recall my father, who was also a dean of faculty, struggling to defend academic freedom at a southern public university in the 1940's and 50's when speaking out against segregation could cost a faculty member his job. I can also recall the campus turmoil of the late 60's fueled by the civil rights struggle and resistance to the Vietnam War when I found myself, a young instructor in his first faculty appointment, asked to become a dean because the president of the university had resigned over a student demonstration. And, perhaps most of all, because I have ended up spending most of my career at a relatively young college always operating close to the margin because of limited resources.

While those issues - racial, social, financial - have not receded altogether, today the leading challenges to higher education are widely summarized by the national media and government officials as accountability, affordability, and accessibility.

By accountability is meant the call for evidence that colleges are actually meeting their educational goals. The regional associations like SACS, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, that accredit educational institutions, and state and federal governments that provide substantial funding now place increasing emphasis on colleges and universities documenting publicly and systematically their educational effectiveness. Responding to these expectations will be a critically important part of the institutional self-study that Eckerd initiates this fall in preparation for its application to be re-accredited in 2011.

Affordability is a term used to express concern that the cost of a college education has in recent years outpaced inflation, making it increasingly difficult for individuals and families to pay the price of tuition. The concern has become so great that the latest reauthorization of the Higher Education Act mandates that the United States Department of Education post on its website each year the top 5% of colleges and universities by type with the largest increases in tuition and fees over the most recent three years. Eckerd College, while very unlikely ever to appear on such a list, is working hard through the generosity of its trustees and other donors, as well as by means of the careful management of its resources, to provide sufficient financial aid to help students and their families cope with what we all recognize is a major investment.

The emphasis on accessibility results from the recognition that the most rapidly growing segment of America's student age population is among groups traditionally underrepresented in higher education. In Florida, for example, by 2010, 53 percent of high school students will be made up of current ethnic minorities. Many of these students and their families have limited financial resources and no previous history of higher education. Relatively expensive selective colleges like Eckerd face a major challenge in providing adequate opportunities for these students to enroll and recruiting a diverse faculty who can serve as inspirational role models.

But having listed these challenges, which are both important and enormous, let me say that I do not believe they are the most serious threats to keeping the light of higher education, especially the light of liberal arts education, alive. After all, dealing with public accountability, financial affordability, and widespread accessibility are ultimately matters of careful planning and effective management.

To me, the most fundamental and enduring threats to the kind of education that Eckerd and similar colleges seek to provide are careerism, cynicism and complacency.

Two years ago the Association of American Colleges and Universities conducted a series of focus groups around the country to find out what college bound high school students and college juniors and seniors valued most about college. They found that students valued most what would prepare them for professional success: developing good work habits, communication skills, problem solving. What they valued least was learning about values, ethics, the meaning of life, appreciation for cultural diversity, global awareness, civic responsibility, and scientific knowledge. The disturbing thing about these results is that these students have clearly been caught up in the notion that the primary purpose of education is, to use one of my least favorite terms, training for the work force. Somehow they have missed a college education's mission to prepare graduates to be responsible citizens of a democracy, constructive members of communities, and thoughtful fulfilled human beings.

But the narrowing effect of careerism is not just a challenge to students. The central dynamic of the academic profession today encourages individual faculty members and institutions to place more emphasis on research than teaching and student learning. Individual faculty members are more likely to advance their careers and institutions their reputations based on their success in producing publications and securing grants than on achieving excellence in the classroom.

A second and perhaps even more insidious threat to authentic higher education is cynicism. By cynicism I mean the view that there is ultimately no meaning to truth or falsity, or right and wrong, because all judgments are matters of opinion. When students express this view, it is often described as "sophomoric" because it indicates a superficial reaction to one's initial encounter with serious critical thought. But it is inevitably tempting to all of us involved in this enterprise because of liberal education's emphasis on the importance of examining every claim to be the last word on any subject. The danger is that the commitment to the unfettered pursuit of truth can degenerate into despair at making any meaningful intellectual or ethical distinctions.

On the other hand, a dangerous alternative to cynicism can be complacency - the reluctance to recognize in the world of higher education that true learning often involves unlearning, the willingness to accept that long held assumptions have been mistaken, that familiar and even beloved traditions have become barriers to progress. In the case of students this may mean refusing to be open to new ideas that appear to challenge inherited beliefs. In the case of faculty and staff, even deans, it may mean clinging to familiar ways of teaching and operating that are no longer as effective in new circumstances.

Perhaps no one knows better than I after so many years, that Eckerd College has not been perfect in its response to the challenges I have described, but I do believe we can celebrate today that this college has sought nobly and often successfully to address each one.

We have not sold out to careerism. We have continued to look beyond simply sharpening the skills necessary for the workforce. We continue to seek to foster global awareness, an appreciation for ethnic and cultural diversity, and a commitment to community service and social responsibility. The nationally normed scores of our students on the National Survey of Student Engagement and the Collegiate Learning Assessment indicate our students in fact excel in these particular areas. And the nature of our interdisciplinary core curriculum, which calls upon faculty members to step for a time outside their role as experts in a specialty to model in the classroom the liberally educated person is a constant reminder that the goal of an Eckerd education is not just to produce a skilled professional but the good citizen and the fulfilled human being.

An Eckerd education is also a call to go beyond cynicism. The curriculum and campus life are designed to engage all of us in critical reflection on questions of value and purpose, not to lead us to indifference or despair, but to inspire us to continue the search for deeper truth and a clearer sense of what it means to do the right thing.

And I will add here that to me this is what it really means to be a church related college - not to indoctrinate members of the community with particular beliefs, but to ground the educational enterprise in the faith that our aspirations for meaning and purpose are ultimately supported and completed by reality itself.

It is this faith that has undergirded one of Eckerd' distinguishing characteristics from the beginning and that deflects it from being complacent - the commitment to innovation. Because of its belief that there are always ways to improve teaching and learning and its willingness to try promising new approaches, the College has been a pioneer in American higher education: Winter Term, Autumn Term, universal faculty participation in general education, international education, mentoring, PEL, ASPEC and OLLI, the Center for Spiritual Life, the Ford Scholar program, majors in Marine Science, Environmental Studies, Human Development, International Relations and Global Affairs, Interdisciplinary Arts, student-governed student activities, the yellow bicycles. And the list could go on.

All of these things make Eckerd College a light that shines brightly after 50 years amid all the challenges. In spite of all the forces that might threaten to dim it, the darkness has not overcome it. And it will not.

President Eastman likes to use caring for the fleet of yellow bicycles on campus as a metaphor for preserving the essential character of the College. This afternoon I propose lighting the Lamp of Knowledge at the beginning of the academic year as another. Even if lighting it is always somewhat risky, even if it sometimes flickers and goes out, there are always those here who will relight it, renew it, keep it going.

This is the meaning of convocation: an annual calling together of the community to say we are still here, we are still committed to providing a profoundly liberating education, still committed to the pursuit of truth and virtue, and to finding better ways to excellence. The lamp still shows an affirming flame.

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