Convocation 2009
Convocation 2009

Welcome
Return to Program and Remarks

Donald R. Eastman IIIDonald R. Eastman III
President
September 2, 2009

Let us begin with a moment of silence to honor the life of Holt Weeks, who just finished his sophomore year here; who received the Triton Award presented by the tennis team and coach; who was beloved, it seems, by everyone who knew him, and who was killed in an automobile crash, along with his brother, Stone Weeks, a student at Rice University, on Thursday, July 23, 2009.

Welcome to the 50th Convocation of Eckerd College. We are delighted to see familiar faces, and new ones, and especially honored to have with us today two of our most distinguished trustees: Trustee Emerita Marty Wallace, who begins her 35th year of service as a trustee this fall, and Chair of the Academic Affairs Committee of the Board, Helmar Nielsen, now in his 11th year of service. Let us take this opportunity to thank these two exceptional trustees for their dedication to this College.

As we begin the second half-century of the life of this College, with the strongest faculty, student body, staff, facilities and balance sheet in our history, we – and the rest of the world – are at the same time faced with the greatest economic challenges of our lifetime.

Working together, something we have gotten very good at, it seems to me, we will take on a raft of challenges this year, including four areas of vital consequence:

First, we will do everything we can to minimize the impact of the world-wide economic crisis on our students and their experience here. We do expect to maintain our 13 to 1 student-faculty ratio, our 80% on-campus demographic, our full academic and student life programs, and our strong commitment to student aid and controlling costs.

Second, we are, as you know, searching for a new academic vice president and dean of the faculty to succeed Dean Chapin next summer. I am pleased to have an extraordinarily distinguished search committee of faculty, staff, trustees, alumni and a soon-to-be appointed student, under the chairmanship of Professor Mark Davis, and I invite all of you to be as involved in the process as you can. The next dean will lead our next general education curriculum revision process; review and oversee our processes for hiring, promoting and tenuring faculty; lead the strategic development of new academic directions; work with student life staff to integrate our in-class and out-of-class programs; provide vital leadership in our student enrollment and retention efforts; and, of course, make all faculty and staff happy all the time – while walking on water.

Third, this year we will continue to grow the ways in which we connect Eckerd College to the outside world. We will expand our Parent Council – an increasing force for good in so many ways: we will further develop the Science Fellows program – of which some of you are already members, and we will launch two new external support groups: an Eckerd College Council for the Arts, to help generate support in that area, and a National Advisory Council, comprising 30 or so distinguished alumni and friends of the College. Your suggestions for prospective members for both groups are most welcome. As we continue to strengthen ourselves as an institution, we must increasingly connect our programs and aspirations to people outside the College who can help us do so.

Fourth and finally, we have decided, as an institution, to make a radical upgrade of our science facilities a major priority of our capital campaign. But we must not act as if that priority is simply about space or simply about science. Our campaign, engaging as it does so much of the attention and resources of our whole community, requires us not only to raise money, but to raise our sights and rethink our entire educational enterprise in light of the extraordinary resources we are devoting to the teaching of science at Eckerd College.

We must ask – and answer – not only such questions as how to teach chemistry and biology and physics and math in the new world of bioinformatics and genome exploration, but ask also how the 21st century version of Western Heritage in a Global Context should adequately reflect a world in which so many of the moral problems are scientific problems.

If we treat our emphasis on a science building as a simply a problem of spatial arrangement, and fail to address imaginatively the pedagogical issues across all disciplines and across the College, we will have missed our biggest opportunity in decades to improve as a learning community. We must be prepared to teach chemistry differently, to reshape our scientific and humanities courses and curriculum, to reassess our general education program, to hire different kinds of faculty and administrators – including the dean of faculty – if the answers to these questions require it.

Let us not miss, or minimize, this opportunity and, given the resources we are talking about, the obligation to examine fully the role of science in every facet of education at Eckerd. This is too important a challenge and too valuable an opportunity to be left simply to the scientists; we must all be involved in these vital considerations – from the siting and placement of the building to the design of the curriculum.

We will also, of course, continue working to maintain the extraordinary momentum of our Capital Campaign, "Many Experiences, One Spirit." Last year's goal was to raise $50
million by the 50th anniversary birthday and campaign launch celebration last November, and to raise $4 million overall. We exceeded the $50 million mark by only about 29¢, but our fundraising for the year yielded over 19 million new dollars in gifts and pledges. We ended the year at nearly $68 million toward our $80 million campaign goal, with an all-time high from the Annual Fund of $1.5 million. Our balance sheet includes some $20 million in cash reserves, and another $10 million in the designated Board reserve fund. While our endowment, at $30 million, has suffered like all endowments at the invisible and currently very shaky hand of the market, the College is clearly in the best financial shape in its history. That is one reason faculty named our CFO Chris Brennan as "Employee of the Year" last May: Since financial officers are usually the most unpopular guys on campus, let me ask Chris to stand and receive our applause for this extraordinary and perhaps unprecedented recognition: Chris?

There is a fifth challenge – and it is likely to be a major one. But I don't know yet exactly what it is. Every year, I develop annual goals in conversation with the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and eventually those goals are accepted and approved by the Board. And every year I wind up (as I suspect you do, too) spending as much or more time on challenges that surprise me, things I didn't foresee. In the third month of my first year at Eckerd, it was the tragedy of 9-11. Various financial and facilities surprises and challenges have appeared each year. Hurricanes have interrupted our work and threatened our college intermittently since 2004. The markets and the economy collapsed last fall, and last spring we began to worry about pandemic flu.

What's next?

I don't know, but I do know this: Because of our working together to take on the challenges, not hiding from them or ignoring them or simply hoping they would go away, we have become a stronger college every year. It is not, as all coaches know, what you do when you are
winning that counts, but how you deal with challenges that matters and that builds individual and institutional character. I like the line from the poet Wendell Berry: "The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings."

The 2009-2010 year promises to be another very complicated year for us administratively – but with the leadership of our able executive staff and the continued thoughtful advice and participation of the faculty, particularly the College Council and Faculty Coordinating Committee (FCC), and the growing strength of the Staff Council, along with the good work of the Eckerd College Organization of Students (ECOS) and the dedicated, extremely high-quality leadership and wisdom provided by our Board of Trustees, we will not only survive this next year of economic challenge, we will also be an even better college a year from now.

You know that we welcomed over 500 new students to our campus for Autumn Term, thanks to the work of many in this room, particularly Dean John Sullivan. John, let us recognize and thank you for your leadership and great work in bringing in this fine new class of 2013.

This summer, I heard a mother speaking proudly of her daughter's college, a well-regarded school with average SATs much higher than ours. She said that, on the first day of class, her daughter's biology professor told the students that over half of the class would be gone by mid term – and that after the first test, he was right. The professor then told those who remained that they now had a manageable class, but that many of them would fail the course.

I thought to myself, we would never do that! We do not treat people that way! We care about our students too much to toss them aside so casually.

In the first days of Autumn Term, we lost two of our new students because of complicated psychological problems. But we tried not to lose them for good. Dean of Students Jim Annarelli and his staff have particularly tried not to give up even on these – perhaps temporarily – lost souls. He and his staff spent hours with the students and with their parents and others to support them as best we can during their travails. Maybe they will return to Eckerd, maybe not. But as a College we have acted as we say we believe: That every single student deserves all we can offer, deserves our best efforts to help them succeed.

I know this is what we do; I know this is how you feel. This approach is in the very DNA of Eckerd College.

Perhaps that singular approach and commitment come from our past as Florida Presbyterian College, from our institutional history of engagement with the life not only of the mind and body but also with the life of the spirit. What we do reflects nothing so much as the parable of the shepherd and the one and the 99, told in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke:

So He told them this parable, saying,

What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?

When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing.

And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, 'Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!'

This story is called a parable because it does not, on the surface, add up. Leave the 99 to help the one? Why does this make sense? Where is the risk analysis here? Why would any shepherd do that?

It makes sense because, at one time or another, each of us is the one. Most of the time, we are the 99; but every now and then, we are the one. We are the one because of bad luck, or bad health, or bad judgment – but we are the one. And, if we are a college student, it is then that we most need the support only a teacher, a dean, a College dedicated to the holiness of each and every individual can provide.

This is the special dimension of the Eckerd experience.

Welcome, all of you, to a new and exciting academic year together.

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