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President Donald R. Eastman III

President's Remarks

42nd Convocation

Griffin Chapel
September 5, 2001

Welcome: Trustees, faculty, students, fellow staff members, ASPEC members, and guests: Welcome to this 42nd convocation opening the academic year at Eckerd College.

We do not have to be Latin majors to know that a convocation is a calling together, in this case, of an academic community, to begin the academic year together - with some shared reflections, goals, and ideas.

The focus of my remarks today will be largely directed to why we are engaged in the great adventure of Eckerd College, rather than how we expect to pursue the next chapter of our enterprise together. We will begin the discussion of immediate plans and challenges with faculty and staff in the coming weeks.

This convocation, coming as it does at the beginning of a new chapter in the short, mostly happy, if impecunious, life of Eckerd College, is particularly important, perhaps even crucial, for our College community. It is emphatically a time to come together, to celebrate accomplishments, to define what we stand for, and to begin to write a new chapter of service to students and to civilization.

As Alexander Pope taught us in the "Essay on Man," all human and institutional fortunes are fragile, hanging by a thread of fate, and Eckerd's fortunes, never truly secure, have seemed especially fragile in the past year or so.

The Eckerd community, though, and here I credit all, but am thinking particularly of the faculty, staff and trustees - the Eckerd community has shown over the past year that the fundamental test of character is now, as it always has been, not what you do when things are going your way, but how you respond to setbacks, hardship and defeat. As Hemingway wrote in A Farewell to Arms of the shattering devastation of World War I, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places." Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the Eckerd College community is becoming, as a result of its response to its setbacks, strong at the broken places: Students have shown uncommon loyalty to the faculty who are, by all accounts, devoted to their education and well-being; faculty have shown the resolve not only to rethink and streamline but also to improve and enrich the unique academic culture that has developed here in little more than a generation; staff have stayed the course, pressing on to serve and support faculty and students and each other in troubled times; and trustees have responded heroically to their challenge of leadership, contributing time and energy at unprecedented levels, and writing checks that hurt, recognizing that the ultimate responsibility for Eckerd College is theirs. I know of no other instance of such faithfulness in the history of American higher education.

I have spoken often over the past six months about the extraordinary story these institutional commitments tell: This is a story that shows strength, not weakness; determination, not defeat; and spirit, not surrender. Let mine be the voice that says to each of you who has worked and cared and prayed for Eckerd College over the past year, on behalf of the great numbers of alumni and others who love this College, thank you! Thank you, in these challenging times, for your labor, your loyalty and your love. Thank you. Those who cut the grass and fix the food, thank you; those who clean the buildings and those who repair them, thank you. Those who teach and coach and type and file, those who raise the money and those who count it, thank you! All who care for Eckerd College, and many who care simply for educational excellence, are truly grateful.

And why is it, some might ask, some who are unfamiliar with the Eckerd experience, why is it so important to sustain this College? Why all the fuss over a small, private, church-related liberal arts college located in a state known more for its devotion to hedonism than to the humanities? Why should anyone really care about the fate and future of Eckerd College? Why do so many students, alumni and others love this place?

The answer, I believe, is to be found in an understanding of the unique mission and character of Eckerd.

The mission of Eckerd College is to enable our graduates to bring the resources of a trained mind and imagination to the complex tasks and challenges of our contemporary world; it is, in fact, to provide our students with the tools to be free men and women, recognizing as we do that freedom, and its cousin, liberty, are earned every day by individual circumspection; our mission is, in short, to teach undergraduates to think, to imagine and to believe. As Northrop Frye put it in his magisterial and unexcelled Anatomy of Criticism, "At the center of liberal education, something surely ought to get liberated!"

There are, as I see it, five fundamental values, five pedagogical strategies, embedded in the Eckerd experience, by which this College prepares its students for world citizenship, and for freedom, in the 21st Century.

First, Eckerd is one of the few colleges in America that still regards residential life, which has been the hallmark of a college or university experience of the highest quality for nearly a thousand years, as an essential part of an undergraduate education. The very idea that a first-rate college education can be offered to or earned by traditional-aged students who are not living where and with whom they are learning is a recent and wholly suspect notion.

Second, recognizing and valuing the plurality of the contemporary world, Eckerd endorses in all of its programs the inclusivity of national and international cultures. Few colleges or universities in America have a higher percentage of international students, or a higher percentage of their student bodies that study abroad during the undergraduate years. Eckerd's students come from 49 states and 60 countries and their families from nearly every walk of life on the planet. (The missing state, by the way, is North Dakota, and Dean Hallin is planning a full-scale recruiting invasion of North Dakota this Fall...!)

Third, Eckerd stands proudly for its relationship with the Presbyterian Church in order, as Eckerd's own Charter puts it, "To give the Christian faith a vigorous and fair hearing in a setting where students are free to accept or reject but not ignore it." Most of you know that the greatest and most venerable of America's colleges were inaugurated as Christian church-related schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Penn and many others. In the intervening centuries they have become, like so much of modern life, secular in all but historical reference. I don't know what Eckerd College will be like in 325 years when it is as old as Harvard is today, but, for now, I am proud that it is passionate in ways few colleges still are, passionate in ways all good colleges were not very long ago, about what the complete college experience should do, indeed must do, for its students. That experience, Eckerd argues, must demand powerful, challenging encounters with life's primary questions, and foremost among these are the questions of religion, of spirit, of faith.

Fourth, many in the Eckerd community are passionately engaged in study and scholarship that illustrate and reveal that some of the most pressing social, economic, political and moral issues of this new century have to do with the environment; our location here on the tip of the Pinellas peninsula, on the very shore of a principal bay of the Gulf of Mexico, especially enriches our focus on the marine and estuarial ecology of the global environment.

And finally, most importantly, Eckerd's greatest strength, its primary and fundamental characteristic, is the great omission in most institutions of higher education in America, the thing most often lamented and striven for while also the most frequently absent. It is the personal relationship between teacher and student at Eckerd College. It is what causes a Literature professor on his way to lunch to go over to a Marine Sciences professor in the cafeteria to ask how a particular student did on her term paper. That the faculty members would know each other is alone surprising to someone who, like me, has spent his professional life in large research universities; that they would both know and care about the academic progress of a particular undergraduate student is a revelation. This kind of personal attention and concern for undergraduates is the missing element in nearly all of American higher education now, and it is, simply, the glory of Eckerd College. It is this that you students will most enjoy while you are here and most remember and revere after you leave.

Residential, global, spiritual, environmental, personal: These are the values of Eckerd College. They may be, in the intensity of their combination here in this place, unique. These are values, we believe, that in this 21st Century of the Common Era, engender freedom; and they engender the personal freedom not to live a wholly secular life. A wholly secular life is defined by the distinguished theologian Stanley Hauerwas as "just one damned thing after another"; in other words, a life without teleology, without shape or purpose; ultimately, a life without meaning.

Eckerd College's mission, let me say again, is to teach its students to think, to imagine and to believe, in order for them to live as free men and women.

The great American poet, Robert Frost, says belief is "knowledge that one cannot prove. It has a kind of power, a power like foreknowledge, that believes itself into being."

Love is like that, he says: The belief in someone else, "a relationship of two that is going to be believed into fulfillment."

Art is also like that: When we write a poem, or a story, or a symphony, it is written by belief; it is believed into existence.

The disciplines of the liberal arts educate the intellect, the imagination, and the faculty of belief. Such an education dispenses with the easy cliche of believing in the future. Instead, it empowers its students, in Frost's words, "to believe the future in."

That is what we resolve to do as we come together, on this convocation day: We all - faculty, staff, students, alumni, trustees, and friends - we must all believe the future in for Eckerd College, and in so doing we will transform it as we are transformed by it.

Eckerd's very survival for four decades and more is a remarkable story; and its national reputation as a first-rate academic institution, established in an incredibly short time, is even more remarkable. The College's extraordinarily innovative structures, such as the "all faculty" teaching approach to the core curriculum, the core curriculum itself, Autumn Term, Winter Term, the Academy of Senior Professionals, and the Program for Experienced Learners are, among others, nationally respected and increasingly imitated.

Eckerd College can become, has all the potential to become, one of the leading colleges in America. It may take a generation or two; it will take strong leadership and good management, professional and volunteer; it will take continued hard and imaginative work and dedication by the faculty; and it will take generous, exceedingly generous, philanthropy from our alumni and friends. It will take, I think, focusing and strengthening several key programs, including those that explore matters of the spirit and psyche, building on our special relationship with the Presbyterian Church. In this new century, the truly great institutions of higher education will not be those content to churn out, in today's familiar jargon, "an educated workforce," but those whose task it is to educate the imagination and the spirit.

In this connection, I am reminded of the story of Cornell professor of physics and Nobel prizewinner Robert Wilson, who was testifying before Congress in the late 1960s on the value of a new atomic accelerator for which he and his colleagues were trying to obtain federal funding.

Wilson was asked by Rhode Island Senator John Pastore: "Is there anything connected with the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?"
Professor Wilson replied: "No sir, I do not believe so."
Senator Pastore: "Nothing at all?"
Professor Wilson: "Nothing at all."
Senator Pastore: "It has no value in that respect?"
To which Professor Wilson finally replied: "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets. I mean all the things we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country ... except to make it worth defending."

I have been reading Visions of Eden, a book published in 1997 about planning and the failure of planning in St. Petersburg over the past century. It is a painful story to read, and there aren't a lot of heroes in it, though William Straub, publisher of the St. Petersburg Times in the early decades of the 20th Century, is one.

What I take away from Visions of Eden is that at least since the conquistadors visited Florida in the 16th Century, this place has often attracted folks who were more interested in quick profits or indulgent illusions than in building an enduring and enriching community. We may now be moving toward a more enlightened valuation of Florida's unique assets and its potential to be, in fact, an American Eden. The values of Eckerd College-residential, global, spiritual, environmental, and deeply personal in every dimension of its pedagogy-call out in support of a renewed vision of an American Eden, in Florida in general and in Pinellas County and St. Petersburg in particular.

It has become nearly a cliche to observe that globalization and technology are reshaping what it means to be educated, what it means to be creative, and what it means to have a trained imagination. But as a consequence of the new information technologies, I believe the best undergraduate education will be a fundamentally different kind of experience just a few years from now: Still personal, still face-to-face, but strengthened and transformed by a vast array of cybernetic windows into the intellectual and the actual world, and involved at every turn with a sophisticated understanding of the global perspective.

I also believe that this fundamental reshaping will occur in places such as Eckerd College: Places that work closely with each student, in and out of class, to develop the habit of excellence and to challenge and nurture the individual undergraduate student in mind, body and spirit.

This kind of fundamental reshaping of the undergraduate experience is just not likely to happen where undergraduates are not already the primary focus, where departmental and disciplinary organization exists for the benefit of the faculty rather than for the students, where research dominates the agenda and controls the budget, where most of the students live off-campus, or where the common focus of most alumni and students is how the football team - made up of players they seldom meet - is doing. Eckerd College, however, is a very different sort of place.

Let me return then, to my thesis question: Why all the fuss? Why is it so important that Eckerd College survive and prosper? Why is it, like America, in Robert Wilson's words, "worth defending"?

Because it is one of only a handful of institutions that has shown evidence of being willing and able to develop new and successful approaches to teaching undergraduates to think profoundly and purposefully about the deepest dimensions of human existence, one of a handful of places truly educating its students-not simply for the "workforce"-but for global citizenship and even global leadership.

Such a place is, indeed, as so many of you have so nobly demonstrated, especially during the past year or so, a place where people can come together to ensure first the survival, and then the continued success of an extraordinary institution, a place well worth working for, caring for, sacrificing for. It is a place and a mission worthy of your affection, your support and your sustained commitment.

On a personal note, it is a place worth uprooting one's comfortable life for; worth exposing one's marriage to the substantial perils of packing up and moving for; and worth taking on innumerable new challenges for. I want to thank each of you for the warm and generous hospitality you have extended to my wife, Chris, and to me, both personally and professionally; for your willingness to help educate me into the marvels and mysteries of Eckerd College; and for your guidance, assistance and support as we come together and work together to build, and to live, Eckerd College's unique vision of the life of the mind and the spirit.