President's Welcome: Whitman Convocation for the Class of 2009

George Bridges

August 27, 2005

Good morning. My name is George Bridges, and I am honored to serve as the president of the college.

On behalf of the governing boards, faculty and staff, I extend a warm welcome to you as we launch Whitman’s 124th opening week. Our ceremony celebrates the incoming class of students and the beginning of the academic year. As many of you know, I joined Whitman just this year, moving with my family from Seattle at the end of June. For those of you who are first-year Whitman students, I share in your experience and excitement as a first-year president.

We are all part of the remarkable history of this college. Whitman began as a seminary in 1859 and then was chartered as a liberal arts college in 1882. In the years that have followed, the college has become a nationally recognized institution of undergraduate education, emphasizing the arts, humanities and sciences, and a culture and a curriculum that accord highest priority to demanding, personalized and supportive student learning across the many disciplines that comprise the liberal arts and sciences.

Today’s event, Convocation, is as those of you who recall your Latin may remember a calling together. Today we call together our incoming first-year students, their families and their friends to celebrate the beginning of their college education and the academic year, and to welcome you into membership in our campus community. By calling all of us—students, faculty, families and friends—together in this place we are underscoring a point of cooperation and mutual commitment. You—students and your parents and relatives—are now members of the Whitman community.

As members of this community you should know that we accord a high priority to respect for and affirmation of others. We are a community that does not tolerate ethnic or racial jokes, stereotyping of any sort, or behavior that offends or is mean-spirited. We are also a community that values and reinforces safe behavior. We do not tolerate any form of violence, harassment or sexual misconduct or the abuse of alcohol or drugs. Indeed, we affirm each student’s and each community member’s right to learn, develop and prosper here in a safe, intellectually centered and socially constructive environment.

The colorful gowns we wear on such occasions are visible links to a grand tradition. Coming here, you are not entering into the experiences and traditions of this college only. You are at once entering a continuous stream of accumulated learning that connects us today with the greatest accomplishments of the past—the greatest writing, the greatest music, the greatest art and science, sports and philosophy, and so much more—for all times and all cultures. It is the nature of a liberal arts college to gather and to preserve the most important ideas of humankind—not to present them as sterile exhibits in a museum of lofty thoughts, but rather to make these ideas a solid foundation from which new ideas can spring.

The wonderful thing you students will soon discover is that whereas until now you have looked at this historical flow of ideas from the riverbank, as it were, you will now be immersed in it. Until now you have read about science, art, psychology and so on. Now you will become scientists, artists, psychologists and ever so many other active members of our society. The great thinkers of the past will no longer be people whose ideas you admire from afar. They will be your partners. Their ideas will be the guideposts of your intellectual development.

Above all, Whitman is a place where free and orderly thinking is cultivated, one where every idea is tested in a crucible of analysis and critical reflection. For this reason, above all, it is a place that encourages and affirms reasoned debate, thoughtful examination of theories and arguments, and systematic inquiry into the causes of and the solutions to our world’s most serious problems. It is, therefore, the beginning of a journey to a better, safer, more tolerant and more understanding world.

On behalf of the Trustees, faculty and staff, it gives me great pleasure to welcome and invite you to now join us in this remarkable and exciting journey.

. . . .

Students … colleges and universities are transformative institutions. Our community here will change your lives as it also is changing ours. Each faculty and staff member here acknowledges that our work with you deepens our understanding of ourselves, our mission as educators and our contribution to society.

My teaching and academic career began at a university in Ohio, Case Western Reserve University, a private, selective school in Cleveland. I had the good fortune at that school to teach small classes of 10-12 students, the size of many of Whitman’s classes.

In one such class was a student, Doug, who immediately impressed me as being unusually bright, not unlike you, and yet also unusually insecure about his place at a school where most of the students came from relatively wealthy Ohio families. There were many moments when he just wanted to quit school altogether, feeling completely out of place. He was the first from his extended family to attend college. His father and many of his family members were road workers for the city of Cleveland. They repaired and replaced the aging streets of the city so often in need of work, given the brutally cold and long winters. In fact, Doug worked with his family on and off over his college years as a manual laborer digging ditches and preparing the Cleveland roadbeds for new concrete and asphalt.

Given the size of our classes at Case Western and my own passion for learning with my students, I came to know Doug very well, and as we worked through and discussed theories of society, major social problems facing America, and the plight of many urban places in the United States, I witnessed his astonishing promise – his ability to dissect complex ideas, his passion for deep and critical thought, and, finally, his genuine desire to create a better world.

In the one year I worked at Case Western, I witnessed a turning point in Doug’s life. His curiosity overcame his sense of inadequacy around the other students. And throughout that roller-coaster year filled with moments of doubt and moments of inspiration and hope, I was convinced at some moments that Doug would return to the economic and emotional stability of road work. At other moments I was convinced he would pursue his newly found passion of discovering and developing new knowledge. Throughout the year our conversations were constantly interrupted with questions – one of Doug’s favorite questions of me was “What good is an undergraduate degree in sociology?”

The next year I moved back to my home in Seattle and the University of Washington, and we communicated periodically for the next year. Shortly thereafter I lost touch and wondered often about Doug and the life course he had chosen. Questions loomed. Had our work together made any difference in his life? Had my departure from Case Western Reserve diminished Doug’s chance for seeing his way through the many difficult questions he asked?

A little more than 10 years later, I received in the mail this letter. The letter is the abstract of Doug’s Ph.D. dissertation. Colleagues and friends, this letter and abstract truly is among my most prized possessions. Doug Clay is now Dr. Douglas A. Clay, a research scientist and policy analyst in a private consulting firm in Ohio.

I take very little credit in sowing the seeds of inspiration that resulted in a new life for Doug. Ultimately, a community just like the community here at Whitman guided him through important decisions he made for his own life. But our experiences remind us, as a community, that we are dedicated not only to rigorous academic learning but also to a broader set of ideals:

  • to shaping the future of our students and our society;
  • to imparting opportunity; and
  • to celebrating the prosperity of diversity in our country.

We are a community shaping the future.

Whitman is a community of nearly 2,000 – students, faculty and staff – focused on possibilities. As one of our country’s top liberal arts colleges, obviously, we are constantly looking to the future of knowledge and creativity – in society, science and the humanities and the arts. We seek to discover what is not yet known and what humankind has not yet created.

Within each successive generation of students that we educate, we seek to develop new levels of knowledge, new abilities and new values about responsibilities to the larger society. Whitman graduates are the future leaders of our society and, as their educators, we take seriously the roles they will play in the future of our world.

We are also a community that imparts opportunity.

In our country, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has become increasingly large. Higher education is the last great equalizer between those who have resources and those who do not. Obtaining a college degree can result in not only higher lifetime earnings but, more importantly, in the quality of one’s life and in the contributions one makes to the larger society.

Each year Whitman graduates many students who, like Doug, had they not received a college degree, would be much less likely to prosper, to compete effectively, and to improve the lives of others in our society. We are particularly proud of our students who are the first in their families to attend college. We are proud not only of the accomplishments they bring to our campus but also of the obstacles they overcame in getting here. They are courageous, they hold great promise as our next generation of leaders, and they will help level the uneven cultural, social and economic playing fields in our society.

Finally, we are a community dedicated to celebrating the prosperity of diversity.

With students representing 44 states and 30 countries, we affirm differences in culture, backgrounds and life experiences. These differences are profoundly important to our learning.

William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland education system writes:

A diverse environment fosters a plurality of perspectives. It creates the possibility of discourse and learning by talented people of various cultures, backgrounds and experiences. It creates an opportunity for students to come together, challenge each other’s ideas, learn new perspectives, and grow as individuals. It holds out hope the next generation of leaders will understand that our differences are our strength, that our diversity can be the essence of our excellence.

Over the course of this year, our students, faculty and staff will gather to celebrate and affirm our commitment to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of individuals who comprise our community. I urge all of you first-year students to join these activities and celebrations.

Finally, we acknowledge that the experiences undergraduates have here at Whitman shape the course of all of our lives and our futures. And we acknowledge the remarkable opportunities that the current generation of students has – educational opportunities that many of us never had.

Our hope for those of you entering the college is that you will seize this unique opportunity – to learn and develop in a manner that betters not only you and your classmates but that also, ultimately, betters our society. We hope in the near future that you will help make our society and our world more just, and enable others far less fortunate to experience the same levels and kinds of success that all of us enjoy.

It is, therefore, with great pleasure that on this 27th day of August, 2005, I declare Whitman College officially open for Whitman’s 124th academic year. Please join me, my family and our faculty and staff colleagues for a lunch sponsored by the college and celebrating the beginning of the academic year – everyone is invited.

Good morning!

*I would like to acknowledge the contributions made to this address by Professor Ron Moore, Department of Philosophy, University of Washington. With his permission, I adopted some of my introductory remarks from the annual convocation address he has delivered at the University of Washington.