A guest column by Albion College President Mauri Ditzler
In many ways, this afternoon is like so many others since I arrived on campus in late June. From my window I can see the spire of the steeple over Goodrich Chapel and the dome of the historic observatory. The wonderful mix of conifers and deciduous trees gives the campus a tranquil feel, even as the whistle from the passing Amtrak train reminds me that we are connected to a fast-paced world with ever so many problems. But, when I walk to my window and look onto the lawns and sidewalks of the campus I am reminded that after today things will change; instead of watching Albion get ready to work its magic we will soon see Albion at work.
The week leading up to the start of classes is, I think, the most exciting of the year. I have enjoyed the start-up of every academic year since 1971. My part in the process has changed over time, but regardless of the role, there is always a special sense of optimism.
Faculty return to campus, recharged intellectually and emotionally. They can’t wait to tell colleagues about plans for the semester ahead. They have discovered the perfect text, prepared laboratory exercises that will fascinate students, outlined great classroom debates, and devised clever questions that will stimulate thought provoking discussions. The memories of late-night sessions grading final exams and research papers have faded and are replaced with a recollection that they chose the teaching profession because it is the best way to build a better world.
Move-in day for new students provides a wonderful mixture of confidence and insecurity. Anticipation of a new phase in life is accompanied by joy and nostalgia. First-year students bounce between congratulating themselves for making the perfect selection to wondering whether Albion can make their dreams come true. Returning students are surprised at how happy they are to be back at the place that provides so many challenges. All-night study sessions are a distant memory; the resolve to stay on—or even ahead—of schedule is firm.
Staff and administrators wonder what happened to July and August, and why the summer projects have taken so much longer than planned. At the same time, they are so glad to see students back on campus and be reminded that their temporary focus on sidewalks, schedules, budgets, and buildings is toward the greater goal of supporting education.
This year, my 43rd at a liberal arts college, seems special. I might even describe it as momentous. Collectively, we face so many challenges. Our government is caught in gridlock. Thoughtful scientists warn that energy consumption and food production are not on a sustainable path. Our town and our region must reinvent an economic engine. Recent events around our country remind us that race and class-based tensions are not fully resolved. Age-old global conflicts seem even more problematic than before.
Despite the magnitude of the challenges we face daily, I remain confident knowing that our region, our country and our civilization can turn to graduates of residential liberal arts colleges like Albion. Our methods are counterintuitive. What we provide seems, on first consideration, to be a luxury that should be enjoyed only in times of economic and cultural boom. All of us who have been privileged to study at a liberal arts college know how tempting it is to fall back on memorization and textbook solutions when the assignments border on overwhelming. But we have learned, often in ways we would like to forget, that the toughest assignments call for thinking rather than memorization, integrating knowledge rather than specializing, listening thoughtfully when we want to argue forcefully, and blending timeless wisdom with current innovations. Or, in other words, the bigger the challenge, the greater the need for the liberal arts approach.
In the six months since I accepted this special assignment I have heard much about our alumnae/i. In recent weeks, I have met many of them face-to-face. Albion’s graduates are as loyal as they are successful. I am struck by how fully they understand the link between their personal and professional accomplishments and the nature of their Albion experience. Graduates of every college are loyal, but I have quickly discovered that our graduates are unusually fond of their alma mater. Their message to me has come through loud and clear: “don’t lose faith in the remarkable efficacy of the liberal arts.”
As pleased as I am with what I am hearing from our graduates, I am even more excited by the message from our faculty members. After all, a college is its faculty. Everything else is designed to enable and then reinforce the student-faculty interaction. It is clear that Albion has a strong faculty. What I have discovered, to my delight, is that our faculty members are committed to the principles that have worked so well for Albion over the decades. They are not afraid of innovation, but that innovation is in service of a student-centered education that has served and promoted the ideals of our democratic society.
This past Wednesday I enjoyed my first version of the annual faculty forum that helps keep our faculty intellectually engaged. Six experienced faculty members described ways they integrated the life of our host community into their courses and their scholarly work. I was delighted by what I heard. As I get to know our town, I am increasingly convinced that Albion is America. The history and citizens of Albion are tied to the last two centuries of America’s evolution. Our host community has shared the past glories and problems of our country. The same is and will be true in coming years and decades. We are lucky to be in Albion where our work as responsible citizens will demonstrate to the world that liberal arts colleges provide the expertise to build healthy, vibrant and sustainable communities. It is a pleasure to discover daily the deep commitment of our faculty and alumni to this special task. Likewise, every day I meet remarkable members of our host community who are ready to partner with the college in building a community that will be a model for America in the 21st Century.
Every day at Albion has provided additional reasons for me to smile. Then, came Friday and Saturday, and there were 1400 new reasons to smile. On Friday new students and their parents filled Goodrich Chapel for the Matriculation Ceremony. The potential in that room was breathtaking. Faculty members ready to teach met students ready to learn. Put that combination into a residential liberal arts college, and good things start happening. How can one help but be excited? On that single day there were nearly 400 reasons to be bullish on Albion and to be confident in the future.
Then, if the events of Friday weren’t enough, Saturday provided the opportunity to meet our returning students. Confidence gained from experience was mixed with the realization, for some, that their time at Albion is finite and winding down. It will soon be time to apply their Albion wisdom to challenges that will only succumb to a liberal arts education. Enthusiasm and idealism balanced by a sense of great responsibility fill the air.
Some argue that the era of the residential liberal arts college has passed. That will be true if we at Albion lose faith. On the other hand, if we believe in the timeless techniques that have served our graduates and our society well, and if we are confident in our ability to innovate and adapt to the challenges that regularly arise, then the future of our college, our sector and our society is positive. It is impossible to be anything other than optimistic from where I sit.
Mauri Ditzler, Albion College, August 24th, 2014
Photo credit: Hannah Litvan