Commencement Address: May 21, 2010
On behalf of the Trustees, faculty, and staff of Sarah Lawrence College, I am delighted to welcome you to the Commencement of the class of 2010. Your invitation to graduation and your program note that we are celebrating our 81st Commencement. A week ago we became aware, through some excellent sleuthing on the part of one of our staff members, that this is actually our 82nd—and that we inadvertently suspended counting for one year in the 1970's. You may attribute this error to the fact that the College has never required mathematics—or that now, in our 80's, we have caught ourselves lying about our age!
So welcome to our 82nd annual commencement exercises.
As we celebrate our graduates today, we also honor those who made it possible for them to be here—their families, whose love and commitment supported them, including those who are no longer here to mark this milestone. To the parents in the audience I want to say thank you for lending us your daughters and sons for these past few years. Members of the Class of 2010, would you please stand and recognize the family members and friends who have made this moment possible?
The class's rousing response to their parents now recapitulates an every bit as rousing response to their teachers and dons during the procession, which makes clear that our graduates recognize that the heart and soul of the Sarah Lawrence experience is the relationship between each student and his or her faculty mentors. At any institution, the quality of the faculty in large part determines the quality of the education. But the artisanal nature of both teaching and learning at Sarah Lawrence makes the student-faculty relationship particularly formative. Handmade and crafted by teacher and student together, the singular education this College offers depends on faculty who understand that people learn in different ways and tempos and that there is no one path to an educated person. This understanding translates into an extraordinary commitment—of time and care. You should also know that the faculty has labored under particularly trying circumstances these past two years. I would like to thank them publicly for remaining the most committed teachers within the landscape of American higher education.
I would also like to make special note of the presence today of Al Green, our beloved Dean of Studies and Student Life, who recently suffered a very serious injury to his ankle. We waited with baited breath to see if his doctor would allow him to play his traditional role today at graduation, the reading of the names of those graduating. Al, we are so pleased that you are here! Lastly, I would like to recognize someone who graduated from Sarah Lawrence years ago, spent his entire professional career here, and is now retiring and moving to New Zealand. Micheal Rengers has directly or indirectly been responsible for so much at the College, including this event today—Micheal, best wishes in your new life in New Zealand.
As we celebrate this 82nd spring Commencement, it is worth pointing out that Sarah Lawrence College itself was the idea of a man who had already passed his 80th birthday, William Van Duzer Lawrence. In consultation with his friend and advisor, Henry MacCracken, who was the President of Vassar College, he decided to found a two-year college for women, in honor of his wife, Sarah. The Lawrence endowment to the college primarily consisted of Westlands, which is directly behind me, and the surrounding 12 acres. From 1924 to 1926, Mr. Lawrence jotted down ideas for the College in his notebook. He was still planning with enthusiasm in April of 1927, when he wrote his final entry, before death prevented him from witnessing the realization of his vision: "Have ready to start operations," he wrote, and gave a list of what it would take: "a working foreman," followed by "3 helpers, 2 horses, 2 carts * harness, tools of all kinds." Under "Operation," his "to do" list read: "Clear foundation sites; haul stone & sand; carry water & sewer lines; Make new Roads."
In a memoir archived in our library, William's son, Dudley, said of his father: "There is pathos in this last entry, but it also compels admiration for the indomitable spirit of a man in his eighty-sixth year which could override every obstacle and carry on to the very day of his death." The entry gives new meaning to the idea of a college founder and foundation; it provides an almost-Thoreauvian picture of the very practical, physical building necessary to substantiate the College's ideals. Dudley noted: "By the time the plans were completed and contracts let, there was little more than a year left in which to build a college campus complete with dormitories, steam plant, classrooms, kitchens and dining rooms, not to mention the grounds, roadways, utilities, furniture and equipment. . . . In retrospect it does not seem possible that all this could be accomplished and I feel sure it constitutes a speed record in the creation of American colleges,"
What I find moving in Dudley Lawrence's memoirs is the description of William Van Duzer's bold, even stubborn determination to create something in a space where it had never existed before. Under very improbable circumstances, "a new institution without alumnae, tradition or scholastic reputation" opened its doors in September, 1928, with a "full complement of students and a faculty of distinction eager to serve." Two-hundred and ten students had been admitted.
For all of his initiative, William Van Duzer Lawrence was a man of his time and class: He believed that the Sarah Lawrence education should be only for young women with the financial means to pay tuition--hence an endowment was not an issue. He began with very traditional notions of what constituted a woman's education and "the woman's sphere." The idea of progressive education as a lever for social change came from Henry MacCracken, who was eager to implement John Dewey's progressive ideals and realized the political impossibilities of doing so at his own institution. Lawrence's urgency of purpose, combined with MacCracken's vision for the future, produced a radically different college in which women would take control of their own educations. This improbable combination of inventiveness (in the absence of dining halls, during the first week students and faculty were bused to the Hotel Gramatan for food) and vision—provided a foundation for the future of Sarah Lawrence.
The entrepreneurial spirit did not end with the passing of William Lawrence and Henry MacCracken. The practical harnessing of purpose in the service of an idea is part of the fundamental ethos of a Sarah Lawrence education, not just an accident of its history. We witness the benefits of this self-starting attitude in countless student initiatives, whether in the totally student-created and run theater company, the Melancholy Players, or Genesis (a student-produced exhibition and catalogue), or the Yearbook. It was visible in the way the crew team came into existence at Sarah Lawrence when a group of students, returning from our Oxford program abroad, took the initiative to start a team at home (and were aided by our devoted Athletic Director, Mary LeVine, who is retiring after 25 years of service). It is visible in every faculty show that the remarkable Shirley Kaplan and the faculty put together in the week preceding graduation, as a gift of love to our graduating seniors. It is visible all over the campus in the various projects that comprise Micheal Rengers' legacy. And it was evident in the way Sarah Lawrence College went from a two to a four-year institution in 1931. The students themselves pressured President Warren to seek a new four-year charter for the school rather than renew the original two-year charter, since they wanted to continue their studies. In other words, the philosophy that encouraged students to take responsibility for their educations produced students lobbying to modify the education.
This ethos is fundamental to our belief in work that focuses on questions that matter to students rather than assignments made up just to test them. This learning and doing—for a purpose—is a quality that I know you, our graduates, will take with you into the world beyond Westlands gates. And although we are renowned for the way we develop the individual, all these examples involve individuals working together to make something happen.
The tactical creativity of the Lawrence-MacCracken partnership created a blueprint for the future; it did not, however, fully engage the issue of sustainability. The consequences that flow from our origins as a college physically, but not financially, well-endowed, continue to affect us. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of the twenty-first century is to balance short-term need and long-term health. Many of our students have reminded us that one of our long-term challenges is to sustain the environment as we struggle to maintain the physical campus bequeathed to us by the Lawrence's, beautiful old buildings that are, to quote Goldilocks—always either too hot or too cold.
Over the past three years, in some form or another—by survey, open mike, or committee--many of you graduating today participated in a strategic planning process that will finally be completed (thank God!) next fall. Along with faculty, staff, alumnae/i and trustees, you identified what works for you and what doesn't, those fundamental things you love about Sarah Lawrence and those you hoped for but did not find. Thirteen students, including some seniors, who served as interns in the first comprehensive inventory of our space and its utilization, were not shy in offering advice about how best to house our work--and play--on campus. Focusing outward as well as internally, the college has done an "environmental scan" to make sure that while keeping true to our roots, we adjust to the economic, demographic, and technological changes occurring in the world today.
Our strategic goal must be to roll up our sleeves and marshal our entrepreneurial talents to get through the short-term challenges while enhancing our long-term sustainability. In short, we want to ensure that, should your children desire to come to Sadie Lou, they will find it thriving and committed to the same core values, because it had the economic might to hold the course-and that they will not need to spend their first year in triples!!
But that is getting way ahead of the game. You have worked and played very hard in the past few weeks and it is time now for you to savor this moment.
So let me close by fulfilling a Sarah Lawrence tradition: offering a charge to the graduating class—354 undergraduates and 144 masters students, our largest in history:
Mobilize the passion for learning that we have nurtured in you at Sarah Lawrence in the service of multiple purposes:
- Create a rich inner life for yourself, so that adventure can come from within as well as from without
- Open yourselves to others, be unafraid to take emotional as well as intellectual risks
- "Make new things in empty spaces," a description that applied not only to McCracken and Lawrence in 1928, but one that I repeatedly hear from Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i across the country
- Stand up for your values even when going with prevailing wisdom would be much easier
- Make a difference in the lives of others—through your words, your deeds, your teaching, your creations—as our commencement speaker, a 1989 graduate of our college, has done in her career
We wish you the best as you continue the serious creative work in the world that you have begun at Sarah Lawrence College.