There are two different speeches that open the academic year at Colgate University.
(There are, of course, many thousands of other things that happen to launch the new academic year — from move-in truck schedules, to orientation seminars, to group activities. But, because I am speaking from my perspective, it’s about those two speeches.)
The first speech is on move-in day itself, the Sunday that begins with streams of SUVs descending on the campus, filled with so many things that have to go from vehicle to small room, and ends with parents departed and students, somehow, arrayed in several hundred rooms crowded with things and emotions. This speech happens mid-afternoon of that loud and busy day. This speech happens under a large tent set up by Taylor Lake.
You have one job in this speech, and that is to make everyone know that Colgate is a good and caring place, and that (despite every emotion both parents and students feel) all will be fine, and that soon the campus will feel like home to these students. The tone you adopt is both parental and forgiving. You want to honor the emotions everyone is feeling and give permission to those in attendance to feel those emotions strongly and honestly. This is the speech that makes parents cry. They want to cry, and you give them permission. It’s a big day, and it’s my job to point that out.
It’s the second speech, though, that feels somehow more important, and more difficult to land well. This is the speech given three days later, at night, in Colgate Memorial Chapel, up on the hill. This is the convocation speech, and it is given in full academic robes.
This ceremony … is, in many ways, the moment these young people become Colgate students.President Brian W. Casey
Colgate has maintained the tradition of a formal convocation ceremony for decades now. This is the ceremony in which students, packed in the chapel, see the faculty for the first time. Deans in regalia wish the students well and a faculty member formally gives an address that welcomes them to life in the academy. This ceremony happens the night before classes begin, and it is, in many ways, the moment these young people become Colgate students.
The event is unusual, and self-consciously so. The performance of the ritual is a signal that things are different tonight and this is a different place than the place you were before. Bagpipes are playing outside. The University marshall has been leading me around all evening holding a huge mace (another old tradition), and the students are dressed up. It is dark out, and the lights inside the chapel reflect off the windows.
At some point in the ceremony — between the dean of the college’s welcome and the dean of the faculty’s remarks — I speak. When you get to the podium, and you look out at the packed pews, you are immediately struck by how young these students are, how very new they are to you and to each other. It’s important to pause just a bit before speaking. You want, very subtly, to indicate that this is a moment, a change. It’s the beginning of the year for me too. I’m thinking too, and, yes, this is a ritual.
At convocation this year, I included a passage from a 9th-century Celtic-Irish poem, opening with these four lines:
Bitter is the wind to-night,
It tosses the ocean’s white hair:
Tonight I fear not the fierce warriors of Norway
Coursing on the Irish Sea.
I had encountered that poem in college, and it had stuck with me. I was in a class in which it was read to us, and I remember being moved by its strength and beauty. It is vivid, quick, and powerful. At the time, I had recently decided not to enter the College of Business at my university, and I found myself in the College of Arts and Letters, and in classes where these things are studied. Sometimes I worried I was not in the right part of the college, that I had made a terrible mistake pursuing this course of study. The poem, though, stayed with me. And now I was reading it, again.
In the chapel that night, I wanted — more than anything else — to remind these students, sitting there nervously, that among the many things I hoped for them in college, I wanted them to be open to the possibility that their education would present them — offer to them, really — beauty. I wanted to say that this, too, is important and necessary.
On that night, as I was reading these lines, parts of Hawaii were on fire. The Supreme Court had just issued a ruling that was about to change college admissions forever. A potentially bitter presidential campaign was heating up. The war in Ukraine was entering a bloody new phase. The China economy was wobbling with a real estate bubble apparently about to collapse.
Yet, four lines from an Irish poem of the 9th century.
I speak often, in many venues, about the liberal arts. I also speak about the power of the humanities. Often these speeches feel apologetic, defensive. Humanities enrollments are declining across the country. Some universities are cutting whole humanities departments. In a world where students pay so much for college, and in which they want to launch their careers well, these defensive moments feel weak.
Yet for a few moments, during a speech in a crowded chapel, I had the opportunity not to defend the liberal arts, but to practice them — to invite several hundred students to hear a poem, to stop their fretting, to think about beauty, and to become, for just a moment, students of the arts and people who can be moved by the ancient and the sublime. Beneath the tents on the campus set up for opening days, besides the lines at the bookstore, past the calls to parents complaining about new roommates, is the mission of this place. And it is my job to remind the students, and myself, of that mission.
That mission includes beauty, and the wholeness of a person, and conveying timeless human emotions. Few people speak about this anymore.
That speech — my first time with a new Colgate class — is one of the most important moments of the year. And perhaps, just perhaps, some of the students left the chapel that night moved a bit. And, perhaps, while excited and nervous to begin their classes the next day, they left the chapel and went back to their dorms, walking across quadrangles in the evening, fearing not the fierce warriors of Norway.
On Aug. 20, Colgate welcomed the Class of 2027 — one of the most academically accomplished cohorts in Colgate history, with a 12% acceptance rate and a 3.97 average GPA.