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Induction Ceremony, Catherine Dollard '88

Department of History, Chair of the Faculty

On behalf of the faculty, I am honored to welcome the Class of 2017 to Denison. We welcome you to your alma mater. At the end of today’s ceremony, we will sing together that alma mater. Our school song is just over a century old. The song is a bit grandiose, very much sentimental. One can well describe it as hokey (even cheesy). But it’s a dear old song in its way; maybe it’s the historian in me, but I’m rather fond of it. It’s written in the language of an age that has passed. It pays tribute in lofty terms that are no longer fashionable, referring to our “fair college on the hill” as a place that “makes our senses thrill.” I’d like to use the ideals of the alma mater to reflect on the occasion that brings us here today.

This is a special place. Our alma mater gets that right. Certainly there are other fine places like it. Denison University is part of a family of residential liberal arts colleges, each one of which is an experiment in the best distillation of higher education. In such experimentation, there are occasional trial runs — some programs fall out of vogue, some forms of student development or instruction reign for a period, then fade away. But Denison and the set of colleges like it are wonderful laboratories focused on getting higher education right, or as close to right as it can be. It’s exciting to work at such a place; I think you will find it is quite exciting to be a student here.

So, yes, there are a number of colleges like Denison (though the number is not large — and in the wide range of higher education options, actually very few). Nonetheless, there is a key difference between Denison and other colleges like it: You have matriculated to this fair college on the hill. You engaged in a college search — for many of you, and your parents, a painstaking and arduous search; for others, perhaps more spontaneous and random — but whatever the path, you have arrived at this place, a place which the song promises will make your senses thrill.

The subject of “place” is one into which academics have delved deeply for centuries; no doubt many of you will have the opportunity to discuss it in class — be it philosophy, studio art, environmental studies, or geosciences. (Just a marker of the interdisciplinary richness that awaits you). For today, I’ll set forth a view set forth by political geographer John Agnew. Place is twofold: a geometric location (i.e., latitude and longitude), and second, a “distinctive coming together in space.” This hill, this moment, is a distinctive coming together in space. It has offered that for generations, indeed, since 1831.

This fair college has been home to tens of thousands of students. They shared the hopes of new beginnings, the challenges of rigorous classes, years of learning and maturing and gearing up for the bittersweet inevitability of departure. And they shared this place. It is beautiful here in all seasons. Even on its gray days, this ridge looks to the north upon our terrific athletic facilities and the Welsh Hills, and toward the elegant arts quad and the village to the south. But it is the people, those of the past and those here today, who make this site a “distinctive coming together in space.”

And that happens through relationships. To the parents in the audience, I’d like to take this moment to thank you on behalf of the faculty for providing us the opportunity to teach your children. It’s a privilege not taken lightly; you can be assured that your children will be engaged, challenged, and known. To our students, expect your classrooms to be rich with opportunities to articulate ideas and explore the human condition. We will learn with you, engaging in open discussion and working together on research and creative projects. We will recognize you as an individual with a unique lens upon the world, even as we ask you to collaborate and form a vital community of learners. We will form this community with you — as advisors to your student groups, in discussions with guest speakers, as audience members at your performances and athletic events, and in our galleries, as fellow denizens of this fair college.

Yet the most essential element of this community is what you bring to it. In order for this place to be its best, you need to do two things. Respect your talents. Respect your opportunities. The alma mater speaks of a “home we love so well.” There is much to love here. But as anyone in a family or a partnership or a friendship knows, to love well, one must work at it. Respect your talents by doing the work. Complete the problem sets, put in the hours in the studio or the lab, finish the reading. And then spend some quality time thinking and talking about all of it. Only through that good work can you ask useful questions, learn more, prepare better for life after college. You will sharpen your known talents and uncover new ones.

Second, respect your opportunities. Try not to seek sanctuary in the familiar. Engage with people you think you might not agree with. Give the unexpected student organization a try. Take on challenging ideas. Experiment with different foods, new dances — allow these four years to make your senses thrill. Your faculty will join you for the ride.

I’ll close by paraphrasing author P.F. Kluge, who has written on student life at a liberal arts college. You don’t own this place more than anyone else. But, equally so, you own this place as much as anybody. Make this place your home to love well.   

Welcome to Denison.