It has become tradition in the United States for college presidents to wear the robes of the university where they completed their highest degree. Hence, I have typically worn purple robes for Northwestern University, where I received my doctorate. Today, I am standing in front of you in Denison red robes. To be honest, I am excited. I love my new Denison robes because I love this college.
I have been fortunate to be part of some great academic institutions, but I never expected to be so proud or to care so much about a place as I do for Denison. I am honored to be a Denisonian. Today, I want to use my new Denison robes to talk about why I have fallen so deeply in love with Denison. I do that as a way to celebrate this great college, our amazing graduating seniors, and perhaps make a few comments about where the liberal arts and higher education need to go.
First, I admire our enduring commitment to the liberal arts. There are many definitions of the liberal arts. I tend to use the historian William Cronon, who describes the liberal arts as an education that helps one learn to connect ideas and people, because people educated in the liberal arts can communicate, listen and hear; solve problems through rigor and reason; practice respect, tolerance, and humility; and commit to working with others to get things done. Many others, from the philosopher Martha Nusbaum to Denison’s own William Bowen, have offered similar definitions.
Over the last few years, we have moved from a world where every person deserves a liberal arts education, to a world where we need every person to have a liberal arts education. This holds true across every facet of our life.
This generation of students will graduate into a world of complex challenges and opportunities, what political scientists and others often call wicked problems. These kinds of problems, from the threat of global pandemics to deeply entrenched ethnic conflicts, are hard to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and/or changing information and requirements. These are problems that are so big and complex that they have a multiplicity of causes. Traditional ways of addressing them won’t work. Even defining the problem becomes daunting. Addressing wicked problems will require a new generation of citizens, professionals, and political leaders who can work across difference, think beyond existing categories, connect disparate ideas into new ways of thinking, understand complexity, and draw upon a deep sense of ethics to work with others to get things done.
Despite what we read and hear too often, the same is true in the world of work. Recently, I finished two reports on the changing nature of work. One was by the Council on Foreign Relations and the other by Deloitte Insights. I have read dozens of these studies over the last few years.
If you read across these reports, they are basically an endorsement of the liberal arts. What is puzzling to me is that so many people read them as an endorsement of very narrow pre-professional training. I suspect too many people quote reports they have not actually read. Reading, understanding, and learning are liberal arts attributes.
The reports make a few points. Clearly, the nature of work is changing. One driver is automation and the coming AI revolution. As this occurs, there will be a huge demand for people who are trained narrowly to work on and with technology. But these are likely to be middle-level jobs or lower that are neither very interesting nor have much room for advancement. The best jobs will go to those professionals who know how to apply the technology to opportunities. Those jobs will go to the professionals who can use technology to solve problems, connect with clients, manage diverse teams, and so forth. The work world we are entering is one where the people with liberal arts attributes, both skills and values, will be those driving organizations across every sector.
Another point made by these reports is the need for lifelong learning. Professionals will have to continuously adapt to changing technology, and they are likely to have to switch careers often. Those trained in the liberal arts are educated to embrace, adapt, and thrive in a world marked by change and complexity. This kind of education instills within our students a passion for lifelong learning.
The point almost always missed is probably the most important. We are in a disruptive phase of history that is going to get more disruptive. The outcomes will either be good or bad, based on how we respond. In the recent edition of Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead states, “humanity may soon be able to provide for its material needs without conscripting millions of people into lives of repetitive toil.” But for this to happen, he writes, “Everything from zoning laws to rules about employer benefits will need to be reviewed.” In other words, the impact of the dislocation (the good or bad impacts) will come from the public policy we craft in response. We are going to desperately need a new generation of policy people who can connect disparate ideas, work across politically polarized populations, and so forth.
My point is simple — Denison’s commitment to the liberal arts is the right one. We are preparing our students to succeed and lead in the world that is going to need people like them. We are fulfilling our mission to educate and inspire students to be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens. Our mission is about our students. We want them to be the architects of their own lives. And our mission is about the world — preparing students to live lives in ways that make the world a better place.
The second reason I love Denison is our faculty. Let’s all stand and thank the faculty for the work they do to educate our students. This is the most talented, engaged, and committed faculty in higher education. This is a faculty of world-class scholars, educators, and mentors who define what it means to be “all in.” It’s not just that our classes are small, or that our faculty know our students by name. This faculty cares deeply about education, and they understand the importance of mentorship as a defining feature of a liberal arts education.
Recently, a graduating senior wrote to me (slightly paraphrased and shortened) about our faculty:
“In my major, I was able to meet beyond-amazing professors. They welcomed me into the department with open arms. Because of them, I had role models that I looked up to … Denison provided me with people who listened to me, who truly care about their students and their future. I can honestly say that they are people that I will forever keep in touch with because they have made such a monumental impact on my academic and personal life.”
Liberal arts colleges depend upon faculty who are devoted to the college. In addition to educating students, faculty serve as long-term stakeholders. They care about and stay focused on our mission. They devote their time to recruiting and mentoring world-class junior faculty; they work closely with administrative leaders; they chair departments and governance committees while championing new initiatives. In other words, they help the college operate every day, across decades, in ways that help us to make wise decisions in support of our mission.
The faculty form the core of a great college, and our faculty work tirelessly every day to make sure that we get education right. I heard that over and over again last night under the tent: gratitude for our faculty from you, our soon-to-be graduates, and your families.
I want to mention one more reason why I admire and respect this faculty. They care enough about the liberal arts to be continuously thinking about where the liberal arts needs to go.
There is the obvious — over the last few years, this faculty has developed new academic programs. This faculty has stepped up to create Advising Circles for first-year students, a new writing program, and a range of really cool (that’s the technical term) Denison Seminars. Then there are less obvious changes that matter just as much. If you look at the minutes from the monthly faculty meetings, you see a list of new courses, refined courses, and academic programs that are being adapted. This faculty cares. This faculty is talented. This faculty has created, and continues to create every day, a fantastic liberal arts curriculum.
Along these lines, I want to mention my respect for our staff. By this, I mean all of our staff, from student development professionals to staff in IA, Admission, Athletics, Investments, the Provost Office, and all the staff who work across facilities, dining, and every other area of campus. As our students can tell you, not only are they great at what they do, they care about, connect with, and support our students. Relationships define Denison, and every staff member at Denison embraces and enhances that great quality of Denison. It’s something that both defines us and sets us apart.
And finally, our students. We have the best students in the country. Our students are smart, interesting, curious, and engaged. They are also empathetic, nice to be around, open minded, and ethical.
Our students work hard in the classroom and labs and perform at an exceptionally high level on athletics fields, in artists’ studios and on stages. Our students are involved. Being involved is a Denison thing. Our students are RAs, June-O or Aug-O leaders. They run 150+ student organizations. They get heavily involved in community service and political issues.
And our students learn from one another. Denisonians are not monolithic. We are diverse in almost every conceivable way. This makes living together both fun and hard. It also makes it incredibly important. We have daily moments, large and small, when we learn, share, and have fun. And we also have moments when differences lead to mistakes, conflicts, and misunderstandings. All of this is important. I have huge admiration for the ways our students, this generation of Denisonians, embraces it all with grace, humility, humor, intelligence, and curiosity.
The great Denison class of 2018 has embodied these attributes well. It has been an honor to have you on this campus. You are a class of great Denisonians.
So I thank you and I will miss you. And I am going to take one deep breadth and try not to get emotional.
Here is my charge to you, the Denison Class of 2018.
First, take the education you have received here and live our mission. Be autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens. What I ask is that each of you develop your own views and voice based on your liberal arts training, and that you use your voices and views to positively impact the world around you. I also ask that you realize the importance of differences of opinion, and that you read widely, and that you learn to work across differences to find new ways of being, living, and thinking.
To do this, you must be lifelong learners. Read often and widely. Join book clubs. Be patrons of the arts. Attend public lectures. Set a tone within your communities that learning is important and part of developing fulfilling personal, professional, and civic lives.
Second, embrace and sustain the relationships that have formed here. Many of you will remain lifelong friends. You also will be pleasantly surprised when some of you become lifelong friends with fellow Denisonians who were not your close friends during your time on the hill. You are graduating into an alumni community of 40,000 Denisonians. Denison and Denisonians will provide relationships that contribute to your life.
Finally, stay connected and committed to this college. Come back for your reunions. When you meet interesting high-school students, suggest they look at Denison for college. Put a Denison coffee mug on your desk at work, a bumper sticker on your car, and a Denison pennant on your refrigerator at home. You are great people and we want the world to know that you are Denisonians. Identify yourself so other members of our extended family can do the same.
One of you wrote to me a few weeks ago, “I am grateful for each and every experience I have had on this campus because it has molded me into the person I am today. I have been able to complete my goals and make lifelong memories while doing it.”
This is a great college. You are a great Denisonians. I am proud to be your president. I am proud to be president of a college that has students like you. I look forward to following your life’s journey. That is why I stand in front of you in Denison red robes.
Congratulations, Denison Class of 2018.