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Convocation 2012

Mark D. Gearan
President

Convocation Remarks
August 27, 2012

Thank you Kees and Loren for your thoughtful words and for your important leadership on campus.

We begin the academic year with excitement for the year ahead, buoyed by recent institutional successes, mindful of the global and national challenges that affect us daily – but ambitious to further our mission to the common good and to graduate students who will lead lives of consequence.

On Friday we welcomed one of the most accomplished classes ever admitted to the Colleges. More than 40% enrolled early decision, making HWS their first and only choice. From 31 states and nations across the globe they bring strong academic preparation and credentials combined with leadership roles as editors of their high school newspapers, class officers, community service leaders and student government representatives. More than 200 were captains of a varsity sport and about 100 come from a legacy family – meaning that one of more of their relatives graduated from HWS.

We also welcomed this year a gifted cohort of new faculty members whose depth of expertise is matched only by the great variety of their fields – women’s studies, biology, environmental studies, history, physics, psychology, French, art and mathematics among others.

Like the students they will mentor and teach, our new faculty members were selected from a competitive pool of candidates. We look forward to the momentum and energy they will add to this community. Welcome.

This new energy on our campus follows significant student, faculty and institutional accomplishments from last year –the HWS Debate Team winning the title of national debate champions, students winning a Marshall Fellowship, Fulbright Scholarship, joining Teach for America, City Year and Peace Corps in record numbers, 25% more internships, our faculty engaging our students, traveling with them abroad and advancing their own scholarship in publications, conferences and dialogue. The successful completion of a $200 million capital campaign and a robust campus life with clubs and Hobart and William Smith athletics invigorating this community.

Five years ago at Convocation – I asked the campus to address three issues I felt were critically important to the Colleges: environmental sustainability, how we might build a more inclusive community and third, our responsibility to Geneva and our community engagement.

And for the past five years at Convocation, I have utilized my remarks to discuss and update the community on these three specific initiatives. While we have had a thoughtful strategic plan guiding so much of our work together – I believe these three initiatives are critical to our future. Today, I once again turn to these three priorities and what our efforts to date say about our collective will and the promise of our future.

Let’s start with sustainability. Five years ago when I signed the President’s Climate Commitment, the Colleges became a charter member of a nationwide consortium of colleges and universities committed to sustainability. At that point we had no metrics or benchmarks to assess our environmental impact. No energy efficiency program. Only 2 student eco reps to assist our sustainability programs, no composting, a recycling rate of 14% and only 5% of our electricity from wind.

Today, five years later, we have completed three comprehensive greenhouse gas inventories for the Colleges and publicly report on our emissions levels, we have cut energy consumption by over 10%; we have 40 student eco reps; we now have a composting program that diverts over two tons of compost from the landfill each week – that’s the equivalent of a mid-sized car; we’ve increased our recycling rate 42% in five years – increasing that 14% statistic to 20% each year; and five years later we have gone from 5% of our electricity from wind to 100% from wind power.

And we just learned that Hobart and William Smith has been ranked 40th in the nation for sustainability efforts by Sierra Magazine. In just four years – we jumped 76 spots on this prestigious list. This recognition reflects the grassroots efforts of our students combined with the conviction and leadership of faculty and staff and the engagement of literally everyone on this campus.

Five years ago I convened a group of students, staff and faculty to consider ways to deepen our efforts in making inclusive excellence a core value of the Colleges. We sought to foster a community that goes “beyond tolerance of difference to one that is guided by the principles of equity, social justice, cultural competence and engaged citizenship.”

The group known as the Commission on Inclusive Excellence has worked steadily to situate inclusion, equity, diversity and justice at our core. Since then, our faculty has established a new academic program in Social Justice Studies, admissions outreach has been strengthened and priorities established for offices.

We just learned that in its Campus Climate Index, the national group Campus Pride has recognized Hobart and William Smith as a leader for LGBT-inclusive policies, programs and practices. The Index awarded HWS a perfect score with five out of five stars. I am grateful for the efforts of so many students, faculty and staff across campus who work daily to ensure that we are creating an educational environment that integrates diversity and educational quality.

And finally – five years ago in 2007 I announced the establishment of the Geneva Partnership, an initiative that sought to strengthen our relationship with Geneva while also encouraging our students to be active in community service during their four years here. Since then, our partnership with Geneva has been substantial and I am profoundly grateful to the Geneva community for hosting our students and serving as role models of civic engagement.

Since this commitment, we have been named in the President’s Higher Educational Community Service Honor Roll and singled out with Distinction – one of only 8 colleges in New York State to be named. We have received the Carnegie classification for civic engagement and earlier this year we were named the Business of the Year by the Geneva Chamber of Commerce.

We have pledged a multi-year financial commitment to ease the City’s fiscal stress and this summer we relocated our Office of Advancement to Seneca Street downtown – in what is being called the single largest influx of employees into downtown Geneva in recent history; an effort to boost the economic development of the City.

As our partnership evolves we will launch a substantial effort this fall with the Geneva City School District – called Geneva 2020 – to harness the resources of the Colleges and the entire community to advance the schools’ goals of increased graduate rates, career and college readiness programs and literacy.

So what do these updates mean? Does it mean that we are done and finished? Of course not. We are far too ambitious in our drive for excellence and far too committed to these values.

While we are proud of our sustainability efforts, we know that more work remains to achieve our goal of a carbon neutral campus by 2025.

While we see progress in the work of our Inclusive Excellence Commission, we know more work remains for us to fully embody the inclusive community that we aspire to be.

And while we are pleased with our Geneva Partnership to date, we embrace our responsibility to Geneva and the opportunities for the Geneva 2020 initiative.

But what all of this does say – is that with focus and determination and the hard work of students, faculty, staff and our Board of Trustees working together, we can advance the Colleges in notable ways.

That is why I am challenging myself and the entire Hobart and William Smith community to ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO.

ASK what you can do to increase our sustainability efforts.

Ask WHAT you can do to foster a more inclusive and welcoming community.

Ask what YOU can do to be of assistance in Geneva and in particular, to the City’s school district.

As what you can DO to spark the kinds of ideas, research and intellectual agility that inspire us all to new levels of excellence and accomplishment.

Ask what you can do to LIVE a life of consequence.

As we look to the year ahead, it’s clear to me that we must build upon our self study for the Middle States accreditation process and as a community study and think about the significant issues facing higher education today. I will speak more to this in the weeks ahead – but I take inspiration and encouragement from the inscription literally chiseled into the stoned entrance of the library from Deuteronomy: “Remember the past. Imagine the future.”

That should be our charge as we engage with one another as a community to thoughtfully consider the broader challenges and opportunities facing American higher education.

It’s fitting then, that today we welcome to campus one of the leading social entrepreneurs and creative thinkers in the country. Charles Best exemplifies outstanding civic leadership: he saw needs, developed an idea and transformed that idea into a nationwide effort.

Following his graduation from Yale, he set out for New York as a social studies teacher. It was in the faculty lunch room that he heard about the needs of teachers: maps, musical instruments, art supplies. He rightly sensed that many people would like to help public schools but were frustrated by a lack of influence over their donations.

And so he created DonorsChoose.org so that individuals could connect directly with classrooms in need.

Through the establishment of DonorsChoose.org website, teachers from around the country can post classroom project requests on the non-profits’ website which are then funded. He calls this kind of support ‘citizen philanthropy’.

In a little more than a decade since its founding, more than 170,000 teachers at 40% of the country’s public schools had posted classroom projects requests and received funding for more than 200,000 projects. This equates to more than 4.8 million children impacted by Donors Choose.

And all of this from a faculty lunch room conversations!

Here in Geneva alone – DonorsChoose has funded 64 projects totaling more than $28,000. The first project was funded in 2007 and the most recent one was funded less than a week ago at North Street School.

As so in recognition of his commitment to public education, his distinction of taking the power of an idea and putting it into action – we honor him today. Charles Best asked what he could do – and he founded Donors Choose. In so doing, he has changed the lives of thousands of children across the country. I now invite Mr. Best to the podium for the presentation of the President’s Medal.

It is my personal privilege by the authority of the Board of Trustees of Hobart and William Smith Colleges to award the President’s Medal to Charles Best with all the rights and privileges thereto pertaining.

Ladies and gentlemen, to deliver the Keynote Address at these Convocation Exercises, Charles Best, founder and President of DonorsChoose.org.