Address by Baird Tipson
There are many people who had a hand in my standing before you today, and I do not want to forget their kindness. The entire Board of Visitors and Governors bears responsibility for my selection, but I would like to single out Tuck Maddux, who chaired the search committee, and Jay Griswold, the Board Chair, for particular thanks. Jay and Tuck were my primary contact with Washington College during the search process, and my respect for them made me very much want to come here. Nor do I want to neglect the other members of the search committee, Board members, faculty members, members of the staff, and students, who contributed a great deal of their time and who represented this College honestly and effectively.
It is a particular pleasure for me to see so many members of my family here, even including the parents of my son-in-law, and while I cannot single out them all, I would especially like to acknowledge my father, Lynn Baird Tipson, whose name I bear and who represents his alma mater this afternoon.
As a singer myself, I am delighted that the Gospel Choir and the College Vocal Consort could perform, especially since the Director of the Vocal Consort, Professor Clarke, himself once served honorably as Acting President of this College.
Although he could not remain for this ceremony, I am honored that Professor David Holmes of the College of William and Mary, with whom I taught early in my career at the University of Virginia, and who has been to me a model of the teacher/scholar, came to Chestertown to offer two inaugural lectures. And I am deeply grateful that Pastor Karl Mattson, the model of a man of commitment, who has ministered to inner city congregations in various American cities, helped liberal arts college students face issues of social justice in Nicaragua, in Geneva, and the most desperate sections of our own cities, and who formed and continues to inspire the Center for Public Service at Gettysburg College, could offer the invocation and benediction.
One last expression of thanks: to my friends from Central Michigan, from Gettysburg, and from Wittenberg – which bestowed on me this red Luther cap – who traveled to be with me today. And now to my address —
Washington College likes to boast that it was the first college chartered in the new United States of America. That is true, but like many things people later brag about, it was largely unintentional. Our founder, the Reverend William Smith, was a loser, or at least one could say that he was on the losing side of a political struggle. His most famous opponent was Benjamin Franklin, who had originally brought him to Philadelphia from New York to head what later became the University of Pennsylvania. But he fell out with Franklin, who afterwards called him “a common scribbler of libels and false abusive papers.” He had other enemies, too. When he told the largely pacifist Pennsylvania Assembly that they were derelict in not sending militia to defend frontier settlers from Indian attacks, they arranged to have him thrown in jail, where he remained for some months. So we might boast that we are the first college founded by a man who did time, since he went to prison only after he founded the University of Pennsylvania.
But Washington College would never have come to exist if Smith had not lost yet again. This time it was Revolutionary War politics, and as a clergyman in the Church of England, Smith was labeled as a Tory, a supporter of the king. It's unlikely that he was. But Smith had taken vows, as had all Anglican priests, to support the King as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. So the charge had plausibility; it stuck; and he had to get out of town. He left Philadelphia and came to Chestertown, which in the late eighteenth century was not some charming little place that time forgot but a major Chesapeake Bay port. Its parish church had had a priest who really was a Tory and who had hightailed it back to England. The parish needed a replacement, and they were happy to get William Smith. Right away he was on the road, determined to get back at those meatheads in Pennsylvania by founding a college in Maryland that would rival the one they had forced him out of. Two years later he succeeded – he wasn't really a loser – and Washington College is the result. Two years after that he founded St. John's College in Annapolis. His vision, which the Maryland Assembly never quite bought into, was to combine the two into a “University of Maryland.” In the meantime, the United States won its independence; Smith's enemies softened, and he went back to Philadelphia. I should add that the church he served, Emmanuel Church, continues to flourish right here in the center of Chestertown, and that Emmanuel will hold a special service Sunday morning using William Smith's 18th c. revisions to the Book of Common Prayer.
What kind of college did William Smith found, or better put, what kind of graduates did he want to let loose onto the Eastern Shore and the new nation? It should be the purpose of higher education, he thought, to build “better men and better citizens,” “better” meaning “virtuous.” And then Smith began to think like a marketer. If he were a college president today, he might create a logo, just right for his new college. But Smith's vision stretched way beyond logos. He wanted to associate his fledgling college with the one man who — in the period just after the Revolution —epitomized the virtuous citizen. That man was George Washington. If he could name his little college “Washington College,” he wouldn't need a logo. He wouldn't need a mission statement. He would have a brand. Everyone would know precisely what his college was about: producing graduates like George Washington. And remarkably, because like many losers he refused to give up until he became a winner, he got Washington to agree. Not only that, but like a good college president he got Washington to make a contribution. And he got him to serve on the Board of Visitors and Governors. The rest, as they say, is history.
As brilliant a marketing stroke as this seems to us today – and a whole lot of colleges have stolen Smith's idea and named themselves “Washington” over the years – it was a gutsy – Jay Griswold would say a “feisty” — stroke. Almost everyone revered George Washington, but a lot of people also knew that he had never gone to college. In fact he'd never gone past elementary school. It would be like finding out that the author of All I Really Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten was giving the commencement address at your college graduation. [Which, by the way, Robert Fulgum did at Wittenberg, and he was terrific. That's another story.] But if you didn't need to go to college to become a virtuous citizen, why have a college? This thought actually bothered me as I was writing this address, and I didn't feel a lot better when I realized that my favorite Maryland author, Anne Tyler, loves to build her novels around non-college-going characters. Her readers learn what virtue is about from Rebecca Davitch in Back When We Were Grownups, Muriel Pritchett (the Geena Davis character) in Accidental Tourist, Ezra Tull in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Barnaby Gaitlin in a Patchwork Planet, and of course Ian Bedloe in Saint Maybe. All of whom either never went to college or else dropped out. That's another story, too. We do know that late in George Washington's life some of his critics, including Thomas Jefferson — who incidentally often liked to let people know that he was more well read than they were — referred condescendingly to Washington's lack of formal education.
To get back to my story, Washington's lack of a college education didn't seem to bother William Smith. Smith was convinced that the very qualities that George Washington had come by naturally, the rest of us could achieve through hard work. Smith had already laid out a model college curriculum that is a significant document in American intellectual history. What was that curriculum? He wanted to expose Washington College students to literature that would model virtuous action, to poetry that would nurture virtuous feelings in their hearts and noble thoughts in their minds, to mathematics and natural science and ethics and history. In other words, he designed his own version of a small, residential liberal arts college. And for nearly two and a quarter centuries, despite repeated challenges, Washington College has remained remarkably true to Smith's vision.
We talk about the liberal arts here the way Muslims talk about the Qur'an, and yet recent research tells us that the average parent of a prospective college student, let alone the average citizen, has absolutely no idea what the liberal arts are. I dare say that very few even of those of us on this podium could name all of the classical liberal arts. So indulge me while I tell you a little about them and why we've been passionately committed to them for over two hundred years. Why, in other words, they remain the best way of preparing young people to lead productive, fulfilling lives.
There are seven classical liberal arts, divided into two groups. The quadrivium – astronomy, music, arithmetic, and geometry – and the trivium – grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Laid out this way, they don't sound very exciting, do they. But they are. Think of the quadrivium as the disciplines, the things you major in, all the areas of human knowledge with their own vocabularies, sets of facts, and methods of analysis. Music, for example, has a different vocabulary than astronomy; you need to learn about rhythm, tempo, dynamics, harmonic consonances and dissonances, and you analyze these in a different manner than you do the movement of the planets. Of course liberal arts colleges today don't limit themselves to the traditional disciplines; we've added biology and psychology and economics and all the other areas of study you'll find in the Washington College Catalog. When most people think of the content of a college curriculum, they're probably thinking of the courses offered by the various academic departments, the contemporary version of the quadrivium.
But the actual heart of a liberal arts college, what distinguishes it most clearly from a large research university, is the trivium. Think of the trivium as the habits of mind, the intellectual tools that enable a student to thrive in any discipline. Washington College, and liberal arts colleges like it, never forget the trivium when they're offering courses in the quadrivium. Remember that the trivium is grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Think of grammar as the art of combining words into elegant, meaningful sentences and paragraphs. Think of logic as the art of constructing a tight argument, based on careful analysis of hard evidence. Think of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, figuring out who needs to hear that argument and presenting it to her as compellingly as possible. We are committed to infusing grammar, logic, and rhetoric into everything we teach.
Doesn't everybody do this? Actually you'd be amazed, and a little depressed, over how often achievement in higher education is measured by how much “content” a course covers, and how students just add up courses until they reach the magic number required for graduation. This happens more often at large institutions than at small ones, but the clear trend over the past decades has been toward what I'll call an “internet” culture, in which students access a vast array of possibilities, choose one from here and one from there, and end up with an education that they believe meets their needs. Those institutions that are serious about grammar, logic, and rhetoric across the curriculum are definitely in the minority, and that minority is getting smaller. How can you know when you've found a “liberal arts” culture rather than an “internet” culture? You'll find a faculty concerned less with how much content a student has memorized and more with how that student thinks, writes, and argues. You'll find a faculty that spends time, a lot of time, with individual students. In my experience, the best test of whether the trivium is infused throughout the curriculum is how students are evaluated. If you require students to write serious papers and give exams that include significant essays, you can judge the quality of their thinking, writing, and arguing. If you give multiple choice tests and feed the test papers into a computer, students will quickly learn that you don't care about how they think, write, and argue.
Don't misunderstand me. The members of our faculty are extraordinarily well-credentialed in their fields of study, and they make their own contributions to those fields. But they have also made a choice to be at an institution which values not just learning but also the quality of learning. It isn't enough to have the correct answer; that answer has to be arrived at through the proper kind of analysis; it has to be expressed concisely and elegantly; and it has to be presented persuasively to people who can put it into action. So when I commend the Washington College faculty for their commitment to infusing the trivium into the quadrivium, I'm giving them the highest possible praise.
I know this is supposed to be a presidential inauguration, but I don't want you to forget that the faculty will always be the heart of this College. We administrators are here to give them the best possible support, remind them of their vocation as scholars and teachers, and then get out of their way.
What's my role, then? What should the president do? Well, first of all he needs to recognize, and build upon, the strengths of his predecessors. I'm not going to recognize all twenty-five of them, but I do want to single out President McLain for his commitment to science, President Cater for his tireless efforts to bring Washington College to the attention of donors and political leaders, President Trout for his sustained commitment, at some personal cost, to making this campus more diverse, and especially President Toll for his remarkable academic vision and his ability to heal financial wounds. I want to continue all these efforts. Presidents Trout and Toll are here on the podium, and I ask you to join me in showing your appreciation for their service.
Let me share some of my own goals. I want greater national visibility for this College, and I only wish I had William Smith's marketing instinct. I want to increase our endowment, especially the funds available for scholarships and faculty chairs. I want to preside over another successful capital campaign that adds more new facilities to this campus. I want to be sure we don't separate the liberal arts from the world of work. For all his commitment to the liberal arts, William Smith included agriculture and navigation in his model curriculum because he knew most of his graduates would make their livings on farms or on the water. I want to spend as much time as possible with our students, and that includes teaching a course, if I can persuade someone on the faculty to teach with me. I want to find even better ways to take advantage of our being a residential community in the unique setting that is Chestertown.
Our C. V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience has persuaded the U. S. State Department that Chestertown offers an unparalleled laboratory for the study of American democracy in action, and for the past two summers the State Department has provided funding for us to bring South Asian students here to enjoy it. We can find other ways to celebrate Chestertown. We can build on the work of the Center for the Environment and Society to celebrate the natural resources of this area, the farms and the Chester River. And we can more successfully integrate the work of the two centers into the curriculum so that they nurture and are nurtured by it. We can recapture a theme from President Cater – Washington College as the College That Writes – and build good writing explicitly into everything we do. Nothing combines grammar, logic, and rhetoric more powerfully than effective writing.
Most important, I commit myself to sustain the liberal arts tradition that began with William Smith and has persisted, often against great odds, through the twenty-four presidents who succeeded him.
A final word. Bryan Matthews, our Director of Athletics who is serving with distinction this year as Acting Vice President for Student Affairs, recently returned from a conference on the new generation of college students. “They're not like us,” he was told. “They don't read, even e-mail; they text message in a strange dialect of English. If they're not glued to the computer screen, their ear is stuck to a cell phone. They're visual, not verbal.” And we didn't even talk about body jewelry! The message of the conference was, “You're not going to change them, so you'd better adapt yourself to them.”
Well, I just disagree. Our challenge is not to become like our students; it's to give them the tools to become like us. I know that sounds arrogant. But if we can't stand behind our teaching and learning, if we lack the confidence to claim that we have something precious to offer to young people, we ought not to be here. We need to make every effort to understand our students and to recognize their strengths. Their visual literacy, their ability to make sense of rapidly changing images, their expertise in information technology are assets we should cherish. But if the dark side of the picture is difficulty focusing for a sustained period of time, an immature writing style, awkwardness in adult conversation, we can't just walk away. We need to help these marvelous young people feel at home in the world of elementary particles, biodiversity, The Wealth of Nations, and Igor Stravinsky.
We know that Washington College students are bright, energetic, multi-talented, and able. Their test scores are strong; their extra-curricular activities are impressive. They don't need to be coddled.
I've been a college president for nine years. My most satisfying experiences, bar none, have been at alumni events. Someone comes up to me after I've finished talking, and after introducing themselves, they ask about a faculty member, or a staff member, or a coach. The conversation goes something like this: “How is Professor So-and-so? It was she that helped me to see that I had abilities I never dreamed I had, who helped me to set my sights higher than I would ever have set them on my own, who comforted me when I was down and kicked me in the pants when I settled for second-best. I would not be doing what I am today, I would not be the person I am today, without her inspiration.”
When you hear something like that, it doesn't just make your day; it makes your month! My job is to keep those experiences coming, so that the 27th, and the 28th, and the 29th, and many more presidents to come can hear the same comments.
It is a tremendous honor to stand here before you this afternoon, beside William Smith Hall and in the shadow of George Washington. There is no denying the challenges that this College, and all small liberal arts colleges, face in the coming decades. Washington College is prepared for those challenges. The quality of our faculty and staff, the support of our alumni and friends, the talent and enthusiasm of our students, and our unsurpassed academic tradition give us the strength we need to prevail and to flourish. I pledge to you that I will do everything in my power to build on the successes of my predecessors and to lead this College to even greater academic heights. I thank you for your confidence.