The Promise of a Handcrafted Education

  Inaugural address by John F. Schwaller

Thank you, Chancellor Lombardi, for your kind introduction.  You know me far too well to have honestly said some of those nice things.  Thank you to all of you who have come to join me in this celebration of SUNY Potsdam.   

As many of you know I study Mexico in the sixteenth century, and the peoples called the Nahua (commonly the Aztecs).  Allow me to quote from part of one of my favorite Nahuatl poems, composed about a century before the Spanish arrived in Mexico:

 

    Oh, not for a second time will we come to the earth,
Oh princes, oh Chichimeca.
Let us enjoy ourselves.
Are the flowers taken
To the realm of the dead?
Indeed, we are only loaned to one another.
If it is true, true that we must go,
With certainty we leave the flowers, the songs,
And this, the earth.
Indeed we are only loaned to one another.
It is true, true that we go.  (Cantares mexicanos, f. 61r.)  

The theme of the Spring Festival and of this inauguration is that of “Connections and Intersections.”  Each of our lives benefits from the connections to others and the intersections with others.  As the Nahua point out we are truly only loaned to each other.  My wife and I have been loaned to the college and in return this marvelous institution has been loaned to us.  My appointment as President of SUNY Potsdam is the result of the support, friendship, and love of many people.  There are so many people to whom I loan myself, and who have loaned themselves to me.

Before I begin my remarks, I must extend my personal thanks to so many who have made this moment a reality.  I must first recognize Chancellor Ryan.  I am honored to be the first President in SUNY that you chose during your Chancellorship.  I am sorry that you will be leaving New York, but happy for you as you embark on a new adventure of your own.  Thanks also to the phenomenal students, faculty, and staff here at Potsdam for allowing me to serve you.  I hope that in all I do I bring renown and credit to this fine institution. 

More than anything else, I wish to recognize the contributions of my parents, Henry and Juliette Schwaller.  My parents instilled in me a love of knowledge, a wanderlust, a sense of civic responsibility, and a whole lot of common sense: Thank you Mom.  I also thank my lovely wife, Anne, for having shared this wonderful adventure with me for the last thirty-seven years.  It has always been a partnership and I want to recognize that right now.  Thanks to our sons, Rob and Will, with whom we are so very pleased.  I’d also like to recognize my father-in-law Robert Taylor.  No one could have a better friend for a father-in-law than I do.  Two others in the audience are particularly important to me.  First of all is my undergraduate advisor when I was a history major at GrinnellCollege, Dr. Philip Kintner.  Thank you so much for getting me started in academics.  I also need to thank Dr. John Lombardi, here on the stage.  He not only is a close friend and mentor but he was also my dissertation advisor, along with Dr. Robert Quirk.  Thanks, John.  Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not publicly recognize and thank Joe Campbell, the man who taught me Nahuatl, the Aztec language.  Those who know me recognize what a difference this has made in my scholarly career.  Tlazohcamati huel miac.  There are so many others to thank, and I could spend several hours in the process. Suffice it to say, I think you know who you are, and I do truly appreciate all the wonderful things you have done. 

It is with deep gratitude and unbounded pride that I welcome all of you who have joined us today into our Potsdam family.  As with all families, the College is a product of the intersections and connections that occur in the lives of its members.  I propose that Connections and Intersections is a powerful metaphor for SUNY Potsdam.  Over the course of almost two centuries, SUNY Potsdam has stood at the intersection of the intellectual, social, and cultural life of the North Country.  It has enabled the connections of students, faculty, staff, and community members to improve the quality of life here for all of us.  Yet our College does not exist in a vacuum.  In fact we are heirs of a long tradition of higher education in the Western World.  For nearly a thousand years, there have been institutions of higher education, the roots of the university.  The constant throughout all the years, and in nearly every context, is that the finest education is one that is tailored to the needs of the student and one in which the student interacts closely with the faculty and with other students.  This close interaction, the interplay of connections and intersections on the personal level, I like to call the “handcrafted education.”

In the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution came to reshape the way that goods were produced.  Prior to that time most people consumed products that were made locally.  But with the Industrial Revolution, economies of scale and the development of the assembly line, mass produced goods undercut the market and provided consumers with goods that were cheaper and frequently better than a local craftsman could produce.

In higher education a similar thing has occurred since the Second World War.  Prior to the 1950s most higher education occurred in small local or regional colleges.  Even the major state universities only had enrollments of a few thousand.  With the advent of the GI Bill and the expansion of public higher education, millions of persons who previously had no access to college now could attend.  In order to accommodate the expanding demand for access, most major state universities grew and implemented the equivalent of the assembly line.  They provide access through massive sections of high demand courses, and the use of graduate students either in place of regular faculty or to supplement a regular faculty member.  In recent years this model has changed yet again with the rise of contracted faculty who have no continuing tie to the schools in which they work, but who merely teach specific courses on a piece-work basis.  This model constitutes higher education on an industrial scale.

Yet just as people who want a high-quality, custom designed, hand-tailored garment can go to a seamstress or tailor, so also students have the opportunity to attend smaller colleges where faculty work closely with students.  Invariably in the world of consumer products, a custom made article costs far more than an assembly line item.  In the realm of higher education, though, costs are deceiving.  While some of the colleges who offer this handcrafted education are among the most expensive, such as most of the private liberal arts colleges, others, particularly public colleges, offer the best value for the money.  In fact, here at SUNY Potsdam one of the major hallmarks of the educational experience is precisely that close relationship of faculty to students.  Our faculty members, each a well-respected scholar in her or his own right, engage our students one-on-one.  In the classroom and as mentors, our faculty members embody the finest aspects of that handcrafted education.  Furthermore, this ethos of caring fully includes our non-teaching faculty and staff as well.  Moreover, as a state-assisted institution, we provide this superb quality education at a price which is a fraction of that charged by our peers in the world of private higher education.  I posit that from today forth we will increasingly take a leadership role as a national example of excellence by offering our handcrafted education. 

As a historian it has been crucial for me to understand the history of SUNY Potsdam.  Quite simply I need to understand where the institution has been in order to understand where it is today, and how we might progress in the future.  The college is now in its one hundred and ninety-second year.  It is the oldest unit of the State University System, and indeed one of the oldest public colleges in the nation.  The college existed as St. Lawrence Academy, an institution providing both secondary and higher education to the youth of Northern New York, until 1867.  Within its first fourteen years it produced 40 teachers who went out to serve the surrounding communities.  After the Civil War, with the growth of the Normal School system of teacher education, by act of the New York legislature, St. Lawrence Academy became the StateNormal School at Potsdam, and entered into its second phase.  A few years later the Crane School of Music was incorporated into the college, creating the basis for the institution we are today.  For the last few decades, mostly since the Second World War, the college has expanded beyond teacher preparation to embrace the full range of humanities, arts and sciences, education and selected professional programs, and to provide graduate degrees in selected fields.  Over the decades our alumni have made significant contributions to their towns and villages, to the state and to the larger world.   This rich history provided the first component in what has characterized the history of Potsdam, its tradition of excellence.

Several features make SUNY Potsdam a truly unique institution of higher education.  One is the handcrafted education I already mentioned.  The college is nearly two-hundred years old.  Very few public institutions can boast of such age, with the vast majority having been founded in the last sixty years.  The college enrolls less than 5,000 students.  The college is largely residential.  Nearly all of our students live either on campus or within a mile or two of campus.  We require undergraduates to complete a core of required courses designed both for breadth and depth.  We are overwhelmingly undergraduate.  While we take great pride in the quality of our graduate programs, they account for less than 20% of our total enrollment.  We are a selective institution that also enjoys the admission of a solid cohort of transfer students each year.  We have increasingly high rates of retention and graduation, as more of our first-time first-year students persist into each subsequent semester and eventually graduate.  We are located in an absolutely gorgeous part of the country, in a historic village, far from the annoyances of city life.  This is who and what we are.

If one were to search among the hundreds of colleges in the United States to find one that matches this particular set of characteristics, they would fail.  Each is a key element in what we are.  Yet each characteristic also carries with it a challenge.  Allow me to suggest some of those challenges and how by working together we can confront them.  Our quality education simply costs more to provide because we have more intensive, hands-on learning experiences, and fewer mass-produced sections.  In an epoch of diminishing public support for higher education, SUNY Potsdam finds itself at an intersection: committed to excellence in instruction but constantly pressed for resources.

The future for the college, I propose, is to remain faithful to our tradition of excellence while striving to meet the challenges ahead.  Central to our success is the handcrafted education.  We see this in nearly every student who graduates, and has graduated from Potsdam.  Each student has had at least one unique opportunity to work individually on some project in close cooperation with a faculty member and frequently with other students.  These include performances for our students in Crane, Theatre and Dance.  This also includes the gallery shows for our Bachelor of Fine Arts students and research opportunities for students to pursue original research under faculty supervision.  This includes internships, student teaching, study abroad, and service learning projects.  Look across the curriculum and you will see hundreds of opportunities for students.  Students who attend Potsdam leave with one of these to their credit.  I challenge all of us to make this an even more purposeful activity in the future, to respond in a very concrete way to the individuality of each and every one of our students.  I propose that each and every Potsdam graduate will have at least one individualized instructional experience, be that a research project with a faculty member, an internship, a recital, or an opportunity to study abroad, to mention a few.

Taking this theme a bit further, while all students must take the common core, our general education requirement, there are many variations within the core, tailored to the needs of different students and different majors.  Yet central to the Potsdam experience is the close interaction of faculty and students.  I can state without much fear of contradiction that all students who graduate from the college have had a unique experience in many ways tailored to their particular needs and interests.  I challenge each of us to assure that we continue to work with each student as a unique and valued member of our community and to be purposeful about it.

Outside of the classroom, a college like Potsdam also achieves things not possible in larger universities.  The hallmark of our educational philosophy is the integration of curricular and extra-curricular, or co-curricular, activities.  We need to practice integrity in all that we undertake.  There is a wholeness, an integrity, to the educational process here.  It is illuminated in the classroom, and on the ball field, in the laboratory, and in the residence hall, in the performance space, and in the meetings of the student government.  Every activity, every moment on campus, is a teachable moment; is an important component of the broad and deep education offered by the college.  The College provides students not just with knowledge of theory in the classroom but also the opportunity to apply that knowledge in real life situations.  It is the integrity of knowledge and practice that makes the handcrafted education so powerful here at SUNY Potsdam.  Again, I challenge each and every one of us to be more purposeful in the integration of curricular with extra- and co-curricular activities.  We must all follow through on the handcrafted education to see that the lessons learned can be applied to the world in which we live.

In my opinion, one of the most important individual educational opportunities is study abroad.  Indeed the study of the globe and its interrelatedness to what we do here in Potsdam is the theme of this year’s Campus Festival.  As I have noted at other times, I hope that the campus will continue to internationalize our curriculum, to provide more opportunities for our students to learn about other parts of the world.  It is a truism that our students must prepare to become citizens of the world.  International barriers to trade and commerce are falling and thrusting each of us into a more highly competitive economic environment.  Out students must be ready to take on that challenge.  As a result, I hope that larger numbers of Potsdam students will take advantage of opportunities to study abroad.  Anne and I believe so strongly in this that we are endowing a scholarship to assist students with financial need to study abroad.  I encourage all of you, if you are so inclined, to make a gift to our scholarship fund. 

At the same time that each of us must accept the challenge to continue to enhance the integrity of the hand-crafted education we provide, there are strategic actions which we can also take to further this goal.  Obviously, we need to continue to be vigilant regarding the academic core of the institution.  We will continue to evaluate the professional workload and levels of compensation of our employees, teaching faculty, non-teaching faculty, and staff to assure that we can continue to honor the quality education provided by our predecessors.  Obviously a high quality, motivated, and dedicated faculty and staff are central to the providing of a handcrafted education.

The quality of the student experience stands at the core of our vision for maintaining the handcrafted education.  We need to continue to be purposeful about the links between curricular and co-curricular activities.  We need to strive to have a campus that reflects the diversity of the society in which we live.  We need to be mindful to provide the types of experiences to our students that they need and that integrate with everything else we do on campus.

To enhance what we do in the classroom and in the other areas of student life, we also need to continue to invest in facilities.  This includes making campus beautification a high priority.  The state’s capital improvement budget will assist us greatly, but we might also need to invest from the operating budget to make this happen.  Linked to this we will continue to press the state for the construction of new buildings on campus, starting with a new Performing Arts and TechnologyBuilding.

None of this can happen without sufficient resources.  The reality of higher education today is that resources are intimately linked to student enrollments.  We have pledged to increase our enrollment to 5,000 under the terms of our current Memorandum of Understanding with the SUNY system, and we will do that.  This will occur through increases in new first-year students, new transfer students, and new graduate students, as well as through improved retention of all students.  To increase the numbers of new students of all types, the college needs to embark on an even more aggressive marketing initiative.  The first pieces of the initiative are in place but we must now expand it.  The marketing campaign has as its goal not just increases in enrollment, but also the creation of an improved institutional reputation among our alumni, friends, and the general public.  This increased institutional reputation will in turn assist us in many other areas of resource development, especially in our relations with the Legislature and other elected officials and in encouraging donors to support our efforts. 

The last piece, and perhaps the most important, is the creation of new resources to assist us in our activities.  Increasingly public institutions have begun to look to private donors to make up the gap between state authorized funds and the needs of the campus.  In this regard Potsdam is exceptional.  While most public institutions of our type expect approximately 6% of their alumni to make an annual gift to the college, our average is over twice that amount.   This confirms that our alumni recognize the value to them of the handcrafted education that they received and their willingness to make this a reality for generations to come.  Quite simply, our alumni are loyal and passionate about the College.  In addition to our alumni, our faculty emeriti are a remarkable group.  The emeriti are leaders among the friends of the College, devoting themselves and their resources to the enrichment of the College.  This dedication to the college even when retired is a powerful message of the importance that these talented women and men place on the educational experience to be had here at Potsdam.

While our endowment is small in comparison to private institutions of our type, compared to our sister public colleges, and adjusting for enrollment, ours is one of the largest.  Yet we cannot afford to rest on our laurels.  As a result, in the coming years we will be launching Potsdam’s third comprehensive campaign.  In fact, we were one of the very first SUNY campuses to even have a campaign.  The vision and goals that I have outlined here will form the heart of that campaign.  I am confident that we will achieve the goals of our campaign and continue to build a solid foundation for the future of the college.

This next campaign has the possibility of being truly transformational for the College.  Potsdam’s dedicated alumni, faculty, staff, emeriti, students, and friends have always exemplified themselves in their support of the College.  I have no doubt that all of us will again achieve a record-breaking campaign.  Quite truly our current success is a result of the precise combination of events that led us to this point.  But if we wish to move beyond that, to even more success, we must do things we have never done.  I call upon you to do things never done before to change SUNY Potsdam into something even better than we have ever dreamed possible.

The College has developed in nearly two hundred years to arrive at this point today.  It is an extraordinary institution of higher education: unique among its peers, and poised to take on additional greatness.  I posit that the path to greatness can be found in the history that brought us here.  We must expand upon the tradition of excellence that has been the hallmark of the college for so long.  That tradition of excellence lies in the handcrafted education provided to each student.  It equips them to deal with both the specifics of their chosen field and the broad issues that confront the world today.  We are at an intersection.  We must now plot the path forward, drawing upon the traditions and connections that have supported us thus far.  Truly Connections and Intersections is a metaphor for our college at this point in its history. 

We have been loaned to each other for an important purpose.  As your new president, I pledge to help enhance the image of the college, to be a vocal advocate for the college, and for our handcrafted education, in order to provide for an even more distinguished Potsdam education and enhanced national reputation.  To achieve greatness we must move forward, based upon our traditions but eager to confront the challenges of the future, to accomplish all those things even beyond what we have dreamed, to make this college a paragon and example of the power of a handcrafted education.