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2016 Opening Remarks

Dean’s comments at Crane Faculty Gala 9/6/16

Last year at this time, I made some observations about the start of the College’s bicentennial year, which also happened to be Crane’s 130th. It has been, I think, a meaningful year of celebration and reflection, with a great deal of looking back and some looking forward. Now we have turned our attention more firmly forward, coinciding well with a campus strategic planning process President Esterberg has been leading, and which will conclude by December. As we begin SUNY Potsdam’s third century, I invite you to share a few more thoughts with me about what this occasion invites us to consider.

I’ve noted before that our observation of an anniversary like this one is really just an accident of the decimal system; with another system we’d be observing a different turning of the odometer. Whatever numerical intervals we choose, however, it’s not a bad idea periodically to take the time to ponder where we have been and where we are headed.
It seems to me that human beings, when they do this, too often are drawn to one of two impulses: to hold on too dearly to what is past, or what we think was in the past; or to jettison the past in contemptuous pursuit of a brand new direction.

Of course, as tempted as any of us may be by the allure either of an unshakable past comfort zone or an enticing new unknown vector, we really all know that – as usual – the wise and subtle choice is a path in between, one which holds onto enduring values and lessons from our history while continuously testing them and adapting them to new circumstances, newfound knowledge, or new opportunities. While it does not give us a great deal of specific guidance, that’s what I like about the phrase “a tradition of innovation” that I’ve used about Crane – there is a very strong sense here of being rooted in a tradition, but also a commitment, which has endured throughout Crane’s history, of doing new things, of bringing new things to that tradition.

Knowing something about where we’ve been, which has been much on our minds this past year, helps us understand something about enduring themes that have become part of the fabric of the institution, and also to understand where we have been wrong or misguided in the past. Knowing about our past gives us a point of reference for new ideas: Have we tried this before? Did it help us, or not? Have circumstances changed to make it succeed now when it didn’t then? If we went in this direction, would it take us down a path that is discordant with the values that give us our identity, or would it help us illuminate, enliven, and live out those values?

So, as we stand tonight at the start of Potsdam’s third century, What’s new? What calls us?

Part of what we have before us is the certain continuation of an era of what the higher education press has dubbed “disruptive” change. We must deal with what we know now are new realities about limited and declining state support, challenging and changing demographics in the prospective student population, a shifting and unpredictable career market for our graduates, and a number of other fundamental issues which will keep us on our toes and demand of us the utmost in agility, flexibility, and creativity.

As always, in this disruptive environment, there is opportunity. Among the opportunities and directions that are most on our minds at SUNY Potsdam these days are a few which I suggest are both new and old; it’s our task to see what we can do with these, and with other innovative ideas which emerge, within the parameters of our time.

One is applied learning, an area in which SUNY Potsdam is taking the lead within the SUNY system: the idea that we facilitate a wide range of hands-on learning experiences for our students.

I don’t need to tell an educated musical audience, of course, that this is frankly tradition for us: musical education is rooted in the doing alongside the studying. We even officially call an important part of every student’s curriculum “applied music” – the application of musical study to performance on an instrument or voice. Hands-on learning happens in numerous other ways at Crane, of course, including practicum and student teaching experiences, music business internships, and student-faculty research. It has also long been embedded in many other programs throughout the College. Without in any way diminishing the importance of groundedness in academic study, as we stand at the start of Potsdam’s third century, it feels to us that applied learning will be one theme of that future, not as something new or foreign to us, but something that we can expand, invigorate, and celebrate, something that we already know we do well, and something that higher education more generally perhaps is just beginning to understand and embrace. You are in for your very own applied learning experience tonight, so with it I welcome you to Potsdam’s third century.

A second theme is interdisciplinary learning: learning and activity which crosses the boundaries of academic disciplines and sub-disciplines, and invites the exploration of new convergences, opportunities, and cross-fertilizations.

This, too, is not new to music nor to Crane. In every work on tonight’s program that employs human voices, there is a marriage of literary and musical art which, together, provide us with an experience that is like neither, but something new altogether. One of the pieces on the program is explicitly derived from dance, and others are certainly related to the primordial association of music and human movement. The last work on tonight’s program comes from a composer who perhaps had the most interdisciplinary perspective of all, Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art, in which the composer as artist brings together words, music, movement, and visual art to envelop the listener/observer in a total experience.
So this, too, is familiar territory; although we must always be ready to undertake new steps across traditional boundaries, bring things together in new ways, and remove obstacles that get in the way of collaboration, we have had lots of practice at this. We’re ready to take it on.

Finally, I suggest that there is an important theme of creativity and its practical cousin, entrepreneurship, in our effort to serve students in the twenty-first century. Creativity, of course, is the ground from which our musical art springs. We talk a great deal these days about the challenges professionals in music and other artistic endeavors face, and the fact that members of the millennial generation will change careers many times during a lifetime of work; this, too, is not new to music. Musicians have dealt over and over with disruptive changes that have challenged how they operate and how, to be mundane about it, they make their living. The composers represented on tonight’s program represent an historical range of artists who worked within systems of aristocratic patronage, religious employment, print publication, operatic production, and virtuoso performance, none of which ever held stability for very long, in the greater scheme of things. As Western music moved from private music-making to dissemination by print publication to ticketed performances to recordings, broadcasts, and more recently to iTunes and YouTube, musicians have continually reinvented themselves and found ways to make the new reality one in which they could not only operate but thrive and create. This is not to be glib about it; it has not been easy at any point, nor will it be in the future – but we know this territory well, and we can bring it to the students of the twenty-first century.

Welcome to Potsdam’s third century. We have had lots of practice for it, and we are ready. Please enjoy your applied learning experience tonight.