Commencement Address

on the Occasion of Empire State College’s 40th Anniversary

Although over the past several years, I have been asked on occasion to write and deliver the faculty address at our annual graduation celebration, I must say that being asked to do so for today took me back a bit.  This is after all the 40th Anniversary Commencement Ceremony, as well as an occasion to speak to one of the most impressive recent assembly of graduates.  But of course after only a few moments of hesitation, a new feeling replaced my concern–the feeling of how honored I am to have the chance to comment upon the college, its history and accomplishments, and its outstanding class of 2011.

I must also say that I have been exceedingly fortunate to spend most of my professional life at Empire State College, for it has indeed been a meaningful and substantial experience.  I remember the early, heady days of the college. Talk about change. Thoughts of change were nearly everywhere.  And they were not concretized by the serviceable words of a political figure, utilizing an effective slogan, however credible.  It seemed a significant part of the entire culture–perhaps somewhat like today’s Arab world–had decided to dedicate itself to epoch-making transformation.  In those days a cultural war had been declared in the name of civil rights, women’s rights, individual rights, intellectual rights, spiritual rights–cultural war of which I believe the creation of Empire State College was an authentic part.

Yes, to my mind, our inception was the direct result of the very zeitgeist that was sweeping America in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The educational theorists and teachers who gave birth to the college studied or themselves created–and advanced–the bold and avant garde ideas at the time of individualized education, innovative curricula, independent study, the validity of experiential learning, a more resolute commitment to community and to a widening spectrum of peoples, and the creative fusing of classical and emerging knowledge. To our good fortune, they fought very hard and effectively for these ideas, and Empire State College went forward into the future to grow and to flourish. Learning centers and their units came into being, policies and procedures were put in place from originating ideas, learning contracts were invented, as was assessment, and mentoring, too, was conceived, matured and nuanced.  To one degree or another, conventional colleges continued on in their habitual way, other alternative colleges for the most part faltered, while Empire State College grew in size and was studied and praised by educators throughout the country and abroad.  I am told that now our college has graduated more than 60,000 students, is the largest liberal arts and sciences college in the state university, and invariably leads all SUNY in surveys of student satisfaction.

And further, it goes without saying that the students who were attracted and came to the college added theirunderstandings and abilities to these new ideas. These were students who consciously or intuitively thought as Empire State College did and concurred with its character; students also who were remarkable for their sacrifices and fortitude, it must be said, as well as possessing this prescience regarding these fresh and developing pedagogical ideas.  Students much like yourselves. Students much like yourselves, who over the past forty years have often given up convention and familiarity and comfort to achieve their choice of higher education.  Students also who often were in fact living several lives simultaneously, as parents, workers, providers, community members, in addition to achieving their associate or bachelor’s or master’s degree. Symbols and representatives of such students come to my mind–so many working single mothers, fathers with two jobs and night time study, grandparents finally realizing in their educational dreams long postponed.

However, this familiar and historic story is not over. There is now a new world, with contemporary circumstances and issues confronting our society, our college and its students.  2011 is of course not 1971 or 1981 or 1991. Change is our fate–an historic worldwide technological revolution, 9/11, global warming, alarming economics realities, seemingly ubiquitous terrorism–a new world order to which Empire State College has not been oblivious. One surely necessitating some degree of new strategies and solutions, one to which Empire State College must be responsive through a thoughtful re-consideration of its nature and mission. Indeed at this very moment a plethora of energy and ideas–for instance, shall we transform ourselves into a great public university?–engages this question of just how we will serve our society and best respond to our current and future students.  Without question, ESC will continue to express its signature characteristics–a commitment to mentoring, individualization, social and cultural sensitivity. But now it also will commit to a measure of even broader public service and a wise, bounty-giving use of the epoch-making marvels of technology, marvels that will not soon leave us, for there is a world out there of young people forthcoming who have never known life without technology and will not soon turn from it. And in these new activities Empire State College will have its prize possession: to help its students with their independence, their freshness of mind and their ongoing contributions to their families, their work, and their communities.

You know, I try to imagine in my proverbial mind’s eye the choices, sacrifices, labors of you, our students, and I find myself, in Shakespeare’s phrase, “a poor player” in this endeavor. A child of the mid-20th century, I needed only to tend to my classes and my studies.  How proud of yourselves you must be.  I intuit that you enjoy a private, silent sense of triumph and even transcendence.  I certainly hope you do, class of 2011.  For your particular success only strengthens my assertion that Empire State College students, past, current, future or alumni, have helped and will continue to help in facing these challenges of what is happening to us and of what is to come.  Thus, for my valedictory on this day of commencement, I congratulate and thank you with joy and wish you abundant, unremitting successes.  I comfort myself that Empire State College and its ways have served your fondest wishes and will persist in making a mark on your lives and through you on our society.

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