Opening Convocation 2021

15 September 2021

“Convocation and Community”

President Byerly’s 2021 Opening Convocation address

Good afternoon. It is wonderful to see you all here, and to welcome you, or welcome you back, to Carleton. Whether you are a student who set foot on this campus for the first time a few days ago, or a faculty or staff member who has been here for decades, your presence is an integral part of what makes Carleton special.

I am especially pleased at this chance to address students collectively. I have really enjoyed some opportunities to meet with students already — including meetings with peer leaders, hosting receptions for new students, having some zoom meetings with student groups, and dropping by some casual get-togethers with students on campus. Not to mention seeing you around at the Rec center, Arb, or in the neighborhood! I will be sending an email soon about ways I hope to communicate and connect with students, and how you can contact me. I really look forward to meeting you and getting to know you.

In talking with many first-year students over the last few days, I have been struck by how many of you have commented on the beauty of our campus. While national and international in its scope, Carleton is a college that is intimately connected to its local environment. Its crown jewel, Cowling Arboretum, has long been a cherished resource for study, recreation, and contemplation. It is fitting, therefore, that we acknowledge the history of the land that we enjoy.

We stand on the homelands of the Wahpekute and Mdewakanton bands of the Dakota Nation. We honor with gratitude the people who have stewarded the land through the generations and their ongoing contributions to this region. We acknowledge the ongoing injustices that we have committed against the Dakota Nation, and we wish to interrupt this legacy, beginning with acts of healing and honest storytelling about this place.

Carleton has developed the preceding land acknowledgement statement through participation in a joint task force with the City of Northfield and St. Olaf College, and we share it on public occasions to help foreground our commitment to ongoing study and dialogue about the experience of indigenous peoples in this area. I am pleased to note that, in service of our stated goal of honest storytelling, the College has just opened an important new exhibit, Why Treaties Matter, at the Weitz Center, which was created in partnership between the Minnesota Humanities Center, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. I encourage all of you to visit this powerful exhibit, and to attend this Friday’s opening keynote lecture by author, artist, and teacher Gwen Westerman. This exhibit is one step on a longer journey for our community to better understand and reckon with the history of indigenous peoples in Minnesota and beyond.

Today’s Convocation is part of a longstanding tradition that is one of Carleton’s most distinctive features. Many colleges open the year with a ceremonial convocation that provides an opportunity for students, faculty, and staff to gather and reflect on their shared commitment to academic inquiry and community. At Carleton, however, Convocation is a weekly occurrence. We have set aside time in the college calendar to create opportunities for the entire community to gather and hear a talk or program that provides a shared basis for intellectual exchange and ongoing dialogue. I can tell you that this program is the envy of many of our liberal arts college peers. During my time as provost at Middlebury College, faculty often talked about wanting to create a convocation series like Carleton’s, but were deterred by the challenges of allocating this common time in the class schedule. Carleton’s continuing commitment to creating this shared space for discussion is fundamental to its identity as a place that values the intellectual inquiry and robust debate that are fundamental to any academic community.

The word convocation stems from the Latin word convocare, meaning “to call together,” which combines the prefix com-, meaning “together,” and vocare, meaning “to call.” Thus the word embodies not only the idea of togetherness, but the importance of voice. Most Carleton convocations center on the single voice of a guest speaker. Today’s opening convocation features many voices, as we will shortly share a variety of comments offered by individual faculty, staff, and students in response to our request for testimonials to the great work done by so many over the last year.

Today’s coming together feels especially momentous. As always, for new students, it is an introduction to the Carleton community. This year, for many returning students and colleagues who have not seen each other in a long time, it is a reintroduction to the Carleton community. For me, as a new president, it is a rare moment of opportunity, when I can enter and engage not as a unique stranger, but as part of a whole group of people who are in many ways new to each other and reimagining what it means to be a community.

In my conversations with students, faculty, and staff about what brought you here, many have invoked the strong sense of community that you either experienced or heard about at Carleton. I’d like to think for a few minutes about what a sense of community means, and how it is created and sustained. At its most basic level, it might be described as a feeling of camaraderie, or acceptance, or belonging. This sense of commonality or affinity leads, at its best, to trust and an assumption of good will that enables community members to navigate disagreement and debate as they learn and grow together.

As valuable as this sense of affinity may be, it is easy to confuse community with conformity, and to assume that the price of belonging to a community is that one must adapt to its dominant culture. It is important to remind ourselves that community does not have to mean shared identities or even shared opinions. It is constituted through shared purpose, mission, and goals. In fact, an equitable and committed community welcomes difference — it does not ask you to unravel the unique strands that make you who you are, it invites you to weave yourself into its fabric. Such a community is like an ecosystem, a network of overlapping systems that connect with each other in multiple ways.

Making these kinds of connections with each other is the shared project and responsibility of every member of this community. Within the academic program, different departments, programs, disciplines, or reading groups connect with each other to find areas of shared interest, and each node of interdisciplinarity adds energy to the system.

Within the social and political culture of the college, building connections among the different voices, identities, and groups represented is an ongoing and sometimes difficult task. Carleton has long prided itself on creating an environment of belonging and acceptance, and many students, faculty and staff have felt and valued this aspect of Carleton. But other members of the community have experienced an environment of exclusion or alienation here, and we have come to recognize the urgent need for us to confront this inequity in experience.

As we work towards becoming a more inclusive and equitable community, we have come to recognize that achieving this goal requires more than good will — it requires resources, commitment and structure. The Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity Steering Committee appointed last year is finalizing a set of recommended Goals and Objectives for Carleton’s 10-year diversity plan. With the help of community input, these will be developed into specific Strategies to create a blueprint for the kind of structural change that will be needed to combat inequities and systemic racism within our institution and culture.

It is important to recognize that the equitable and committed community we seek is not an option, or an enhancement to the Carleton experience. It is absolutely fundamental to our ability to deliver a quality liberal arts education. As we have seen even more clearly during the pandemic, learning is a collective process. It takes place through dialogue and exchange, among people with different backgrounds, identities, abilities, and interests, who share a desire for growth and change. Real learning requires an environment of trust and belonging, where everyone feels valued and can show up as their full selves.

The challenge is that we need to work as a community to become this community for everyone. We are redesigning the fabric of the community, even as we continue to weave its different strands together. We have already discovered that this work is not easy. In the administration, we recognize that we will need to redouble our efforts to listen, to hear, to communicate, to act, and to hold ourselves accountable. But this continual reweaving of the community is the purpose which calls us together, today and every day. Our shared responsibility is what defines us as a community.

You may have noticed that, in my remarks today, I have often used the plural first person pronoun “we,” in an attempt to articulate a collective voice for the institution and community, one that includes the harmonics and overtones of many different voices. As a scholar of nineteenth century British literature, I can’t help associating this gesture with the collective narrative voice of the classic Victorian novel as written by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot. George Eliot in particular, a female author who wrote under a male pseudonym, was noted for her insightful generalizations about human nature. In such passages, she often uses “we” to refer simultaneously to a novel’s characters, herself, and the reader of the novel. In this way, she brings her audience of readers into a community that she creates through the act of addressing us. Simply referring to ourselves collectively is an act of fellowship and hope, a commitment to our relationship to each other.

In much the same way, Carleton’s convocation tradition itself represents an aspiration towards a community that encompasses many voices. The decision to gather regularly, to hear talks from outside speakers and discuss them among ourselves, is evidence of a deep commitment to shared intellectual experience and collective learning. As we work together, and grapple with difficult issues together, in the months and years to come, I hope that we will find many ways to reaffirm that commitment. We have all chosen to come here because we believe in the value of the extraordinary liberal arts education that Carleton offers. Each and every one of you plays a role in defining the kind of community we will be, and hence the kind of education that community makes possible. Thank you for being here, and for being part of that project. I could not be more delighted that we are on this journey together.

Thank you.

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