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>  News Releases >   2007 >   September

Remarks by President James Wright at Convocation, Sept. 25, 2007

Posted 09/25/07

President James Wright
President James Wright

Greetings! Even at an institution that operates around the year and around the world, there needs be a time and a place for us to gather and symbolically to mark a new beginning. Today we assemble here in the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that celebrates the beginning of another academic year and that formally welcomes into this community our newest members. I am pleased this morning to greet my colleagues from the faculty and administration, upper-class students, new and returning graduate students, and other members of this community. I am also very pleased that Professor Bruce Duthu is sharing this day with us, and I warmly salute Travis Green, the President of the Student Body.

I would like to welcome the Class of 2011 to Dartmouth. A few days ago in my office at your matriculation I told you how pleased we are that you have joined this community of learning, this community of warm and enduring friendships.  And I am especially proud to welcome here the military veterans who have chosen to join the Dartmouth fellowship; we salute your courage and are enriched by your presence.

The Class of 2011 is larger than we intended because more of you wanted to accept our admissions invitation than we had anticipated.  This is not a bad circumstance!  Each and every one of you is here because this is where you want to be.  And each and every one of you is here because we wanted you to be here.  You are also more diverse in background, race, and economic circumstance than any previous Dartmouth class has been, and there are more international students than we have ever heretofore matriculated.  At Dartmouth we have a tradition of urging students to learn from each other-and in this arena today is the base for a wonderful and rich learning experience.

This exciting opportunity is partially a result of the serendipity of history; thousands of individuals making the decisions and choices that bring us to a common place now sharing a common purpose.  But the range and richness of your Class is not just an accident of history-it is also the result of a sense of purpose deeply embedded in the history of Dartmouth.

The College charter issued by King George III in 1769 provided that Dartmouth College be established "for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land," and also for "English youth and any others." There was no school of the period that embraced so inclusive a purpose. 

The Mohegan Indian Samson Occom stands alongside the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock and New Hampshire Governor John Wentworth as a founder of Dartmouth. While no group "owns" this institution, if any group has a historic relationship with this College it is surely, as our charter reflects, the members of the Native American tribes of this land.  In this, the 238th year of Dartmouth, we extend a special welcome to those who descend from our first students, and whose presence here both reminds us of our legacy and enriches our community.

To be certain, the charter also contained typical 18th-century British and Christian condescension toward the native peoples and too quickly the College slipped away from a commitment to Native American education.  The Dartmouth of the 19th century became a more homogeneous place. But even then, Dartmouth stood out as a school that was accessible and welcoming to the poor farm boys of the New England North Country-and a school that admitted an African American student, Edward Mitchell, in the 1820s, far earlier than any of what would be our sister Ivy colleges.  And the matriculation of Mitchell was not a singular occasion, for the College admitted several other African Americans before the Civil War-individuals like Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs of the Class of 1852, who subsequently opened a school for freedmen in North Carolina and helped to organize the Reconstruction governments in Florida, where he served as Superintendent of Education and Secretary of State.

There was also Charles Eastman -Ohiyesa - a Dakota Indian, graduated from Dartmouth in 1887, who went on to earn a medical degree from Boston University and, then, moved to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, where he tended to the victims of the Wounded Knee massacre. Over the course of his long career as a doctor, lawyer, and writer, he became one of the most respected advocates for Native peoples and Native wisdom. As someone who straddled different cultures he believed that "the [person] who preserves his selfhood ever calm and unshaken by the storms of existence ... [has] the ideal attitude and conduct of life." I hope that as  you look to learn from your classmates, you will also preserve your own identity and sense of self. 

President William Jewett Tucker, led Dartmouth into the 20th century by expanding the student body and by seeking even greater diversity.  The founder of Asian studies in the United States, the Japanese student Konichi Asakawa, Class of 1899, and the scientist who established the field of marine biology, E. E. Just, the son of slaves and a member of the Class of 1907, embodied the Tucker vision. Still later, President Ernest Martin Hopkins in the 1920s argued for the educational value of diversity, believing that students learn from each other and that their learning is enriched by having students whose backgrounds and experiences are different from their own.

Each president succeeding Mr. Hopkins has shared this belief. And, this commitment to the educational value of a diverse student body represents well the Dartmouth of today, building upon outreach in recruiting that was initiated by President John Dickey in the 1960s and upon a reaffirmation of Dartmouth's commitment to Native American education championed by President John Kemeny in 1970. 

This is the legacy that you of the Class of 2011 now inherit-but it is not an artifact to be passively admired or a process that was concluded deep in our history. It is a value and a purpose that each Dartmouth generation must reaffirm. And those who would claim that Dartmouth only recently discovered the educational value of diversity do not understand the richness of our past. Last year at Dartmouth, students, faculty, and staff asserted most clearly that all members of this community are welcome here. This is a powerful message that needs to be constantly and consistently reaffirmed. And then it needs to be embraced and lived: merely stating it is not sufficient. 

Dartmouth's commitment is in the context of a larger national debate.  The current political and legal environment is one in which programs that seek to extend diversity are under siege by those who argue that any exercise of affirmative action to address  systemic or societal bias is in and of itself a form of bias.  I would surely agree that the concept of race neutrality as asserted by these critics of affirmative action is an important legal principle.

However, until our society is race neutral in its assumptions and practices and in its opportunities, the legal principle can stand as barrier against, rather than facilitator of, the justice and equality and access that is promised. In our society there are still too many individuals who, and institutions and cultural norms which, use race or origin to define and not merely to describe.  And these definitions can be confining, if not indeed crude and demeaning as well.

The political scientist Robert Putnam has developed the concept of "social capital," to describe a society marked by trust, collaboration, and civic responsibility.  In the 1990s, he worried about an erosion of social capital in modern society.  In subsequent research, he focused on the relationship of diversity to social capital.  And in a paper he published earlier this summer, he reported that, in fact, diverse communities have less social capital than do homogeneous communities. These findings have provided opportunities for critics of diversity and affirmative action to point out the fallacy of the principle that a diverse community is a stronger community and, also, to question whether actively moving toward diversity is a valued social and legal objective.

So, it is essential that we ask ourselves on this September morning whether all of this-the legal, constitutional, political, and cultural challenges of our time; the pessimism suggested by the Putnam research-whether all of this means that Dartmouth should back away from its historic principles and assumptions? 

Having raised the question, I shall take the opportunity to provide an answer: No, to me it surely does not.  This College's legacy and responsibility are richer than the cycles of politics. Our commitment to the nature of this learning community is older than the formation of this Republic.

The fundamental principle underlying this College and the liberal arts in general is to examine assumptions, to respond to new ideas, not stubbornly to hold to what we once thought to be true. The Putnam research makes more, rather than less, urgent our historic purpose. The appropriate response to these new findings cannot be to strive for homogeneous communities, which may, in the short term, have more social capital, but will surely not, in the long term, provide the intellectual excitement, the general stimulation, and the preparation for a lifetime of learning that Dartmouth seeks-as it has always sought to engender. 

The assignment for you members of the Class of 2011 is not to deal with the tensions of diversity by resisting diversity. Your world will not be one marked by insular communities or isolated societies, cultures, or nations. The leaders and contributors of your generation will not be those who seek the safe social capital and the bland intellectual capital of likeminded homogeneity and the temporary comfort of isolating themselves with those who will never challenge them.

Dartmouth's historic task and current mission is to educate young women and men who can create diverse communities with abundant social capital. No one should assume this will be an easy task. But this is the assignment of your time and of your generation. Abraham Lincoln said, "we cannot escape history."  A world marked by change is not a forgiving or patient place. I believe with great confidence that we have here in this auditorium those who will realize Dartmouth's mission and who will make a profound difference in the world.

So, members of the Class of 2011, today you have become a part of Dartmouth, and Dartmouth forevermore will be a part of you. You will never be the same. But you should know that by your very presence here, Dartmouth itself will be changed, too. Take on this responsibility with confidence and joy. But also embrace with me a profound sense of gratitude for the privilege we share as members of this special community of learning.

As has been my yearly custom, I would close this ceremony by reminding you, and myself, that now we turn enthusiastically to our task. We have work to do, you and I - and it is time to begin! Welcome to Dartmouth. 

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