Skip to main content

Office of the President Emeritus
Hinman Box 6166
Hanover, NH 03755
Phone: (603) 646-0016
Fax: (603) 646-0015

Remarks by President James Wright at Convocation Sept. 20, 2005

September 20, 2005

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 mark a new beginning. Today we assemble in the annual ceremony of renewal and reunion that marks the beginning of another academic year and that formally welcomes those who join us for the first time. 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 the community. I am also very pleased that Sarah Billmeier '99 could join this gathering, and I salute Noah Riner '06, as the President of the Student Body.

This morning, we share in a ritual that is as ancient as the academy at a place that is older than the Republic, and here we extend to the first-year members of this community an embrace that will be as enduring as the granite of the North Country.

Members of the Class of 2009: Welcome! The air is electric with a new class in town. Quite aside from the pomp and ceremony, for most of us the true excitement of this assemblage is less about reflecting on the tradition and history that mark this day than it is about the anticipation and excitement that enrich it. '09ers, you bring much to this occasion, and we are caught up in your own enthusiasm for the journey that starts here.

As we begin another year in the history of this College and as our newest members begin an important stage in their lives, our mood of celebration is muted by nature's most recent cruel reminder of the fragility of human plans. Our attention necessarily is distracted by the tragedy on the Gulf Coast. Katrina, a random name associated with a random meteorological event, will evermore recall catastrophe. You would need to go back to the San Francisco earthquake of a century ago to find in the annals of this country a natural disaster as broadly and fundamentally devastating. We join in grieving those who have been lost. Our hearts and our support go out to all who have suffered and who will endure suffering and dislocation and mourning for some time. Let us join together to resolve to reach out to them in whatever way we can. And let us share now a moment of silence, a moment to reflect or to pray....

I would also like to extend today a special greeting to those students and faculty from institutions in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast who have come to us this fall. You are most welcome here and, we are indeed enriched by your presence. You have become a part of this community and we shall consider you such even when you return to your home institutions. Your Dartmouth association is for a lifetime.

For 236 years now Dartmouth College has convened to go about the good work of learning. Since before the American Revolution, in an unbroken path to this moment, students, faculty, alumni/alumnae, staff, and officers of this College have collaborated and committed themselves to provide the best education possible. Here, students are not consumers of an education, but rather are beneficiaries of a rich and generous legacy, one that for each and every one of you has been shaped and subsidized by those who have preceded you. Few gifts that you will receive in your lifetime will ever exceed this one - this Dartmouth education.

Now, in turn, you assume three responsibilities. The first one, and it is one not ever to be taken lightly, is to take fullest advantage of the opportunity that it is your good fortune to have. Here you may study all that is now known, and here you find an environment and a faculty who will share with you a curiosity and a passion to extend that which we now know and to discover that which we do not. Pursue this opportunity fully; reach out to new areas of learning; expand your comfort zone; seek out and engage people whose views and interests differ from yours; understand the selfless generosity, the helping hand, that makes a true community - and as a corollary, recognize the even more complicated step of learning to accept help when it is extended to you. That reciprocity is an essential mark of a true community of true equals and true friends.

You of the Class of 2009 commence on this date a voyage of liberal arts learning that will occupy you for a lifetime - and it is one that will enable you to make choices that fulfill best your own interests, your own aspirations, your own needs. Take it and run with it; it is yours. And don't ever underestimate the special opportunity you have.

But there were two other responsibilities you incur today. (With such a generous gift, of course there must always be a "But...!") While I hope and expect that your education here will enable you to fulfill your dreams and to pursue the career that you wish, Dartmouth is also about more than you and what you will do in your life.

Dartmouth is here because for over 200 years people have had a special hope for it. And you, members of the Class of 2009, are here because we have a special hope for you: that as a member of this fellowship you will assume a lifetime responsibility to make this school the stronger as well as a companion responsibility to make the world the better. The former, the work of always advancing this College, cannot be an act of institutional self-indulgence either. Last year Dartmouth was identified as one of the world's great "enduring" institutions. This is a very special recognition, in which we justly take pride. But, finally our purpose is about more than merely enduring, simply hanging around.

Dartmouth can be justified only if it continues to do what it has done so well for so long: educate students who embrace teamwork, assume leadership, and understand the obligation that accompanies their good fortune; Dartmouth graduates readily understand and accept responsibility for the world in which they live. A natural disaster has provided you a pre-matriculation opportunity to understand the nature of your life assignment to contribute to the world in which you live.

Following Katrina's savage assault, it was not just levees and buildings and infrastructure that were destroyed, but lives were lost and hopes and dreams were shattered. Rebuilding the latter for those who survive and sustaining those who mourn will be by far the hardest task. This College, this community, has stepped up to help in this work.

But our response to Hurricane Katrina must involve more than helping to rebuild that area - it is about more than plywood and new clothes, as critical as these are. We all, your generation and mine, face a far harder assignment. This natural disaster exposed levels of poverty and racial disparity that a good society simply must confront. We need firmly to resolve to address these issues.

I am accustomed to the generosity of the Dartmouth family and to the generosity of the broader community of which we are a part, but I am in this instance profoundly struck by the reminder that the toughest of times brings out the best from the best. You have already learned in your lifetimes that the test of human society is not the impossible task of preventing all bad things. Rather, the test is how good people respond to bad things. And I am always inspired by the response, by the generosity of the young.

When I was your age I was in the Marine Corps, having joined when I was still seventeen years old. Since I believe I am the only Marine ever to serve as an Ivy League President, I have long recognized my good fortune and recently I have recognized perhaps a singular responsibility. This past summer I visited with the Marines being treated at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, each of whom had been very seriously injured in Iraq. I thanked them for their sacrifice and I encouraged them to pursue their education - encouragement they did not, in fact, require. Several of them had enlisted following 9/11, withdrawing from school to do so, and are now ready to resume their education. On the occasion of that visit, I also learned from these hospitalized Marines, as I always do from young people. I was moved by their stories, impressed by their courage, and inspired by their enthusiasm to live lives that make a difference. It was I who was the beneficiary of my visit to them.

But, you know, those Marines at Bethesda are part of an inspiring generation - yours. As long as there have been people my age, they have assumed as a matter of privilege the right to wring their hands and to fret about people your age. Their metric is typically set at how they remember their generation when they were you. And you know already from your own experience how that comparison will typically end. The odds are not with you. All I can say by way of reassurance is that it has always been so. Even the noble Socrates once wrote, "Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers." I do not join in worrying about you. I have had the advantage of observing your generation closely and I do not fret for the future of this Republic or for the extension of human decency and generosity under your care. There will be no hand wringing from this platform - instead I raise my hand in salute for what you have already done and I am heartened by the promise you bring here with you.

The work of Dartmouth students just in the past year or so affirms this promise. Students have been involved in projects ranging from a local Habitat for Humanity house to clinics in Central America and Kenya, to tutoring in local schools, to the Tsunami relief effort last winter. Campus Compact and the Princeton Review recently named Dartmouth a "College with a Conscience," because of its exemplary record of service and the extent of student engagement in outreach activities. Through the programs and activities of the Tucker Foundation, approximately 60 percent of undergraduates are involved in helping others. Last year, senior Rebecca Heller received the Campus Compact Howard R. Swearer Student Humanitarian Award for her service work. She volunteered with AmeriCorps and developed a program called Harvest for the Hungry that addressed hunger in the Upper Valley.

Our graduates also affirm this commitment and have inspired the culture here by the lives they lead. Last year a record 11 percent of the graduating class applied to participate in Teach for America. Since its inception under President John F. Kennedy, nearly 45 years ago, 500 Dartmouth graduates have worked within the Peace Corps, and this past year a record number of Dartmouth graduates joined that organization - the second highest participation rate in the country. A number of other graduates have joined the military, some through ROTC and others through officer training programs. Nathaniel Fick of the Class of 1999 served in Afghanistan and Iraq as a Marine platoon leader and is now heading for a career in government service.

We take seriously here President John Sloan Dickey's invocation "the world's troubles are your troubles. ... and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix." In order to perform public service it is not necessary, of course, to devote yourself to a career in public service. This society is surely the better because of all of our graduates who have excelled in business and the professions and who have also assumed responsibility for helping to make their communities and their world the better.

You have joined a proud Dartmouth tradition, as you have enriched it already by your commitment to helping in the aftermath of Katrina. Your willingness to assume this task is consistent with the contributions that you have already made in your home communities and in your secondary schools. Everyone has a contribution to make, and it is up to you to decide how you will make yours. Your reputations and your work have preceded you. The world is in good hands - and if terrorists and the venal, the cynical and the selfish, get the headlines, they do not represent us, so long as we insist that we will not allow them to do so. They surely are not the majority of humankind. They are not our future - the young Marines at Bethesda are, the most committed teachers in the poorest schools are, the people who work with Paul Farmer are, the people who have stopped their own lives to contribute to the rebuilding of the lives of those on the Gulf Coast are - Sarah Billmeier, Nathaniel Fick, and Rebecca Heller are. You are.

A few minutes ago we joined our quite independent modes of reflection in a common gesture: a moment of silence to consider and to hope and to pray for those who suffer. That moment was more than symbolic - its power came from the unity of purpose and the shared hope for the good. This shared hope, this collective commitment, followed by generosity of action, is what encourages my sense of pride and underscores my sense of optimism.

So, members of the Class of 2009, today you, along with our students from the Gulf States institutions, 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 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.

Last Updated: 8/21/08