Vice-President for Institutional and Budget Planning
Lecturer in Political Science
9:30 a.m. Sunday, May 22, 2005
I am deeply honored and touched to have been invited to speak to you today, as you prepare to graduate from Grinnell College and move on to the next phases of your lives. As I wrote this, I realized that remarks at Baccalaureate events or Commencements often focus on either the student experience while at a particular institution or on your future once you graduate. Because I am leaving Grinnell this summer along with you, I wish to spend most of my time talking about Grinnell College and what is so unique about this place.
I arrived in Grinnell on July 8, 1998, having come from Cornell Law School with Russell Osgood. I'll never forget the day. I was driving our beloved Volvo wagon with a U-Haul in tow. My kids -- 1 and 3 at the time -- were strapped in the back. One diaper definitely needed to be changed. My large dog was overheating in the way-back, with our belongings jammed in around her. My wife, a Californian having never been to Iowa, was in tears as we crossed the RR tracks on Highway 146. It was at least 90 gazillion degrees out. We pulled up at Nollen House, not sure of where our adventure was headed. In front of Steiner Hall, there were four Grinnell students playing some version of Ultimate Frisbee. One student caught the Frisbee and scored. One of the students on the opposing team dropped to his knees, raised his arms toward the sky and yelled: "We've been vanquished!" It gave me pause. Where I come from, you might say: "They beat us," or "Darn, we lost," or "We'll get 'em next time." But "vanquished?" It put me on notice that something was different and special here.
I don't like to speak in categorical terms: people tend to look for jobs that matter to them and make them feel like they are doing something worthwhile for others. This is particularly the case for teachers and particularly the case for the faculty and staff at Grinnell. I have taught at Cornell, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Riverside but nowhere before Grinnell had I experienced the sheer intellectual joy and pleasure that comes from being in a classroom where students thrive on engaging with, and even challenging, class materials. This, in my opinion, is the true hallmark of a Grinnell student -- the knowledge and ability to probe, to question, and even redefine. For example, just this semester in class, I revelled in my students' eagerness to challenge whether retribution alone could serve as a justification for criminal punishment (such as the death penalty) in the absence of other justifications such as deterrence or rehabilitation. With just the right question before them, students would immediately attack the issue and challenge each other's conclusions. For a teacher, there is no better experience than intellectual engagement at that level, particularly when it is a function of student to student interaction.
And, it's not just the faculty who feel a part of Grinnell. I have never seen a place where staff members, including those who clean our different buildings and maintain our grounds, feel so attached to their institution and believe in the shared academic enterprise that is focused first on you, our students. After all, as you know, a Grinnell education occurs not just in the classroom but in the residence halls, on the athletic fields, and in the dining halls.
In my experience, Grinnell students are driven, whether they like it or not. I will never forget one Saturday evening four years ago, when Kendra Young, a 2002 graduate and a Rhodes Scholar, was babysitting for us. It was about 11:30 p.m. and I gave Kendra a ride back to campus from our house. Surely, she would want to be dropped off somewhere on campus for some social event. No. Rather, she wanted to be dropped off at the Science Center so that she would get back to her research in a biology lab. I admit that Kendra was a particularly motivated student but I don't think that this is so unusual. In fact, I think that Grinnell could easily win the award for the most sleep-deprived institution in the country if such an award was available.
This may be counterintuitive to some, but Grinnell's location in a relatively rural setting is one of Grinnell's greatest assets. It creates a vibrant and intense community that is ideal for learning. And, this intellectual community extends beyond the physical borders of Grinnell College, into the town and even beyond that. We bump into each other on campus. In town. In the supermarkets. In our cafÐ¹s. It is a part of building meaningful, textured, and long-lasting relationships. To be sure, this intensity can spark moments of tension but that is also a part of living in any healthy community.
Also related to our location is another great strength of Grinnell -- its basic humanity. Because of where we are situated, we can tap into the hard working and honest culture that is Iowa and the Midwest. Grinnell is not a place with pretenses. It is down to earth. It is open and inviting. And, it is sincere.
I would be remiss if I didn't spend one moment talking about your futures. This can be an uncertain time and you may wonder whether your Grinnell education has prepared you for a lifetime of personal and professional success. Will it take you where you want to go? Of course, that is hard to answer. But, you should have faith in your education. Trust me when I tell you that your Grinnell education will take you where you want to go, even if you don't know where that is right now. Two comments: If there is one thing that a Grinnell education should teach you it is to live in a state of constant self-reflection. You should always think about how your actions have influenced or will influence others and modify what you do accordingly. You should also ensure that everything you do or produce meets with your own sense of excellence. As Grinnell graduates with all of your hard work done while here, you know what "excellence" looks like and striving toward it will ensure the very best results.
Many schools try hard to distinguish themselves from peer schools, such as in their educational programs, particular locations, athletic programs, quality of the faculty, and unique ethos. Without opining on the merits of these assertions, trust me when I tell you what I hope you already know -- you leave a place in Grinnell that is truly unlike any other school. In some strange and unpredictable way, and I never expected that this would happen to me, but Grinnell gets in your blood and becomes a part of how you identify yourself. How you characterize yourself to others. You don't just have a Grinnell education. You aren't just Grinnell graduates. Please don't ever forget that you are also, in essence, Grinnellians. Thank you.