Convocation themes: Integrity, arts, weathering storms

September 18, 2017

Voices heard at the annual Academic Convocation at Saint Michael’s College this year invoked strengths of tradition and culture that equip the institution to thrive robustly on the other side of present challenging times nationwide for higher education.

“It is our deep sense of integrity that will allow us to successfully transition into more stable times in higher education,” said the chair of the Saint Michael’s College Trustees at this year’s Convocation in McCarthy Arts Center on Friday afternoon, September 15.

Mary-Kate McKenna’s talk to faculty, students, administrators and staff near the program’s start took honest but optimistic stock of  pressing demographic and economic challenges for Saint Michael’s and all colleges that have been prominently on the minds of every member of the community this past year.

“We are a campus that thrives when we act out of mutual respect and trust even when other forces try and divide us,” McKenna said, alluding indirectly to possible anxiety over necessary austere College budget measures this year, as well as the unusually contentious national social/political climate that sadly found expression on campus last year with overt bias incidents.

“These are not easy times in higher education. This is a time where we must stand together in our belief that our unity will determine our destiny,” McKenna said. Praising President Jack Neuhauser’s steady guidance through it all, the Trustee chair said, “our faith in him has never wavered and we are counting on his leadership throughout the year.” The president, who was in the Convocation dais party, has announced plans to retire next summer. McKenna spoke of being excited by the “robust” pool of candidates in the still-early stages of a presidential search.

Amid all of that, the Convocation’s chief annual purpose, reminded master of ceremonies Karen Talentino, Vice President for Academic Affairs, remains to celebrate faculty scholarship, service and achievement with annual major awards, along with public recognition of retirees and new emeriti, promotions and new faculty, and to hear an inspiring faculty address.

The central role of the arts for a Saint Michael’s education was the prominent theme this year – in the Convocation Address by fine arts/theater Professor John Devlin, titled “Stewardship and the Arts; Holding the Ladder for the Next Generation” — and even pre-ceremony, with a special treat at the opening when Fine Arts/Music Professor Bill Ellis invited his father, the accomplished and widely celebrated bluegrass musician and composer Tony Ellis, to join him on stage in performing some of Tony’s spare and evocative compositions as people filed into the Hall. The gifted father-son pair also provided music for the opening processional that featured Saint Michael’s students, representing their various Academic Honor Societies as flag-bearers.

Arts, stewardship and ‘holding the ladder’

Devlin, the main speaker by virtue of winning last year’s Scholarship and Achievement Award, was eloquent in distilling wisdom for institutions and individuals from his long years as a professional set and lighting designer and scholar of the theater.

Like McKenna, he confronted the issues of the day frankly: “With the challenge to do more with less so clearly presented to us, the ideal of stewardship is even more important now,” Devlin said, adding that such stewardship “comes naturally to scholars and particularly to educators working at an institution imbued with Edmundite traditions.” He told stories of learning stewardship as a youth working on farms, where he absorbed a clear lesson: “Take care of your resources or you will use them up and lose them.”  He spoke of influences from parents educated by Jesuits and Sisters of Saint Joseph whose respective mottos – “For the greater glory of God” and “I have chosen the way of truth” – inform his work. In conclusion Devlin said that for the sake of students, “we need to embrace and reflect the ideal of ‘principled leadership’ that General Dunford talked about at commencement last spring. We owe it to our students to hold the ladder for them as they embark on their adult lives and careers.”

Major Award Winners:

An important part of each year’s program is the presentation of the three major awards for Service, Scholarship/Artistic Achievement, and Teaching. This year’s winners and presenters (typically last year’s winners, if in attendance):

Douglas Slaybaugh of the College’s history faculty received the Norbert A Kuntz Service Award, named for a longtime professor and chair of the History Department. He will serve as the Faculty Marshall next year. (Presenter Karen Talentino for last year’s winner Robert Letovsky who could not be present).

Susan Ouellette, also of the history department, received the Scholarship and Artistic Achievement Award, and will present the Convocation Address at the 2017 Academic Convocation. (Presenter John Devlin)

Traci Griffith of the Media Studies, Journalism and Digital Arts Department received the Joanne Rathgeb Teaching Award, named for a skilled and beloved actor, director, teacher and Breast Cancer Activist who received all three of the awards being some point. Traci will provide welcoming comments to the incoming class at the New Student Convocation in 2017 (presenter Patricia Siplon).

Another inspiring message in the day’s program came from Amy Garlesky ’18, of Cleveland, OH, Secretary of Academics for the Student Association, keeping alive the student-speaker tradition of many years. She told of her gratitude that her professors and others in the Saint Michael’s community are not afraid to challenge students’ beliefs on issues such as justice and privilege. “There’s nothing wrong with discomfort,” she said, suggesting that liberal arts education should be all about such challenging ideas. “Let us feel uncomfortable,” Garlesky said.

Very Rev. Stephen Hornat, superior general of the Society of St. Edmund, had the last word with his Benediction, praying: “As we begin this new academic year help us to not look forward in fear to changes in life and our college community but rather may we look to the future with full hope, because as changes arise you will lead us safety through all things. You have called us to be a part of this Saint Michael’s College community, and you bless us with a unique legacy: an Edmundite tradition of higher learning that has been passed from generation to generation. The gift of our mission, founded on the practice of reflection and deeper discernment, enables us to make decisions which call us to stand in solidarity and kinship with all those who share our earthly journey, and moves us to perform active service rooted in justice and love. These gifts of our Edmundite heritage invite us to be a part of a tradition that builds on the wisdom of the past with a vision open to the opportunities of the future. These gifts also challenge us to move beyond our norm, to broaden our imagination, to deepen our trust and to establish your kingdom here on Earth. Fill us with enthusiasm and wonder as we receive these gifts and begin this academic year with open minds, generous hearts and a willing spirit. Following the example of St. Edmund, educator and scholar, may we, too, labor and ask for no reward except that of knowing that we are doing your will. And may we take full possession of this heritage and joyfully pass it on to those men and women entrusted to our care who walk behind us into the future. And let our work always find its origin in you — and through you, reach completion.”

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