Karen R. Lawrence: President of the College

President Karen LawrenceOn behalf of the Trustees, faculty, and staff of Sarah Lawrence College, I am delighted to welcome you to the Commencement of the class of 2015. To the graduating class, let me say that we have taken great pleasure in witnessing in you the “transformative” effect that Sarah Lawrence alumni identify as the legacy of their educations.

Along with our graduates, today we honor the family members in the audience, particularly the parents, whose love and commitment have supported our students. Each year brings new themes at graduation, but every time I look out at Sarah Lawrence parents, I am reminded of a line from a Ben Jonson poem in which he calls his child his “best piece of poetry.” To the parents here today, I want to say that the faculty and staff of the College have worked hard to develop these precious products of your creativity and love. We thank you for entrusting them to us and for supporting their educations, often through real sacrifice. Members of the Class of 2015, would you please stand and recognize the family members and friends who have made this moment possible? 

This year begins a new tradition at Sarah Lawrence: separate commencement ceremonies for our master’s and bachelor degree candidates. Yesterday, 169 master’s candidates in our nine graduate programs received their degrees and were joyfully “hooded” by a special faculty member in their programs. We heard a riveting speech from Amy Goodman, host and producer of Democracy Now! about her work bringing marginalized voices to mainstream audiences.

Today, we concentrate on you, our 346 Sarah Lawrence baccalaureate degree recipients. Your rousing response as your dons and teachers processed up the aisle acknowledges that the artisanal nature of teaching and learning at Sarah Lawrence leads to a student-faculty relationship that is unparalleled. Crafted by teacher and student together, the singular education this College offers depends on faculty who recognize that there is no one path to intellectual engagement and the creation of a meaningful life. This idea of education requires an extraordinary commitment of time and care. One measure of the impact of that commitment is that when Sarah Lawrence alumni get together, even at their 50th reunions, they invoke the names of the teachers with whom they studied.

Nationally, however, the value of a liberal arts education is being questioned, including the importance and relevance of one-on-one dialogue between student and faculty. “What’s the Point of a Professor?” Mark Bauerlein, an English Professor from Emory University asked rhetorically in a column in the New York Times two weeks ago, warning of a disturbing national trend in higher education away from one-on-one interaction between a student and faculty member. Citing a study that shows 33 percent of first-year students in college report that they never talk with a professor outside of class, he argues that the decline in this dialogue has profoundly weakened the heart of undergraduate liberal arts education. Professor Bauerlein’s data is eye-opening and he deserves credit for bringing the issue to light. In an attempt to counter this trend, he himself has instituted a practice—he insists that his students meet individually with him every two weeks outside of class to discuss their writing in progress.

Professor Bauerlein’s op ed prompted me to send a Letter to the Editor of the Times, as I have done on a few occasions. This time, the letter was not published but here’s what I said: First, to set the record straight: there IS a place where every student meets individually with his or her faculty member at least every two weeks—indeed, every week in first-year studies—it’s called Sarah Lawrence College. This is the place where dialogue between teacher and student is woven into the very fabric of the education. Rather than an individual teacher’s offering, this rigorous interaction is a fact of intellectual life throughout each student’s college career.

Equally important, I take issue with Professor Bauerlein’s characterization of the nature of these out-of-classroom meetings worth restoring in higher education. For he describes his purpose in requiring these meetings with students as reviving a once-powerful educational model in which “a learned mind enthralled [students] and they progressed toward a fuller identity through admiration of and struggle with a role model.”

At Sarah Lawrence, this interaction would NOT be described as a meeting of enthralled disciple at the foot of a moral authority, although the experience and wisdom of the teacher permeates the interchange. The dialogue between faculty and student is, instead, a common enterprise, what a former Sarah Lawrence teacher, Marc Slonim, called, “a mutual process of give and take.” Our philosophy rests on an idea of learning which works best when the interests and capacities of the individual student are the starting point. “Capacity,” John Dewey wrote, “may denote mere receptivity, like the capacity of a quart measure.” But Dewey privileged, as does the College, a different meaning of the word—“capacity”—as “an ability, a power.” At Sarah Lawrence the dialogue between student and teacher outside the classroom succeeds—and depends upon—the student’s passion and curiosity fueling the discussion.

We have often said that the outcome of this dialogue is a graduate who is curious, confident, and bold. Recent research has shown additional benefits that may surprise you. For this engaged relationship between teacher and student correlates strongly with the well-being of students after they graduate. In a 2014 study of 30,000 college graduates in the U.S. conducted by Purdue University, the engaged and caring relationship between teacher and student was central to the student’s sense of well-being in life and work after college. One of the striking findings of the study is that more than the particular college students attended, what mattered most to their sense of well-being was whether their college experience included a professor “who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams.” According to this survey, only14% of graduates strongly agree they had this experience in college. Well-being is defined in this study as a combination of things important to each individual, the “interaction and interdependency between aspects of life such as finding fulfillment in daily work and interactions, having strong social relationships and access to the resources people need, feeling financially secure, being physically healthy, and taking part in a true community.” This study, still in progress, adds an important dimension to the current conversation about the value of a college education. It argues against the tendency to rely on more easily quantified measures such as salary upon graduation (a measure President Obama proposed, and then, I am happy to say, jettisoned, in the new rating system for colleges).

This study also demonstrates that a sense of well-being in life after college correlates strongly with college experiences that help students figure out how to translate their educations into work and service in the world.  And here’s where we have a responsibility to ensure that our students have the sense while in college that they are being prepared for work and life so that they can thrive. Another striking finding is that only 29% of the college graduates surveyed “strongly agree’ that college prepared them well for life outside of college. The study indicates that three kinds of experiences increase the student’s sense of being prepared for life after college. First, internships or jobs where students are able to put what they are learning into action; second, active involvement in extracurricular activities and organizations, and third, the sense of satisfaction that comes from working on a project that took a semester or more to complete. In recent years, we have sought to enhance all three: first, to greatly enhance work and service opportunities for students through internships and community partnerships, building on a relationship between theory and practice embedded in the College’s progressive history. Second, we have increasingly sought to help the individual student find others who share her passions and goals in particular areas, socially, physically, and intellectually, such as in programs where students solve problems in teams, like SLCeeds, or in enhanced opportunities for athletics. Barbara Walters’ generous gift, recently announced, to create a campus center will enable us to build a powerful magnet on campus for all kinds of student and campus community. And, of course, the sense of satisfaction that comes from working on a project that took a semester or more to complete sounds like a tailor-made description of our signature conference work.

Class of 2015, as you leave the College, we trust you’ll discover that a Sarah Lawrence education provides what Kenneth Burke has called “equipment for living.” Now, go put those tools and abilities to work. We expect nothing less of you than to change for the better your communities, your workplaces, your relationships, your nations, and your world.

Congratulations. We salute you.