September 25, 2017

I just returned from representing Russell Sage College at the Women’s College Coalition annual meeting, hosted this year by Agnes Scott College and Spelman in Atlanta. I had the opportunity to meet with other presidents of women’s colleges and share ideas and information on a range of topics. The increased diversity of women’s colleges was a theme, as was the demonstrated success of women’s colleges in successfully graduating low-income students: perhaps because our history is so deeply rooted in creating educational opportunities where societal prejudices have limited them.

The conference also focused on the promotion of civic engagement.  As Mary Hinton, President of the College of St. Benedict put it, we educate for common good—for all, not just for us.

That discussion made me think of two different but equally important events that took place at The Sage Colleges in September: the Corporate Connections Reception and the Sage Engaged day of community service. Both events are reminders of how Sage is intertwined with the community in which we live and work.

The Corporate Connections Reception is a thank-you to the 62 companies that provide $1000 scholarships to seniors in need of additional funds as they finish their education and prepare to enter the job market.  The event gives the student recipients a chance to thank and talk with their corporate sponsors, many of whom also hire our students as interns and our graduates as regular employees. That the program grows each year and has raised over $1 million going directly to our students is evidence of how our graduates fuel the local work force—and how well our corporate partners understand that. We prosper together.

We generally think of how college education benefits and creates opportunities for our graduates.  And it does—Sage students succeed.  But that success drives the common good as well. We all benefit from an educated populace.

“Sage Engaged” is a day of volunteer work throughout Albany and Troy in which our students (with staff help) partner with local non-profits to address community needs.  It offers our students an introduction to the potential and the rewards of community service. This year the event was a resounding success and was set during the term rather than orientation to involve all students, not just entering new students.

Ultimately, the goal of programs like this is to improve our communities.  The provost at Spelman, Sharon Davies, stressed how instead of cataloging how many hours their students serve, they focus on what they accomplish in the community. At Sage, we share the idea that community service develops through a student’s education and life from episodic engagement (spending a day helping a food pantry, for example) to higher-level addressing of social problems (taking action to reduce poverty and hunger).

Core programs like WORLD at Russell Sage and I.Think at Sage College of Albany ensure this is a part of every Sage student’s experience.  Both programs stress education for engagement and develop that progressively over the four years of a college education.

In the debate over the value of higher education, we have too often reduced it to a comparison of the cost of education compared to the salary value of the degree.  While that comparison indeed reveals that college is an extraordinarily good investment, it fails to count the multiple ways that our colleges provide intellectual and social capital to our communities: direct economic impact, attractive green space, cultural events, committed faculty as thought leaders, student community volunteers and interns, and a steady flow of educated graduates committed not just to bettering themselves but to creating a better world for everyone.

 

September 10, 2017

 

The very last step of getting moved in was to unpack the books: 20 boxes in my office; 35 boxes at home.  It is a process both cumbersome and rewarding—and an occasion for reflecting on a lifetime of reading and on the book as an artifact.

In the era of the e-book, it is striking how inefficient traditional books are. I held in my hand a paperback I bought in a used book store while in graduate school and saw the price marked in pencil: $2.50. This will be the twelfth time that book has been moved: packed into a box and labeled, carried by me (when younger) or by movers, unpacked and re-sorted onto a shelf.  In my younger years, those shelves would be made from bricks and boards.  In Atlanta, we had beautiful shelves built into our living room.  When we moved again and had to leave them behind, we decided to build shelving that looked built-in but could move with us.  That tiny volume of Shakespeare criticism bears its share of those costs and is perhaps not the bargain it seemed at the time.

So why hold onto these dusty volumes when electronic access would dramatically save paper, shelving and moving costs?  I’ve read e-books; they’re fine. But I like the feel of a book and the ease of writing a note in the margin and flipping back and forth. I also like having it on my shelf: for future reference or to lend to a friend.

But, if I were honest with myself, I’d have to admit that most of the books on my shelves I won’t open again. Jorge Luis Borges has a wonderful poem about mortality called “Limits.”  It begins:

Of all the streets that blur into the sunset
There must be one (which, I am not sure)
That I by now have walked for the last time. . . .

And later muses:

Through the dawning window night withdraws
And among the stacked books which throw
Irregular shadows on the dim table,
There must be one which I will never read.

I similarly know that my library has many books I will never read again.

And yet they serve my memory much the way photographs do. Indeed, unpacking the books and sorting them on the shelves rekindles many memories (intentional Amazon pun).  I put together my English poetry shelf with volumes of Chaucer, Donne, Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Swinburne and Yeats.  To be honest, Keats, Wordsworth and Yeats are the only ones I go back to with any frequency.  Some of the others have been closed since grad school.  But I remember the courses in which I studied them, my teachers and fellow students, those years of discovery as I found a vocation and experienced that crucial step in learning: that there was a field of knowledge I was responsible for, whether I had a class assignment or not.  That they sit together—six hundred years of poetry—on a single shelf continues to amaze me, as it did Virginia Woolf.  In her fanciful book, Orlando, the hero, who lives three centuries, encounters (in the nineteenth century) for the first time in her very literary life, an actual “bookstore”:

These innumerable little volumes, bright, identical, ephemeral, for they seemed bound in cardboard and printed on tissue paper, surprised her infinitely. The whole works of Shakespeare cost half a crown and could be put in your pocket. . . .  ‘Works,” the works of every writer she had known or heard of and many more stretched from end to end of the long shelves. . . . She gave an astounding order to the bookseller to send her everything of importance in the shop and left.

 

Another wall of books reflects my good fortune to work in a field that brings me in close contact with writers: inscribed books from various authors.  Some of those authors I worked with over a literary festival weekend, others are close friends.  The memories there range from talking with John Updike about our mutual admiration for largely forgotten English novelist Henry Green to accepting from James Dickey the last few cans of Schlitz Malt Liquor that he had failed to finish in the Alumnae House.

As a teacher of literature, of course, books are also tools of the trade.  Some of the volumes are worn from years of teaching them to different generations of students who, in their turn, changed the way I read and remember those books.  My tattered copy of Ulysses reminds me of reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy with a class of students at a women’s college whose honest responses shed new light on one of the most famous moments of a male author writing from a female perspective.  My collected Wallace Stevens reminds me of teaching “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to a particularly sharp group of undergraduates who somehow transformed my “ice cream as universal good” into an “ice cream as death” reading of the poem.

The shelves remind me of my particular fondness for books that talk to each other.  If I want, I can shelve them side by side.  Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea that re-tells Jane Eyre from the point of view of Bertha Mason, the “madwoman in the attic”; Margaret Atwood’s Hag Seed that reinvents The Tempest as a performance in a contemporary Canadian prison; Jane Smiley’s Ten Days in the Hills that turns the Decameron into a Hollywood novel; and my favorite writer, Zadie Smith, whose On Beauty reimagines E. M. Forster’s great Howards End in contemporary New England.

My personal library is just a tiny slice of the comprehensive world library, what Borges apotheosized in “The Library of Babel.”  And reading is just a slice of my overall experience and memory.  So it is with us all.  But as individual and distinct as our slices of experience are, books call us to come together.  We read in solitary but become a part of a community of fellow travelers.  The renewed popularity of book clubs testifies to this, as do our classrooms where one of the most fundamental premises is a roomful of inquiring minds who have read the same thing but responded to it differently.

And now, at last, we are moved in.

August 27, 2017

 

It may be hard for young people today to realize that earlier generations did not document every moment of their lives with videos, photos and selfies.  Taking photographs was a bit more laborious, and they had to be “developed” and sometimes got lost over time.  So I don’t have a ton of old family photos.

This is one I do have, though.  It is my first day of school, and “Kindergarten, 1961” is written on the back in my father’s hand.  No doubt he stood looking down into the Brownie camera with the red lever on the side and took this photo—with unhappy next-door neighbor, Ellen Diamond, beside me as we headed off to our first day of school.

I feel many things when I look at this photo.  What happened to that innocent little boy? Can you believe there was a time when parents let a four-and-a-half year old child walk to school?  Mostly, I think about this: I have been in school consistently for the fifty-six years that have followed, whether as a student, a teacher or an administrator.

I don’t think I could have imagined that—dreams of being a baseball pitcher and a rock guitarist would dominate my youth—though my father was a teacher, so it’s hardly a surprise.

But lately, something in that picture has become more sharply focused for me.  Only late in life, after a generation of teaching and being an educator, have I come to realize how privileged I was.  My parents not only thought the first day of school was worthy of commemoration, but they assumed they would oversee and supplement my education all the way through college, which they did.  There was never a doubt in their minds that I and my siblings would graduate from college (and, indeed, we all did and all became educators).

We were a family of modest means.  My father was a high school teacher in the Bronx; my mother was a homemaker. But both of them had graduate degrees, and their very different routes to those degrees contributed to my growing up in a household suffused by education.

My mother had a bachelor’s and master’s degree in Occupational Therapy, earned at a time when fewer than 15% of women graduated from college.  More remarkably, both her father and mother were educated professionals—CPAs who jointly ran a family accounting firm.  That my grandmother, born in the 1890s, had that level of education meant my mother had examples at home that few other women born in the 1920s had.  That unspoken assumption—that an education was not only valuable but the pre-requisite to a rewarding and fulfilling life—was part of her upbringing.

It wasn’t part of my father’s.  His mother emigrated to the U.S. from Slovakia in the first decade of the twentieth century, alone, at the age of 16.  She married a first-generation American, son of Russian immigrants, whose mother was illiterate and whose father was a dairyman.  My grandfather was forced by his parents to quit school after eighth grade to go to work—something he resented bitterly.

These two New Yorkers with high-school educations, one a non-native speaker of English, had two children (who survived).  Both of those children became—well, English teachers. My father went to CUNY and then added a master’s degree from Columbia Teacher’s College; his sister had a Ph.D. in medieval literature and was a college professor.

The generation that followed—my generation with my two siblings and five cousins—had tremendous opportunities as a result of our parents’ educations. I suppose we all took that for granted, at least when we were young.  All of us graduated from college, most from graduate school, and all are professionals.

I feel in that cheerful picture of me with my polo shirt and slicked back hair that I was the double beneficiary of my mother’s world in which educated men and women were a given and my father’s world in which education was all the more dear because it was not a given.

What’s important to remember is that we do not show up equally on the first day of school.  I had tremendous advantages, thanks to the education my parents received and the values that came with it.  For many other kids—in 1961 and today—that path to college is anything but assured.  Their parents are just as loving and determined—no question.  But statistics tell us that the likelihood of graduating from college is stubbornly tied to both family income and parental educational level.

Our role as educators—what we do every day at Sage—is to swim against that tide and create opportunities for students of all kinds and from all backgrounds, opportunities for themselves and ultimately for their children, too.

When I look into that photo of young Chris Ames, I look back through my young self to my parents and grandparents and realize why they thought it was a moment worthy of a photograph.

August 16, 2017
Backbeard in New York City

 

You’re reading this, so I know you follow Sage news on Sage.edu and social media — and you’ve seen the rave reviews of Backbeard: The Musical – written, scored and directed by Sage faculty and starring students and graduates – at the New York Musical Festival in Manhattan.

The reviews naturally focused on Backbeard’s “terrific score,” “lyrics so incredibly witty” and “sweet story” (theatrepizzazz.com); “choreography…performed with precision and gusto” (Times Square Chronicles); and “wonderfully inventive scenic design” (theaterscene.net).

I joined Sage alumni at a sold-out performance at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row. While I echo the accolades above, as president of The Sage Colleges I am especially proud of Backbeard as an example of the professional experiences to be found throughout the arts programs (and throughout all the programs of study) at The Sage Colleges.  (more…)

July 22, 2017

The publication of the annual Pew Survey of American attitudes toward institutions has caused quite a stir regarding the politicization of higher education. The most noteworthy conclusion of the study was that partisan differences (i.e., Republican vs. Democrat) have significantly increased in the last two years regarding how respondents view college and universities.

“Two years ago, 54 percent of Republicans said colleges had a positive impact on the country’s direction, with 37 percent rating higher education negatively.” This year, 58% identified a negative effect, while only 36% saw college as a positive force in society. Party affiliation made a big difference: 72 percent of Democrats viewed colleges positively, while only 19 percent were negative.

What’s going on? Surely the common good served by an educated populace is largely non-partisan in nature. The developments in medicine, science, technology, and industry that we see every day come from our educated citizenry. Colleges drive economic development in their communities. That an educated population best serves a democracy is a commonplace repeated on the left and right. Students from around the world still flock to the United States to study. And I suspect there is very little partisan distinction in the American love for collegiate sports (practically an obsession).

The answer lies in the inflated rhetoric of the Culture Wars and the exaggerated caricatures of college life built around a handful of stories meant to illustrate political conflicts on campuses running amok and resulting in embarrassing things like a controversial speaker being chased away.

Such events have indeed occurred, but they are mischaracterized as representative of college life. William Chace, former president of Wesleyan and Emory, makes this point persuasively in an article in “The American Interest”

Chace discusses the protest at Middlebury that stopped a lecture by conservative sociologist Charles Murray. He points out that Murray has spoken since at a dozen universities without similar incident. He notes that Middlebury is an elite institution that is not particularly typical of higher education. And even there, he notes, “most students are doing what students mostly do: study, talk to friends, waste time, worry, think about the future, party, and behave as young people always behave. “ I might add that students are supposed to make mistakes as they figure things out, and seizing on particular moments for ridicule as young people explore their political identities and develop their own voices undermines our educational mission.

Sure, there are statistics that show that college students and professors are slightly more to the left than the general population. With faculty, this is true primarily in four-year colleges and in the arts and sciences, but less the case in professional disciplines and in other kinds of collegiate institutions. Even in the last bitterly contested presidential election, students went just one percent more for the Democratic candidate than the general population did.

Still, the partisan divide in how colleges are viewed that the Pew study reports reflects something real—and something that educators should be concerned about. Part of the cause, I am convinced, is the shift in political and social discourse to modes of communication in which outrageousness and extremity are awarded: political shock-jock radio and cable tv, reality television, internet memes and clickbait stories. In that world of inflated rhetoric, exaggerated stereotypes take the place of reality, and the cartoon is mistaken for the more nuanced thing itself.

Those of us who care about an educated America need to push back in ways that cross party lines: by making the case for how our colleges serve their communities and the economy, by teaching respectful discourse and serving as exemplars of it, by gently correcting stereotypes when we talk to people about life at Sage or wherever we study or have studied. We graduate Republicans and Democrats and Independents, just as we serve students diverse in religion, ethnicity, and sexual identity. An educated society grants us all a life that is decidedly richer and we shouldn’t let the politics of the moment obscure that.

July 06, 2017

July 5 was my first day physically in the office as the tenth president of The Sage Colleges, thanks to the Independence Day holiday.

Independence Day is a holiday I particularly enjoy and find meaningful, perhaps partly for the pure sensory joy of fireworks (all that energy-and they only paint the sky for an instant). I recall memories of July 4 displays: as a little child holding my ears in a New Jersey park or years later in the North Georgia Mountains watching my young niece and nephew hold theirs; I think of all the great bodies of water that have served as firework backdrops for me–the Colorado River in Austin, Texas, the San Francisco Bay, the Pacific Ocean at the Santa Monica Pier, and the Chester River on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. In land-locked Atlanta, I watched the fireworks above the Confederate memorial (and one-time Klan rallying spot) of Stone Mountain and thought of Atlanta’s most famous resident, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., saying in “I Have a Dream” that he longed to hear freedom ring “even from Stone Mountain, Georgia.” To all of those rich memories, I am thrilled to add the fireworks over the great Hudson River. (Well, I glimpsed the fireworks from the ValleyCats ball park from the windows of my temporary lodgings above the bagel shop).

Along with the sheer pleasure of fireworks, Independence Day is a holiday about what it means to be an American, a question that evolves with each generation. Increasingly for this generation, that answer may be shaped by the musical Hamilton, which is woven around the premise that all of our contemporary diverse, multi-cultural, immigrant-filled society is prefigured in the language and experience of the nation’s founders. As they sing: “Immigrants: We Get the Job Done.”

“What is an American?” Because of our history of colonization, immigration and being a haven for refugees, this is a perpetually vexed question revisited time and time again. Later in the fall, I’ll be offering a lecture in the World Series on the RSC campus about race and jazz in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby that will touch on the hostility to Eastern and Southern European immigrants that characterizes the 1920s and shows up in that quintessentially great American novel.

The last few years remind us that these questions remain vexed. From the slander about President Obama not being really “American” to the complex debates regarding immigration reform to the proposal to construct a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, there is a lot about the question of “What is an American” that remains in dispute. Now, on this July 4th in 2017, the presidential executive order restricting travel from several Muslim-majority countries is partially in effect but awaits ultimate Supreme Court review. What could be a more vivid reminder that the story of America that we celebrate on July 4 is still being written? The conversation continues. And as painful as these disputes may be and have been throughout our history, it is good that we have them and that we live in a society that accepts and struggles to sort out divergent views.

Not quite midway between Alexander Hamilton and the present day sits Abraham Lincoln and his lesser known (but powerful) Independence Day speech delivered July 10, 1858 to a picnicking Chicago crowd, made up largely of German immigrants. Lincoln attacks his political opponent, Senator Stephen Douglas, and Douglas’s argument that the line in the Declaration of Independence that says “All men are created equal” applies only to descendants of the original revolutionaries who penned it. Lincoln asks the crowd of German immigrants whether, if we believe that language excludes the people brought to America as slaves, will we also conclude it excludes later immigrants like the Swedes, Poles and Germans. Here’s what he decides, enhanced by his own rhetorical fireworks:

“What are these arguments [limiting to whom “All men are created equal” applies]? They are the arguments that Kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world… the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it… I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it, where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold to do it! If it is not true, let us tear it out! [Long pause with shouting from the crowd.] Let us stick to it then; let us stand firmly then.”

News reports describe the crowd shouting “No one!” when Lincoln asks who will tear the page out of the declaration. Indeed, there are crowd comments loudly interjecting throughout the stirring Independence Day speech—it was very much an audience participation event.

This all does have something to do with The Sage Colleges, I think. At Sage, our mission and history have consistently been dedicated to facilitating full participation in the social, economic and artistic fabric of society for people who might be excluded for want of access to higher education. Our development from our origin as Russell Sage College educating women (beginning three years before they gained suffrage) flows logically to our current identity carrying on that women’s college tradition–but with co-educational programs as well–and campuses and a student body that are ethnically and economically diverse and include many students who are the first in their families to graduate from college.

I’m confident that our graduates will participate in these debates and lead them. That’s another way the faculty, staff and administration contribute to the on-going American conversation: by preparing the next generation of leaders.

That is an American vision to celebrate on July 4 on the banks of the Hudson.

July 05, 2017

You have stumbled onto the web log of Chris Ames, tenth president of The Sage Colleges. This is the very first post: a welcome to any readers who come this way. I hope you will find something of interest, but I know full well that, if you don’t, you don’t need to linger.

That reminds me of advice I heard author Jane Smiley give a group of creative writing students. She told them to remember that there was no reason to expect anyone to be interested in what they had to say. It was shocking advice, but refreshing. When I did some research to see if she’d published this advice, I came across this passage of hers:

“When I was a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I remember opening the door to my friend’s office and looking inside. Over her desk, above her typewriter, she’d tacked up a phrase: NOBODY ASKED YOU TO WRITE THAT NOVEL. I knew right away this was going to be an important idea for me. The line reminded me that writing was a voluntary activity. I could always stop. I could always go on. And since no one’s asking you do it, I’ve always seen writing as an exercise of freedom, rather than an exercise of obligation.”

Given that NOBODY ASKED ME TO WRITE THIS BLOG, let me say something about what I hope it will accomplish. It will be part of my emphasis on communication of all kinds, communication through listening to everyone who cares about Sage, through being open and transparent with our community about decision-making, through communicating in open forums and at faculty meetings, through meeting frequently with students, faculty, staff, alumnae and alumni to share stories, and through tapping multiple channels of communication—formal and informal.

Like the students we will welcome to orientation in a few weeks, my most telling characteristic is that I’m new here. I hope to record my reactions to life at Sage and offer some connections between Sage and my experiences elsewhere, as well as connections with what’s happening in the nation in higher education. So this blog is a place for personal reflection and the occasional provocative idea to stimulate discussion—and a place to celebrate the many, diverse elements that make The Sage Colleges a wonderful place.

If you’ve made it this far: thank you.

Chris Ames
President, The Sage Colleges