I am honored to stand here as the tenth president of The Sage Colleges and to have all of you present to mark the occasion of this new chapter in Sage’s history. My thanks to all the constituencies represented here: students, faculty, staff, administrators, trustees, alumnae and alumni, community members and friends of Sage. Thank you to the Inauguration Committee, co-chaired by Trish Cellemme and Rose Grignon, who took care of all the details so that all I had to do was show up. I am honored to have here representatives from Princeton University, Tulane University, Commonwealth College at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hudson Valley Community College, Albany Law School, SUNY Cobleskill, Union College and Valparaiso University. My thanks as well to my two most important mentors, who joined us here, Larry Large, former president of Oglethorpe University, and Baird Tipson, former president of Washington College. I am honored by all of those who offered greetings, invocations and songs as part of the program, and their names and titles are listed in your programs. I am particularly grateful that President Susan Scrimshaw is here to represent all the previous presidents upon whose contributions my work depends. Thanks as well to my wife, Lauren Ames, for taking on this adventure and responsibility with me and to our great friends Wendy Waczek and Carol Colgate who join us here today.
I save my last thank-you for Robert Earl Price, who not only traveled here but composed a poem at my request for the occasion. Robert Earl is a playwright and poet. Though he has served colleges as a playwright in residence and taught classes (including visiting a poetry class at Russell Sage yesterday), Robert Earl would probably be the first to tell you he is not an “academic.” So I told him a bit about these ceremonies.
I said: This may appear to be all about me, the person being inaugurated. But it is actually the opposite, it is about the institution, something both ineffable yet tangible, that passes from one generation to another, that has outlived its founders from a century ago and will outlive those gathered here today. The ceremony is about what endures in the spirit of this place and the work we do here that is greater than us as individuals and more lasting than our moment in time. It is about what stays the same and what changes. From this, Robert Earl envisioned a “chain of change,” where the change of a single syllable suggests how a chain that can represent bondage and restriction can also signify strength, inheritance and community and make productive change possible.
The Sage Colleges has seen its share of changes. Founded as a women’s undergraduate college, Russell Sage College in Troy, New York in 1916, we added adult education classes in Troy in 1941, bridged the Hudson in 1949 with an evening division for men and women in Albany, chartered the co-educational Sage Junior College of Albany in 1957, which became the four-year, Sage College of Albany in 2002. Graduate programs begun in 1949 with a Masters in Education have grown to Schools of Education, Management, and Health Sciences and include masters degrees, clinical doctorates and research doctorates. Change seems a constant in our identity.
What has stayed the same through those manifestations? How can we understand the Sage of today from its origins at the beginning of the twentieth century? First of all, we must acknowledge the spirit of the founders who not only created collegiate opportunities for women who were denied those opportunities in most of American higher education but who also understood the power of bringing the excluded half of society into the mainstream of American economic and creative life. Facilitating individual opportunities went hand in hand with a commitment to the common good through social change. Individual transformation feeds social transformation.
That remains Sage’s commitment today. That spirit is expressed by an ongoing dedication to women’s education, leadership and empowerment. And it is reflected in our co-ed branches through the deep engagement with individuals who are the first in their families to attend college or who come from low-income backgrounds or both. We directly address the inequities that are baked into our society in which a child born in the top income quartile has a 60% higher likelihood of graduating from college as a child born into the lowest family income quartile. When those students walk across the stage at commencement, not only are their opportunities magnified but the opportunities of their descendants are multiplied as well. And their crucial voices are amplified in our society and enrich it.
What remains constant in our make-up is a dedication to liberal learning combined with the tools to apply that learning in the workplace and in active participation in democratic society. The apparent oxymoron, the “practical liberal arts,” has been our mission from the start. We believe that knowledge and cultural breadth enhance lives and that our society has a need for liberally educated, broad-thinking nurses, managers, teachers, and therapists. We believe our artists benefit from business acumen and working with a professional theater institute and a professional art gallery. Our nursing program just celebrated its 95th anniversary in a year in which the question of health care access in a modern democracy is as pressing as it has ever been. I am confident our graduates are prepared to make their voices heard.
The spirit of practical liberal arts extends to how interwoven we are with the communities of Albany and Troy. There is no physical or intellectual Ivory Tower here. The front of our Troy campus is a popular public park, and the city and campus blend architecturally and literally, physically symbolizing how interdependent we are. Our shuttle crosses the Hudson multiple times a day, as do many of our faculty, staff and students. In Albany, we share services with Albany Law School and the Albany College of Pharmacy; we enjoy a green campus beside the burgeoning Albany Med Center and just blocks from the capital.
What also has endured is a sense of scale at Sage. Learning unfolds on a human scale through the interaction of teacher and student, and student and student. Our faculty are active scholars for whom teaching is the top priority. What happens in our classrooms mixes the ancient and the contemporary. Even our name evokes the birth of pedagogy in ancient Greece, but our faculty are also adept in the high-impact learning practices of the present moment as well.
As different generations move on and off the stage, certain themes continue to resonate: women’s education, the cultivation of opportunity, progressive social change, liberal education practiced in concert with professional preparation, a close tie to the communities of Albany and Troy, and a commitment to teaching and learning on a personal and human scale.
The chain of change gives us strength and identity, including the courage to think boldly about the future. This is a time in which the value of higher education is under unprecedented scrutiny, in which the cost of college is often a barrier to access and progress, in which the competitive environment for colleges poses daunting threats to the vitality of our institutions. Our history of adapting to changing circumstances has not always furthered the clarity of our identity. As a community, we are thus beginning a year-long exploration of the potential for a Sage University in our second century, with a fresh, rethinking of how our two campuses complement and enhance one another, how our growing graduate programs not only serve the region’s economic needs but enrich our campus culture, how our women’s college traditions can thrive alongside a diverse and co-educational undergraduate campus.
I am energized by the possibilities ahead for Sage and heartened by the human strength of our resources: our accomplished and dedicated alums who have built profound Sage connections around the nation, our creative and caring faculty who ensure that we remain true to the ever-evolving nature of our disciplines and professions, our staff who express the commitment to excellence through every aspect of the collegiate experience, and our students. The students I talk with are surprisingly open and warm, excited to be a part of this community and eager to learn. I felt the contagious Sage spirit the moment I met the presidential search committee, which remarkably included four students, who were active, engaged and respected. And I’ve felt that cheerful energy throughout my first semester here.
I bring with me a sense of urgency that I believe is shared by the community I serve. That urgency reflects an openness to change and a pride in the distinctiveness of Sage and its history. It reflects the crucial understanding that, to an important extent, higher education is counter-cultural. In a culture that is obsessed by the contemporary, higher education invites us to understand the present moment in the context of human history. In a culture that so abounds in commercialism, what Wordsworth called “getting and spending,” we are alert to the needs of intellectual and spiritual nourishment. In a world described as “post-factual,” we are dedicated to disciplined inquiry, intellectual rigor, the integrity of the sciences, and evidence-based practice. In a culture of bullying and shaming, we exemplify civic discourse, respectful disagreement, and democratic community. In a culture that too often objectifies women, marginalizes and stereotypes along lines of race, gender identity and sexual orientation, we insist on respecting human dignity and celebrating the complex diversity of human identities. We conceive of an America that views the international origins of its residents as a defining strength, its history as a place of refuge for the displaced and oppressed as a defining element, and its global power as an opportunity to think internationally and cooperatively.
It’s natural, I suppose, for me to wonder what my parents might have thought of this occasion—a reflection that reminds me that my father, a public school teacher, then later a college professor, had quite a distaste for administrators. Still, I think there is something logical and even intentional they might have felt had they lived long enough to be here—because they ensured that I grew up with a love of learning.
We were a family of modest means. My father taught 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 before World War II, at a time when fewer than 5% of women were college graduates. More remarkably, both her father and mother were educated professionals—CPAs who jointly ran a family accounting firm. That my maternal 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 (a taste perhaps of what Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage had from Emma Willard). 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 all his life.
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 Teachers’ 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 and advantages 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—six of the eight, indeed, are educators.
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. This is on my mind of late because I have only recently learned some details of my father’s family, seen the ship manifest showing my grandmother’s immigration to the U.S. and then the notation of her arrival at Ellis Island, learned things that no one in the family talked of, that her sister died in a German camp in Nazi occupied Poland in 1942, that much of the rest of the family she left behind likely perished in the holocaust. What she and her Russian-American husband working behind a candy counter must have imagined for their son, my father, when he was born in 1911 in the Bronx. What a blessing that those struggles and the losses they simply never spoke of manifested themselves in my siblings and me growing up in home filled with books and art and music. What a joy to have spent my life in school working with multiple generations of students, each with their own family stories, struggles and aspirations. What a privilege now to arrive at The Sage Colleges in our second century and have the opportunity and the pleasure to work with the people who have made it great and to benefit from all those who have come before to ensure that the aspirations of our founders, forged at the heart of the New York State women’s movement, should thrive and flourish and stay relevant.
Message from President Ames regarding a previous version of this speech (10/31/17):
I apologize for referring to my great aunt’s death in a German camp in Nazi occupied Poland in a way that might have been misconstrued as assigning responsibility to the Polish people, who were, of course, victims of the Nazi German occupation. I was unaware that there is a historical concern about not using the term “Polish” to refer to their location in German occupied Poland. I regret that this may have caused offense and have amended the text of my speech accordingly.
Thank you to those who brought this to my attention and my apologies for the insensitivity and my ignorance of the issue relating to the proper way to identify the camps established by Nazi Germany. I have the utmost respect for the Polish people and what they endured under the occupation of Nazi Germany.