President Alison Byerly officially introduced this year’s incoming class to the Lafayette community during the 182nd Convocation ceremony Sunday. Her address, “Choosing Lafayette,” is below.
On behalf of the trustees and faculty, I declare that the Class of 2017 is now matriculated. We welcome you into Lafayette College.
It is a great pleasure to gather together as a community to welcome the Class of 2017. Looking out at this crowd, it is wonderful to see so many students, faculty, staff, and even alumni represented.
I would like to begin my remarks by acknowledging some of the many people who make tonight’s ceremony possible. These include Dean Hannah Stewart-Gambino and the staff of the Office of the Dean of the College; Dean of Students Paul McLoughlin; Provost and Dean of Faculty Wendy Hill; College Archivist Diane Shaw; Professor Jennifer Kelly and the Lafayette Concert Choir; Chaplain Alexandra Hendrickson; the facilities staff who worked hard all week to set up this platform and chairs; and the catering staff who are staying late to serve us lemonade and cookies afterwards. Please join me in thanking all of these colleagues.
As I mentioned at the welcome event last Thursday, I feel a special bond with this year’s entering class. I am new myself, so I know something about the combination of hope, excitement, and anxiety that is inspired by new beginnings. At the same time, as the 17th president of Lafayette, I feel that the Class of 2017 comes in wearing a very lucky number!
It is appropriate that this year’s entering students are joined today by the faculty who will teach them, the staff who will support them, and the upperclass students who will serve as mentors and role models over the coming years. The people that you see sitting around you will be a source of wisdom, strength, friendship, and inspiration not only over the next four years, but for the rest of your lives. I think that you will find that Lafayette is not a place, but a community.
I would like to reflect for a few minutes on what it means to choose Lafayette, from the perspective of three different choices: your choice of Lafayette as a college to attend, my own choice of Lafayette as a college to lead, and the choice made by the citizens of Easton when they chose the Marquis de Lafayette as the symbol and namesake of their new college.
The process of choosing a college can seem so fraught at times, it is difficult to remember that it is not a burden but an extraordinary privilege to have the opportunity to make that choice. Across the globe, only a tiny percentage of young people of your age will have the benefit of pursuing a private college or university education. As you know perhaps better than I, your presence here represents hard work and sacrifice on the parts of the parents and families who raised and supported you. Your ability to attend college was the culmination of years of effort and planning. Your choice to attend Lafayette followed a briefer but intense process of thinking and investigation.
I had the opportunity to speak with a number of new students at the welcome events last Thursday. When I asked what drew you to Lafayette, many of you mentioned the excellence of both academic and extracurricular programs; the warm and friendly community; the lovely campus; or an interest in a specific department or program in which Lafayette is strong. Nearly all of you, however, also spoke of something further: that indefinable sense of belonging or connectedness that made you feel at home when visiting the campus and talking with other students. With students from so many different parts of the country, and world here, that sense of belonging has less to do with obvious similarities in background than with shared traits and values. Your choice affirms an affinity. The people you meet represent a collective self to which you aspire. At Lafayette, that self may be athletic or artistic, contemplative or exuberant, but the underlying commonality is a level of engagement and energy that forms tremendously strong bonds among students.
At the same time that you were considering your college choices, I was considering the possibility of coming to Lafayette as its new president. While the nature of a presidential search naturally highlights the selection process that an institution goes through in deciding who it would like to serve as its next president, it is also the case that the candidate pursues an extensive process of investigation, analysis, and consideration in deciding whether to undertake such an immense responsibility. Accepting an appointment as president is not simply accepting a job; it is committing oneself wholly to an institution and its values. I looked at Lafayette very carefully as I considered whether I felt a level of affinity that would enable me to make that kind of wholehearted commitment.
If you were to turn the tables and ask me what drew me to Lafayette, I would say the following. First, I believe that Lafayette is a college where the integration of seemingly disparate opportunities creates unique synergies. In the academic program, the college’s distinctive combination of programs in the liberal arts and in engineering offers individual students a much broader range of options than most residential colleges of Lafayette’s size, and this combination is particularly powerful in an increasingly competitive environment for jobs. At a broader level, I believe that the overall tone and ethos of the institution reflects this distinctive balance. Lafayette as a community combines the thoughtfulness that comes from the study of liberal arts disciplines with a practical orientation and can-do approach that reflects its long tradition of engineers. This combination puts the college in a better position than many to confront the difficult questions and challenges that are part of the current higher education landscape.
Second, I think that the strength of Lafayette’s extracurricular opportunities—in athletics, the performing arts, community service, and other areas—provides an essential complement to the strength of its academic program. At a time when many voices in the media and elsewhere are questioning the value of a college degree, or even asking whether physically attending a residential college is necessary in order to get an education, I believe Lafayette can make a compelling case for the growth that is possible through round-the-clock, 24/7 immersion in a residential community that offers opportunities to connect what you learn in the classroom with what you learn through working, playing, and living with others. This dimension of the college experience is likely to become more important, not less important, to students’ choices in the future, which is why I believe that that process of internal discussion and self-examination that Lafayette has applied to its varied residential options in recent years puts the College in a very good position to define and explain the values it seeks to cultivate and model in its residential community.
Third, I have been struck by the intense bonds of connection felt by alumni of the College, which I think will be an enormous strength for the college going forward. That kind of loyalty serves as both a public validation of the value of a Lafayette experience and a promise to current students that they will join an alumni network that will support and enrich them when they leave the campus and enter the world beyond College Hill. When we make the case for the value of a Lafayette degree, we can say that a diploma from Lafayette is not simply a certification of past effort, it is a passport to future membership in a lifelong community.
All of these strengths gave me confidence in Lafayette’s capacity to meet the challenges facing higher education at this time, and excitement at the opportunity I would have as president to channel its tremendous energy and set a new trajectory for the next phase of its development.
Having considered why choosing Lafayette made sense for you, and made sense for me, I would like to take one further step back and think about why this choice exists at all. Why is there a “Lafayette College?” Some of you may have wondered, as you read the College’s website or learned about the College through your visits, how the college came to be named for the Marquis de Lafayette. Most American colleges are named either for their founders, or prominent early supporters, or the places in which they are located. It may have seemed odd to recognize that this college was named for a man who was not a founder, not a local dignitary, not even an American.
At the time of the College’s founding, Lafayette was one of the most famous and revered names in America. Lafayette’s dedication and heroism in travelling from France as a young man to support the American Revolution, as well as his status as a close friend of General Washington, had made him a legendary figure. In 1824, he returned to America as an elder statesman at the invitation of President Monroe, where he was greeted with extraordinary acclaim and adulation everywhere he went as he toured every state in the union.
When a group of prominent citizens of Easton decided in 1824 to found a college, a delegation of 200 Eastonians had recently travelled to Philadelphia to hear General Lafayette speak. Lafayette had actually exchanged a few cordial words with James Madison Porter, who would become the president of the new college’s board of trustees (Skillman, Vol. I, p. 23). The founders decided, as the minutes of their meeting noted, “That as a testimony of respect for the talents, virtues, and signal services of General La Fayette in the great cause of freedom, the said institution be named, La Fayette.” (Skillman, Vol. I, p. 29).
In choosing to name the fledgling college Lafayette, these citizens were consciously aligning the college with the associations that name evoked: heroism, freedom, and youthful valor.
To me, a key dimension of the Lafayette ideal is the fact that Lafayette was a man who chose his own destiny. He was not required to fight in the American Revolution. His decision to travel from France and join forces with Washington was based entirely on his affinity for the ideals of liberty and self-determination that the revolutionary cause represented. Similarly, the citizens of Easton did not need to name their college after Lafayette. It was a free choice based on their affinity for the ideals that Lafayette represented. They chose Lafayette as a potent symbol for the new college and its aspirations.
I believe that this unusual history explains the unique spirit of Lafayette College. It is a place that has always chosen its own path and its own identity. What it is and what it has become reflects a powerful sense of self-determination. The College was not founded by Lafayette, nor did it have any close connection with him in 1824. The choice of name might seem almost random. Yet in adopting Lafayette as its guiding spirit the founders of the College laid the groundwork for an identity that has developed and strengthened over time. Now, Lafayette statues and portraits are visible everywhere; his words appear etched on important College monuments. As we have seen, the College has over time acquired many historical artifacts, documents, symbols, and traditions that have tied it more closely to Lafayette in the years since its founding.
Before closing, I would like to share one such symbol with you now. One of the College’s most prized possessions is a sword that belonged to Lafayette, a sword that was taken from him in 1792 when he was imprisoned by the Austrians. Though they ultimately returned his other possessions, this sword, with a hilt shaped like a liberty cap, was too radical a symbol of revolutionary spirit to be tolerated. The sword eventually became a family heirloom of the family of German barons descended from Lafayette’s captors, until in 1932 it was presented to Lafayette College by the Baroness Monica von Militz. In choosing to “return” this sword to Lafayette by giving it to Lafayette College, she affirmed the success of the College’s self-created identity. We had become the heirs of Lafayette.
The sword has in the past been displayed only rarely at the College. Today we begin a new tradition of bringing it out and sharing it with the incoming class as a symbol of the power of the Lafayette legacy. Dean of Students Paul McLoughlin will now carry the sword down the aisle, so that some of you can get a closer look. (It is too delicate to touch without gloves, but you should feel free to take pictures.)
As a continuation of this new tradition, beginning with this spring’s commencement, a member of the graduating class will be chosen to hold the sword briefly at the commencement ceremony. In this way, we invite you all to, in the words of the poem read earlier, “seize the sword of Lafayette”—and by that I mean: Seize when you enter, the opportunities this college offers, and seize when you depart the responsibilities that come along with that education you are privileged to receive.
For members of the Class of 2017, I hope that this history will affirm your confidence in Lafayette as a place that will allow you, too, to choose your own destiny and shape an identity for yourself. Lafayette offers boundless opportunities, but also concrete values to guide your choices. For the community as a whole, I hope that being reminded of this history reinforces our sense of pride in how we became who we are. Just as the citizens of Easton chose Lafayette as the symbol of their new college, we have all chosen Lafayette as the place in which we hope to become our best selves. I look forward to making that journey with you.