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A Valedictory Essay

By Stephen C. Ainlay

As he departs Holy Cross to assume the presidency of Union College, Stephen C. Ainlay, dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs, reflects on his time on the Hill.

Stephen AinlayWhen I've spoken to new students and their parents attending the Holy Cross Gateways orientation program, I have often predicted "four years from now, you will find it difficult to leave your new-found home." Indeed, I have listened to countless students and alumni speak about the love affair they developed with the College during their brief time on Mount Saint James. Uniformly, they speak of their love for the sheer beauty of the campus, their love for the faculty, staff and priests who have been there for them, and their love of the fellow students they've encountered and befriended. Most students, after four years, know that they have encountered something very special and have been given remarkable opportunities. Nearly all know that their lives have been changed forever.

Imagine then what it is like to leave "the Hill" after 23 years. I too have been captured by the beauty of the Holy Cross campus. Like others, I have my favorite "monumental" spots: the Rehm library, the Cantor Gallery, the Dinand reading room and St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, among them. I also have my favorite vistas. There is, for example, a particularly compelling view of the O'Kane clock tower as one walks between Wheeler Hall and the Hogan Campus Center that always shakes me out of my complacency.

More importantly, I have been smitten by all those who have accompanied me on my 23-year journey at Holy Cross: students, faculty, Jesuits, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni, parents of students and other friends of the College. I have been blessed to know many of them well and, almost without exception, they have been a source of support and inspiration to me.

Holy Cross students are very special. In the classroom, I was taken by their work ethic, intellectual curiosity, patience with new ideas, good will and humor and their commitment to making their learning matter for the lives of others. While I've found every aspect of my work at Holy Cross to be rewarding, I have always been most energized when I was working with students. This extended beyond the classroom to my work with students on internships, honors projects and directed research. It also extended to my work with a variety of student groups—such as Student Advisory Committees (both in the sociology/anthropology department and in the Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies which I directed for three years), gerontology studies (which I worked with for over a decade) and ALANA student organizations. In my decade as dean of the College and vice president for academic affairs, I especially enjoyed working with representatives of the Student Government Association. I have been particularly gratified by the SGA leadership's interest in enhancing faculty/student interaction, civility, and the learning environment at the College. Again, I have been inspired by their generosity with time and talent and their commitment to making Holy Cross a better place.

Having served for many years on the Board of the American Conference of Academic Deans and having participated in many regional and national conferences, I have learned a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of many other institutions.  I've concluded that Holy Cross is certainly among the "richest" institutions in higher education when it comes to the people who work at the College and on its behalf. The members of the College's faculty are remarkably gifted teachers and scholars. They take great satisfaction in sharing their love of ideas with the students they teach. They publish and present important work in impressive venues. They care deeply about making the unique mission of Holy Cross, as a Jesuit liberal arts college, come alive. The administrators and staff at Holy Cross are no less impressive. They care deeply about the institution and approach their respective tasks with professionalism and hold themselves accountable to the highest standards. "Family" and "community" are overworked concepts when applied to large-scale organizations but, if they apply anywhere, they apply to Holy Cross. No college has the right to expect so many talented and dedicated people to work on its behalf, yet Holy Cross is fortunate to have such resources.

As if this were not enough, Holy Cross is blessed to have a vast number of others—alumni/ae, trustees, parents of students, benefactors and other friends of the College—who share generously their time, talent and personal fortunes. Some do this out of a sense of gratitude for the opportunities Holy Cross provided them or their sons and daughters. All of them do so out of a sense that Holy Cross is a special place with a special mission. As with the faculty, students, administrators and staff I've worked with, I've been impressed, inspired and even awe-struck by them all.

While transition is difficult, it allows us to take stock of where we've been and what we've done—a luxury that eludes us when mired in the day-to-day work of an office. As I reflect on the past 10 years as dean and academic vice president, in particular, I take pride (even though my parents cautioned me about being prideful!) in what we (all of those I've mentioned above) have been able to do. We have built and renovated wonderful buildings and space within buildings in order to keep pace with our growth as well as continue to provide a state-of-the-art undergraduate experience. We have expanded the faculty and, in so doing, made it possible for closer work between faculty and students as well as introducing new, labor-intensive styles of teaching that have enhanced the teaching/learning experience. At the same time, we have dramatically increased the number of women and faculty of color who teach at the College. We've expanded and deepened opportunities for our students to learn about Catholic religious and social teachings and, at the same time, expanded and deepened opportunities for our students to learn about the religious and social teachings of other great faith traditions.  Importantly, we created a new Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture to ensure that the questions central to our mission are at the center of campus life. We've increased our connection to the global Jesuit community by introducing a visiting Jesuit Scholar Program that brings Jesuits from all corners of the world to teach and do research at Holy Cross. We introduced new curricular opportunities for our students, such as deaf studies, a computer science major, a host of new minors, community-based learning, a concentration in environmental studies, new study abroad sites and study tours. We've found more effective ways of introducing Holy Cross to new students through programs like Gateways, Odyssey and Passport. We've found more effective ways to support student learning with a new office for Academic Services and Learning Resources and a Second-Year Opportunities program.

As I reflect on these and other changes and innovations over the past 10 years, I am struck by the collegiality, hard work and interest in the common good that made them possible. I cannot take credit for any one of these developments; so many others have played key roles, but I'm extraordinarily pleased to have been part of all these things.

I am thrilled to have been invited to serve as the 18th president of Union College. It is a school, like Holy Cross, that is committed to liberal education. Like Holy Cross, it focuses on the undergraduate. It too recruits a talented faculty, committed to both teaching and scholarship. It too has a remarkably beautiful, residential campus. In fact, it was the first college in the United States to have been architecturally designed (by French architect, Joseph Ramée, years before Thomas Jefferson applied his hand to the University of Virginia).

Like Holy Cross, Union has a distinguished history. Founded in 1795, it is the 17th oldest college in the country. Its longtime president, Eliphalet Nott, presided at the funeral of Alexander Hamilton (lashing out during his sermon at the evils of dueling) and became a leader in American higher education in the early 18th century. Union was the first college in America to add the study of modern languages to the required curriculum.  It was the first college in America to introduce an undergraduate engineering curriculum.  Like Holy Cross, it has a long list of alumni who have distinguished themselves through their service to community, workplace and society-in-general. Among them are the likes of William Seward, Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state and outspoken critic of slavery. In sum, I am humbled and honored that Union would ask me to lead it in these early days of the 21st century.

Having said this, I will always remain grateful and loyal to Holy Cross. I have established connections with people there that I trust will transcend mere workplace. I continue to believe that the work of so many on its behalf is well-justified. It truly is a remarkable place. With its mission as a Jesuit liberal arts college and exclusive commitment to undergraduate education, it is unique within the academy. Its simultaneous commitment to honoring the standards of that academy while maintaining its living links to a religious tradition position it well for a new national leadership role.  The confluence of talented and well-intentioned students, dedicated faculty, administrators, staff, trustees, alumni and supporters guarantee that a very special educational experience will continue to flourish on "the Hill."  So, too, do their commitments to dialogue, excellence in all things, and to always striving to be better (thoroughly Jesuit qualities, I would add). After I recently dined with the Jesuit community at Ciampi Hall, the Rev. Thomas Hamel, S.J., is reported to have remarked "Stephen will take the Ignatian vision with him." He is undoubtedly right. The educational vision that Holy Cross ignited and nurtured will continue to reside in me and inform the values I hold dear. For that and for all the opportunities I've had to serve Holy Cross, I will be eternally grateful.

 

 

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