A Presidential Charge at Convocation
Sanjay Paul

The article appeared in The Etownian, Sept. 15, 2011.

The life of a college president is largely a mystery to most faculty. We suspect it involves meetings of various kinds where serious conversations occur with serious people of serious means. Possibly there is talk of donations, all conducted in hushed whispers. There might be mention of funds for a building, perhaps, or an endowment for a scholarship. Occasionally, someone might bemoan the state of the stock market.

But all this is speculation. We do not know any of this for sure, since mostly what faculty see is an inspiring presence at various college events delivering fine speeches and occasionally leading first-year students at the convocation on a rousing chant of “Blue Jays, Always!”

This last achievement, by the way, was no mean feat, since the chant occurred at the end of an hour-long ceremony held on a very warm August day in the Dell, and the call for a chant under those trying circumstances might have very well fallen flat with a thoroughly dehydrated and listless freshman class.

But no fear! The 523-strong class responded with alacrity to the president’s call, first to rise to their feet and then to engage in a few practice rounds before finally unleashing a full-throated “Blue Jays, Always!” chant--not once, not twice, but thrice!--that rent the afternoon air and sent a covey of startled birds shrieking into the sky, while over at the Blue Bean, the hands of the proprietor trembled ever so slightly as as she reached into the display case to retrieve a scone without icing.

So the faculty witness a president doing this sort of thing, and nod approvingly. “Stout fellow,” we say, “the Board has chosen well,” before retiring to the faculty lounge in Hoover to animatedly discuss the finer points of the college’s Strategic Plan.

But before the president ended Convocation on a rousing note, there were others who spoke in the Dell that afternoon. Their enthusiasm was palpable, their energy unflagging, and best of all, their speeches were mercifully short. Using a few well-chosen words, they conveyed the significance of the day to the assembled freshmen (and also to the faculty).

One spoke in rather technical terms about Hurricane Irene, and exhorted the students to use the next four years to create their own category 5 hurricane of excellence. Warming to the natural disaster theme, he assured the incoming students genially that they had already had an earth-shattering effect on the college. If, during the summer in Elizabethtown, there had been an attack of locusts, or an invasion of killer bees, or a stampede of rampaging elephants, the event would surely have figured in the speech as a source of inspiration.

Another speaker recounted how, as a neophyte worker at a pet store, she had allowed birds in her custody to escape, thereby depriving the store-owner of some revenue. This narrative immediately raised the ire of the business faculty who were ready to send a tweet decrying the assault on capitalist enterprise, but then relented when the speaker noted that the store-owner’s losses were deducted from her wages. Putting aside their iPads, the business faculty listened intently as the speaker drew upon her experience to urge the freshman class to take risks--to allow a few birds to take flight, in other words.

Then it was time for the president’s speech. And the Blue Jays chant.

Another academic year has begun. The classrooms are starting to fill up. After a hot, long summer, the gears of the great academic enterprise are moving again.

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