Fall 2014 Opening Convocation: The Magic of Hiram

President Lori Varlotta's first convocation address as Hiram College President on Aug. 28, 2014 

Good afternoon, faculty, staff and students, and a “Happy New Year” to all. As I wrote in my email that went out earlier today, this is the time of year that I most commonly refer to as the New Year. More than any other time on the calendar, it marks the occasion for reflection, renewal and revitalization. So while those outside of academia understandably think of January 1st as the beginning of the year, those of us who are donning these robes—referred to as academic regalia—are likely to relate to my use of the term in this manner.

The New Year is an exciting one for all of us sitting in this auditorium today. It gives students the opportunity to explore a whole new set of classes. It gives faculty a chance to revise course readings and syllabi to make it their best year of instruction ever. And it gives staff the opportunity to plan and implement all types of programs and services that support our students at Hiram College.

It is hard for me to believe, but this year’s opening marks my 29th New Year as a university administrator and instructor (and those do not include the four additional years I experienced as an undergraduate). While I have 33 of these openings under my belt, this, without a doubt, is the most special one to date. One reason that this year is so special, is that it is the first time in my academic life that I am beginning the new year as a college president. But the distinctiveness of the new year goes far beyond me.

I’m starting to think this New Year is so striking because of a thing called the “magic of Hiram.” For the last year—and yes, I have already been affiliated with Hiram College for a year now—I have heard many people talk about the “magic of Hiram.” The term was invoked several times during my interview process, both at the confidential meeting that took place in November at the Cleveland Airport and at my public interview on campus last December. The term resurfaced while I was visiting the campus as your president-elect. On several of those occasions, I heard alumni of all ages, but particularly those in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s tell me that Hiram had changed their life. More than a few of them talked about the transformation as some kind of magic.

As a long-time student of philosophy who has found herself gravitating back toward pragmatism and the work of John Dewey, I must admit that I hesitated to frame today’s remarks around something as metaphysical as magic. But as I was formulating the outline in my mind last night, I decided to “go for it” since I personally have heard the reference so many times throughout the last several months. While I want to believe that there is something very real and concrete to it, I make no certain claim to know. As a new member of the community, I would be foolish to think that I could describe in its entirety what this thing called magic entails. In fact, I’m still trying to understand what it means to others and what it may come to mean to me.

As I go through the process of grasping this concept, here are the things that seem to make sense at this point in time. The “magic of Hiram” has at least three components that I can see and feel as I go about my work. I’ve decided to label them the “three Ps” (after I entered my 50s, I found that these kind of mnemomnic devices help me keep my thoughts in order and my remarks fairly coherent). As I see it then, the “magic of Hiram” is likely related to Hiram’s past, Hiram’s potential and Hiram’s pedagogy. And I will describe each in approximately 2.5 minutes, because even as President, I have been told to keep my remarks very brief.

So what is the “magic” of Hiram’s past? Hiram came to be a college in the 1850s at a very significant time in American history. It was during those years that one of the most critical debates – the one involving slavery – was circulating and dividing the country. It was in the same decade that members of a religious congregation called the Disciples of Christ came to found Hiram College.

While I’m hesitant to go into any specificity about the Disciples of Christ with religious studies scholar Dean Haak sitting behind me, I’ll venture to describe some of the most general but defining characteristics of the congregation. As I understand it, the Disciples of Christ had a very interesting notion of community. Unlike other congregations of its time, and even contemporary religious orders, the Disciples were quite comfortable in acknowledging that there could be many interpretations of their most central texts, including the Bible. One of the characteristics then of the church was that people could disagree freely on how a particular passage could be interpreted. Somehow, the congregational members could see beyond their interpretive differences and still feel united in the teachings and aims of the church.

I suspect that the Disciples’ comfort with debate, divergent interpretations, and diversity of thought helped them create and maintain a “community of difference” that was real, authentic and united in ways that others may not totally grasp. Though it is not a typical foundation upon which to build a religious group or a College, for that matter, it is a bit of a magical one. I believe that that very foundation has long bolstered Hiram College’s ability to promote and celebrate diversity at its most fundamental level: that of the individual.

Hiram College’s explicit nurturing of the individual student makes Hiram special. Unlike many colleges in the country – including a few where I have worked – Hiram makes neither a conscious nor unconscious effort to have students embrace to a particular way of thinking or being. At Hiram students are not forced to conform. In my short time here, it seems like Hiram College thrives on encouraging students (and faculty and staff as well) to be themselves. I am beginning to think that Hiram thrives not despite but because of this diversity.

All of this leads me to my second “P.” I believe there is a magic in the potential of Hiram, both as an institution and the potential it offers to students. While Hiram has indeed actualized a lot of its potential, I would argue that significant institutional potential remains untapped. Though I cannot pinpoint why exactly, I perceive this long-standing college as still an institution “in the making.” From its very start, Hiram was a campus that offered rigorous study, attracted accomplished faculty members, but it struggled nonetheless to make ends meet. Some of that struggle continues today, and perhaps that is why I sense this notion of enduring institutional potential.

As Hiram strives to meet its potential as an institution, it also strives to help each student actualize the potential that he or she embodies. As I see it, Hiram prompts each individual student to be his best or her best self: His or her best self on campus, his or her best self in the community, and his or her best self in the career world. Knowing that a place of learning is committed to making sure its students and workers alike become their best selves is a wonderful thing.

During Alumni Weekend, I heard dozens of alumni, often with tears in their eye, tell me how Hiram expected and supported them to become their “best self.” During almost every conversation I had with these folks, it was clear to me that Hiram alumni were leaders, not only in their chosen fields, but in their communities, their churches, their volunteer organizations, and their families. They were the innovators, the thinkers, the doers, and the change agents. At work many of them had titles that reflected high levels of authority and responsibility (CEO, CFO, VP, executive director), and many others described themselves as “just” a teacher, “just” a nurse, “just” an engineer. But as they talked about their careers and their lives, it became crystal clear to me that all them—those who had fancy titles and those who did not—were ethical and authentic leaders. Not a single alumnus was “just” a teacher, “just” a mom, or “just” an anything. All of them were extraordinary people.

This now takes me to the third “P” – pedagogy. I think that the “magic” of Hiram’s pedagogy is largely responsible for helping students (who become alumni) develop the potential I’ve just described. Hiram’s pedagogy reflects the best of a liberal arts education. It is a pedagogy that purposefully integrates academic learning, experiential learning and reflective learning.

Hiram’s longstanding tradition of providing an excellent academic experience is demonstrated day in and day out by the commitment and passion that the faculty have for undergraduate teaching. Hiram faculty, more than any other with whom I have ever worked, describe their Hiram career as a “calling” not a “job.” And I see it already in the ways they become connected to every one of the students who sit in their classroom.

The magic of this pedagogy, however, is that students do so much more than sit in class. In addition to the spirited seminars and small group instruction that take place in almost every Hiram classroom, the College offers a very robust experiential learning program. The Hiram Plan is structured so that students explore complex ideas and theories during their 12-Week in-classroom courses and then test, challenge and confirm them during the 3-Week intensive course. The latter often takes students into regional communities where they intern or engage in a service project, out to the woods or the water where they conduct hands-on experiments, or across state and national borders where they participate in a study away program. By expecting students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to these types of real-world experiences, students get to translate theory to practice in very deep and personal ways.

Finally, faculty encourage and often require students to engage in reflective learning in which they write about, create artwork or make videos that explain what they’re thinking and feeling about the learning experiences at hand. Together, the three types of learning not only help a young person become a successful student, but an engaged citizen and a lifelong learner.

So as I close my remarks today, I leave you with three questions that are real rather than rhetorical. One: Is there really something to this thing that so many have referred to as the “magic of Hiram?” Two: If so, will you help me describe it in your own words, with your own stories, your own accounts and your own examples? I would very much like to take your words on the road with me so that I can express how special Hiram College is to donors, grantors, foundations and others who I hope will support the College. Three, and this is the most important one: Are you willing to embody and model the “magic of Hiram” so that it touches every person who calls this college “home?”

I must say it’s easy to model the magic on a beautiful sunny day like today when we proudly and ceremoniously welcome and initiate new freshmen to our campus. It will be much harder to model the “magic of Hiram” when times get tough and the road gets bumpy. And I must tell you that the road ahead will be exactly that. If we can model the “magic of Hiram” in good times and rough times alike, then even a pragmatist like me will know that there is something very real about it.

Thank you, Hiram College. Here’s to a happy, healthy, productive and magical New Year.

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