President Margee Ensign's Address

Your Excellency, Dr. Gilbert Bukenya; Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana; Frances Donnelly Wolf, first lady of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; members of the Board of Trustees; faculty, staff and students; former presidents William Durden and Lee Fritschler from Dickinson College; President Sharon Hirsh of Rosemont College; President Alison Byerly, Lafayette College; President Jonathan Green, Susquehanna University; and President Donal O’Shea, from New College of Florida, my Alma Mater; Major General John Kem, Commandant of the U.S. Army War College; delegates from the U.S. and overseas and the seven alumni delegates representing their respective decades, community members, friends and my wonderful family:

Welcome to Dickinson College on this beautiful October day. Welcome to the first college established in a new America in 1783. Built on what was then the frontier of America, Dickinson has prided itself on being at the frontier of knowledge and learning ever since. I am honored and delighted to have joined you as we continue to pioneer—to break new ground—together.

On Sept. 20, 1940, at a university not far from this campus, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke about the challenges facing our country in a time of great fear and uncertainty and about how colleges and universities should respond to those challenges. His words still speak to us today:

“It is the function of education,” he said, “the function of all of the great institutions of learning in the United States, to provide continuity for our national life—to transmit to youth the best of our culture that has been tested in the fire of history. It is equally the obligation of education to train the minds and the talents of our youth; to improve, through creative citizenship, our American institutions in accord with the requirements of the future.”

Dickinson College does preserve and pass on the best that has been thought and known, does prepare its graduates to play leadership roles in our society and does educate its students to lead us into an unknown future of astonishing opportunities as well as of unparalleled dangers. It is a great challenge, for as FDR also told us nearly 80 years ago, that while “we cannot always build the future for our youth, we can build our youth for the future.”

The pace of change today is such that much of the future we must face is entirely unpredictable, unforeseeable—and in some critical ways—without precedent. However, as we face that unknown future, I think it important to first emphasize the worldwide advances we have all witnessed. The story of our modern world is one of unprecedented progress. From increases in life expectancy worldwide to an unprecedented growth in global wealth and remarkable improvements in literacy, health and education, the world is a far better place than it was 60 years ago. Technologies that span the globe suddenly give most of the world’s population access to all the world’s knowledge, and advances in that knowledge have been breathtaking.

While often overshadowed by current problems and troubling current events, this is very real progress, and it must be sustained. And while we can’t predict the future, we do have reasonable information about global trends.

Ours is a world with growing interconnections and interdependencies that reach across all borders. Advances in science and technology continue to improve human lives, but the same technologies that allow instantaneous communication of new knowledge can also facilitate terrorism and spread hate. Wonderful labor saving technologies, which have eliminated so much drudgery, have also led to the loss of jobs and careers and the destruction of communities and lives. Our amazing industrial successes have also led us to heedlessly precipitate global mass extinction. Societies and cultures long separated are now meeting and trading and cooperating, but also competing and colliding on a global scale.

How do we prepare our students for such a future, to lead us into such a future?

This is the question facing Dickinson, as it faces all serious educational institutions. How best to prepare students for the unknowable, for problems unforeseen, for careers as yet unimagined?

As you know, I have just come from the presidency of a very new university in Nigeria. There, we were almost starting from scratch, building a new institution in a relatively new country. Now, I have come to Dickinson, a venerable institution with deep roots in America’s history. Dickinson has successfully educated many generations, and its past has much to tell us. Because here we know and respect our own history. We can reflect on the founding of this great college and see the origins of what has been Dickinson’s answer to our question—our perennial question—about the future.  

Since its founding, this college set out to prepare its graduates for the future by providing what its founder called a “useful education.” What did that mean? As the 1783 Charter of this college said, “the happiness and prosperity of every community … depends much on the right education of the youth, who must succeed the aged in the important offices of society, and the most exalted nations have acquired their preeminence by the virtuous principle and liberal knowledge instilled into the minds of the rising generation.”

From its founding then, Dickinson—facing an unknown future—set out to be a different sort of college, in a new and very different sort of country, a republic such as the world had not seen in many centuries. The question facing the founders of this institution was: What sort of college did such a republic require? What sort of education? Not—surely—not the education for aristocrats brought over from the Old World. No. Rather, this college was to be a training ground for citizens of a democracy, for builders of a new sort of economy. It was to be a place where scholars and students could explore together what it means to create and govern a new country, forge a new future, a place to learn how to be responsible citizens of a republic.

Citizens with the obligation to govern wisely and justly—engaged citizens who would bring to their work the learning and skills provided by “liberal knowledge.” Engaged citizens who, well trained in the standards of honest scholarship, would not confuse fact with mere opinion, would insist on substantial evidence, careful reasoning and proof.

Part of our engagement here at Dickinson has always meant thoughtfully collaborating with the world. Dickinson has never been an “ivory tower,” and, as you can see from your program, Dickinson is a place from which its students and faculty go out into the world, go out to our local neighborhood and out to the far reaches of the globe, to learn firsthand about problems, to learn firsthand about new ideas, to meet and know people different from themselves, to learn of new successes and eternal challenges.

In thinking of Dickinson’s relationship to the formation of the new republic, this is clearly what our Revolutionary founder intended, this engagement with the world. It is what the times called for then. It is what the times call for now. As seats of learning and discovery, we must continue to be a source of new ideas and new solutions, new ways to meet the challenges our future holds in store. We must continue to be—as we have always been—the agents of change.

To do this requires flexibility of mind, a groundedness of purpose, an openness to new ideas and new ways of combining and rethinking old ideas. It requires precisely those skills at the core of what a liberal education is. An education in liberation. Now as in the 18th century, a genuinely useful education.

There are those who say a liberal-arts education should not be useful, that a liberal-arts college is not a trade school. It seems to me that that takes a very narrow view of the word “useful.” For surely creating new forms of wealth and employment, constantly developing a more just political system, curing disease, learning better stewardship of the earth, creating new forms of art and music, educating a new generation, learning more about the peoples of the world, discovering new scientific principles, advancing technology—surely these things are all useful.

And it is in this broad sense of the term—this participation in advancing the common good—that a Dickinson education has, and must continue to be, useful to humanity, a useful education and for the common good.

When Benjamin Rush founded this college, he hoped that its graduates would not be passive bystanders. Rather, he intended that they would help build a country. Now, we hope that our graduates will help build a better world.

Let me tell you of a few Dickinsonians I have met recently who have been doing just that. May I ask you to stand when called.

Since 2013, Brian Kamoie, a policy and management studies and political science major from the class of ’93, has been in leadership positions at FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which, as we have recently seen, has been on the front line of our country’s response to this season’s catastrophic hurricanes. During that crisis, Brian has coordinated closely with a fellow Dickinsonian, Mike Bilder, of the class of 2007, who works at the National Weather Service. As Brian said, the Dickinson connection allowed for quick communication and coordination between key federal response partners when most needed.

Prior to FEMA, Brian was senior director for preparedness policy on the White House National Security Council staff, where, among other responsibilities, he had to deal with the Fukushima nuclear reactor emergency and the 2009 influenza pandemic.

Artrese Morrison, who graduated in 1992, is now the director of programs for the Alameda Community Food Bank in Oakland, Calif. The food bank not only distributes millions of healthful meals every year, but its multilingual teams help families access other forms of assistance as well. Under Artrese’s leadership, the food bank is an advocate at all levels of government for those in need. Artrese was, incidentally, a philosophy major while here at Dickinson.  

Tsewang Namgyal, from the class of 1997, came to us as a refugee from Tibet. He is now a Vice President of the Bank of Tokyo. He tells us:

“I used to think that business was the reason for many of the conflicts around the world. Business was driven by self-interest, so I felt that the end result had to be negative. In college, my views started to change.  I developed a great deal of respect for thinkers like James Madison and Adam Smith. They were able to creatively come up with solutions that benefit the greater good while mitigating the risks with appropriate checks and balances. Looking at Tibet’s weaknesses politically and economically, it was clear that there was much we could learn.”

Tsewang’s major was in East Asian Studies and religion.

Valeria Carranza, class of ’09, chose to major in international studies and was the first member of her Salvadoran-American family to attend college. Originally from Los Angeles, Valeria launched her career in Washington as a White House intern, and she is now the deputy chief of staff and legislative director for Congressman Adriano Espaillat, the first formerly undocumented member of Congress and first Dominican American in Congress. Formerly she was executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, where she was deeply involved in some of the most important political issues currently facing this country.

Wynne Stuart Amick graduated from Dickinson in 1962 with a B.A. in sociology. I was good at puzzles, she told me. She was so good that she was chosen to be a code breaker and security analyst for the National Security Agency—one of the first in that agency. Wynne has long been an active volunteer in education and children's causes. She joined the Dickinson Board of Trustees in 2002 and became an emeritus trustee in 2016. A least 14 members of her family have attended and supported Dickinson College.

Will the Dickinson faculty members who are alumni of Dickinson please stand?

I am biased of course, but I believe that few professions in the world are more useful or more instrumental in achieving the common good than education. Beneficiaries of a Dickinson education themselves, these scholar-teachers have chosen to continue the Dickinson tradition, the Dickinson calling, of educating the thoughtful leaders of the future. Who better to exemplify a useful education for the common good than these Dickinson liberal-arts graduates, these alumni and the thousands like them? Please join me in congratulating and thanking them.

As we leave here today, as we consider the complexity, the rapidity and the interwoven nature of the challenges we shall all face in the years ahead—as citizens of this country and of the world, Dickinson's commitment to the idea of a useful education for the common good must guide us in our innovative work together. In FDR’s speech, he concluded:

"If democracy is to survive, it is the task of men of thought, as well as men of action, to put aside pride and prejudice; and with courage and single-minded devotion—and above all with humility—to find the truth and teach the truth that shall keep men free. We may find in that sense of purpose, the personal peace, not of repose, but of effort, the keen satisfaction of doing, the deep feeling of achievement for something far beyond ourselves, the knowledge that we build more gloriously than we know."

Join me, please, here at Dickinson, as we continue to build a community—a vigorous, questioning, contending and searching learning community, quite gloriously established—to strive for the common good in our times.