A View from College Hill
President Wippman has challenged me to reflect on 45 years of change at Hamilton — in three to five minutes! I accept that challenge!
In the beginning (1972), I arrived at Hamilton as an assistant professor in a five-member mathematics department. John Chandler was Hamilton’s 15th president, and Sam Babbitt was the president at Kirkland College, which had just completed its first full graduation. The James Library, which had served the College since 1914 had closed, and the Daniel Burke Library was opening on the site of the former Truax Hall of Philosophy.
There was no Internet, no cell phones, no laptops, no Netflix. Completing assignments required a trip to the library.
Change proceeded slowly.
Life was good.
A year later, change would be unsettling.
President Chandler announced he would be leaving to become president of Williams. In the spring of 1974, acting President Martin Carovano announced that Hamilton was going to establish a Computer Center that would connect Hamilton to Cornell University, providing our faculty and students with access to computing resources normally found only at a large research university. The center would be located in the Burke Library.
He asked if I would be interested in leading the effort. I knew little about computing — having taken one course when I was a senior in college. That was OK, he said, “few people at Hamilton knew much about it.” The course of my career was about to change, forever. Maybe the director Woody Allen was correct when he said, “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.”
As we entered the ’80s, interesting new devices were arriving on campus. The first personal computers had strange names such as Radio Shack Model 1, Commodore PET (Personal Electronic Translator), Apple II, Terak, IBM PC and eventually Macintosh.
Change was exciting!
Word processing and laser printing seemed revolutionary — typewriters were becoming obsolete. The catalog of library holdings, which had been on cards in beautiful wooden drawers on the first floor of Burke Library, went “online” enabling people to use a computer to locate the books and journals we had on the shelves. You still had to come to the library to do the search since there was no campus network. That was about to change!
I don’t recall using the term “global warming,” but the winter of 1994-95 was one of the mildest in the history of Upstate NY. Good thing, since we had to dig up the entire campus to put in the conduits to install high-speed networking and telephone services.
Change was transformational!
Now, you could search the library holdings from your room or office, and students could easily call their parents. Email became a service widely used on campus. Paper notices gradually disappeared from the Mail Center. One colleague told me in confidence that he was sure this email thing was a “fad.”
As we entered the new millennium, “mobile” was the new buzzword. The first cell phones appeared on campus. They were not “smart” — they were expensive, and they had very little battery life. A generous gift from a Hamilton alumnus made the campus wireless. Students didn’t know what an “ethernet” cable was when we gave it to them. We were untethered!
Change was liberating!
Access to information was at anytime from anywhere. We deceived ourselves into thinking that we could multitask. Information overload was real.
What will the future be like? We now have, in our pockets, instantaneous access to answers to the EASY questions in life. Answers to the really important and difficult questions, the ones our very existence depends upon, will still require our best collective thinking.
And change will continue to be
Change will surely be relentless.
Life will be good.
Dave Smallen retired this summer as vice president for libraries and information technology. He presented these remarks at Hamilton’s annual Class & Charter Day in May.