A View from College Hill
In March, I had the opportunity to join the Hamilton College Choir and College Hill Singers on stage at the close of their concert in St. Paul for the singing of Carissima. After hearing me attempt to sing, the students may have concluded that “opportunity” is not quite the right word.
Professor of Music Rob Kolb, the choir director, was kind enough to provide me with the sheet music, perhaps on the theory that anyone with a liberal arts education should know how to sing and to read music. Since neither is true in my case, holding the sheet music in my hands was not much help. But it did prompt me to consider the words to the alma mater, written in 1901 by then Hamilton president Melancthon Woolsey Stryker. (According to the College’s website, Stryker wrote Carissima to replace the College’s previous alma mater, Cheer, Boys, Cheer, a decision that seems difficult to fault.)
The language and style of Carissima of course reflect the era of its composition, but the sentiment is contemporary enough: love for a place that has brought joy and transformation, even as the years “grow cold.”
I have just begun my time at Hamilton, but love of place is a recurring theme, something I am hearing in almost all of my many conversations with students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends of the College. Partly, of course, it’s the sheer beauty of the campus. Hamilton in summer is a glorious place, as the energy of the academic year gives way to a more leisurely and reflective tempo. I’m told the campus is even more spectacular in the fall and spring, and, if the snow-covered vistas featured on the College website are anything to go by, beautiful in winter as well.
The physical setting is important, but it’s what happens here that drives the passion for place so evident among those who know the College well. For generations of students, Hamilton has provided a transformational, life-enhancing education, made possible by the close and sustained interaction with world-class faculty, caring staff and immensely talented peers.
One might think, then, that all we need do is continue our present course. After all, Hamilton has been on a remarkable upward trajectory. But higher education, and the world around it, have shown little inclination to show us the courtesy of standing still. As the Red Queen observed to a fast-running Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” We, of course, want to get somewhere else, to get even better at doing what we have always done — helping our students know themselves and their potential.
Some of the challenges we face are common to higher education: challenges related to access, affordability and technological and demographic change. One issue of particular concern is how best to ensure a welcoming and inclusive environment where all students will thrive. In my view, that should be seen as part of a larger question: how to take full advantage of the transformative power of the residential liberal arts model, in which students engage and learn from each other as well as from faculty, both inside and outside of the classroom. The College has made considerable progress in this area in recent years, but we have more to do.
A more Hamilton-specific issue stems from our own demographics. During the period from 2015 to 2025, we may see as many as half of the College’s faculty and staff retire. Those departures pose a challenge, as we lose the accum-ulated wisdom of so many talented people, but also present an extraordinary opportunity to build new strengths that will keep Hamilton at the forefront of liberal arts education.
In navigating the path ahead, we cannot go far wrong if we keep constantly in mind the College’s mission: preparing students for lives of meaning, purpose and active citizenship. So long as we continue to do that at the highest level, we will see future generations singing Carissima with the same love of place shown by their predecessors.