Founder’s Day keynote address celebrates humanities education

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Each year during the last week of February, Union faculty and students celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the college through the charter granted by the Regents of the State of New York on Feb. 25, 1795. This was the first charter granted to a college or university in New York state, making Union the oldest college in the state.

The celebration consists of a week full of activities, which this year included a free breakfast in Upper, Union’s birthday party, free hot chocolate at the hockey game on Friday, free skate with a raffle at Messa Rink and many more activities. President of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif., Laura Skandera Trombley delivered the Founder’s Day keynote address in Memorial Chapel on Thursday afternoon.

Trombley is soon to be the President of The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

In 2012, President Barack Obama appointed Trombley to the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship board. She is a Mark Twain Scholar and has written multiple books on Twain. Trombley is known for her emphasis on the importance of a liberal arts education.

In an email addressed to the campus community on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, President Stephen Ainlay said, “Trombley’s visit further emphasizes Union’s continuing belief in and commitment to the important place of the humanities. Just as with the social sciences, sciences, arts and engineering, the humanities are essential to the curricular experience at Union.”

“They play a critical role in helping us engage enduring human questions, explore ethical issues behind technological advances and understand the perspectives of others and our common humanity,” he continued.

The Founder’s Day convocation began with a procession of professors wearing caps and gowns of various colors and styles, led by a member of the Schenectady Pipe Band playing his bag pipes.

Former Chairman of the Board of Trustees Frank Messa, who was filling in for current Chairman Mark Walsh, was the first to address the crowd.

He was followed by Ainlay, Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee Professor Ronald Bucinell, President of Student Forum Ben Saperstein ’15, Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs Therese McCarty, who presented the Gideon Hawley Award, and, finally, Trombley, the keynote speaker.

The theme throughout the speeches made by faculty, students and even guests of the college, was clearly the “enduring value of the humanities.”

The opening of the newly remodeled Karp Hall on campus this year makes this theme of particular importance, as it serves as the center of the humanities curriculum on campus.

During Trombley’s speech, she addressed the increased amount of criticism that the humanities has received in recent decades, pointing out that, currently, only 8 percent of college students in the United States pursue a degree in the humanities, with increased emphasis placed on science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes instead.

Trombley argued that the importance of literature, music and art in our lives should not be diminished. Without these things, she said, “Sure you’d live, but the experience would be lacking.”

In the modern age, there is much more emphasis placed on the sciences, which Trombley maintained was not a productive way to educate people, stating that science and the humanities are too interconnected and “one cannot prosper without the other.”

Trombley’s message about the importance of the humanities seemed to resonate with the faculty and students, given that Union was not only the first college to be granted a charter in New York, but also one of the first colleges in the nation to provide an education in the humanities.

When Ainlay made his speech, he also spoke about his confidence in the importance of the humanities at Union and his belief that they will continue to be central to a Union education.

He stated that this Founder’s Day was an opportunity to “celebrate our continued commitment to the humanities.”

In addition to the speech given by Trombley, the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award was presented to Katerina Toulatos. Lai Wong ’17 nominated Toulatos, who is a Spanish teacher at Millennium High School in New York City.

This award is presented each year during the Founder’s Day Ceremony, and it honors a high school teacher who has had a “significant and continuing influence on the academic life of Union students.”

The award is named after Gideon Hawley, who graduated from Union in 1809. As the first superintendent of public instruction and a member of the Board of Regents, he was heavily involved in the establishment of public elementary schools in New York.

Founder’s Day has always given the Union community a chance to honor the history of the school and look towards the future.

This year, though, it was also a chance to honor the unique education offered at Union, where the humanities will not be forgotten.

Ainlay stated that the belief in the enduring value of the humanities at Union “extends far into our past, and (he is) confident it will extend far into our future.”

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