The College formally marked the start of the academic year on Saturday with Convocation in Chapin Hall.
The event welcomed the senior class to its final year at the College and recognized five alumni with bicentennial medals for their exceptional achievements and service in their fields.
President Falk conferred the medals, which have been presented to alumni since the College’s bicentennial in 1993. Five alumni were honored this year. All of their work broadly connects to sustainability: Eliot Coleman Jr. ’61, an innovative leader in organic farming; Bruce Beehler ’74, a conservationist and ornithologist; Jeff Speck ’85, a city planner whom Falk characterized as “a global leader to reimagine cities;” Sharon Burke ’88, formerly the first-ever Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Program, and an expert in energy security; and the convocation speaker, Maxine Burkett ’98, an associate professor of law at the University of Hawaii. Her scholarship and activism focus on climate justice and policy, especially as it affects island nations.
Burkett addressed the senior class, describing the “sheer beauty and opportunity for transcendence that finiteness [of their senior year] presents.” Her address then turned to focus on the complex historical example of President James Garfield, an alumnus of the class of 1856. Burkett first took issue with the common trope that historical figures with problematic views or actions were but products of their time, saying this “does a disservice to their contemporaries who were bold despite ridicule and rancor.” She noted both Garfield’s anti-slavery stance and mistreatment of American Indians.
Burkett then moved to describing the current challenges, namely climate justice. Convocation speeches, she noted, normally feature “words of hope and assurances that your future will be bright.”
“I would be dishonest if I unequivocally said that,” Burkett said. She then mentioned Garfield’s complexity given his views on American Indians, and the continuing struggles of indigenous communities with efforts for climate justice. Burkett also encouraged the College to divest from fossil fuels. “I do not diminish the collective value of small actions nor deny the violence fatally-neutral investment portfolios can mete out,” she said.
Finally, Burkett closed by challenging the senior class, asking, “Will you be a man or woman of your times, or will you change them?”
Vice President for Campus Life Steve Klass next announced the winner of the Grosvenor Cup, an award presented annually at Convocation to the member of the senior class who has “best demonstrated concern for the college community and beyond through dedicated service and the utmost integrity.” This year’s winner was Jeffrey Rubel ’17; his nominations for the award, which were cited in the presentation, said, “this student genuinely cares about making Williams the best place possible for everyone.”
The ceremony closed with “The Mountains,” and a benediction by Cantor Robert Scherr, in which he asked that the seniors “be a blessing to those around you so that you will be a blessing to yourself.”