The College celebrated Founders Day Thursday by reaffirming its commitment to stimulate dialogue and embrace greater diversity on campus.
“Diversity of all sorts – racial, ethnic, geographic, religious, economic, sexual orientation, among many others – enriches our individual lives and our collective experience,” President Stephen C. Ainlay told an audience gathered in Memorial Chapel to commemorate the 215th anniversary of the granting of the College’s charter by the state.
“Unlike most educational institutions of that day, our founders were not bound to one religious tradition but rather came from three different religious groups, believing that they could support a common educational mission despite their religious differences.”
While Union has expanded its understanding and appreciation of diversity in welcoming many to its educational table, Ainlay said “we are not finished; let our celebration of this Founders Day strengthen our resolve to make more room at our table.”
The keynote speaker was Deborah Bial, founder and president of the Posse Foundation, which identifies and recruits high-achieving urban public high school students and sends them in multicultural teams – or posses – to top colleges and universities like Union, the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt. Since 2006, Union has partnered with the Boston branch of the Posse Foundation. The College’s first Posse Scholars will graduate in June.
Bial told the audience that before her talk, Ainlay sent her a copy of the “Encyclopedia of Union College History,” in which she learned, among other things, that women were not admitted to the College until 1970.
“The decision to go co-ed in 1970 was a conscious move toward change, inclusion and yes – diversity,” Bial said. “But for the first women who matriculated, think about what it felt like – in the classroom, in the dining hall. How did admissions handle the goal? What changed? Did the faculty teach differently? Were perceptions of merit redefined?
“…Did stereotypes change? How did Union make the few feel comfortable?”
She likened the seismic shift that followed after admitting women to Union to the challenges of creating a more diverse campus today.
“We have to bring the same kind of attention and sensitivity that Union brought to the table when it brought women into the picture to those who are still being left out,” she said. “We need to bring the same kind of attention and energy to fostering a more inclusive environment for blacks, for Latinos, for members of the LGBTQ community, for native Americans, for Muslims, for so many others.”
Bial, who received a $500,000 John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “genius award” in 2007, praised Union for its commitment to build a more diverse campus. But she said the College, and indeed the country, need to do more.
“Union College knows it needs to do more than just provide a stellar education to each of you. It needs to think about its contribution to the social fabric, to the leadership, to the health of the country,” Bial said. “The world changed for Union when it admitted women, and as a result Union helped change the world.”
Ainlay presented Bial with the John Bigelow Medal, which recognizes friends of the College who have contributed to the advancement of humanity. Bigelow, of Union’s Class of 1835, was an author, publisher, lawyer and statesman who was instrumental in the formation of the New York Public Library.
Also at Founders Day, Elizabeth Bossong, a Spanish teacher at Vestal Senior High School in Vestal, N.Y., received the Gideon Hawley Teacher Recognition Award. Bossong was nominated by Misty Shah ’12. The award is named for the 1809 graduate of Union who was New York state’s first superintendent of public education.
During the hour-long ceremony, Viki Brooks, director of Religious and Spiritual Life and Campus Protestant minister, was awarded the Doctor of Ministry degree by Ainlay, who stepped in when bad weather prevented Dr. Efrain Agosto, Academic Dean and Professor at the Hartford Seminary, from making the trip.
Union's Unity Quilt was also on display for the first time. The theme of the quilt is “Celebrating 215 years of family history at Union College.” The quilt consists of 173 squares designed by a number of campus groups, as well as alumni.
The event also featured a stirring performance by Heavenly Voices, the College’s gospel choir, which garnered a standing ovation.