November 26, 2018
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President Sean Decatur addressed the members of the Class of 2022, transfer students and their families at Opening Convocation on Sunday, Aug. 26, 2018.
To the Class of 2022, I’d again like to offer my welcome to Kenyon. That phrase, “Welcome to Kenyon,” one that I’m sure you have already heard repeated some many times since you’ve arrived on campus, is loaded with many connotations: welcome to this next phase of your life, the beginnings of a powerful set of changes, of personal and intellectual transformations; welcome to a world of ideas, where you will be exposed to and challenged by new thoughts and concepts on a regular basis; welcome to this new family, made up of fellow students, faculty, staff and alumni, with whom from this point forward you will share a lasting a special bond; and literally, welcome to this place here in Gambier, a place that will soon look and feel familiar, but will play an important role in catalyzing your growth and development. Ideas, relationships, and transformation: three words, three concepts that sum up Kenyon quite well. I’d like to take a few moments to talk about these in turn.
Let’s start with ideas. I’m guessing that one of the things that has attracted you to Kenyon is that this is a place, at its core, all about ideas: absorbing ideas through reading, listening and observing; articulating ideas in writing, speech and artistic expression; responding to ideas through feeling, linking heart and passion to thought and intellect.
Because we are an institution that embraces the liberal arts tradition, you will be guided to explore the disciplines fearlessly; to take on new areas of study that seem unfamiliar at first, embracing the challenge of topics that seem difficult or that require a struggle to master; to seek answers to the big questions about the world around us, our place in the universe, and what it means to be human from the perspectives of the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences.
Like many folks (and perhaps like some of you here in this audience), both my understanding of the genre of musical theater and my regular playlist were changed substantially by the musical “Hamilton.” Unlike many pieces of hyped popular culture, which often fail to live up to expectations or become tired after repeated listening, “Hamilton” still remains alive and fresh to me.
A part of the attraction is the power of the “mash-up” — a mixture or fusion of disparate elements into a new form. My brain lights up when it recognizes musical fragments that resonate from a broad range of experiences or contexts, brought together in interesting and complex ways; shifting from riffs or lines borrowed from Biggie and Jay-Z, next to samples from Gilbert and Sullivan or Sondheim, with some Beatles-esque pop melodies thrown in for good measure.
Similarly, the story of early America appeals to my interest in PBS documentaries and tome-like biographies, yet in telling the story of Alexander Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda has mixed in elements of contemporary fiction from authors like Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith. Pieces of economic theory, historical biography, hip-hop, musical theater, all in one work of art — “Hamilton” is the ultimate “mash-up.”
Kenyon is not about just exposure to ideas from different disciplines, but also the integration: connecting ideas from your class in biology to your class in philosophy, recognizing that the combination of perspectives is often more powerful than any individual approach. The mash-up pushes knowledge forward: Thoreau mashed-up Transcendentalism with his observations of nature and with some ideas of 19th-century science to craft the brilliance of “Walden.”
Here in the 21st century, new approaches to the study of literature are being forged by the application of digital tools to analyze texts and connect them through time and space. Contemporary biochemistry was revolutionized when biophysicist Jane Richardson combined observations and analysis from art history with evolutionary theory and molecular biology to develop new iconography for molecular structure.
The pressing social and political problems of our time, such as climate change or economic inequality or the challenges of global public health, all require the rigorous and fearless mash-up of ideas, approaches and techniques. Remember, Kenyon is not just about exposure to ideas, or exploration of ideas, but also the integration of ideas, and I encourage you to develop your skills as a mash-up artist during your time here.
But welcoming you to Kenyon is about more than ideas, even mashed-up ones. You will not encounter, explore and integrate ideas in isolation — you will engage with ideas while embedded within a community of peers, faculty and staff. When we welcome you to Kenyon, we are inviting you to a world of new relationships — you will make friendships here that will enrich your life and will fuel our growth and development.
I love bad action movies, and as I confessed to students at the science pre-Orientation yesterday, I have a particular weak spot for the “Fast and Furious” series. Indeed, any of you who’d like to discuss the relative merits of the films, argue the proper order in which to watch them (just a hint — it is not the order of release), or dissect what makes the second movie (“2 Fast 2 Furious”) so awful, feel free to look me up here on campus.
Why am I obsessed with a series of movies that centers around fast-moving cars, blowing things up and a soap opera-type plot (in which — I kid you not — one of the lead characters, believed to have died in a car crash in one movie, turns out later in the series to have been struck by amnesia, recruited into a secret terrorist force and later reunited with her true love after an amazing car chase with a tank. There are spoilers in that sentence, but really, it doesn’t matter).
The answer is relationships — “Fast and Furious” is really about relationships among characters brought together from very different perspectives and backgrounds. They are bound not just by a love of fast cars but also by a sense of love, respect and support. Like any extended family, they also endlessly argue, fight and challenge each other, but they also are always there for each other to offer support in times of need. Collectively, the many strengths of the collected group overcome their individual weaknesses.
I can tell that I am about to horrify my faculty colleagues as well as the assembled parents by saying that a part of the Kenyon experience is really similar to a movie series with lines like “I used to live my life a quarter mile at a time” and “I owe you a 10-second car.” But stay with me for one moment. Part of welcoming you to Kenyon is welcoming you to a diverse community, united by a common love and passion for ideas, and a strong mutual respect for what each of us as individuals contributes to the community, and where we believe in supporting and helping each other at all times.
Remember this is a place where you can ask for support and help from others; and also remember this is a place where you will be expected to lend your support to those around you whenever you can. Helping your peers, looking out for each other, making all of us stronger together than we are as individuals — that is the real power and heart of the relationships that you will find here.
Finally, I come to the concept of transformation. We are welcoming you to a place that will change and transform your life over the next four years. Chemistry is all about change, so for this last moment I want to geek out for just a bit.
In chemical terms, a catalyst increases the rate of a chemical transformation, reducing the barrier, or “transition state,” between the reactant and the product, but it itself is not consumed by the process. Catalysts often function by creating an environment that spurs molecules to react, or by bringing together particles that otherwise are unlikely to come into close proximity.
I was reminded of this model of catalyst as a source of stress and strain this summer while reading some recent research on my favorite topic, protein folding, and a class of proteins called “chaperones.” Proteins are essential molecules for all living things, and they are synthesized inside the cell as long, unstructured, floppy strings of units called amino acids. In order to function, these floppy strings must fold into a specific three-dimensional shape.
This does not happen in a linear fashion; rather, the protein fluctuates between different conformations, exploring a range of shapes, until it finally settles in the lowest energy state. Your body right now is folding thousands of proteins each second.
Unfolded proteins are prone to stick together (“aggregate”) to form toxic clusters associated with diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to type II diabetes to cataracts. “Chaperones” are a class of proteins inside of the cell responsible for helping other proteins to fold, preventing formation of these clusters, and catalyzing protein folding reactions.
These molecules were first discovered in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and as their name suggests, they were initially thought to be rather passive, protected spaces for unfolded proteins to bind. This model suggested that chaperones literally “chaperoned” the folding process, passively isolating an unfolded protein and giving it an environment free from interference from others in order to allow it to explore many different possible shapes, until it finally landed into the right one.
But, experiments over the past decade or so suggest that chaperones are not at all passive — they actively poke and prod proteins to fold. In fact, a paper published this summer directly measured the forces exerted on unfolded proteins by chaperones that push an unfolded protein along a productive folding pathway. The chaperone may be protecting the unfolded protein from aggregation, but it is certainly not a comfortable space; it functions by constantly challenging its substrate — quite literally stressing and straining it — along the folding pathway.
Though the language sounds a bit strange when stated this way, Kenyon is a chaperone, in the strict molecular sense. Kenyon exists to help you, as students, complete your folding process, something that has certainly begun in the years leading up to this moment. During your time here, you will explore and try out many different shapes and folds, until you are well on your way towards your final state.
There are ways in which Kenyon provides an environment that is safe for you to explore the many different possible conformations in search for the structure that feels right for you. Yet an environment that facilitates your exploration and mashing-up of ideas, and forging new and lasting relationships, is not, and should not be, one that is comfortable at all times.
Indeed, the power of a liberal arts education lies in the ability ideas to challenge us, to push us out of our comfort zones, to stress and strain us. This is what moves us along our path of transformation and development. Texts and readings may be both inspiring and difficult, requiring students to return to them again and again, and at times introducing concepts or ideas that are jarring, or even painful at first. Conversations and discussions won’t always be easy; but the difficulties in these will be part of what advances your learning.
Listen to and challenge opinions and ideas with which you disagree — that process of listening and challenging will make you a better thinker and catalyze your transformation towards being a better person. Remember that the act of listening does not signal agreement. Rather, listening, especially to ideas that are new or with or in opposition to your worldview, is an essential part of the type of rigorous discourse that is the heart of the liberal arts education experience.
Also remember that stepping away from a difficult conversation, allowing oneself to be silenced by fear of disagreement or criticism, not only denies you an opportunity for personal growth but also denies the community an opportunity to move forward. This is a place to challenge and be challenged, with rigor and respect.
So again, welcome to Kenyon — where you will explore, express and mash-up ideas; where you will build relationships that are fast and furious; and where your growth and development will be catalyzed, moving you forward on your own protein folding pathway. It will be a fun four years, and I am looking forward to going along on the ride with you.