President Mark Burstein spoke of the need for Lawrence University to feel like home to all Lawrentians as he headlined a virtual edition of the 2020-21 Matriculation Convocation on Thursday morning.
Striving for that sense of belonging comes with additional challenges this year as the University adapts to life in a pandemic and the country continues to grapple with ongoing issues of racism and racial injustice and political divisions that grow deeper and more caustic by the day.
It’s critical, Burstein said, to make sure all members of the University feel they belong here. He called on students, faculty, staff, and alumni to be part of the conversation to help make sure that becomes reality—and is sustained.
“I look forward to hearing your ideas, reactions, and disagreements as we make Lawrence the ‘home’ we all need it to be—one that spans geography, race, and all identities,” he said. “One that helps us all to become ourselves.”
Under normal circumstances, Burstein’s address, Finding Home: Belonging During a Pandemic, would have been delivered to a full house at Memorial Chapel, per tradition. But with strict social distancing protocols in place to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and a portion of the campus community teaching and studying from afar, the convocation was streamed online.
Besides Burstein’s talk, the convocation included a beautiful and creative introduction of Burstein by Allison Fleshman, associate professor of chemistry and chair of the Public Events Commitee, and a musical prelude by Conservatory faculty Estelí Gomez, Esther Oh Zabrowski, Stephen M. Sieck, Steven Paul Spears, and Phillip A. Swan (Show Us How to Love, Mark A. Miller). The virtual choir was individually recorded, then manually assembled for the composite performance.
Linda Morgan-Clement, the Julie Esch Hurvis Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life, provided closing words, encouraging Lawrentians to rise to the challenges before us. “Together we have the ability to love each imperfect self,” she said. A postlude on piano was then delivered by Hung Phi Nguyen ’21.
The Matriculation Convocation, delivered each September to mark the launch of another academic year, will be one of three convocations to be held this year.
This marked Burstein’s final Matriculation Convocation. He announced recently that he will step away from his presidential post at the end of the 2020-21 academic year, a decision informed by the need for him and his husband, David Calle, to be closer to family on the East Coast.
“I began to think about the theme of belonging and home for this Matriculation Convocation last spring in response to the societal convulsion created by both the pandemic and the deepening recognition of systemic racism in our culture,” Burstein said. “At that moment, I had no idea how personal this topic would become for me. This summer has been a time for me to reassess my priorities and decide to prioritize family, specifically my mother and my in-laws, over a position I love.”
Burstein said he, like others, is feeling the strain of the political tenor that has gripped the country in recent years. It’s been particularly raw here in Wisconsin, a state he quickly adopted when he was named Lawrence’s 16th president in 2013.
“I expect many of you feel, as I do, the pain, the conflict, and the dislocation in our society,” he said. “The new presidential election cycle has unleashed overwhelming forces to divide us. Our country’s attempt to reckon with systemic racism brings both hope and conflicting views of an aspirational future. Environmental degradation continues to march on around the globe. And, the pandemic has curtailed ways to process all of this stress, has upended family life, and has created severe economic burdens on many of us and the institutions we serve.”
All the more reason, he said, for Lawrence to double down on its efforts to make sure inclusion and equity are part of daily life here. He cited the words of an array of writers who have addressed themes of home and belonging, among them Nira Yuval-Davis (The Politics of Belonging), Brene Brown (The Gifts of Imperfection), Natasha Trethewey (he quotes from Theories of Time and Space), Kwame Anthony Appiah (In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture), Kath Weston (Families We Choose: Lesbians, Gays, Kinship), and Toni Morrison (Home).
“Many theorists who have explored the concept of belonging find that one of its central aspects is the need to feel that your whole identity is recognized and affirmed,” Burstein said. “This recognition is seen as an invitation to create a deep connection. If this is true, how can belonging be created in a society in which racism and bias against minority identities continue to exist?”
That’s a challenge going forward, Burstein said, to make sure that sense of belonging is woven into this learning environment. And all of us need to play a role.
“Research has found that the smallest social belonging interventions can yield lasting positive effects on individuals,” he said.
Burstein said he will be locked into that work for the remainder of this academic year. And he pledged to remain connected to the Lawrence community and the work it’s doing after he departs in June, all the while maintaining his own sense of home and belonging here.
“Serving as your president has been the central privilege and pleasure of my professional career,” he said. “David and I want to thank all of you who have allowed us to join, to belong, and to call this university and Appleton our home. Lawrence will always be in our hearts and we will always be proud to call Appleton our home no matter where we reside.”
A replay of the Matriculation Convocation can be accessed here.