Commencement and Sabbatical

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May 1, 2007

Commencement and Sabbatical

Someone made a good decision many years ago to use a bagpipe band for the processional and recessional at our commencement. There is something about bagpipes and drums that are stirring to the soul and at the same time regal. When the bagpipes enter the arena the flashbulbs are reminiscent of Busch Stadium during Mark McGwire’s home run chase. Since I am the last person in I don’t get to see the beginning of the processional any more but that is alright for my favorite part of commencement comes later, at the recessional, and not just because it signals the end of the ceremony. For me the entire event is still very meaningful and I truly wish that academe had not lost some of the decorum that used to exist on these occasions. I suppose it is partly our own fault as we have moved into arenas for the venue instead of stately academic halls but we tend to treat it as a sporting event with cheers, catcalls, air horns (at some), and other less than solemn responses. Our commencement is much better than most I have attended in recent years, but I have pretty much acquiesced to the fact that some raucousness is here to stay. It definitely is a celebratory occasion, but it is also a serious one and some balance makes it a more meaningful one; now back to my favorite moment.


We have a tradition of the bagpipes playing Amazing Grace before the recessional begins. Bagpipes were made for this hymn. Usually a solo bagpiper will play the first verse and then the moment happens. As you may know, a bagpiper does not just start playing. He first has to get some air rushing through the instrument to create the sound. Just as the solo bagpiper is finishing his verse all of the bagpipes start this rush of air a brief moment before exploding in unison on Amazing Grace. I always get choked up at that point. It is a confluence of sound, celebration, worship, relief, and hope all rolled into a moment.

Following commencement this year I will begin a sabbatical leave. Many years ago I worked for a president who instituted an administrative sabbatical leave program, and I was able to take advantage of it twice in the twenty years I worked there. During one summer I went to Harvard for the Institute in Educational Management. Another I visited universities across the country and studied their strategic plans for institutional advancement. A sabbatical usually allows for the in depth study of a topic that is not possible during the normal routine of work. It can also be for rest and travel. One person asked me if it was a word for “fancy vacation.” Whatever it really is, it always should lead to renewal and reflection. After 12 ½ years of the university presidency, I am ready for the latter, and I am truly grateful to our Board of Trustees for allowing it.