“As the students filed in, there was the din of voices—happy because of the renewal of friendships,” a reporter for the Collegian described the mirthful 1925 fall convocation at College Baptist Church. Yet on April 6, 2017 students will sparsely populate the balcony and the side pews of the very same church because they do not value the ceremony as they once did.
Students should treat convocation as an important community event that reflects the unity of Hillsdale College. Many colleges and universities do not gather as a single body at any time other than graduation. Even then, parents and families fill up the theaters and arenas where many graduation ceremonies occur, and lots of students stay home.
As a member of the chamber choir, I sat in the front of College Baptist at each convocation for the last two years. As Provost David Whalen and President Larry Arnn remark on the state of the college, seeing empty seats always stuns me. The church should burst with students. The missing don’t hear Arnn attest to the etymology of the word “college” which comes from the Latin word collegium, meaning partnership. Yet there will probably be less than 200 students at this event, which calls the entire campus together for the affirmation of our mission.
When incentivized, some students do come to this event. The Greek houses send their meager delegations to find out the winner of the scholarship cup. Other students find their way into the church if the speaker is interesting, like Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican observatory, who spoke last spring about the importance of wonder in the sciences. But students should look forward to this event as it is an important moment of celebration for the college community.
Professor of history Tom Conner, who has taught at the college since 1983, showed his reverence for the ceremony, writing in an email that “the opportunity Convocation affords us all to come together twice a year and refresh our memories about our fundamental purposes as a community is extremely valuable.”
We are lucky to hold convocations at all. The tradition fell away when the college abandoned mandatory chapel services in 1964. The ceremony did not reappear until the late John Reist, a professor of English, resurrected the tradition in 1989.
Convocation is also an opportunity for Arnn to speak about the state of the college. At Fall Convocation, he addressed concerns about the construction of the new chapel and the controversy over racial data the college gave to the NCAA. Arnn used the opportunity to speak about these matters to the college community as a whole. Unfortunately, few were present to hear his comments.
“The Spring Convocation has taken on additional importance as the first occasion that the graduating seniors appear, together, in the robes that they will wear on Commencement Day, and the ‘top ten’ graduates are recognized,” Conner added. He also emphasized that “the leadership of the graduating class and the rising senior class exchange the gavel to symbolize the inevitable progression of the different classes through the College.”
Hillsdale College states the purpose of convocation on the website. It “help[s] remind us of our common purposes and mission. [It is] held in a church and include prayer as an expression of the college’s identity and in gratitude for all its blessings.” The statement also declares that all offices, if possible, should close for the convocation ceremony so that the college community as a whole may attend.
The size of College Baptist may prevent some students from attending the event. The sanctuary seats only 500 people. The next convocation is in April and the weather, barring rain, should be favorable for an outdoor convocation held on the East Lawn, as at the beginning of the fall semester each year. The administration should consider an outdoor convocation or an alternative indoor convocation held in the Searle Center or the Biermann Athletic Center to involve as much of the Hillsdale College community as possible until the construction of the chapel is complete.
We are blessed that the college preserved this tradition and we should honor it with our presence at the ceremony. We should sit in the pews smiling, like the students before us, “happy because of the renewal of friendships,” excited to remember and to reaffirm our purpose as partners in scholarly work and in life.