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    Liberal arts college presidents consider the changing landscape of academe.

Time Capsule Revelation
May 28, 2013 - 8:27am
The summer construction projects have begun at Alma, among them an overdue addition and renovation to our dining hall. We are looking forward to consolidating two facilities under one roof and adding space to accommodate our growing student body. Exterior work began weeks before students left, and major renovation began the day we finished exams. 
 
No one presently at the college was working when the building was constructed, so we can perhaps be forgiven for not knowing that a time capsule had been placed in the cornerstone of the building. Workers dredged the stone out with a backhoe and discovered a steel box securely welded shut inside. They brought it to our chief financial officer right away.
 
As it happened, we had a dinner that evening to thank donors to the college. The drama was set, and we announced at the outset of the dinner that we would be opening the time capsule at the conclusion of the evening’s program.
 
Speculation was great fun for all of us. We posted to social media and got some terrific suggestions from our alumni about what the box might contain. One wit suggested that we would find the manuscript lost by a beloved professor in the early ‘70s when our Old Main burned. Another suggested we might find his hair—lost in the weeks after the fire due to stress, it is rumored—secured away. Doubtless our fundraisers can be forgiven for hoping that we would discover a trove of promissory notes. 
 
What we found was more pedestrian, alas. The student newspaper announcing the completion of the building. A local paper that reminded all of us that the ‘60s were the glory days for journalists: five sections for the Alma Record, our small town paper now long since shuttered. A cigar and a pack of matches (who could have foreseen back then that no one of the 300 present for the opening would be a smoker!). Most interestingly: a promotional “Sounds of Alma” vinyl recording that included the alma mater and fight song. 
 
But the significance of the time capsule was, for me, mostly metaphoric. Here we were, opening this 45-year-old metal box expectant of revelation. But the real revelation was in the room: in these challenging times for higher education, those who know Alma best also know better than the long line of doomsayers predicting the demise of colleges like ours.
 
With every gift to our college or to any other, our donors make an investment in the future. They underwrite the education of each one of today’s students and all of those to come. They ensure that, despite another in a long cycle of challenges for the higher education model, Alma College will continue to be a place where our students discover passions they didn’t know they had, friendships that will sustain them, values they could not articulate when they came to us, loves that will last a lifetime. 
 
Every gift, of whatever size, is a time capsule for the future of higher education, and a liberal arts education in particular. 
 
What might a time capsule reveal in 2058? Maybe a student newspaper, a content-rich flash drive, a carefully preserved smart phone or some other artifact depicting life in 2013. Regardless, I’m convinced it will be opened in an environment that continues to defend the values of the liberal arts approach that is deeply rooted in solving the practical problems of society and helping students discover how to use their knowledge to serve, and to improve, society.
 
Jeff Abernathy, President
Alma College
 

 

 

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