President Michael E. Hill Delivers the President’s Address to the Bestor Society
“This is what rituals are for. We do spiritual ceremonies as human beings in order to create a safe resting place for our most complicated feelings of joy or trauma, so that we don’t have to haul those feelings around with us forever, weighing us down. We all need such places of ritual safekeeping. And I do believe that if your culture or tradition doesn’t have the specific ritual you are craving, then you are absolutely permitted to make up a ceremony of your own devising, fixing your own broken-down emotional systems with all the do-it-yourself resourcefulness of a generous plumber/poet.”
―Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
Each summer assembly season, I am fortunate to participate in several key rituals that mark our days at Chautauqua. From the opening Three Taps of the Gavel to CLSC graduation and from July 4th celebrations to Old First Night, our calendar is replete with traditions that remind us to be grateful, to remember, to hold up all that is good in our world at the same time as we challenge ourselves to make that same world an even better place.
One of those rituals occurs each year in August, when I construct what amounts to an “interim report” to the Bestor Society, in a gathering in the Arts Quad, overlooking the President’s Cottage and our beloved lake. To say that this year preparing this address for some of our most important friends is different would be an understatement. Everything about this 147th Assembly season has been different. Everything in our world at the moment is different, and as our friend Elizabeth reminds us, sometimes when our world doesn’t allow for the ritual we are craving, we are permitted to make one up of our own devising. As we are not able to gather in this picturesque location, we spend this year creating what I hope is a one-year substitute ritual in sharing this address.
It is within that vein that I deliver this year’s President’s Address to the Bestor Society not in the form of a talk on the hill but in the form of a “love letter” to each of you. Some might question why the positive spin as we are in the midst of a global pandemic. That’s a fair question, to be sure. But if you’ll indulge me to share a few stories, perhaps the bigger picture will come into focus.
As of this writing, we are in Week 7 of our 147th Summer Assembly Season. I remember vividly in March staring down the question of whether this would be the first summer in the entire history of the Institution that we close down all programming. Spanish Flu had not stopped us, nor had the Great Depression. Would an unknown virus with a clinical name of COVID-19 do it?
In May, the Institution’s Board of Trustees cancelled all in-person programming and authorized the creation of CHQ Assembly, a multi-platform digital program to deliver close to 1,000 programs online. After working through some initial kinks, we’ve had a dynamic season of delivering our nine weeks of themed programming, and the numbers have been astounding! In our first seven weeks, we’ve reached more than 200,000 people in 50 countries. 85 percent of the people that start a program finish it, and our recent survey data tells us that the majority of the people plan to stay with us in a year-round programming format. Two long-standing Chautauqua families quickly donate more than $250,000 to help defray the costs early in CHQ Assembly’s life. Why? Because Chautauqua needed them, and they believed the mission was too important to not try.
One brand new donor was so inspired by the work during our climate change week, he pledge close to a half-million dollars to allow us to continue year-round conversations. Why? Because he believed the critical conversation we had begun needed to keep going. He believed that if we stopped engaging with one another, we wouldn’t get to solutions, and he was eager to put his own capital into play to make sure that didn’t happen.
The murder of George Floyd rocked the nation and resulted in protests from coast to coast with people declaring Black Lives Matter. At Chautauqua, we continued our own exploration of our incredible privilege and the work that was uniquely ours to do. We struggled and asked questions about how we might respond as part of our overall strategic plan. In two short weeks, five families came forward with enough donations to fund a new Chief Diversity Officer position to join our ranks and to help us formulate the answer. Amid great economic uncertainty, Chautauquans donated more than $700,000 to give us a jump start on our efforts. These gifts have the potential to produce generational change in our mission, and they came among the most chaotic of times. Why? Because our mission calls us to explore the best in human values, and these families believed that our voices needed a seat at the table if that exploration was to be authentic.
The Jefferson Project at Lake George – a partnership between Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM Research, and The Fund for Lake George – combines Internet of Things technology and powerful analytics with science to create a new model for environmental monitoring and prediction. It is creating a blueprint to preserve important lakes, rivers and other bodies of fresh water around the globe. And just this week, we announced that The Jefferson Project would come to Chautauqua Lake to help us better understand the issues impacting our own beloved body of water. To make this happen, Chautauqua Institution needed to contribute a portion of the funds necessary to bring Jefferson Project scientists here. Several Chautauquans saw the need and stepped up to pay our portion. Why? Because they understood that a part of our mission is to honor the physical place that has been the birthplace of ideas for close to 150 years. They saw an opportunity and refused to let it go by because of money.
But what about all that lost revenue from gate passes unrealized, you might ask? At this writing Chautauquans have given back the proceeds of gate pass sales even though we weren’t conducting in-person programming. Why? Because they understood that a mystery virus might take out an in-person season at Chautauqua, but they had the power to make sure it didn’t take out Chautauqua itself.
“We all need such places of ritual safekeeping.” As I think about these past tumultuous months, I am struck by a question that a member of the Bestor Society asked me in a “virtual cocktail party” at the President’s Cottage last night: “With all you’ve been through as President, how can you still be smiling?”
My answer speaks to the reason for this “love letter” to you all today. Not one day has gone by since the Board of Trustees’ May meeting in which I haven’t thought about the generations of Chautauquans who have loved and cared so much for this place. My own predecessors who had their own sleepless nights wondering how best to serve Chautauqua. The countless Trustees and Directors who toiled alongside those staff members to make sure the Institution survived all manner of crises. And perhaps most importantly, members of the Bestor Society, who like their namesake, provided the critical support to make Chautauqua strong – strong enough to get to the other side of a once-in-a-century global pandemic.
“This is what rituals are for.” You have my abiding gratitude for continuing the ritual of love, care and stewardship for Chautauqua that has made all in this love letter and so much more possible.
Michael E. Hill
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