08/07/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

Candide was Right

In Candide, the famous parody of Enlightenment intellectuals, Voltaire gave us the line that "we must cultivate our garden." It comes near the end of the work, when it becomes obvious that the moral lesson of Candide's tutor, Dr. Pangloss, namely that "we live in the best of all possible worlds," is in all likelihood incorrect. Reams have been written on what is meant by these two famous lines, so I am eager to join in the fray. Cultivation is one of my life's passions, after all.

To set the record straight, my wife is the head gardener in our family. I may have the great honor of being a college president, but in our yard, she outranks me. She is a certified Master Gardener, trained in Montana and Minnesota, and thus well adapted to the rigors of gardening here in the far reaches of Northern New York. I provide the manual labor for her creativity in the garden, although I must note that the vegetable garden is largely my domain.

Gardening is an activity we enjoy tackling together, and we bring that love with us wherever we go. Since becoming a Master Gardener, my wife has begun to collect plants and add them to her gardens. Because we have been moving from areas of the country that share a common climate, we have been able to carry those plants with us. So the crane's bill growing in our garden here in Potsdam began with our garden in Montana. The dwarf irises come from my mother-in-law's garden in Minnesota, and so on. In fact, coming to New York, we removed the seats from our Dodge Caravan and filled it with plants from our garden, in order to launch the new garden here. To us, that was some very precious cargo!

There's a saying among gardeners that the hours spent in the garden don't count against you -- as in, you can extend your life through gardening. I like to think through our gardens, we enrich more lives than just our own.

Higher education is a lot like gardening. While there are some significant differences in the way large research-oriented universities operate in comparison to liberal arts colleges, in general we confront each student wherever he or she might be on their educational path and help them reach their educational goals. It is a fairly intensive and hands-on relationship when done well -- which makes me think ever so much of gardening.

The individual plants need to be nurtured, watered, pruned, and then allowed to flourish. The gardener can only provide the environment, but in the end, it's up to the plant to grow or not. In higher education, the college can only provide the learning environment. At some point, it's up to the student to take those nourishing lessons and find success.

My wife and I buy seedlings from the nursery and then prepare them for our garden: harden them off, trim the roots and top growth. Students come to college from their home "nursery" and go through a similar process of molding to the new environment. We provide advisors, counselors, peer mentors to help them in their adjustment.

The really difficult part of the equation is "knowing when." In the case of the garden, we must know when to water, cultivate, and prune -- and when not to. With college students, we must know the best way to provide the support structure, the curriculum, and the essentials of life to encourage wellness and success.

So, at the end of the day, Candide was right. We must all cultivate our garden. Nobody is going to do it for us. In higher education, we must be aware of all those factors over which we have control in order to provide the optimal environment for student learning. Then, as in our gardens, we pray for good weather (or a favorable economy) and watch as our young people grow. In that way, the success of our students becomes the bouquet of flowers that greets us every day.