2012 Inaugural Address
February 10, 2012
Thank you, thank you.
What a day, an amazing and wonderful day. I am almost – but not quite – speechless, and I am humbled by this outpouring of support and affirmation.
I wonder how many new university presidents have been as blessed as I am today; to arrive at my installation ceremony in a procession led by my own father.
I am quite certain that, when my dad became Faculty Marshal almost ten years ago, he did not foresee this day. I am so pleased to have him and my mother Karen here, along with a dozen other family members including my grandmother Iris, my brother Jeff, and two Willamette alumni, my aunt Kristi, from the class of ‘89, and my cousin Patrick, from the class of ‘99.
I also want to acknowledge Chancellor Kurata and all who have brought such warm welcomes; as well as our two former presidents, Jerry Hudson and Lee Pelton, not only for the ceremonial transfer of the presidential medallion, but for all they have done over thirty years to bring Willamette to where it is today. It means a lot to me to have you here.
I also want to thank the choir and our musicians and all of the volunteers and staff members – including their fearless leader, Kate Speckman – for helping make today a wonderful and memorable occasion in Willamette’s history.
And most of all, of course, I am thrilled to share this day and my life with my wife Rachel and daughter Laura.
I am grateful to the search committee, chaired by Steve Wynne, for sizing me up – an astrophysicist-turned-dean, a Willamette professor’s kid, a South Salem Saxon – and seeing in me the University’s 25th president. I am told that, as an undergraduate in the mid-1970s, Steve Wynne took a biology course from my father, and after a long night of playing cards, accidently overslept and only made it to part of the final exam, thereby earning a C in the class. So thank you, Steve, for hiring me anyway.
Nearly a year ago, I had a conversation with the search committee about the man who brought my family to Willamette in the mid-1960s, the man after whom this aging auditorium is named, Willamette President G. Herbert Smith.
President Smith took office seventy years ago, in 1942, Willamette’s centennial year. He was only 37 years old. His simple inaugural ceremony, at the start of an academic year overshadowed by war, included a centennial vision that echoed that of the founders who set out to build a university that would, in their words, prepare youth for the “important offices of society” through education in the “liberal arts and sciences” and in professional programs “suitable to the wants and condition of the country,” while seeking to become a “leading literary institution on the Pacific coast.”
In his inaugural address and remarks at his first faculty meeting, Smith exhorted a strategic focus on a rigorous, high-quality liberal arts curriculum, eliminating vocational programs and undergraduate professional degrees which had led to “scattering our fire” too broadly without the necessary supporting resources, and he urged Willamette to stay focused, with “ever more emphasis on being a student-centered university.”
Today’s ceremony is only the fifth time since World War II that the Willamette community has gathered to inaugurate a new president. Neither its founders, meeting on the first day of February, 1842, nor those who gathered for Smith’s centennial address in 1942 could have imagined today’s world, and of course, the changes to the university itself have been profound:
We have doubled in size since 1942, and our students now come from far beyond the old Oregon Territory, representing 43 states and 27 countries. More than half choose to study abroad during their undergraduate years, many engage in collaborative research with faculty, and more students than ever are recipients of national awards such as Fulbright, Goldwater, and National Science Foundation Fellowships.
Our faculty are truly outstanding, committed teachers and scholars whose senses of wonder and curiosity are infectious and whose scholarly contributions are impressive. The composition of the faculty at the College of Liberal Arts has recently undergone a remarkable transformation. Two of every five CLA faculty teaching today were hired after the fall of 2005. These new additions have enhanced Willamette’s curricular strengths, our diversity, and our quality.
Our twenty-five thousand alumni include leaders of companies like Deloitte and Boeing, of cultural organizations like the Getty, members of Congress, and the Oregon Supreme Court; numerous Olympic athletes, and a Nobel Prize-winning economist, as well as a myriad of artists, authors and teachers who shape the way we and others see and think about the world.
Invigorated by our strong connections, both current and historic, to the unique culture and ethos of the Pacific northwest, teaching and learning at Willamette are increasingly global in context as we invite the world into our labs, classrooms and our collective consciousness via laptop, iPad and droid. Terms like “twitter” and “sustainable” are a part of everyday speech while “Y2K” fades into the distance, as dated and forgettable as the “floppy disk”.
But these changes merely add depth and complexity to what is, essentially, a deep continuity of Willamette’s purpose and mission, one that, minus the mind-boggling nature of modern life, would still resonate, I believe, with our 19th and 20th-century predecessors.
Willamette remains committed to the liberal arts and sciences as the best preparation for successful careers and lives infused with purpose and meaning. In fact, for an unforeseeable future, where constant change is the only certainty, a liberal education is more applicable, relevant and versatile now than perhaps it has ever been.
We actively seek to make a Willamette education accessible to all who can flourish here. Access to higher education remains sharply divided on lines of economic class, race, and ethnicity. As a community of educators, we understand that our ability to address global economic, environmental, and public health challenges is at risk if our most talented young people are priced out of the education they need to become tomorrow’s leaders and innovators.
And we are a university that remains deeply committed to the ideal of service, rooted in our Methodist heritage, with its distinctive focus on what John Wesley called “practical divinity.” It is a commitment most clearly expressed in our motto: non nobis solum nati sumus, not unto ourselves alone are we born. Today, our consideration of the needs of others has broadened to include environmental, social and economic sustainability, since we know now, in ways our predecessors could not, that decisions we make today, here, will affect others elsewhere on the planet, both now and in the future.
But as I stand before you, embracing the role and responsibilities of the presidency, it is not enough simply to affirm our long-held ideals and commitments: excellence in liberal education, broadening access to the university and building diversity within it; serving our communities and our world. These principles, shared by many other fine colleges and universities, are indeed worthy of our attention.
But I also want to reflect today on what I believe is distinctive about Willamette, a strength that emerges from our size, culture, structure, and perhaps our history. It is that “Willamette thing,” that quality that, like the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography, no one can quite define, but they know it when they see it.
I recently re-read one of the great early twentieth century novels, Howards End, by E. M. Forster, a story propelled primarily by a drive to connect – and the failure to connect – across barriers of sex, wealth, class, family conflict, and history.
“Only connect the prose and the passion,” is the ideal the wealthy, bohemian central character, Margaret Schlegel, brings to her marriage to the nouveau riche man of commerce, Henry Wilcox.
Rereading the novel took me back, in a Proustian moment, to a lecture I attended 25 years ago, in my senior year at Carleton, given by a professor of classics after the publication of his book on Greek tragedy. David Porter, later president of Skidmore, titled his book “Only Connect,” and he urged his undergraduate audience that day to heed those two words in our own lives. I remember little else from his lecture, but I remember that command.
I want to suggest to you this afternoon that the same drive to connect across barriers is distinctively Willamette-esque; like the University’s motto, it is deeply ingrained into the Willamette experience.
The idea of connection is right at the surface of our self-image, what we nearly always say first about ourselves. Since my arrival last July, I have hosted what have been dubbed “listening groups” – a series of intentionally one-sided conversations with small groups. The format is simple: They talk, I listen.
In every listening group discussion so far, with staff, faculty, students, alumni and parents, one of the very first strengths mentioned was a sense of interpersonal connection. Willamette was consistently and repeatedly described as a warm and friendly community, where people support and help one another. The word family was used numerous times. Students characterize faculty as accessible, attentive and demonstrably committed to their success.
I hear regularly too from parents about the kindness and dedication of our staff, the caring shown by our faculty and coaches, and appreciation that parents are invited into the “Willamette family” circle.
Conversations with members of the Salem community have clearly shown me how that sense of connection also extends outwards. I have heard a great deal about Willamette’s volunteerism and service. For example, I am proud of the twenty members of our football team who, during recent floods, responded to urgent requests for help from the Mid-Valley Women’s Crisis Center, filling and placing sandbags and transporting residents and their belongings to safer, drier locations.
And I have heard much praise of the Chemawa Indian School tutoring program and the Willamette Academy, our partnership with Salem-Keizer public schools that helps 150 local middle and high school students prepare for college – students from demographic groups historically underrepresented on college campuses.
Connection is a theme, too, in our curriculum, supported by our distinctive academic structure. Unlike at most liberal arts colleges, our strong programs in management, law, and education add breadth to our faculty, and unlike at most larger institutions, our departments and schools are not isolated in independent silos.
Collaborative projects and initiatives between faculty and between schools have resulted in strong interdisciplinary programs in areas like sustainability, where questions of law, governmental policy and business practice are as critical as those of geoscience, biology, sociology, and philosophy. Our students directly benefit from those connections, and from programs like the Liberal Arts Research Collaborative, supporting interdisciplinary teams of faculty and students in the humanities, arts, and social sciences.
I’ve already referred to another way in which Willamette connects people across one of the most challenging barriers, that of deep time. As the first university in the West, Willamette is older than almost any other institution west of the Mississippi, yet our history and institutional memory are not only preserved and transmitted through our official archives. Sometimes Willamette’s story is literally a family story.
At opening weekend last August, I found myself talking with a mother of both a freshman and a junior, and discovered that, not only was she herself an alumna, as were her sister and mother, but a total of nine members of her family were currently attending or had graduated from Willamette over the course of four generations.
Hers was a century-long story of connection, commitment, and, yes, faith in Willamette, and I’ve learned that such stories are not uncommon. In fact, I’ve got some examples right up here on stage with me now.
For those of you visiting campus for the first time, take a moment to visit Willamette’s Star Trees, the grove of giant sequoias whose foliage, if you look up from the center, outlines a five-pointed star against the sky. One of the students who helped plant those living symbols of our history, back in our centennial year, was Warne Nunn, class of 1941, who later became a member, then chair of the Board of Trustees. His son Bob Nunn, class of 1972, is now a trustee.
And as a truly remarkable example, there has been a member of the Collins family on the Willamette University Board continuously for 100 years, other than a two-month gap in 1964, during which, I assure you, no board meetings were missed. E.S. Collins, Truman Collins, Maribeth Collins, and, since last May, Truman Collins Jr. THAT is a family commitment.
Waller Hall, whose image you see behind me, the place I come to work every day, and the oldest university building still in use west of the Mississippi, may be the image most commonly associated with the university. But it is these connections between people, between students, alumni, and faculty, across and between generations, and not any particular physical or architectural element, that form the most enduring aspect of Willamette’s institutional character.
Finally, I return to the connection at the core of our mission, the core of our aspiration both to be and become people of purpose and passion. Our revised mission statement, approved just this morning by the Board of Trustees, charges us, through our rigorous education in the liberal arts and professions, to prepare our graduates to transform knowledge into action and lead lives of achievement, contribution, and meaning.
It is that connection of our students’ own passions with the benefits of a liberal education, allowing them to apply knowledge in ways that create meaning for themselves, and for society – that is the deepest purpose of a Willamette education. Job placement rates, MCAT scores, and graduate fellowship awards are important, but our real success will be measured over the full arc of our students’ lives, and since our students will experience a world beyond our knowing, we must have faith that our greatest and most noble aspirations and efforts, to help our students find connection in this world and within themselves, will be enough.
As Forster put it in Howards End: “Only connect. That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted.”
Only connect. I realize that if you are somehow given cause to remember this occasion twenty-five years from now, you too may be more likely to conjure up vivid memories of the beautiful music and the colorful procession than of any of the words I speak today.
Nonetheless, let me pledge to you now, as Willamette’s 25th president, that I will nurture, celebrate and pursue vigorously that very noble and intrinsically Willamette imperative.