March 29, 2011
Thank you so much for such a warm welcome. It is such a pleasure to be here, and I want to start by thanking Chairman Bready, Vice Chairman Jenkins, the Search Committee and the entire Board of Trustees for the trust that they have placed in me to lead this University over this next number of years.
I also want to thank President Champagne, who has been extraordinarily gracious to my wife and me as we have become acquainted with Roger Williams University. I would like to acknowledge the role he has played in helping a campus that has had some injury get back on track again. It’s a remarkable piece of work on his part.
I did not prepare formal remarks – I want to speak to you from my heart. So please forgive me if I stumble around a little; but this is a very emotional day. This is a very complex situation that we are in, where a campus and a candidate come together. I likened it when I was here to the process of speed dating. Here is one candidate, here is the next candidate and the next candidate; and from the candidates’ standpoint, the reciprocal results are true.
It is very important that the candidate feel that he or she is making the right decision if the offer is made. So for me I will tell you that I was involved in four searches where I was a finalist, they were all finishing about the same time, and I had the luxury of watching that process unfold. But very quickly I realized that this was the place that I wanted to be. I hoped earnestly for an offer from Roger Williams, and the reason for my hope was reflected by some of Chairman Bready’s remarks today.
My personal values and the values that I have espoused in my previous roles in higher education administration are wonderfully mirrored by what is happening here at this very fine University. And I am deeply honored to be offered this position. I want to point out that presidents don’t become presidents because someone (a) takes pity on them or (b) says here is your reward for being a nice guy. It is an investment – a prediction that a campus makes in its own future.
So I don’t come to this position resting on laurels. I start over again with the idea that I have to prove myself to this campus. To prove that I am worthy of your trust. And I will assure all of you that I will spare no effort in ensuring that there is never a point where you will come to regret making me this offer. That is my pledge to you.
Let me talk a little bit though about the larger world of higher education and why it is that we are at a singular moment. I’m not going to speak to you as one who knows all of the details of Roger Williams University intimately, because I don’t yet. That is part of the process of learning that I will be engaged in over the next few months. But I do have a pretty good understanding of what is happening nationally, and let me put it to you that this is a very tense time for higher education looked at on a national level. I’m not going to make a long speech on this point, but I want to try and embed my reasons for being here with this broader prospective.
We are looking at our country at a time when the future of our economic strength is at some risk. We are seeing challenges from other countries who want to have what the United States has as its standard of living. And we depend on this country constantly reinventing itself. That requires a well-educated work force; it requires a significant number of people who are very well educated indeed to carry us forward and create future economic models in order to allow us to continue our success.
We are seeing right now a lot of challenges being placed before K-12 education – the question of whether K-12 is doing its job or not. There is a lot of criticism of K-12, fairly or not. It is not seen as being rigorous enough or successful enough with enough of its students. Higher education is still seen as the model for the world – we are the envy of the world in higher education, but I have to remind you what is happening right now across the country. And in public higher education, where 80 percent of the students are registered, there has been a tremendous withdrawal of funds by the states and what we are seeing are consequences happening to these universities that are pretty devastating. Two quick examples:
The governor elected to Pennsylvania has decided to reduce state funding for public higher education by 50 percent this year – 50 percent! In California, governor-elect Brown is proposing to take away half a billion dollars – $500 million dollars from both the U.C. and the C.S.U. system. These are enormously impactful changes. Public higher education right now is a shadow of what it once was.
I think what we are going to see are parents who are concerned about their children’s education asking the question: Are those public institutions still in a position to be able to do what they once did? And many of them will decide that the answer is no. They will shift increasingly to the private sector, and private institutions such as Roger Williams can expect more people coming and taking a look because Roger Williams is preserving the essence of what higher education is all about.
Let me speak to that point for just a moment. We tend to reduce higher education to a commodity at times or at least we allow society to do that for us. We think in terms of a degree. Well, if all we are thinking about is the degree or diploma, there are cheaper ways of getting one then coming to a fine private institution such as RWU. But if what you are looking for is an education… If you want the totality of that experience… If you want to emerge enriched by four years of rigorous work both inside and outside the classroom… Then the likelihood of you being able to do that at public institutions is remarkably challenged now.
But certainly not at Roger Williams. The challenge for us, however, is to be a place that people want to attend. We have to step up, we have to make sure that what we do is excellent. We have to make sure that the plans that we have for the future are both realizable and broadly shared. Let me elaborate on that point.
If I were creating the ideal universe at a college, I would try to create a campus where every person who is here (whether student, faculty or staff) woke up in the morning and said: “Thank God I am a part of Roger Williams University!” That should be our aspirational goal; if we have that kind of goal, as “Pollyanna-ish” as it may seem, then we are moving the institution in the right direction.
How do we get there? We don’t get there by top-down edict coming from the senior administration saying this is what we are going to do. We do it by being an inclusive campus that asks these questions of all the campus: How is it that we should plan our future? What is my role, each individual person on this campus, that it takes to give us that future? How do I fit in, in the broader picture?
The role of the president, among many other things, is to ensure that every person has an answer to those questions. That every person feels valued, respected and that everything we do is toward the greater good. We all have our private ambitions, but the collective ambitions of the University have to take precedence because if we are working for the common good for the institution as a whole, we will be making the right kinds of decisions and we will be doing these things the right way. We do that by embracing the principles of shared governance; by ensuring the people have a voice in decisions that are going to affect them.
We also need to recognize that at a university, we have something of a hierarchy that exists. Let me be very clear on this point: The universities that have existed now for over 1,000 years in Western Civilization and in this country for more than 350 years are places where scholars gather to work with each other and to work with students surrounding a library. And magic happens. The instructional work that happens between faculty and students is of paramount concern, and all the rest of us are here to support that enterprise. We don’t get that done by substituting people who are overly reliant on part-time people, but we required full-time scholars to be the central part of this institution. It is not just faculty, because students are also learning outside of the classroom. And therefore the Student Affairs people are part of this package. The rest of us support that enterprise, but we are very important too, because without the rest of us, this seamless whole would not exist.
Sometimes I think of myself as president as the conductor of an orchestra. I have the baton, but the music is being played by the people with the instruments. And if we are all on the same page of the song sheet, then we make beautiful music. If we are not, we have cacophony. So the challenge then is to find ways of planning our future that are broadly shared and owned by the entire Roger Williams community. And if we can do that successfully, this institution will have a very bright future indeed.
We have to be sure that in doing this we don’t sacrifice the very things that are most important to us, and that is the notion of a community of scholars. Not just faculty but students as well with the rest of us helping to create the mechanisms that support that enterprise. There are a lot of things here that happen that are a very great importance and part of the value system that I referred to earlier.
Civic engagement is a very important part of what Roger Williams does and does well. I want to underscore my commitment to that same process. Working with the community of Bristol, working with the communities of the East Bay, working with the state of Rhode Island as a whole – it is important that Roger Williams be seen as a player in that bigger societal framework. I think that those are things that we can do.
Now just one aside here. I should point out for those of you who believe in fate that I was apparently destined to be here. I’m not myself a big fatalist, but I will tell you how I know this. Last fall, long before there was a search announced here, I was cleaning out the middle draw of my desk at work –I do this faithfully and religiously at least once a decade whether it needs it or not. I know when to do it when I can’t open the drawer anymore because that’s the drawer you put the stuff in that you will get back to later. So I’m cleaning out this desk and I come across this cylinder – bridge tokens for the Newport bridge. Now I haven’t lived in Rhode Island since 1983, but these are very old and highly valuable tokens; I decided, because of my Scottish heritage, that I couldn’t throw them away since I might need them one day. This summer, I get to use the tokens.
One other thing: The day that I got a call from Chairman Bready and Vice Chairman Jenkins that I had been selected by the Search Committee and nominated to the Board as a whole, I was having dinner at a Chinese restaurant with my wife prior to that call. And my fortune cookie – How do they do this? This is amazingly insightful stuff! – reads “This could be an almost perfect day, enjoy it.” Yeah!
There is a lot to be done. This is a fine, fine institution. My job first of all is to do no harm. And secondly, to ensure as best I can that when I leave, which I hope will be many years from now, that I leave behind an even better institution than I take on today. Thank you all so much for being here today!