A Vision for Alma College
I am mindful that it is unwise for a new president to talk too much of vision too early. Let me talk, though, for a few minutes about what we might do together, in the next few years.
As I begin I recall Eisenhower’s great line: “Plans are worthless. Planning is essential.”
And of course the words of that great philosopher Yogi Berra, who said: “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.”
Nonetheless, we will venture into planning and predicting together over the next year, and I am excited about the opportunities before us. With the resources right here in this room, we will easily be able to meet the challenges before us and to realize the ambitions we have as a college.
Where will we begin? Regardless of where we go, here is where I believe we start:
First, our plan will be rooted in our identity. We are not Amherst College, nor Ave Maria, neither MSU nor Phoenix. We are Alma. There is no prouder claim we can make. We are Alma . . . and we will remain so.
Second, our plan will respond to our changing environment. We do not have the option of living in 1890 or in 1990. We will not plan as if it is 1990, and we will not plan as if 1990 might come again. We will plan for a college whose 150th year will be even brighter than its 125th.
Our mission statement describes our roots and our identity eloquently. We prepare adults: critical, generous, purposeful, responsible adults. Leaders as much as servants. Citizens as much as workers.
I believe those roots compel us:
- to model citizenship;
- to serve Alma, the city, as we serve Alma, the college;
- to carry our mission beyond Alma, both city and college;
- to become more diverse and more international;
- to sustain our campus and our place, and its fragile environment.
Let me take these in order.
First, I admire the mission statement as the central expression of our collective values, and I am grateful for the thoughtful work this community has done to meet that mission. In stating as our central aim that we prepare “graduates who think critically, serve generously, lead purposefully, and live responsibly as stewards of the world,” we acknowledge that a liberal arts education is deeply rooted in helping to solve the practical problems of our society. As we prepare students who have the breadth of training that a liberal education demands, we will also continue to help them to discover how they will use that education to serve, and to improve, society.
To this end, I believe we must work collectively to model citizenship for our students. We will continue to affirm the service that each of you does for this College and for the broader community even as we model citizenship in our partnership with the city of Alma and mid-Michigan.
I believe that to thrive we will have to ensure that our city and county will thrive. More, we will need to lead efforts to help Alma, Gratiot and mid-Michigan reinvent themselves given the enormous challenges we face today. We must take the lead in such work because there is no other organization that can do so.
What will this mean? I will ask that we seek to deepen partnerships with local communities that you have developed over decades. Can Alma further its remarkable commitment—modeled by so many here—to helping to solve the problems faced by the city and the county? Can we demonstrate to all of our constituencies that Alma and mid-Michigan provide a learning laboratory for Alma students, so that we can rightly claim that an Alma education could take place nowhere but here? I hope that a legacy of these years for Alma College will be that we modeled the leadership we expect of our students in helping to answer the enormous challenges before Michigan.
We will need to recognize changes in student learning and build our admirable emphasis on experiential learning. Who knows where this may lead? Perhaps we can take what we have learned from the Center for Responsible Leadership and related programs across campus and together build a program that will offer experiential learning opportunities—broadly defined internships or research experiences—to every student, thus demonstrating the value of an Alma education to prospective students and their families, who have never been more skeptical about a liberal arts education. We will need as well to recognize that experiential learning asks more of faculty than traditional pedagogies.
We must strive to develop partnerships beyond mid-Michigan—building on the great promise of the Ecuador program—that will help to deepen our international population even as we encourage more of our students to study abroad in their four years here.
And I believe that our values require us to create a sustainable community, in economic, social and environmental terms. I will work hard as president to model sustainability and to encourage more sustainable ways of doing our work together. Can we create a community garden to put produce on our tables for many months of the year? Can we develop farm-to-fork programs that will benefit local farmers by sending our scraps for the renewal of their farms even as we buy their produce and meat to feed our community? Can we buy bicycles for those students who agree not to bring a car to campus? These are just a few of the ideas I have heard from you already. Together, we can ensure that students learn from our model how to live responsibly as stewards of this world.
Of course there is much more we must do together in the years ahead if we are to be successful and true to our core identity:
- We will need to work hard to ensure that the great story of Alma College is known far and wide. Thus you will find me in some non-traditional territory for presidents, but you will also find me promoting the work of all in this community. We simply cannot afford to be any kind of secret, whether “best kept” or otherwise. The great work that you have done to build this College needs to be better known.
- We will need to do all of this even as we must likewise recognize the hard work of all in this room, reaching long-held goals to compensate faculty and staff at the mean of our peer colleges.
- We will need to become more diverse than we are today, given the changing demographics certainly, but more important given the commitment we have to preparing students for the world they will encounter when they leave us.
Challenges for Higher Education
My second point today is that our plan must address the enormous challenges before higher education.
And so, we will remain true to our roots. We will draw strength from them, and inspiration from them. But we also will respond to our changing environment.
Let’s start by taking a deep breath. The discussions of the future of small colleges are full of dark prophecies. We are, if you hadn’t noticed, scheduled to be overrun. The question of “who” will do the overrunning varies by author: The Internet. The University of Phoenix. Burgeoning community colleges. Dwindling high school populations. Parents who would rather not pay the bill.
We stand at the brink of a precipice.
But here, friends, is the one thing that these anxious writers fail to mention. Education is always at the edge of the precipice. One of the few things that Socrates and Isocrates ever agreed on was that their students were a sorry shadow of students from the old days.
Which is, by the way, precisely the refrain echoed in debates of the 1890s over vocationalism and the shame of teaching great literature can you imagine? in English.
The debates of the 1990s sounded little different.
And while I don’t expect to be monitoring the debates of the 2090s, I’ve got a nickel here that I’m willing to bet on their content.
We are always at the precipice. But we have rather better prospects, rather higher hopes, most would suggest. Still, there are challenges to which we must respond. Together, we must continue to do all that we can to ensure that every Alma student has every opportunity to stay for four years and to graduate. We must establish high expectations and, equally important, we must all, every one of us, work to provide strong support for students to achieve those expectations.
Despite the presence of challenges, we will overcome them in the way we have overcome so many challenges in our past.
In reading the College’s centennial history, I am reminded that our challenges seem small indeed in comparison to the early years of Alma. President Bruske once went out to Saginaw on a fundraising trip at an exceptionally difficult moment for the College: as our historians note, his trip cost him 90 cents for railroad fare, $1 for hotel, and $1.15 for meals, yet he came back with only two stuffed sea gulls for the College museum! But in the course of his presidency, this College had grown in size, stature and in financial stability. His legacy was one of hope for the future and confidence in our values.
So we have had our challenges before. And we have thrived. Today we face challenges from a position of remarkable strength: that we have attracted record classes demonstrates the enthusiasm across Michigan for Alma College. Together we will build on these and other successes to meet our common aspirations.
We will continue to build programs that reflect our values: 97 percent of our students now engage in service learning by the time they come to graduate, for example. Such accomplishments will lead to the recognition that we rightly deserve. Indeed, just this week a national magazine rated Alma above all liberal arts college in Michigan because of our commitment to social mobility, research and service.
We will accomplish our high ambitions because of the sense of common purpose and common values that is ours and that has been so much in evidence this summer.
Finding Meaning and Purpose
The moment for our College and our society today is rich with potential. We would be in good company were we to suggest that the 21st century economy will undo all that we have known. We could join the naysayers who believe that much will be lost in the decades to come.
But ours has always been a different path. We will in moving forward affirm our past even as we find our way to a future that is rich with promise. Through nearly 125 years of our history, we have found abundance right here in this place despite the endless challenges we have faced.
My short time on this campus has already assured me that we have all we need to meet the challenges before us right here in this room. Let us look to ourselves, as we have throughout our history, to find the source of our abundance.
An Alma liberal arts education has never been more important than it is today: our great gift to the world is our work helping students come to a deeper sense of meaning and purpose as they deepen their commitments to becoming leaders and servants.
Those passions are at the heart of what a college education is all about. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that the purpose of a college is to “set the hearts of its youth on flame.” If that is the measure of our success, Alma College has had wild success through these many decades. I see those flames burning still, in the hearts of alumni who graduated from this college 50 years ago and in those who graduated last spring.
Let us be called together to this important work. Let us expect much of one another and offer great support. This path will at times be hard, and it will take every one of us here pulling together to be successful. But our strength is great, and I believe that we can look forward to our next 125 years with great confidence.