April 8, 2011
To the Alma community, and to Candace Dugan and the Board of Trustees, to college delegates and presidents gathered here, to our legislators who have joined us and to all Scots who gather today, welcome!
I am honored beyond words to extend a welcome to you all that is the merest shadow of the welcome that I’ve experienced in these first nine months at Alma College.
I’ve had that time in those months to consider just what an unusual genre is the presidential inaugural address. I’ve read a lot of these things in the past two months, so let me tell you what I’ve found:
They are long.
They contain, on average, 2,800 words, 16.4 learned allusions including an average of two quotes of Shakespeare and one of Lincoln, five sentences with foreign words, three mixed metaphors, two long lists either of great challenges or of amazing paradoxes.
Required to contribute to the genre but wanting to offer up something perhaps less than traditional, I turned to the available research only to find—I know this is true, I found it on the Internet—studies that show that 64 percent of faculty nationally would prefer “watching paint dry in the library basement” to “listening to another of the president’s speeches.”
Thus chastened, I would like to offer you this somewhat uninaugural inaugural address.
Uninaugural in part because on this day we celebrate not the beginning of a presidency, I think, but instead the accomplishments of a great college over 125 years of its history.
I hope thus you will indulge with me in a jubilant celebration of Alma in this, our quasquicentennial, before we return to the joyful and terribly important work of being Alma.
In these troubling times for our country and our world, the naysayers’ voices resound with defeat, and pessimism is characteristic of our age. America’s time has passed, we are told. The global political climate has become unsettled and violent. Our government lives beyond its means. Our public education system is incapable of competing effectively with, say, Romania’s. Our state is in decline. Our fate is no longer in our hands. Despair is our one recourse.
To all of which I can only say: These critics don’t know the great tradition of the liberal arts, nor the great history of a college like Alma very well, do they?
A liberal arts education has always been about changing community, bettering lives, solving problems. If the Greeks and Romans early on conceived of a liberal education as one of privilege, one for the free in those slave states, the Stoics, a group of philosophers in the third century, changed this notion. As Martha Nussbaum writes, for the Stoics, a liberal education was specifically one that makes a person free. Free to speak one’s mind in the public forum, free to engage in debate, free to represent the views of others and make one’s case. Free to solve society’s problems and improve the lives of others.
An Alma education has for 125 years been this type of liberal arts education, an education that, at its heart, prepares citizens to take on the most vexing of society’s problems.
The pessimists understand the problems we face; indeed, they wallow in them on their way to writing best-selling laments.
But one thing they don’t acknowledge is that humanity is forever facing the greatest challenge it has ever known and forever finding solutions in response.
The thing the critics don’t understand is the power of a few people willing to use their collective genius to create new solutions that transform lives, renew hope, build bonds, mend hearts, change minds, shake worlds.
But you knew that already. You knew it, because you live it. The people of Alma have shaped and changed lives for 125 years. The alumni of Alma have spread across the globe, carrying the spirit and temper of this college. The students of Alma now renew us all.
It’s true, but we forget. In the day-to-day bustle of classes and grades and budgets, sometimes we lose sight of the amazing gifts of this place.
One of those gifts has been the faith and optimism with which our college has always approached challenges. When Alma’s second president, the Reverend August Bruske, rose to give his inaugural address, he was already aware of the grave challenges that faced Alma. Indeed, the early years of his presidency were characterized by great obstacles and tumult: a college budget in arrears, a fire in the still nascent downtown, an economic downturn for state and nation alike.
But in his charge for his audience on that June day in 1891 when Alma’s first class was graduating, Alma’s new president expressed the hope and optimism that would characterize his years at Alma: “You are still but at the beginning,” he said.
Bruske’s 21 years in this office would see the college transformed as enrollment and endowment grew and the “jungle, grove and campus fair” began to take the form we know today. Alma in his years grew from a struggling start-up to a thriving college preparing men and women for leadership and service to community.
Such faith in the future and optimism as we see in August Bruske have been the very hallmarks of Alma’s 125 years, as they will be, must be, for our next 125.
Let me share two brief stories that give reason for all of us who love Alma to look to the years to come with President Bruske’s characteristic optimism.
This first story demonstrates how a liberal arts college like Alma is uniquely situated to help bring resolution to the enormous challenges we face today.
Many in the audience will know the long history of the Velsicol Plant downriver in St. Louis. Velsicol, a prominent manufacturer of DDT and other chemicals, used the Pine River as a primary dumping site throughout the company’s production on the river’s banks, to the point that little aquatic life survived in a large stretch of the river for decades. Fish, for many years, literally dissolved from the inside out.
What could little Alma College contribute to the problems for tens of thousands in the Pine River watershed caused by a multi-billion dollar company?
A great deal, as it turns out. Over the past two decades, Alma faculty and students joined a coalition of citizens from Gratiot County and beyond, forming one of the largest community advisory groups in the country. Alma College faculty provided expert testimony; students from disciplines across the campus provided much-needed research and review of documents. Together with citizens from across Mid-Michigan, Alma College faculty and students built a vision for restoring this community.
Over 20 years, this work on the part of so many in our community resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements to accomplish that vision. And, just last week, the City of St. Louis won a landmark, $26.5 million judgment that will ensure a healthy water supply returns to the community. Such engagement with community has been at the heart of an Alma education since our earliest days.
Next, let us consider the recent experience of our students Bill McHenry and Holly Oemke, who traveled to Muko, Uganda, this past December. Villagers of Muko have little electricity and little prospect for changing the hard-scrabble condition of their lives. The village struggles still with the dual legacy of decades of corrupt leadership in the national government and bitter civil war.
Through their conviction that engaging with world markets can transform communities, our Alma students traveled to Muko to help villagers there find markets for the crafts that they sell locally to eke out a living. Bill, Holly and others talked with citizens of Muko to help them think about how their crafts might find an American market. They are working now to build on their vision so as to help that community find a path to self-sufficiency. Their efforts are part of deliberate work by Alma faculty and students over six decades to reach out to communities across Africa, work that began in 1959 with the college’s leadership of “Books for Africa,” a program that founded Central Africa’s first lending library.
In so doing, they have made a difference in the world. An Alma education has brought them to see the importance of not just making a living, but of making living better for others and, so, changing the world.
These efforts both local and global illustrate the fundamental importance of a liberal arts education to community. Scholarship, stewardship, leadership grow at our college in large part because of our commitment to the growth of the whole person, through our attention to the whole life. Knowledge, passion and commitment grow here, too, in our faculty and in our students and an essential opportunity is to ensure that Alma will continue to serve and to lead communities.
When this jubilant celebration of 125 years of Alma is done, when the last of the punch is consumed and the whole thing is mashed-up on YouTube, we will return to the work of being Alma. You, far more than I, have defined what it means to be Alma, and why we take such pride in a simple claim: We are Alma.
From these stories I learn much of Alma, but principally they illustrate two central values that I have learned from you about who we are.
You have said:
First, we are members of this community, of it and not above it. Though poetic and powerful, John Winthrop’s vision of “a city upon a hill” is not a call that resonates for this community. We at Alma carry on the very best of the liberal arts tradition in our commitment to serving communities across the globe. If we are to thrive, we must build on our ability to engage the world and its problems. We must demonstrate to a public that knows too little of us the value of an Alma education. That value lies in part with our engagement with the world.
Thus we must continue to find ways in which we can make Alma, Gratiot County, and the state of Michigan our learning laboratory. Let us ensure that students are deeply engaged with their communities and their environment. Let us ensure as well that students serve this community in their time here, that, in the words of the environmental writer Wes Jackson, they act as if they are indeed “native to this place,” as must we all.
And you have also said that an Alma education engages our students with the world. If at our best we have always acted as if we are natives to this place, we have also ensured that an Alma education is about preparing global citizens. This year we send out to the world graduates like Kyla Wojtas, who in her time here at Alma came to see the plight of the poor in Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, as deeply intertwined with her own identity, spending months in those communities building a vision for their betterment.
If we are natives of this place, we are natives, too, of a fraught and fragile world. The German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote that “it is a part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” For Adorno, a sense of exile in the world enables human beings to see injustice and address it in all places. We at Alma College must continue to find ways for our students to take on the world’s problems as their own, as so many of our students have done through 125 years.
In the years to come, we know we must build on these and other values we have always held. But we know, too, that we cannot be satisfied with simply being what we have been. I am suggesting that our greatest opportunity is to re-imagine what the liberal arts college can be for our society and for the world.
What must such a re-imagining entail? Among the things I think we will need to pursue:
- We must be better stewards of our resources, creating a more sustainable community, respectful of the environment and connected to local farmers, tradesmen and businesses.
- We must better reflect America’s rapidly evolving diversity. Like other great liberal arts colleges, we must reach further afield for our next generation of students.
- We must bring the world to our campus and ensure that our students have opportunities to learn through their engagement with the world.
- We must recommit to “citizenship” as the foundation of an Alma education and model citizenship by addressing the real problems of our state, national and global communities.
- We must partner deeply with the off-campus community, extending our resources to help Alma, Gratiot and Michigan thrive.
- In doing all of these things, we must seek to engage the world in the great story of Alma College.
If we are to achieve these goals, we will need to go about our work differently. We will, each of us in this community, need to take on an entrepreneurial spirit that is perhaps not the hallmark of the academy. We must become an institution for a new century of challenges and opportunities, a dynamic model of the habits and practices upon which a sustainable and compassionate community depends. We have the opportunity to be the community that we are preparing our graduates to help create when they leave us.
We will do these things because we must do them if we want an Alma education to be for our students of the next 125 years the life-changing experience it has been for our students of the last 125. Just yesterday our alumnus Patrick McDonough sent a note reminding me of the words of Theodore Roosevelt: “...the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
I will close with a personal story that suggests for me the nature of our work at liberal arts colleges.
Some years ago I spent five weeks in Nigeria. One week, I was staying with friends in the northern city of Zaria.
That Sunday, these friends, David and Eunice Kitchener, took me to their church, St Bartholemew’s. The church itself remains for me the strongest image from a month in west Africa. The northernmost Christian church when it was built in 1929, it is constructed almost entirely of mud and stands in a bare clay yard so that it appears to have risen up out of the very ground.
That morning, a red Flame of the Forest tree bloomed full against the orange mud of the church’s walls. After the service, which had been translated for me from Hausa, the local trading language, my hosts and I sat outside with others in the bright sun and enjoyed the agusi soup and pounded yam that are staples of the local diet.
After we ate, the younger men among us changed into work clothes to begin the process of bolstering the church’s walls with a new application of mud drawn from a field next to the church. In moments, these parishioners were standing on great long ladders leaning against the church walls to do their work. Dipping their hands into buckets of warm, wet earth, the men painstakingly spackled the walls, the work of their hands countering that of the rains which every spring strive to reduce the structure to the soil from which it was raised.
My hosts told me that with each passing year, the appearance of the church changes: There is more clay in the mud one year, say, or one wall is raised slightly higher than the rest at the hands of an eager worker. The church, we might say, is in a constant state of becoming.
This process, this ritual renewal of the church’s walls, its roof, its cornices and beams at the hands of its parishioners, suggested to me just what it means to be a member of a community grounded in faith: In the face of all of our human doubt and uncertainty, we commit again and again to the seen and unseen ties that bind us. The ongoing toil involved in restoring St. Bartholemew’s, like faith itself, surpasses reason—all the more so since modern building materials are available in Nigeria—and yet this ancient work continues. For my hosts, for me, it reflects the grace of God in our lives, and it asserts the necessity of the communal to the presence of the divine.
The stewardship and the renewal of community, especially a community like Alma founded on an idea, requires the same vigilant attention as does that mud church in the middle of Nigeria. At liberal arts colleges like ours, we are ever in an inchoate state, ever becoming. It is a part of our identity to be always emerging. At Alma, we debate the nature of our being constantly: It’s a part of who we are to engage in a conversation about who we are and that, to me, is in part the excitement of this moment for our college.
But our job when we take off these robes is to put on our work clothes, to get our hands dirty, and to engage again in the ongoing commitment of this place: To build an institution, always changing according to the touch of those who are its stewards, always adapting to the mix of mud and opportunity the local environment provides, always preparing for the storms which will annually come, but always true at its core to the mission of transforming lives which has been our heritage for 125 years.
I am so glad to be here. I am honored by your confidence in me and by your welcome. You are remarkable people and ours is a remarkable college. Your creativity and your aspirations inspire me. Your compassion and brilliance, your creativity and your hard work, will ensure that we meet those aspirations and more.
Though our college is 125 years old, I can, like August Bruske, say with good reason this day that we “are still but at the beginning.” Great things will come for Alma College in the years ahead if we work together to achieve them with all our passion and compassion, all our love and devotion.
And so let me end and release you from the chore of listening to me talk about Alma, so that you may go out to rejoin the challenge and joy of being Alma.