Inaugural Address: "To Change Lives" - April 15, 2005

Students, faculty and staff colleagues, trustees, alumni, friends, Chairman McHugh, Chancellor Cibes: it is with honor and humility that I accept the trust you have placed in me as Western Connecticut State University’s eighth president. One cannot help on this day but remember those who have held this trust before, and I am especially happy that one of these, Jim Roach, is on the stage with us. So much of what I inherit is his powerful legacy.

I also am grateful to my good friend Alan Merten for sharing such thoughtful insights with us. I’ve learned a lot from Alan over the years, and I continue to do so.

With apologies to Father Sullivan and Rev. Horton for what may be an unusually ecumenical perspective, I’d like you all to consider the Roman god Janus.

Janus was the God who gave his name to the month of January, and presided over openings, beginnings and doorways.

He was often depicted with two faces because he could look backward and forward at the same time.

This deity is relevant to us today, because inaugurations are a time for looking both backward and forward. And as we look backward we can be undeniably proud. This university has a rich and honorable past, a past that is well described in the title of Professor Herbert Janick’s centennial history: “A People’s University.”

Professor Janick gives two powerful characteristics of this People’s University. “First, the school has served people in the region, young and old, who otherwise would not have been able to benefit from a college education.”

Second: “the college has not just been located in Danbury; it has been an integral part of the cultural and intellectual life of the community. In art galleries, concert halls, auditoriums, and meeting rooms, Western faculty have enriched the lives of all the people in the western part of the state.”

For over a century, we have been a People’s University that has changed lives. During those years, we have understood what William Butler Yeats meant when he said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” And the fire begun here in 1903 has burned brightly ever since.

That is a heritage of which we can be proud. And it’s a heritage in which we find enlightenment every day.

In the twentieth century, our “People’s University” launched graduates into careers that were predictable, usually pursued here in the familiar surroundings of the Northeast. Similarly, we prepared our students to be productive citizens and members of a society that was generally predictable, manageable and understandable.

But the current century looks quite different. And being a People’s University for the 21st century involves different ways of thinking about how we go about our work. Some of these emerge seamlessly from our historical mission; others are not so predictable, because they respond to the new challenges and opportunities we face.

Today’s students are bound for lives in a period unprecedented in human history in terms of global interconnectedness and rates of technological, social and cultural change. Unlike their alumni predecessors, our graduates will change jobs and careers numerous times; they will be presented, as citizens, with personal decisions on very difficult issues. When does life begin and end? What is one’s responsibility with regard to our personal and collective economic futures? Where do personal values and public morality intersect in the age of the Internet, the I-Pod and 100 channels on every HDTV screen?

This environment, I submit, places new and different responsibilities on our People’s University. To continue to fulfill our historical mission of changing lives, we must at a minimum do four things:

First, we must be globally focused, affording our students not only an academic, but also a personal appreciation of a world where people of different cultures are connected as never before, and also where they bump up against each other in new, and even dangerous ways.

Second, we must be technologically competent, providing a foundation for all students to participate effectively in world where memory, bandwidth, and connectivity are expanding exponentially.

Third, we must provide not only the short term professional competence to launch careers in particular fields, but also the habits of intellect, problem framing and lifelong learning that will enable graduates to be successful throughout their lives.

Fourth, we must adapt our pedagogies, admissions and financial aid policies, and student support services to ensure academic success for 21st century students. These students have grown up in a much more complex world than most of us did, and they bring their own particular experiences to the campus.

I have full confidence that we have the will, the imagination and the dedication to do this, to be the very model of a People’s University for the 21st century, not just for Danbury, Fairfield County and Western Connecticut, but for a wider audience as well.

Let me explain how that will happen.

To begin with, we must remember the two characteristics of Western that Professor Janick so clearly defined:

  1. We provide access to higher education and are fundamentally committed to student learning.
  2. We do this within the context of our location in one of the most dynamic regions in the nation. Not only do we contribute to our region, but also—like Alan Merten’s university—we draw upon it.

Those characteristics have been evident throughout our history, and they have also been repeated countless times in our Values and Vision process, a four-month exploration of our community’s dreams and aspirations. That process has been incredibly helpful, because in the dozens of sessions with hundreds of participants, we’ve heard far more consensus than difference about what’s really important to us. From that process, I’ve identified four pillars that, like the columns of a classical temple, support both the structure and purpose of our institution.

These pillars are characteristics that touch many areas of the university, that are valuable to our stakeholders, that are credible and achievable, that are marketable, and that will help us develop a unique comparative advantage, a “big idea” that will make us known far beyond Connecticut.

The pillars of which I speak are mastery, creativity, diversity, and opportunity. Let me define each one in the context of Western Connecticut State University.

  1. Mastery. By this I mean both the mastery of our faculty over their intellectual domains and the manner in which they personally share this mastery with their students. Our hallmark has long been, and is today, the caring, personal relationships that students have with faculty. In the classroom, laboratory, library, studio, playing field and faculty office, we change lives the old fashion way—one student at a time.

    Mastery also reflects our commitment to building and nurturing a vibrant academic community, a commitment we reaffirm through every hiring and personnel decision we make and through ongoing attention to the enhancing of our intellectual skills and professional expertise.

    Finally, mastery speaks to the skills, knowledge and attitudes that our graduates present to the larger world after they leave our campus. It is our responsibility to be confident that the learning goals we establish have been attained, and that we can demonstrate this to those who hire, educate, and elect our graduates.
  2. The second pillar is Creativity. This not only is necessary to prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st century, but also is an area in which we have special competence.

    Our programs in the arts—music, theater, visual arts—are one of our unique strengths. Perhaps as much as any disciplines here, they take advantage of the talent present in Fairfield, Litchfield and Westchester Counties and nearby in New York City. We can do things here you simply can’t do elsewhere, and the State has recognized this by funding our new Arts Center.

    This new facility is an exciting prospect, but we must do more than simply move existing structures and programs to a new location. We will create a new School of the Arts in the years ahead, and that school, I firmly believe, holds the promise of becoming one of the premier institutions of its kind in the Northeast.

    By creativity, however, I mean more than just the arts. Franklin Delano Roosevelt once observed that true happiness lies in the “thrill of creative effort,” and this holds in all fields of human endeavor.

    Because of our size, collegiality and history, we have unique opportunities to be creative in the development of interdisciplinary programs of power and relevance. We have seen a promising example of that in our new Center for Financial Forensics, which focuses on corporate governance and ethics. Many opportunities for similar collaboration exist.

    I also believe we can be creative in the development of effective new pedagogies and in addressing the problems that beset many institutions with our history and mission. For example, what new approaches can we develop to address a high rate of student attrition from the freshman to the sophomore year? What creative strategies can we employ to build an academic community that engages students in learning seven days a week--in residence halls, student centers, playing fields, and student organizations? How can we transform our two campus landscape from a problem into an opportunity?
  3. Diversity is the third pillar that supports us. I am a firm believer in the argument advanced by the University of Michigan in its 2003 Supreme Court case. The exposure to—and better yet, the valuing of—human diversity enhances learning. Living here in Danbury, Connecticut, with all of our tapestry of different people, we experience this every day.

    We can take better advantage of this tapestry by deepening our community partnerships, by continuing to increase the diversity of the people who work and study here, and by reaching further afield to bring more representatives of other world cultures to our academic community.

    Another dimension of diversity relates to academic background and intellectual approach. Here, again, we can build more bridges across disciplines and provide additional benefit from diversity. This already happens, for example, with our science departments and Nursing, or with mathematics and Business. But we can do even more.
  4. The last pillar upon which we here at Western rest is Opportunity. There are two manifestations of this.

    First, we must continue to be true to our roots as an institution that emphasizes the importance of affording access--for first-generation college attendees, for the sons and daughters of recent immigrants, and for career changers trapped in today’s turbulent economy.

    By that, I do not mean that we should become an open enrollment institution. Fulfilling our academic mission requires that students arrive here with preparation appropriate to enable them to take full advantage of what our faculty offer.

    To fulfill that requirement, we can develop closer collaboration with community colleges and with high schools to enable all students admitted to Western to have equal chances to succeed. We do that already with our colleagues at Danbury and Bethel High Schools, and many other opportunities for such productive collaboration exist. We should also continue to work to improve our own pre-college programs.

    The second manifestation of opportunity is the ability we have, in our unique region, to develop innovative partnerships that benefit our students, the university and the community. In the arts, in education, in business, and in social services and community development, we can be an even more active partner. We have great models in place already, for instance our Nursing partnership with Danbury Hospital and our Executive Forum, which provides educational programs for the executive directors of area non-profits.

Mastery, Creativity, Diversity, Opportunity. These are the four pillars upon which we will build our People’s University for the 21st century. As we proceed with our work—recruiting students, hiring and nurturing faculty, developing academic programs, implementing strategic planning, improving physical plant— everything we do should reinforce these pillars. It’s from them we draw our strength, and I believe we’re only just beginning to realize just how imposing that strength can be.

Let me return to the Roman god with whom I began. The most famous sanctuary dedicated to Janus is a portal in the wall of the Forum through which the Roman legions ceremonially marched to war. And whenever Rome was at war the doors of that portal always remained open.

We here at Western aren’t engaged in combat in a military sense, but we are at war:

We are at war with the ignorance that limits human potential;

We are at war with the economic circumstances that defer human dreams;

We are at war with the complacency and cynicism that corrode human understanding.

That’s why we keep the portal of this university open—open every year, every semester, every day, every hour. And that’s why we, like our predecessors, march together through that portal—every year, every semester, every day, every hour. To light the fire that is education. To change lives.

Thank you.

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