Inaugural Address

Good afternoon!

It is an honor to be standing here on this crisp Autumn day, with the leaves turning and with Homecoming in our sights, to celebrate our shared appreciation and love for Ursinus College. This is such a wonderful and welcoming campus community. I am truly humbled to be speaking with you today as your seventeenth president.

Because Ursinus is so rich in history, so passionate about her values, so dedicated to a vision of the liberal arts that is both inspiring and exhilarating, I believe I have truly found my home.

This afternoon, I would like to extend an enthusiastic welcome to my parents and family, my colleagues and supporters, friends new and old, west coast and east coast, who came to Collegeville to see just how special a place this is.

President Gregory Hess—I am honored that you could join us today.  

I have known Greg for 20 years, dating back before our time at Claremont McKenna College. Greg and I share an interest in macroeconomics and the political economy, so I think we can all quickly agree that he is a brilliant and accomplished scholar. As president of Wabash College, he speaks eloquently of the liberal arts. In fact, Wabash has a few “Liberal Arts Plus” initiatives, too. So in many respects, he’s already a kindred spirit to all of us.

He is a close friend, a valued advisor and an incredibly gifted colleague. Thank you for that introduction, Greg, and welcome to Ursinus!

I have learned, perhaps more than anything else, that family is at the foundation of Ursinus. You are the heart and spirit of this institution.

So, today, in the spirit of family, I am happy to be with you as well as with my parents and siblings, whose support has always meant so much to me.

To Chris, Sam, Jack and Megan: Every father should be as lucky to have such wonderful children. I am here because of your love and support, first and foremost. As you are aware, most of my professional life has involved teaching students, so your perspectives on life and your boundless energy have made me a better teacher and stronger educator. Thank you …  I hope I have made you proud.

To Chairman Alan Novak, Search Committee Chair Michael Marcon, the board of trustees and the faculty, staff and students of Ursinus: your love for this place is incredibly powerful.

You represent the very best of this great institution. You are empathetic, curious, collaborative, so willing to serve and volunteer your time for others. I consider myself very fortunate, and a bit lucky, to have become a part of your family.

My journey to Ursinus started, in all places, and in many respects, on the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. Earlier this spring, just as I was learning more about Ursinus and the promise it holds, I found myself in the city for a few days.

Though it may come as a surprise to many of you, I had become a bit restless after some downtime and took a stroll through Center City to the historic district, passing through Washington Square.

Philadelphia has a living history that can transform your soul.

It has a gritty authenticity. Dallett Hemphill, your beloved colleague, knew this so well.

It is a place where the American Dream found sustenance. It’s a remarkable premise—that everyone has an opportunity. That, regardless of what your last name is, or how you worship, or who you love, there is an opportunity for you.  Pope Francis affirmed this during his visit here three weeks ago when, standing on the steps of Independence Hall, he said:

When individuals and communities are guaranteed the effective exercise of their rights, they are not only free to realize their potential, they also contribute to the welfare and enrichment of society.

As I continued my walk, I also passed by people for whom the promise of the American Dream had not been kept.

Capable and proud individuals who perhaps aspired to greater heights, but whose access to that dream has been limited because they lack skills or support structure or the correct station in life.

In Philadelphia today, nearly twenty seven percent live near the poverty level. More than twenty percent of households have families that speak a language other than English.

The children of these families deserve the opportunity to have a lifetime of personal and professional accomplishment.

Today, I come to you with an idea that is bold in its scope but very personal in its delivery. This idea has,indeed, it has been a work in progress at Ursinus for nearly 150 years.

That idea is that, working together and rededicating ourselves to the mission of this college, we can take Ursinus from being a college of opportunity to The College of Opportunity.

I want you to think about that for a moment, because opportunity means different things to different people. It can be interpreted in so many ways.

The word “opportunity” is often a euphemism for something else entirely. But when I speak of opportunity, I’m speaking about a campus that gives students a chance to participate, to act, and to excel in a way that allows them to realize their dreams.

And at Ursinus, we do that so very, very well.

Codey Young graduated in 2014 before departing for a year of extensive research as a Watson Fellow in the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Germany and France.

He was interested in the African diaspora and how black men’s artistic expressions are used to help create a sense of identity.

During his time at Ursinus, his undergraduate accomplishments were just as impressive.

  • He developed a program for the W.E.B DuBois Memorial Center for Pan-African Culture.
  • He volunteered at a social rights organization.
  • He was a student consultant at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
  • Codey was, in general, a campus leader and gifted student. He was, and still is, an individual who values service, who is inquisitive and optimistic and willing to challenge the status quo.

Experiences like those Codey pursued are a distinctive part of what we do.

This is a Signature Opportunity for Ursinus.

I opened my remarks reflecting on a recent walk in Philadelphia, home to some of our country’s most dynamic cultural and academic centers. And this coming from a recent transplant from Los Angeles…

They are the lifelines of the city—its creative pulse. And they share a symbiotic relationship, allowing each other to thrive.

I believe this coupling of culture and academia can be our next distinctive experience and, by extension, an opportunity that is unforgettably Ursinus.

This morning, I am excited to share that Ursinus College is putting together a blueprint for a completely immersive academic and residential opportunity in Philadelphia.

We have had discussions with non-profit organizations, academic and corporate partners, and individuals throughout the region who wear the Red and Old Gold with absolute pride. This design carries forward our rich tradition of liberal education.

With Philadelphia as their classroom and their home, faculty and students will work closely together in a manner that empowers the intellect, awakens moral sensitivity and challenges students to improve society.

Continuing to strengthen our relationship with Philadelphia as an extension of our campus and of our classrooms is an imperative, just as building a closer, more intimate and meaningful connection is to Collegeville.

Between our Bonner students, U-CARE, our sustainability team, our academics and athletics programs and arts performances and countless other initiatives, we have a relationship that has blossomed.

Much of that has to do with visionary work and open dialogue created by President Fong, whose unparalleled effort in reaching out to our neighbors continues today.

Building on Bobby’s success and the sustained interest of our neighbors, I look forward to seeking new opportunities to welcome the community to our beautiful campus. To those neighbors here this afternoon, my door is always open.

Let’s work to build common spaces that enliven campus life and enrich the local community. Rather than limit ourselves to our traditional campus borders, let’s be intentional in creating a new gateway bridging Ursinus and Collegeville.

I am intently and deliberatively focused on building a stronger rapport with our two neighbors—both Collegeville and Philadelphia. These pursuits are not mutually exclusive.

Our interest in making sure that our students are active and enthusiastic participants in this college town as well as in Philadelphia are important to the long-term well-being of Ursinus, and I fully intend to make these efforts a priority.

I am committed to working with each of you, and all of our neighbors, to see this positive change happen.

This is a Signature Opportunity for Ursinus.

But opportunity also requires a different vision—one that closely aligns with an historic commitment that defines who we are. And that is accessibility.

This is particularly motivating for me, given that neither of my adopted parents pursued traditional paths to college.  I grew up, like so many other children, believing that an undergraduate degree was an aspiration, not a certainty.

Today, more than one in five of our students is Pell-eligible.

One in four is a first generation college student.

That they chose Ursinus is a testament to our sense of community and a supportive, accepting campus climate that views its socioeconomic, ethnic and cultural diversity as a treasure, not a hindrance or an obstacle or something to be “solved.”

There are leaders and influencers in higher education that think the changing demographics of the next generation of college students will require rapid change and a departure from accepted norms.

In some cases, they are right: enrollment strategies need to be more nimble and agile, academic supports and interventions must evolve, and our health and wellness infrastructure must continue to ensure that all students have the sustainable support they need to thrive.

But it would be a mistake to revisit our mission and values.

At this time and with so much disruption occurring in higher education, the Ursinus College community must dedicate ourselves to our mission: that we enable students to become independent, responsible, and thoughtful individuals through a program of liberal education.

We must exalt in this.

We must pursue this mission with candor and confidence.

We must embrace these beliefs unapologetically, wholeheartedly and without compromise.

If the liberal arts are truly the skills worthy of a free man, then let’s continue to seek out those students, those achievers, those future Bears for whom Ursinus is the best fit.

And let’s continue to provide the academic infrastructure that encourages student growth and development, through graduation and into their professional lives.

Transforming Ursinus into “The College of Opportunity” is, in many respects, part of the natural evolution of the college. So is the college’s long-term embrace of both inquiry and innovation.

I’d like to spend a few minutes explaining why I chose “Inquiry and Innovation” as the theme of this morning’s (truly exceptional) academic symposium—and why I think that theme celebrates all that is good about Ursinus.

But before I do that, I’d like to sincerely thank Jamaica Kincaid, Abhi Nemani and our impressive cast of faculty and students for giving such a spirited academic symposium. What a terrific and thought provoking morning it was.

In the late 1930’s, a young physics professor by the name of John Mauchley embarked on a journey that would forever change the way we process information and exchange ideas.

From the basement of Pfahler, and with the help of some earnest students, Mauchly sought optimal ways to conduct weather forecasts by processing large amounts of data. Individual computations took minutes and, with thousands of variables to process, the task was difficult.

It took an innovative spirit, some impatience and a lot of persistence before ENIAC was ultimately created at the University of Pennsylvania.

That spark happened while he was an Ursinus professor. Right here in Collegeville, about 1,000 feet from where I now stand.

Likewise, inquiry has allowed Ursinus scholars to keep their bearing for nearly 150 years.

When Dr. Gerald Edelman graduated with the Class of 1950, I doubt he envisioned a future for himself that held a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, let alone worldwide renown as a leading neuroscientist known for his work in higher brain functions.

Though he led an accomplished career, I found it interesting the way he addressed a question posed to him shortly before his death in 2014. Asked what surprised him most about his research, he gave this reply.

First of all, how much there is to be done. It’s amazing. If you look, for example, at the cortex of the brain …

If you count one connection or synapse per second, you will just finish counting them thirty-two million years later.  That’s not doing anything but counting them. It doesn’t tell you about all the possible combinations of connection paths …

So there’s a lot to be done, he said.

Amazing, isn’t’ it? What a way to address a lifetime of research from the wise age of 86, hinting that the best is yet to come … and is still unknown.  

I’ve come to appreciate just how engrained the idea of inquiry is at Ursinus.

Grounded in the ancient views of the “Seven Liberal Arts,” our very first students in 1869 had to qualify for examinations in Caesar’s Commentaries, Cicero, Virgil, in addition to Latin and Greek Grammar, Arithmetic and Geography, among other subjects before gaining admittance.

Chances are, as a 18-year-old, I likely would not have been admitted.

My point is that, since our founding, inquiry and innovation have been undeniably Ursinus. They are part of a fabric. They are part of our DNA.

It is a large reason why the Common Intellectual Experience, the acclaimed course and model for first-year programming, is so fundamental to the Ursinus experience.

And nowhere will those two ideals thrive more than in our proposed Innovation and Discovery Center.

I stand here today fully committed to translating the vision for the I.D.C. into a real, dynamic, physical presence bridging Pfahler and Thomas Halls.

This building is an important component of our future. It will allow us to bridge disciplines, be more entrepreneurial in our thinking, and allow for even closer relationships between our students and our faculty.

I firmly believe this new center will help propel Ursinus forward—allowing ideas to blossom in the very best sense of the liberal arts.

This is yet another Signature Opportunity for Ursinus.

I leave you today with the following challenge:

Many of you know of my affinity for American culture and the respect I have for the upcoming generation. We know of—though, admittedly, don’t always understand—their acceptance of new digital realities.

We see it in the way they form relationships and mold their life view…

In how they process information, in how they communicate, in what they purchase and what they value.

A few years ago, Apple saw this, too—perhaps before anyone else.

Whereas most of us were simply trying to understand this generation, Apple, as a company, realized their potential. They saw motivation, and commitment, and drive and enthusiasm, and knew better than to question it.

Today’s youth—the crazy ones, the misfits—can’t be ignored because, and I quote from Apple’s brand manifesto: 

They change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones that do.

From what I’ve seen, our students are just crazy enough to change the world, too.

But I don’t want that to be the domain of only our students, whose ambition and energy and intelligence are game-changers. Rather, I want us all to pursue the college’s mission eagerly and with just a little bit of that crazy that allows our students to think big and think different.  

So I invite you: Go ahead. Think different. Takes risks. Go big. And make Ursinus great.