Please be seated. I know it's hot.
Well thank you, David. I gladly accept the emblem of this office and with it its responsibilities.
I do now solemnly express to you and the other members of the Board of Trustees and to all members of the Grinnell community my resolve to serve the college faithfully and to the best of my abilities.
Good afternoon to everyone.
I am deeply honored and - quite frankly - a bit intimidated about today's inauguration!
The procession of visiting dignitaries...
The rituals and ceremonial presentations...
And ultimately, my 'installation' as president - they're all quite overwhelming!
To date in my life, I have never experienced anything quite comparable to an inauguration...and I readily confess to being uncomfortable with this focus entirely on me.
As I tried to come to terms with the meaning of this ceremony, I remembered being deeply moved by the words of a character in a play I saw some eight years ago. The text is so 'on-point,' that I thought I would read parts of it to you this afternoon...
The play is Take Me Out - by Richard Greenberg. It tells a incredible story about a star baseball player who comes out. The following excerpt is delivered by his accountant - a huge fan of the sport - who waxes eloquent in a monologue about one ceremonial part of the game...He says:
Another thing I like is the home-run trot... I'm talking about that graceful little canter when the ball has been crushed, and it's missing, and the outcome's not in doubt.
What I like about it is it's so unnecessary.
The ball's gone, no one's going to bring it back. And can anyone doubt that a man capable of launching a ball four hundred feet is somehow going to fail to touch a base when he's running uninterfered with?
For all intents and purposes, the game, at that moment, is not being played.
...the sensible thing would be to say, yes, that's gone, add a point to the score, and send the next batter to the plate.
But that's not what happens. Instead, play is suspended for a celebration.
A man rounds four bases, and if he's with the home team, the crowd has a catharsis.
And from the way he runs, you learn something about the man. And from the way they cheer, you learn something about the crowd.
...I like to believe that something about being human is...good.
And I think what's best about us is manifested in our desire to show respect for one another. For what we can be. And that's what we do in our ceremonies, isn't it?
Honor ourselves as we pass through time....
My coming to terms with today's ceremony came about because I realized that today isn't really about me.
It truly is about the College.
Today we will share something with baseball in honoring ourselves - this college, its faculty, students, staff, alumni and trustees - as we pass through a particular moment in Grinnell's rich history.
Ceremonies like this one are about marking a transition point in the long and accomplished journey of this College...
From its humble beginnings in Davenport...
To its promising new Grinnell location at the intersection of the East-West and North-South railroad lines...
To its blossoming as a growing source of knowledge, confidence and hope... and yet also, humility.
Today, we not only stand at the intersection of East and West, North and South; but also at the intersection of Past and Future.
Ghanaian culture has a symbol and word that are particularly appropriate for moments like this one, the Sankofa. Both the word and the symbol suggests the benefit of taking from the past that which is good, bringing it into the present, and then using it to move into the future. The Sankofa is a symbol that has inspired me personally... and it also aptly describes the essence of a liberal arts college.
On a personal level, acknowledging the past means appreciating all the people who have made my life and career possible and enabled me to reach to this particular point.
First, my parents, who are sitting here in the front row. They are also joined by my mother's twin sister. All three of them will celebrate their 88th birthdays in the next two weeks. Thank you, and happy birthday. Both of my parents have influenced me enormously with their examples of service to community.
My mother has always been a deeply engaged member of her community. She taught school, helped set up community organizations, and for years located funding for and ran camps for kids in the summer who otherwise would have no organized activities.
My father demonstrated a similar commitment to his patients. From his Baltimore row-house medical office in one of the toughest communities in the city, he saw patients six days a week for more than 40 years.
I must also thank my partner, Dr. Peter Daniolos, an accomplished, dedicated, and supremely humane child psychiatrist, without whose love and support, our family would not be here at Grinnell. Peter has become deeply connected to the college and town in our short time here. Also, I would like to thank Peter's mother, Mrs. Vasiliki Daniolos, who has regularly visited us here in Grinnell and gently offers lots and lots of advice about how we can improve our child-rearing practices.
And next, our two energetic boys, Emerson and Basil – Emerson is somewhere, I'm sure – who remind us every day about what is essential and truly important in life - and it often is not what either of us is working on at that particular moment!
Finally, I must also thank my many mentors who in so many ways have helped me to reach this point in my life.
In addressing you today, I am deeply aware of Grinnell's historic mission to educate men and women "who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good."
As a descendent of slaves, I find special meaning in the knowledge that Grinnell Iowa was an important stop on the Underground Railroad that secretly transported slaves to freedom.
I am also aware of the many challenges this College has faced in its 165-year history.
The tornado - some called it a cyclone - that leveled the campus killing two students on June 17, 1882. But that did not diminish the courage and determination of President George Frederic Magoun, who held Commencement exercises, as scheduled, a few days later. Then, aided by the extraordinary fundraising acumen of J.B. Grinnell, he orchestrated a rapid resurrection of the College in the ensuing years.
Eighty-eight years later, on May 8, 1970, a storm of protest closed Grinnell College after the killings at Kent State. In this case, the class of '70 never had its Commencement exercise. However, underscoring the College's passionate belief in social justice, a resolution was passed to send a delegation of students, faculty, and townspeople to Washington to personally protest the killings at Kent State and the country's involvement in Vietnam and Cambodia.
As Grinnell's president, I am awed by events like these, which in different ways shook the very foundation of the College. And it is a source of great personal inspiration that Grinnell has always emerged from these experiences stronger, more vital, and more deeply re-committed to its core mission and values.
Grinnell is a microcosm of academic excellence. But it lives within the larger world of higher education.
And the future of higher education in America will be shaped by troubling trends that will frame any goal I or the college may have for the future.
It would not be an understatement to describe the current higher education environment as chaotic! At the most basic level, the Great Recession is forcing us to renegotiate the social contract between the government and its citizens on public support for higher education and discovery.
The new terms of this contract will have a profound impact on the lives of all of us. In the U.S., an outstanding system of public higher education - the envy of the world - is being decimated by unprecedented budget cuts. Our schools are responding to those reductions with pure survival instincts.
Even premier public universities are increasing fees dramatically, slashing programs and classes, reducing enrollment and introducing higher education alternatives that may not always be in the best interests of our students.
I fear that we are moving towards a bifurcation of the community of public higher education institutions - and one branch may be reduced to focusing exclusively on providing the lowest-cost education of adequate quality - with not even an aspiration of superior quality.
Those who relied on public higher education systems for access will now have significantly higher financial burdens. Many students may decline to pursue a higher education entirely. And for others, it will take more time, more money and more 'game playing' to get into the right classes to attain their degrees.
Compounding the problem, a recent New York Times story reports - and I quote - "a mountain of student debt is likely to grow, as Pell grants for low-income students are cut, and states with pinched budgets reduce the money they give to colleges."
At an even more fundamental level, I worry that state and local budget cuts to K-12 public education will simply increase the disparity in preparation levels of those starting college with the most resources and those with the least.
As I indicated before, the higher education social contract between the U.S. government and its citizens is being entirely renegotiated, with long-term, unknown, and potentially devastating impacts on the ability of many to complete their college degrees and for those who do graduate, on their ability to obtain a job, rent an apartment, purchase a house, or engage in any activity that might be affected by having a large college loan debt burden.
More strikingly, our nation's ability to address the most complex, challenging problems of tomorrow is being severely compromised by the threat of at least several years of flat if not reduced budgets for the funding of research and training.
The consequences of this recession are not the only factors whipping the world of higher education.
There are demands to demonstrate clearer learning outcomes...
Greater calls to provide our graduates with 'business-ready' skills...
Challenges from continued blurring of boundaries between academic disciplines - particularly for institutions that cling to outdated notions about clearly defined, narrow bodies of knowledge...
Changing demographics of younger populations, with growing percentages of minorities, especially of Hispanic ethnicity, who will come mostly from K-12 public systems that continue to fail in their efforts to provide a solid education to these students...
Pervasive access to enormous amounts of information - in ways that were unthinkable to our parents - that may transform how we learn and teach...
Technological innovations that have the potential to improve many dimensions of quality for higher education... but show absolutely no signs of reducing costs...
And the march of globalization, with larger countries like China and India building their own systems of higher education, largely imitating ours!
In sum, continuous, often volatile change is occurring at every level of education. And that, I believe, is a classic definition of chaos!
Despite its unpredictability, chaos as a positive force was embraced by one of my personal heroes, a woman named Septima Clark. She was a largely unsung hero of the Civil Rights era. Yet she is credited with creating the system of community schools that taught a largely illiterate community of African Americans in the South how to read and write so that they could fill out the forms in order to register to vote.
At the end of her life she was asked to comment on the remarkable period of social revolution in which she lived. And she said...
"I have great belief in the fact that whenever there is chaos, it creates wonderful thinking. I consider chaos a gift."
Like Septima Clark, I believe we should all begin to think of this period of higher education chaos as a gift - a motivator that can spur us to great, innovative thinking.
In the future, private colleges and universities - especially those with resources like Grinnell – will be called upon to do more. We may have an even greater obligation to find innovative ways to expand access to disadvantaged students, as public options become less accessible, along with the development of innovative ways to teach.
I also believe that the pursuit of innovation is greatly enriched by diversity at every level. Private colleges and universities must also rededicate ourselves to embracing diversity because disadvantaged young people are the ones most at-risk of being denied access to higher education as a result of the changes in the public system.
At Grinnell and at our peer institutions we cannot merely stand on the sidelines whispering, "there but for the grace of God...." We must critically assess where we fit into the new world of higher education and become a test bed for innovation. Indeed, we must ensure that today's chaos is a gift towards clarity, and that the social contract we negotiate for tomorrow is one that preserves the equality of opportunity that underpins our nation.
On April 16, 1963, Martin Luther King wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail that "human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability." He went on to note that change occurs because of hard work of people committed to change, committed to making the world better.
(Continued in Kington Inauguration Speech Part 2)