And now, by the authority invested in me as chair of the Board of Trustees, it is truly my privilege and pleasure to confer upon you, Raynard S. Kington, the presidency of Grinnell College, and with it all the rights and responsibilities that pertain to that office.
In token of your induction I, really we, present to you this medallion which is symbolic of the trust placed in you as the 13th president of this institution. Congratulations.
Thank you, thank you.
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.
Grinnell is a microcosm of academic excellence. But it lives in a 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 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from continued blurring of boundaries between academic disciplines – particularly for institutions that cling to outdated notions about clearly defined, narrow bodies of knowledge…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 large 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!
As an institution dedicated to the future through the students we graduate, we know that positive social change, a core mission of Grinnell College, does not happen spontaneously or inevitably. We know it requires hard work on our part, hard work to make real our commitment to educate men and women “who are prepared in life and work to use their knowledge and their abilities to serve the common good.”
Today, our commitment to social justice continues through a strong philosophy of self governance and personal responsibility, as well as through programs and initiatives that encourage students to learn about the world beyond the campus and to effect positive social change.
I very much wanted to include a strong service component in this inauguration to remind all of us about the call to contribute, in large ways and small, to the broader society that provides higher education institutions the privileges we so enjoy – our prestige, our tax exempt status, and our intellectual freedom.
Today’s ‘Day of Service’ commenced early this morning. More than 250 students, faculty, staff and community members signed up for volunteer work at more than 25 sites in our community, and I am delighted by that showing and hope that this will be a new tradition at Grinnell!
Speaking to our students, many of whom participated in this morning’s activities, we know that the future of higher education, as well as that of our larger society, will not be shaped exclusively or even primarily by those of us now in positions of authority, but rather by people like you – tomorrow’s leaders. And none more so than the first winners of the Grinnell College Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize. The college established this program this year as one way to recognize this distinctive part of our history and identity at this time of change in leadership.
All of the winners were agitators – restless individuals incensed about injustice in the world, and determined to redress it.
As an institution committed to preparing students to change the world, we celebrate agitators and agitation that comes from shining a harsh light on society’s difficult truths, and then devising solutions that address them fairly. We proudly acclaim our alumni and their spirit of social entrepreneurial drive as agitators!
Preparing students to change the world is actually a heavy burden – one that will require us constantly to re-assess our curriculum, our pedagogy, our student body composition, our residential experience, and technology, while remaining true to the ideals of a Grinnell liberal arts education. And as we confront the chaos that characterizes higher education today, it is reassuring to know that a grounding in the liberal arts provides us with a strong foundation.
In closing, I’d like to reflect on the messages of slave spirituals, which have always had great meaning to me – and you will soon hear a song from that tradition sung by Grinnell students. I learned these songs primarily in the music classes in my elementary school, which is part of the de facto segregated Baltimore City schools of my childhood.
These spirituals have been called “Sorrow Songs” – and that surely is one of their most poignant themes. But with their soulful words and music, they also summon the strength needed for difficult times… and they offer hope for a better time in the future.
And I am hopeful for many reasons…
First, I must be hopeful that the world our two little boys will enter will be better than the world that we entered…
But I am hopeful because of the concrete evidence of changes in our society since my birth, changes that have allowed me to be at this place at this time, when so many others before me of equal or superior skills and intelligence were denied similar opportunities.
I am hopeful because I see the staff of our college so dedicated to our mission that they make it here without fail through snow and rain and hail – no matter what – so that our students are safe and fed and supported so that they may learn.
I am hopeful because of the remarkable record of our alumni in meaningful achievements true to our core values in settings around the world, alumni who remain connected to this place and to those who follow in their footsteps long after they have graduated.
I am hopeful because of the countless acts of kindness and generosity toward our students by the citizens of the town of Grinnell.
I am also hopeful because I see faculty members who dedicate themselves – far beyond their classroom curricula – to the needs of their students… to the rigors of their profession… to the pursuit of new ideas.
But most importantly, I am hopeful because every day I see before me the potential of young people – agitated with the world as it is and compelled to make it better.
Your aspirations and energy are the life-sustaining blood of this College.
Thank you for the honor of serving this remarkable institution.