Inaugural address triad:
Preparation, Passion, and Readiness
Thank you, Madame Chair, for your charge to me, which I accept with pleasure and with full knowledge of the weight of responsibility it entails.
Madame Chair and board of trustees, Congressman Hoyer, elected officials and their representatives, academic delegates, alumni, faculty, staff, students, friends, neighbors and family: I want to welcome each and every one of you and thank you for the honor of your company on this day.
It is traditional at this point in the ceremony for the new president to deliver an inaugural address. We’re going to do that, but in a different fashion, which I will explain shortly. I’d like my inaugural address to drive home three linked points, and I’ll need some help doing so. First, that our past informs our present—we cannot be effective agents of progress or change without an awareness of how we came to be, and of what came before us. On the institutional level, we know that the original St. Mary’s school was founded as a monument to freedom and inclusiveness. We may be free, but we are not alone. This brings me to my second link, that none of us exists as an island, even if we are surrounded by water. On a personal level, we open our awareness to full recognition of who worked to clear a path for us to arrive here, on this spot, at this time. And third, to reflect on our work over the past twenty-four hours, at yesterday’s symposium, work done by people who love this place and this College, and by whose passion and dedication we shall deliver on the promise of the liberal arts as a public trust.
These are the three links: (1) an acceptance of the ongoing challenge of our profound origins; (2) a shared belief that education is a collaboration; and (3) the conviction that it is passion that will move us forward. Such is the essence of the inaugural, which is, above all else, a readiness--to be prepared, together, in the fullness of the present, inspired by an old verity: that our love for St. Mary’s College will move us to accomplish something fine. Today marks a new beginning, and a reaffirmation.
But first, let’s talk about me. Why me? Product of what past, and by whose assistance, have I come to this podium this afternoon? To help answer those questions, and to illustrate that none among us stands alone, I have asked the assistance of George Monteiro, professor emeritus at Brown University, and Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. These scholars have built magnificent careers, about which you may read in the program.
In 1980, two years after my college graduation and two years into post-baccalaureate wandering, Professor Monteiro agreed to be my graduate school advisor and gave me the idea that I might have an academic career. Some of it was spoken but most of it was in temperament, sensibility, and an assumption of inclusion. I would never have conceived of and completed the PhD without George Monteiro’s support—he’ll deny it, but that’s the kind of support I am talking about.
In 1988, I was three years past receiving my PhD, and in the second of two contingent faculty appointments. That year the English department at Vanderbilt University hired Professor Tichi into a senior level, endowed professorship—a signal accomplishment for her career. I was on a three-year non-tenure track fellowship in the department and would be gone in a year or so—a lowly accomplishment in mine. Professor Tichi became a mentor and guide, and for reasons I am not certain I know, took an interest in me, saw me through difficult early career times, and continued as confidante through the next decade of career decisions.
I have asked George and Cecelia to help me once more, by each taking a portion of the time allotted for this inaugural. They are but two individuals who have made it possible for me to be here today, as St. Mary’s president; many others are in the audience. My undergraduate thesis advisor is one – Haverford professor of political science, emeritus, Harvey Glickman; my collaborator from Bryant University, Roger Anderson, professor of management; my Fulbright host from León, Spain, Professor Manuel Broncano – qué tal estas, Manolo?; my former colleagues and good friends from Hamilton College, Art Massolo, Susan Skerritt (of Kirkland College) Karen Leach, Dick Tantillo, Pat Reynolds, Dave Smallen, Ellie Wertimer, William Billiter, and Mary Lyons and Ed Bradley. These kind spirits inform my own—I have them with me all the time; it is an honor to share this installation with them today. I also note the love and support of my parents, Joe & Rose Urgo – although not with us physically, they accompany me today.
I also share this day with my lover, my partner, and my best friend, Lesley Dretar Urgo, as we have shared 28 years of marriage, six job changes for me, at least that many for her, nine household moves,--and throughout the day-to-dayness of our marriage, truly a partnership of mind, body, and spirit.
That 28-year partnership produced our son, George Urgo. As every parent knows, we are also the products of our children, who supplant our childhood and replace it with renewed life as a parent. George has been a good friend since 1986, when he was born in Syracuse one day before our health insurance was to expire. His timing has always been dramatic and he has been able to masterfully infuse that quality into his life’s passion. It is with a father’s pride that I ask his assistance this afternoon. And I could not ask for a more suitable blues rendition on my behalf, as both a representative of my love and of my confidence in the future.
Professor Monteiro will speak first; followed without further introduction by Professor Tichi. Once George has us ready, I’ll come back to the podium with my inaugural remarks to follow.
To borrow from the cadences of our students, “I do, I do believe, I do believe I am ready to be the president of St. Mary’s College” – and yes, I hope you are ready for me!
In the past nine months there has gestated in me a love for this college and a passion for its mission. And now I am ready to talk to you about it.
In the middle of William Faulkner’s great novel, Absalom, Absalom!, after repeated failures on the part of college students Quentin and Shreve to understand the human motivations behind events they seek to comprehend, Shreve says, “And now we’re going to talk about love.” At that point, the roommates begin to realize that understanding, unlike regurgitation, demands emotional investment, and more, requires interpersonal, collaborative creativity. Yes, we need data; yes, we need technical skills; yes, we need assessment measures. But none of these processes and admonitions will move us forward without emotionally invested human beings. You have heard from individuals whom I have loved, depended upon, learned from, and in turn, influenced. As the president of St. Mary’s College, I pledge to take this model of personal interaction, of investment in collaboration and influence, and make of it the core value of what we do here—in learning, in teaching, in research and creativity, in daily work and in the responsibilities we share.
“And now we’re going to talk about love.” I speak to all lovers of learning, lovers of creativity, and to those who simply love this place. Above all, the liberal arts is about love: human passion, the engine of human emotion behind all of human history. St. Mary’s College of Maryland exists in the public trust, offering the love of liberal learning—an impassioned, dedicated, humanistic endeavor—to all segments of society, supported by enlightened individuals in the great state of Maryland. Where many of our nation’s finest liberal arts colleges were established as exclusive, private institutions, this one was founded on the principles of freedom and inclusiveness. As St. Mary’s College trustee emeritus J. Frank Raley has reminded me, our mission is to provide an elite education that is not elitist. Our classes are for all classes. Please join me in a salute to Mr. J. Frank Raley.
I am cognizant of the work of St. Mary’s presidents and principals who have preceded me, visionaries who have guided us from 19th & 20th century seminary to 1960s junior college to 1970s public four-year college–-and to today’s glimpse into the future, of what will become an “elite” liberal arts education, where “elite” refers to brainpower, not family wealth. I follow men and women of remarkable dedication and courage, and am humbled by their accomplishments. With us today is the man whose vision of a public liberal arts college animates us now as it has for forty years – please help me acknowledge former St. Mary’s College President Renwick Jackson.
My goal is to make the academic rigor of an elite residential liberal arts education available to all members of the coming generation who possess the will and the capacity to meet its challenge. At St. Mary’s College we do not make class distinctions for education deemed as “appropriate” to the wealthy as apart from that “appropriate” to the general population. Our mission is to combine the two greatest educational accomplishments of American civilization: public education, and the residential liberal arts college. We seek to be an engine of class mobility, helping to end the cycle of educational deprivation that afflicts too many American families.
Can we do this? Can we sustain this ambition in the face of forces that will urge us to mediocrity, urge us to do something cheaper, easier, something that in the name of efficiency devalues the collaborative, humanistic educational model of the residential liberal arts college? Former trustee, U.S. ambassador, and friend of St. Mary’s, Paul Nitze, reflecting on his career, remarked, “I have been around at a time when important things needed to be done.” Embedded in that simple, humble statement is an attitude of mind toward one’s circumstances. “I have been around at a time when important things needed to be done.” Students, faculty, staff members, alumni and friends of the College, there is important work to be done, right here, right now.
With passion and a belief in the rightness of our charge, we find there are important things to be done, and we are around to do them—I feel within me a sense that this College and this community are READY, ready for greatness. At St. Mary’s College we are the beneficiaries of one of the world’s most beautiful campus locations. Our natural surroundings inspire our quest for sustainable living, ordered by a responsiveness to the future of the land we occupy and the waters that surround us. In months since arriving here, Lesley and the College community have answered this beauty with human hands, working to create an arboretum on campus, further marking this site as a destination.
The historical project of St. Mary’s City reminds us of the significant work done here in the past, and at the same time, warns us with mortality. As well as live and thrive, things die: they perish, they are conquered, they come to an end. Our mission above all else is to embed our ambitions into sustainable systems, so that the future is indebted to us, and not in debt because of us.
At a liberal arts college, “education” is the name we give to intellectual endeavor, to creative expression, and to the perpetuation of these impulses across generations. And now we’re going to talk about love. In Faulkner’s novel there is a concern that we are too quick to assign to human motivation overtly rational, design-driven origins. One character observes:
Have you noticed how so often when we try to reconstruct the causes which lead up to the actions of men and women, how with a sort of astonishment we find ourselves now and then reduced to the belief, the only possible belief, that they stemmed from some of the old virtues? (Ch 4)
Faulkner called these the old virtues--love, passion, sacrifice--the human qualities that produce what matters to humanity, from the forging of a peace agreement between contending nations, to the assistance offered a stranger in need, to the mentoring of a student, a new colleague, or to the simple preparation for class by professor and student alike.
At St. Mary’s College, embedded in our mission and purpose, is the premise that great things will come of following the heart’s desire. Learning to love what you do is a signal achievement of a lifetime. Finding the important thing that needs to be done, and investing yourself in that significance, sacrificing for it, and loving where it leads—this is the essence of a liberal arts education. Once immersed in poetry, in history, in science and mathematics, you’ll find that passion transferable to careers and communities that will depend upon like-minded, invested human hearts and minds for their perpetuation. And in that process, forty years ahead, the community of 2051 will look back on us and say, “our way was made by the commitments of 2011, and we inherit a college that was loved, nurtured, and cared for by men and women of passion.”
It is in this spirit that I ask all of us who work to maintain and advance this college community on the banks of the St. Mary’s River to renew our commitment— to providing an academically elite, liberal arts education that is inclusive, public, and accessible; to fostering an egalitarian spirit on campus characterized by collaboration and cooperation, seeking methods of compromise over conquest; to installing procedures and systems, as well as bricks and mortar, that are sustainable beyond our lifetime; to considering future generations to be our partners, not our creditors; to maintaining the liberal arts in the public trust, dedicated to the young people who seek the rigors of a liberal arts education, in whose creative spirit and intellectual audacity we entrust the future of this state, this nation, and the world.
I ask you, gathered here today: Are you ready? Because I am ready--ready for the future of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
-William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom! (NY: Random House, 1936)
-Paul H. Nitze (http://www.achievement.org/autodoc/page/nit0bio-1)