Installation Speech: A Paradigm and Pledge for Whitmans Future

Dedication to Liberal Arts and Sciences, Relational Learning and Accessible Opportunity

Thank you President Emmert for your very supportive and gracious remarks. In the few months that you and I worked together at the University of Washington, I learned from you that success in leadership results from a cohesive and strongly held set of values and tireless dedication to strengthening and sustaining relationships. Your leadership of the University reflects these values along with your own personal commitment to advancing the educational experiences of UW undergraduates. We are honored by your presence today, and we gratefully acknowledge your pivotal role in higher education in our state. I aspire to be as successful and effective at Whitman as you are at the University.

Thank you members of the staff who worked behind the scenes for many, many hours to prepare for this day– our grounds crew and team in physical plant, our administrative assistants, a team from our technology group who helped to ensure that this ceremony is Web cast live over the internet, and the plethora of support staff who have brought plans for this celebration to fruition.

Thank you to the installation committee members who, in addition to their day jobs, took on the details of planning and shaping a series of commemorative events.

Thank you faculty colleagues for your enthusiastic and warm welcomes to me and my family. Your obvious dedication to our students and to the mission of the College is as impressive as it is passionate.

Thank you students. Your energy, commitment to learning and joy about this school inspires and sustains all of us.

Finally, thank you to my family, Kari, Anna, James, Lauren and Seth, for your patience with me over the past few days as I have paced around the house, eaten nearly all of your Halloween candy, spent hours talking aloud to myself (as I rehearsed this speech) and engaged in other unaccustomed behaviors as I anticipated this day. I’m glad we’re in this together, and I’m glad this moment has finally arrived.

We gather this afternoon to celebrate an institution and a community, and to affirm its important mission. I ask that we use this gathering to uphold our commitment to liberal education. I ask that we promise this generation of Whitman students, and every generation that follows, an intellectually demanding and vital experience in which they develop the skills to reason critically and to communicate effectively. I ask that we renew our dedication to an education that is personal, where faculty members and students know one another, where they work collaboratively, and where student scholarship and leadership are inspired. Finally, I ask that we commit ourselves to making this great educational experience an opportunity accessible not just to those who are capable and can afford the price but to equally capable individuals from all backgrounds, life experiences, and sectors of our society.

This November, 123 years ago, the territorial governor of Washington signed a decree and charter that created this College. We are beneficiaries of the many generations of faculty and staff who have passed through Whitman, giving their labor and commitment to pursue the dreams of Whitman’s founders. We are heirs to this history of dedication to undergraduate learning, a history that far surpasses the significance of this particular moment in time.

Our ceremony today celebrates the collective efforts of Whitman College faculty, staff and administrators – past and present – all of whom, through their dedication and passion, have inspired generations of Whitman students and who have given form and energy to the institution as a cohesive academic community. As I have visited with many of you and others over the past four months, I have learned there is much about Whitman to celebrate.

We celebrate more than a century of commitment by generations of faculty members, talented intellectuals, who often placed their relationships with students before themselves. Many of us may not be aware that during very difficult financial periods of the College’s early history, Whitman faculty taught without pay and, even through more recent decades, took summer jobs alongside many of their students in the wheat, pea and alfalfa fields and the canneries of the Walla Walla Valley to supplement meager college incomes.

We celebrate staff members who work with exceptionally high standards on behalf of faculty and students to ensure that Whitman operates not just with precision but with heart. Our staff members are the reason why The Princeton Review repeatedly describes Whitman as running “as smoothly as butter.” Our staff members manicure our grounds, support our teaching and student service programs and ensure that our academic facilities are among the very best in the country. They are the reason so many of our students feel supported not only in their studies but also in their daily lives at Whitman.

Finally, we celebrate more than a century of students who yearn for a deeper understanding of their world and themselves. The qualities of intellectual acuity, concern for others and the world around them, and a deep desire to extract every ounce of learning from their Whitman experience typify our students. We set exceptionally high expectations of them, and, more often than not, they exceed those expectations and push us to imagine new ones.

Over the coming months and years, we will examine carefully the future of this great College. We will face many questions about what higher education and Whitman must and will become. I want to raise three of these questions today and then suggest my preliminary answers.

  • What Does Being Educated Mean in the 21st Century?
  • How is the Role of Educator Changing in our Society?
  • What is the Place of a Private Institution such as Whitman in Our Society and World?

WHAT DOES BEING EDUCATED MEAN IN THE 21ST CENTURY?

We live in a period in which our government, civic groups, and many of our students and their families seek greater accountability from institutions of higher learning. They call for learning outcomes and empirical metrics of faculty performance. They question the value of any education that does not lead logically to a job after college. They ask us to justify and explain our mission and work in light of the escalating costs of education and a growing demand for training that meets the labor needs of businesses and professions emerging in modern economic markets.

As these pressures for greater accountability grow, we must ask:

Of what value is an education in the liberal arts and sciences, particularly in an era where technology and the global economy seem to shape many of our ideas and dictate how we think and communicate with one another?

Is being learned in the information age fundamentally different than that in earlier eras of human history?

My answer is unequivocally “No.” More than 2000 years ago, Aristotle wrote that the mark of an educated mind is being “able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” As we contemplate what being educated means in this new century, can any of us argue against the idea that students should seek to examine all ideas critically and bring to every new examination skepticism and reflection guided by analytical questioning?

Skepticism and the capacity for critical questioning are the timeless attributes of learned persons. Critical habits of mind develop from and are fed by exposure to perspectives from divergent disciplines and ideologies. Such training inoculates minds and lives from the effects of prejudicial beliefs, rigid intellectual biases and uninformed or unreasoned conclusions.

In this new century, where exciting but also frightening breakthroughs in technology, the life sciences, and artificial intelligence occur almost daily, a liberal education is the foundation for understanding the social and cultural changes spawned by technological and scientific innovation. A liberal education can prepare our future leaders to carefully examine, for example, the implications of genomics research that may have profound political effects on our understanding of racial difference and identity. A liberal education allows us to reject the simplistic messages of mass culture and to anticipate and appreciate the complexity of our world’s people. A liberal education promotes learning as a necessary, ongoing and integral part of adult development and human progress.

So while Aristotle surely could not have imagined 2000 years ago the world we live in today, his words nevertheless resonate. They provide a guiding principle as we strive to ensure in the 21st century that our students graduate with the Aristotilian mark of an educated mind.

HOW IS THE ROLE OF EDUCATOR CHANGING IN OUR SOCIETY?

From the chartering of this college, Whitman has positioned faculty at the center of student learning, as the hub at the center of a pedagogical wheel, while our students have stood at the outer rim of the wheel, receiving theories, knowledge and information from our lectures and presentations. Like most college teaching over the generations, the quality of student learning has depended almost entirely upon the quality of our delivery. At Whitman, the quality over the years has proven extraordinarily high because the faculty has been so talented.

At least two forces in our society are, however, changing the landscape of higher education and transforming the role of educators in undergraduate learning. The first is the revolution in information technology that affords learners in many fields instant access to information that once was available only through the faculty, their teachers. The faculty are, in many cases, no longer the sole or even primary source of knowledge available to the student. Rather, we are becoming interpreters of information and knowledge. By virtue of our training and expertise, we aid students in identifying the methods they must use and the questions they must ask in navigating a nearly endless river of widely accessible information and new knowledge.

A second force in higher education of equal importance is powered by advances in the science of learning. In their landmark 1999 National Research Council report, How People Learn, John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking found that the most effective learning occurs when instructors engage and become aware of their students’ skills, pre-conceptions, and beliefs, and then incorporate their awareness into teaching practice. And unless faculty directly challenge these pre-conceptions and effectively engage students in an active process of discovery, many students will fail to grasp important areas of knowledge and fail to retain what they learn beyond their final examinations.

Together, these forces are changing adult learning and how faculty members teach—from education centered on the instructor and the transmission of knowledge to education centered on the learner and the acquisition of knowledge. No longer is teaching and learning a simple transaction where knowledge is uniformly exchanged from teacher to learner. No longer can we judge the quality of instruction by the content of a course or the delivery of a lecture. Rather, we must ask ourselves how effectively are we engaging our students, what value do we add to a student’s understanding of our world, and to what extent do our students improve over time in their ability to reason and communicate effectively?

Our success in addressing these questions depends fundamentally upon the quality of our relationships with students. To what extent do our students reach critical turning points in their academic studies from these relationships, discovering and exploring entirely new intellectual passions and interests? How can the College more effectively support and reward the personal nature of a Whitman education, integrating our students even more fully into our professional, creative and scholarly activity?

As the role of educators changes with changes in modes of learning, we must not lose sight of our students and the primacy of our relationships with them. As many of you know, Kari and I chose to come to Whitman in part because of the countless stories shared with us by generations of graduates, former students who – whether in their twenties or their seventies – characterized their Whitman experience as one of the finest moments in their lives. And in nearly every instance, the quality of the moment was shaped by a professor or a staff member who helped direct and transform their lives.

I have received many letters and messages describing these turning points in the lives of our students and the role that our faculty and staff play. Let me briefly describe one such story.

Danielle Garbey came to Whitman in 1993 from Moses Lake High School as a first-generation student. Danielle, a leader in her high school and community, was the recipient of one of our most prestigious scholarships, and came to Whitman as a Sherwood scholar. Each spring, Sherwood scholars in their senior year travel to New York to meet alumni and key civic, cultural, and business leaders. It was through the Sherwood Scholarship program and the trip to New York that Danielle became acquainted with one of our governing board members, David Valdez, a Whitman alumnus who is now an adviser and close friend.

Danielle majored in politics and was inspired by a talk given by another Whitman alumnus, Ryan Crocker, now the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan. It was at this point that Professor Phil Brick recommended that she apply for the Woodrow Wilson Fellowship (now the Pickering Fellowship), which provided funding for two years of graduate school and a position in the State Department afterwards. Upon winning the fellowship, Danielle chose to attend Columbia, where she earned her master’s in public policy.

Upon completing her degree she began her work as a Foreign Service officer in Jakarta, helping Americans in Bali recover from the terrorist bombings. Danielle has since returned to the State Department in Washington, where she works in the Crisis Center, currently assisting with the coordination of Post-Katrina relief coming from around the world.

This is but one Whitman story and illustrates to me the centrality of relationships in education, and in particular, the life-changing influence that one faculty member and an alumnus have had on a student’s life.

WHAT IS THE PLACE OF A PRIVATE ACADEMIC INSTITUTION IN OUR SOCIETY AND WORLD?

As we participate in this ceremony today, we must be mindful that we all occupy positions of privilege in our communities, in our society and in the world. I recall the eloquent admonition of Professor Julie Charlip in this year’s Convocation ceremony, at which she reminded our students, using her words, that they are “a minority within a minority,” a very small percent of persons who have the privilege of thinking, studying, questioning, and analyzing on this amazing campus, surrounded by others who are bright and motivated by a passion for learning.

Her admonition extends not just to our students but also to us. Many here today are privileged by virtue of their education and their position. Many are the educated elite of our world. But our education is not, as Diogenes described, just an ornament of prosperity or a refuge from adversity. The degrees that we hold and accomplishments we have achieved carry with them responsibilities that extend well beyond ourselves.

As we celebrate the educational experiences that Whitman offers, we must ask how our academic community can and should serve those less fortunate than ourselves. What is the place of a private or independent academic institution in a community like Walla Walla and a region like eastern Washington, or as a national liberal arts college in a country like the United States?

Over many generations, Whitman has imparted educational and economic opportunity to many of its students by affording an exceptional education to those who were academically capable but could not afford Whitman’s cost. In the first century of this college’s existence, a majority of our students were raised in blue collar and working-class households where tuition dollars were more likely to derive from exhausting summer jobs than from extensive family bank accounts. Indeed, Steven Penrose, the most celebrated Whitman president, took pride in writing that the college’s early students:

“came from homes of moderate circumstances or even poverty and were in consequence largely dependent on their own efforts for their college education. They were not the sophisticated children of wealthy parents , expecting those parents to provide them a comfortable living…this poverty developed self-reliance and an earnestness of purpose that amounted to ambition.” Whitman: An Unfinished Story, p.235

But as the cost and price of education have risen over time, our student profile has changed. And while the academic quality and capability of our current students have reached their highest levels in history, we are now serving a disproportionately homogeneous and affluent population.

Who do we wish to become and how do we wish to serve? It is my hope that Whitman will always follow the example set by President Penrose, opening its doors to students who may be the first in their family in college or who could not complete a baccalaureate degree without our help. It is my hope that Whitman becomes a welcome home for students, faculty and staff from diverse backgrounds, orientations and positions in our society. And it is my hope that Whitman’s place in our society and world will evolve into being an elite institution that is not elitist; a model of liberal education that achieves as much breadth in the types of people who comprise our community as we have in the academic curriculum that we offer.

And clearly, this hope must be accompanied by hard work: work in communities in our region that are underrepresented in the halls of our institution, work to raise support for scholarships, work to recruit students, faculty and staff who will enrich and diversify Whitman College. We must commit ourselves to this work as we move into our future together.

A PARADIGM AND A PLEDGE

As we look to and plan the future of Whitman, let us focus not on what Whitman needs or what we may think we need but rather on what our society and our world need. Discovering solutions to our world’s challenges – whether those challenges are the reduction of fatal infectious diseases, economic inequality, or the threat of greenhouse gases and global warming throughout the world – will require individuals who understand and embrace complexity, who reason through problems rather than reasoning around them, and who acknowledge that diverse perspectives have value in an increasingly pluralistic world.

One of the very alarming outcomes of September 11th, in my mind, has been the proliferation of dichotomous “us versus them,” “good versus evil” messages perpetrated by media and world leaders. The more we believe in these messages and indulge our fears of the foreign or unfamiliar “other,” the more we foreclose the possibility of reaching cooperative, nonviolent solutions to very real and threatening global problems.

If we teach our young to fear and reject their generation of “others” around the world, we potentially sacrifice not only their intellectual and moral freedom – to choose, to think through problems, to question facile messages of intolerance – but also we compromise their effectiveness as engaged, committed citizens of a global future. We cannot afford to let this happen.

Let us pledge that liberal education in the arts and sciences will remain the sole focus of undergraduate learning at Whitman. As we make this pledge, let us reaffirm our commitment to learning that:

  • demands much of our students,
  • asks them to take responsibility for their intellectual growth and development,
  • immerses them in diverse fields, incorporating western and non-western traditions,
  • immerses them in the sciences, social sciences, humanities and the arts.

And finally, let us re-assert that all Whitman students will, as part of their education, develop and refine their skills in analytical reasoning and in communicating through clear and compelling writing and speaking.

Let us pledge to uphold the primacy of personal relationships in the educational experience at Whitman. At the heart of Danielle Garbey’s story, and those of countless others, is the timely direction, advice and mentoring of a member of the Whitman community. I have come to learn over the past four months that the relationships which develop here between professors, staff members and students are sacred. Let us affirm those relationships not just by ensuring that courses remain small but by pursuing new opportunities and support for students and faculty to work together on professional activity, scholarship and creative production. Let us also pledge to strengthen relationships between students, faculty and staff in areas where they could and should be stronger, in those places on campus where our human infrastructure needs reinforcing. Let us begin this year and in succeeding years by building college budgets together with these needs in mind and in a manner that offers the greatest promise of enhancing the educational success of our students.

Finally, let us pledge to pursue a future for Whitman that makes it accessible to more persons who, although academically capable, lack the economic or personal support system needed for succeeding in college. Let us also acknowledge that these students will, by virtue of their diverse backgrounds, perspectives and life experiences, benefit our Whitman community as much as the experience of a Whitman education will benefit them. And as we acknowledge the contributions that a more diverse student body, faculty and staff will bring to our campus, let us discuss—in a series of campus conversations that we will launch this spring—what diversity means to us and how we may increase it.

And at some point, long after this celebration, long after this and future academic years, at some point when all of us move to new points and places in our lives, may the leaders of the College say that we preserved and strengthened the best of Whitman, that we achieved what Steven Penrose could only dream in 1894 when he began his tenure and what he wrote about nearly forty years later. Penrose dreamed that Whitman would become a college built upon the achievements of great faculty and staff, upon the ambitions of students who view college as a privilege, and upon a demanding educational experience that was personal, friendly, and supportive of excellence.

May we celebrate, pursue and help Whitman achieve this dream together.

Thank you.