I want to start by thanking and acknowledging our distinguished guests, faculty, students, family, and others in attendance. I want to thank the impressive line of Denison presidents who came before me, including Dale Knobel, Michele Myers, and Andrew De Rocco, who are here today. I also want to thank the members of our Board of Trustees for your faith in my leadership, as well as the larger Denison community for the incredibly warm welcome you have extended to my family and me. I am honored to be Denison’s 20th president.
The title of this talk is taken from the remarks delivered in 1831 by the Reverend George C. Sedwick in the meetinghouse of Granville’s Baptist Church to launch what would become Denison University. I chose this title because it suggests continuity across 180 years. Denison always has been Denison. And it always has been driven by a missionary zeal to provide an education that matters.
Samantha Driver, Denison Class of 2012, captured the spirit of Denison at her commencement when she wrote, “This education is a privilege and an honor that transcends any monetary value, and it is our responsibility as graduates to use the knowledge we have gained to make the world a better place.” Samantha was a first-generation college student from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, who wrote with passion about how Denison opened her eyes and expanded her horizons, allowing her to see an enlarged view of her role in the world.
Each year Denison sends students like Samantha out into the world as part of a vital stream of human capital. We produce leaders, community builders, and innovative thinkers. Our students remind us of the power of the liberal arts through the lives they lead. They demonstrate how the liberal arts not only free us to become the person we want to be, they allow us to become a much better person than we otherwise might have been.
As most of you know, I came to Denison from World Learning. I spent the last eight years working with young people from around the world who wanted to address big issues like human rights, climate change, and global poverty. They came from places like Ethiopia, Ecuador, and Egypt. While doing this work, it became clear to me that we can address effectively the issues we face only if we produce a new generation that can thrive in diverse environments, embrace constant change, and work together in teams. Because global challenges are complex and interconnected, we need graduates who are independent thinkers and collaborative problem-solvers. We need graduates who think and do well with others, who know how to work effectively with others, even if they don’t particularly like them. That is the project of the liberal arts.
I can speak from personal experience. Thirty years ago, I arrived at Bowdoin College. In truth, I think Bowdoin admitted me because I was a good ice hockey player, and they thought I could handle the coursework. By the time I left four years later, I had become an accomplished student, educated in the liberal arts tradition and ready to take on the world.
It started in the classroom, with faculty who exposed me to ideas, conversations, and debates. They took the time to get to know me. Perhaps just as important, they allowed me to get to know them. By their actions and thoughts, even their lifestyles, they embodied what the liberal arts are all about: questioning, communicating, problem-solving, and nourishing the heart and mind.
They started me on a personal, professional, and civic journey dedicated to understanding and creating strong civil societies. That journey has taken me around the world by day and kept me up late at night, reading great works by social theorists, humanists, and ethnographers. As my wife, Anne, knows, it ignited a passion for writing that often consumes the early morning hours when saner people are sleeping.
My education also came from the residential qualities of a liberal arts environment. I learned to live with first-year roommates—one descended from Boston wealth and the other from a working class family with parents who were first-generation Americans. We came to find humor in one another and have remained friends for three decades. I learned from an ice hockey coach, who helped me hone a fierce desire to succeed, while emphasizing humility and teamwork. I learned from student affairs professionals, who pushed me to think and act ethically, appreciate difference, and ask how to create community.
These attributes of the liberal arts—qualities that shaped me so profoundly—are in full force at Denison. There is a DNA to a Denison person, and a core to our culture, that I have quickly fallen in love with. It starts with the strength of the enduring relationships we form on this hill, where faculty mentor students in their offices, laboratories, stages, studios and in a plethora of off-campus settings as our faculty travel with our students on geoscience field excursions, take them to explore art museums, work with them on local community projects—and everywhere in between.
I love the way mentoring at Denison extends across the campus to athletics, the arts, student organizations, work-study jobs, and residential halls. I am impressed by how students mentor one another, creating a sense of community and then challenge others to contribute. I love the way our students push each other to make good decisions about how to live together, because they understand that each has a responsibility toward others. As a result, the deep relationships they form live up to our mission statement, which reads, “Denison strives to produce people who are autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens.”
Last spring, I traveled around to listen to our board members tell their Denison stories. I was struck, not just by their success in life, but by the commonalities that got them there. Our alumni succeed because they can think outside the box. In difficult times, when too many professionals cut corners, they do not. They embrace ethical paths. And they all have been highly engaged not only in their professional pursuits, but they have used their successes to contribute to bettering the world. They are autonomous thinkers, discerning moral agents, and engaged citizens.
As we look ahead to the challenges facing liberal arts education, some people are questioning our financial model for its cost and return on investment, and others are asking us to step up and do more in our local communities. At the same time, technology, internationalization and new pedagogical approaches are challenging our models of teaching and learning.
Since July, I have been on a type of listening tour of the campus, meeting with many small groups to learn about their hopes and dreams for Denison. As I have listened to our faculty, staff, and students, I have begun to imagine a few focused steps we can take to address these issues.
First, we need to raise our visibility. At this moment, Denison is one of the healthiest liberal arts colleges in the country. We have outstanding students, an engaged faculty, an exciting curriculum, a motivated and well-functioning board, a large endowment, little deferred maintenance, healthy campus dynamics, and strong town-gown relationships. We need to tell our story because it speaks to our value and to the overall value of a high-quality, high-touch liberal arts education.
In my view, we have been anchored by a few core principles: being managed with fiscal conservatism keeping resources focused on student learning; embracing the curriculum and co-curriculum as connected and reinforcing; facing challenges by embracing who we are and always remaining Denison; and demanding a lot from one another by asking every member of our community to remain committed to the common whole and to the mission of the institution.
There is a Midwestern humility to Denison that I love. It is refreshing, and it is part of our DNA. But we need to make sure that our humility does not get in the way of letting the higher education community know how strong and creative we are as an institution.
Second, we need to deepen student learning. As we gain understanding about the science of learning, it is clearer that active pedagogues and mentorship are core to learning. Denison is a high-touch place where every interaction matters. Our students are smart, multi-talented, engaged, passionate, and fun to be around. We have twin strengths in athletics and arts bringing an array of interesting, talented, and motivated students to Denison. The question will be how do we embrace and enhance the high-touch learning that takes place in ways that creates more of the mentorship moments that prepare students for success in their personal, professional and civic lives.
It starts in the classroom. Denison has a world-class faculty that is focused on our students. During my initial weeks at Denison, I have been struck by the commitment and talents our faculty. If one could measure the commitment of a faculty to its students, ours would be at the top of the list. And as I listen to our faculty, I hear exciting ideas for leveraging our historic commitments and strengths in undergraduate research, team-teaching, project-based work, off-campus excursions, and other forms of active learning. We need to create an enabling environment that unleashes the creativity and passions of our faculty to continually invent and reinvent teaching and research in ways that allows them to work closely with our students as mentors exploring the world of ideas and creating new ideas and expressions of knowledge.
At the same time, we need to continue our historical strength in extending learning across campus life to create a co-curriculum that also shapes student learning. We need to take full advantage of a residential education model by continuing to refine our First-Year Program to on-board our students into college quickly and successfully, ensuring that they take full advantage of the four-year experience. We need to continue to build on our successful leadership programs to ensure that student organizations of all kinds are helping students develop important skills, values and habits. And we need to remain focused on residential halls as sites for practicing liberal arts skills.
I always have believed that a college campus should be seen as a series of “design studios” or spaces where students come together to invent and remix knowledge as a way to perform new ideas and approaches. This is happening at Denison. We are pulling on the diversity of our students, leveraging our pluralistic campus culture, to create a truly unique entrepreneurial campus that challenges students to solve problems and to be the architects of their own Denison experience.
This incredible mix of an engaged faculty and staff, pluralistic student body, and intentional curriculum and co-curriculum forms the core of what will drive Denison forward, allowing us to deepen student learning in ways that embody and embrace the liberal arts. Our focus is on our students. Our impact comes from the way we mentor them for success in life.
Finally, we need to ensure that our students are successful after they leave Denison. Across the four years, we need to help students ask big questions about the lives they want to lead, and how careers fit into those lives. We continually need to provide seminars, internships, externships and other kinds of programs that help students acquire the skills, values, habits, and experiences they will need to help them along the way. We need to find new ways to fully leverage the commitment of our alumni and parents to help students see the arc of a professional life and gain entrance into key networks. We need to do this in ways that build runways for our students into the array of exciting professions that will shape the future.
My grandfather was a great man. Once he told me at a Rotary Club meeting in Arkansas that the best speakers get up, tell a joke, and then sit down. If he were here today, I have no doubt he would be proud, but also sleeping in the front row. Let me end.
I want to thank the board, faculty, staff, students, and entire Denison community for being so warm and welcoming. Most importantly, I want to thank my best friend, partner and wife, Anne; and the true joys of my life, my children Margaret, Nathan and Abigail, for embracing this journey with me. Your ability to adapt to change suggests that somewhere buried in our parenting, we are giving you a bit of the liberal arts at home.
I want to close by saying that I relish our journey together. Although it’s early in the academic year, I am already looking forward to my first commencement, when members of the Class of 2014 take the stage and go out to share their Denison experience with the world.