A university inaugural address is often the time for major pronouncements about the future of the institution, a charting of the course, and a vision of what lies ahead. On inaugural occasions, such words are fitting and appropriate.
But at Bucknell today, I believe everyone already knows the dreams we will pursue. Though deferred by economic displacements, and delayed by leadership transition, our plans are as vibrant, and compelling, and certainly as important as ever.
We have specific objectives to pursue: the five overarching goals of The Plan for Bucknell, the comprehensive campaign, and the campus master plan. I embrace each of them, and all the multivariate objectives they imply.
My aim this afternoon then is simply to pose and probe, briefly at least, a simple question, a question that I think clarifies for us the choices we must make even as we see our current goals through to completion. The question is simply this, "Who are we becoming?"
Ladies and gentlemen of the Board of Trustees, my distinguished predecessors in this presidency, colleagues in the faculty and staff, students of Bucknell, colleagues from our peer institutions and learned societies, and friends and family in the Bucknell community and from around the nation, thank you for being here today.
Wendy and I are honored by your presence. From the day we arrived in this beautiful borough of Lewisburg with our new son Cole, you have touched us with the warmth of your welcome. "Thank you" does not express our appreciation strongly enough.
And now this ceremony unfolds, after a special series of academic and artistic events these past few days. The inauguration committee and the faculty subcommittee did an extraordinary job putting these events together. Please join me in thanking all the students, faculty, and staff who have made these events, including today's ceremony, so inspiring.
To Shara, for that poem: Amazing. And to the greeters who spoke today, and to Ken and to Steve, thank you for your exceedingly kind words. I am touched to the core. Thank you all for your generosity.
This ceremony is a symbol of the greatest professional honor of my life. I have taken this oath of office, and formally enter this presidency, with deep humility at what you ask of me. I am grateful for your trust. I pledge to you that I will do my best for Bucknell and strive never, never, to let you down.
At Convocation this year, I asked our incoming students to contemplate the question, "Who are you becoming?" It is a vital question for students to answer. And the fact is, as I told them, they have no choice. They will answer it, one way or another, consciously or not, in the course of their university careers and in fact by how they live their lives.
A university does the same. At such a human institution, the question of becoming is our question too. I believe it is our central question. One way or another, we, as a university community, as individuals, as colleagues, professors and administrators, students and staff — we will answer it for Bucknell. Our challenge is to answer it consciously, in good faith, and with clarity.
"Who are we becoming?"
It is a question we inherit, and answer not only to ourselves, but also for those who shall inherit Bucknell from us. As you may have heard me say before, a university is one of the few institutions that we expect to endure in perpetuity. Ideally, our part in Bucknell's life will be brief against the backdrop of its continual re-creation, already 164 years in progress. We have stepped into its history, but that history moves on. We try to advance Bucknell while we can in a way consistent with its values, and if we are fortunate and make some good choices, we can leave a legacy of greater possibilities for those who shall follow.
Having looked back a bit on the life of Bucknell, I am intrigued by how we have answered this question already. I see a university that has moved with the times, and often ahead of them; that has had some of its proudest moments in its openness to new ideas; and that has demonstrated its capacity to lead where leadership is required. We have many reasons to be proud of the choices made by those who created the Bucknell we know today. We have a high standard to uphold, and to convey.
It was not long after our founding in 1846 that we accepted our first international student — far before many other universities opened their doors to the world. Maung Shaw Loo of Burma was no outlier to campus life either. He was intrinsic to it, including membership in one of the two fraternities that by then had been established at Bucknell. What Bucknell has become is evident in its enduring relationship with Burma since then, including enrolling students from that country — and, today, students from nearly 60 others.
Similarly, it was barely one generation after our founding that we enrolled our first female student. Bucknell, again, took that step before many other institutions welcomed women into their classrooms. Chella Scott not only graduated with honors, she delivered an oration at Bucknell's 1885 commencement.
These two facts are well known among many Bucknellians. Perhaps not as widely appreciated are the threads of openness that emerge elsewhere in the University's life and history. In 1944, for example, Bucknell opened its English Language Institute. Its purpose was to provide an introduction to American customs and language for Spanish-speakers who would continue graduate study in this country. It began a series of initiatives designed to meet the changing needs of students from different communities.
Today, Bucknell alumni work in countries around the world. Four of every 10 Bucknell students study abroad by the time they graduate. We offer programs as diverse as the Posse Scholars, the Community College Scholars Transfer Program, and the Bucknell Brigade and its offspring in the Mississippi Delta, continuous threads of a university's becoming what is forward thinking and open.
In times of war, Bucknellians have joined the nation's cause. Only 15 years after our founding, a special assemblage of Bucknell students known as the University Guards helped repel invasions from the south, not once, but twice. The second time, in 1863, special effort had to be made to return the graduating members of that contingent back to campus for Commencement.
In the midst of World War I, two ambulance corps of Bucknell volunteers traveled to France, and in 1919, Bucknell committed to ongoing support of the American cause by establishing the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which remains a proud part of Bucknell's life today.
Extraordinary action has sometimes been required to live up to our values. In World War II, to meet the military's increased need for educated personnel, Bucknell revised its academic calendar to allow students to finish the coursework for a four-year degree in three years. I think parents today might find that attractive. When the G.I. Bill was enacted following the war, Bucknell went further and promised all students whose education had been interrupted by the war that they could complete their education here. As a result, in 1946, our enrollment nearly doubled, to more than 2,000 students, 1,200 of whom were veterans. Massive logistical issues arose, especially in housing, but the campus adapted. I believe the first modulars were then born. I think the ones we have now are different.
Most importantly, the curriculum has never ceased to become what it needed to be for our students. In the 19th century, the only curriculum option available to students was along the lines of the Classical Program. It included Latin and Greek, along with medieval and modern European history, comparative zoology and anthropology, and electives in such fields as practical astronomy, microscopic botany, and civics.
By the 20th century, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Bucknell was offering four-year degrees in a variety of engineering fields. By the 1930s, mandatory Latin and Greek had been abolished, and new programs in education, commerce, and finance had been introduced. Soon, the mandatory stipulation that students attend church in town every Sunday disappeared too. Yes, that's right, we used to require students to attend church in town ... just as we used to require a phys. ed. class, and, apparently, that students passed a swimming test.
I could recount the ever-evolutionary changes to the physical plant, our athletics program, or the introduction of an honors program that in the 1960s boosted Bucknell's national academic standing even further. Recent additions of programs such as neuroscience, biomedical engineering, and, most comprehensively, the new College Core Curriculum in arts and sciences, and new centers in such areas as the environment and civic engagement, reflect the life of a university whose programs continue to adapt, and whose re-creation never stops.
An institution meant to last
But as proud as we are of them, programs do not define a university. Nor do its places, even when the physical landscape is as beautiful as it is here. Our founders famously chose to establish this university on the outskirts of civilization, in what they memorably called the "wilds of Pennsylvania." Placing Bucknell upon a hill and fitting it beside the rolling waters of the wide Susquehanna — which Shara has so wonderfully re-conceived — they positioned it to look far across the Susquehanna River Valley, to see far into the distance. They built an institution meant to last, and meant to have a view.
But most of all, they built an institution to last for people, and to help people see. Whatever we have become, whatever we shall become, we must begin, as we must end, with our people.
I am very proud to say that Bucknell is the home of true teacher scholars. Our faculty, to their credit, have chosen to commit their careers to working with the newest recruits to the academic world and to introducing them to the scholarly habits of mind that are so valuable in every realm of life. I think there is much to admire in those habits. I have always felt honored to be in a profession of scholars that teaches them and passes them on, one generation to the next.
At their most important level, scholarly habits of the mind demand attention to the truth. I have learned that these habits sometimes demand skepticism, but never cynicism, as cynicism is just a form of hopelessness.
If we know anything from the study of the liberal arts, it is that hope matters. I have learned that scholarly habits of mind call us to respect fact, to trust in the powers of imagination to reveal deep truths, and to appreciate that sharing knowledge, and learning new ideas, matter deeply — not just for today, and not just for ourselves, but for tomorrow and for others.
Faith in the future
I believe in the idea that education requires faith in the future, not only to the people of the future but most immediately our students and their future.
The Bucknellians of the past invested themselves in a university whose work and reputation would be formed by people they would never know. Our students, today, are that future. We ask them to open themselves to these scholarly habits of mind. We want them to learn how to question, how to judge, how to decipher what matters from what is unimportant. At a university like Bucknell, we ask them to learn with, not from, so they can learn for themselves for the rest of their lives.
The only way we can learn together is to hold ourselves to the highest standards of human interaction. The entire stature and mission of a university are otherwise empty. Actually, if we don't self-correct when we violate these standards, and we don't do our best to live up to them, it is inevitable that our university will fail, materially, practically and in every other way. Integrity, civility, fairness, honesty. You don't have to be in the academic life long to realize — these are not idle words in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio, the stage or the soccer pitch. They are essential to the survival of a university and its role in the education, and ultimately the lives, of young people.
Who are we becoming?
We know some facts of the answer. We know that we absolutely must achieve the goals of our comprehensive campaign. It will provide the resources to fuel some of our other ambitions, in the academic core, in residential learning, in diversity, in building bridges, and so much more. We know that we must build new facilities and continue the work of previous Bucknellians in making this a special place to learn, live, teach, conduct research and to play, too, and to grow. Most immediately, we know that we need Academic West and new student housing, and that facilities such as an expanded library, a new arts complex and an Academic East must not be far behind.
We know that we have to continue to spread the word that the finest students of all backgrounds, not just from across America, but from abroad, can benefit immeasurably by joining us here at Bucknell. We know we have to do a superior job of implementing fresh comprehensive efforts like the new core curriculum in arts and sciences, and that we must continue assessing whether other curricular changes are appropriate to keep and advance Bucknell in the position it has worked so hard to earn as a leader in higher education.
We will move with the times, as well as help define them, and wherever and however we can, stay ahead of them. We will be open to new ideas. We will strive to lead where leadership is needed. We will aim to make Bucknell better each day for our students, and better for the students, colleagues, alumni, parents and friends of our university of new generations not yet born.
Who are we becoming?
We are becoming a small part of an internationally connected electronic society, in which, potentially, we all will enjoy and be enriched by each other's culture, languages, and idiosyncrasies, just as we all will be subjected to each other's needs and suffering, as we try to remember how to empathize when we are overdosing on information.
Who are we becoming?
A home for the sons and daughters who possess new forms of privilege and possibility — those of perception, of the capacity to learn, of the capacity to absorb and sort information readily, meaningfully, and proactively. These privileges and possibilities already challenge us in sometimes unexpected ways.
Who are we becoming?
The transitional home for students learning how to apply such skills to help all of us — and indeed themselves — mold a future of global citizenship, of self- and family-fulfillment, yes, even of profitable application of those skills for their own benefit and for the benefit of others.
We are becoming a small part of those interdependent six billion souls who are striving to live a better life, and we are becoming one of the wellsprings that feed the oceans of knowledge and ideas we all will need as we learn, together, how to navigate a very uncertain tomorrow.
These are all part of who Bucknell always has been and continues becoming.
For me, the real answer to the question of who we are becoming is found in how we treat one another and in the ways we live up to those highest purposes of a university that have always been at the core of its mission. In the end, an institution of advanced learning meant to endure, the answer to the question of "Who are we becoming?" really is, "Who are we?"
Our time here is very special. Our time here is also brief when measured against the life of the institution we share. We have an obligation to carry forward something great.
In closing let me tell you of an alumna of Bucknell I met not too long ago. The location was Boston, for my first meeting with a large group of alumni out of town. There were about 200 alumni there, and one of them was a woman named Alice. She was a proud graduate of the Class of 1940. 1940. She graduated from college 70 years ago, just as America was about to enter the Second World War. She was born, that is, about halfway through the current life of Bucknell.
What extraordinary change she has seen. Vietnam and the cultural and civil rights revolutions of the 1960s. The emergence of the space program that took human beings to the moon. The Gulf Wars. The birth of the computer, the Internet, the cellphone, and, yes, YouTube and Facebook and Google.
The Cold War and its end, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the formation of the European Union. The rise of the environmental movement. A few Wall Street disasters, and more natural disasters than it seems fair for a world to have to face. The growing influence of China. The breaking of the human genetic code. The shrinking of the global community by technology. And it seems, the ceaseless tensions between nations new and old that continue to haunt us.
Alice has lived through an era of such change, and so much more. And in Boston, she beamed, her eyes aglint with pride, that she is a graduate of Bucknell, and that she was prepared by her Bucknell education for all that she has seen.
Looking at expected life spans today, it is likely that many of our students will live to be 100 — or, in other words, they have another 80 years to await them after they graduate. It is not hard to believe that they will see more change in the decades ahead than even the last profoundly transformational eras held, and yet it is hard to imagine just what those changes will be. Whatever we do, we must, in the right way, with integrity and compassion, thoughtfulness and strength, prepare those students for their next 80 years, prepare them for the future they will experience and the future they will create.
We will get the hard work done, every day, every hour, with focus and commitment. We will set our sights high. And we will achieve the critical practical objectives that will shape the Bucknell of today and tomorrow, just as those did who came before us. Most of all, in the spirit of the university, I hope we will continue asking, "Who are we becoming?" I hope we will aim to answer it as best as we can in one way: by being together the Bucknellians whom we most aspire to become.
I am honored by your presence, I am honored by your trust, and I am honored by your shared commitment to this great, great university. Thank you.
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