October 14, 2005

Inaugural Address

Daniel H. Weiss – Oct. 14, 2005

Mr. Chairman, Mr. Vice-Chairman, Mr. Secretary, fellow trustees and faculty members, distinguished guests, alumni, students, friends, and family, it is with great pride, humility, and a deep sense of purpose that I accept the responsibilities entrusted to me today.

I am honored to serve Lafayette as its sixteenth President and pledge that I will do all that I can to
justify your confidence and support. I would like to extend my gratitude to our speakers today who have so generously extended greetings, to the members of the Inaugural Committee who have worked long and hard to realize this event, to friends and colleagues who have offered me support and guidance over the years, and especially to my family-my wife Sandra and my sons Teddy and Joel–who have made so much in my life possible and worthwhile.

I should have anticipated that it would be unwise for me, a new president just finding my way around the job, to follow Bill Bowen onto the podium. A visionary and courageous academic leader, Bill has had a transformative impact on higher education in America and throughout the world. His contributions as an educator, economist, author, university leader, and especially, as a voice for the best of our aspirations has been widely recognized. But for those who know him, Bill’s greatest contribution has been as a colleague, mentor, and friend. His personal kindness and generosity is legendary and his impact on others has been profound. Unwise or not, I have been and will remain honored to follow Bill Bowen.

We are assembled here today in this magnificent setting, many of us turned out in our finest academic costume, because we as a society recognize changes in academic leadership to be significant events. This is not merely because such transitions in leadership are fitting moments for celebration, but because these events allow us to pause and reflect on the state of our College: on our history and traditions, our accomplishments and challenges, and most important, on our aspirations and expectations for the future. We have arrived at this particular moment with a well-placed sense of optimism and the satisfaction that issues uniquely from a difficult job well done. By any measure, Lafayette has come a long way since the spring morning in May 1832 when President George Junkin welcomed the first class, consisting of some 43 young men, two faculty members (in mathematics and classics), and perhaps a few trustees and bystanders to the new college founded by the citizens of Easton in honor of the aged and beloved hero of the American War for Independence.

After a tenuous beginning, our growth as an institution-and, even more, our rise as a serious academic enterprise–has been noteworthy. The achievements of the past five decades have been especially impressive. It is my distinct honor to share the stage this afternoon with several individuals who contributed so much to that success: Mrs. Kay Bergethon whose husband Dr. K. Roald Bergethon led Lafayette from 1958-1978; Dr. David Ellis (1978-1990); and Mr. Arthur Rothkopf (1993-2005).

If one sign of the vitality of an institution is the manner in which it handles transitions in leadership, we are vigorous indeed. I am deeply grateful to my friend Arthur Rothkopf for the care and support both he and Barbara extended to my family and to me during the past year. Ours has been an exemplary transition. As all of you know, the College has been exceptionally well served by these leaders, and their good work provides us now with special opportunities.

So we begin this new chapter in the life of the College with a strong record of achievement, a sense of pride in our accomplishments, and significant momentum; we have built a faculty of exceptional talent and dedication, developed a diverse and innovative curriculum, created a campus of exceptional beauty and purpose, and maintained a healthy balance sheet, all of which has made it possible for us to recruit a student body of real talent, intelligence, and ambition.

But we can ill afford the luxury of complacency, for that inevitably leads to mediocrity and staleness. As we look ahead, the challenges facing our students, our institution, and our society beyond College Hill are profound and will require nothing less than our best effort. Just a few years ago, we entered the new century learning first-hand that there is no true refuge from global conflict; terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are now an ever-present risk at home and abroad. More recently, we all saw that, regardless of our technological prowess, our natural environment remains beyond our control. But perhaps most troubling, polarization within our own society has challenged us all to remember the central importance of education to the proper functioning of a democracy and the training of an enlightened citizenry. Now more than ever we must reaffirm the benefits of intellectual pluralism, social tolerance, and the value of open debate. In other words, if we wish to succeed in the new century we must accept the challenge that we can do more for our students and the broader communities that we serve.

In my remarks today, I would like to reflect on these challenges and on the unique opportunity we have here at Lafayette to contribute to the well being of our students, our community, and the world.

A few moments ago, the discerning listener would have observed that the Charter and Statutes of the College were rather vague in setting out the nature of my new responsibilities, “to preserve and advance Lafayette College, taking its students into your care, sustaining the members of the faculty and taking counsel from them, guiding and strengthening its administrators and all others who serve the College.” Such lack of precision, however, was well intended, for it has allowed each of my predecessors the freedom and flexibility to serve the needs of the College as their judgment and circumstance required. In assessing the challenges and opportunities facing us at this particular moment in our history, I believe that we can best serve the interests of the College by dedicating ourselves to advancing three major objectives: 1. To reaffirm the central importance of liberal education as the best foundation for helping students build productive and rewarding lives; 2. To continue to enhance the quality of the academic core of the institution; and 3. To foster our identity at Lafayette as a vital and engaged community partner.

When we speak of “liberal education” we are not referring to the narrow political term, as in liberal versus conservative, red versus blue. Rather, we refer to an intellectual value-that of being open minded or at liberty to inquire and explore freely. I cannot do better than to share the definition written by William Bowen some 25 years ago, I conceive of liberal education very much in terms of certain ways of thinking, of certain habits of mind. A liberal education ought to encourage the development of a tough and disciplined mind, a mind that is both persistent and resilient. But I believe that it ought to do much more than that. It ought to serve a genuinely “liberating” function-it should help to foster a critical independence and to free us from our own forms of slavery, from the parochialisms of our own time and place and station. It should help us to develop those habits of thought which always ask why, which believe in evidence, which welcome new ideas, which seek to understand the perspectives of others, which accept complexity and grapple with it, which admit error, and which pursue truth, wherever it may lead, however uncomfortable it may be. It should help us to be compassionate and sensitive human beings, of service to others. It should help us to develop, and then demonstrate, a concern for ultimate values that are more than superficial signposts and that reflect more than the rote repetition of someone else’s formula for living a good life. Particularly important is the desire-and the ability-to keep on learning.

The value of liberal education has long been recognized in American higher education, just as it has here at Lafayette. In his inaugural remarks 47 years ago (almost to the day), President Bergethon spoke in the midst of the Cold War about the importance of educating for the “preservation of liberty.” He was speaking of the values of liberal education when he said, If now we wish to educate for the preservation of liberty, we must recognize what such education demands. We must be skeptical of any despotism of power or of truth, and we must encourage a critical spirit in our students even with respect to truths we ourselves hold self-evident and essential. We must believe that the most effective way to wisdom is through the independent search of countless individuals for personal conviction.

The purposes of liberal education are as relevant today as they have ever been, perhaps even more so. Yet many of our students and their families have begun to question the utility of a broad, values-based curriculum in this fast-paced, skills-driven economy. They are concerned, and justifiably so, about outcomes and their prospects for gainful employment. However, we have reason for encouragement since we know that employers from a wide range of sectors continue to seek graduates who are “skilled communicators, scientifically literate, adept at quantitative reasoning, oriented to innovation, sophisticated about diversity, and grounded in cross-cultural exchange,” to quote from one recent study. Given these factors, our challenge is to communicate more effectively with our students and their families about the enduring value of a liberal education in pursuing their professional careers, enriching their personal lives, and informing their roles as citizens.

Here at Lafayette we have worked hard and effectively to reaffirm our commitment to a broad-based curriculum that is also relevant to the current needs of our students. Our first-year seminar and orientation programs, AB engineering major, Values in Science/Technology seminars for sophomores, our commitment to the arts and cultural programs, and extensive study abroad offerings throughout the year are among the steps we have taken to make our approach to liberal education relevant in the new century.

There can be little doubt that the central purpose of all college and university leaders is to sustain and enhance a strong academic enterprise. And this depends foremost on the faculty. Over the long term there is no single factor more important to the success of the College than the quality and dedication of the faculty. The nature of our enterprise-the creation and dissemination of knowledge-requires that we aspire to excellence in all that we do, and it is the faculty that will lead us there.

A. Bartlett Giamatti, who had been President of Yale University in the late 1970s (and before that a faculty member himself), wrote of the faculty in this way, One must never lose sight of the basic need of all institutions which are intended every year to welcome new students, to bring new and vital people into them; one cannot lose sight of those who will lead the teaching profession into the next century; one must find and encourage and reward the best of them, by paying them well, by appreciating their teaching, their scholarly work, their engagement in the institution’s general life, by finding them time to take leave to pursue their research, by keeping the faith with them, by never forgetting— regardless of what you do and where you go, that those who teach have done something without which most people could not do for themselves whatever it is they do; that the act of teaching is an exemplary act— It is a drive for civic engagement that in innumerable ways— results in the transmission of the values and standards and new knowledge in all forms that a society must have if it is to be civilized.

For us to succeed, we must continue to invest in attracting and retaining the best faculty, for they remain the most important resource we have. As you know, Lafayette has a long history of exceptional faculty, including such luminaries as Beverly Kunkel, the legendary biology professor who had the distinction of having taught two students who went on to win the Nobel Prize: Philip Hench (1916), who won for Medicine in 1950, and Keffer Hartline (1923), who won for Medicine in 1967. Most of us are familiar with the story of the world’s first Professor of English Literature, Francis A. March, who spent his entire career at Lafayette (1855-1906). Our tradition is strong, but I am convinced that our faculty is as talented today as ever it has been. During the past year, and especially in the past several months, I have come to know this faculty and I am confident that our aspirations are well placed, that this faculty can lead us to new levels of excellence.

If the quality of our academic program requires the leadership of the faculty, it depends in equal measure on the richness of the learning environment. I am speaking of true diversity-social and intellectual pluralism-which, to my mind, enriches the educational possibilities by a measure greater than any other means. For us to be successful we must think of diversity in its broadest sense-as a core value-not simply the result of a defined initiative or an expressed goal. This means that we must seek to attract to our community individuals of diverse talents and origins, varied experiences and interests. But if we are to “reflect and nourish the pluralism of America,” to borrow a phrase from Giamatti, we must be prepared to open ourselves to the challenges, the risks, and the rewards of a less familiar, but far richer and more rewarding experience. Investments in human capital-in making the Lafayette Experience affordable and accessible to those we wish to attract here-must remain a high priority in the years ahead if we are to be successful in this important task.

Here at Lafayette, we are especially fortunate to live and work on such a splendid campus situated on College Hill, close to the center of Easton. It is indeed difficult to imagine a more pleasant or conducive setting for study and contemplation. Yet ours is not a sanctuary removed from the outside world. Nor should it be, for we serve our educational mission best when we foster our role as vital and engaged citizens, connected in myriad ways to our communities and to the world.

First and foremost among our partnerships is the one we have developed with the City of Easton. We have for many years worked together as dedicated partners in advancing our mutual goals of service to the community, neighborhood enhancement and redevelopment, and excellence in cultural, educational, and athletic programming. The Third Street redevelopment project, the community-based art teaching program, and the Landis Community Outreach Center are three current examples of our work together. Mayor Mitman and the citizens of Easton remain as committed as we are to a strong and productive partnership in the years ahead.

Our involvement in the community and our partnerships with alumni help us to provide learning and internship opportunities for our students beyond the confines of College Hill. We want to do all that we can to help our graduates secure employment and entry into their chosen careers. We can do better today for our graduates than we did for Richard Roberts, class of 1875, whose first job was as personal secretary and horse herder for General George Armstrong Custer, just months before the battle of Little Big Horn. As it happened, Roberts’ horse was ill on June 25, 1876, the day of the battle, and no replacement could be found. So Mr. Roberts was forced to remain back at camp. Missing the action, Roberts survived that day and lived on until the beginning of the Second World War.

Our partnership with alumni is essential not only in helping our graduates get a good start in their careers but in every aspect of our mission, and their achievements reflect well on us all. I think of such graduates as David McDonogh, class of 1844. McDonogh was sent to Lafayette so that he could receive training to join a group of missionaries to Liberia. But McDonogh had other goals. He wanted to become a physician and, in the face of tremendous opposition, he prevailed, earning a medical degree at the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and becoming, for the remainder of his career, a member of the staff of the New York Hospital and the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary. This was a remarkable achievement in the 1840s, for David McDonogh was a black man and a slave, sent to Lafayette by his master, a Louisiana rice planter. In 1898, the first private hospital for blacks in New York City was named in honor of our David McDonogh.

Another illustrious graduate was James McKeen Cattell, the son of Lafayette president William Cassidy Cattell. Young Cattell, a member of the class of 1880, helped to establish the scientific method in psychology in a long and illustrious career at Columbia University and he became the first psychologist elected to the National Academy of Science. As an undergraduate psychology major who spent many hours studying Cattell and his scientific methods, I never expected that I would one day live in the house in which he was raised.

In recent years our alumni have continued to make exceptional contributions to our society. Among the many that I might mention today are Jay Parini (1970), one of America’s most prolific writers; Roger Newton (1972), a scientist who helped to develop the drug Lipitor;; and Michael Moskow (1959), who is President of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and a Lafayette Trustee. Since we are today celebrating higher education, I would also recognize Darlyne Bailey (1974), Vice President of Academic Affairs at Columbia University Teachers College; John Fry (1982), President of Franklyn and Marshall College; and Nils Wessell (1934), former President of Tufts University and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Our work with the local community, our partnerships with friends and alumni, and our many opportunities for work and study beyond our walls, contribute to the formation of our students as thoughtful and responsible citizens, a goal that reflects well on the spirit of the individual whose name the College so proudly bears.

It is fitting that I conclude my remarks by noting our good fortune in our association with the Marquis de Lafayette, one of the truly great and remarkable people in our history. One of the most important contributors to the success of the American War for Independence (and George Washington’s most beloved friend), Lafayette was above all dedicated to individual freedom and liberty, and he saw in his adopted country the greatest chance that these ideals might take root and grow. Lafayette believed fully in the ideal of true liberty because he understood it as “the fruition of the enactment of the rights of man.” The founders of this institution understood the essential connection between a free society and an educated citizenry and that is why they named our college in his honor. As we look to the future of Lafayette College, we can do no better than to hold this ideal close to our own hearts and to our ongoing sense of purpose.

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