January 17, 2013

First Address to the Lafayette Community by Alison Byerly

Below is the transcript of Alison Byerly‘s first address to the Lafayette community upon her appointment as president yesterday.

Thank you very much for that extremely warm and personal introduction.

I’d like to thank not only Alan (Griffith, chair of search committee) and Ed (Ahart, chair of the Board of Trustees) and the entire search committee for this opportunity, but the Lafayette community for being such a wonderfully warm and vibrant place that I could feel it reaching out even from interview rooms in the city of Philadelphia. The strength of this community was so palpable it was astonishing to me when I first met the members of the Lafayette group that constituted the search committee. Ed has already spoken and Alan has spoken about how well the search committee worked together, and I want to say from the point of view of a candidate nothing is more important than seeing how a team operates if you’re thinking of becoming that team’s leader.

The search committee is a kind of microcosm of the College. It was my first introduction to Lafayette and I was incredibly impressed with the dedication and the enthusiasm and the energy every member of the search committee brought to this. It made me very, very excited about becoming part of this community.

I’d like to say a few words about the process of education that’s involved in becoming the next president of Lafayette and the leader of this institution because the search process that Ed has described has a kind of parallel process from the candidate’s perspective, in that I also was learning about Lafayette just as Lafayette was learning about me. So I’d like to say a little about what I’ve learned about the College and what I hope to see happen to the College in the next few years under my leadership.

As I said, the College has such a strong sense of community that I think that’s the strongest foundation to work upon, but I also think a real strength of the College is its recognition of the many challenges that it’s facing both within the larger world of higher education and within the College itself. It’s extremely well poised, as I think Dan (Weiss) has said very well, to address those challenges.

One of the real strengths of Lafayette that sets it apart from many other small residential colleges is its unique blend of liberal arts and engineering, and that’s something as you can imagine we spent a lot of time talking about during the search process. As someone who comes from a liberal arts institution, I certainly recognize the tremendous value of offering the kind of grounding habits of analysis and communication that students acquire as they try to wrestle with the largest problems of humanity. At the same time, in learning more about Lafayette’s engineering program and seeing the way in which the kind of practical problem-solving, sort of can-do approach of that program really infuses the whole institution, I became very excited at the idea of being part of a place that could bring these two areas so productively together. I became convinced in the course of the process that in fact a lot of Lafayette’s unique spirit comes from that unusual mix, from the way in which theory and practice are brought together in the curriculum and how that becomes part of the whole institutional culture.

I think Lafayette is a place that seems very willing to solve problems, to identify them and confront them and I think that that’s true in many aspects of how it conducts its own business. It’s something that makes me very excited about the possibility of helping Lafayette move forward in lots of areas.

Another way in which Lafayette struck me as amazingly distinctive is in its recognition of the inextricable connection between academic and residential life; the connection that really makes a small residential college a place worth coming to. In the world of higher education today, as a couple of speakers have mentioned already, there’s so many opportunities for technology to create new educational options and offer possibilities for studying things outside the classroomopportunities that can be exciting, that can be valuable, that I think we can explore at Lafayette.

At the same time, I think all of those remind us that at its core, a small liberal arts college offers an unparalleled opportunity for students to work closely with excellent faculty, to work closely with each other in teams that allow them to develop habits of collaboration and ultimately take what they learn in the classroom and bring it outside the classroom, to occupy students for the many hours they’re not in class. The strong tradition in competitive athletics, the incredible amount of volunteer service that Lafayette students do, the wonderful music and performance opportunitiesall of these things allow students to take outside what they learn in the classroom and really apply what they’re learning. I think that’s what makes a small residential college the most powerful learning environment that a student can join. To be put in a position of having the opportunity of providing that kind of experience for students is tremendously exciting to me.

And finally, the third aspect of Lafayette that I think will be its tremendous strength going forward (and it) will not be a surprise to anybody in this room, is its tremendously strong sense of community, the strong dedication of alumni, of faculty, students and staff to a kind of unique spirit of Lafayette that as I said has become palpable and meaningful to me in the last couple of months as I’ve come to know the college. One of the things that seemed very clear to me as I came to know people at Lafayette is that it’s a community where people are willing to work together to put aside small differences…and to think about the future of the College rather than simply thinking about their own interests in the present or even their own cherished traditions from the past. All of those things have to be woven together into a vision for the future that allows the institution to move forward, and I see Lafayette as an incredibly energetic and ambitious institution that’s not interested in sitting still but is interested in moving forward, and that to me makes it a very exciting opportunity indeed.

My family is very excited about coming to Easton and some of us have had opportunities to meet members of the community already. My husband Steve is here today; my kids couldn’t be here, they have schoolI couldn’t really endorse them missing school. Steve, why don’t you stand up for a moment so people can see who this new guy is. I’m looking forward to bringing the rest of my family here and also to coming back to campus soon to meet other members of the community that have been mentioned in the press release and other announcements. We recognize that the timing of this event meant that it wasn’t possible to meet as many people as we would like to have the opportunity to talk with, and so I’ll be back on campus in a couple of weeks and there will be chances to meet with students and faculty then.

I’d like to close by saying again that it’s a tremendous honor to be offered the opportunity to lead an institution that I think is on a terrific upward trajectory. I very much appreciate being given the chance to be part of Lafayette’s journey and I look forward to the road ahead. Thank you.

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