Inaugural Address by Dr. Lewis Evitts Thayne,
April 19, 2013
A Special Place
From the first moment I stepped onto the campus, I felt a sense that every alumnus must have felt, every person who loves this College must feel: I like it here; this is a special place.
On our first visit, Dorry and I parked our car across from the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery and crossed over onto campus. We looked with the eyes of people who are being very cautious about taking the next step along a journey. What we saw was that every building, every tree, every bush, every flower and walkway were cared for. The buildings had modest exteriors, but when you opened the door, there was a surprising beauty inside. I walked into Neidig Garber, a serious place of learning and research. We spent some time looking at and communing with Cuewe-Pehelle, the spirit of the place who reaches out to all with welcome, wonder, and abundance.
Students are not at their best on Sunday mornings around 11 a.m.; they are a little bleary. Even so, they greeted us and held open the door to the student center for us. They strode past with impressive backpacks on their way to the Vernon and Doris Bishop Library.
We spent time in the Peace Garden. If I hadn’t felt that special feeling before, then the statue of Hot Dog Frank in the Peace Garden would have sealed the deal. Hot Dog Frank, all 4’10” of him, waits to serve and to dispense wisdom. Students say that if you lean in close to the statue of Frank very, very late at night, you can hear him say, in heavily accented English: “Hit the books!”
On that day, we did not hear the Norfolk Southern Railroad, bless their hearts, which sends 20 trains through here every day. They come past like a shot of adrenaline, a reminder that the business of the world goes on and that we are preparing to be part of it, here in this city on a hill, in the Eden of the Lebanon Valley.
Rite of Passage
Today, we gather to enact a ceremony that has been repeated many times in our 147 year history. I have become aware that an inauguration is more than an occasion; it is also a rite of passage with several stages. There was the first day of work, August 1. In my first week, I was given the keys to the president’s dining room in Mund College Center. In December, my name was added to those of previous presidents in the president’s dining room. Another defining moment in the rite of passage occurred on April 1, when the April Fool’s issue of the student newspaper, La Vie Collegienne, reported that I was about to release an album—of rap music. Last week, a student held the door for me as I was leaving Mund and, as I passed through, he asked, “Hey, President Thayne, how’s that album coming along?”
The inauguration of a president is also a reconfirmation by the community of its shared purpose. I asked that we include in the program a passage from Paul Wallace’s “Centennial History” because it articulates that shared purpose in its simplest and most heartfelt formulation: “Lebanon Valley College was created by a body of devout but unlearned people who shared a vision of the good life and took the best way they could think of to preserve it for their children and their children’s children.”
Our faith in liberal education is as deeply held as our religious beliefs and it is related to them through the values that we all seek to uphold and continue. They are such simple ideas and yet they are still revolutionary in their simplicity: the primacy of the individual; a singular focus on the value of each person; the necessity of collaboration, of partnering with, learning from, and serving others; the essential notion that for education to be thorough, we must fully express our humanity in achieving it; that to be practical, an education should focus on the tools of thinking rather than the facts of what has already been thought; that it is through education we create a better life and through this is the gateway to a better world.
The Valley is more than a place. We are all on a mission. The horizon of expectations we set for ourselves is high, but I would argue that it must be even higher. To the traditional base of the liberal arts education—and even beyond the rigor of our pre-professional programs—we must add the intensity and integrative learning of high-impact experiences. And we must do so for every student.
A high-impact experience entails learning on a deeper, more transformational level than traditional classroom learning. These are the experiences that many of us have had and you will know what I am referring to. The study-abroad experience that literally changed the way you thought about the world. The capstone course that integrates everything learned to that point. The research experience where you work closely with your professor, as a colleague, and respected as such, creating new knowledge. A substantive internship where you discovered that thinking critically is the most practical aspect of your education, because it establishes for a certainty that you have something relevant to offer the world. The extended community service learning experience where you discover that compassion, hard work, cultural understanding, and creative problem solving can be a transformational combination, personally and for others. The athletic experience combined with leadership learning that can be a sustaining resource for a lifetime of achievement.
We know that high-impact experiences work at a transformational level. We know from the impact on our own students of the Arnold Grant Program created by Ed and Jeanne Arnold. Already in their third cycle, each year 12 students along with faculty sponsors develop successful proposals for internships, independent summer research, and faculty-student research. This summer, we will have students with internships at SONY in Los Angeles and New York City; in Maastricht, Netherlands at the Center for European Studies; doing biodiversity research in Puerto Rico; engaged in creative writing on race and identity; conducting collaborative research and teaching in Asuncion, Paraguay; and a group project creating and marketing a compilation of Professor Scott Eggert’s compositions. You have the picture. I said high impact and these are certainly high impact.
Currently, one-third of our students participate in what we call high-impact programs. That is good, but it is not enough. Every student must graduate from Lebanon Valley College having participated in a high-impact program. We must be a College that truly changes lives.
Our College must also find and support the entrepreneurial strengths of the faculty. One of the first things I did here was to create a President’s Innovation Fund with $100,000 that had been given to the College in the estate of an alumna, Yvonne Raab ’45. The idea was to direct resources to innovative ideas in course design and course delivery; to collaborative learning projects among faculty or faculty and staff; and to financial assistance for departments that identified an area of weakness and wanted to strengthen it. I wanted to create a companion program to the Arnold Grants.
What I found is that the faculty members are bursting with ideas, all of them involving student learning and with active student engagement built in. We funded 13 proposals, which range from an international service learning experience in Peru to a new course that studies designed experience in theme parks, museums, and Apple Stores, from flipped classrooms in mathematics and philosophy to flipped concepts of eating. This was an investment in idea creation and innovative, experiential education.
Some of these ideas will succeed, others will be less successful. My point is this: on our best day, we are not only producing new knowledge and great teaching, we are also producing new ideas. Some of our faculty members are intensely practical; others color outside the lines. Make the education thorough and practical, the founders said. Is there anything more practical than a great teacher on fire to work with students in new and exciting ways? Is there any life experience more powerful or with a more lasting impression than the influence of a great teacher? Is there one of us who cannot call to mind the image and certainty that one of our teachers made a difference in our lives?
We must and we will expand the resources available to our faculty to fund innovative research, course design, collaborations, and course delivery.
The core of great teaching is a skill set that can be studied and taught and a powerful instinct and intuition that can be nurtured. Should we not at Lebanon Valley extend the argument, first made by the Greeks and the Hebrews, that teaching is a core skill of civilization, of our humanity itself? In a global knowledge economy—and in a strong democracy—everyone will need to know how to learn from others and how to teach others: CEOs, physicians, accountants, musicians, stay-at-home mothers or fathers, athletic trainers. We must all be educators. As Isaiah says, “The Lord has given me the tongue of the teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary.” I am suggesting that the arts of instruction, of learning through dialogue, of written and spoken communication of knowledge, even of course development and research literacy—that all of these must be done at the highest levels at Lebanon Valley College and that we must provide the resources so that every student also experiences and exercises them as part of our shared purpose. Our Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is not a remedial resource; it must become a well-head that every member of the community benefits from. Surely this is part of our mission at Lebanon Valley College, surely this is in our DNA, and surely this is an area where we should be able to compete with the best, and even, to lead. We want our graduates to have a shaping voice in their place of work, their communities, and our world. The broad application of excellent teaching and learning skills will insure that they do.
A Global Network
Many of you know that for the previous seven years I built a global network of alumni and parents at Franklin & Marshall. I have also done this at Columbia and at Agnes Scott. Some of those alumni, trustees, and generous donors to those institutions are here, so they will tell you. An alumni network is a strategic asset of the college, as valuable in its way as the endowment. A global network is there as a resource for current students and graduates. It is there to provide internships, mentors, guides, advocates, a sphere of influence, proof of concept, and financial support. This network is not a luxury. When we invite applications to our College—undergraduate or graduate—we should know that families and graduates expect there to be a network as a resource. We need to deliver on that expectation. During my presidency, I intend to make it a priority to develop this network for Lebanon Valley College.
A Shared Purpose
This College—all colleges—must be innovative places, continually adding to our foundations and keeping up with our times. The students we educate today must develop the solutions to the issues of their times. These solutions will drive prosperity and peace.
Yet, every day we hear skepticism about and assaults on our higher educational system and the cost and efficiency of this focus on the individual. We hear about the disruptive power of technology. There is even a certain glee about the potential breakdown and (creative) destruction of the colleges and universities that have served us so well. Some see us as “adrift” or “underachieving” or hopelessly elitist or left-leaning or provincial.
To our critics, I say that we are listening to you and studying your criticisms carefully, and that none of those criticisms are being taken lightly. We will respond to those criticisms as our predecessors did, by combining the critical and the creative function and converting the one directly into the other. Admire the problem, and then solve it.
To those who believe that we must stand firm in the face of change around us, I say rather that we must be firm in our conviction that we have the tools and the learning skills to embrace change and even at times to lead change.
To those who believe that we are isolated here at Lebanon Valley College, I remind them that with every ounce of energy we have and every resource that we can bring to bear, we must connect ourselves to the world of research, to work that is being done elsewhere in the world, and to the people doing the work. We must become a more diverse community of inclusive excellence, part of a global learning community.
To those who are worried about our future, I ask for your help in making a better future possible. Our task is to conserve what must absolutely be conserved and to reinvent where we must do so in order to seize the opportunities of the present and prepare for the future.
Our founders lived in times of intense conflict, of religious, military, and cultural conflict. What they were sure of was that—one year after the end of the Civil War—without higher education there could not be a better society or prosperity for all. The investment of the founders and of the Annville community was an investment in the collective impact of all Lebanon Valley students, present and future. Where there is resolve, there is courage and confidence. They, as we, return to what we most deeply believe in, that a better society will only occur if we work toward it intentionally, that education drives prosperity, innovation, peace, civil society, and democracy itself.
At the opening Convocation in August, one of our seniors shared a story with the first-year students. In the early summer, she found herself on a train headed for Manhattan where she had a summer internship. This was a dream come true. But somewhere along the way, she called her advisor, a little worried, and said, “I have the address of where I’m going, but I don’t know how to get there.” Her advisor said, “Well, just take a cab and tell the cab driver the address.” To which she responded, “I don’t know how to get a cab.”
In life, for young people, for all people, so often it is the small connections that make a big difference. We must ask: Where is the break in the chain? Our students know where they want to go. And they certainly know where they are. But they will need our help getting from where they are to where they want to go. Sometimes that help can be as simple as pointing out how to get a cab. Small pieces of information and guidance can restore confidence and inspire trust. If we as a community could reach that point of development, of trust, where students and faculty could ask simply: Will you help me? And then we could respond simply: Yes.
Call to Action
I am asking each of you here, everyone who is watching, and all who care about this College and what it stands for, to consider how to help our students, our faculty, and the excellence of our education, in ways large and small, and to act on that consideration. So it is that we inaugurate today, not a person, but a new era for Lebanon Valley College, a time when we ask ourselves the question, individually and as a whole, who are we on our best day? I believe each of you has an answer, and I am asking you to act on it, for the good of all.