Inaugural Address | Office of the President | Kent State University

Inaugural Address

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May 1, 2015

Thank you, Chair Eckart. To you and all of Kent State’s truly dedicated Trustees; to the other distinguished guests who have graced this stage with your wit, wisdom and optimism; to everyone here in the MAC Center and everyone joining us from all eight of our campuses; to the amazing poets of the Holden Elementary School Writers Club; and to Chair Valoree Vargo and the talented, tireless members of the Inauguration Planning Committee — I thank you with all my heart. Thank you for being part of this historic day in the life of Kent State University, and one of the most momentous days of my life.

This ceremony culminates a week of events that reflect our community’s caring, courageous spirit. We raised funds to help seriously ill patients at Akron Children’s Hospital. We opened our world-class Center for Undergraduate Excellence. We launched a first-of-its-kind project to connect our world through the barrier-breaking power of poetry. And we heard from three visionaries who proved that Amelia Earhart was right when she said, “Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn’t be done.” Please join me in welcoming back President Emeritus Michael Schwartz, President Emerita Carol Cartwright and President Emeritus Lester Lefton.

For my esteemed predecessors and for me, leading Kent State is the capstone of a journey to pay back a lifetime of good fortune. My good luck started with parents who gave me the gift of unconditional support, the courage to be open to life’s boundless possibilities and faith in the essential goodness of all people. How happy I am that my mother, Eloise, and my brother, Richard, are here today.

And then there are the people in our lives who are not connected to us by DNA, but who are family in every way that counts. For me, that list starts with Sharon Petro and includes a wealth of lifelong friends, many of whom are here today. As I try to make a difference, your presence in my life makes all the difference.

I am grateful for the guidance and wisdom of my friends and colleagues, Mike Rao and Nancy Zimpher. I am so pleased that many of my Virginia Commonwealth University colleagues are here today to share in this celebration. And I deeply appreciate the presence of my presidential peers in Ohio. To my fellow freshmen presidents, Scott, Jim and Lori — we have almost completed our inaugural year together, and I am grateful for your continued partnership.

Since my arrival, I have been surrounded by fellow travelers on the journey to make a positive difference. In word and deed, you affirm my view that there could not be a better place to do so than Kent State University and that we stand at the threshold of an incredible future — a future in which we solidify our status as a destination university in a destination city; a global university that never forgets its deep, regional roots; a public research university whose faculty and students fearlessly tackle grand challenges and great mysteries; and as a relevant, results-driven university that helps rekindle our nation’s belief in the power and promise of higher education.

As many of you know, our university community is in the midst of creating a shared, strategic vision for where our journey together should take us. Today, I would like to offer four compass points that I believe will be critical to successfully navigating that journey. I see them as essential elements we must visit, embrace and strengthen together as we move toward a bold future of influence and involvement — involvement that continues to benefit all of Northeast Ohio, makes a meaningful difference in the global communities we serve today and that allows many more nations to know Kent State University as an academic ally.

  • First, we must hold tightly to a “students first” philosophy. This will require our continuing, laser-like focus on helping every student graduate — and graduate with the knowledge and spirit to lead in extremely challenging times. And when I say “our” I refer to the fact that each of us — faculty, staff, administrators and alumni — plays a key role in creating the best-possible experience for our students.
  • Second, I have heard — and have taken to heart — the message that we must do more to foster an environment of inclusion. We want every corner of every Kent State campus to be a place where all voices are not only represented, but valued. Our students are at their best when they feel comfortable and supported. And when our students are at their best, Kent State is at its best.
  • Third, we must fully realize the enormous potential we have as ONE university with locations that span our region and our world. Kent State is a powerful, proven engine for economic growth and service in the public good. We can do so much more by embracing our unique capacity to expand ground-breaking research — research that finds new ways to share our considerable, collective resources.
  • And fourth, we must be courageous and creative as we bring to life a shared vision for our future — a vision that honors our past as it defines a new era of influence and involvement, and a vision that helps us to boldly and clearly share our remarkable story with the world.

Now allow me to take a few minutes to discuss these critical and promise-filled areas. When I talk about a “students-first” philosophy, I am confirming that we should remain true to our roots. As most of you know, those roots were planted in 1910, when Kent Normal School was created to prepare the best school teachers for Ohio. Today, Kent State remains a leader in teaching and learning. On campus and online — from certificate programs to doctoral programs — you will find faculty members with a passion for teaching, for their disciplines and for helping their students succeed.

We can use our tradition of teaching excellence and innovation as a springboard to greater success — for those we serve today and for those we awaken to the possibility of a college experience. I see Kent State as a national leader in proving once and for all that access and academic excellence are not mutually exclusive. We can already point to thousands of our students and alumni who came from humble beginnings — who once thought higher education was not an option, and who soared to unimagined success with the unbeatable combination of courage and college.

And we can certainly point to faculty and staff members who are committed to making college attainment a possibility — especially for students who are the first in their families to dare to pursue that dream. Many of them reside in and are deeply connected to the communities they serve — wonderful communities like Ashtabula, East Liverpool, Salem, Stark, Geauga, Trumbull, Tuscarawas and Kent.

So let us move forward with the conviction that we will not gauge our success by the students we exclude from our community, but by the students we invite to join us on our mutual journey to make a difference. As a very strong start, Kent State will:

  • Significantly increase the amount of funding for financial aid and scholarships. We will find courageously bold ways to help students cross the academic finish line and begin the next chapter in their lives with less debt and more hope.
  • Our stunning Center for Undergraduate Excellence, which houses our newly formed University College, is further evidence that students come first. The center gives students one-stop access to a creative blend of high-quality academic advising, career advising and life-skills mentoring.
  • Our commitment to student success extends to all students: From first-year students who choose us because of our outstanding — often one-of-kind — degree programs, to nontraditional students who choose us because of the strong support system we offer, to graduate students who choose us for the opportunity to work alongside nationally and internationally renowned faculty in areas from art to anthropology to applied linguistics. At every level, at every college and at every campus, our faculty ensures that student success begins and ends with a strong academic foundation.

At Kent State, student success means much more than academic success. It also means providing opportunities to build the self-knowledge, self-confidence and selfless spirit that lead to a good living and a good life. With that goal in mind, we will provide every student with well-defined, high-impact learning experiences. First and foremost, we will enhance our undergraduate experiential-learning requirement. This will include adding greater support for international study options and expanding and intensifying opportunities for students to participate in research from freshman year through doctoral study.

The second compass point I want to discuss is linked inextricably to student success, the success of our entire community and to the success of our wonderful-yet-complex university. Creating a more diverse and more accepting community demands our continuing, intense commitment. And so I see the activism of recent weeks — and that we have witnessed today — as understandable and important. And I admire our students for standing up to say, “I care and I want to make a difference that matters.”

For Kent State, creating a community where everyone feels welcomed, safe and respected is in part a matter of appropriate representation. Most importantly, it is a matter of enhancing a campus culture that values inclusion.

From what I have seen in the last 10 months, the Kent State community expects and aspires to be a more inclusive culture — a place where everyone and every dream matters. Where everyone is empowered to speak up, and all voices will be heard. Where respect for others is a core value. Where intellectual freedom is cherished and protected. Where it’s okay to question the status quo — and even better — to offer ideas to make things better. Where learning about yourself is as important as learning about an academic subject. And if who you are falls outside the mainstream, that’s okay, too. Because at Kent State, being your best and most authentic self is an expectation of everyone.

Our focus on fostering an inclusive and caring community will include additional scholarship support to attract students from all walks of life and life experiences — different races, ethnicities, classes, cultures, orientation and identities.

We must also enhance our efforts to attract, mentor and retain a more diverse faculty. During my six-month Listening Tour, a faculty member noted that in today’s global, multicultural society, we must be able to communicate effectively with people who look, believe and think differently than we do. How right she was in saying, “It’s important to our students, all of them, that they learn from a diverse faculty.”

To that end, we will create a central funding pool to assist departments and colleges in recruiting, retaining and building a high-quality faculty that better reflects the diversity of our global society.

If you are keeping track of where we are, research is the third compass point I want to highlight. A strong research agenda elevates every aspect of our mission. It infuses our learning environment with the thrill of discovery and insight. It sparks epic thinking. It stimulates and sustains economic development. It attracts public and private interest and support. And, as we see across our campuses, world-class research is a powerful magnet for highly creative and talented faculty and students.

University research is responsible for many of the world’s greatest innovations — from life-saving medical treatments to technologies that most of us cannot imagine living without. As many of you know, one of today’s indispensable technologies — and a multibillion-dollar, global industry — originated in a Kent State chemistry lab. The discoveries made on this campus led to the digital displays and flat screens that forever changed how we work and play.

Those scientific seeds were planted in the 1960s and they flourish today. But I am even more interested in the ideas yet to evolve — ideas we are developing right here, right now, and the ideas they will be talking about in a ceremony like this circa 2060. All of us get a chance to shape those stories.

Where will we find those new ideas? Some of the most interesting answers lie between fields we’ve already explored. It will be especially critical to enhance research that crosses disciplinary boundaries. I am talking about research like the incredibly creative collaboration among our liquid-crystal researchers and colleagues in our Fashion School and College of Podiatric Medicine. Their work could soon alert diabetics to circulation problems when they see a color change in their liquid crystal-treated socks!

We must do more to support our outstanding scholars. And we will. In the coming academic year, we will increase support for faculty research, scholarship and creative endeavors. Given the talents and creativity of our faculty — and knowing the impact enhanced support can have on seeking and securing grant funding — I am confident we can double our external funding by 2020.

For the record, this increased support will not be directed solely to high-profile areas like science and technology. We will also support scholarship and creative expression in pockets of excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences and across all of our campuses.

This brings me to the fourth and final compass point. It’s the need that was voiced most often on my Listening Tour, and that I am urged to address everywhere I go: The need to tell the Kent State story more boldly and effectively.

Ours is the story of a community that has always been eager to make a difference and willing to be different. Of course, our history makes us unique among America’s universities. As we prepare to mark the 45th anniversary of May 4, 1970, I assure you that we will honor our past as we create a shared and courageously bold vision for Kent State’s future.

Whether I am talking to Baby Boomers who lived through that turbulent time or to members of the Greatest Generation, Gen-Xers or Millennials, so many alumni share an unwavering belief in Kent State’s distinctive contributions to higher education. And as I am —and so many of you are —they are proud of how seriously, joyfully and creatively we approach the responsibility of improving the human condition.

Indeed, Kent State is already distinctive in so many ways. In fact, our efforts to define and communicate our distinctiveness with greater clarity will be limited only by our imagination.

In the coming months, we will continue to address the challenges of shaping a meaningful future. I know we will do so with a balance of caring and daring that is the heart of Kent State’s character, culture and history. And I know we will embrace our role as agents of change who advance our university — and our world — on this journey we share.

It is important work. It is exciting work. And it is work in which we can all take pride. As we take steps big and small, let us stay grounded in our support for student success; our desire to build an environment of inclusive excellence; our responsibility to contribute to the greater good of our communities and the world; and our commitment to honoring our rich history as we focus on a bold and significant future.

I started my remarks by reflecting on the journey that led me to this special place at this special time. Ten months into the greatest adventure of my life, I stand before you humble, hopeful and so happy to be part of such an extraordinary community — a community working hard to realize dreams we never before imagined and to offer a safe haven for ideas. And to not only respect those who march to different drummers, but also encourage the very creation of different drums, new music and singular songs.

At Kent State University, we are not making decisions based on fear; we are making choices to fuel our most meaningful aspirations. You have my pledge that I will be a president whose leadership reflects our great hopes, respects our unique history and always seeks the highest ground.

I will approach my work with the dedication and the passion I see in Kent State faculty and staff members; the energy and the enthusiasm of Kent State students; the loyalty and pride of Kent State alumni; and the bold confidence of every black squirrel that ever raced across Summit Street.

With my cup running over with gratitude and Kent State’s cup running over with promise, I am confident — boldly confident — that we are about to create a level of success unparalleled in our history. As we do, I am equally confident that we will make the university we love and the world we have inherited much better than we found them. That we will be inspired as we inspire others. And that working toward goals we believe in — buoyed by our unshakable Kent State spirit and the knowledge that we are in this together — we will find immeasurable meaning, lasting friendship and genuine joy.

Thank you, everyone.