Inaugural Address: ‘Unless a College’

President Mauri A. DitzlerPresident Mauri A. Ditzler

What a remarkable view from here, atop the steps of Kresge Gymnasium. Behind me is one of the oldest competition gyms in the NCAA. In front of me is one of this country's finest colleges. And in between are so many dear friends. Some of us go back four or five decades, others only a few weeks. Thank you for joining me on this day that we celebrate the storied past and bright future of Albion College and its host community.

Joining a new college is an exhilarating experience. Once again, I have been energized by discovering a community of remarkably dedicated individuals who have devoted their lives to changing the world by instilling idealism and by sharing the liberal arts.

Somewhere in this great land, there may be another community with more pent-up enthusiasm and a greater can-do attitude. But, if so, they will need a president on steroids. You folks are fired up, and I am having the time of my life trying to keep up!

The New President's Playbook calls for months of meetings and a year of planning. The meetings have been inspiring, and your message is clear: less talk and more action. I have heard you say, "Plan if you must, but we have important work to do. Let's get things done."

A fragment of poetry kept coming to mind as you described your commitment to this college. That fragment, three lines near the end of one of Robert Frost's lesser known works, was the obvious text for my inaugural address. And, the final phrase of the fragment—unless a college—was destined to be my title.

I was pleased to be able to present the title to our associate vice president for communications. I was over a month ahead of my deadline (which was today) and only four months past hers. The response wasn't what I expected. Sorry, she said, but you will need to find another—that title is already taken.

As it turns out, Sarah Briggs has a good memory; "Unless a College" was the title and theme of President Vulgamore's inauguration speech in 1983.

What Sarah, who was apparently never an analytical chemist, saw as repetition, I saw as a reproducible experiment. In fact, I am delighted that two presidents, from very different backgrounds, serving three decades apart, came to the same conclusion about the Albion community.

I'm going to ask student Mariah Phelps to assist me by reading this bit of Frost's poetry.

Mariah:

In 1932, Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled "Build Soil." He used it as a vehicle for attacking social policy, for praising farmers who enrich their soil by plowing under a cover crop, for criticizing writers who don't plow under enough drafts before publishing, and then, finally, to provide the inspiration for two separate inaugural speeches at Albion College.

Don't join too many gangs. Join few if any,
Join the United States and join the family—
But not much in between unless a college.

Frost didn't say join the United States, a family, and a college. With the qualifier "unless" he seems to imply that from time to time there might come along a college that deserves allegiance as much as does a family or a country. Frost spent some time at Dartmouth and Harvard but didn't stay long enough at either to graduate; apparently his standards for a college to be joined were pretty high.

It was this concept of joining a college that came to mind in my initial meetings with faculty and staff who have spent an entire career at Albion. They didn't describe a place they worked; it was clear that for them Albion College was far more than a job; it was a life-defining experience; it was a place where they fulfilled their calling. It was something they had joined and, even in retirement, couldn't leave any more than they could leave their family or their country.

Every one of us has had someone tell us that we are special. Most of us are lucky enough to have heard those loving words several times. Perhaps it was a grandmother or a Little League coach or a 4-H leader or a Sunday school teacher or a seventh-grade math teacher or a college adviser. If that person was wise, he or she also reminded us that with our special gifts came special responsibility.

Collectively, this encouragement and admonition makes up our calling. When we are able to make sense of it all, we have discerned a vocation. Albion College has always been a great place for students to discern a vocation. And, for those whose vocation includes inspiring a next generation to change the world for the better, Albion is a great place to spend four years discerning a vocation, and it can also be a great place to spend a lifetime pursuing that vocation.

An institution that allows one to find productive work and to carry it out in a manner that is consistent with a call to idealism is one of those gangs of which Robert Frost would approve.

Albion doesn't claim to be the only place that empowers its graduates and supports faculty and staff as they pursue grand dreams. But, we are among a group of colleges that have done it remarkably well. The liberal arts colleges of the nineteenth-century frontier crafted an educational philosophy that is both unique and effective. When I need a bit of encouragement I enter the phrase "distinctively American" into the Google search engine. I am inspired every time I see the first hit: Google "believes" that private, residential, liberal arts colleges are even more American than apple pie or the New York Yankees. I am convinced that we can go one step further and claim to provide an America with a competitive advantage. I believe the heavy concentration of liberal arts colleges in the heartland contributed to the economy and quality of life enjoyed by the Midwest throughout much of the twentieth century.

Now, when the world needs graduates of our distinctive colleges more than ever, and when the Midwest is struggling to regain its footing, our sector is under attack. Our graduates are held in high esteem since their accomplishments can't be denied. But our counterintuitive methods are discounted, and our handcrafted approach is seen as a luxury.

We can, we will, and we must withstand the skepticism and criticisms of those who have not experienced and do not understand the deceptive simplicity of the foundational principles that regularly produce remarkable graduates. We will thrive as long as our graduates continue to succeed and as long as those of us who are fortunate enough to have experienced a residential, liberal arts education maintain the faith.

I have a series of favorite texts that I read when I need to bolster my belief in these distinctively American colleges. Faith does, after all, need to be nourished from time to time. I have asked students to read for you six texts that are meaningful for me. Perhaps you will add one or two of these to your list of personal favorites.

The six students will read as three separate pairs; the passages for each pair are linked&emdash;at least in my mind. There are additional linkages between the pairs. I like two of these passages because I imagine that they played on the minds of our founders as they were creating this College. Three of the readings are from folks who grew up in my neighborhood. And, for the general good of the order, one brings a bit of thermodynamics into our ceremony.

Mikal McKoy and Abby Radwick will share wisdom from two of the great storytellers of all time. Jesus and Kurt Vonnegut would be on nearly everyone's top ten list of "Made Effective Use of Parables." In my opinion, they also shared an understanding of the most important principle of a liberal arts education.

Mikal:

Our founders were almost certainly familiar with the twenty-second chapter of Matthew. There is much good advice in the five verses I will read, but listen with particular care to the final thought; it could easily serve as the inspiration for creating a liberal arts college.

36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
37 He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.'
38 This is the greatest and first commandment.
39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'
40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

Abby:

Any speech by President Ditzler that is longer than a few minutes—and that would be just about every speech he has ever given—will likely include at least one thought from Kurt Vonnegut. Today's speech is no exception. In his essay entitled A Man without a Country, Vonnegut reminded us that all stories have the same, easily acquired building blocks; the challenge is understanding how to use them. In a statement that is as simple as it is profound, Vonnegut reminds us that…

A book is an arrangement of twenty-six phonetic symbols, ten numerals, and about eight punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo.

I shared these passages with one of my new friends at Albion, and his reaction was, "Jesus would have made a good organic chemistry professor at Albion College."

On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Doesn't that sound a bit like a professor saying "these few rules will allow you to determine the name of thousands of compounds or predict the outcome of tens of thousands of reactions." Don't try to memorize all ten thousand; learn a few basic principles instead and then learn how to think. Understand the important principles, develop skills at applying them, and you will do remarkable things.

One of the things I appreciate about Vonnegut is his lack of subtlety. No mysterious symbolism. He reminds us that everything we need in order to tell a great story—and by extension motivate and move people—was learned in first grade. As soon as we know the alphabet and the numerals, everything else is learning how to apply these simple tools.

Perhaps one of the reasons the uninitiated are skeptical when they hear about a liberal arts education is the deceptive simplicity of what we do. Think, don't memorize—deceptively simple and, at times, oh so hard to implement.

Our second set of readers, Kevin Claucherty and Madeline Drury, will remind us that audacious dreams are a logical outcome of what we do. Our graduates are few in numbers so we must count on each of them to do remarkable things. Our founders expected Albion to change the world, and they knew just how it would happen.

The frontier version of liberal arts differed from earlier forms in its intended audience. Rather than being an education for those who were already liberated, it was designed to liberate. This egalitarian twist should inspire our work on behalf of Albion College today, just as it did for our founders.

Kevin:

Mikal's reading from Matthew suggested that two commandments could substitute for all of the law and the prophets. Of course, that doesn't mean we won't find inspiration in reading the advice of Isaiah or Joel or Elijah or Amos. Our founders were Methodist, so they would have embraced the sentiment in the well-known oration from the fifth chapter of the Book of Amos.

23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Madeline:

Just a few minutes ago Abby read a passage from Kurt Vonnegut that, at least to President Ditzler, complemented an insight taken from the Gospel of Matthew. I will stay with this pattern of tying a bit of Hoosier wisdom to an idea from the Bible. Eugene Debs worked and agitated in Terre Haute, Indiana, only a few miles from Mauri Ditzler's childhood home. In 1918, while on trial for having spoken against World War I, Debs' Statement to the Court could have been inspired by Amos.

Years ago, I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

When we do our work well, our graduates are adept at pulling together information from a range of disciplines. This helps them to see the big picture. Because they see the big picture they can see how to change the world.

The prophet Amos criticized those who let the trees block their vision of the forest. Don't just sing and talk about justice, he argued. Set people free.

Had Madeline had time to read the remainder of Debs' Statement to the Court, we would have heard his argument for focusing on the big problems. He noted that America was blessed with bountiful resources, that creative people were building remarkable machines, and finally that there were many hard workers anxious to use those machines. But, despite this situation many still lived in poverty. He wasn't big on tweaking the system. Like Amos, he advocated a paradigm shift.

Dream big and plan to change the world in a way that most will find revolutionary. That sounds like the marching orders Albion has given graduates for generations.

Our final two readings, by Marina Baker and Zach Kribs, provide a sobering reminder that the tasks ahead are daunting. One could listen and be discouraged. Or, one could listen and realize that people can make a difference. Our handcrafted approach to education will thrive because of the cumulative impact of those who face the challenges of the day and refuse to give up.

Marina:

Chemists like our president turn to the second law of thermodynamics when they want to predict the future. The second law tells us that spontaneous processes are accompanied by an increase in entropy. In other words, things are going to grow increasingly disordered. At the end of a lengthy explanation of the second law, the chemist and author Peter Atkins concludes:

We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.

Yet, when we look around and see beauty, when we look within and experience consciousness, and when we participate in the delights of life, we know in our hearts that the heart of the Universe is richer by far.

Zach:

My reading is from the opening paragraph of Ernie Pyle's Home Country. Pyle was an itinerant journalist from a small town "just up the road" from Mauri Ditzler's childhood home. For many, Pyle's imagery will be preferable to the authoritative scientific statements read by Marina. But even in Pyle's poetic language, the sentiments reflect some of the pessimism of the second law. I will defer to President Ditzler to provide an optimistic twist similar to the one that ended Marina's reading.

To me, the summer wind in the Midwest is one of the most melancholy things in all life. It comes from so far away and blows so gently and yet so relentlessly; it rustles the leaves and the branches of the maple trees in a sort of symphony of sadness, and it doesn't pass on and leave them still. It just keeps coming, like the infinite flow of Old Man River. You could—and you do—wear out your lifetime on the dusty plains with that wind of futility blowing in your face. And when you are worn out and gone, the wind—still saying nothing, still so gentle and sad and timeless—is still blowing across the prairies, and will blow in the faces of the little men who follow you, forever.

Indeed, there are lots of reasons to be discouraged. The second law suggests that our long-term prospects are hopeless. Reflections on how small we are, and how large and eternal the problems, are certainly reason to be as melancholy as the Midwestern wind.

But, if Zach had read another 300 pages of Ernie Pyle's recollections we would have learned that in every small town where Pyle stopped to write there were interesting, easily overlooked people who provide cause for optimism. And in every foxhole of World War II where he chronicled the actions of the front-line soldiers, there were unsung heroes whose actions gave his readers cause for hope.

And, I have discovered the same thing in Albion. Albion—the College and the Town—is filled with people who give us reason to hope. Let me close my remarks by sharing the names of just a few of the many Albion heroes whom I have met in only two months.

Professor Andy French and Mayor Joe Domingo were political rivals in the past election. Rather than continuing the battle after the election, they are working shoulder-to-shoulder to create a program that will make Albion College accessible to the young people who attend our public schools.

School superintendents Jerri-Lynn Williams-Harper from Albion and Randy Davis from Marshall created a smooth and productive transition for Albion's young men and women when our high school needed a partner. When others worried about the differences between the students of our towns, these two heroes focused on the students' common desire to learn.

Professor Jocelyn McWhirter had a vision for a Center for Teaching and Learning on campus. She didn't take no for an answer even when there was no money in the budget. So, thanks to her shoestring and her can-do attitude, our students and faculty are better at their craft.

Harry Bonner has repurposed negotiating skills he learned many years ago as a union steward in the local Corning factory. Now, we all benefit from his ever-present role creating consensus and getting things done for our community. Harry, I am lucky to have the counsel of one of Albion's elder statesmen.

Although retired, Professor Doug Goering continues to wear out the roads between Flint and Albion as he cheers for the Brits, supports his former colleagues, and inspires presidents in a style that is as calming as it is effective.

Elizabeth Schultheiss raises money and spirits for local causes far beyond what anyone can imagine. She continues to be an important player in helping us believe that we will soon enjoy a bustling downtown district.

Dr. James Curtis came to Albion over 90 years ago. He rode the train north as a baby, following his father who was in the first wave of southern sharecroppers to come north for a job at Albion Malleable Iron. He was educated during an era when our public schools were segregated, and he attended Albion College and then the University of Michigan Medical School as the only African American in his class. After a long and distinguished career on the faculty at a very prestigious medical school he returned to his hometown. His eighth and now ninth decades have been devoted to building social support systems for some of our most vulnerable citizens. The biography that accompanies the description of the Research Center at the University of Michigan named for Dr. Curtis describes his life as a microcosm of America. That is certainly appropriate because, with all of its heroes and opportunities, with all of its blessings and challenges, Albion is America.

We are blessed to be hosted by a city that refused to fold when the industry that drove the local economy disappeared. When so many other cities might have given up, Albion held the faith. After all, they had to nurture a distinctively American college. And because of the people on our campus and in our community, and because we have the power of the liberal arts at our disposal, we expect nothing less than a bright future for Albion College; Albion, Michigan; and all of America.