While Albion College is admired for its national reputation, its importance to the Midwest was front and center for the inauguration of Mauri Ditzler as the College’s 16th president on Friday, September 12.
Several hundred students cheered as the crowds gathered at the newly redeveloped west end of Albion’s quadrangle for a ceremony that demonstrated Ditzler’s focus on placing Albion as an integral partner with the surrounding community and region. Involving seven student readers in his own remarks, Ditzler outlined a vision of applying the College’s resources, especially its faculty and students, to addressing concerns and opportunities unique to the region.
Ditzler and Albion College Board of Trustees Chair Don Sheets, ’82, also used the ceremony to disclose two major gifts to the College. Ditzler announced a first-ever grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, $100,000 that will further emphasize the humanities in liberal arts education. Sheets, along with his wife, Angela Scott Sheets, '82, announced their $1 million personal gift to underwrite scholarships for future students.
Guest speaker Richard Longworth, senior fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, noted that while president of Monmouth College in Illinois, Ditzler encouraged the development of Midwest–focused courses, a topic that is almost unexplored by institutions throughout the Midwest.
As the Midwest loses its strong identity with heavy industry and agriculture, Longworth argued that “Leadership can and should come from the liberal arts,” through sociologists, historians, and economists. Also, “over the past century, Southern writers defined the trauma of that region for the people who lived within it,” he noted. “It seems to me that the proper study of our writers and poets, our artists and dramatists, is the very human drama being played out right now.”
Speaker John Churchill, secretary for the national Phi Beta Kappa Society, acknowledged concerns about college as career preparation. “Training for a remunerative career is very important ... But it isn't just the first job that counts,” he said. “There is citizenship, civic life, family life, and the fullness of human experience.” The liberal arts, he noted, “engage students in a variety of subject matters, disciplines, and different points of view. You can be trained to cope with the predictable. Liberal arts is preparation to flourish with the unpredictable.”
Ditzler stated his belief that much of the Midwest’s historical strength was due to the large number of colleges established throughout the region in the 19th century. In accordance, he had students read two Bible texts that were likely influential to Albion’s founders, along with writings from a chemist and three notable Midwesterners, novelist Kurt Vonnegut, union activist Eugene Debs, and journalist Ernie Pyle.
Ditzler first noted that one core strength of the liberal arts is its core simplicity. Chemists, he noted, don’t memorize thousands of compounds and reactions; rather, they “learn a few basic principles instead and then learn how to think,” said the former chemistry professor. “Understand the important principles, develop skill at applying them, and you will do remarkable things.”
Secondly, he noted that “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 …. and how to change the world.” This idea he said, “sounds like the marching orders Albion has given graduates for generations.”
Ditzler reserved the bulk of his remarks to share his discovery that “Albion—the College and the Town—is filled with people who give us reason to hope.” He went on to name individuals who have demonstrated passion on behalf of the College, Albion schools and children, city government, and College-community relations.
“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,” Ditzler praised. “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.”