Inaugural Address

April 18, 2005

Trustee Chair Galinson and members of the Board of Trustees; Chancellor Reed and members of the Chancellor’s executive staff; my fellow presidents in the CSU and other institutions of higher education in California; members of the city and county administrations; faculty, staff, colleagues, students, and alumni of California State University, Chico; and my friends and neighbors.

It is wonderful to see all of you here today, some who are visiting Chico for the first time. I hope the first-time visitors among you, in particular, will discover other nice reasons to return again to this special place. For it is that. This is an extraordinary community, defined by physical beauty, a shared sense of history and identity, and a strong commitment to civic values and virtues. Thank you for sharing this moment with me, but you also honor this University with your presence and I am very grateful for both testimonials.

When Sheldon realized that I was asking him to say a few words at my inauguration and that it was going to take place fifteen months after my arrival on the campus, he pointed out that there have been many presidencies that have lasted a lot shorter than the time between my arrival and today. I told him that, although this hasn’t been the case at Chico State , perhaps the good folks here were aware of his point and just wanted to hedge their bets on the new guy in town.

I’m glad they did. Because instead of holding forth with general platitudes and broad praise – you know the drill: noble mission, distinguished faculty, dedicated staff, loyal alumni, talented and energetic students, committed service – I can say all of that now with conviction and context.

I can acknowledge a faculty and staff whose unequivocal bottom line is student learning and success. I can praise a town/gown relationship that is seamless in its identity and mutually respectful and supportive in its character. I can celebrate a service mission that is focused on being more than a presence in the North State , but being a positive force for economic development and the improvement of the quality of life for all who live and work here.

For my experience with Chico State is now a lived experience, not just an assumed one; it is an engaged experience, not just an imagined one.

It is also an evolving experience. An inauguration signals a start, of course, but it is not an abstract moment. You start from somewhere, someplace, and the starting point provides both reference and foundation.

As most of you have known, or certainly know now, I have this thing about baseball. It is not just the game that interests me – something wonderfully balanced between skill and chance, between strategy and luck, between individual achievement and team play –

It is not even its history and rhythms of constancy and change in a society that it has mirrored for over 150 years –

But it is its metaphorical fascination with place, especially places that are safe (like bases) and that are rewarding (like home plate).

Indeed, as Bart Giamatti observed, baseball is a game, an odyssey even, that compels one to leave home and to seek ever to return to it.

It is a journey we choose to undertake, because we must in order to find reward and closure.

My journey to this place has been one of intellect and heart and values. It is on-going and unfinished. It has been informed by the kindness and love of others to me, most especially, of course, my wife, Candace, and a few Labrador retrievers, the latter who keep reminding me that I only wish I were the person who my dogs think I am. And this journey has been guided by generous mentors, two of whom are here today, Tom Ehrlich and Sheldon Hackney.

From Tom, I developed an appreciation for the right rules of conduct for the academy – reason, respect, civility, community – and the recognition that leadership is a moral act. That is, the assertion of a vision, not just the exercise of a style.

From Sheldon, though, I developed an appreciation for style, or, more accurately, a manner of leading and living predicated on humility, humanity, and humor.

I hope I have not embarrassed them too much in trying to enact these lessons.

Home, though, is more than a metaphor. It is a real place. It has physical form and an animating spirit. Like this place – this special place on the landscape of California and American higher education. This place that is now, happily and proudly and finally, my home.

We are blessed here with a harmonious relationship between our natural environment and our built environment; we are graced with a respectful relationship between the University and our host city, Chico; we are mindful of an extraordinary service responsibility to a region constituting almost 30% of the land mass of California; we are 118 years old, rooted in the history of the North State and the peoples who are our constituents and neighbors, from the Mechoopda to the Hmong; we represent opportunity to many and hope to all.

The elements of our identity and mission inform our values, as they should. But they also contain the case for our distinction.

Claiming distinction is a tricky issue, all the more so, as Ernest Boyer pointed out, by “the suffocating practice in which colleges and universities measure themselves far too frequently by external status rather than by values determined by their own distinctive mission. ”

Our distinction, I would argue, is as much in the manner of our performance as it is in the purpose of our mission. In the face of disturbing separations and divisions on campuses nationally, distressing acts of incivility and intolerance, and deepening concern that respectful discourse is an anachronism – examples of which we have experienced on our own campus and in our own neighborhoods – how can we reanimate the spirit of community?  How can we connect our work more purposefully to addressing the social and environmental challenges before us, both on and beyond the campus?

It is easy, I think, to invoke academic values as an answer to these questions. We expect our faculty to be experts in their fields and to transmit that knowledge effectively to their students. We expect our students to be qualified for admission to the University, motivated to succeed here, and committed to pursuing their studies diligently and honestly. We expect reason, rigor, civility, and courtesy to characterize our conversations and the overall spirit of academic inquiry.

We need, though, to go beyond these already high but somewhat routine expectations. We need to dare as an entire university community to define more challenging expectations and to exemplify behaviors that will enable us to fulfill our promise more actively.

We have sound guidance for such an approach. A person whom Tom has particularly admired, Eudora Welty, reminds us in a book of reminiscences about growing up in rural Mississippi that we are all capable of daring, even the most privileged and protected among us, because true daring comes from within. And one of my heroes, Abraham Lincoln, appeals to us from his inaugural in a time of deep national peril to be guided by “the better angels of our nature. ”

The best teachers, we know, not only possess subject mastery and pedagogical skill; they also demonstrate a certain moral style in the transmission of knowledge to their students. The elements of this style are kindness and compassion, decency and civility, personal integrity and intellectual honesty. And complete lack of pretentiousness. These qualities – these profoundly human qualities, these better angels of our nature – teach not with words, but through the force of personal example. They stand for the largeness of the human spirit; they generate the warmth and genuine concern that inspires trust and self-confidence in bringing teachers and students closer together; and they constitute a powerful definition of institutional quality and distinction.

Dare we choose to be this kind of place?  Dare we declare that our quality is measured in terms beyond the SATs of our students and the publication records of our faculty?  Dare we aim to ensure that our students leave us less authoritarian and more autonomous, less suspicious and more curious, less alienated and more socially mature, than they were when they first joined us?  Dare we define community values and our recognition and reward behaviors – whether that is in whom we attract to the University or how we evaluate them once they are here – predicated on service above self, civic responsibility, and high ethical standards? 

How we answer these questions will not only guide the fulfillment of the University’s mission, but also affirm the very integrity and meaning of that mission. We want to be known by what we do, how we serve our region, our state, our nation, how we exercise our social and moral responsibility, how we practice tolerance, how we inspire goodness, not just by what we say. We are very much this kind of institution already and evidence to this effect abounds. Let us dare to be even better, though, because, yes, we can be.

The best institutions build their intentional values into everyday operations and conversations. They recognize the importance of the congruence between the goals of individuals and those of the institution. And they choose a certain set of values and commitments that are clear, compelling, and connected. Distinction and high morale flow from this kind of intentionality and the satisfaction of shared expectations and engagements.

We are one of these best places. And we have other things to do to become even better.

We will demonstrate our intentions through the access we provide and, then, the success of our students; through the kind and quality of our service as the “University of the North State;” through partnerships of trust and engagement with those who count on us, for those who follow us; and through the expectations we define for ourselves and those who join us. We pursue diversity not just as an idea to embrace, but as a community to form. We celebrate a distinctive institutional culture through a keen sense of place and deep respect for our natural environment. High performance requires a foundation of high expectations. And we should soar on the clarity of our values, the strength of our message, the integrity of our promise, and the joy of our endeavor.  

When Lincoln was a young lawyer in Springfield , Illinois , he occasionally contributed book reviews to the local newspaper. One of them went like this, and it explains why he pursued a career other than literary criticism. “People who like this sort of thing,” wrote Lincoln , “will find this the sort of thing they like. ”  His writing did improve.

Well, folks, I like this sort of thing – this University, this community, the goals we define, the challenges we face, the hopes we share – and I am honored and grateful to follow in the footsteps of presidents like Glenn Kendall and Manuel Esteban to be here with you – for more than fifteen months, even.

Thank you.