Striving and Becoming

Wow … this day and all that it symbolizes is finally here.

I begin my remarks with a "wow" because that word signals to me, in both its utterance and in its pause, to reflect on the purpose of this important ceremony. I have long wanted to become a College President. But this Hiram inauguration is NOT at all about a single person achieving a position or about a single person having arrived. Rather, this ceremony is about striving and becoming as it marks the launching of a revitalized Hiram College. Moreover, from my perspective, and I hope from yours, too, this ceremony is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to come together and celebrate our collective striving and aiming to "do good for and to do right by our students." And nothing could make a new President more proud.

Hiram College is a campus full of passion, potential and promise, but a college that is far from perfect. Still, I will take doing good and striving to do right over the aims of perfection every time.

I will use this time to describe three of the things that Hiram College is striving to do today and to show how these aims enrich the College itself and the community who lives, learns and works here.

One of the first things I noticed about Hiram College is that it strives to use and celebrate its history in ways that will build and strengthen its future. Hiram College was founded in 1850 by members of the Disciples of Christ, who, as I understand it, are quite comfortable in acknowledging that there can be many interpretations of their most central texts, including the Bible. Though Disciples can and do disagree freely on how a particular passage might be interpreted, they are able to see beyond their interpretive differences and still feel united in the overall teachings and aims of the church.

I suspect that the Disciples' comfort with debate, divergent interpretations and diversity of thought helped them create and maintain what many scholars today call a "community of difference." That community of difference was then, as it is now, visible, palpable and real. Perhaps it is one of the reasons that Hiram College opened its doors to African American students and women long before many other Colleges of its day. So, while difference and diversity were not the typical foundation upon which to build a 19th century church – or a college, for that matter – they have impressively been a marker of our history and a strong and enduring part of our DNA. In valuing the uniqueness of the individual, our students, faculty and staff today strive to be their very best self while encouraging others to do the same. This striving to find and to be what makes each one of us special runs dramatically counter to the ethos of conformity that permeates many college campuses. Believe me, I know what collegiate conformity looks like, and I can tell you it is absent – and blessedly so – at Hiram College.

It appears that conformity has long been absent here since the College was first called the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. I would bet the College was then – as it is now — uniquely enriched by the eclectic individuals who come to Hiram College to learn with and about, to challenge – and to often support – the wildly divergent members who fondly call this campus "home." If Hiram can continue to be a place where folks of all kinds live and learn together, even when we disagree, it will continue to be an increasingly rare but relevant kind of learning community. Yes, our eclectic community is a wonderfully distinct and discerning part of our campus identity.

Another crucial part of our history is linked to our most famous student, James A. Garfield, who went on to assume the very post to which I am being formally installed today: Hiram College President, or "Principal," as it was called then. He went on, of course, to become yet another president, as well. As a student at Hiram, Garfield is said to have studied and examined almost any idea that came his way. His broad-based intellectual curiosity was punctuated by a love of reading, languages and oratory debate. He took every Greek and Latin class the College offered. And when he wasn't working at his janitorial job (to pay his tuition bill) or collecting a gold dollar for a special Sunday sermon, he entertained his classmates by having them ask him questions in English while he simultaneously wrote the response in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other. Later in life, Garfield is credited with being the first U.S. Presidential candidate who campaigned in multiple languages, routinely speaking German to German-Americans he encountered along the campaign trail.

So, while we don't expect our Garfield Scholars of today to be ambidextrous or to present their capstone projects in Greek, Latin or German as did their namesake, we do expect our students in general, and our Garfield Scholars, in particular, to model the zeal for learning that James A. Garfield exuded during his time at Hiram. In my observation, it is a student's ongoing appetite for learning that shapes the college environment as much — or more so — than his/her innate abilities.

The second aim upon which Hiram strives to stay focused is the liberal arts — in both a classic and contemporary sense. Hiram's fundamental essence as a liberal arts college remains fully intact today. It is true, that like most 21st century liberal arts colleges, Hiram has expanded course and major offerings to include areas outside of the traditional liberal arts. It is critical to note and to promote the fact that at Hiram College, majors in business, nursing, computer science and the like have liberal arts at their very core. Indeed, except for nursing, Hiram degrees in all of those areas (and in traditional science areas as well) are pursued and awarded as Bachelor of Arts degrees.

Though the nursing degree is a Bachelor of Science, we can be confident that the nurses we send forth into the world are not only scientifically and technically competent but that they are educated to be compassionate, thoughtful and culturally sensitive, thanks to the many requirements they fulfill via their core classes in the humanities and their interdisciplinary nursing courses. The same can be said about other health care providers that Hiram educates. Many of us in this room have become the medical advocate for aging parents or other family members. In this role, we understand just how critical a doctor's bedside manner and willingness to treat the whole person and not just the disease really is. As most of us have come to see: Medicine is both an art and a science. And if a Hiram liberal arts education can prepare all types of emerging health professionals not only to formulate such an understanding of medicine but, to practice and model it as part of their calling, then this too, will be a point of pride that distinguishes Hiram from its peer and aspirant group.

This growing awareness of medicine as an art and science was well expressed by a recent Hiram alumna who was interviewing for a prestigious fellowship. She was musing aloud during our conversation as she recalled what gave her the most pause as a "pre-med" undergraduate. She said something like this:

  1. I agonized about my competency in being able to make an accurate medical diagnosis. Now I realize, that that part of a doctor's work —though technically challenging — would probably be the easier piece to master. I have come to realize that the things that would be most challenging for me (as a doctor) include: being to be able to share and explain a bad diagnosis with a sick patient, keeping my patients motivated to tackle difficult next steps, empowering them to assume appropriate responsibility for their own care and to giving myself permission to be compassionate and vulnerable so my patients can see that even an intense person like me has a heart and a soul.

Is it not the case that this aspiring health care provider is exactly the kind we are all striving to find?

Lest you think that it is only the nursing and the biomedical humanities programs that have liberal arts at their very core, consider the instructive statement made by one of our accountancy professors at a community college open house for prospective majors.

  1. If you are majoring in accountancy in an attempt to avoid or even lessen an emphasis on oral and written communication skills, then Hiram College is the wrong place to pursue this degree. You simply cannot be an effective accountant if you are not an articulate speaker and a clear and concise writer. And this program teaches you to be all of these.

Let us toast the comments and sentiments of these Hiram faculty, students, and alumni later on today!

I am proud that Hiram has remained impressively committed to its history as a liberal arts college. The contemporary "flavor" of liberal arts as being conceptualized and practiced here is also personally and professionally compelling for me. I imagine that I was the only candidate for this job who has both an interdisciplinary master's degree and an interdisciplinary Ph.D. I remember that when Dean Haak introduced me at the candidate's open forum he said that I should get extra credit for being able to say "interdisciplinarity" without a pause or a stumble.

After all, by the time most students reach their graduate studies, they become specialists who focus on a narrow topic and study it through a particular disciplinary lens. I went the "other way," however, and fixated on the broadest and most fundamental educational questions: What does it mean to "learn"? How does the perception of one's own identity and the identity of others affect the communal learning process? How can teaching and learning serve, improve and sustain the greater community? Posing questions like these made it immediately apparent that I would need to draw from multiple disciplines to formulate any viable response. And so I did.

Our Centers of Distinction and our interdisciplinary requirements prompt our own undergraduate students to ask and answer similarly important questions. I am excited and comforted to know that in both the asking and the answering of such questions, that our students will pull from various disciplines and various learning experiences, including those that have occurred in and beyond the classroom.

And that brings me to the third thing that Hiram is striving to do especially well. Hiram is striving to have students not only integrate academic perspectives that span the disciplines, but to integrate classroom activities with out-of-classroom learning experiences as well.

This is the very integration that characterizes our new initiative, Hiram Connect, a program that connects classroom learning to experiential opportunities such as internships, study-away and guided research. Hiram Connect formalizes, institutionalizes and bolsters Hiram's long-time tradition of ensuring that learning occurs on and sometimes far beyond the campus. As part of this initiative students will engage in a structured reflection that requires them to answer five important questions:

  1. How has this experience helped you better understand key concepts related to your major? (disciplinary)
  2. Is there anything about this experience that raises questions that classes in your major cannot help you answer? (interdisciplinary)
  3. How has this experience helped you think about the job you aspire to hold and the ultimate vocation or calling you hope to pursue? (career and vocation exploration and differentiation)
  4. How has this experience helped you ponder the person you are now and the one you want to become? Sub questions: Has it prompted you to change a previously held idea? Enhance or diminish a value you hold dear? Reduce a stereotype you thought had credibility? (identity formation)
  5. How has this experience helped you to contribute to the world around you? (service or advocacy)

On the surface, questions that require students to connect various types of experiences and perspectives may seem relatively simple and straightforward. But after 30 years in higher education, I can assure you that they are not.

Despite the rhetoric of "seamless" learning, most students live a very fragmented life. For the teachers and professors in the room, how many times have you reminded students that it is not only "OK," but desirable to draw from material they have learned in another course, at another time? How many times have you needed to overtly give your students permission to draw from the insights of their peers and not just from their instructors when formulating arguments or analysis? How many times have you needed to encourage them to draw the personal experiences gained from extracurricular activities, service projects and the like?

I have worked at eight excellent colleges and universities but none of them have expected students to routinely step back, reflect and explicitly integrate classroom and out-of-classroom experiences. If Hiram can truly promote this type of deep and widespread reflection — this type of wonder and ponder — as another part of its ethos, then it will differentiate itself in this way, as well, from most other institutions of higher learning, including some of the country's very best liberal arts colleges.

Hiram College, its new president, its Board of Trustee, and the faculty and staff in this room have strived over the last eight months to do many things in ways that have not been done before. We have had numerous quick successes and several protracted uncertainties. Though the former have given us immediate satisfaction, the latter have kept us pulling together in ways that few colleges can. I urge us to keep going in that same spirit. We must strive to continue creating a culture that is built on trust, integrity and commitment — the very things that no endowment and no budget no matter how big can build alone. That job is never done. Re-dedicating ourselves to that culture and that ethos will shape who we are today and who we will be in the days ahead.

Let us join together to renew our commitment to the future of Hiram College. We will be a college that models our commitment to diversity of thought and actions in all of their forms. We will be a college that remains true to our liberal arts core. And, we will be a college that not only connects the in class and out-of-class activities but one that expects students to reflect on the points of intersection and the areas of divergence that emerge when theory and practice come together in the real world. I proudly accept the responsibility to lead us as we work together to accomplish those goals.

I want thank all of you for coming to Hiram College today as I know a Friday afternoon commitment is a hard one to make. And I do want to extend a very special and personal thanks to many friends and family members who are here today.

First, I want to acknowledge my parents: Anthony and Elisa Varlotta. It was without a doubt their decades-long sacrifices, their incredibly high expectations and their complete unwillingness to accept any excuse for a job poorly done, that have helped me get to where I am today. My three brothers, their wives and my ten nieces and nephews are here, along with some of our aunts, an uncle and a few cousins. There is a lot of nostalgia in having so many family members come together as part of a special day.

I am also touched that I have friends from almost every phase of my life here. I have friends and hall-mates from my undergraduate years at Notre Dame, I have colleagues from the various institutions I have called home, including a couple who have traveled all the way from Sacramento State.

And as many of you know, Eric is in Ohio this week and that makes me very happy. I cannot tell you how lucky I am to have found a true partner: one who not only supports me at the level that he does, but one who challenges me — in no uncertain way — to be my best self. I am a better person because of his support and his challenge.

Let us now go and celebrate the joys of today. Let's introduce ourselves to new people and enjoy the company of longtime friends at the reception that follows.

Once again, Thank you all for coming.

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