A Strong Mark for Good Upon Our Time

Presented by Thomas V. Chema, Juris Doctor
21st President of Hiram College
September 23, 2004


Thank you, Dick. It is an odd twist of fate that not only put Dick Celeste and me on parallel paths, taking us from Cleveland careers to public service to college presidencies, but also put us at institutions with linked histories. Dick's predecessor at Colorado College was the daughter of one of Hiram's most successful former presidents, Elmer Jagow, and the Colorado curriculum is an interesting variation on the single course study plan first developed by Hiram faculty in the 1930s.   It seems especially right, then, to have my long-time friend on the podium with me-- and right for Hiram College to reconnect with a sister institution that shares our historic commitment to liberal arts education. I am deeply honored, Dick, that you made the trip home to Ohio to share this day with me and with the Hiram College community.

Because I believe that the inauguration of a new president reflects an institution's ethos, it was important to me that we develop a program of activities surrounding today's ceremony that would unite us as a community and mirror Hiram's value-based curriculum. That we succeeded so well is the result of months of hard work and planning by a group of faculty, staff, students, trustees and friends on the Inauguration Committee.

Their efforts led to the inaugural theme "Civic Engagement and Social Conscience." The word "conscience" means "reason, fairness, truth -- the internal recognition of right and wrong as regards one's actions and motives." It is a good word for a College whose mission is to develop intellectually alive, socially responsible, ethical citizens.

The Inauguration Committee organized a series of wonderful activities around the theme. I am proud to tell you that yesterday the College shut down for a day so that employees could engage with students in community service projects across a nine county area in honor of the Inauguration. I could not have asked for a more heartening demonstration of what this College is about, or for a more inspiring gesture as I formally begin my presidency at Hiram College. To the many hundreds of you who participated in this extraordinary day, my heartfelt appreciation.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to the family that has encouraged and supported me at every turn over the long years that brought me to this day. As I look back, I see so clearly the ways their influence has led me to this, the most meaningful step in a career that has spanned nearly 34 years. Though I was the first in my family to go to college, my mother especially was passionate about education, pushing my brothers and sister and me to look to the world beyond East Liverpool, Ohio. As we progressed through college, she gained her own degree by osmosis, constantly questioning us about our studies, turning us into teachers, and soaking up every ounce of knowledge we could impart. My mother died in 2002, but I know I would not be standing before you today were it not for her tenacious advocacy for education and her insatiable quest for knowledge.

My dad retired after 34 years of making steel in the blast furnaces of Weirton Steel Corporation. A veteran of World War II who was at the Battle of the Bulge, he is largely responsible, I think, for both my work ethic and for my understanding that each of us in this country has an obligation to give back. I also inherited his passion for sports – and especially sports at The University of Notre Dame. By the time I was ready to graduate from high school, it was a foregone conclusion that I'd go to Notre Dame. It was, in fact, the only school to which I applied -- and of course it turned out to be a singular decision not because of the sports (though I have to say I enjoyed those winning seasons!), but because of the stellar education that prepared me for Harvard Law School and what ultimately has been a remarkably varied and satisfying career.

My own family -- Barbara and our children, Christine and Stephen -- has been a source of joy and inspiration and a wellspring of support over the years as I left the "perqs" of my law practice from time to time in order to answer a call to public service. Not many families would understand and support that need to make a difference, so I feel especially blessed in this regard.

Let me introduce them to you now, and ask you to welcome them -- as you have so warmly welcomed me -- into the Hiram College family.

My father, Stephen T. Chema. I also want you to meet our long-time family friend, Bob Curran, who brought my dad from East Liverpool to be with me today.

My brother, Richard, whose daughter, Carrie is soon to be a new student at Hiram College, I hope.

Barbara, and our children: Christine Beall -- the mother of the world's two most perfect grandchildren, if I do say so myself -- and Stephen, now a law student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Finally, to my fellow presidents in the Northeast Ohio Council of Higher Education, my neighbors in Hiram Village, Hiram College trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends, special guests, and most especially, to Hiram College students, thank you for sharing this day, which marks a new chapter in my life and in the life of this distinguished institution.


I come to the presidency of Hiram College by a non-traditional path, but I want to tell you that nothing has ever felt so right to me. I understand the educational journeys of Hiram College students, many of whom, like me, are the first in their families to go to college. And the history of this institution resonates with me on a deeply personal level.

As a student in the era of President John F. Kennedy, I was inspired by his challenge to Americans to seek ways to serve our country, so I pursued a career in law in order to gain the tools to make a difference. I believed then and I believe now that at their best, attorneys should be more than advocates; they should be society's problem solvers.

Is it any wonder then, that I am drawn to Hiram College -- an institution that was founded for the very purpose of preparing young people for lives of service? The Disciples in the Christian Church that founded Hiram knew that a young nation would need broadly educated citizens, able to think critically and bring their education to bear on a whole host of political, social and moral issues as the country pushed west.

James A. Garfield, first a student here, then a teacher and head of the school, and ultimately the President of the United States, spoke enthusiastically about the kind of liberal arts education offered at the fledgling institution:

"The old race of leaders and lights, religious, social and political, are fast fossilizing and becoming extinct," he wrote. "The era is dawning when a broad and unsectarian mind shall be more influential than ever before, and I do believe we could make a strong mark for good upon our time."

Unlike many church related institutions, Hiram, from its inception in 1850, opened its doors to young men and women of various faiths, different social and economic backgrounds, and different races. A member of the first faculty, Norman Dunshee, stressed that education should be available to everyone, when he wrote that "the fountain of knowledge should be open to all -- to male and female -- and freely dispense its blessings, irrespective of caste or condition."

And in 1867, when the Eclectic Institute became Hiram College, a faculty member wrote that "the spirit of the Eclectic has been free, tolerant, large-minded.  Here we have had room."

The open and liberating spirit at Hiram included a compassionate commitment to the well being of others. In his own inaugural address in 1908, President Miner Lee Bates said, "the distinctive mission of Hiram College is to train and inspire young men and women for altruistic service."

That the ethos of the institution in those early years made an impact on its students is evidenced by the fact that by the beginning of the 20th century, the College had produced not only a considerable number who went on to become teachers, ministers, doctors -- and yes, even lawyers -- but also a President of the United States, a president of the National Education Association, a governor of Pennsylvania, several college presidents, and a number of legislators.

What a rich legacy we at Hiram College have inherited! As president, I feel a deep sense of obligation to be true to the spirit that first breathed life into this remarkable institution. But after 15 months on the job, I am more mindful than ever of an observation made by a presidential colleague: it is in the office of the president where institutional history and tradition collide head-on with the forces of change. Some of these forces are external; we all recognize them:  economic stress; globalization; the explosive growth of technology both as a conduit for information as well as a source of new knowledge itself. Some are internal: the push for new equipment and facilities to create the learning environment we want for our students, for example, or more fundamentally, the march of time that will cause more than 40% of Hiram's current faculty members to reach retirement age in the next 5-10 years.

One thing of which we can be sure in this 21st century: change is inevitable and unrelenting. Our struggle will be to manage it in a way that maintains our character and positions us to be a stronger and even more viable institution in the future. I have no doubt that together we can do that; indeed, the stakes are too high for us to fail. A liberal arts education that teaches students to care deeply, to act fairly, to think critically, to analyze problems from multiple perspectives, to become socially responsible, ethical citizens of the world, has never been more important than it is today. That brings me back to James Garfield's exhortation to "make a strong mark for good upon our time" and it brings me back, as well, to civic engagement and social conscience. I want to spend a few minutes talking about what that means for Hiram College, particularly against the backdrop of what is arguably one of the most important election years in modern history, regardless of one's political persuasion.

Liberal Arts Education is More Relevant than Ever

How, one might ask, can Hiram College be expected to make "that strong mark for good?" We are, after all, a college of only 1200 students and 12,000 living alumni. I would remind skeptics of these words from the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.

Hiram students are particularly adept at bettering their communities through volunteerism, yesterday's Day of Service being only the latest example of the abiding commitment to others that is rooted in our history and in our curriculum. Whether we look to the altruistic fervor of the early Disciples, to the initiatives of Hiram students who founded Cleveland's Hiram House Camp in the late 1800s and the successive generations of Hiram students who have helped maintain the Camp ever since, or to the strong Hiram involvement in Habitat for Humanity, or to the thousands of hours per year that Hiram College students typically devote to volunteer activities, it is clear that this community effects powerful change. And those volunteer activities continue after graduation. Witness Alumni Volunteer Day. This Saturday, Hiram alumni will join with community volunteers at 9 different sites in 4 states to complete much needed community service projects in those areas.

I would suggest to you, however, that as laudable as these efforts are, they are not enough. I believe our liberally educated students need to bring their intellect to bear as engaged citizens on the great issues of the day. One important way to do that is at the polls, for the political arena is where many of society's most critical questions are being debated and answered.

In a world as complex as ours, the answers to a whole range of these critical questions -- from the origins of the universe to the sustainability of the environment to the end of life -- need input from men and women who understand the scientific method, from women and men who can develop a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, analyze the test's outcome, and then begin the process again if the results are inconclusive. However, we also must heed the advice of Hiram alumnus Dr. Mark Spong, as spoken last month at the dedication of the Edward J. Smerek Chair in Mathematics, the Sciences and Technology. Dr. Spong, who is an internationally acclaimed expert in the field of robotics and a graduate of the class of 1975, cautioned students that "mathematics and science are too important to be left to the mathematicians and scientists."

To the Hiram students here today, I fervently hope that you will prepare yourselves during your four years at this institution to be the ones answering the critical questions facing our society. Immerse yourselves in the study of the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, the natural sciences, with a view toward becoming informed and engaged citizens of the world. It is not only your chance to make a difference, but your obligation to do so.

Malcolm Forbes once said that the purpose of education was "to turn an empty mind into an open one" -- and while I think the first part of that comment is a bit flip, I think his point is a good one. An educated person is one who welcomes many perspectives. A responsible citizen is one who puts that education to use in the broadest possible way for the betterment of society.

In his excellent book, Running on Empty, which discusses the impact of our staggering U.S. deficit, Peter Peterson, who was Secretary of Commerce in the Nixon Administration, challenges today's youth with these words:

You must find your voice. You must become a vital part of the political action. That means becoming active in your political party. Citizenship means looking out for one's neighbors and giving a hand to those less fortunate. But it also means understanding the big issues of one's time, seeing past the hype and spin, and working together to hold political leaders accountable. Your time is coming, and when it does, your generation, like every generation, will get the government it deserves. If it is distracted by pseudo-issues and gridlocked by special interests, it will be because too few of you paid attention and made your voices heard.

So how do you develop that voice of reason? Consider just some of the opportunities for growth that you as Hiram College students have before you, whether you are pursuing your education in Hiram's outstanding Weekend College or through the traditional academic program:

You might study with Communication professor Linda Rea in Cuba, Guatemala, or Nicaragua; with economist Ugur Aker in Turkey; with ethicist Ken Alpern or religious studies professor Kerry Skora in Bhutan; with botanist Matt Hils in Costa Rica; psychologist Gwen Fischer in Tanzania; art historian Lisa Safford in Japan; communication scholar Mary Ann Brockett and management professor Gail Ambuske in China, professor of economics Craig Moser in Russia. If you partake of any of these rich international studies offerings, you will experience first hand the particular regional economic and political stresses; the different cultural norms, customs and arts; and the different standards of living; the different ways of seeing the world. You will grow to appreciate and respect difference. Having had such experiences, do you think you will ever be able to ignore debates on such topics as foreign policy, international aid, immigration legislation, or world hunger?

Or consider some of the interdisciplinary programs on campus. Biomedical Humanities majors not only study stem cells, gene splicing, and Alzheimer's disease but also work in nursing homes, battered women's shelters, and inner city clinics.  How might those studies inform your vote when you are faced with allocating resources for medical research or health care delivery?

Environmental studies students not only get their science, economics, and philosophy on campus but do off campus internships ranging from wildlife rehabilitation to public policy work. Having immersed yourself in such studies, what contributions can you make to the critical debates about solutions to global warming, acid rain, overpopulation?

Traditional majors also engage students in service applications of their learning. Many psychology majors have experience working with severely handicapped children or incapacitated older people. Religious Studies majors learn from the diverse religious communities in our area, including Amish, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, and the several forms of Christianity and Judaism. History students take regular study tours abroad or to such sites as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Political Science students debate solutions to complex problems with students from around the country and around the world in model United Nations sessions, and also participate in Washington area civic programs. In fact, two Hiram political science majors are currently doing internships in the Capital -- one in the White House and one in the U.S. Congress.

One thread weaving through all of these programs is ethics. As you pursue your Hiram educations, you will not only explore ethics issues in the classroom, but also in campus-wide programs, such as last week's informal teach-ins on "Morality and Law." Sixteen faculty members led discussions with hundreds of students on such subjects as "Patenting Life and its Processes," "Religion and Presidential Campaign 2004," and "Cuba: Oppression or Justice?"

If as students you pursue your Hiram education to the fullest, you will become actively involved in service to others and committed to the betterment of the world in which you live. I challenge you to carry that commitment and energy into the public sector. Use your Hiram education to raise the level of public debate, whether the issue be local zoning, regional environmental use, national health care, or international trade. Get involved in government and other public programs. Expect and push your political representatives to make wise, informed decisions. Help educate others about issues through your own writing and action. And vote!

I was surprised to learn that of 233 seniors in last year's graduating class, not one expressed an interest in government service. I hope that will change, because I believe that the students we have at Hiram College are precisely the citizens we want to have engaged in writing and implementing the policies of this great nation. As educators, we can facilitate that process.

Brian O'Connell, a professor of public service at Tufts University, is the founding president of Independent Sector, the nation's umbrella group for private philanthropy and voluntary action. In an article on citizen participation and influence in America, he writes of this country:

Although it seems eminently logical that rational people would never ever let such a democracy unravel, I've been around long enough and have read enough to know that people and history can be tragically irrational. I find myself worrying what the consequences would be if in the course of the new century we experience a worsening of such factors as selfishness, taking liberty for granted, governmental limits on citizen participation, the influence of special interests on public officials, separation between the haves and have-nots, intolerance, and incivility. How much deterioration of our civil society would it take to weaken democracy irreparably?

I believe that by choosing the Hiram community, Hiram faculty have affirmed a commitment to strengthening our civil society. They have done so through their distinguished, dedicated, and unwavering efforts to educate the next generation of citizens within the context of the Hiram College mission. I would like to remind all of us here of that mission:

Our mission at Hiram College is to enable students of all ages to develop as intellectually alive, socially responsible, ethical citizens ready for leadership and for continuous personal and professional growth.

The Hiram faculty is currently working toward a revision in the general education program that will strengthen even further a Hiram student's interdisciplinary work and sharpen even more the curricular focus on diversity, ethics and international education. The goal is to produce intelligent, ethical global citizens. I am reminded of John F. Kennedy's belief that "the human mind is our fundamental resource" and his exhortation to students at American University to apply their talents to the great problems of our time. Wouldn't it be wonderful if just one by-product of the important and painstaking work the faculty are completing turns out to be a new spirit of enthusiasm for putting a Hiram College education to work for this country, not just through informed participation at the polls, but in conscientious government service as well?

To quote Brian O'Connell again:

Our democracy can last, but only if we accept and practice the enduring democratic covenant recently and cogently summarized by John W. Gardner: "Freedom and responsibility, Liberty and duty. That's the deal."

These are complex and difficult times in which we live, and I daresay there has never been a more urgent need for well-educated, ethical, caring, and deliberative citizens.

The challenge for Hiram College students will be to chart a course during your four years at this institution that will prepare you well for engaged citizenship -- to turn away from apathy and cynicism, and to commit yourselves to lives of action in the cause of justice.

The challenge for Hiram College faculty will be to finish with all deliberate speed your vital work on curricular reform and to implement it with the talent, energy, conviction and passion that I have seen from you so many times over the past 12 years.

And the challenge for me, for the Board of Trustees, and for Hiram College alumni and friends will be to provide you with the resources you need to sustain a vibrant intellectual environment, producing graduates whose committed actions will strengthen the very fabric of our nation. It is not a responsibility that I, as president, take lightly, and it is my solemn pledge to each of you that I will address it with my full energies and abilities.

By meeting these challenges, we -- and it must be all of us, working together -- will be able to reflect back upon this year -- on this new era in Hiram's history -- and know that we have done our best "to make a strong mark for good upon our time."

Thank you.

▲  Return to Top