Lessons learned: Confessions of a first-year president

It is good to be starting year two. Like the members of the Class of 2007, I am about to begin my second year at Puget Sound; and there is a lot to envy about those sophomores. With a foundation of lessons learned, they now continue their adventure of exploring the world of ideas, deciding on a major course of study, thinking through options for studying abroad, joining a music group or club, developing relationships with friends and faculty, focusing on a sport or an internship, and beginning to navigate a career path. It is their time to build the structure of their future.

Perhaps more than envying the Class of 2007, I identify with them. In my first year as Puget Sound’s 13th president, I have learned a few lessons, too, as we move together from dreaming about the future of the university to building that future.

First, I have learned and relearned what an outstanding campus community I have been fortunate enough to join, and how remarkable is the human capital we share. I have been impressed by our faculty’s deep commitment to teaching and to their disciplines, by our students’ amazing resourcefulness and initiative, by our staff’s dedication to the campus, by our alumni’s pride in this institution, and by our trustees’ clear commitment to make us even better in the days to come. These virtues have been hallmarks of the university’s people since our founding in 1888. They remain our most valuable asset as we map out the strategic direction of our future and fulfill a vision for academic excellence and national prominence that has been central to our mission from the start.

I have also learned what it is like to live on our beautiful campus. For a full year I have been experiencing the richness of this unique environment for learning and living. I have been part of the thrilling contests of our athletic teams, the spectacular performances by our musical and theatrical groups, provocative presentations and lectures by faculty and students and guests, stimulating fireside chats around dinner with students at the president’s house, and countless conversations in the café on Monday mornings, when I held open office hours every week with staff and students and faculty. I have experienced how the architecture and outdoor spaces of our campus, its quiet spots and its impressive landscape (not to mention the fabulous free-trade coffee in Diversions Café), all contribute to the quality and character of these encounters.

I have learned that there is a quiet confidence in the way the campus is built and experienced, a beauty that informs and graces our interactions and defines our lives together. In the age of virtual space and online education, this campus teaches us about the continuing power of real space, of bricks and mortar, of earth and sky. In the vision we have developed in our master planning effort this year, we have resolved to build on these physical assets by providing a plan to unify a campus that has grown gradually over time, to extend the architectural character of the historic core through the entire campus, to better integrate academic life with co-curricular life, to enhance the kind and quality of residential opportunities on campus, and to open ourselves to the wealth of natural and urban resources that surround us. This 20-year plan sketches out an inspiring vision for the year 2023, the centennial of our arrival at this site on the hill in the historic North End of Tacoma.

This brings me to another lesson: I have learned that our learning environment at Puget Sound doesn’t stop at Union Avenue or at the front lawn of the president’s house on North 18th Street. From the right spot on campus, you can get a glimpse of the second busiest port on the West Coast, the majestic peaks of Mt. Rainier and the impressive Olympic range to the west, and the blue-green waters of Puget Sound. And we are also placed in the middle of a city undergoing a cultural and economic renaissance, one designated as among the most desirable cities to live in America. Our surrounding neighborhoods are thriving, and they offer outstanding resources for our campus community in the restaurants, shops, and businesses in Proctor, Old Town, Sixth Avenue, and downtown. This is a city rich in cultural diversity, providing us with an opportunity to be a model university community that promotes understanding and justice in the context of our central quest for truth. It is a place to learn lessons and to offer them as well.

Since our arrival here a year ago, Mary and I have been warmly welcomed by our neighbors in Tacoma, who have expressed a strong desire to be more deeply connected to this university. Our faculty and students are already pursuing many valuable research projects and internships in the community, assuming positions of active engagement and leadership, often alongside a network of alumni who are among the political, business, and non-profit leaders of this region, as they are throughout the world. As we build the future of Puget Sound and focus upon our strategic objectives of academic excellence and national prominence, we will leverage these local and regional efforts into a coherent vision of outstanding scholarship joined with responsible citizenship. The nation will take note.

It was good to be a first-year president at such a university and to learn the lessons so many of you have taught me. It is even better to be a sophomore now, and to be excited about how much more we have to do and to learn together. And it is great to be back in school at the University of Puget Sound.