The Liberal Arts: Leadership for a Changing World

Inaugural Address
President Isiaah Crawford
Friday, March 24, 2017


Thank you, Bob!

And thank you all.

Thank you to Puget Sound’s remarkable board of trustees, which represents dedicated alumni, parents, and friends of the college from here in Tacoma, and across the country.

Thank you to our enterprising and devoted faculty and staff members, who bring a Puget Sound education to life, and to the students and faculty for sharing their gift of music with us today.

Thank you for the heartfelt greetings on behalf of the alumni, faculty, staff, and students; to the mayor of Tacoma, Marilyn Strickland; to Connie McCloud and David Bean Class of 1991, representatives of the Puyallup Tribe, and to Father Stephen Sundborg and other clergy gathered here today, including our own Rev. Dave Wright and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky.

Thank you to Presidents Emeriti Phil Phibbs, Susan Resneck Pierce, and Ron Thomas, who, with great wisdom and foresight, have so ably led this institution over the past half century. I’m so very glad you’re here today.

Thank you to those of you bringing greetings from colleges and universities near and far.

And thank you to the alumni gathered here today to represent your classes and our more than 40,000 alumni worldwide, and to our community members, special guests, and my own family and friends, especially my spouse, Kent Korneisel, and my aunt, Nellie Knox, who has traveled to be here with us today from St. Louis. Aunt Nellie, could you stand and be recognized?

Everyone, my Aunt Nellie, as much as—and perhaps more than—anyone else is the reason that I stand before you here today. Thank you for being here with me, today and always. I love you so very much!

Finally, thank you to our students, whom we are so deeply honored to serve—and who were excused from class today to participate in this historic occasion for the university! I am honored by your presence, and by the great trust that has been placed in me as Puget Sound’s 14th president.

 ***

So, let me begin by saying: I’m so happy we found each other!

From the moment I first stepped on campus I knew I was a Logger kindred spirit. I was drawn here by the people who make up this community, by your commitment to teaching and learning, your sense of care for each other, the way you hold each other personally accountable for excellence, and the way you work to advance this college and its mission.

After eight months on the job, I appreciate even more how the university has repeatedly and faithfully carved its own path; how it succeeds because of its steadfast focus, in the words of one of my predecessors, "on bringing forward the best version of itself." It’s a college that has traditions, but isn’t traditional; that’s academically rigorous and challenging, but also warm and welcoming; a place and a people who stand up for what they believe in, whose commitment to the pursuit of knowledge and to using that knowledge to make the world a better place is palpable.

Puget Sound’s journey to the outstanding national liberal arts college it is today is a little different from that of some of our institutional peers. My journey here is a little different from that of some of my peers, too. I’ve lived my life personally and professionally a little bit out of the mainstream. I know that you can be authentic and true to yourself and others, and feel fulfilled being different. You can find your way, like this great college has found its way through its many iterations and incarnations over the past 129 years, and as I have found mine, over the course of a career and life that has brought me here to you.

Our theme today, Leadership for a Changing World, celebrates not only the relevance of the liberal arts, in general, but the capacity of a Puget Sound liberal arts education, in particular, to prepare our students to anticipate and respond to challenges—to be agents of change in a world that needs, more than ever, those who can think clearly, bridge disciplines and divides, and produce solutions to the problems that vex our world. Solutions that will benefit not just the few, but the many.

For we are many. I stand before you today not only as the leader of Puget Sound, but as one of many institutional leaders, recognizing our long history of shared governance, the hard work and dedication of those who have gone before us and those who will come after.

In preparing my remarks, I reviewed the speeches of previous Puget Sound presidents, who delivered clear messages for the specific times in which they were called to lead. As different as those times were, each president spoke in his or her own way to the primacy of the liberal arts in providing the type of leadership that students deserve and the world needs.

Phil Phibbs, in 1973, spoke to the steadfastness of an institution that "has faced challenges that would have discouraged most." The history of this institution, he said, is a remarkable account of courage, dedication, and determination to do the apparently impossible. He called us to confront new and different challenges directly and honestly, and asserted, above all, that we must offer to our students an education that does not just meet the needs of immediate employment, but that will last a lifetime.

Nearly 20 years later, Susan Resneck Pierce spoke, in 1992, to the liberal arts college as a place "dedicated to the free and often fervent expression of diverse ideas, of openness to new ideas, new knowledge, and alternative perspectives." She spoke of colleges as arenas in which social realities find expression and social problems achieve resolution. She called on us to be a place and a people of action, not just noble ideals.

Ron Thomas, in 2004, exhorted us to seek truth wherever it may lead, and to serve the public good—both broadly in the world, but especially closer to home. He strengthened our ties with the community from which we draw so much of our identity; he called us to consider higher education as a public good, rather than a consumer good. He spoke about our work as "nothing less than the cultivation of the leaders of the next generation—they are the ones in whom we invest our hope to secure our future."

These Puget Sound leaders spoke to the future that is our present. Although the issues and the times may change, the source of our problems as people, and as a nation, remains the same: our continuing struggle to see and value the inherent dignity and value of one another.  

I suspect that’s not what you expected me to say.

Let me explain.

Many of you were able to join us earlier today as my faculty and staff colleagues and our students offered a series of symposia demonstrating innovation and progress in the ways that we deliver a liberal arts education here at Puget Sound. Partnerships within and between disciplines, the intersections of traditional modes of inquiry and technology, and the impact of our mission beyond our campus—our calls to service in local prisons; in experiential opportunities in our communities; in our work with immigration and detention in Tacoma; in addressing homelessness; in confronting inequities in our nation’s schools—these are high-impact experiences that demonstrate the power of the liberal arts in action.

Our colleges are intersections, always at the forefront of change. This is the role of the liberal arts today: to be in, of, and for a rapidly changing world. And that world of which we speak so grandly, is made up of people. Our college campuses, increasingly, welcome people from all walks of life: liberal and conservative, wealthy and poor, legacy students and first-generation students. Our campuses are microcosms of the broader world in which we live, laboratories where we are challenged to learn with and from increasingly diverse communities of people.

That, I would offer to you, is at the heart of leadership in a changing world: Our college campuses must be places where ideas and ideologies are tested; where challenges of difference are met with civility and respect; and where we live, work, and learn alongside those who may both inspire and confound us.

And make no mistake. The times that we are in are like no other. The foundations of a liberal arts education—civil discourse, freedom of expression, respect for the other, the pursuit of truth and knowledge—all of our efforts to advance and propel the human race and civilization forward—all seem to be in jeopardy.

But we will not be deterred. We are called to do virtuous and vital work as scholars and educators. Lyndon B. Johnson, our country’s 36th president, wrote during a particularly difficult period in our nation’s history, that: "I have learned one great truth: The answer for all of our national problems, the answer for all the problems of the world, comes down … to one single word—education."

This work that we are called to do is needed more now than, perhaps, ever before! Our currency is intellectual and social development. Our days are spent in the formulation, expression, and exchange of ideas. We have the privilege of engaging daily in life-changing work that affects the lives and aspirations of people on our campuses, in our communities, and around the world.

Especially in challenging times, the opportunity to make a difference in people’s lives is at the heart of our educational enterprise, and compels us to address the challenges of the day.

And we do not lack for challenges.

Our colleges are under scrutiny like never before. Bias and hate remain a virulent part of our cultural and social landscape, no matter how far we have come. It is an enormous privilege to live the life of the mind, but that privilege comes with a moral obligation to put our insights and discoveries into work in the real world, to make a real difference in the lives of real people.

I draw my inspirations in this enterprise from many sources within and outside the academy. Have you ever played that game, where you plan a dinner party for the historical figures you would most like to meet? My heroes, my inspirations, would make for a lively gathering: John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt; Martin Luther King Jr. and the great writer Oscar Wilde—and truth be told, I see value in adding comedian Chris Rock for a bit of relevant social commentary. What they all have in common is an understanding of, and empathy for, the human condition.

To quote just one of those heroes, as President Kennedy said in an address at the University of California-Berkeley on March 23, 1962—55 years ago yesterday—"how important it is to the maintenance of a free society that its citizens be well educated. … Knowledge, not hate, is the passkey to the future. … It is the possession, not of a single class, or of a single nation or a single ideology, but of all mankind. … In a time of turbulence and change, it is more true than ever that knowledge is power; for only by true understanding and steadfast judgment are we able to master the challenge of history."

True understanding and steadfast judgment would seem to be in short supply in America in 2017.

When I joyfully accepted the presidency of Puget Sound, the college put out a press release that referred to me as a distinguished scholar, teacher, and college administrator, with advanced degrees and leadership in the field of psychology. I was flattered. The headlines the next day read: Puget Sound hires first black president.

Make of that what you will, but suffice it to say that no one in America, not even our most recent former president of the United States, has found a way to speak to the issue of race. Racism—and other "-isms"—exist and persist, even as we implement programs and repeal unjust laws. College campuses are ideal settings to create spaces for dialogue, to hold difficult conversations on the most challenging topics of our time. It is painful, messy, and brave dialogue that our country so desperately needs in order for all of our people to bring forward their full and best selves. Because isn’t that at the heart of the teaching and learning we provide, for people to make the most of who they are and what they have to offer, in service to others?

My trajectory through the landscape of higher education is, as I said earlier, a bit different from those who have come before me. That said, I suspect we hold much in common, too. I possessed a love for learning at an early age; I was the kid who helped others with their homework and excelled at sports—modeling the concept of the student-athlete before I even knew what that was. In my home growing up in St. Louis, my mother and grandmother, both of whom passed away a few months before my college graduation, and my Aunt Nellie stressed the importance of education. Believe me, they made sure I did my homework. But more than working for good grades, I wanted to help people. I became fascinated by psychology in high school, and planned to spend my life in clinical practice.

I was the first in my family to graduate from college, let alone graduate school, and hadn’t even thought about pursuing a career in higher education until very late in my graduate studies. I did not begin to see myself in the role of a college professor or administrator, let alone university president, until others recognized my potential. Many mentors—many who are here today—challenged my thinking and self-perceptions.

Others have allowed me to stand on their shoulders to get me pointed in the direction of my own future. And I took to heart a quote attributed to another of my imaginary dinner guests, Eleanor Roosevelt, who said, "You must do the thing you think you cannot do." 

So I come to you based on a simple premise: that I feel called to be here—here at Puget Sound, here in Tacoma, at this college at this time. I offer you a sincere pledge to do my best to bring this great college to its next level of excellence, and my promise that this work is not mine alone, but ours together.

It is work that I have begun in earnest. Since my first day nearly nine months ago, I have met with hundreds of people and traveled thousands of miles, carrying forward the mission of Puget Sound in conversations with our legislators in Olympia and Washington, D.C. I’ve met with our alumni and parents across the country, talked with prospective students, helped first-years move into their residence halls, hosted small groups of students at our home for dinner, attended musical and theatrical performances and lectures, and cheered on our competitive Logger athletics teams in this very field house. I have been struck by how smart and curious our students are; how engaged and hardworking; how passionate, funny, talented, fearless—and, in the great arc of history and time, how very young. 

To that point, this past fall, while visiting with alumni in the D.C. area, I stole away for an afternoon to visit the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. I spent just a few hours there, but that day, more than any other in these early days of my presidency, reminded me in the starkest of terms that I truly am standing on the shoulders of those who have come before me. Words aren’t adequate to express my feelings… my feelings of gratitude, of pain, and of pride.

The students we serve today are counting on us to be strong enough, to be forward thinking enough, to be brave and bold and daring enough, that they can stand on our shoulders with confidence. We owe that to them.

I am so impressed by our dedicated faculty and staff members, who have made this their lives’ work. Our students are so very fortunate to learn from and with teacher-scholars who are also advisors, champions, and mentors, who continually renew and reinvent curriculum to be relevant and meaningful in the lives of today’s—and tomorrow’s—students. Our alumni impress me, too, with stellar accomplishments and discoveries across all fields of human endeavor. They are devoted to this place and are generous in forging a path forward for future generations. Our students—and future alumni—also stand on their shoulders.  

We have work to do, like any college community, but we must always appreciate how far we have come, even as we acknowledge how far we have to go. And friends, we have good and important work ahead of us.

I offer you three important threads as we move forward:

First, we must have an unwavering commitment to the pursuit of excellence in all we do.

The value of a liberal arts education unfolds over a lifetime. Our students deserve an academically rigorous experience. It is essential to their growth and development, and to distinguishing Puget Sound in the vast landscape of American higher education. We know that an education is not a transactional experience, but a collaborative and immersive one. We believe that the residential liberal arts college experience is one that provides us with the opportunity to deeply know ourselves and each other, to engage difficult questions, to develop trust and the ability to live and work together.

Some of the most exciting work that we do is at the intersections; our focus on interdisciplinary approaches and collaboration is among our greatest strengths. We have the great good fortune to live in a world of ideas, and the equally great responsibility to turn those ideas into actions that improve the lives of others. There must be a correlation between the knowledge we create and the work we undertake.

These are difficult times for liberal arts colleges, but we will direct our energies to becoming more accessible, more affordable, and more central to the national conversation about the value of a college degree. We can hold to our purpose and to our focus on the reciprocal nature of teaching and learning, even as we dare to consider the evolving nature of a liberal arts education in the 21st century and how we can best prepare our undergraduate and graduate students for the political, economic, and social realities of the world today… and tomorrow. This college has been driven by big ideas, and knows how to bring them to fruition. Let’s keep thinking big.

Second, we must continue our engagement beyond our campus borders.

We must serve those we have not reached in the past in order to define, and live, higher education’s highest purpose: the preparation of leaders. No matter how rigorous our curriculum or engaging our campus life, this is not work that we do alone. Tacoma, Pierce County, the Pacific Northwest, and our place here on the Pacific Rim—our partnerships in these regions enrich the experience of our students, inspire scholarship and research, and put the intellectual assets of the university to good, productive use.

Puget Sound is blessed to be in the center of a thriving region, not hidden away on a hill. I have heard some students describe the "Puget Sound bubble," but I have yet to find it so. Our borders are transparent and porous; our connections with the broader community make us more inviting, more diverse, and more immersed in the deepest challenges affecting the lives of people in our country. Our Race and Pedagogy Institute, Sound Policy Institute, Freedom Education Project, partnership with the Tacoma Public Schools, and more are examples of the ways in which we transform high-impact learning into high-impact service in our communities.

It is it our connections to each other and to our communities that will set us apart. We are called to be ever more responsive to the concerns, needs, and dreams of the community in which we are located.

Third, we must be attentive to the needs of our campus community, too.

Puget Sound is one "lean, mean operating machine." My colleagues give so fully of themselves to support our students. I care deeply about building on our infrastructure to support our colleagues in the good work that they do, day in and day out, achieving big dreams without big resources. We are all aware of claims that our universities are becoming top heavy with too many administrators and staff members not central to the academic enterprise. Yet we face increasing demands—for regulatory compliance, the changing environment for financial aid, and the needs for expertise on critical issues such as campus safety, Title IX compliance, career services, technology, health and wellness, diversity and inclusion, and more. We must develop the resources to sustain and support our campus community, to meet both current needs and big goals. That includes supporting the work and professional development of our faculty, our staff—our people.

At the end of the day, the future of the liberal arts lies in the ability of our institutions to prepare our students to be effective and productive citizens in order to make the future better, stronger, more equitable and just, than our world is today.

We may protest that they are not, but our liberal arts colleges tend to be liberal socially and politically. In our haste to be progressive, to be on the forefront of new thoughts and ideas, new policies and practices, we sometimes—too often—forget that our true strength lies in the college campus as a place that embraces diversity of thought and teaches us how to work together to engage in civic dialogue, to draw strength through understanding, and to find solutions to problems that cannot be addressed from a single point of view.

Our calling is a joyful one, and we are optimistic. We rise to each occasion. Throughout its history Puget Sound has risen to each challenge and occasion that has come before it. It is in our DNA to find the path, the way to best serve our students, our region, and our country as new needs have emerged. And we are undaunted in our effort to carry on that legacy.

I look forward to continuing this journey with all of you. Thank you, again, for your warm welcome into this community, and for your commitment to the work we will do together on behalf of this great college—and to all who join us here today in service to the pursuit of knowledge and the making of a better world. Again, I’m glad we have found each other, and look forward to serving you well.

How do we say it, Logger Nation? "Once a Logger, always a Logger!"

Thank you so very much!