Inaugural Address: Transplanted by a River



Address given by Katherine Bergeron at her installation as the 11th President of Connecticut College, April 5, 2014

Madame Chair and members of the board of trustees; my dear mentor Ruth Simmons; Presidents Ames, Gaudiani, Fainstein, and Higdon; Governor Malloy, Mayor Finizio, President Roth, Senator Blumenthal and honored delegates; Connecticut College faculty, students, staff, alumnae and alumni; all those who are watching from afar; and finally, my beloved teachers, friends, and family: I am honored to be standing before you, overwhelmed by the gravity of this moment, and deeply moved by your generous welcome and by the confidence that you have all invested in me to lead this great College, Connecticut College, into its next century.

On this beautiful morning, with its long-awaited promise of Spring, we are together marking a turning point in the history of this College; and, at the same time, we are celebrating the original turning point, the founding of our College 103 years ago today. These Inauguration ceremonies coincide with Founders Day, an anniversary on which we commemorate the signing of the charter that constituted Connecticut College for Women on April 5, 1911. I can think of nothing more fitting, in this moment of turning toward the future, than to pay tribute to our past and to those who made our College possible.

And so I begin with my own expressions of gratitude on this day. Gratitude for all those who contributed to the planning of this occasion. Gratitude for the staff who made the campus shine after a long winter. Gratitude for those who traveled long distances and those who offered greetings. Gratitude for the musicians who brought exuberance and solemnity to these events. Gratitude for the love of my family and friends. And, most of all, gratitude for all the teachers and mentors without whose support and encouragement I would never be standing here. There is something audacious about great teachers and mentors: they dare you to imagine, and to achieve, more than you ever thought possible, simply by believing in you, in your human capacity for becoming something greater. This is a simple gift that you can never pay back, but you can pay it forward, and I feel so deeply fortunate to be leading a college with a mission to do exactly that.

I have been thinking, in fact, about the line from the Shaker song, "Simple Gifts," that we just heard a moment ago: it speaks of "finding yourself in the place just right." And I have to say that part of the gratitude I feel at this moment comes from this: that I now find myself in such a place. It is like a homecoming. As many of you know, I grew up not far from New London, so both the College and the region have been in my life for a long time. But the sense of rightness I feel goes much deeper than geographic familiarity. It has to do with the audacious belief in human capacities that I was mentioning a moment ago. For what I've come to appreciate is that Connecticut College is an institution that, from the start, dared to imagine something greater for its first students. That imperative is part of our heritage and it continues to be reflected in the central values that define our institution: in the principle of inclusive education that marked our origins; in the enjoyment of hard work that informs our character; and in the progressive spirit, with its openness to change, that pervades everything we do. All of these qualities have been here from the beginning. And so, on this anniversary of our founding, I would like to take a moment to recall that origin story, as a way of understanding our current moment and envisioning the future that is to come.

And what a story it is. The founding of Connecticut College is an exhilarating tale of courageous and generous women and men on a mission fuelled by righteousness, audacity, and faith. The very idea was born in righteousness, in 1909, after the only college in Connecticut open to women stopped accepting female applicants. It was propelled by generosity when New London citizens donated funds and entire tracts of land — some 300 acres in all — to win the privilege of hosting the new college in their city. And it was nourished on a belief that this modern grove of learning, planted on fertile soil high above the Thames River, would benefit not only the city but also the country and the world by producing a different kind of graduate.

The founders, in short, put a stake in the ground and imagined a new school taking root. And our motto captures that image: in Latin it reads: Tanquam lignum quod plantatum est secus decursus aquarum. "Like a cutting transplanted by a river." It's a biblical reference, taken from the first Psalm. And it's taken out of context, so it's worth remembering how the whole psalm goes. Loosely paraphrased, it begins: Blessed is the man who has not followed the path of the wicked, or sat in the scornful place. For only the righteous will grow upright like a cutting transplanted by a river that becomes a tree, bears fruit, and never withers; in short, everything will flourish and prosper.

That's a very loose translation but it gives a sense of the oppositional stance of the text, and perhaps of the original founders themselves, who sought to right a wrong. The gender of the psalm is reversed, too, for the cutting that will become a tree is, in this case, a nourishing mother: the alma mater. I am most interested, though, in the twin symbolism of wood and water, tree and river — one signaling stability, the other movement. We are blessed, of course, with a real river and many beautiful trees on our arboretum campus, so it is tempting to read the motto literally. But the flow of water, decursus aquarum, also signals something else: a restlessness, and a propensity for change, that is written, I think, into our DNA.

And it makes sense if you think about our founding year, 1911. It was the progressive era, a time of great technological and social instability and mobility, one with important implications for the status of women. The progressives believed in the power of science, technology, and especially education to address the social problems of the day. And so the College's founders imagined a new curriculum that combined the rigors of the traditional liberal arts with practical training that would prepare graduates to enter the workforce in meaningful ways. They imagined, in short, a new generation of thinkers, doers, and leaders: women who were intellectually adept, mindful of their civic responsibility, equipped with real-world skills, and ready to contribute in the public sphere.

Thinkers. Doers. Leaders. I am struck by how much this modern concept from 1911 is still germane today. For we live in a time marked by the same mix of disruption and opportunity that our forebears experienced a century ago. If they saw advances in automobiles and aviation, we see drones and self-driving cars. If they watched in wonder at wireless telegraphy and moving pictures, we marvel at the power of social media and cloud computing. If they heard debates over universal suffrage, we argue over universal health care and our failing schools. The terms may have changed but the issues have persisted. And just as Connecticut College has prospered and flourished over the last century, growing in size and stature, so, too, has the need for the thoughtful, versatile, and socially responsible graduates we produce. Indeed, I would argue, that need has never been more urgent.

It can be hard, of course, to sense this urgency over the noise of an ever-growing chorus of skeptics who question the value of what colleges like ours do. We hear protests about overspending and waste. We hear exclamations over student debt. We hear insinuations about useless degrees. The claims come, however, at a time when the technological expansion and sophistication of the service professions has made the earning of an advanced degree more necessary, not less. They come at a time when the requirements of our public and charter schools have made nuanced and inclusive teacher training more vital, not less. They come at a time when the survival of our cultural institutions has made flexible and creative leadership skills more important, not less. They come at a time when the dictates of both diplomacy and commerce have made advanced proficiency in more than one world language more critical, not less. They come, indeed, at a time when the survival of our liberal democracy has made the heightened capacity for complex thinking, for personal integrity, and for empathy — the outcomes traditionally associated with a liberal education — more essential to our future, not less.

And so, although I know I take on the mantle of this new responsibility at a time of great challenge not just for higher education but for our communities, our country, and our world, I do so with a conviction that the education we offer here at Connecticut College — and the graduates that we produce through that education — will be part of the solution.

For our graduates have shown this capacity for a very long time: they have been part of the solution. They have been leaders in the arts like Agnes Gund '60, who presided over New York's Museum of Modern Art during one of its most dazzling periods; or Sean Fine '96, who has brought the same qualities of empathy and humanity that define our campus into his documentary films.

They have been leaders in the environment like Wendy Blake-Coleman '75, whose long career at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now involves monitoring vital geospatial data to identify environmental and security risks; or David Barber '88, whose award-winning Blue Hill restaurant spearheaded the farm-to-table movement.

They have been leaders in government like Patricia Wald '48, whose distinguished career as a federal judge included service on the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; or Debo Adegbile '91, who has served his country ably and admirably as counsel to the NAACP legal defense and educational fund and to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

They have been leaders in education like Mary Lake Polan '65 P'02 '10, a physician and teacher who was lauded for her work with women patients and doctors in Eritrea; or Ed Burger '85, a nationally recognized professor of mathematics, who was just last week inaugurated as the 15th president of Southwestern University.

Of course, I could go on. But my point is that our graduates have been able to achieve all this because of their Connecticut College education, which dared them to think and do and lead: to develop their intellectual and creative capacities; to make the connection between the campus and the world; and to see their learning as an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to society, to pay their debt forward. This, as I said, has been part of the College's legacy from the very beginning. Today we have a simple name for it. We like to call it "the liberal arts in action."

As I walk about this campus, and meet with faculty and students and staff, I see evidence of this mission everywhere I turn. I see it in the staff who are not only serving the needs of the campus but also serving on boards in the local community. I see it in the faculty who are not only engaged in their own teaching and research, but also engaged in service so vital to the governing of the College. And I see it in students who are not only committed to their studies and their sports, but are also committed to teaching in our community's schools, or conducting independent research, or mounting conferences or performances, or excelling in internships here and abroad, or making films to end oppression and violence, or joining NGOs to change the world.

A recent study showed, in fact, that students at Connecticut College were far more likely than students at peer institutions to define the return on their educational investment in terms of giving back rather than getting ahead. In other words, our students already see themselves as part of the solution. This vision is so important that our faculty, too, has been at work over the last year to make our commitment to such outcomes even more explicit in our requirements. They have set out to create a new curriculum for Connecticut College — a curriculum with the same progressive spirit, and the same values of inclusiveness and rigor, that motivated our forebears a century ago: in short, an audacious curriculum for the 21st century that will dare our students to become the creative, thoughtful, adept, and socially responsible leaders of our future.

I arrive at Connecticut College, then, in a time of great opportunity and great hope. And as I look toward our future on this commemoration of our founding, I see several areas in which the College must advance in order to ensure that we continue to flourish and prosper into the next century:

Academic excellence. First, and most important, we must advance the excellence of our faculty and all our academic programs and centers, leveraging our historic strengths in the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, and the arts, in order to ensure the highest standards of teaching and scholarship, to nurture the intellectual and creative capacities of our students, and to make the distinctions of a Connecticut College education even more widely known across the country and the world.

Access. We must advance our financial aid programs to broaden the access of qualified applicants to our college, and we must continue to expand the diversity of our student and faculty ranks, in order to foster a truly inclusive culture of excellence.

Outcomes. We must advance the outcomes of a Connecticut College education, in order to support the continuing success of our graduates in their lives after college and to claim our rightful place as a leader in liberal and career-oriented learning.

Impact. And, finally, we must advance our connections to the local community, in order to deepen our impact and extend the opportunities for real-world learning. We must advance, as well, the global aspirations of the College, through new programs and new technologies, in order to expand the reach and the relevance of a Connecticut College education in the world.

Academic excellence, access, outcomes, and impact: this will be a challenging program, to be sure, requiring the support of many people. But I am buoyed by the knowledge that I will not be alone; heartened by the striving spirit of our community; and inspired by the legacy of many great presidents over the last century: presidents who were themselves transplanted to this place by a river, and who during their tenure oversaw the efflorescence of the College from a shoot to a tree to an ever-expanding canopy of knowledge and opportunity.

For that is the story we commemorate today: the story — the miracle, really — of education. I spoke earlier of the audacity of great teachers and mentors, who dare you to become more than you thought you could become. And as I reflect on that history within the College, I recall with reverence a long line of teachers who challenged me in the very same way: from professional mentors like Ruth Simmons, to graduate advisers like Roger Parker, to college instructors like Richard Winslow, to high school teachers like Alice Burbank and Elias Hage and Patricia Harper, most of whom are present at this celebration today.

I also think, of course, about my family. Your family is always your first and most important teacher. And so in addition to my parents and siblings, I think about my grandparents and their parents, transplanted here from Canada by means of the long Connecticut River. They never attended college, but through their own hard work and striving they passed on this value, by challenging themselves, and their children, and their children's children, to expand their human capacities through ever-widening opportunities for education.

I have been carried along the same river of hope and nourished by the same tree of learning. And now it is my great good fortune to be able to cultivate that fertile garden for the next generation. And so, with gratitude for my family, deep respect for my teachers, appreciation for my new colleagues, and anticipated joy for the future students who will be transplanted in this place, students who will grow to become more than we could ever dream: I humbly accept the responsibility of leading Connecticut College into its second abundant century.