Good afternoon - Warmest greetings and thanks to the entire New England College community – to our trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, friends, and especially to our students. I am honored to stand here among so many people who are dedicated to this fine institution. Professor Farid Haddad, it is a distinct pleasure to share the platform with you today.
Special thanks to my family; my mother, Betty, my husband, James, my son, Caldwell, my father-in-law, Bob, and to Caldwell’s great grandmother, Dorothy, who joins us today at age 101. Also my cousins, Kathy and Suzanne – to all of you – thanks. Len, my father, would be so very happy knowing you are here. Mother – you and Daddy always believed in me and I will never forget your unconditional love and support. James, you are my life’s partner, my love, and my hero. Caldwell, my son – you are the meaning of life itself.
To my many friends and colleagues, many thanks. Especially Dr. Kenneth Crannell, my former professor whom I consider to be my intellectual and artistic mentor, and to Dr. Jack Maguire, my longtime professional mentor, colleague, and friend. Jack, Ken, I have learned so much from you. You have taught me about my profession, my academic discipline, my life, myself, and my soul.
To the NEC Senior Team - I am honored to work with people of such talent, expertise, and integrity.
To the alumni of the University of Pennsylvania Executive Doctorate – there are 14 of you here today - thanks. And thanks to the many delegates who have travelled to our campus to share in this celebration. We are delighted to welcome 49 representatives from colleges and universities across the U.S. The diversity of the institutions represented by these delegates highlights the real strength of the higher education system in America.
The praise and good wishes expressed here today leave me feeling speechless, yet now the time has come for me to give my inauguration address.
Why do we continue the tradition of inauguration? As we all know, rites and rituals are an integral component of college and university culture. The presidential inauguration is, among other things, a reminder to the community and to the world of our reason for existing. It is a celebration of the important work that we do and the hopes and dreams that our society embraces.
Another component of an inauguration is the affirmation of the College’s leadership. And I’d like to address what I believe is a key component of leadership – courage.
When I was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Jerry Murphy, professor and former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, asked everyone in the class to write on a scrap of paper the one quality that was most important in a CEO. The answers varied considerably – some said “expertise” – “vision” – “determination” – and mine was “courage.” Even though a few years have passed since that class, I continue to believe that “courage” is the most important characteristic that a president – or any person in a leadership role, can have. In fact, I think that “courage” is the most important quality that a successful institution of higher learning can have.
Higher education is a courageous enterprise. We in the academy are often accused of sitting in an “ivory tower,” of being insulated and more involved with ideology than application. Some speak of life outside of higher education as the “real world.” I challenge those notions. NEC’s mission statement sums up our common purpose, and the scope of our impact. We claim that New England College is a creative and supportive learning community that challenges individuals to transform themselves and their world.” This is an ambitious statement – I think that’s why I like it so much. It has not only institutional but in fact global implications. In today’s celebration of renewal and collective strength, I believe it is important to restate our reason for being, as New England College and as an institution of higher learning.
This mission to transform mankind through knowledge, to defend an enterprise that gives voice to thoughts and ideas that have been silenced through ignorance or oppression, to open minds to new and sometimes radical thinking, is indeed a courageous vocation. Although we have seen acts of great personal courage, on the whole, the good we do is realized by the accumulation of many small victories, by the linkage of each individual act of courage. Courage is most powerful when collective. These small acts are often overlooked – because they are not dramatic or realized on a titanic scale. Those “little, nameless, and unremembered acts” (to quote Wordsworth), collectively, are what make possible the greatest of human endeavors.
Today, I’d like to explore three interrelated aspects of courage: conviction, creativity, and contribution.
In higher education, and here at New England College, courage of conviction is manifested in many ways, by many members of the community. Throughout college, students learn to discern the values and commitments that are most important to them. We all take stands on issues of scholarship and public concern, and defend those ideas with passion and evidence. It’s not easy engaging in these debates. Let me share with you a story of the courage of conviction. I was happy to attend last year the Project Pericles Debate for Democracy program in New York City – where NEC was selected among five other colleges in a prestigious competition. Two of our students presented a mock legislative proposal to a panel of real ex-senators, and defended their case. Our own John Doucette and Joe Doiron delivered their proposal for a “do-not-email” program to the panel – and I can say that the senators behaved as though they were in a REAL legislative hearing, - they positively grilled the students. I sat in the audience and knew what courage those students displayed. John and Joe admitted that they were scared – but they gave it their all. And they were amazing. Afterward, a number of college presidents approached me and told me how impressed they were with our students. I could not have been prouder. Theirs was the courage of conviction. On an institutional level, courage of conviction was a key ingredient in the very founding of New England College. This institution was founded by and for veterans of the Second World War in 1946. We celebrate the courage that these – and all of our veterans – have demonstrated. I believe that the spirit and optimism of those founding veterans pervade the culture of our institution today.
Courage of conviction does not preclude fear. In fact, acknowledging and accepting fear – without being overcome by it - is what makes this quality most powerful.
Mark Twain sums it up wryly:
Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear - not absence of fear. Except a creature be part coward it is not a compliment to say it is brave.
Centuries earlier, Plato offered this definition:
Courage is knowing what not to fear.
And, more recently, consider this one:
Courage is being scared to death... and saddling up anyway. ~John Wayne
Sometimes we are able to overcome our fears by learning more about the facts. Other times, we rely on shear conviction and commitment to give ourselves the courage to saddle up. And on occasion, we need creativity to rethink the whole enterprise, and find the right solution. This brings me to the courage of creativity.
Today, our world, including higher education, is in a constant state of flux, and we must accept the idea of ongoing change. I am fond of Peter Vaill’s description of the environment of today’s organizations as “permanent white water.” All change requires a certain degree of risk, but as we all know, there is often greater risk in no change. Knowing how to change and what level of risk to incur is part of the courage factor in the leadership equation. Risk-taking means exploring, going outside the boundaries of what is typical, thinking “outside the box,” refusing to accept the “status quo.” It is the courage of creativity. Artists understand very well what it means to forge a new path, to show an idea from a unique perspective, to use new media, new language, new forms.
As many of you know, theatre was my original academic discipline. James Lipton, director of the Actors Studio, has observed that one of the things he likes about actors is that “: “They will take a role that scares them over a role that doesn’t.” By the way, I’d like to point out that NEC has sent more of its Theatre graduates to the Actors’ Studio than any other institution in the country. We must be willing and prepared to try new roles, to embrace new strategies, as we ride the whitewater of higher education.
NEC has managed to sustain itself, in fact to thrive in this world of “permanent white water,” with creativity and resourcefulness. This year alone NEC has launched a new curriculum, incorporated experiential learning components in our majors, developed a new first-year-and-beyond program, launched innovative graduate programs, hosted numerous political, cultural, artistic, and scholarly events and conferences, and welcomed a delightfully talented and accomplished group of new and returning students.
Our reputation has grown tremendously and we are attracting more students than ever before. This year we will enroll over 2000 students – the largest enrollment in the college’s history. And although we are not a rich institution, NEC enjoys excellent financial health – the best in its history – even in these challenging economic times. We are now poised to “go to the next level” of success - with an ambitious strategic plan to grow our programs, to continue to grow our enrollment at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, to develop even more innovative instructional models and systems; to diversify further our constituents to reflect the cultural richness of our global community; to intensify our pursuit of ecological sustainability; and to amplify our commitment to civic engagement and the pursuit of social justice.
Big aspirations. And to make these aspirations reality, it will require the courage to be creative and to contribute to the transformative project at hand.
The courage that it takes to contribute to the lives of students, the work of an institution, and the education of a society is often overlooked. I can think of dozens of ways in which our faculty exhibit courage on a daily basis, through their devotion to their disciplines, their scholarship, and particularly their dedication to their students. They perform an important leadership role through their teaching and service throughout the college. They don’t just educate students – they transform students--, and in this work they display courage to contribute beyond the typical teacher or researcher roles of a professor.
For example, a recent New England College alumna writes about a passionate and engaging professor who kept her students energized throughout the semester in her course on Sartre and deBeauvoir - not easy topics. The alumna writes that she even hosted an impromptu Halloween party the day the class discussed “Being and nothingness.” She goes on to say, “When I fell ill last year, she was so caring and concerned. Even after graduating I still get regular emails from her asking about my health and job situation. She’s had an immeasurable impact on me, and is one of those professors that goes beyond the teacher role to become mentor and friend.” This is only one of dozens of stories we hear on a daily basis about the faculty at NEC.
The NEC staff also display the courage of contribution. I know of a member of our admissions team who just last week drove to Boston to pick up a new student who did not have transportation to Henniker. I know of another staff member from our student financial services department whom I see often at her desk at 6:30 or even 7:00 in the evening as I drive out of the parking lot. These colleagues model the engaged citizenship we hope to cultivate in our students and our community. It takes courage not only to offer opinions and ideas, but again, to saddle up, solve problems constructively and collaboratively, and contribute to the welfare of the whole. Students display the courage to contribute by becoming involved in the leadership of student organizations, in creating supportive and caring living environments, and in actively shaping the culture of NEC. Last spring, a group of students participated in a class we called NEC Changes. In this class the students identified specific initiatives that could improve the learning environment at NEC. They researched the issues, identified creative options, and pitched their ideas to a broad College audience. They were not afraid to make a difference, to contribute.
And speaking of the courage of contribution, I must mention the New England College board of trustees. As the help up make strategic decision and guide the growth of the College, the trustees demonstrate creativity and commitment by applying their immeasurable professional and personal talents to the success of this school—all on a volunteer basis. They go above and beyond what is the norm– in so many ways – in all they do for our college, and take a stand courageously for the mission and vision of NEC.
These are a few examples of the daily small acts of courage – of conviction, of creativity, and of contribution - specific to our institution. I have been at New England College for over seven years, and in that time I have seen much talent, hard work, energy, and drive to preserve what we believe is important. Important not only to those of us who work or study here, but to our society and our country. Today, unless institutions of higher education, even small colleges like New England College, maintain the courage to exist, not simply asking to exist but insisting upon it, the freedom of expression and ideas will not be sustained.
This institution – this small college – this superb and indefatigable learning community has the collective strength to become, as our vision statement asserts, “renowned as one of the most creative, innovative, and supportive learning environments where transformation is at the core of all that we pursue.”
I am honored, and proud to have been selected to serve this college as your new president. Thank you for all that you do to make New England College a good place, indeed, a great institution. Thank you for your courage of conviction, creativity, and contribution.
Last fall, when Michele Perkins invited me to her office to honor me with the offer of the appointment to Interim Vice President for Academic Affair, I knew that the college had made an excellent choice in naming her president. I say this not because she chose me specifically, but because in so choosing, she was making what was perhaps the most significant overture an NEC president had ever made to its faculty: it was a tremendous gesture of respect to this faculty, and a heartfelt attempt to build a most important bridge.
As for myself—well, after I had served a two-year term as Director of the British Campus from 1977-79, I swore that although I would continue to work hard for New England College as a faculty member and a member of what turned out to be several key committees, I would never work in the administration again. So, the fact that I both took this interim position and agreed to serve another year as VPAA is a testimony to my faith and confidence in Michele’s presidency.
As a member of the Senior Team and as someone who meets with her frequently to discuss the manifold and complex affairs of the college, I have borne witness to the wonderful work she is doing for the college. She has built and continues to build a first-rate senior team, whose members, like myself, have to run very hard to keep up with her. Since I’m going to use a ship metaphor in the poem I’m about to read, I would like to say that as ship’s captain she does not drive her ship-mates and officers hard, yet we are driven hard by her example. We run hard to keep up with her. It would be hard not to—hard not to match her work, hard not to try to do work whose excellence matches hers.
Note that I do not have to say these things. I have postponed retirement to do this job—what are they going to do, fire me? I say these things because I believe them; I’ve postponed retirement because I absolutely share Michele’s commitment to the college and am absolutely interested in accompanying her on the first part of the voyage.
It is a privilege and an honor for me to share with you this inaugural poem.
for Michele Perkins
the poem is the cry of its occasion, not about the res but part of it
--Wallace Stevens, An Ordinary Evening in New Haven
Res, we remember, means “thing,” hence
res publica or, as we call it, is the “public
thing,” and the public thing is not always
a lie or a cliché, though these are hard to avoid.
Inaugurare is also Latin, for “to consecrate,
to install” or what I like better, literally,
“to take omen from the flight of birds,”
a soothsaying ceremony.
The truth is it’s not a true beginning,
the beginning already made, long past,
and a verification of the official
blessing to begin what’s already begun.
Before New England College was hers,
so to speak, she was the college’s,
and there’s an “auguration” in that
may warrant an unprecedented hope.,
“The sky is full of omens,” one may hear,
with implication that the omens are dark,
and in the republic ominous omens
glint forth from the darkening skies.
“Don’t switch horses in the middle
of the stream” is another ruling cliché;
a good reason to keep a president who’s
already here—but I’m going to switch
Metaphors in the middle of this stream
because the poem demands consideration
of another figure for res publica, the
republic as a ship of state. The tall
Ship requires constant tuning, it’s
called “tuning the rig” and it demands
constant vigilance, for the rig is never
tuned once and for all as it sails.
The tall ship itself demands what must
be done and every sailor of any experience
knows the adjustments the sailing ship
itself demands for the survival of all.
And every sailor want to survive the voyage.
Takes pride in the ship sailing well
in any case, and in a tall ship running well
her captain may herself be hardly noticed.
Perhaps it’s to be desired, that the sailors
not know it’s not themselves responsible
for their own prosperity, for the captain
does not order but understands the order.
Joseph Conrad, who sailed the seas then
turned story-teller, tells us the worst
thing a captain can do is to run aground.
It is not open sailing; the captain is sleepless.
Tuning the rig, the crew responds to the shifts
of wind and current, the helmsman steers
where the ship wants to go, needs to go,
listens to the tunes of the sea-roads.
President Perkins, members of the board, faculty, staff, students, and friends:
Receiving the Robert A. Kilgore Faculty Award was an interesting surprise. Thank you for the honor.
At the outset, let me thank my ALT collegium colleagues as well as my partners in the Department of Art and Art History for their support and the many inspiring moments.
I share this award with you all.
To borrow from Sidney Poitiers’ 1964 Best Actor acceptance speech for his role in "Lilies of the Field" and the first black man to win that Oscar, “It has been a long journey to this moment.”
I began my artistic journey very early in my life when in 1959 I joined a music and art academy in Beirut, Lebanon. I was fourteen years old, an incredibly unpleasant age I might add, the son of a large extended family of businessmen and scientists, as well as part of a Levantine society marginally interested in those disciplines that value subjectivity, solitude and the spirit of dreams.
For as far back as I can remember of those germinal years, I always wanted to be an artist of some kind: a percussionist, perhaps. During these “ancient” pre-Beatles years, I remember tuning-in to a radio station that aired once a week from Cairo, Egypt to listen to a mixture of British and European popular tunes. Hearing Johnny Hallyday, Vince Taylor and the Playboys, and especially the unforgettable Cliff Richards and the Shadows awakened in me a deep yearning for music and especially the making of it.
So, armed with this passion to become a musician, a professional drummer to be exact, I began my musical education confined to a basement trying to learn to count and figure out how to read drum notations and what to do with two sticks and a practice pad. I lasted about two weeks.
I immediately found out that I was never really to become a musician. I became aware that I was living in a world of fantasies and desires, of diverse dreams and expectations, and a time of youth. As I think of those times now, I realize that they were the beginning of many years to come, years of despair and hopelessness, sadness as well as longing, of endless wars and civil conflicts, years that remain until this very moment rather unclear.
Being so confused and having lost my confidence at learning how to drum, I was enticed by a friend to forget my foray into this rhythmical experience, and instead sign-up for a drawing class. It was a difficult choice, but I felt an immediate empathy for the medium and like notes in a diary, I began my peregrination into the world of art, a world where the impulses of my imagination could run wild.I had found a secure place for my dreams. As the critic Robert Hughes wrote in his biography on Francisco Goya, “Dreams are supposed to speak truth, and the dreamer cannot be blamed if the truth he speaks in turn is inconvenient, insulting, or obscure.” I had found a true identity—an identity that perfectly fitted my own temperament and natural talents. It was a solitary activity with no rigid rules—instead an inquiry and a projection into the boundaries between the imaginary and the real. Art became an integral part of my life, or as in the words of Wyndham Lewis “a civilized substitute for magic.”
Twenty years later, after many ocean crossings, intense studies, numerous exhibitions, exile, and the early stages of a career in academia, I became eager to leave a teaching position at a large state university as I was in search of an institution of higher learning with a non-traditional academic framework, a working environment where the process of teaching was not static, but rather progressive, where one was free to search for alternative ways to reach and inspire students, implement new experiments, as well as find new ways to approach teaching, especially the teaching of visual literacy. I wanted to join a nomadic academy where the teaching abilities of its faculty were not relegated to a mere statistic, and resistance to mediocre educational prescripts and reliance on simplistic outcomes was active. The year was 1979, and the place was New England College.
Teaching art and making art form a combined ritual. Both require certain gestures, certain postures, moments of silence, intense visual behaviors and engagements with the subject, periods of contemplation, and ultimately an understanding of mistakes and erasures, especially those erasures that leave the under-layer of a mark. It is a search for the existential value of form and an examination of the creative process of our human nature. It is at its most basic a search for what is not yet. I treat the classroom as a studio, an atelier, where these young individuals can strive to find their own unique voice, their level of excellence, challenge themselves and each other in an atmosphere of profound respect for the medium, and never, never be satisfied with mediocre and easy successes. I deliberately approach the process of learning with no expectations. I am not necessarily in search of results but of discipline. One must be tolerant, calm, and clearly express to each individual student that the process of art making requires a different kind of diligent contemplation that they may not be familiar with. Without any informed positions, I always encourage each student to reach an attitude of constant inquiry about his or her work and allow them to explore this “unknown” thing that stems from keen observation, imagination, and above all daring. This approach has served me well during my formative years and continues to serves me well today.
Now that I am beginning my thirtieth year at NEC, I hope the creative arts and letters continue to be enormously important for generations to come and remain the centerpiece of a solid scholarship. In a true democracy, our position should sustain an increasing demand for the fine arts. We must persevere and be cognizant of the fact that neither teaching, nor learning, and in particular creativity can happen without passion. We must continue to instill in each of our students an abiding desire to question the significance of the arts and help them embrace a true contextual identity. For without such an identity we become desolate, and remain migratory, possibly even selfish individuals passing to and fro, with no hope, no concept of reconciliation, no attentiveness and devotion to the benevolence and strength of nature, no fidelity to language and history, and deprived of new discoveries.
This isn’t just another day for New England College. It isn’t simply business as usual.
Today marks the coming of changes to this community worthy of celebrating; Changes of value and substance. Certainly, we’ve got the new faces, ideas, and experiences one comes to expect at the beginning of every new academic year,
But we’ve also got a new curriculum. One that was tirelessly, and at times painstakingly, developed by the faculty here in order to address one of the most difficult questions facing any institution of higher learning. And that is: how do we provide a better quality education to our students? How do we improve on our methods?
It turns out that there is no simple formula that can guarantee success.
It takes the creativity, commitment, and cooperation of many working as one toward a common goal. The professors present here today deserve our congratulations for their efforts. I firmly believe that they have hit the mark.
We also celebrate the inauguration of our new President, Dr. Michelle Perkins. A woman who is passionate about her work, one who speaks incredibly well on our behalf at every given opportunity, and most importantly, one who is dedicated to the success and prosperity of this institution.
Such qualities are not easy to come by, and I for one am grateful that she’s here to support and guide us.
I’ve gotten into the habit of asking people why they came to NEC. And it isn’t so much out of curiosity, but to confirm some of my own reasons for being here.
I’m pleased to say that I’ve never quite succeeded in this, because I’ve never heard the same answer twice.
To me, this means that there’s a lot of good a lot of reasons for being here, and probably many for coming back. Whether you want to play hockey, or you love history or chemistry, you want to perform on a stage or speak before a crowd, New England College can make it possible.
I hope you look forward to the changes we’ve discussed with anticipation, because they are truly something to be excited about.
Phenomenal individuals have always been an incredible source of pride and inspiration for me. Throughout my life, I have enjoyed spending time learning from the invaluable experiences of exceptional people.
I have not only learned from listening to their stories, but observing their life journeys. I am particularly fascinated by the juicy nuggets hidden beneath the surface. Frequently, these pearls of wisdom provide motivation and encouragement. I am always wanting to share with others the power of their message. Let me tell you such a story, not with full sentences but with single words.
When you began your search for the 15th President of New England College, if I told you that you would find a president with such a long list of impressive qualities, you would say…..who is HE?
The answer…it ain’t a he…it is a she. It is Dr. Michele Perkins. I think of her as President Michele with one L. I call her a lioness… to understand her is imperative, to underestimate her is unwise.
Michele has the demeanor of a high powered aristocrat. Her genteel strength and power provides the shell for a highly intelligent, courageous woman. Michele’s drive, artistic background, and sense of humor helped create an impressive career in higher education.
Through my higher education research at University of Pennsylvania and my fifteen years as a college level administrator, I understand the daunting responsibility of being a college president. Some might say the presidency is about power, that style does not last or leaves no sustainable legacy. Others might say the presidency is about prestige and status, that thinking is much too self-absorbed. To be a truly transformative president, it is essential to that the leader understands their vocational calling and responsibility to the institutional mission.
President Perkins has “the right stuff”:
She knows that it is not about her. It is about the collective you - the institution. It is about the education, the advancement of knowledge, and the community of learners.
She finds the climate of higher education to be wonderful even in the moments that are troubling and hold unforeseen mystery.
She is not frightened of struggles and enjoys being thrown into the deep side of the pool. She has made a career out of learning on the fly and she has earned some gold medals.
In the simplest terms, she loves this school. Every students, faculty member, administrator, staff person, book, tradition, blade of grass, and crack in the sidewalk. She loves all the wonderful, incredible, special, and occasionally horrible parts of New England College. She was meant to lead this place at this time.