Inauguration Lecture, Christian Brothers University, Memphis, Tenn.
September 30, 2019
President Shannon, trustees of the Christian Brothers University, faculty, students and honored guests: It is such a pleasure — and an honor — for me to join you on the occasion of President Jack Shannon’s inauguration.
Jack and I go back a few years. … OK, more than a few … When I look at Jack today, I see an educator with the same hopeful outlook — the traits that enabled the two of us to tilt at windmills in Philadelphia, and succeed.
That is to the good fortune of Christian Brothers University. What Jack sets out to do here, Jack will achieve. But he will not do it alone. No college president can. He will work side-by-side with all of you, and it will be a shared mission and a shared success. So, before I continue, let me congratulate Jack, wish him well, and wish only the best for this university.
Now, I’ve been asked to talk about the future of higher education, and even comment on whether I think college is necessary anymore. I wouldn’t stand before you if I didn’t believe in the first proposition, and question the wisdom of the second. But we do have a problem in higher-ed. Somewhere along the line, higher education became a dirty word. Two words, actually.
States stopped investing and public opinion began to turn against colleges and universities. In Alaska, the governor recently suggested slashing funding to the University of Alaska by 40 percent.
But if the American economy is going to retain its dynamism, we need to understand the enormous value of a college degree. Higher education has helped to drive the U.S. economy, create jobs, spark innovation, transform the lives of millions of university graduates and even benefit those who do not go to college.
College graduates earn more money, live longer and are generally happier. They are also healthier, have better retirement and health benefits, pay more taxes and are more civically engaged, studies show. At the same time, cities and small towns that are home to universities benefit from the jobs, cultural life, research and other economic activity generated by a university.
Despite the benefits, a Gallup poll last year found only 48 percent of American adults have a “great deal’ or “quite a lot” of confidence in higher education – down from 57 percent in 2015. And the drop in confidence has coincided with funding cuts by many states. Since the Great Recession, state funding for public two- and four-year colleges is nearly $9 billion below where it was in 2008, after adjusting for inflation, according to a 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The funding cuts have contributed to increased tuition and spending cuts as universities scramble to balance budgets.
As the report noted, “At a time when the benefit of a college education has never been greater, state policymakers have made going to college less affordable and less accessible to the students most in need.”
So, if it’s so necessary, how do we secure its future? We need to recognize that it’s not just the political climate that threatens our mission: It’s also forces like demographics, regional differences and cost. We will deal with those forces as best we can, but I also believe that we secure our future by doing everything we are doing to remain relevant … And with this major difference: We need to look outside the ivy covered walls of academe. (At my university, by the way, I’ve given orders to rip out any ivy by the roots.)
We need to make our value proposition better. And to do that, we need to connect to the world around us. We show that it’s not just the future of our undergraduates at stake, and of import to us, but of everyone in our city, nation and beyond.
Let me sharpen that concept by quoting the words of a younger college president — and one, I might add, whose beard was not the salt-and-pepper version you see before you today.
The year was 2010. The place was Philadelphia. The occasion was Convocation, the official start of the academic year – but this year, it was also my inaugural address as the 14th president at Drexel University.
I told the assembled trustees, faculty and students that I wanted to summon the Drexel University community to action, and commit ourselves to bettering our shared community.
I asked, if our 19th Century founder Anthony Drexel were to walk through the campus today from
where his Drexel Institute was started, and into the surrounding neighborhoods, would he be satisfied that we are fulfilling our mission as an urban university? And I asked, ‘What are the moral and practical obligations of an urban university like Drexel to its community? Is Drexel University a good neighbor to the surrounding West Philadelphia communities of Powelton Village and Mantua?’
I told them, ‘I feel a sense of urgency given the continued deterioration of the public environment and housing
stock of these neighborhoods, which house well over 5,000 of Drexel’s undergraduate and graduate students.’
And I said that, ‘I know from hard-won experience and success that the worst thing to do is to ignore these problems or to study them to death.’ The best thing to do is to plunge in and address these challenges in a proactive and collaborative way, knowing that this will entail a long-term commitment.
I went on to make the case for committing to a significant, long-term partnership with our West Philadelphia community.
Let me quote a bit from that address, because it speaks to the very real opportunity here in Memphis.
First is a practical reason: The future of Drexel and our community are inextricably bound in a mutual self-interest that virtually dictates our support for one another.
Second, when we contemplate Drexel’s three-pronged mission of teaching, research and service, a proactive and unwavering commitment to our surrounding community helps us animate the service dimension of our mission, giving it sharp definition and real importance.
Similarly, Drexel has a moral obligation to its community as part of fulfilling its mission as a research university,
just as we have a moral commitment to make sure our students are safe, whether they live on or off campus.
Finally, our highest purpose as a University is to educate and prepare leaders who are capable of dealing with the great civic issues of our day, such as poverty, public education and the health of our cities. We do this in part by engaging them in meaningful civic activities, and letting them learn firsthand the joys and frustrations of public service at this most formative stage of their lives.
The partnership between university and community should be based on a number of principles.
First, the engagement should be comprehensive, built around dimensions of a healthy neighborhood,
a clean and safe public environment, affordable housing, strong public schools, retail and cultural amenities and good jobs.
Second, the engagement should be long-term: not an initiative, not a five-year plan, but a generational
partnership that transcends administrations and is upheld by the university’s faculty and trustees, its self-perpetuating bodies.
Finally, this engagement must center around solving real problems and making a difference — a neighborhood is not a “laboratory” for “experiments.”
My aspiration for Drexel University is for it to be the most civically engaged university in the United States, across all three dimensions of engagement: academic; student and employee voluntarism; and institutionally supported neighborhood investment.
That is fulfilling our mission as a truly great urban university.
That was 2010. Fast-forward to today, and I know these concepts will be familiar to Jack Shannon, your new president. This is where Jack’s heart is. He is not only committed to placed-based models of community engagement, but he wants to develop deep relationships with community partners in the immediate vicinity of the university.
It’s rather clear to me that you can take the man out of Philadelphia, but you cannot — nor would you want to — take the Philadelphia out of the man.
More than 20 years ago at the University of Pennsylvania, Jack and I grappled with these same challenges, as we implemented what we called the West Philadelphia Initiative. It has become the stuff of local legend, totally transforming Penn’s neighborhood and its relations with its neighbors.
Here in Memphis, your formalized work in civic engagement is in its early days, with the founding of the AutoZone Center for Community Engagement.
And the fact that this work will be informed and inspired by the proud LaSallian mission of community service and advocacy for social justice is a great and hopeful sign. You already have an admirable track record of work — through such initiatives as your impressive ‘September of Service’ and its month-long offering of service projects.
I think you’ll find that Jack Shannon’s ambitions for Christian Brothers University will build on what he has achieved in his two previous university posts, and carry that work to the next level.
Jack, I wish you every success.