Inauguration Ceremony, Weekend on South Hill 125th Celebration

November 4, 2017 in the Athletics and Events Center

Thank you, Tom. I appreciate your warm introduction--very generous-- and I deeply value the support you and the members of the board of trustees have given me as I begin my presidency at Ithaca College. 

Shortly after I was named president, I remembered having a very powerful conversation with Tom. We were discussing our shared work: the shared work of an institution’s president with its board of trustees. He told me that he and Dave Lissy, the vice chair of the board, and Jim Nolan, who headed the presidential search committee, had reflected on the relationship they hoped to build with me. They saw us, arm-in-arm, working together to move our college and our community forward. That image resonated deeply, and I thank him and the board of trustees for their trust and this partnership.

I want to welcome the members of the board who are joining us here today. And I also want to give a warm welcome Peggy Williams, the seventh president of Ithaca College and President Emerita. I am grateful to Peggy for her wise counsel and for her considerate work to connect me to not only the college’s history, but to the honor of this office.

Since I’ve arrived at IC, I’ve been telling everyone how amazing this moment would be: the Weekend on South Hill, where we bring together the Ithaca College community to celebrate our 125th anniversary. And we celebrate this entering, as Tom said, and Freeman said, a new era. I am pleased to report that I was right – this is an amazing moment! But I want to take a pause right now, and take this all in – thanking all of you for sharing this moment with me.

I am honored and thankful to have members of my family here today:

My father, who drove a Yellow Cab in New York City for over 30 years; he and I  had so many thoughtful conversations about my work ethic, my integrity, my path, and about my life. I will never forget those moments and how he reminds me on a regular basis the importance of humanity and and honest living.

My mother, who worked tirelessly in a factory, selflessly trying to figure out a way forward for our family; she demonstrated to me, so powerfully, so beautifully, what it means to be a resilient woman always leading with head and with heart.

My brother, Andres, who bravely risks his life everyday as a firefighter and paramedic. He is here with my niece, Jaydyn. I see so much promise in Jaydyn; she's at an age where she’s thinking about college and looking forward to her next steps in life, to what she can be in the future.

And my brother, Steven, who cannot be here today; I know he is watching via livestream as he recovers from a work injury.

Success does not happen in isolation. It is dependent upon community, upon love and respect—both for yourself and for others. 

I want to express my incredible gratitude and deep love for my husband, Van. We made this decision as a team, to open this new chapter in Ithaca. He is my supportive partner, my trusted confidant. And you should know the poem he read today was a complete surprise to me. I am so touched by his thoughtful gift of words, and his loving support of my journey as a human being and as someone who is so fired up about working hard in higher education. Thank you, Van.

I want to offer my deepest thanks to my mentor Julia Alvarez, who gave such a wonderful blessing to my family and me this morning. Julia has long been an inspiration, and you should know she was the first person go ever give voice to my experience on the page as a fellow Dominicana. For me, it is very significant for her to share this moment with me, not only introducing the love of my life, but also giving my family  and me such a blessing on this special day. Thank you, Julia.

And Dr. Freeman Hrabowski: There aren't enough words! Thank you for your powerful words. Freeman has been a force within my circle of mentors for many years, and played a critical role in shaping--as did so many of my mentors in the audience: Deb Bial, Nancy Cantor, so many of you are here-- in really critically shaping my path to bring me here to this moment at Ithaca College.

Moments like these, which bring together families, close friends, mentors, and colleagues, are among the most profound expressions of the importance of having a support system of people in your life who help you on your path. Success does not happen in isolation. It is dependent upon community, upon love and respect—both for yourself and for others. 

This is what this celebration is about this morning. Not just this morning, though: this weekend, as we reflect on the evolution of Ithaca College. We celebrate the institution’s founding as a music conservatory 125 years ago and the many relationships that enabled this incredible college to flourish and grow.

Today, Ithaca College has more than 6,500 students, supported by almost 750 faculty and 900 staff. In 1892, 125 students of all ages enrolled at the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. They were taught by eight teachers and two lecturers. It shouldn’t be lost that the first students were predominantly women, and indeed, the first graduating class was entirely all women. The conservatory gave those women training for one of the few professions readily available to them at the time: that of a music teacher. If only they could see us now!

From the start, the conservatory offered a rich experience in the arts, one that was equally rigorous in its academic depth and its cultivation of creative expression. The conservatory was a place where one could gain an education steeped in three elements: theory, practice, and performance. These anchors of the conservatory experience remain major anchors of our institution today. They guide not only our educational vision, but they also impact how our graduates, how our students, how our faculty and staff—experience, explain, and influence our world.

Forty-six years ago, the college’s fifth president, Ellis Phillips, delivered his inaugural address. I see in his words a thread that connects to my own.

Speaking on the plans for Ithaca College’s future, President Phillips made thecase that the college should move toward a blending of its professional and liberal studies into an educational experience seldom found at the baccalaureate level. His address proposed the building of “the future of Ithaca College on the experience of the past but with a new emphasis of unity in diversity and facility of movement and communication.”

He added that “many colleges are groping for this blend of the professional and liberal studies … and we have a chance here to maintain a distinct tradition and to lead others who may wish to follow in our footsteps.”

So, how does Ithaca College do that today? How do we continue to establish ourselves as a trailblazer in this shifting landscape of higher education, in our shifting world? How do we continue as an institution to embrace a dynamic liberal arts core and doesn’t shy away from the power of professional education? The answer lies where it always has: in theory, practice, and performance.

Theory. The theoretical underpinning found at Ithaca College drives us to dig deeply into the pursuit and acquisition of knowledge, into the desire to understand our world and the fields of study that captivate our minds. This is a place where deep intellectual inquiry and the mastery of established knowledge takes place—along with the understanding that academic inquiry doesn’t end inwhat is already known. 

Because we are an intimate, residential college and learning community, we are uniquely positioned to hone this discipline in a way that larger institutions cannot. Here, we don’t simply study theory. We live it.

Yesterday’s academic symposium illustrated this beautifully. On a stage shared with thought leaders, scholars, artists, activists, and practitioners from around the country, Ithaca College demonstrated how powerfully we can activate theory. Our talented faculty, staff, students, and alumni shared their work and their passions, combining different theoretical orientations in unlikely spaces. Professor Alex Reed used punk music to explain embodied knowledge and the postures and gestures of literature, politics, and science. Professor Luke Keller explored the application of skills traditionally developed in the arts and humanities to advance scientific discovery.

I name only two educators, but here on our campus there are hundreds more—people who found their way to IC through the academy and their their professional practice. All of them provide the rich, holistic educational experience and active intellectual community that Ithaca is known for.

Students don’t arrive on campuses with the same social capital, with the same confidence, with the same knowledge base. And many students have to fight for a seat at the table.

Our students, too, are empowered codesigners of their educational experience, and master theory to express their truth. We saw this so profoundly yesterday, through the partnership between Professor Kathleen Mulligan and acting student Fiorella Fernandez. Kathleen’s project, called Searching for Ancestral Voices, asks her students to inhabit another life, another way of being in the world. Fiorella’s expression of this task was to connect with another generation—her grandmother—to express the essence of her existence, to open a portal into an elder’s past.

Practice. Within the deep practice of theory, there is often difficulty and struggle. Practice requires a diligence of study, the vulnerability of courageous intellectual inquiry, the power of taking risks and of being open to challenge long-held assumptions.

It is important for Ithaca College—and all institutions of higher education—to provide a brave space for the practice of theory. Inherent in this responsibility is a commitment to honor different kinds of knowledge, and different ways of seeking it.

I am reminded of the work of political scientist Scott Page and of Lani Guinier, a law scholar and civil rights theorist, researchers whose philosophical and empirical approaches explore the power and potential found in working with cohorts, in recognizing the sophistication and knowledge that lies beyond academic merit. Their research demonstrates so well what happens when boundaries are erased. When we open our definition of knowledge to encompass its practice and creation in unlikely places—and through unlikely connections.

Because the reality is -- as my dear mentor, colleague, and friend Dr. Nancy Cantor often reminds us -- not everybody starts on first base. Students don’t arrive on campuses with the same social capital, with the same confidence, with the same knowledge base. And many students have to fight for a seat at the table. We were horribly reminded of this in September, with the federal decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy, which enables “dreamers” to pursue their educational aspirations in the United States.

We see that struggle, too, in the experiences of first-generation college students, who don’t always have a path to follow; Who arrive at a college campus, as I did, with the sense of displacement that comes with landing in a very unfamiliar place, a space that doesn’t always expect to change with you.

I was reminded of that experience when I learned the story of Clarice Jones, the first known student of color to attend the Ithaca Conservatory of Music, who graduated in 1912. I imagined what it must have been like for her; I felt connected to her.

It is difficult to be the first, to open these doors, either as an individual or as an institution. But it is necessary.

If we in higher education fail to take risks, to broaden our scope, we fail our society. We help perpetuate a narrow worldview, one that demands an attitude of distance and disengagement. In our country right now, we are seeing what happens when people hide—when they act on their fear, their bias, their rigidity of thought. In these situations, there is no creative practice, there is only dogma.

To move past this, we must build educational models that force us to look in the mirror, to think about how we can test the boundaries of who gets to be a scholar, who gets to be an educator, who gets access to educational spaces. We move past these barriers through transformative initiatives like The Posse Program, which shaped my own undergraduate experience by providing me a faculty mentor and a cohort of Posse scholars who were invested in my success.

When boundaries disappear, we can realize the full potential of a residential college campus where everyone is welcome to practice deep intellectual inquiry, and everyone is empowered to collaboratively create and consume knowledge.

Performance. Ithaca College’s deep roots in the performing arts continues to infuse the spirit of our great institution. But for us to thrive over the next 125 years, we must continue to expand our definition of what it means to perform.

Performance is ultimately about being responsible for our future, for modeling what our ideal world will look like. When we drive toward this ideal, we can fulfill our responsibility to be a private college that truly serves a public good.

One way we do this work is on campus, by crafting a residential college experience that pushes the envelope of established practice. I look forward to developing a model here at IC that positions us as a leader in creating an innovative, inclusive student experience, while acknowledging the cross-sector learning opportunities that a residential college can provide our faculty and staff.

Our location and our networks also make this possible. We exist in a rich educational ecosystem here, one that includes a robust community college that spans two counties, a high caliber K-12 experience, and a land-grant Ivy League institution. We have community partners who are committed to the promise of this city, this town, and this region. We have an engaged, deep, and talented alumni base of partners who are commited to serving as mentors and volunteers. The possibilities for productive, transformative collaborations are limited only by our gumption.

When we scale up these connections, we allow people to participate fully in a broad, active learning community; we inspire the development of bravery, courage, respect, empathy, and humanity. When we do these things—when we perform in this outward-facing way—we build partnerships that change us and change our world.

This weekend, we are celebrating the evolution of Ithaca College: how we began, the multitude of ways we have grown, and our hopes for the future.

There are many examples where evolution is used as a justification for oppression. For the supremacy of one species over another, one ethnic group over another. That’s not us. Our evolution is equity. Our evolution is inclusion. It is growth. It is our acknowledgement and celebration of our past. It is an eager anticipation of what will happen next.

I’d like to go back to that vision that Tom Grape shared with me many months ago—a vision of collaboration, of togetherness. It reminds me that success is not about competition—it is about the company you keep.

And as I look around, I can say with great confidence that we are keeping some amazing company right now. 

All of us here have the power to create an exceptional future for higher education and for this country. This is an incredible opportunity—and we cannot let it pass us by.

Let’s work together to advance a vision that affirms our humanity. Let’s be daring. Let’s be confident. And let’s step – arm in arm – boldly into the future.

Thank you.