Nancy A. Roseman delivered the following address during her inauguration as Dickinson's 28th president on September 28, 2013.
I am so excited and honored to be standing here today as the first woman to serve as president of Dickinson College. As I’ve said to many of you, this was a relationship born of mutual agreement: I picked you as much as you picked me.
People keep asking me if I’ve had any surprises since I’ve arrived. They seem to be looking for a shadow to fall across my optimism and delight in my new job. I think it is that human part of us that can’t help reading the cover of the National Enquirer while standing at the grocery check out, looking for some bad news that somehow gives us pleasure. The surprise is that I haven’t had any heart dropping surprises. Instead, the Dickinson I came to know, appreciate and admire as a candidate is the Dickinson I have come to know as its President. This is an extraordinary community, working together with common purpose, united in this enterprise of educating generation after generation of young people in the liberal arts.
Dickinson has many admirable qualities, but I believe that some of Dickinson’s most admirable qualities are its transparency and its integrity. Dickinson backs up its claims with action; it doesn’t make false claims about its identity or its purpose. When we say we have a global perspective, we do. When we say we embrace sustainability in terms of our behavior and our intellectual pursuits, we do. When we say that we teach in such a way that crosses disciplinary boundaries, we do that too. In fact, we do all of those things very, very well. We are an institution that has much clarity in its philosophy and in its priorities. Speaking plainly, what you see is what you get.
What you get is a college very, very proud of its history, its deep roots in the very beginnings of this democracy. The founders of this college recognized that the American experiment is entirely dependent on an engaged and educated citizenry. And because many here today were here during Bill Durden’s presidency, I KNOW without a doubt that you are very well versed in Dickinson’s history, and our founder Benjamin Rush in particular, but for our out-of-town guests, I’d like to say just a few words. Dickinson is extremely proud to be the first college chartered after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which officially ended the Revolutionary War and began America’s journey as an independent and free nation. When the original building on this site was destroyed by fire in 1803, the construction of the building you see behind me, Old West, was made possible by donations from Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Marshall among others. This building is testament to their support for the ideals of the college’s educational mission and its values, as well as a testament to their friends and revolutionary colleagues, John Dickinson and Benjamin Rush—Rush being the founder of Dickinson which he named in honor of John Dickinson.
There are many phrases that encapsulate Dickinson’s philosophy and history. These are constants within our community of Dickinsonians, and we are rightly proud of them. I believe the one that captures our spirit, and certainly captured me from the moment I read it, was Rush’s charge, now well over 200 years ago, for Dickinson to produce engaged and useful citizens for society, because without such citizens, the American experiment is doomed to failure instead of flourishing.
What does that mean for Dickinson today?
Today, our mission is to prepare young people so they can successfully navigate the mid-21st century. To do so, we build a class as diverse as possible, so that it best represents the world and society our graduates will eventually enter. We build a curriculum and a culture that immerses our students in questions about climate change and sustainability; we bring the world to Dickinson and send Dickinsonians out into the world; we give our students hands-on experience across the curriculum; and we accentuate connections between and within the disciplines we teach.
What you get at Dickinson is a quintessential residential liberal-arts experience, but with a twist of practicality—what we call around here, a useful liberal-arts education. While many of our peers are now discovering the need to prepare their students for the future by developing a global perspective in their curriculum, breaking down disciplinary boundaries, and touting the importance of sustainability, here at Dickinson, this is simply what we do and have been doing for many, many years. We take pride in preparing our students, giving them the tools and self-confidence to navigate their personal and professional lives in a world full of complexity and difference.
We take pride in the social enterprise that is at the core of our pedagogical approach. We are a high-touch place with an average class size of 17 students and no classes, no classes, larger than 50. Here at Dickinson, we believe that close engagement between faculty and student, and close engagement between students from all walks of life, is the hallmark of the best educational experience possible.
As I said, what you see is what you get. This is the experience and preparation for life that Dickinson proclaims as its mission.
Now, the same is true for me. What you see is what you get—the product of a liberal-arts education, but more specifically, a residential liberal-arts experience. At Smith College, I was surrounded by women from all walks of life and from all over the world. Their political views, life experience, fashion sense, dreams for themselves were distinctive and often at odds with my own. I learned something valuable from each and every one of them, with perhaps the most profound lesson being that I learned to respect them, even as I differed with them.
I began college without any preconceived notion of what I wanted to study, but I fell in love with biology. However, I also loved literature, political science, history, and art history. A liberal-arts curriculum allowed me to indulge and stretch myself. It allowed me, as it allows our students here at Dickinson, to make connections across disciplines and provides me with a base of knowledge and interests that have served me throughout my life. My life is so much richer because of its breadth. I may have been the only microbiology graduate student in Oregon who spent her Sunday’s reading the New York Times at the lab bench while my reactions were running. My graduate advisor often chided me for this, as I should have been reading “Cell” or “The Journal of Virology”. To be clear, I read those too. I found it sad, really, that to him, my reading the Arts and Leisure section was a waste of time. I think not. Thank goodness my life is not so one-dimensional. Thank goodness I went to a liberal-arts college.
I am acutely aware of how my college experience shaped me, and of the many ripples in my life that surround and support me in this particular moment. My mom and dad and my sister, who have always supported whatever crazy decisions and paths I have taken in my life. If someone could have whispered in their ears decades ago that I would be standing here today, well maybe they would have worried less. It was my mom who gave me the subscription to the Sunday New York Times each year for my birthday while I was in graduate school. Thanks, mom. And I remember my dad’s reaction when I called to tell him my salary for my first job in academia. As a post-doc in 1987, I received the standard federal grant stipend of about $17,000. Compared to my graduate school stipend, I was about to live large. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone, and he said “But you have a Ph.D.!”, and I said, “I know! That’s why they are paying me so much!”
My wife Lori, who has taken this, and other leaps of faith, with me. But more importantly, makes it possible for us to take these leaps in the first place. I am so grateful for how rich you make my life. You bring it color where otherwise it would be gray.
I so appreciate my cousins and friends and former students who have traveled here today, some from great distances. So many of our close friends from Williamstown and Williams College are here, and I am so excited that they are getting a taste of what a truly historic liberal-arts college is all about given that Williams has only been around since 1793! Thank you for being here. I have to tell you that being a Red Devil requires no explanation, unlike being a Purple Cow.
Lori’s family who joins us from Green Bay, thank you for making the trek. To Lori’s mom who couldn’t be here today, your love and support means so much to both of us.
Delegates, deans who have come to celebrate one of their own, I’m so glad you are here.
And then there is my friend Morty Schapiro. Having you here today means so much to me and to Lori. I will always be proud to have been your Dean for seven years at Williams College, and I will always be thankful that you are part of my life.
To the Dickinsonians who sit behind and in front of me, thank you for your good wishes and confidence in me, but especially for your love and support of your college, it deserves it and it deserves your pride.
There has been quite the team of people that made all this happen for this past week. They have worked incredibly hard feeding lots of people, and making this campus look more beautiful than ever. In particular, I want to thank Elizabeth Meikrantz for throwing this week-long party on behalf of me and Dickinson.
Also here today is someone whose very presence says so much about what a residential liberal-arts college is all about. My biology professor and advisor from Smith College, Richard Olivo, is here today. Richard gave me some very useful advice along the way, planted some seeds in my head, and those seeds sprouted into an academic career that has come to fruition today. When I first heard that he was coming here today as the delegate from Smith, I was very pleasantly surprised, but I quickly realized, of course he’s here. It is what these places, these institutions, are all about. If one of my former students was being inaugurated, you bet I would be there! Yes, this is a celebration of Dickinson, but it is also a moment to reflect on the transformative power of a residential liberal-arts experience. The relationships that form between student and teacher that evolve into student and mentor and sometimes colleague.
These are special places, these residential liberal-arts colleges, and they provide a stage for very intimate and powerful things to happen.
Please indulge me as I tell you a Dickinson story, that for me is a wonderful encapsulation of Dickinson’s trajectory as a college and as an institution bound up in our nation’s history.
In late August, on first-year move-in day, I was walking across Britton Plaza, on my way to address the first-year class for the very first time. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a father and daughter, both of whom I had met earlier in the day, as they said their last goodbyes. They were in a powerful and deeply poignant embrace, one that was full of complex meanings rooted in the present and in the past.
Those two had traveled a long way, literally and figuratively. Literally, because this family had traveled all the way from Norway to Carlisle to fulfill the daughter’s dream to attend college in the U.S., and specifically at Dickinson, and part of the energy and heartbreak of that embrace was that I am sure both were keenly aware of the distance that was about to be between them.
But there was something else that I think was filling their hearts at that moment, and that was the realization that, as a family, they had come full circle back to Dickinson. You see, father and daughter are the grandson and great-granddaughter of Esther Popel, of Harrisburg, Pa., who in 1919 became the first African-American woman to graduate from Dickinson College. Of course, Dickinson has been admitting women since 1884, something Williams College didn’t get around to doing for another 86 years.
Esther Popel was an outstanding student at Dickinson. At graduation, she was awarded our top academic prize, the Senior Patton Memorial Prize for high scholarly standing, and she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa. However, in 1919, Esther, as well as ALL African American students, were not permitted to live in a college dormitory, but were instead commuters. She was denied the joy and benefits of the residential experience we prize so highly. After she graduated, Esther Popel led a remarkable and, as a good Dickinsonian, very engaged life. She taught for most of her life, particularly foreign languages as she had studied four, and was an accomplished writer and poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Her poetry bluntly and beautifully expresses the reality of black oppression, and challenges her audience to confront the contradiction between the American ideal and its reality. Having read some of her poems, and her writings on racism, it doesn’t do her justice to simply describe her as a talented, remarkable and courageous woman, but she was.
Then fast forward 20 years to when Esther’s daughter, Patricia, applied to and was admitted to Dickinson, but was still bound by the same racist housing practices that existed for her mother. Fortunately, these practices were finally abolished a decade later. Patricia ultimately chose to go to college elsewhere. But despite how we treated her and her daughter, Esther continued to value her Dickinson education. In 1955 Esther responded to a Dickinson survey and wrote that the greatest strength of Dickinson is: “The close ties between students and faculty. Small classes made this possible and the close bond of sympathy and understanding of faculty members with their students was most helpful, inspiring and stimulating … ” She then goes on to list a number of her “great” teachers, who “gave inspiration and mental stimulation to their fortunate students.” She proudly describes herself as one of Dickinson’s “daughters”.
So, while Esther considered herself a daughter of Dickinson, how did her great-granddaughter, Thera Iversen of Oslo, Norway, come to resume that tradition?
Well, Patricia, Esther’s daughter, went to Howard, not to Dickinson, and like the good Dickinsonian she should have been, Pat was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship which allowed her to return to Oslo, Norway, where she had spent a summer while at Howard. There, she fell in love with Mr. Iversen, made her home, led a full and accomplished life, and had two sons.
Esther’s history remained dormant until Dickinson Professor of English and American Studies, Sharon O’Brien, asked the question: “Who was our first African-American woman graduate?” She uncovered the story of an outstanding Dickinsonian and, again, in good Dickinsonian fashion, went to Norway to interview the family for her research. As a result of Sharon’s work, Esther Popel was awarded a posthumous honorary degree in recognition of her outstanding achievements. We brought Esther’s two grandsons and her great-granddaughter, Thera, to Carlisle for the festivities. During that visit, Thera, who has a love of writing just like her great-grandmother, toured our campus and decided Dickinson was for her, and here she is, a proud member of the class of 2017; international student, legacy student, returning to a place that fully embraces her in all her historical complexity, as she and her father embraced each other in that moment on Britton Plaza. We are thrilled that she is here.
If Esther were here today, she would see a Dickinson that fully embraces diversity in all its forms. A college that purposefully reflects society and the world, so as to better prepare our students for that world. A college that proudly cites developing cultural competency as one of its core missions. She would find that Thera was just one of many international students here at Dickinson, that the college is no longer the very strong regional college it used to be; it is an institution with a national and international reach. Our students, and our faculty, come from all over the country, and all over the world.
However, while the world changes around us, and at times we thankfully do change with it, overall Dickinson’s core values remain unchanged.
Our purpose is to instill intellectual habits that will last a lifetime and enrich not only one’s professional life, but one’s personal life as well. The ability and habit to think flexibly, to be able to integrate information and see connections across seemingly disparate fields, to think critically, be adaptive, to be able to make and support an argument (not just make stuff up). I believe that a liberal-arts education gives you the ability, when confronted with an assignment, a social situation, a task that stretches you intellectually and personally, allows you with confidence, skill, and grace, to navigate that challenge. As I say frequently, having a liberal-arts degree means that you have the confidence to say to yourself: “I have no idea how to do that, but I’ll figure it out.”
At Dickinson, we don’t hesitate to declare our intention to produce engaged citizens. We expect our graduates to be active participants in their communities. We should be very proud of the fact that in a recent poll of Dickinsonians, 85% of all respondents indicated that they vote, a rate 50% higher than the national average. We should be very proud of the fact that 90% of these Dickinsonians volunteer in their communities, and that 95% contribute to non-profit organizations. Now, that’s what I call a return on investment. I prefer to measure the success of our graduates by what they contribute, not by what they earn.
Of course, we cannot ignore the financial strain that attending a private liberal-arts college of the caliber of Dickinson places on families, especially as real income remains flat, and the income divide in our nation widens. There are many educational paradigms in the marketplace, of which a private liberal-arts college is just one. As many of you know, less than 3% of all college graduates receive the kind of experience that Dickinson and its peers provide. However, as Esther Popel and generations of Dickinsonians before and after her have come to appreciate, this is an educational experience that is unique and nourishes and supports our graduates for a lifetime. What we, as a college and as a society must ensure is that this does not become an educational experience that is accessible only to the elites of society, that a liberal-arts education in particular, and education in general, does not become a luxury good.
In his 1975 inauguration speech, Dickinson President Samuel Banks articulated the mission of the liberal arts in this way: “The arts and sciences join in sharpening the awareness and sophistication of the learner, leading him to recognize reality more fully.” I find that a profoundly satisfying description, particularly given our propensity today to just make stuff up, ignore scientific evidence, and distill complex issues into sound bites. I am proud to say that I am president of an enterprise that helps people “recognize reality more fully.”
We must be very strategic in how we think and plan for Dickinson’s future. The decisions we make, the priorities we set. We must plan for the changing demographics of our society and its increasing economic polarization. We must plan for a world of shifting economies and with increasingly invisible boundaries. However, as the demographics shift around us, as the world changes, our mission should not. Our model is sound. Our product is sound and needed now more than ever.