Strategic Meeting on the Future of Dickinson
Board of Trustees Strategic Meeting on the Future of Dickinson
Chauncey Center, Princeton, New Jersey, October 17, 2003
Opening Remarks of President William G. Durden
I stand before you today as President of Dickinson College and as an alumnus. I share with many of you in this room a common ground in the course of our respective lives as alums or those related to alums. As President, I have the obligation to provide leadership and vision and to secure more than adequate resources so that the College may realize its highest aspirations. Mere maintenance is not an option for me-it is not a career goal. I welcome the responsibility to lead at Dickinson-to press hard, persuasively and relentlessly for what I believe advances materially the financial and reputational status of the College. This is my commitment-to do just that. And I take this obligation most personally. Dickinson is obviously for me not a mere job.
Again, I am an alum. The school is an inextirpable part of my identity. As an alumnus, I must also exercise a leadership role by assuming "ownership" of the College. This is my College-my ONLY undergraduate college. It is an independent college-not subject to continuous support from taxpayers for its operation-thus, its well being, its very future truly depends upon my active involvement, my active ownership of it and that of every other alum.
To "own" our college is to acknowledge it proudly and publicly as part of oneself and to commit to its long-term success as a proprietor-actions that extend well beyond mere interest, curiosity, and critique. To "own" the College may seem like an odd use of a verb in this context-legality is not at issue-control is not at issue-standing in judgment is not at issue-fickleness is not at issue-durable commitment is-unflinching obligation is-constant pride is. To embrace this active gesture of ownership is to align Dickinson and its graduates with the practices of those most outstanding institutions who decade after decade flourish and lead in American higher education. These institutions are "owned" by their various constituencies-by especially, their alumni and friends-for a lifetime without dispute. Our 18th century sister college here in Princeton is a sparkling example of such overwhelming ownership with the highest percentage of alumni giving of a college or university in the United States.
Today, we enter a period of intense preparation to embark potentially upon the most significant devotion to our College in its history. Developing and permanently instilling a sense of ownership in Dickinson College among its most important constituencies is ultimately what this resolve and, in fact, our collective future, is all about.
As I prepared this morning's remarks, I found myself reflecting on why I chose to return to Dickinson as President. This was not a life's ambition. It did not drive all my actions to this point. So why did I accept the gracious offer to become President of my alma mater?
As an alumnus, I have always known that Dickinson is a very special place with advantages that few, if any, other colleges can replicate-a place that has given me a highly competitive education, incredible opportunity and advantage and a personal drive that intends no harm to others, but indeed is obliged to produce for what I and others I value, consider as worthy. Intellectual rigor, appropriate ambitions and a commanding sense of civility were instilled at the right time at Dickinson in this first-generation college student by dedicated faculty. They contributed significantly to forming who I am and how I live my life. I am Dickinson's outcome. And I am here now to give back. It is that important to me-this college-Dickinson.
That said, as an alumnus, I have always had a nagging sense of frustration, the sense that Dickinson has never received the attention, recognition and financial resources it deserved to truly excel and to be fully what it was intended to be-"First in America," according to our founder.
I chose to come back to Dickinson as President because I saw its future-an opportunity wedded to a noble ideal far bigger than my self. A presidential transition takes into consideration the many and diverse contributions of past presidents and presents an institution with a window of opportunity and intent within which great strides and accomplishment can be advanced. I sensed that the time was right for Dickinson to make those strides-to build on the best of its past by facing vigorously the ambitions and innovations of its future. I asked tough questions of myself and the College before I agreed to come back. I was looking for expressions from key constituencies of the passion, the resolve, "the fire," that ultimately gets big, challenging things done. The College was indeed ready-it was restless; it was prepared to fulfill its historic mandate and to do all that it could to make sure future generations possess the same intent. You see, I like to build institutions and communities-to bring them to the next level of accomplishment and intensity. It's seemingly messy work, but when achieved well and in a disciplined manner, the aesthetics are sublime-there is an almost classical proportion to the outcome. You know when you have arrived.
I sensed that there was a special alignment-a hunger even-in the making that would allow Dickinson to leap forward permanently-an alignment comprised of the excellence and innovation of our faculty; the energy, ability and promise of our incoming students; and the beginnings of a new appreciation and level of philanthropic giving among our alumni and friends. This alignment rested on a solid foundation-an approach to a liberal arts education that was rooted in American Revolutionary thought and is distinctive to Dickinson. We all just didn't appreciate fully this incredible gift and strategic advantage of identity and purpose rooted in the very founding of the United States. We didn't know it in order to own it. Now we do. Other highly respected figures in higher education are watching us closely now as we move forward. There is a sense of expectation in the public that Dickinson has indeed something distinctive to offer American higher education at this moment and that it knows how to manage itself and lead.
Since I returned to Dickinson as president, I have, as you all well know, spent considerable time telling our leadership story, mining our historic beginning and particularly the vision our founder, Dr. Benjamin Rush, had for the College. Rush founded Dickinson so that it would offer an education that would move the new nation forward. It was not to be a passive education that isolated students from the world, but an active and engaged one for students and faculty alike. According to Rush, a distinctive American undergraduate education presents "a new class of duties" for its graduates to assume under a brilliant new form of government. Today, Dickinson's commitment to offer a liberal arts education that is useful, that engages the world, that is designed to prepare tomorrow's citizen leaders is at our very core. It shapes, defines and directs everything we do and it places us in stark, defining contrast to other liberal arts colleges. We know who we are and who we are not. We are infused with respectful confidence.
Our College was founded during an extraordinary period in our nation's history and it was intended, from its very inception, to play a pivotal role in our country's future. I think it is fair to say that our nation today faces a future that is as uncertain, as challenging and as full of opportunity as the one our founders encountered at the end of the 18th century. The 21st century-which was recently referred to as the "Century of Complexity"-will demand the leadership of those who can think and act globally, who can draw connections among seemingly disparate trends, who can build a team for accomplishment with people from widely diverse cultures, and who have the broad vision, passion, and tenacity to get things done. These are the characteristics of a Dickinsonian. These are the skills and abilities our College was intended to develop in our graduates. This is what we have to offer our country and our world. It is distinctive and it will be the distinguishing mark of Dickinson College in the 21st century.
My four and a half years as President of Dickinson College have only served to confirm the potential I saw. We have seized abruptly that window of opportunity and made extraordinary strides. The College has energy and there is a feeling of perpetual motion for extraordinary purpose on campus. Our faculty and students do not shy away from the challenges of this complex, global world-they embrace and hunger for them. They are ready, we are ready to become the leader in defining the liberal arts education for the 21st century. And we are currently hitting squarely our ambitious, yet reasonable and necessary objectives on a yearly basis-academic reputation, funding and admissions. This bodes well, indeed.
But we have only just begun. We have not yet "arrived"; we have not yet fulfilled our historic ambition. We have very high, yet appropriate standards. They are the standards that any community must possess to achieve leadership and high accomplishment.
As President, I stand ready to lead this College to the ambition for which it was originally founded. (We do nothing here but that based on original intent-that is the magic of our efforts.) It is an ambition that has always been annoyingly just beyond its grasp and a destiny I am confident is now within reach. This is what I guess a good part of my life was to be-to accomplish this objective with you and for us. And I'm going to do it with your help. We have no alternative.
As an alumnus, I stand ready to take ownership of and responsibility for this distinctive college-my college. But I shall not do it alone. No one should. I know that you know this. We are a community that is marked by a high level of gratitude for our College-what the College has done for us and a conviction of what it can and must still do for generations to come. But conviction is baseless if it does not convert to action and results. (Yes, we are of a distinctively American mind in this commitment to a practical disposition.) It is here that we shall now resolve to distinguish ourselves. The alumni body and the Board of Trustees serve as the self-perpetuating and connecting thread that links our historic past to our promising future. Presidents and administrators may come and go (I accept this gratefully). My tenure as president will come to an end, but I will always be an alumnus. And as an alumnus, I must join my fellow graduates and members of the Board of Trustees now to establish a sustaining and stabilizing foundation upon which the College can continue to excel. The future of Dickinson College is in our collective hands. This is our moment to be idealistic in the best sense of the word-to leave our College better than we found it. What could be better than to be known, in part, for this as your human legacy. You and I benefited from an educational notion dear to the founders of our country and we can now refine it-we can secure it. What a rare opportunity to engage such a big idea-to make such a significant difference-in any lifetime.
It is time for Dickinson to engage transformation-an engagement that will allow us to alter permanently the way in which we care for our college and how we capitalize its assets-which are really our collective assets. We have an extraordinary and committed faculty. We are attracting students with the promise of developing into true Dickinsonians. It is now our collective obligation and opportunity to provide them with the resources to allow them to fulfill destiny. . . .
Today is not a time for restraint. This is not a time "to go gently into the good night." That would be most disappointing, indeed. And this is not the administration's position-it is our position. Many good people-trustees, alumni, students, parents, faculty and staff-have brought us to this critical point. As committed alumni, friends, and members of the Board of Trustees, you will be asked to carry this message forward as, together, we "re-ignite the revolution" for Dickinson College in the 21st century. Give me, give to ourselves today, the signal to "go for it"-to get it right for Dickinson College. To engage the most rare opportunity to complete a singular, very personal ambition of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and his friends, all of whom built this country-Dickinson, Madison, Marshall, Taney, Duval, Girard. We own together, as our 18th century founders owned together, the challenge and distinctive opportunity to contribute to Dickinson history and to solidify our personal and collective legacy. Ownership is transformation is accomplishment. Let us resolve today that this be so for our College. Thank you in advance.