Ushering in the Next 150 Years
President Foster’s Inaugural Address – WATCH THE VIDEO
October 4, 2013
About six weeks ago, toward the end of August just as we were gearing up for the new semester, I was interviewed for a research project on women presidents in higher education. The interview was modestly mind-bending and it was fun, asking about my career pathway, core values, mentoring, leadership, and more.
The session was winding down when the researchers posed one final combo question. Take yourself back, they directed, to when you were 18 years old. What, they asked, would be surprising or not to your 18-year old self about who you are today? Could you have imagined yourself as a college president?
I am going to take advantage of that question today, both to answer it, thereupon to give a cascade of thanks, and then to appropriate its topic to consider change over time at this special time in our history.
So, question. How surprising would all this be to my 18-year old self? Could I have imagined when exiting high school that some decades later I’d be a college president?
Answer: yeah, sure, why not? I was 18. Now as a practical matter, I did not imagine that. I had no idea what a college president did—even as a faculty member I had no idea—and couldn’t have known if the job would be amusing or enjoyable. At age 18, I think I was toying with the idea of being a cartographer, but mostly I was contentedly undecided about a major and a career. I just wanted to be in college.
Yet although I did not imagine being a college president, the fact that I could have imagined it is a testament to my parents, Robert and Sally Foster. They couldn’t make the trip from New Jersey, but they’ll hear about and see this someday soon, so please indulge me as I speak for a moment to them.
From my earliest memories, at every level from kindergarten on, you made clear that school was important, worthy of our exuberance and hard work, and equally worthy of your abiding interest. You thought your kids could do anything and you let us know that. You proudly told us stories of your college days, and committed early to paying for ours — wherever we decided to go and for whatever we decided to study, no matter the financial sacrifice.
Result? At age 18 I was entering college with confidence and no constraints, with freedom to follow my heart and head wherever they might lead. Imagine myself as a college president? That and anything else. What a gift. I know now how rare that is, how rare you are and how fortunate I am. Thank you, dear Mom and Dad, Bob and Sal.
Okay, let’s fast forward to the also true and possibly surprising rest of the answer. It is that I could have more imagined myself as a college president at age 18 than I could ever have, or did, imagine it as recently as three years ago.
That’s because I was, by traditional measures, unqualified for the position. Most all of my professional career spent in the Academy, yet never a VP, never a provost, never a dean, never even a full professor. Now given that I’m standing here anyway means that I must have – and now I ask the attention of UMF students especially – I must have written a great cover letter. It was good enough, but as I now realize, my true good fortune was knocking on the door of an unusually bold and imaginative community.
Thank you, then, first, to the members of the presidential search committee, almost all here today, for taking seriously that cover letter and showing enough curiosity to invite this non-traditional candidate for an interview.
Thank you also to my pre-Farmington friends and colleagues, a number of whom traveled a long way to join me today, for *not* laughing at me – at least not to my face – when I ventured that “er, uh, I know this sounds crazy but…” I’m applying for a college presidency.
Thank you also to the UMF students, staff, faculty, alumni, Board of Visitors members and other community leaders—so turned out in volumes today and so ably represented by my greeters. You asked hard questions, made me prove I wanted this, and have welcomed me warmly from the moment I arrived.
In the category of “you knew what you were getting,” thank you to the Chancellor and the then-only Vice Chancellor, both here today, who interviewed me for over five hours before giving up and offering me the job anyway. Thanks ultimately to the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, many here with us, who accepted the Chancellor’s recommendation and took a chance on an unknown from away.
And now a year in, I finally have the opportunity to publicly thank my predecessor presidents, two of whom, Sue Huseman and Theo Kalikow, join us on stage. By your good sense, your leadership, and your passion for this place, I have inherited a magnificent intellectual, social, and creative community. Thank you for doing your job so well.
Last but not least, immense thanks to the Inauguration Logistics Committee and its many helpers and affiliates from across the campus and beyond, all led by the formidable, fabulous and impressively detail-oriented Vice President Celeste Branham, who planned, organized and now execute this and all associated events. Turning this normally packed and pungent Recreation Center into a ceremonial space is merely the most immediate and visible of your accomplishments.
Having now wrung dry the question to give thanks, let me now exploit it to talk about its topic, change over time. I’ll start in the present, glance into the future, and dip back into the past before bringing us again to where we are here and now.
As a new university president I have become a staunch reader of higher education commentary, not least the weekly hardcopies of trade magazines, such as Inside Higher Education and the Chronicle of Higher Education. I admit I turn first to coverage of juicy scandals and academic “transitions.” I pay special attention to stories of new presidents getting fired in their first two years.
But then I branch out to other journal pages, and I fold in perspectives found in books, newspapers, blogs and other media.
One would have to be willfully uninformed to miss that higher education—all of education—is and has been for some years now in a “time of flux.” Observers in and out of the academy outline the perfect storm of demographics, technology, fiscal imperatives, and federal and state policy that is reshaping higher education as we know it.
Lately the drumbeat and fallout seem louder and more insistent. Three weeks ago, the New York Times Magazine carried the title, “Your Idea Here: The All-Out, All-Ages Overhaul of School is Happening Now.” Two weeks ago the Chronicle of Higher Education’s preview of new books included “Checklist for Change,” “Universities in a Changing Global Economy,” and “Disrupt or Be Disrupted.”
Underscoring education’s transformation was the profile included in the summer 2013 edition of Change, The Magazine of Higher Learning—note the title—describing today’s typical American college student as “a 30-year old independent and financially struggling woman who is attending community college part time and has family and work obligations.”
Then, just a few days ago, there appeared a special section of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Titled “Next: Shaking Up the Status Quo (and Why It’s So Hard To Do),” the 48-page insert included articles on “Who Drives Change on Campus?” “What are the Barriers to Innovation?” and “Surviving Disruption.”
Overt or implied in many of these pieces is an allegation: that the academy does not, cannot, or will not change. Change-averse, change resistant, change-opposed, the argument goes, the Academy is blissfully or stubbornly oblivious to what must be done.
Here is the most important thing I’ll say this afternoon: balderdash. That the Academy doesn’t, can’t or won’t change isn’t true. It’s a myth. Consider that:
- The Academy has jumped all over the Internet—we invented it (well, almost)—and the Academy has been central to advancing and applying the Internet’s power in research, teaching and communications.
- College curricula change constantly, shedding and adding courses, content, programs, and majors, and delivering these in a wider variety of modes to a wider group of learners than ever in history.
- Try to find a card catalogue in the university library, if it’s even called a library. Yes, you can still find books, for now, but it isn’t your grandfather’s library anymore, nor your father’s, nor even your big sister’s.
- And just one more: we processed this afternoon from a mixed use building that is 100% heated by geothermal energy and we will repair to another such building for the reception. Along the way, we’ll pass our temporarily fenced main quad, the grass on which is still curing from our summer project to drill 80 more geothermal wells. It’s true that many of the Academy’s buildings are decades old—that’s their charm—but not a year goes by that the campus physical plant stays the same.
But let me not protest too much. In myths are truths and it’s not hard to find in the Academy apprehension about change. Notwithstanding the demographic, fiscal, technological, and policy two-by-fours whacking our educational foreheads, we still might be hesitant to change course.
Why? Consider the University of Maine at Farmington and a possible thought process we might have. Maybe, we think, those factors and forces apply to other colleges but not to ours. We’re high quality, after all, an envied learning community. Our alumni love this place, and we have a strong and enduring bond with our surrounding community. That typical student profile is not our profile. We’re a residential, full-menu college offering degrees in the liberal arts, education, and professional fields. Our students are mostly traditional-age, full-time undergraduates who are guided by a brilliant and devoted and mostly full-time faculty. Daily we see evidence that our personal attention and the extra-curricular platform we provide are special and important, indeed they may be the most special and important experience of our students’ lives. Change this place? Why? The way we are now is the reason students, faculty, staff—and new administrators—are attracted to us in the first place.
Such a thought process signals our trepidation, but we’re not unconscious. We feel the forces of change, we see key enrollment and revenue trend lines bearing down on us, and we know the wagons of technology surround this place, too.
For these reasons, we at UMF embarked recently on a strategic planning process to set our direction and priorities in a changing world. To many, this is a tedious exercise, but I love planning. What I love most about it as an exercise and a field is that it’s fundamentally optimistic.
Planning rests in the logic that choices we make and actions we take today will lead to a better tomorrow. Planning traffics in possibility.
Because we’re still in the midst of our thinking, I can’t yet spoil the ending, but it’s already clear that we can expect—we do expect—the acceleration and deepening of change-driving trends and phenomena.
The most significant of these is digital technologies and the profound changes—here profound does not seem too strong a word—that they have wrought. We expect our students will demand exciting ways of using new technologies. (They should.) We expect these to include online options for at least some and maybe more than a little of their college experience.
We expect our students, who have become accustomed to customization, will expect a more personalized education. We expect to more precisely tailor materials and methods to a student’s individual needs.
In turn, we expect—and hope, really–that students will increasingly pursue individualized majors that marry two or more fields. And we expect to rethink the orthodoxy of—maybe blow up—the 15-week semesters, four concurrent courses per term, four years to a bachelor’s degree, and summers off. (Oh, wait, never mind. We’ll never change that last one.)
We expect students will seek even more active learning, internships and other practical engagement already the college norm. We also expect—this, too, is a hope—that students will pack their bags, really or figuratively, and pursue meaningful and life-changing cross-cultural and international opportunities.
In meeting these expectations we expect to be held accountable to document what our students are learning and effectively guide them across the college degree finish line. And we expect to do these things increasingly in partnership with independent colleges and our sister schools in the University of Maine and community college systems.
In short, we expect change.
One of the perks of my position is that I have access to the archives. It would be a joy in any year to learn the history of UMF, but it is a particular joy—and important responsibility—at the start of our 150th.
In recent weeks to prepare for this day and the year to come, I read the record to discover what experience we have, what DNA we might possess, what capacity and culture we might build upon to confidently and competently navigate the coming change-filled chapter.
Not surprisingly, the review revealed that change is one of our constants, as it would be for any place that has lasted 150 years. We regularly and not trivially changed our scope, functions, curriculum and offerings, tightening our belt when needed, and letting it out when we could. As one striking example of how our operation has changed—and not to give any crazy ideas to the Chancellor—consider that from the time our doors opened in 1864 until well into the 1900s, our president also performed the duties of admissions director, registrar, personnel director, budget director, facilities manager and chief custodian, in addition to teaching two or three subjects a term.
(Where are my presidential colleagues? We are so lightweight, my friends.)
In addition to habitual change, we changed episodically to achieve internal desires and external needs. In 1869 we founded and ran a campus-based Model School to provide practice for our elementary school teachers in training. (Incidentally, although we no longer run it, that model school is now the Mallett School on Middle Street, and it still provides our education students with classroom practice.)
In the 1880s, we responded to the State of Maine’s call for secondary school teachers by adding a third optional year to our program. In 1914, to better serve—and it appears to better monitor—our feisty female students, we built our first residence hall—Purington, for those familiar—altering the campus culture and adjusting our town-gown relations.
In 1933 as the professional standards for teachers continued to rise we made our third year mandatory and added an optional fourth. Within a dozen years the fourth year was also mandatory, a result of our conversion in 1945 from Farmington State Normal School to Farmington State Teachers College.
And disruptive change? We’ve had that, too. In the roughly three-year span from 1965 to 1968, a time, of course, of significant social change and one well within the memory of some here today, we dropped the word “teachers” from our name, dropped the century-old policy of having students commit to become a teacher, created a division of Arts and Sciences. offered non-teaching degrees for the first time, doubled enrollment from 500 to over 1,000, doubled the size of the faculty from 36 to over 70, built a dining commons, purchased and knocked down houses across Main Street to build a dorm complex, radically re-created our governance by joining the newly formed University of Maine System, and drew up plans for the brand spanking new Roberts Learning Center—so modern and fancy it was that one observer called it—and I quote—“positively sybaritic.” Oh, and for the first time in our history we allowed alcohol in the residence halls. (Don’t get any ideas—the legal drinking age was then 18.)
All of which leads to this conclusion about our capacity for change. Farmington: We Got This. Year after year, decade after decade, external force after internal driver, financial pressure after political exigency, possibility after possibility after possibility, we at UMF have anticipated, initiated and answered the call for change.
Surely it’s a record to celebrate and draw upon, and we shall in this historic year to come. Yet when we do, I propose that we also celebrate the most important finding from my survey of change, with which I will end today. It’s that important as change has been to our story, equally important has been our narrative of constancy. Of this, too, we can be rightly proud.
For 150 years, even as we changed, sometimes dramatically, we remained true to our best self. We never deviated from our North Star to nurture our students and support their dreams. And we retained our wit, our smarts, our authenticity, and our big-heartedness. In this, our sesquicentennial year, I commit to you that I will do everything I can and may to uphold these values.
Farmington, my decision to come here, to this dazzling and plucky university in this cool small town in this gorgeous region in this proud and wonderful state—that decision to fully change and disrupt my life—that decision was the best decision I ever made.
Thank you for your presence, your inspiration and support always, and your fine company as together we usher in our next 150 years.
Thank you very much.