August 26, 2015

Inspiring Distinction

In Dana Auditorium on Aug. 26, 2015, Guilford College President Jane K. Fernandes delivered “Inspiring Distinction,” her Inaugural Address:

Welcome Guilford College Board of Trustees; welcome also to our trustee emeriti, to Guilford College faculty, staff, students, alumni and parents; to the many individuals and families whose generosity we benefit from every day; to A. Hope Williams representing the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities; to the representatives of our sister institutions; representatives of Old Dominion Athletic Conference; representatives of Friends schools and meetings; to friends and colleagues.

Special greetings to Professor Gladys Feddy from the University of Cape Coast and Auntie Jane both of whom have worked with Guilford students on exchange in Ghana for 20 years, thank you for being here today. Welcome to my esteemed colleagues from Gallaudet University and the University of North Carolina at Asheville. I am especially honored to have UNC Asheville’s Chancellor Emerita Anne Ponder here today. I am so pleased that you all are here on this very important day in my life and the life of Guilford College. To President Emeritus Kent Chabotar, thank you for being present today, representing all eight of my predecessors; Guilford’s task is to build upon your legacy of accomplishments.

A warm welcome to my family, especially my father, whom we call Po, whose love and support, along with that of my late mother, whom we miss terribly, have carried me through the thick and thin of life; my husband Jim, and our children Sean, Erin and David, you know that I would not be here without your support; my aunts Patricia and Jane, and my uncle John who are here and others of my family not present; you are all with me today, in my heart.

Let me also acknowledge the good work of all those who participated in the planning and realizing this inauguration and the celebration of Guilford College students and their work, which will take place on the Quad following the ceremony. Esther Hall, Nancy Quaintance, Erin Dell and Steve Moran deserve special appreciation for today.

And finally, let me extend a special word of gratitude to Sister Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole who has honored me greatly with her friendship over the years and inspired us all today with her kindness and deep wisdom.

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July of last year, Guilford College invited me to serve as your ninth president. Today, I formally and most enthusiastically accept the responsibility of this office. I do so with profound respect for the achievements of so many who have created the Guilford we know today, and I do so with unfailing optimism for the Guilford of the future.

Those who long have known Guilford, may easily take for granted the many facets of a Guilford experience that make it truly unique. As someone just coming to know its rich heritage, let me pose a few questions to give you a sense of what I have found to be truly stunning about Guilford:

  • How many small liberal arts colleges feature their Quaker heritage so prominently, and use it to prepare graduates to be ethical leaders who value equality, act with integrity, and are committed to the world’s collective future?
  • How many small private liberal arts colleges have an Early College, the first in North Carolina, currently ranked in the top 40 of such schools nationally, and #2 in North Carolina?
  • How many were the first to establish a program giving adults affordable access to undergraduate liberal arts education and have sustained that commitment for more than 60 years?
  • How many have their own farm located on campus, which provides vegetables to our dining hall, local restaurants, and to the many food deserts in greater Greensboro?
  • How many have a “no food waste” policy and convert all such waste in an incredible compost project?
  • How many have anything like the groundbreaking Center for Principled Problem Solving, which combines academic study, active learning, reflective thinking and civic engagement in diverse local, national and global settings?
  • How many have a football team ranked number one in their league this year and a history of outstanding scholar-athletes in every sport?

I know that Guilford does! And I know that because of that range and depth, Guilford was my “first choice.”

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So today I accept this responsibility with deep humility. For I know that in order to fulfill your expectations of keeping Guilford functional and well maintained in times of limited resources, I must depend upon all of you for assistance, for support, for candor, for criticism when warranted and for creativity. We are most fortunate that the broad and deep community that is Guilford can carry all of us. I assure you that we cannot begin to imagine as individuals what collective dreams we shall accomplish together.

And what can inspire us to pull together? What can inspire us to distinguish ourselves and transform Guilford? Let me suggest three sources of inspiration.

First, we have the finest teaching faculty anywhere. I am sure that each of us at some crucial moment in our lives, has been inspired by a teacher, and the more fortunate among us have had this experience on multiple occasions. I ask each of you to think back and identify one teacher in your past – someone who has had a transformative influence in your life.

I suspect that a number of us may have thought of a Guilford College professor, perhaps even someone present today. For me, I think of my speech and lip-reading teacher, Miss Madigan, who spent countless hours trying to teach me the difference between specific letters and sounds, such as /m/, /p/ and /b/.

I struggled and struggled to understand why she spent so much time on these distinctions. As someone who could not hear the differences, they seemed fairly inconsequential. And then one day, as I tried to lip-read a difficult conversation, the reason came to me: /m/, /p/ and /b/ all look very similar on the lips. But there are subtle distinctions to find, distinctions Miss Madigan taught me, along with the process of elimination, to decode the word on the lips. The words “meat,” “peat” and “beat” have very different meanings. Miss Madigan knew that I needed to learn those differences, and she knew how to inspire me to learn them.

When the meaning behind her lessons hit me, it was like that moment when the young Helen Keller finally realizes that w-a-t-e-r spelled into her hand represents that cool liquid on her lips. Inspiration struck. There is nothing quite like it.

Another teacher who comes to mind is my best friend, Bessie, from my middle and high school years. She was one of the few African Americans, and I was the only deaf student, so we bonded through our shared experience of being “different” in school.

Throughout my school years, I most often earned A’s in arts and humanities classes. Bessie, on the other hand, often earned B’s but rarely A’s. That never made sense to us, since she was really the better student. Suspecting that racism might be involved, we devised an experiment: We each wrote papers on the same assigned topic and handed them in under each other’s names. Sure enough, when we got them back, the one with her name on it, that I wrote, bore a B- and the one with my name on it, that she wrote, had the usual A. We felt we had proof of bias and discrimination, and we told anyone and everyone about it. We knew it was essential to act on what we knew to be true and we did so.

Though we were the same age, Bessie was my teacher. She taught me to face the challenge of constantly educating people about difference, to embrace diversity for its value and richness, and to begin to understand the privilege I enjoyed as a white person, even as I was coming to grasp the privilege I was denied as a deaf person in a world framed mostly by and for people who can hear.

These experiences taught me how inspiration breathes meaning into our lives. The etymology of the word “inspire” harkens back to the Latin inspirare, itself a combination of “in” and “spirare,” meaning to breathe, and related to the Latin spiritus and the source of our word “spirit.” Recall the passage from Genesis where God took a lump of clay, formed a human, and breathed into him the breath, the spirit, of life.

Guilford’s inspired and inspiring world-class faculty works, much like Miss Madigan did in my case, with students in collaborative, open-ended inquiry, which allows them to discover meaning. And they also have the chance to teach each other new meanings, just as Bessie taught me.

Our transformative teaching and learning draws strength from a second source of inspiration that distinguishes us: Guilford’s unique Quaker heritage. When Guilford College first opened its doors, our Quaker founders determined from the start that both males and females had the right to be educated in all things “civil and useful,” unlike many of the institutions of higher education of that time.

That emphasis on the practical liberal arts has evolved over time. Guilford today makes interdisciplinary learning and integrative skills – the ability to synthesize disparate information – more relevant to examining and addressing big social issues. A deep focus on serving the community provides the best application of such integrative skills that have wide utility and transferability to jobs of the future.

The history of Guilford College is a story of students making uncommon choices and extraordinary differences in the world. As educational theories and pedagogies have ebbed and flowed through the decades, our Quaker heritage has helped us maintain our focus on core values, and continues to keep us strong and focused today.

The Quaker legacy of principled inclusion and courageous service undergirds a third source of inspiration, one that my whole family has felt everywhere since we arrived: Guilford’s unique spirit of community. In talking with alumni from the 1950s to our most recent graduates … in talking with current students, members of the faculty, staff and trustees, we hear a similar theme: Guilford is a college that inspires devotion.

Our alumni find it easy to connect across the generations and remain connected to their faculty mentors for decades. Our students find almost immediately that they are members of a close-knit, caring community. Our faculty members speak about the connections they feel with their students and with one another. This palpable expression of community is powerful. Making it abundantly evident to future students will drive even more of them to know that this can be their place too. Students who feel they are in a community where they truly belong will push themselves to heights they’d never imagined.

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Expressing the essence of these sources of inspiration is the indomitable spirit of the institution. But spirit must work within our practical lives, and in that inextricable relationship, we must realize the fragility of our College. The world of higher education is changing – dramatically – and we must understand what those changes mean for us. During my first year, as a community, we have been “facing facts together.” We have recognized that Guilford, as with so many colleges and universities across the nation, faces very real and daunting challenges that must be addressed over the next few years.

You know these challenges all too well: ensuring adequate funding to sustain our enterprise; controlling our costs; aligning expenses with revenues; compensating faculty and staff so we can continue to hire the best teachers and mentors for our students; managing financial aid so all students who can most benefit from our education can afford to be here; inspiring generosity to make our dreams possible; recognizing that we cannot do everything well; having the wisdom and conviction to decide together what we should and should not do; and making meaningful assessment a part of our professional lives.

So let me briefly outline an agenda for our future: one that I believe will help us face these challenges together. This agenda builds upon our proud heritage and grows out of many conversations; it’s an agenda that conversations yet to come will continue to shape.

  • Enrollment is Guilford’s number one priority. Everything we do must help get our story out in order to recruit and retain students who are the very best fit for our school.
  • Greater course flexibility and more options for pacing to a degree are needed. While we know there can be no substitute for the multi-layered face-to-face social fabric encountered at a small liberal arts college within a city, we will build a new online presence to enhance our face-to-face learning and connect even more deeply to the wider community.
  • We will work together to create new mission-related majors, programs and degrees, perhaps selected master’s degrees that will draw new pools of students to campus. Some are already under discussion, creating exciting future opportunities.
  • And because we cannot do everything well, we need to determine the smartest ways to invest our limited resources. Though we cannot keep doing everything we are doing now, what we ultimately choose to do, we will do better than anyone.
  • We must do more to quantify and make known the phenomenal success of our graduates. Eighty-four percent have employment or are in graduate school within one year of graduation, placing us well above national averages. Our students graduate equipped to make a positive difference in the world; to use their liberal arts education to serve humanity in varied ways. Our inspiring alumni are living proof that they can both support themselves and their families and be inspired.
  • Diversity will continue to be a powerful value. Forty percent of last year’s new students represented racially and ethnically diverse backgrounds. A Guilford education puts into play a multiplicity of ideas, viewpoints, and cultural perspectives. Enhancing diversity advances this goal because persons from different identity groups frequently experience divergent views of life that expand the range of ideas and insights brought to the table. All students at Guilford benefit from our inclusive academic excellence and leave campus able to work with a great diversity of people.
  • Guilford’s prominence in Greensboro is one of the things that makes us distinctive. Our commitment to the Greensboro community means that we need to maintain a cutting-edge learning network in a varied and changing urban environment.

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So, what is the future I envision?

Guilford’s vibrant future relies on our becoming a small liberal arts college of distinction doing a few things splendidly. We will become known for designing world-class learning experiences. Cognizant of our legacy, we know these splendid things will always include service and acting in the world on principle. Guilford stands out in emphasizing the importance of education as preparation for making a living through service to the greater good — that is to say, earning a living not as an end in itself but as a by-product of serving humanity. With current issues of climate change and environmental degradation; class, race and gender consciousness; the ravages of disease; the growing gap between prosperity and poverty; deep reservoirs of misdirected anger and hatred, our nation – our world – has an ever-growing need for civic engagement. At Guilford, we practice the wisdom of “principled problem solving.” Faculty, staff and students will come to Guilford to connect active learning with principled and patient activism. Guilford’s legacy, ever alive, now is the world’s future.

We will continue to inspire, to breathe spirit into the world.

Today marks the inauguration of the next phase of Guilford College’s evolving path toward inspired distinction. Let us continue to walk there together.