By Geoff Gehman ’80
Last month Alison Byerly, Lafayette’s first president with a Twitter account, jokingly tweeted that her Oct. 4 inauguration was shaping up as a “unique event—kind of a cross between a commencement and a wedding.” Well, Friday’s celebration of Byerly’s installation as president turned out to be much, much more. It was a homecoming at a new home, a reunion and a union, an informal strategic plan with a pop music video.
The celebration began with a luncheon address by Jay Parini ’70, a professor of English and creative writing at Middlebury College, where Byerly spent more than 20 years as a faculty member and more than a decade in leadership positions. Parini called “my dear old friend” a gifted scholar and administrator who mixes intelligence and warmth whether discussing online learning in a conference or football in a coffee shop.
Parini is a prominent poet, novelist and biographer of famous writers (John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, William Faulkner). Not surprisingly, he turned a story about his Lafayette life into a presidential parable. He was a freshman, sitting on the Class of 1892 steps in front of Pardee Hall, pondering whether he could cut it at Lafayette. Suddenly, he was visited by a “figure” who turned out to be Roald Bergethon, the College’s 12th president. Notably no-nonsense, Bergethon asked Parini what he was reading. E.B. White’s “Once More to the Lake,” said Parini. Bergethon then asked Parini who was teaching what he was reading. Parini said William Watt, Lafayette’s legendary litterateur.
“Ah, you are in a safe pair of hands,” said Bergethon. “Have no fear.”
A few minutes later, Parini turned Bergethon’s salute to Watt into a salute to Byerly. “So all I can say is: Lafayette, have no fear. You are in a safe pair of hands.”
Byerly then offered her own salutes. She noted the presence of her dissertation adviser at the University of Pennsylvania. She mentioned one of her inaugural initiatives, a virtual conference of college presidents discussing issues in higher education. She issued an invitation to see a Skillman Library display of a sword owned by the Marquis de Lafayette.
The speech was brief but pointed, as sharp as Lafayette’s sword. A few hours later, Byerly’s skill as a communicator was confirmed by Rick Fritz, former chair of Middlebury’s board of trustees. Interviewed in Skillman Library, he praised Byerly’s broad experience, her “360-degree” savvy, her talent at negotiating dilemmas “without visible stress or complaint.” He compared her ability to quickly, seamlessly collate and disseminate information to a quarterback running a hurry-up offense.
Lunch was followed by a roundtable on new models for higher education, including a discussion on the future of four-year residential colleges. Unique strengths of these institutions were listed by Steven Poskanzer, president of Carleton College, which is attended by Byerly’s daughter, Laramie. Poskanzer pointed out that in addition to academic subjects, students’ learning at residential colleges includes how to drop “outrageous” arguments while debating, respect food-service workers and groundskeepers, and get along with those who have “conflicting standards of cleanliness.”
New academic hybrids were proposed by Jeff Selingo, editor-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and author of the book College (Un)Bound. Some students, he said, are now minimizing costs and maximizing benefits by earning a degree after attending three colleges, a pattern known as “the swirl.” Some customize a competency-based curriculum. Selingo cited an undergraduate interviewee whose course lengths ranged from 14 weeks to two weeks.
Selingo predicted that the successful, healthy liberal-arts college of the future will rely on alliances rather than mergers. One such alliance, he pointed out, could involve a college’s five strongest departments.
Elizabeth Boylan, director of STEM programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, discussed faculty workshops run by an alliance of 23 liberal-arts colleges, a project Byerly was involved in as Middlebury’s provost. Boylan also celebrated Byerly’s new job as a college president by reading Rita Dove’s loving, lovely poem about her remarkably wise grandmother, who “could measure a life in as many ways as there were to bake a pound cake.” Written to celebrate the opening of Bill Clinton’s Presidential Library, “This Life” is crammed with practical advice for presidents at all levels.
The inauguration was an extended family affair. Speaker John McCardell Jr. became Byerly’s academic relation while serving as Middlebury’s dean of faculty and president; in fact, he invited her to cross over to “the dark side” of academic administration. Currently president of The University of the South, he recalled that Byerly was “remarkably adept” at “the finer points” of everything from grant writing to gender equity in intercollegiate athletics,
A history professor and a gentlemanly orator, McCardell positioned higher education at a crucial crossroads. A rising number of college students graduate with debt exceeding $10,000. Yet a rising number of employers want the skills taught at liberal arts colleges, especially the ability to solve complex problems. Quoting Wendell Berry, a popular cultural critic and environmental prophet, McCardell stressed the importance of students and teachers at liberal-arts colleges testing “a life unknown.”
In her speech Byerly balanced the known with the unknown. Pivotal “leaps of faith” in the College’s history make give her confidence in its future. In 1865, she pointed out, President William Cattell saved Lafayette from financial ruin by convincing Ario Pardee, a coal-mining magnate, to give $20,000 to a school he didn’t know located in a city he had never visited. Pardee apparently was won over by Cattell’s point that a college education should be available to the non-wealthy. In 1969, Ralph Gottshall ’27, chair of the board of trustees, convinced his fellow board members to vote to make Lafayette co-ed. While he loved an all-male school, he realized that Lafayette would be a better school with women and men as students.
Like Jay Parini before her, Byerly turned a story about a Lafayette leader into a Lafayette parable. She warned that the College must be “wary” of “nostalgia” interfering with “evolution.” “We’re not competing with the past,” she said. “We’re competing with the future.”
Byerly is a futurist, author of a book that explores how Victorians exploded notions of space by inventing fold-out river maps and 360-degree panoramas. Not surprisingly, she delivered a bold goal for her new campus. “The answer to the question, ‘How well does Lafayette prepare you for the real world?’ will be that Lafayette does not simply prepare you for the real world: Lafayette is the real world. Once you enter it, you never have to leave.”
Byerly’s earthy loftiness impressed Ginny Logan ’81, who attended the inauguration with her son Will Rockafellow ’14. Byerly “has the ability to make connections very abstractly and warmly,” said Logan, an executive director for the Brandywine Conservancy. “I like the fact that she sees arts and engineering not just co-existing but energizing each other in many ways.” A founder of the Council of Lafayette Women, Logan added that Byerly could inspire young women to be leaders.
Byerly was profiled as a young leader during a dinner attended by the Marquis Founders and other guests. Her early “brilliance” was cited by Kim Hall, a doctoral classmate of Byerly’s at Penn and now a professor of English and Africana studies at Barnard College. Hall closely observed Byerly in her first presidential role as head of a group of English graduate students. According to Hall, Byerly taught her how to mix better by mixing drinks, a revelation to Hall, then a teetotaler. Hall repeated another Penn peer’s comment that Byerly’s rise to college president was “as inevitable and as right as the earth spinning on its axis.”
Byerly’s remarks at dinner were generous and gracious. She recognized a wide range of friends, including high-school bandmates. She admitted she nearly choked up during her inaugural speech because she saw so many loved ones in the audience. She thanked Marquis Society members for their steadfast support. She thanked Daniel Weiss, Lafayette’s 16th president, for easing her transition as Lafayette’s 17th president.
Byerly closed by explaining to the packed Kamine Gym that she had invited students to celebrate her inauguration by making videos about what Lafayette means to them. The assembly watched the winning entry, “Best School Ever,” a dancing, singing, campus-hopping love letter to Lafayette virtues ranging from community service, to double majors, to superiority over Lehigh. Cleverly entertaining, it crosses a high-school chorus number on the TV show Glee with a show-opening skit on Saturday Night Live.
Produced by residents of the Music Appreciation Floor, the video clearly pleased Byerly, a veteran choir singer.
It is an honor and a pleasure, she said, to be president of “the best school ever.”