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John M. McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor and president of The University of the South, presented remarks during the Inauguration of Alison Byerly as the 17th president of Lafayette College today. The text of his speech is posted below.

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“Lafayette, elle voila!”

John McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor and president of Sewanee: The University of the South, delivered remarks.

John McCardell Jr., vice-chancellor and president of Sewanee: The University of the South, delivered remarks.

President Byerly, members of the Board of Trustees, Faculty, Students, Staff, Honored Guests:

In a letter to his father-in-law, the Duc d’Ayan, in December 1776, the Marquis de Lafayette wrote the following:

I read, I study, I examine, I listen, I reflect, and out of all of this I try to form an idea into which I put as much common sense as I can. I shall not speak much for fear of saying foolish things. . . .

It is in this spirit that I come before you today, thinking it a pleasure, and an honor, to have been invited to fill this role, hoping to speak neither too much, nor foolishly. I have known Alison Byerly for a very long time. She was hired at Middlebury while I was Dean of Faculty. I watched her progress through the ranks and eventually invited her to cross over and join me on the dark side of academic administration. She proved remarkably adept, learned the finer points of everything from Generally Accepted Accounting Principles to how to frame a successful grant proposal to Title IX and intercollegiate athletics, and took on increased responsibility as she also gained the trust and respect of her colleagues. Hers is indeed an informed and articulate voice in the world of higher education and on the issues we are facing in these uncertain times. You have chosen well.

It is also a pleasure to be back on this campus, which I last visited about 18 months ago as a participant in a very fine conference on the future of the liberal arts college. Some of what I have to say today I first said then – the challenges before us are no less daunting as we speak, our critics no less vocal, our distractions no less enticing. At the same time, our purpose as liberal arts institutions has never been stronger, our claims have never been more compelling, and the need for our clear and confident voice has never been more urgent.

If indeed we find ourselves on a precipice today – and that is a debatable proposition – that precipice is not unfamiliar territory. In a 1971 essay entitled “The Death of the Liberal Arts College,” historian James Axtell imagined an obituary written in 1862, the year Congress passed the Morrill Land Grant Act.

Washington, D.C., 2 July 1862 – The American Liberal Arts College died today after a prolonged illness. It was 226 years old.

Born on the salty backwashes of the Charles River in Cambridge shortly after the Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, the scion of Puritan Reform and Renaissance Civility grew to sturdy usefulness in the colonial years by overseeing America’s leaders prior to their war for independence.

When the new nation emerged, however, demanding a larger, more expert citizenry, The College was unable to overcome its aristocratic origins and shortly contracted the disease that eventually led to its demise – arteriosclerosis. In the 1820s, when Jacksonian Democracy was urging needed reforms on American Institutions, The College’s role in society contracted into a stance of pugnacious conservatism with the Yale Report of 1828. Even a number of its own reform-minded members could not edge it into the American Mainstream of Technological Growth and Democratic Expansion.

Today, after a recent cardiac arrest, its heart stopped on the floor of the House of Representatives, just as the roll call for Justin Morrill’s Land-Grant Act had ended.

The vote was 90-25.

Sound familiar? Yet the report proved premature. In 1876, with the founding of The Johns Hopkins University and the rise of the research institution; in the years following World War II and the GI Bill; in 1987 when the number of 18 year-olds began to decline; in the 1990s, when distance learning and the Western Governors University threatened to make bricks and mortar obsolete; and today, as MOOC’s abound – we have heard, and continue to hear, that our days are numbered unless we shape up. One need go no further than a Google search to discover that this time – really, truly, THIS time – we’re doomed.

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. To be sure, all these “threats” were not illusory; they were genuine. But, amazing to report, the liberal arts college has proven remarkably resilient and adaptable. And there is no reason to suppose that, with vision, energy, and discipline, that resilience and adaptability should not continue.

You have chosen a leader who understands that, and who also understands those essential and enduring features of the liberal arts college that have, in good and threatening times, shaped it, defined it, and reinvigorated it. With her leadership, Lafayette is equal to the task at hand.

Of course there are challenges. For example, the CIRP surveys have over the years revealed disturbing trends. Between 2007 and 2011 the percentage of freshmen spending three or more hours a week on social networking increased from 45% to 57% for women and 37% to 48% for men. And this is probably understated, this force which militates so subversively against community.

To this might be added, under the general rubric of finance, the discovery that, over the last 10 years, the percentage of students taking on $10,000 or more of debt has risen from 5.6 percent to 13.3 percent. Almost 12 percent have “major” concerns about finance. Another 55.5 percent have “some” such concerns. The average indebtedness for graduates in 2010 was $25,250, a 5 percent increase over the previous year.

Moreover, the long-term sustainability of “high tuition/high discount” needs to be addressed, especially as it directs precious and finite financial-aid dollars to students without need. Such a policy is of highly questionable social value. Accessibility and affordability are real issues and real concerns.

In short, the students coming to our campuses are shaped by different influences and preoccupied by different concerns from those that were familiar to us. And yet, still they come. Why?

Perhaps because, as a recent report by the American Association of Colleges and Universities notes, “three out of four employers want new hires with precisely the sort of skills [we] teach: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, as well as written and oral communication.”

Perhaps because, as a recent publication of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences points out, “between 2000 and 2009 liberal arts majors scored on average 9 percent higher on the Graduate Management Admission Test than business majors.”

Perhaps because, according to a NAICU study, 78 percent of graduates of independent colleges complete their studies in four years, at public institutions barely 60 percent. And as for the completion rate for MOOCs and virtual universities – well, you should, as Al Smith said, look it up, hard as that might be to do on their websites. You will be surprised, maybe even appalled.

Or, perhaps, for other reasons having to do with the way the life of the mind is lived in places like Sewanee and Lafayette. In a 1984 essay entitled (what else?) “The Loss of the University,” Wendell Berry writes: :The thing being made in a university is humanity. . . . Human beings in the fullest sense of the word. Not just trained workers or knowledgeable citizens, but responsible heirs and members of human culture.” He is referring at least in part to what we call “residential life.” The Wall Street Journal published its “millennial edition” on New Year’s Day 2000. Its pages contained essays about what the future might hold for every sector of American life. One such article had to do with the future of the liberal arts college. “The classroom of the future,” it began, “won’t have much in common with today’s version. For one thing, there probably won’t be a classroom.” The article went on to discuss the ways in which higher education would be changing, would, necessarily, be forced to change. But toward the end came a telling comment. Todd Nelson, who was then the president of Apollo Group, which started the University of Phoenix, that avatar of distance learning and unbounded classrooms and high technology, asked where he planned to send his own children to college, responded that, of course they would attend a bricks and mortar institution. Why? His direct response: “there are important social and cultural things [there] that you don’t get with us.”

Important social and cultural “things” indeed: human interaction, for one thing; mentorship for another; conversation; discussion and debate; lifelong friendships; structure; community – none of them virtual, contrived, simulated; all actual; real. And, yes, perhaps even transforming. Nelson is, of course, referring to “things” that take place outside the classroom and that add comprehensiveness, coherence and, withal, value to the college experience. Of all the reasons behind the tuitions we charge, this added value makes the most persuasive claim and explains why, in spite of our escalating sticker prices, the lines at our admissions offices remain long. Clearly, the public also perceives the value-added proposition that constitutes, and has long constituted, the residential liberal arts college’s reason for being: that it is a true community of learning.

  • The residential college makes clear the objectives of a liberal education. While we assume the importance of study across the curriculum, we also give students more opportunities to consider the long-term consequences of what they have learned in the classroom. A residential community provides a place where faculty, staff, alumni, and guests regularly encourage students to look outward from the confines of their own limited experience and to reflect upon how and why education matters. This outward turn is especially important in those institutions, like my own, in isolated or rural settings.
  • The residential college establishes an educational environment that is more than simply task-oriented. At its best it provides a place where students discover the pleasures of learning apart from the process of evaluation, of learning for its own sake.
  • The residential college encourages the continuation of conversations between students and faculty, among students, and within the extended college community. There is not enough time in the classroom, in office hours, or anywhere else on many campuses for members of the community to discuss topics – intellectual issues, current events, music, or anything else vital to our culture – not directly relevant to classroom work. Faculty have interests beyond their own particular disciplines and should welcome opportunities to share these with students. Students, too, have broader interests beyond specific classes. Meals, receptions, and other social gatherings, in encompassable settings, provide occasions for such exchange.
  • Finally, the residential college nurtures students in their individual growth and builds in them the confidence necessary to succeed in the world beyond college. This encouragement comes not only from adults but also from fellow students. As much as the viability of a residential community depends upon strong adult leadership, it must also build upon the active participation of self-educating students.

Institutions that claim as their mission the education of young men and women in the tradition of the liberal arts must define education broadly and acknowledge that that education takes place around the clock and in all venues. They – we – ought further to acknowledge, as Wendell Berry puts it, that “students may not have the careers for which they have been prepared.” And so the teacher engages the student by “preparing the student for a life necessarily unknown to them both.” Faculty and staff need to be encouraged and supported as they fill an adult void in the lives of students, not as policemen but as role models. Facilities must foster the kind of supportive educational environment that will ensure the survival of the residential college. That survival is of little consequence for its own sake. It is of vital importance, however, to a world that desperately needs broadly educated, humane, and purposeful leaders.

As we well know, the current generation of students is quite different from our own. The cultural forces that have shaped it, the aspirations it possesses, its willingness to look beyond or through issues that have preoccupied us, its great promise, offer us more opportunities than ever to deal with them like the adults the law says they are and the adults they seek to be. If our goal is to prepare and produce the next generation of leaders for our country and for our world, leaders prepared to make informed decisions and sound judgments, then we need to consider how best to shape not only their minds but also their souls and to acknowledge that much of what we seek to accomplish cannot be made to conform with demands that we measure and quantify what is essentially unquantifiable.

“What we have loved,” writes the poet Wordsworth in The Prelude, “others will love, and we may teach them how.” If it were possible to reduce the mission of the residential liberal arts college to a poetic verse, this verse would do nicely. “What we have loved, others will love, and we may teach them how.” Your new president leads in this spirit, and leads by example. We celebrate the beginning of that leadership today. And, in but a slight variation on the words uttered by General Pershing before the tomb of Lafayette in Paris on July 4, 1917, we say, with confidence and with hope, “Lafayette, elle voilà!” Lafayette, she is here!


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