Eventful week brought students, families, alumni, faculty, and staff together in community
Remarks as prepared for delivery by Nicole Famer Hurd, Ph.D., on her inauguration as the 18th president of Lafayette College, October 1, 2021
Thank you, Bob.
I want to begin my remarks by exercising one of the most important core values that I hold dear —the practice of gratitude—and acknowledge a few people who have helped make this moment possible.
First, to Board Chair Bob Sell and Vice Chair Linda Assante Carrasco, as well as everyone on the Board of Trustees, thank you for the confidence you have shown in me. I promise to you, and to everyone here, that I will give you my absolute best, each and every day.
To Bob and Linda, again, who served as chair and vice chair, respectively, of the search committee, and to the members of that search committee, who enthusiastically recommended me to take this journey with you, I want to acknowledge each of you by name: Bob, Linda, Chris, Tony, Alvin, Tanuja, Kamaka, Jonathan, Chawne, Jen, David, Hannah, Mary. I fell in love with Lafayette by being inspired by each one of you. First, using my research nerd skills, to learn about you each on paper, and then by engaging in important and deep conversations that left me wanting more. I am not sure it is normal to enjoy a search process so much, but every call and visit left me thinking I want to be part of that community. It is an honor to join and now serve this remarkable place. Thank you for believing in me.
To the inauguration committee, especially co-chairs Wynne Whitman and Barbara Levy, it is an honor to join both of you among the ranks of “Lafayette Women.” Your love of this place is palpable, and there is no doubt you make us a better, stronger community.
To my good friend and mentor, Ed Ayers, for his generous and sometimes embarrassing introduction—and for being so incredibly generous with his time, his wisdom, and his encouragement over the years. I would not be here if it were not for his guidance, but also the example he has set—as a scholar and leader, but also as a spouse and a parent. There is a saying that “you have to see it to be it.” I am who I am because I have been watching Ed.
To those in attendance and watching the livestream, I thank you for sharing this moment. Your presence, whether visible or virtual, is indicative of our collective commitment to the Lafayette community and this remarkable institution.
To everyone who is playing a role in today’s ceremony, thank you for enriching the significance of this day.
And finally, to my family. To my mom and brother who are watching from afar and to my sister who is here, thank you for your love. And to my husband and life partner, Bill, and our children, Monica and Matthew: Today might be the fourth-happiest day of my life, and it is a day that never would have been possible without the strength, hope, and love you give to me every single day. I believe in you, and I love you with my whole heart.
* * *
My working title for these remarks is “Becoming Lafayette.”
I was inspired by the following observation that former first lady Michelle Obama made in her best-selling memoir, Becoming.
“Becoming isn’t about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn’t end.”
Lafayette, our journey together is just beginning, but we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we now bravely and boldly must come together and forge a new path. We must create the future that this campus, community, nation, and world need—we must become Lafayette.
Before I speak to that, as we are still in our getting to know each other phase, let me tell you just a bit about “Becoming Nicole.”
I was born in San Francisco, the daughter of two first-generation college graduates who instilled in me the importance of education. And I had the support, like many of us here, of teachers who challenged me, inspired me, and helped me find and use my voice.
As I look back, one of the most important moments of my “Becoming” was in 1991, when I decided to be the first woman to run for student body president at the University of Notre Dame.
My dear friend, Eric Griggs, after a fair amount of convincing, agreed to be my running mate—and off we went—knocking on doors, hanging up flyers, and if memory serves me correctly, rocking the debate. I am not competitive at all.
Eric and I had not spent a lot of time reflecting on the historic nature of our run as the first woman and student of color on a ticket—and we had some serious success. We made it to a run- off, and if there had been an electoral college of dorms, we would have won.
But on the night we barely lost, the phone began to ring. I will not share the sexist, racist words that we were called, but it changed me forever as a person and as an educator. I learned that access does not mean inclusion and that even on a campus and in spaces of learning—places many may assume to be safe—we need to do the work of really seeing and hearing and valuing each other. Eric is here today. Eric, I love you.
What followed for me were graduate degrees from Georgetown (where I met my husband, Bill, and my best friend, Amy) and University of Virginia, where once again I learned the importance of access and inclusion, of teaching and research, of seeing and hearing and valuing one another.
* * *
As our faculty colleagues know, the best part of teaching is not just sharing knowledge with students, it is sharing with them how we learn and grow. At Virginia, I had the chance to work with phenomenal students who stretched me as a scholar and as a person. I want to share with you the story of one of those students, John Kiess. John was a political and social thought major who I was helping with applications to major scholarships—Rhodes, Marshall, Mitchell. I have been able to watch John evolve from student to scholar himself as a Mitchell Scholar, a Jack Kent Cooke Scholar, a graduate student at Duke, and now a professor at Loyola University Maryland. But over 20 years, what I cherish the most about John are the conversations and our constant challenge to each other—what we call our “internal dialogue”—about who we are and how we show up in the world. Hours of conversation about Bonhoeffer, Dorothy Day, Hannah Arndt, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. always come back to one theme: Are we in community? Are we showing up? And as Dr. King so beautifully phrased it, are we bending the arc toward justice? I am so glad John is here today.
Access and inclusion, developing talent, being in community, bending the arc toward justice—is why I, in 2005, with Ed Ayers, started the College Advising Corps. I took the risk of leaving a traditional academic path and, with amazing colleagues and friends, created a movement that has helped enroll over 525,000 first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students into higher education.
And Lafayette, it is that same commitment to vision and values that bring me here today.
We believe in unlocking potential, in increasing opportunity, in being in profound community, in bending the arc.
So now I want to focus on Becoming Lafayette.
The College’s journey began nearly 200 years ago, founded by the citizens of Easton—the community—amid the hopes and dreams of a young nation. That pioneering institution continues to reshape itself today to best serve its educational and philosophical missions.
The city’s residents were inspired by a certain French general who became a Revolutionary War hero. Our namesake, the Marquis de Lafayette, was 19 years old when he crossed an ocean to join the cause of an independent America. He faced a journey that would have him navigate a new world, forge lasting connections, alter history, and redefine the course of his life.
Our students today are on a similar journey. Like him, they have choices to make that rely on forging ahead, taking risks, and answering a call to be of service.
Over the past few months, I have had the honor of sitting with a number of Lafayette family members and hearing their stories—from Rex Ahene, who shared what it has been like to be a professor of color on this campus for almost 40 years, to women who were in the first class in 1970, to students and parents who have shared how that personal touch and promise of community brought them to this special place.
I am still very much in the listening and learning phase of my Lafayette journey, but please allow me to share some reflections and what I am seeing as the DNA, the common threads in “Becoming Lafayette.”
First: Lafayette is a place that makes the intersections visible and can lead by reconciling tensions, by embracing the power of alignment, not necessarily agreement.
And I want to challenge us a bit on this one. We are a place of and that too often thinks in terms of or.
It is not liberal arts or engineering. It is not academic or athletics. It is liberal arts and engineering. It is academics and athletics. We need to embrace the alignment, the synergy, the space where things can speak to each other, the integration of different types of knowledge.
For example, take our role as one of the very few outstanding undergraduate liberal arts colleges with an exceptional engineering program. Top-notch STEM and humanities make the whole much greater than the sum of those two parts, all across this campus.
It is a differentiator embodied by people like mechanical engineering professor and novelist Jenn Rossmann. Professor Rossmann describes the combination of the liberal arts and engineering as peanut butter and chocolate—powerful complements, ways to see anew, and an opening for real collaboration.
Professor Rossman, we salute you and all of our colleagues who give life to STEM and the humanities, showing the true strength of Lafayette.
Let’s talk about academics and athletics. Roughly 25% of our students participate on one or more of our 23 Division I teams. Our athletics program helps us attract stellar students who see academics and athletics as integral to the opportunity to create their best selves. And we attract coaches who serve as teachers outside the classroom.
This is a differentiator embodied by men’s soccer head coach Dennis Bohn, who has led the Leopards to winning seasons in 14 of his 20 years on College Hill, including three Patriot League championships and three NCAA Tournament appearances. But Coach Bohn is also a teacher off the field—he is one of the strongest voices for diversity, equity, and inclusion on our campus. He is also a voice of empathy and community, signing Andrew Hummel, a young boy battling cancer, as part of the 2023 recruiting class. Dennis teaches our community how to compete on the field and unify us off.
We should lift up the space where we take risks, we reward creativity, and we fuel innovation, where we explore different modes of inquiry, where we truly can be interdisciplinary. And we can find alignment.
Which leads me to the second strain in our DNA.
Second: We unleash talent.
It does not take very long as you walk on this campus to see the talent shine—whether it is in our students, our faculty, or our staff. This is a place full of talent and goodness and beauty.
We have fostered a faculty that consists of teacher-scholars. Our professors help create the knowledge that they teach.
This is a differentiator embodied by people like Professor Khadijah Mitchell, of biology, whose research on cancer, genetics, and health disparities across populations includes students who make significant contributions to her findings. For Professor Mitchell, the classroom and her research lab are equal partners in the teacher-scholar enterprise.I have had the joy of visiting Professor Mitchell’s lab, and what you see there is not just great teaching and research, it is the unleashing of talent- —both hers and her students. It is palpable, undeniable, you might even say magical, to watch her with students. It is the embodiment of two of my favorite phrases:
“We are most powerful when our hearts and heads and hands are in alignment.” I have witnessed that power in her lab.
And at Lafayette, “we take sparks of inquiry and make them fireworks of learning.”
Allow me to share another example, Professor Chris Phillips in English. In my early days on this campus, I have invited faculty to give me the honor of attending their classes—not to judge or evaluate, but to watch the unleashing of talent, the unlocking of potential.
Professor Phillips invited me to his “Literature of the Sea” class, which met right here on the Quad. As I watched him sing sea shanties and stage a tug of war (which I participated in) as we dove into Moby Dick, I saw the students captivated. The sparks became fireworks, and all of a sudden we were in a deep and important conversation about context, culture, identity, and narrative. The magic was happening. The talent was unleashed.
Professors Mitchell and Phillips, please take a bow on behalf of an outstanding faculty that is here because they unlock potential.
* * *
And Lafayette, we need to go even deeper into the work of unleashing talent.
I can see the goodness and the potential everywhere:
From developing leadership, innovation, and entrepreneurship in the Dyer Center to fostering a community engaged scholarship at the Landis Center;
To learning not only in the classroom, but in the libraries, in the Gateway Career Center, in undergraduate research opportunities, and—as we once again think about studying abroad after a pandemic—global engagement;
To learning and leading in athletics and in student clubs; holding leadership roles in student government and with the Board of Trustees; engaging in service to the community throughout Easton and beyond.
At Lafayette, we are not teaching students what to think, but to think. Not to just check boxes, but to really do the work. To go on their own journeys of “Becoming.”
Third: Lafayette is a place where we need one another.
I am guessing that I am going to be the first college president to invoke Catherine of Siena in this way, but in Catherine’s Dialogue she wrote of “intentional interdependence.” None of us has every gift. We need each other. We depend on each other.
It is why we believe in shared governance. It is why I am calling on us to live in profound community.
And it turns out this is why I love the theme for this inauguration—“My Spot is Here”—which was the idea of Dean of Advising Tim Cox.
Because part of “Becoming” is also “Belonging.”
Belonging is difficult. It calls us to see and hear and value each other. It demands that we continue the journey to be a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and just community. It means we need to do the work of hard conversations, of being uncomfortable, of building our empath muscle, of making things that may not be visible, visible.
We need to continue to build a campus where each of us can say, “My spot is here!” The good news is this: love and commitment are already here.
This includes our amazing staff—from food services to advising to facilities— whose contributions to the outstanding education we provide are often invisible, but always meaningful. Your spot is here.
It lives in the annual Thrive on the Quad program held by the Counseling Center and LaFarm, to help students learn practical strategies to nurture personal growth and cultivate a positive college experience. From first-generation College students to those from three-generation Lafayette families, your spot is here.
Your spot is here if you are an artist, a philosopher, a chemist, or an engineer. Singing sea shanties to teach literature? Your spot is here. Including students in your research on cancer? Your spot is here.
And we do not just need one another, we need to take care of one another.
I was not sure I was going to share this story, but I can feel him with me as I give these remarks, so I want to share a story about my dad.
As many of you know, in the time between announcing that my family would be joining the Lafayette family and our arrival on campus in July, I lost my dad. My dad was a true north in my life—a guide, a constant source of encouragement and love. Every Saturday for the past 10 years, we would have lunch with my mom, and he would ask me questions about the College Advising Corps, our impact, our plans to grow, and he loved to hear the stories about our students.
In my last lucid conversation with him, we talked about the incredible arc of his life—a low-income, first-generation student himself from Detroit who truly lived the American dream. We talked about the power of education, of hope, of dreaming. And at the end of the conversation, we talked about lessons learned and if he had any regrets. I listened to him and reflected back what I thought he was saying. “It sounds like, Dad, you are saying to have a clear mind and a kind heart.” “You got it,” he said. Dad had taught me one final lesson.
So as we continue to “Become Lafayette,” to have difficult conversations, to do the work of being a community, to really see, and hear, and value each other, may we do it with a clear mind and kind hearts. May we take care of one another.
So let me review what I see in our DNA.
Lafayette is a place where we can reconcile tensions and create alignment, where we can take risks, be truly interdisciplinary, where we can create connections, where we can be both competitive and collaborative, where we engage in what our colleague Dan Sabatino calls the Meta Mindset.
Lafayette is a place where we unleash talent and unlock potential. Where we believe we are on a lifelong journey of learning and growing and discovering.
Lafayette is a place of profound community, where we are committed to seeing and hearing and valuing each.
So, if it turns out that Lafayette is a place that takes risks, believes in potential, and embraces community, maybe it’s not so surprising you chose a religious studies professor turned social entrepreneur, who deeply believes in the power of community, to join you for your next chapter. Lafayette, we have shared DNA.
* * *
Someone very wise shared with me that time on a campus is not a sprint or a marathon, it is a relay.
Today, we honor those who have carried the baton before us on this journey to “Becoming Lafayette.”
We also have the sacred honor of now holding the baton, of running the race.
What is going to be the arc of our narrative? Where do we want to go? What will be our legacy?
Lafayette, it is time to start our next chapter
And I am going to say this with my entire head, hands, and heart: It is time for us to lead.
There is a saying, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden.” Well, I would like to argue a college on a hill cannot be hidden—and I mean an entire hill, from our colleagues on the Williams Arts Campus to the Quad to Metzgar Fields,
Lafayette, it is time to shine.
We are going through something hard. We are still in a pandemic. One can argue that we are way too divided, way too polarized.
Easton, the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, our nation, our world need us now, Lafayette.
To show the possible,
to do the work,
to restore the faith,
to rebuild the trust,
to bring alignment where there is difference.
To not yield the space and give in to the belief that you have to be large to be transformational,
to bend the arc,
to ignite sparks into fireworks,
to be, as the fifth graders sang, powerful voices, making powerful choices.
Our journey together has begun. Our moment is now. Our spot is here.
Let us be bold. Let us be brave.
Let us Become Lafayette.
Eventful week brought students, families, alumni, faculty, and staff together in community