February 6, 2009: Investiture Address
Dr. Dan Jones, 11th President
University Auditorium, February 6, 2009
I stand before you struggling to hold in balance the competing emotions of pride and humility. To be named the 11th president of Texas A&M University-Commerce is an attainment far beyond what I had imagined would be the culmination of my academic career. I’m sure that if my parents were alive today, they would be proud, and also a bit surprised. I have to share with you that when, at the age of 18, I told my father that I planned to go to college and major in English so that I could become a writer, he was less than thrilled. My father was an orphan who endured considerable hardship during the Great Depression, went to college on the GI Bill, and worked tirelessly as a petroleum engineer to create the middle-class lifestyle for his family that he had never known as a child. He could hardly imagine why any son of his would entertain the notion of spending four years in college to earn a degree that, to his way of thinking, could not possibly lead to gainful employment. If he were here today, he would congratulate me for landing a job that requires a suit and tie, all the while wondering how someone with no practical training could ever get so far in life. To be honest, I have to admit that I am a bit surprised myself, having entered this profession with no goal other than to be the best teacher that I could.
In the battle of emotions I am experiencing, it is, without a doubt, humility that wins out. To serve as the president of an institution that has changed the face of a region for 120 years by extending to its citizens the priceless gift of educational opportunity is an extraordinarily rare privilege, and one that I approach with a humble appreciation for the awesome responsibilities that it entails.
When I first arrived on the A&M-Commerce campus last summer, I walked through the Founders’ Lounge in the old Sam Rayburn Student Center, where portraits of the 10 previous presidents and first ladies were on display. I returned again and again to that room to study each image, imagining what special challenges each president faced, and what special qualities each brought to the task of leading the university: Professor Mayo, a visionary who could see the seeds of the future in the hardscrabble landscape of the present; Presidents Binnion, Whitley, and Ferguson, who shaped the character of the institution as a public university; President Gee, whose military bearing bespoke an unerring commitment to excellence; Presidents Halladay, McDowell, and Austin, whose love for this institution was manifest in all that they did; and President Morris, who engineered the transfer of East Texas State University into The Texas A&M University System.
Finally, our tenth president, Dr. Keith McFarland, whose service to the institution spans 39 years, and whose legacy of renewal will be celebrated long beyond my tenure as president. I thank Keith for all that he has done to make Texas A&M University-Commerce a jewel in the crown of Texas higher education. I also thank him for the wisdom and guidance he extended to me as I made the transition into this office. Most of all, on behalf of all the faculty, staff, and students, I thank him for securing the promise of this university’s future. To paraphrase Isaac Newton, all of us at this extraordinary institution are able to see further because we stand on the shoulders of giants like Dr. McFarland.
Each of these presidents, working in concert with gifted faculty, staff, administrative leadership teams, students, and community leaders played an important role in advancing the university to its current state of realization. Our university has a character formed by the collective dreams and visions of all who have passed through its doors. In different eras, responding to different challenges and opportunities, each president, each financial aid counselor, each coach, and each student, has, by pursuing his or her own vision of excellence, left an imprint.
Think of the university as a 120-year-old village, constantly changing, ceaselessly evolving. Those who settled first built structures, both physical and ideal, which were cleared away by those who followed to make way for grander, higher-reaching ones. In conversations real and abstract, with each other and across time with their historical predecessors and imagined successors, the people of “Old ET” and now, A&M-Commerce, have continuously shaped the life of this village. We, its 21st-century citizens, are the inheritors of a grand legacy. With our inheritance comes a challenge from our forebears: take this bequest and use it as the platform upon which you stand to reach higher still. Like Hamlet, we proclaim, “The readiness is all!” We accept the challenge of the past, we seek the opportunities of the present, and we pursue relentlessly the promise of the future.
As we appraise our inheritance, we find in it treasures of great worth. We find, for example, tens of thousands of alumni who have taught, and are teaching, hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of children throughout Texas and the world. Each child whose potential has been unfolded by a graduate of our institution is an indelible testament to our achievement. The army of teachers that has been deployed from the grounds of East Texas Normal College and its successor institutions has been a powerful force in shaping the intellectual, political, and cultural life of Northeast Texas, and continues to be an important part of the contribution we make to the vitality of the many communities we serve.
While teacher training is still a significant part of our mission, we are now a comprehensive, doctoral-granting institution offering a broad spectrum of degrees in a wide range of disciplines. Our graduates are found not just in Blue Ridge and Bailey, but in Bangalore and Beijing; not just Pittsburg and Paris, but also in the other Pittsburgh and Paris. The Spring 2009 issue of Pride magazine focuses on the achievements of alumni who have graduated in the last 10 years – since we have been part of the Texas A&M University System – and I assure you that when you read their stories, you will conclude, as I have, that Pride magazine is appropriately named. This issue includes the stories of David Milligan, M.S. in industrial technology, class of 2000, who credits A&M-Commerce for his successful transition from military to civilian life and now works for NASA; Alicia Pol, B.A. in art direction, who was awarded the 2008 Student ADDY Award for Best in Show – the most prestigious award in the field of advertising; Delbert Knight, Jr., B.S. in sociology and criminal justice, who followed in the footsteps of his uncle, ET football legend, Harvey Martin, by attending A&M-Commerce, and is now vice president of sales for one of the nation’s largest mortgage companies; and Lui Barkkume, B.S. in geology and environmental science, who became president and owner of Arkose Environmental, Inc. just seven years after graduating – and the list goes on. Among our 105,000 alumni are CEOs, scientists, teachers, researchers, public servants, and more than a few multi-millionaires.
How many of them would have been successful if they had attended another university? All of them.
However, for most, going elsewhere was not an option. Bound by constraints of place and economic necessity, they were able to achieve their dream of earning a college degree only because this university was here to extend to them the welcoming hand of educational opportunity.
As I travel throughout the region and meet our alumni, I am continually revitalized by the stories I hear – stories of hard-working, determined young men and women whose dream of a college education seemed impossibly remote. However, because this university was here to serve, and more important, because someone at this university – a faculty member, a librarian, an assistant dean of students, a volunteer tutor – took a special interest in them and showed them the way, they were able to realize their dream. How many must have felt like young Harold Smith, who arrived by train in Commerce to begin his quest for a college degree on January 13, 1912? He later recalled the emotions he felt on that “rainy, cold Saturday night,” which are recorded in Professor Mayo’s College: a History of East Texas State University, by Donald Reynolds and James Conrad:
“My first day at E.T.N.C. the Sunday following my arrival on Saturday night, was perhaps the most lonesome day of my entire life….Thoughts of my friends of boyhood, of my home, and of the tender care of my mother…so filled me with nostalgia that I was sick at heart. I almost wished that I had not put my hand to the plow.”
I find in Mr. Smith’s words an emblem of the character of our institution, and a reminder that the greatness of A&M-Commerce lies in the nobility and expansiveness of its mission. It is a mission that has served well not only the interests of Northeast Texas, but one that has advanced the well-being of the American people. Ours is a nation founded on the promise of opportunity, and education is the essential element in realizing that promise. We understand that the democratic form of government we have carefully nurtured over almost two-and -a-half centuries would crumble in the absence of an educated public. We understand that educated people earn more, contribute more to their communities and nation and help create and sustain a better quality of life for all. We also understand that educational opportunity must be more than a privilege; it must be a right – not a benefit reserved for the few, but a blessing bestowed upon the many. The importance of this birthright has never been greater than now. As we watch the value of equity investments, commodities and foreign currencies gyrate uncontrollably, we affirm, again and again, that education is the only investment whose worth is sure, the only asset whose value is guaranteed to become more precious with time. The creation of monetary wealth is a mere footnote to history; great nations are remembered not for the riches they amass, but for the quality of their ideas, and great ideas emerge only from the give and take of robust debate by informed citizens. In the marketplace of ideas, we educators are merchants of opportunity, and we trade in knowledge, the currency of civilization. Unless we disburse the coin of the academic realm as widely as possible, this nation – this world – whose future has been entrusted to our care, cannot survive.
As we ponder the history of intellectual inquiry, we appreciate even more fully the value of the currency we hold. Classical civilizations placed a high value on education, and the timeless texts produced during this era – Plato’s Republic, the Poetics of Aristotle, the Iliad and Odyssey, Plutarch’s Lives – still are objects of study. In the East, communities of scholars formed to study the writings of Confucius and Lao Tze, often devoting their entire lives to the monastic contemplation of these great thinkers’ works.
Yet in the times and places these intellectual explorations were occurring, knowledge was used as a form of social control, not as a means of uplifting society. While Aristotle was toiling to create timeless texts, slaves toiled to cater to the desires of an aristocratic class. Today we reject this elitism as utterly alien to our notions of educational excellence, yet for thousands of years “educational excellence” was defined as the attainment of esoteric knowledge by a powerful few who used it as a means of cultural, political and religious authority.
These concepts began to soften with the invention of the printing press, but the notion of education as a tool for the edification of common people was the product of the Enlightenment. The American nation was born at this moment in history, and its political system was fashioned by thinkers steeped in such notions as natural rights, the inviolability of the individual and the prerogative of women and men to craft their own destinies. When used as the basis for a political system, these principles demand the existence – and the continued sustenance – of a public that is capable of analyzing and understanding complex issues. Democracy cannot survive without education; consequently, America was the first nation of the modern era to compel the basic education of all its children.
It also was the first nation to embrace the notion that higher education should be made widely available to its citizens. A defining moment came in 1944, with the passage of the GI Bill. This piece of landmark legislation opened the doors to college for millions of veterans returning from service in World War II, including my father. With the stroke of a pen, colleges were transformed from bastions of privilege, to gateways of opportunity through which ordinary people could pass. In time, this educational entitlement was broadened to include all students whose socioeconomic status might preclude them from attending college. The Pell Grant, part of the landmark Higher Education Act of 1965, provides financial support to any student who aspires to earn a college degree, but whose financial circumstances would otherwise rob him or her of the opportunity.
At A&M-Commerce, 41 percent of our undergraduates receive Pell Grants, while 60 percent receive some form of financial assistance, including veterans’ benefits.
A debate is currently raging in the United States Senate over whether increasing Pell Grant benefits would stimulate our moribund economy. There can be no question that broadening access to higher education would stimulate not just the economy, but also the intellectual, political and cultural vitality of this nation.
We Americans have taken the best traditions of educational excellence from throughout history and put them to use in a radical, uniquely American way: in pursuit of the belief that educational excellence is synonymous not with exclusion, but with opportunity; that it is best used not for the enjoyment of the elite, but for the advancement of an entire civilization. It is this conviction that compelled Professor Mayo to found East Texas Normal College. It is this ideal which comprises the authentic legacy of those visionary men and women who have gone before us, and who committed their lives to building an institution whose mission comprises nothing less than the unceasing betterment of the world. That which makes A&M-Commerce great is that which makes America great: the belief that a college degree can elevate individuals, a culture and a nation, to unimagined levels of achievement.
We receive our bequest with gratitude and humility. We celebrate the achievements of those who have gone before, as we accept our moral duty to carry forward with the work they have begun. Our mission – our sacred obligation – is to extend the life-altering opportunity of higher education to all who will take this gift and use it to the advancement of our highest ideals.
It is incumbent upon us, as a community of educators and current citizens of the village of Texas A&M University-Commerce, to go about the pursuit of our mission with a shared commitment to three principles: integrity, innovation and imagination.
Integrity is the bedrock of all that we do, and as we have learned from events in finance and politics in recent months, it cannot be presumed. All of us, I would hope, affirm that we would never transgress the moral, ethical and legal boundaries that guide our actions. Yet each day we are enraged to learn that more names have been added to the list of those who have violated the trust placed in them, such as the investment manager who defrauded clients of billions of dollars, the governor who tried to sell an appointment to a vacant Senate seat and high-ranking officials who “forgot” to pay taxes. As public servants, we are recipients of public trust. We must act always in a manner that upholds the highest standards of integrity; to do otherwise is to shatter the very foundation upon which our institution is built.
If integrity is the bedrock, innovation is the superstructure of our enterprise. Innovation is the engine that drives positive change, allowing us to continually refine our efforts in pursuit of excellence. We, like those who have gone before, are constantly building an institution that will never be completed. That is because our university, as beautiful as it is in its physical appearance, is actually an idea and an ideal. The idea is that education is the essence of freedom and democracy; the ideal, that we can always be better tomorrow than we are today. Just as we seek to provide the kind of educational opportunity that transforms lives, so must we become capable of being transformed ourselves. There is always a better way to reach our students, a better way to deliver our mission, a better way to conduct research. Without an unswerving commitment to innovation, the educational experience we offer becomes a dead letter.
And finally, imagination, which sits atop the university we are building like a weathervane pointing skyward. Imagination is the capacity to conceive new understandings, new opportunities, new ways of seeing ourselves and the world in which we live. Imagination drives innovation, and is the source of new solutions to old problems. I once knew a scientist who said that those who were most accomplished in his discipline were those who were least often surprised. I cannot tell you how at odds his perspective is to my own notion of intellectual inquiry. The world has an endless supply of surprises in store for each of us. Recognizing them, and pursuing them relentlessly, is essential to our success as teachers, students, and scholars.
To these three “I”s, I add a fourth: each one of us. To all of our students, and to the many communities we serve, each of us is the “I” in our great university. As faculty members, accountants, student service professionals, counselors, plumbers, athletic trainers, and electricians, we are all making a contribution to the betterment of our world, one student at a time; I am, as are each of you, a merchant of opportunity.
In closing, I am reminded of the parable first recorded in a monastic manuscript more than 1,500 years ago. The story, known as the “Rule of St. Benedict,” goes like this.
A traveler came upon a group of three stonemasons, each hard at work shaping marble slabs. He asked each in turn what he was doing.
The first replied, “I am polishing this block of marble.”
He then turned to the second stonemason and asked the same question.
“I am preparing a foundation,” he replied.
He asked the third, who replied, “I am building a university.”
Those of you who have heard the tale before recognize that I have changed it up a bit; while St. Benedict’s stonemasons were building a cathedral, mine are constructing a university. Like the third stonemason, each of us is laboring to erect an institution that is more idea than physical structure. The worth of our labor is enhanced knowing that future generations will one day tear it down to make room for one that is even nobler. They, like us, will be driven by a commitment to integrity, innovation and imagination.
And they, like us, will be shaping the foundation stones for a future that has yet to be imagined.