Presidential Installation Remarks

September 28, 2019
President Robert W. Iuliano
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

As delivered.

When I was growing up as a little kid outside of Boston, there was a long-serving Red Sox announcer who had sort of a distinctive call whenever something extraordinary happened on the field. He would simply and quietly say: mercy. Well, given those greetings, those words, this ceremony, your presence, all I can say is: mercy.

It would be impossible not to be honored by this occasion and the presence of so many friends. Personal friends who have traveled from afar, but also friends of this special place. People whose commitment to this College, and to our most fundamental values, is the foundation for all that we do here. When I was introduced to the campus in February, I remarked on the obligations that we owe to those who have helped shape this institution. Standing here, looking out over this historic campus, in the grace of your presence, I cannot overstate the extent of that debt.

In a moment, I hope to say a few words about the distinctive role of liberal arts colleges, and especially this College, in the important and ever-necessary work of sustaining our civic institutions and our democracy. But, first, I would like to be more explicit about the nature of that debt and express my deepest appreciation to the many people to whom the College and I owe thanks.

To the Trustees. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to become a part of this remarkable community and to help guide the College into its bright and ambitious third century. I am grateful for your confidence and support. The entire community is grateful for everything that you do to bring to life the aspirations of our faculty and our students. I owe special thanks to Charlie Scott and David Brennan. As Chair of the Search Committee, Charlie showed me what it means to be a true Gettysburgian and left no doubt that coming here would be akin to coming home. As Chair of our Board of Trustees, David’s wisdom, worldly experience, and sense of partnership has been more than any new president could ask for. Thank you, David; thank you Charlie.

To our alumni, parents, and friends. Your belief in the College, your support for what we do, is inspiring. You have rightly set high expectations for our future, and I view those expectations as the starting point for my work as president.

To our faculty, students, and staff. By now, you have heard me repeatedly comment on the vibrant academic community you have helped create and sustain. It is in parts rigorous, supportive, and creative; it honors its history but always with an eye towards how it leads to its future; it is—to foreshadow some thoughts I will offer in a moment—committed to the public good and to forging paths that will lead our graduates to Do Great Work, to make a difference both here and outside our walls. I look forward to all we will accomplish together.

I am grateful to be sharing this platform today with two former presidents of Gettysburg College, faithful stewards without whose work today’s events would be a paler version. President Glassick saw in the College its rich potential and harnessed its talents to make this a truly national liberal arts college. His ambitions for this community continue to propel us today.

President Riggs has long been the embodiment of the College’s most fundamental values. She served on the faculty, as provost, and as president. In each of these roles, her commitment to our students was unwavering, equaled only by her belief in the importance of keeping this institution a dynamic place for talent and for ideas.

We are honored by their presence with us today. Please join me in expressing our appreciation for their dedicated service.

As is true for every Presidential Installation, the ceremony we are here to celebrate is about the College, a marker of where it has been, where it is, and where it is going. To the delegates from academic institutions who have joined us today, thank you. Thank you for your presence and for participating in this ritual of celebration and reflection. Your presence is a powerful affirmation of the enduring importance of higher education in the lives of our students and in the world.

An Installation may be mainly about the institution, but I can attest that it is also a powerfully personal event for the individual being installed—and there are many people to whom I would like to express a personal thanks.

To my friends from Harvard and the other parts my life and Susan’s life, thank you for sharing this moment with us. As I have said now many times to our students, we are all a byproduct of the people in our lives, those we walk with and from whom we learn. Susan and I are eternally grateful for how you have enriched and influenced our lives.

To Drew Faust, thank you for your poignant and personal remarks. In so many ways, I am here because of you. Watching you guide Harvard so skillfully and for so long ingrained in me the importance of leadership in these challenging times. I cannot imagine a better mentor; a better role model; or a better friend as I undertake these responsibilities so familiar to you.

Last, but far from least, thank you to my family, and especially to Susan. It has been a true gift to share this adventure with all of you, and I am grateful beyond words for your support and love. Thank you.

* * *

At the 1978 Commencement of the University of Virginia, in a setting much like this, United States Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said, “When you see wrong or inequality or injustice, speak out, because this is your country. This is your democracy. Make it. Protect it. Pass it on.”

These powerful words point to a basic if oft-stated truth about democracy: it is not a spectator sport. The health of our civic institutions requires engaged citizens ready and able to exercise their voice thoughtfully and responsibly. When this College, and institutions like it, graduate broadly educated students with the skills and determination to get involved, we have every reason to believe that our country’s fragile democratic experiment may long endure.

We gather here, today, united in the belief in the importance of higher education in answering this call. To those members of the Gettysburg College community, to my colleagues who will help shape the future of this institution we cherish, we have both a special responsibility and a special capacity to meet this challenge. For this is no ordinary place, and this is no ordinary time.

The land around us is marked by sacrifice. Sacrifice offered to perfect the promise of democracy and equality made at our country’s founding. Sacrifice made necessary when the political bonds that united us frayed—indeed fractured—at a terrible cost in human lives. Sacrifice that stands as an enduring reminder of what can happen when our political institutions falter.

Not far from where we sit, President Lincoln sought to make sense of what happened here, of the sacrifices made by so many. His words, well known to the world, continue to echo off the hills of this town and throughout the halls of this College. Lincoln urged that these sacrifices not be in vain; that, in his words, we, “the living … be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” This call to action is as enduring as it is essential.

The author Hilary Mantel observed that “the past changes a little every time we retell it.” It would, therefore, be easy to assume that the significance of Lincoln’s comments has taken on a bit of hagiography over time. But that would be mistaken.

On the day of Lincoln’s Address, our students, our faculty, and our alumni met him in the town center and joined in his walk to the National Cemetery. Rev. H.C. Holloway, a young alumnus of the College, Class of 1861, fully sensed the enormity of the moment. He later wrote:

As [Lincoln] came forward he seemed to me, and I was sitting near to him, visibly to dominate the scene, and while over his plain and rugged countenance appeared to settle a great melancholy, it was somehow lightened as by a great hope. As he began to speak I instinctively felt that the occasion was taking on a new grandeur, as of a great moment in history, and then there followed, in a slow and very impressive and far-reaching utterance, the words with which the whole world has long been familiar.

I suspect that the hope Rev. Holloway saw that day was grounded in Lincoln’s belief that individuals committed to act in the public good can make a difference, can advance the unfinished work of which the president spoke. Indeed, his call to action has been heard over time and throughout the generations.

Nearly 80 years after Lincoln’s Address, Dwight Eisenhower—who, as you heard, later became a trustee of our College and who spent many years of his life in this town—assumed the first of what would be successively more senior positions of military leadership in response to World War II. With the rise of aggressive totalitarian governments, the world faced the possibility that “government of the people, by the people, for the people” might, in Lincoln’s words, “perish from the earth.”

In assuming these responsibilities, Eisenhower was powerfully shaped by the experiences this land witnessed. As reflected by the life he led, he understood the urgency of Lincoln’s message about the need to advance that unfinished work. He also understood how important it was to engage others to join in that call. At the centennial of Lincoln’s Address, Eisenhower returned to this town and reminded our community that

Lincoln still asks of each of us, as clearly as he did of those who heard his words a century ago, to give that increased devotion … to defend, protect and pass on unblemished, to coming generations the heritage –the trust… bequeathed to us—a nation free, with liberty, dignity, and justice for all.

It is a message our graduates continue to heed. We see it in Melissa Zook, a 1994 alumna who has devoted her medical career to care for impoverished Americans living in Appalachia. We see it in Winnie Wang, a 2018 graduate who developed a passion for public service, here and abroad, and who today works for a nonprofit dedicated to fighting homelessness in the Bay Area. We see it in the work of our students every day through our Center for Public Service. We see it in the countless ways our 30,000 alumni seek to—and indeed do—make a difference in their communities, in the nation, in the world.

And so we convene here today in no ordinary place, a place marked by sacrifice. Its history continues to speak to us. It reminds us that our civic institutions are not self-sustaining. That our work is unfinished, as it always will be given our ever-changing culture, technology, economy, and politics, as well as humanity’s ever-evolving aspirations. It serves as a cautionary tale about the consequences of neglect, and of a retreat to the narrowest forms of self-interest.

But it is in equal measure a place infused by hope—by the promise that better days are ahead when people of courage and conscience engage on issues that matter.

And so, we meet today in no ordinary place. But we also meet in no ordinary time.

We face a form of polarization unlike anything in our lifetimes. We increasingly struggle to find common ground, and increasingly see those with whom we disagree as unworthy of our respect, of our friendship, or even of our belief in their good faith. It is a time defined by increasing isolation, intolerance, and inequality.

We are less and less willing to hear those who hold opposing views. We get our news from a narrower range of outlets, our “bubbles” increasingly impermeable. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously observed that people are entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts. But does that remain true, now, today, in an era of “fake news”?

In this environment, it is, perhaps, no surprise that we are also witnessing a decrease in the confidence in institutions. Whether government, the church, the media, or, yes, even colleges and universities, the public increasingly sees organizations as serving something other than the public good. A vibrant democracy exists through the consent of its citizens; if those citizens are ever more skeptical of the institutions that purport to serve them, what does that say about the long-term health of the structures that help support a just society?

Finally, America has long put a special and important emphasis on the autonomy of the individual, but that emphasis has taken on a different hue in recent years. It is no longer just a celebration of the fulfilment possible when people are able to follow their own paths. It also encompasses a less constructive instinct that my views must prevail without compromise, that the relentless pursuit of my narrow self-interest is all that matters. We seemingly have lost understanding of our interdependence. Martin Luther King observed that we are “caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.” But how long will that garment hold if each one of us pulls on it, thinking only of our self-protection?

It is not hard to look out beyond our campus to see the profound issues confronting our society. Climate change. Income inequality. Injustice, locally and globally. The social and cultural implications brought about by ever more powerful tools and technology. The question before us is this: how can we create the conditions that make it possible for us to address these and other such problems honestly, empathetically, and to the benefit of society as a whole?

On this I am filled with great confidence. Our path forward is found at least in part by virtue of the students we educate every year.

Society has long understood the essential connection between a healthy democracy and a broadly educated citizenry. The Academy in Ancient Greece is in many ways the precursor to this and every other liberal arts college. It emphasized the development of the whole self, empowering a citizen to actively contribute to and participate in civic life. Those ideals equally influenced the formation of our country’s democracy. In this, Thomas Jefferson observed that “if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.”

Gettysburg College seeks to avoid the state of ignorance that so worried Jefferson. We are committed to broadening access so that the very most talented students, from all backgrounds, have the possibilities of their futures being shaped by a Gettysburg education. An education grounded in a rigorous curriculum. One that exposes our students to different disciplines, different cultures, different histories, different identities, different aesthetics, different perspectives.

We hope to encourage our students to question their assumptions about the world and their place in it. We hope to instill in our students an instinct for inquiry and exploration, for reason and empathy, for introspection and reflection, for adaptability and resilience. Through this, we hope to prepare our students to lead lives of meaning, service, and contribution. To ready themselves for their role as active citizens. To help ensure that as society faces profound changes in the way we work and live, our graduates will be well-equipped to thrive, both personally and professionally.

In meeting these responsibilities, we recognize that the content of the curriculum matters. It is incumbent on us to examine it regularly and with a critical eye to ensure that it is preparing students for the world that awaits. But even the most robust curriculum needs to be supported by other structural and cultural mechanisms.

First, our search for knowledge must be grounded in an environment where ideas are subject to debate and not to censorship. A precondition to a robust marketplace of ideas is that the market must be truly open to the widest range of perspectives. Indeed, an effective search for truth requires humility and an awareness of the limits of our own comprehension. It is, therefore, not enough to make it possible for dissenting and unorthodox views to be stated; we must also cultivate an atmosphere where members of the community are open to views with which they are unfamiliar or even as to which they may viscerally—or even intellectually—disagree. In the words of Alvin Toffler, the “illiterate of the 21st century will not be of those who cannot read and write, but of those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Second, we must ensure that diversity in all its dimensions is understood as necessary to our commitment to excellence. Simply put, we are more likely to see the world in its full complexity when permitted to see it through the eyes of someone whose life experience is different from our own. This exchange of perspectives, of life experiences, best occurs when every member of the community, of all backgrounds, understands that they wholly belong and feel the full license to be their authentic selves. When we understand, in the words of Pauli Murray, that “true community is based on equality, mutuality, and reciprocity.” That it “affirms the richness of individual diversity as well as the common human ties that bind us together.”

Under the leadership of my predecessors, Gettysburg College has made significant progress in creating Murray’s true community. But it is incumbent upon all of us, here, now, to redouble our efforts. If we want to prepare our students for an increasingly diverse society, they must learn how to embrace difference here. If we want to graduate the next generation of leaders, who themselves will be drawn from our increasingly diverse society, we must continue to make this place a home for all of our students.

I said a moment ago that I have great hope that we have within us the ability to surmount the polarization, the partisanship, and the parochialism that makes this no ordinary time. The reasons for my optimism are clear:

  • If we graduate students who respect and embrace difference, together we can confront injustice.
  • If we graduate students who have learned to reach across divides, to separate disagreements about ideas from a judgment about the worth of a person, together we can transcend gridlock.
  • If we graduate students who can think expansively and creatively across disciplines, who have the ability to lead and inspire, together we can ignite change.
  • And, ultimately, if we continue to advance the values essential to an education grounded in the liberal arts and sciences, together we can strengthen our democracy and the civic institutions that sustain its vitality.

But we must not ignore another essential ingredient. It is not enough to equip students with these skills; we must also create the circumstances where they develop the lifelong instinct and passion to engage. To encourage them, as Justice Marshall urged, to act against injustice. To “make,” to “protect,” and to “pass along” an inclusive democracy important not only to Marshall but also to Lincoln and Eisenhower.

This is purposeful work. It is also work that takes on special significance at our College, given our unique history and related sense of institutional responsibility. It is reflected in our mission statement’s determination to foster “a commitment to service” in our students. And it is reflected in our motto— “Do Great Work”—words that leave to each of us the space to find how we might best make a difference.

A little over a month ago, I participated for the first time in a defining tradition at this College. The first-year students and I retraced the steps taken by our predecessors 155 years ago as they walked from campus to attend the dedication of the National Cemetery at which President Lincoln spoke. We call it the First-Year Walk, and it is such a rich mix of joy and gravity, of celebration and reflection.

The First-Year Walk can be seen as a metaphor for the liberal arts experience. The bonds and friendships formed by a shared, intimate experience; the engagement with the community as the students travel the streets of the Borough; the solemnity of the moment that requires introspection and the possibility of personal growth as one enters the sacred ground of the Cemetery and considers all that the setting and Lincoln’s words command.

But it is much more than a metaphor. In calling on our students to advance the unfinished work of which Lincoln spoke, the Walk carries essential weight. It is a means of connecting our students to the fundamental purposes of a liberal arts education and, even more so, of the liberal arts education they will receive during their four years in this special place. It is a call for our students to engage in the world with courage and conscience. To appreciate that what our forebears would have called the common wealth does not maintain itself, but instead requires the collective commitment of its members.

The First-Year Walk is a first step on our students’ journey on a path shaped by civic engagement. The College puts students in places where they can make a difference—on campus, in the local community, in the country, and abroad. We give our students a distinctive opportunity to examine the important issues of the day, both in Gettysburg and in Washington, through our dually located Eisenhower Institute. We teach students how to apply their education to become thoughtful leaders of action and integrity. We do this with a belief that regardless of their field of study—whether in the sciences, the social sciences, the arts and humanities—society will be better off if our graduates look to the example set by leaders like Lincoln and Eisenhower. If they understand that they have an obligation and the ability to use their education for the public good.

In short, if done well, what we do here has the promise to be the antidote to partisanship, polarization, isolation, and tribalism. It has the promise to build bridges and strengthen the garment of destiny to which Dr. King spoke and that protects us all.

Let me conclude.

As I stand here, on this hallowed ground, I do so not only with hope but with a conviction that the work of this institution is as essential as it has ever been. This place has seen too graphically the consequences of drift, of indifference, of hyper partisanship. Society needs our thinking, our voices, our graduates; it needs people committed to the public good.

In 1946, then General Eisenhower spoke at a special Convocation on our campus. He had this to say:

And then … came Lincoln, … working, as always, … to unite faction and section, and section and party, to eliminate prejudice and bitterness and hate and to establish a peace assuring eternal union. We see him and his works as a beacon for men who strive to build a better world. … You, here, have been fortunate to live closely with the traditions of Lincoln and Gettysburg. … Basic to his genius for leadership was a willing acceptance of responsibility and a firm will to render honest service.

To the faculty, please join me in illuminating that beacon of responsibility and service for our students. To the students, the promise of that better world awaits. Use all that you learn here “to eliminate prejudice and bitterness and hate” and to make this a more just and inclusive society.

Again, I cannot fully convey the honor I feel in being asked to serve this remarkable community. Let us advance Lincoln’s unfinished work with optimism, determination, and a conviction that, together, we will make a difference.

Thank you.