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President's Office at Aquinas College

President Quinn's Inauguration Remarks

Good afternoon, and welcome to Aquinas College.  Thank you for taking the time to be with us, and to honor this important moment in our 131-year history.

I want to welcome and say thank you to Bishop Walkowiak and Monsignor Duncan, Sister Maureen and Sister Aquinas, and to all of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids.  Welcome to Matt Wey, Marcie Hillary, and the Aquinas College Board of Trustees. Thank you for the leap of faith in entrusting me with this jewel of a college, and for the honor of serving in the footsteps of Aquinas College’s seven former presidents, including Paul Nelson, Harry Knopke, and Juan Olivarez, each of whom are here today.

Welcome to so many friends and benefactors of the college, and to our esteemed guests from other institutions and organizations, particularly to the many from St. Norbert College who made the long trek around the lake to be here.  I am so grateful for your collegiality and friendship during my time at St. Norbert, and am truly humbled by your support.  Thank you for joining us.

Welcome and thank you to all of my mentors, friends, and family who also are here today.  Special thanks goes to my lifelong friend John Sheehan for his kind remarks, and especially for leaving a lot of things out of those remarks.

Welcome to our faculty and staff, and a HUGE thank you to all those who worked so hard to make the inaugural events of yesterday and today a reality.  You have really made Aquinas College shine!

And of course, welcome to our students – you are the reason why all of us are here.  This is your college and today is really your moment more than anyone else’s.

Finally, my infinite thanks and love go to my wonderful wife and partner Terry.  Thirty-five years ago she somehow saw something in a hopelessly geeky physics major.  Terry’s incredibly smart and wise, but I’m pretty sure that even she didn’t see this day coming when we took that Shakespeare class together back in 1982.  To be fair, based on the data available at the time, nobody could have.

The institution we have gathered here to celebrate is one of many important manifestations of the innumerable good works and the vision of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids.  We can directly trace those works back to 1886 when Mother Aquinata founded what became the Novitiate Normal School, and eventually Aquinas College.  But this college is actually the product of an even more ancient and storied timeline.  It runs back to our namesake, St. Thomas Aquinas whose 13th century life changed the course of human thought and history, to St. Dominic the great teacher and preacher who founded Dominicans 800 years ago, to St. Augustine of the early church upon whose rule St. Dominic set up his new order, and of course to the founding of the Church itself, two millennia ago.  It is an incredible honor to be a part of this tradition in form of the role with which I have today been officially charged.

Aquinas College has chosen, rather brilliantly I think, to embody its heritage in a unique tripartite mission:  To be an inclusive educational Catholic community in the Dominican tradition that provides a liberal arts education with an emphasis on career preparation.  Three pieces.  Dominican/Catholic.  Liberal arts.  Career preparation.  I believe that these describe exactly what Aquinas College is and ought to be, and this special mix was the main draw for Terry and me to come to Grand Rapids.  The fact that GR is “Beer City” might have been a bonus, but really, it was the mission.

We exemplify our Dominican Catholic identity with the four pillars that serve as our foundation– on the banners right behind me –:  Prayer, Study, Service, and Community.  While I am new to Aquinas College, these concepts are not at all new to me. Many of you will recognize their similarity to the Norbertine core values of common prayer, self-emptying service, and communion.  They shaped my professional and personal existence for the more than two decades I was at St. Norbert College.  It was during those years that I came to realize that these values have long been the driving forces of most of my life, going back to at least my own undergraduate experience, and probably before that.  No wonder why Terry and I feel so at home at Aquinas College.

There could be much to say about each of the four pillars, but I will center my remarks this afternoon around one of them: Community – How I understand it, and what it means for my vision for Aquinas College.

A community is defined as a group of individuals who share something in common.  It can be a place – the community of greater Grand Rapids, for example, or these days, an online discussion board.  It can be a religion:  the Catholic community.  It can be a set of interests, personal or professional:  the gaming community or the estate planning community. Regardless of its size or scope, from the local recreational softball league to the League of Nations, every viable community shares a set of interests, norms and beliefs, and is a whole greater than the mere sum of its individual constituents.  As social animals, we are programmed to seek membership in a host of communities as the way to conduct our lives.  As I have greyed, I have come to understand that the satisfaction of a life well lived is only possible and best understood through membership and full participation in good communities.

As I take on the responsibility of leading this great college, I have purposely thought about what that should mean in terms of the communities of which I am now a part.  I am of course now a member of the Aquinas community, which includes all of our faculty, friends, students, staff, and leadership.  We each have the responsibility to uphold and exemplify that which is embedded in our history and mission statement. We do so by designing and taking part in a comprehensive set activities, rituals, and narratives, some of which are common to liberal arts colleges, and some unique to Aquinas.  Every good liberal arts college offers a calculus course and can boast successful alums.  But only Aquinas does Saints Slam, has Mohler-Thompson scholars, and has been undefeated in football since 1886.

Beyond our campus, I now belong to the leadership community in Grand Rapids, and with that, I have obligations to the health and well-being of our neighbors, and to local organizations, and businesses.  We also take part in our annual cycle of rituals, from to ArtPrize to what our friend Bill Manns has called “Prom Season,” during which we all dress up in fancy clothes and spend several nights a week with the same people we saw during the day, raising money for worthy West Michigan causes.

By virtue of today’s ritual, I am now also a member of the greater community of college presidents, a fact recognized by my colleagues from other institutions who have so kindly taken the time and trouble to be with us this afternoon.  Collectively we carry the obligation to ensure that our institutions continue to gird the greatest of human aspirations, while remaining financially healthy, socially relevant, and morally sound.  We do so even in the face of disruptive change in the higher education landscape, and the criticism that accompanies that change, both fair and unfair.  

I also fancy myself a continuing member of the community of academics, in particular, of sports economists, a highly collegial group of teachers and scholars best described as exploring an intensely interesting agenda while sporting impressively bohemian wardrobes. This community, too, shares important values and has its own annual rituals.

But, this day, this event, is not about me or even about the communities to which I personally belong.  It is about Aquinas College, the community that it is and should be, and the communities to which this institution belongs.  Aquinas’ success will be measured by the contributions that we make to bettering the lives of all of the people who this organization touches.

We are primarily called to be a place in which young people, and not so young people, can learn about the world from the rich and ancient perspective of the liberal arts while preparing for their first career, or for a new career.  Furthermore, we are called to make a place that exudes the care for world that our Catholic and Dominican traditions demand.  Our work is to teach our students about accounting rules, chemical reactions, and K through 12 pedagogy while we also open the door for them to experience Homer, Hume, and Hemmingway – and to do so in a way that respects the centrality of human dignity in the pursuit of a genuinely fulfilling and satisfying life.  Our rituals and community norms must reflect those objectives if we are to be successful in our efforts.

But we need to be even more than that.  Aquinas is the only Catholic college or university in West Michigan, and as such must serve as an essential element of this region’s faith community.  In particular, we must accept the responsibility of being the primary hub for Catholic intellectual inquiry in our region, and to be a place where issues and questions of all kinds, including sometimes difficult ones, can be civilly discussed.  We cannot fear disagreement.  Instead, we must confront our differences in an atmosphere in which our faith’s teachings and perspectives, as well as others’ faith and perspectives, are not only represented, but treated with respect and humility.  

What better inspiration for this work than our namesake, St. Thomas Aquinas, who reconciled the rediscovered Aristotle with the Christian faith at a time when the former seemed so threatening to the latter?  We similarly strive to reconcile the Catholic intellectual tradition and Catholic teaching with the 21st century human condition.  And like Aquinas, we should reject kneejerk censoring in favor of respectful discourse, even for that which is confusing or threatening.  The fact that we have recently built a chapel and are now embarking on a new science facility is symbolic of our embrace of both faith and reason, modeling that we owe to both our students, and to West Michigan.  If not here, then where?  

The last decade or so has seen the American public forum entertain an increasingly rigorous – and sometimes coarse – debate about the work that institutions like ours do.  The future of liberal arts education and the economic value of a bachelor’s degree have been called onto the carpet, and the contributions to American society of communities like the one here are being questioned.  This debate did not spring up in a vacuum – over the last several decades, the MSRP of a liberal arts college education has grown at a rate that far exceeds general inflation.  We should not be surprised that our value proposition is being challenged.  Long gone are the days when a hardworking young person could earn enough over a summer to pick up the full tab for the next year’s tuition, room, board, and books.  

Those of us leading liberal arts institutions very rightly counter this criticism by pointing to an accompanying jump in financial aid funding and the advent of deep discounting.  We also cite countless studies that show that on average, a degree is an investment that has in the past paid off at a higher rate than nearly any other available to a young person.  

However, the operative terms are “on average” and “in the past.”  This year’s high school seniors – who next August will be the first college freshman class born in the 21st century – have to make individual decisions, and are doing so based on future expectations, and not just on past experience.  It may very well be that a four-year degree will continue to be on average a good idea – I certainly believe this to be the case – but a high school senior only gets to spin the roulette wheel once.  The average of outcomes across all of one’s peers is less relevant to these young people than is the probability distribution of different individual outcomes.  They need to know that the odds that their OWN decision to attend a liberal arts college will turn out to be a good idea over the next several decades.  While there likely are studies that approach the college choice decision from this perspective, this certainly is not the dominant way in which our industry is talking about this question.  Aquinas College must and will address this concern head on if we intend to convince critically thinking young people to join us.  

The prospect of doing so should not cause us to burrow into our academic bunkers, or worse, to dismiss as intellectually inferior those who question our value.  Rather, we should see it as a call to action for which Aquinas College is in a unique position to successfully undertake.  I am very optimistic – even exuberant – about this institution’s opportunities to address these challenges, exactly because of our mission statement and our focus on service to our communities. Just as St. Thomas saw no fundamental discord between faith and reason, we should similarly discard the either/or between the liberal arts and career preparation.

I’d like to think that none of us wants a world so sterile that liberal arts colleges go away, with no more humanities majors to bring us art, music, theatre, theology, or literature.  But the nurturing of the arts community, both inside and outside of our campus, has pragmatic implication beyond just entertainment or the aesthetic.  I firmly believe that our accountants, engineers and psychologists will be better at their own crafts if imbued with the deep and soulful understanding that only study of these human explorations can provide.  We want our physicians to understand the importance of the human spirit, and our business people to recognize the value of contributions to the cultural community, just as much as we want those who love creating music to be able to make a decent living doing so.  

There’s even more to it.  The Aquinas graduates who will march past these very banners next spring can look forward to fifty years, or perhaps even longer, of professional activity.  Because of our mission, Aquinas College is in exactly the right place to learn how to separate the timeless from the temporary, and to understand which things are likely to change, and which are not.  Many – maybe most – of those graduates will eventually work in professions that we can’t even imagine right now.  Those who best understand the nuances of human experience will be in the best position to improve it.  

As teachers in the Dominican tradition, our jobs are to lay the values-based liberal arts bedrock that will ready our students for a practical world, and to offer the lifelong learning they need to remain leaders in making a good future for all of us.  And we need to do so in a way that keeps what we do accessible to all, regardless of socioeconomic background or faith tradition.  

This is our mission.  This is our calling.  This is how Aquinas will contribute to its communities, and the reason that our success is so critically important.  It is what gets me up every morning to get after it, knowing that we are all so incredibly lucky to be part of such meaningful and impactful work.  This is something truly worth dedicating as much as my energy as I possibly can give for as long as I have the privilege of serving as the eighth president of Aquinas College.  And that is what I promise you.

Thank you for helping this college best do what it is called to do – and thank you for being here today.  It is All Saints Day, and a great day to be a Saint!