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Inaugural Address: "Question Everything, Accomplish Anything"

April 29, 2011
Installation Ceremony on the lawn of historic Old Morrison

Governor Beshear, Mayor Gray, fellow college presidents, and delegates from other colleges, we are honored to have you here.

Chairman Young, members of the Board of Trustees and Board of Visitors, alumni, Dean Pollard, faculty, students, staff, family, dear friends old and new.

I am grateful to all of you for being here, especially those of you who have travelled great distances to attend.

I stand before you humbled by the amazing history of our magnificent institution, the extraordinary warmth of the Transylvania family, the gracious hospitality of the Lexington community, and the incredible achievement of my 24 predecessors, three of whom are with us today.

I would like to express particular gratitude to Charles and Susan Shearer for all that they gave and accomplished on behalf of Transylvania University.

Thanks to Charlie Shearer's steady leadership for the past 27 years, this college is well positioned to thrive beyond all that he achieved. I am honored to follow in his footsteps and excited to tell you about the remarkable road ahead.

It has been a year since my appointment as president and in that time two questions continuously emerge: "What is Transylvania?" and "What might we become?"

Ever since the 18th century, Transylvania has been many things to many people, but one distinctive characteristic defines us. At Transylvania we question everything.

Transylvania is a bridge between dreams imagined and dreams achieved. Far more than preparing students to do something, Transylvania empowers young people to accomplish anything.

At Transylvania we question everything so as to accomplish anything.

For over 230 years, Transylvania's pioneers have cut new paths on behalf of our larger society. It has taken resilience, reflection, and resolve.

Try to conjure those early days of Transylvania, when the land where you are sitting was desolate wilderness and the trees were all that separated early settlers from nature's cruelty and the ravages of war. Can you imagine the audacity, bravery, and foresight that it took to establish an institution of higher learning in a place where colonial civilization had only the slightest toehold?

Long before there was a Commonwealth of Kentucky, when crossing the Appalachian Mountains was barely conceivable, Daniel Boone traded with the Cherokees for a large tract of land, later named Transylvania (which, we know, is Latin for "across the woods").

Transylvanians sent a representative to the Continental Congress in the hope of becoming America's 14th state.

Among those original settlers were the founders of a university, the 16th such institution in this nation's history. Since 1780-when the only other colleges in the country were Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Dartmouth, and a handful of others-Transylvania University served boldly as "a lamp in the forest," a beacon of enlightenment.

So bright was the light from Transylvania that, 175 years later, in 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower stood on this very spot where I stand today and marveled at the accomplishment of our founders, with this observation: "Ladies and gentlemen, it is almost overpowering to think that someone at that time-before we were even a nation, before the War of Independence had been successfully concluded, eight years before the meeting of our Constitutional Convention-was establishing here an institution to disseminate knowledge and to propagate...the values that are at the heart of our [American] system."

Indeed, Transylvania contributed mightily to the establishment of that American system: we produced a disproportionate 101 U.S. representatives, 50 United States senators, 36 governors, 34 ambassadors, two United States vice presidents, two Supreme Court justices, as well as countless theologians, physicians, lawyers, scientists, and writers who corresponded actively with intellectual centers throughout America and Europe.

The influence of Transylvania also led to the founding of the University of Kentucky and several medical institutions in the Ohio Valley.

We must pay tribute to the extraordinary accomplishment of our predecessors.

In every period of our history, Transylvania demonstrated a resilience that saw us through the tumult of wars, religious upheavals, economic depressions, changing demographics, and a multitude of cultural shifts.

While the majority of colleges founded before the Civil War ceased to exist, Transylvania lives on.

So, how have we endured? To survive the nation's many transformations, to contribute to American development, Transylvania assumed a philosophy of dedicated reflection.

From the very start, this college has been imbued with an insatiable sense of inquiry, perfectly illustrated by the most esteemed president of Transylvania in its formative years, Horace Holley, who embodied Transylvania's ideal of intellectual inquiry.

A graduate of Yale University who studied philosophy and theology, Holley gave a speech on July 4, 1819, to an audience that included professors, students, and two visiting national dignitaries-President James Monroe and future president Andrew Jackson.

At one point in his oration, Holley asked his audience, "What shall we do, what shall we be, what principles, affections, habits, and motives shall we follow and cherish in order to enjoy our existence permanently?"

Those questions posed by President Holley are timeless and have been at the heart of Transylvania's discourse since the beginning; indeed, they became our DNA.

Thomas Jefferson, who counted Holley as a friend, once praised our strong inquisitive bent and rich intellectual heritage, stating, "If we are to go a begging anywhere for education, I would rather it should be to Kentucky [and Transylvania]..."

Inquiry. Who am I? Where am I going? How can I make a difference in the world? These are the investigations we routinely encourage our students to pursue.

We recognize intellectual curiosity as the sine qua non of individual and institutional advancement. This campus is regularly invigorated by open investigation and intellectual exchange between our award winning faculty and superb student body.

In fact, the faculty is currently engaged in careful consideration of the what, how, and why of learning. In the same way that we encourage students to examine who they are and where they are going, the administration and faculty are taking careful inventory of the institution at large. What constitutes a worthy 21st century liberal arts education? Questions like that are always and everywhere on our campus.

Perhaps the best evidence of our creative approach to the liberal arts can be found in the Transylvania Seminar on Liberal Education, which has brought national acclaim and attention to this college. In these intensive summer seminars, Transylvania invites faculty from around the country to help us reexamine the merit and direction of the liberal arts.

It has been said that the liberal arts "are those areas of knowledge where practical-minded parents hope their children will not major." Yet the beauty of the liberal arts is that their very essence defies obvious practical justification.

Liberal education is a fluid course of inquiry, not a static compilation of knowledge. More concerned with the questions than the answers, a liberal education creates the intellectual and moral capacity to grapple with and even embrace life's labyrinths and ambiguities. Because the answers change with time and circumstances, those who ask the best questions will solve the big problems.

According to a recent study of CEOs, chief executives succeed not for their answers, but for their "passionate curiosity" and for "asking the right questions."

The liberal arts teach students to think as if their choices were essential, to read as if their books might hold "eternal truths," to write as if their words could appeal to the ages, to live as if their efforts might change the world. The liberal arts and sciences teach students how to think about thinking, resulting in self-discipline, integrity, and empathy. Thus begins a process of self-education that continues for a lifetime.

Questioning everything is the ultimate result of what is, perhaps more aptly called, "the liberating arts." They liberate us from the limits of our own experience, from prejudice, ideology, and impetuousness, but most of all, from the inclination toward hubris instead of analysis. The liberating arts allow us to dream, to improve upon all that we know.

Transylvania students come to understand the true "spirit of liberty," what the incomparable judge and legal philosopher Learned Hand once described as "the spirit which is not too sure that it is right."

Learning to question everything is what comes of an education at Transylvania-the freedom and ability to question everything: our thoughts, our actions, and our purpose. That is what we do at Transylvania: we question everything.

Building upon our resilience and reflection, we here today resolve to do even more for Transylvanians still to come than our predecessors have done for us, to make this one of America's very best liberal arts colleges.

As one of our former deans observed, Transylvania is committed to pioneering: "never clear, the future is always across the woods."

Through our resolve, we intend to cross those woods.

Surrounded as we are by the enormous talent and intelligence of our students and faculty, it is exciting to envision what Transylvania might become over the next decade!

Join me as we take a tour of Transylvania's campus in 2021, as the Class of 2011 convenes for its 10th reunion.

Our tour guide is Bahumathi Kumar, a senior from India who proudly informs us that she is president of the Transylvania International Society, housed on the recently renovated Bourbon Avenue.

Bahumathi, whose name is Hindi for "scholar," is the second person to attend Transylvania from her high school, where she graduated valedictorian. She has been very comfortable at Transylvania, partly because about 10 percent of the college's 1,500 students hail from outside the United States.

As we walk through the greenery of Haupt Plaza and past the rainwater collection system at the fine arts building, we bump into Professor Don Dugi, who still looks fetching in shorts and flip-flops. He reports that one of his students has been awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, the second at Transylvania in the past ten years. He also mentions the national debate generated by the most recent edition of the Transylvania Liberal Arts Journal, founded in 2012.

We stop by the alumni office, at 415 Broadway, which, like all offices on campus, has been paperless for years. The electronic monitor in the hallway shows that the annual campaign crossed the 65 percent alumni participation rate and surpassed the $100 million campaign goal.

As we head into the newly expanded William T. Young Campus Center, we hear the lacrosse team celebrating its third straight undefeated season, which has our rivals at Sewanee and Centre fit to be tied.

Can you imagine all of that as our future? I suspect you can, because you know that Transylvania is destined for distinction. We maintain an unwavering commitment to education and to each other.

Perhaps most of all, we are committed to the quest for enlightenment, the very same quest that has directed this campus from the beginning. Back in the 1780s, when our founders first crossed the woods to Transylvania, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote an essay entitled "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?" He challenged his readers to courageously pursue reason and independent thinking: "Sapere aude." "Dare to be wise."

That principle, the bold devotion to inquiry and learning, informed the philosophy of Horace Holley and continues to animate the liberating arts at Transylvania University. It is "the lamp in the forest" that has guided our every pioneering step and that drives us to question everything and accomplish anything.

To the students here today, I say think big; be ambitious; dare to change your surroundings; embrace the world's ailments as your opportunities. With all that goes on here, Transylvania will help you find your passion, but to be successful, you must clothe that passion with perseverance.

To the faculty and staff, I am inspired by your devotion to our college. You know that greatness is dynamic, a constant striving, not an end point. So don't play it safe; experiment and explore with an aggressive commitment equal to what we demand of our students.

To the board of trustees, I thank you for the generosity you have already shown and respectfully submit that you will need to provide still greater leadership for Transylvania to attain the heights it deserves.

To the Lexington community, Transylvania benefits enormously from our exceptional location. This is a warm and wonderful city and we are ready to broaden and fortify our relationships here.

To my friends, I am eternally grateful that you enrich my life with our every encounter and I ask that you visit often.

To my family (especially my wife and children), know that while Transylvania now courses through my veins, my heart is forever yours.

Like our graduates, I have already imbibed Transy's emblematic spirit of belonging. The sense of connection within the Transy family is not easy to describe, but a dear friend told me it is like the German notion of heimat, or the French concept of terroir. Our students don't attend college; rather, they are from Transylvania, in a way that nurtures, inspires, and renders them ethical and responsible citizens.

Our mission at Transylvania is clear: We cultivate open-mindedness, independent thinking, creativity, lifelong-learning, self-awareness, and social responsibility, all through thoughtful engagement with the liberal arts in preparation for a fulfilling personal and public life.

Thank you all for the honor of your presence and the privilege of your trust. I look forward to our continued resilience, reflection, and resolve, to the journey that lies ahead, to being part of the pioneering family of Transylvania, to the many questions that we will ask, and to the accomplishment of our dreams.

Transylvania University: Question Everything; Accomplish Anything
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