Inaugural Remarks

John J. Neuhauser

Sixteenth President

September 29, 2007
Ross Sports Center
Saint Michael’s College

There are so many people to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for today and for all that has brought us to today.  My thanks to Bishop Matano for presiding and giving the homily at the Inaugural Mass earlier today.  Thank you, Joe Garrity, and all the trustees for selecting me for this great honor.  And thank you, Bill Wilson, for serving as master of ceremonies and also for providing guidance, encouragement and wise counsel these past few months.

Thank you Jim Byrne, Donna Bozzone, Rit DiVenere and Patrick Gallivan for so effectively marshaling the delegates, faculty, staff, trustees and alumni.  And thanks to the flag bearers, the student workers and escorts—without you, we certainly could not have this function.

Thank you Susan Summerfield for patiently selecting the beautiful music for this event and to Nat Lew and the Chorale, to Dave Volpe for writing Goodbye, and Keep Cold and for arranging the Centennial Hymn, and to Stuart Carter, who directed.

Thank you, Sister Jacqueline Marie Kieslich for your wonderful invocation.  And thank you, Zsu Kadas for the warm faculty welcome.  Thank you, Alex Monahan, for your greeting on behalf of the students, and my offer still goes if you’d like to continue and deliver the rest of this address.  Thank you to Caroline Crawford for your welcome from the staff and to Denis Collet for the welcome on behalf of the alumni and to Señora Clara Galvis for the welcome from all our international partners.  Thank you, Fr. Mike Cronogue, for your greetings on behalf of the entire Society of Saint Edmund.  And thanks to my old friend Mike McGrath—or, as some would say, devious Mike McGrath—for the welcome on behalf of the trustees.

I owe much to Fr. Donald Monan from Boston College, not the least of which are his presence and kind words today, but also for 30 and more years of guidance and encouragement.  And thanks to my new colleague, President Dan Fogel from the University of Vermont, who brought greetings on behalf of so many sister institutions.

I am honored by the presence and greetings of Governor James Douglas.  And few find themselves blessed by the presence of Vermont’s entire congressional delegation at any event, so my heartfelt thanks go to Congressman Peter Welch, to Senator Bernie Sanders and to Senator Patrick Leahy for their warm words of welcome and encouragement.

Thanks to Fr. Brian Cummings for reminding us of the founding proclamation of this college and to Fr. Stan Deresienski, my pastor, for his offering of the inaugural prayer.  And I want to thank in advance Rabbi Chasan and Bishop Moses Anderson for their blessings—this college and certainly I need and appreciate them.

And thank you to the delegates—fellow presidents, alumni, faculty and staff—representing a host of institutions, who have come from near and far to grace this special day in the history of Saint Michael’s College.

I am grateful to all the former presidents of Saint Michael’s College and their spouses for laying such a strong foundation.  So, thank you to Marc and Dana vanderHeyden, to Paul and Rosemary Reiss, and to Bernie and Alice Boutin, and also to Ed Henry, whose health does not permit him to be here today.  I want to extend a special thanks to my immediate predecessor, Marc A. vanderHeyden, for leaving the College in such terrific shape and to his wife, Dana, for leaving such a nourishing and beautiful garden, productive still.

Thanks to all the faculty and staff and students for their presence and for their warm and enthusiastic encouragement.  The president’s staff of Lisa Powlison, Marilyn Cormier and Louise Luchini have trained me well and certainly helped me mightily in this beginning period.

A very special thanks to Marilyn Cormier and the Inauguration Committee, who organized this event and the entire weekend.  A few weeks ago, when Marilyn told me I would be receiving the college mace as one symbol during this event, I was overjoyed, but then subsequently disappointed because I had anticipated one of those knightly maces—you know, a handle with a chain and a ball with spikes at the end.  Now that would be something a president could use!

Thanks also to my many friends, who have traveled far to be with me today.  From them, I have gained much sustenance over the years and more than a little advice—both good and bad.  I am very appreciative of your presence today.  Thank you.

And, thanks to the almighty Creator for bringing us all to this day and especially for the glorious weather She has provided us.

And finally I want to thank my family who are able to be here.  I am appreciative that many soccer and football games and maybe a little bit of carpentry will be missed this weekend because of this event.  For those who could not join us, I feel their presence nonetheless.  I particularly want to note that my mom was unable to make it today.  Traveling this far from home is difficult and uncomfortable for her, or at least that’s what she says, but I note that there are several good collegiate football games on television this afternoon, and I wonder if that hasn’t played a role in her absence.

One is expected to have momentous things to say at a glorious occasion such as this and perhaps even to set a course for the institution.  It would be unlike me to pretend to anything momentous, and at Saint Michael’s College, it is not solely the province of the president to set a course.  This is an unusual and highly consultative community, with a well-defined tradition of shared governance, so the compass belongs to many—to faculty, to staff, to students, to trustees and to alumni—but perhaps particularly to faculty, whose role here is, thankfully, strong and determinative.  Still, I have had the occasion for some reflection these past few months and, so, will simply offer a very few thoughts on the state of higher education and of this college in particular.

Were Peter Drucker still alive and inclined to rewrite his 30-year-old volume titled The Age of Discontinuity, he might today note more universal themes, for it appears as if we as a college, we as a nation, even we as a planet may be in the early stages of some significant reordering.  Many changes have transpired in this past generation.  The role that families and schools play in nurturing our young people appears to have undergone a major transformation.  Civil discourse, both on personal and on larger political fronts, seems increasingly difficult.  The role of religion in fomenting change, even considerable societal dislocation, is greater than it has been in 800 years.  Enormous disparities in wealth exist, not just in the United States, but throughout the world, and violence seems again to be a normal way of settling disputes, not just between individuals, but particularly perhaps between competing nations and ideologies.

Of course, the expectations held for higher education—and, in particular, for a private Catholic college in Vermont—have also changed.  I take it as a given that higher education is a societal and personal good, that it has the potential to improve the quality of life for all individuals in a society and that it plays an important formative role in shaping a society into the future.  However,  I see two fundamental tensions pervading American higher education today.  As a private liberal arts college, we share in these tensions and are largely the product of them.  The first is felt by virtually all colleges and universities, be they public or private, but the second has been primarily confined to religiously affiliated schools for nearly 100 years.

The first tension lies in the debate over what should be taught at a college or university.  Should the curriculum be one of traditional liberal arts? Or, should it take a more applied bent, acknowledging newer disciplines, some of which have a decidedly practical and immediate purpose.  The liberal arts have typically been considered to be an end in themselves.  They were not intended to develop any particular kind of knowledge, but rather to bring one to a greater awareness and understanding of oneself and how one fits in this great universe.

The tension between a traditional set of courses and a more practical curriculum has played out for 200 years in America, but considerably longer in Europe.  As an institution claiming to be a liberal arts college, we clearly have a stake in this debate.  While we and many other institutions still ascribe to having liberal studies as a core, meaning fundamental, part of our ethos, when surveying the larger scene, it seems that notions of what we might think of as traditional liberal arts have largely been marginalized.  It is not that they have disappeared.  Rather, they have been pushed aside and not just by what have come to be called pre-professional courses, but perhaps especially by the quickly emerging and sometimes dominating role of science, particularly in this country’s research universities.

An additional factor increasing the tension surrounding curricula is that the current era is often characterized by impatience and a need for ready gratification of almost any whim.  This explains some of the pressure to include more “practical” courses in the curriculum.  Also, given the many stresses on individuals and families, it is understandable that students need to be able to realize an economically productive life upon graduation.

The liberal arts have never been static, but instead have been enlarged to include whatever has been seen as good from emerging disciplines for nearly a millennium—few today would acknowledge the Trivium at the University of Paris as the totality of the liberal arts.  So many colleges and universities profess to continue to hold to the idea of the liberal arts, but for the most part, they have lost their centrality in the curriculum.  Maybe that is not so monumental an issue.

As my friend Professor Richard Cobb-Stevens pointed out just yesterday at the Academic Convocation, the liberal arts themselves are always evolving, and many of you have heard Marc vanderHeyden often say that liberal studies needs to evolve, just as subjects were always added at medieval universities as they gained importance in society and gathered a measure of intellectual legitimacy.  Perhaps knowledge of other cultures (their languages and religions), of science, of economics is now simply fundamental and should be part of the ever-changing conception of the liberal arts.  Indeed, one wonders if we would not be in different place as a nation if we better understood Islam and the Muslim world.

So, I conclude that the liberal arts ought to play a central role at an institution such as Saint Michael’s College, but we must simultaneously recognize that they are not, nor ought to be, static.  Yet, a core of studies must be maintained as this corpus evolves.  In one very real sense, the liberal arts are the most practical curricula because these courses tell us what we need to know to live a good life.

Many colleges and universities share in the first tension concerning the definition of liberal arts and its rightful place in the academy.  The second is now largely confined to religiously affiliated institutions.  This tension revolves around the college’s role in creating moral individuals, with morality usually considered to be motivated by a religious faith.  The question is whether a college should be concerned both with knowledge and also with encouraging the development of a proper “will”—that is, the ability and habit of good judgment.  Here, I think the issue is less settled.  Clearly, we do not want to retreat to the post-Reformation state of religious institutions being dismissive of the importance of secular learning.

Many individuals and many institutions have worked long and hard—not the least of which was Fr. Gerald Dupont here at Saint Michael’s—to see that coursework at Catholic colleges was as intellectually rigorous as at secular institutions.  In order to be taken seriously, to be credible, we simply could not afford to be second class.  To claim that secular knowledge is less important at a religiously affiliated college strikes me as assigning that school to a decidedly inferior position in the constellation of institutions in this country and, hence, to a place where the particular role that a religious college can play would be accorded much less credibility.  It is fundamentally important that a Catholic college be seen as an academic entity first and then as an institution with a distinctive additional aspect, one which enables the very important contribution that only a faith-based institution can provide.

We have come to believe—in the good company of John Henry Newman and Jacques Maritain—that the cultivation of the intellect, which can be addressed directly, is an end in itself, while moral virtues and character cannot be taught quite so directly.  As Fr. Dupont noted in an address he delivered in 1952, when he was dean of the college, “The rigorous development of the intellect in an atmosphere favorable to moral and good character development should result in the formation of good character.”  Knowledge remains the most important factor in character formation, but when this awakening of the person occurs within the context of an institution with broader beliefs, broader expectations, the character of students is shaped by the very actions and beliefs of those present and operating in the institution.  Here, Saint Michael’s residential character and strong tradition of service learning serve us well.

Every college has a responsibility to foster moral development, but perhaps particularly does a Catholic college, although this responsibility is more diffuse, depending on many actors and a long tradition of Catholic intellectual thought.  While we acknowledge that higher education’s main purpose is the development of intellect, we at Saint Michael’s cannot abandon the development of “will.”  It is this second aspect of student development in which a religiously affiliated college can play a most important formative role, remembering once again, as Maritain has noted, “We can expect schools and colleges to do only part of the education of a person.  If we are well prepared, education continues until our death.”

So, I believe there is a special role for an institution such as Saint Michael’s.  I do not know what those eight men huddled in the ruins of Pontigny Abbey on this date in 1852 were dreaming of when they took their vows and founded the Society of Saint Edmund.  However, it is remarkable and certainly not accidental that also on this date in 1902, Fr. Theophile Aubin completed the purchase of the old McClelland property at Winooski Park and established Saint Michael’s House, and that two years later, again on this same date of the 29th of September—the feast of Saint Michael—Bishop Michaud dedicated the enlarged building we now know as Founders Hall.  Thus, I can place no special claim on the date of September 29, but it does keep recurring and will keep recurring in the life of the College, not only in memorial, but also in very tangible ways.

While I do not know what the first Edmundites in the ruins of Pontigny dreamt, I have some dreams for this college.  These eight individuals took the name of the English Archbishop Edmund, whose body resided in Pontigny, and subsequently established themselves at Mont-Saint-Michel in Normandy, the most famous shrine to Saint Michael in all of Europe.  So, two saints can be claimed to motivate the tradition of Saint Michael’s College.  Michael was a Jewish hero first and only later an angelic Christian warrior.  The stories surrounding Michael are tales of strength, of wisdom, of fidelity, of compassion.

And from Edmund, a thirteen-century scholar and archbishop, Saint Michael’s has another meaningful legacy.  Edmund resided at Oxford as a doctor of theology, and this learning plus the personal characteristics for which he became famous—courtesy, generosity and personal sanctity—made him an excellent choice for the most important position in the English church, Archbishop of Canterbury, which also entailed a significant role to play in matters of state.  As a scholar and statesman, Edmund took his learning into the world of the thirteenth century and made it a better place.  This is exactly what we expect our graduates to do—take what they have learned and who they have become and make the world a better place.

So, Michael and Edmund provide important traditions for Saint Michael’s College and for the dreams we might have for it.  Saint Michael’s should be a serious academic institution, concerned with developing people with intellect, people who understand.  Saint Michael’s should also embrace people who have learned how to make right judgments, informed by an Edmundite tradition, people who believe in something that they will hold on to even in the face of challenge, people who have courage, wisdom, strength and tenacity—much as our alumnus, the senior senator from the state of Vermont has often demonstrated.  Saint Michael’s should welcome diverse religious traditions and enthusiastically engage in open and forthright dialogue, for in large things we are more alike than different.  Saint Michael’s should offer all its constituents—students, faculty, staff, trustees, alumni, parents, friends and neighbors—the opportunity to grow, intellectually and morally.  And, this should occur in a place and at a time that is seen by all as gracious, civil, hospitable and warm.  I will do what I can in the company of others here assembled to advance the legacy I inherit.  Indeed, I look forward to the work ahead.  Thank you very much.