Text of President’s Inaugural Address
Saint Michael’s College
D. E. Lorraine Sterritt, seventeenth president
September 22nd, 2018
“I am among you as one who serves.”
Madam Chairwoman, members of the Board of Trustees; Presidents Emeriti Reiss, vanderHeyden, and Neuhauser; members of the Society of Saint Edmund; members of the faculty and staff; students; alumni; delegates from other institutions; friends; parents; and families, including my Irish family, represented by my sister Anne and my brother Nigel who are here from Ireland, and my American family, otherwise known as Bert, good afternoon and welcome to Saint Michael’s College!
You are all my Saint Michael’s family, and we are here today to CELEBRATE Saint Michael’s College.
I want to thank all the people who planned this celebration. Tara Arcury, Patrick Gallivan, and the inauguration committee have worked tirelessly over many months to put everything in place. They even arranged for these cooler temperatures that we are enjoying today. Please join me in applauding them!
I have entitled this speech with the words spoken by Jesus in chapter 22, verse 27 of the Gospel according to Luke: “I am among you as one who serves.”
I am very deeply honored to be addressing you today in my new role as the seventeenth president to serve Saint Michael’s College.
Everyone associated with this college describes it as a special place. Special places don’t emerge ex nihilo, that is, from nothing. Special places develop by dint of the engagement of all the people associated with them. When I think about an educational institution, I think first and foremost about its PEOPLE–not just its leaders, ALL its people: ALL the people who were here in the past, ALL the people here at this moment, and ALL the people who will follow us in the years to come. We have a responsibility to honor ALL of them by our commitment to serving the well-being of this college community.
I am very pleased to stand before you today in this indeed very special place. As I have walked around the campus and traveled to alumni events in the last two months and three weeks, I have been deeply impressed by what I have found to be at the heart of this community: a profound commitment to the health and well-being of the individual person: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. This is a college well worth celebrating.
Our commitment stems from, and is inspired by, the vision of the college’s founders, the Edmundites, who are dedicated to the Catholic faith, to hospitality, to liberal arts education, and to preparing students for lives of service.
On their website, the Edmundites provide the following definition of who they are, I quote:
“Who we are is defined in large part by our long history of responding to real and challenging issues of the day. Whether it was the founding of Saint Michael’s College, one of the first Catholic colleges in Vermont, standing up for Civil Rights in Selma, Alabama, answering the Pope’s call to serve the poor in Latin America, or establishing an alternative school for African American boys in New Orleans, Edmundite history is written by a deep and spiritual desire to help those most in need.”
We have followed our founders here because we too believe in service.
We have followed our founders here because we too believe in the power of education.
We have followed our founders here because we too believe in the inextricable connection between education and service.
It takes ALL of our people working together to enable us to provide this education to which we are devoted: the Edmundites; trustees; alumni; the donors who help to fund the institution; professors; coaches; staff members in myriad offices, whether out front or behind the scenes; the facilities staff who maintain our buildings and grounds; the dining staff who feed us; the public safety officers who keep us safe.
Saint Michael’s is a college that celebrates the study of the liberal arts. Liberal arts education is designed to equip a person to carry out the duties of a citizen in a free society, in which every individual person is expected to contribute to the welfare of society as a whole. The term “liberal arts” is often misunderstood. It is not associated with any political point of view, nor is it associated only with the arts. A liberal arts education consists of the study of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. Newer disciplines, for example, computer science, and professional studies, such as business and education, accompany the traditional liberal arts disciplines in our curriculum. Parents will be pleased by the fact that ALL of these studies can, and should, and do, lead to that wonderful thing commonly known as … gainful employment. Who knew that Steve Jobs’s interest in a calligraphy course taught by a former Trappist monk at Reed College would lead to gainful employment in a big way?
One important aspect of all liberal arts disciplines is that they help students to gain a firm self-esteem and a greater appreciation of their ability to cope with changing and challenging situations and the inevitable ups and downs of life. They also prepare students for ADVANCED studies in liberal arts disciplines, as well as for such professional studies as law, medicine, business, and education.
Another result of a liberal arts education is the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood on the basis of evidence. This is of fundamental importance in the world today, just as it has been throughout human history.
We should never forget, however, that many good people never get the opportunity to pursue this education. My own parents, through no fault of their own, did not have the opportunity to go to college or even high school, but my father was an avid reader, and throughout his life he recited passages from Shakespeare that he had memorized in elementary school. At my father’s funeral in 2005 I learned from my uncle that my father was the first student in the school to read all 310 books in the school’s library. My uncle hastened to add that he himself was the SECOND student in the school to read all 310 books in the school’s library! Just a wee bit of sibling rivalry there!
On this occasion when we are gathered together to celebrate the existence of a college based on firm moral and intellectual ideals, we feel profound gratitude and deep joy, but we should always remember that Jesus addressed his message to EVERYONE regardless of their access to education. Those who are fortunate enough to receive a liberal arts education are meant to work to extend this privilege to people who, through no fault of their own, have been excluded from it, hence our commitment to diversity and inclusiveness.
My own academic field is French literature of the Renaissance. In one of the classic works written in this period, Gargantua and Pantagruel, by François Rabelais, Gargantua writes to his son Pantagruel as follows. I quote from the English translation by J. M. Cohen:
“Because, according to the wise Solomon, Wisdom enters not into the malicious heart, and knowledge without conscience is but the ruin of the soul, it befits you to serve, love, and fear God, to put all your thoughts and hopes in Him…Be helpful to all your neighbors…Respect your tutors … avoid the company of those whom you would not care to resemble.”
We see that during this period of the Renaissance, when education in the liberal arts was beginning to take the form that it has today, those who were fortunate enough to receive the privilege of this education were expected to exhibit good and GENEROUS behavior, and to use their education in the service of EVERYONE in their society, both rich and poor, both educated and uneducated.
Today at Saint Michael’s we take our cue from the words of Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke, “I am among you as one who SERVES.”
At Saint Michael’s, we are here to SERVE. All members of the Saint Michael’s community are meant to be themselves, that is, their best selves, and to take pleasure in the various forms of service to which they have been called.
The Saint Michael’s Fire and Rescue Department, which will soon be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, is one shining example of service. This past Sunday I had the great honor of meeting Don Sutton, founder of our Fire and Rescue Department. I addressed him as Mr. Sutton, but he promptly told me that he wanted none of the Mr. Sutton thing, and that he is either Don or Pappy. So Pappy it is! And when I posted his picture on my Facebook page it got 221 likes. Pappy, as many of you know, is a Saint Michael’s hero. Thank you, Pappy. Thank you for founding this very distinctive part of our college community. It was one of the first places I visited when I arrived at St. Michael’s this summer. Care for the physical well-being of members of the larger community of which our college is a part is of vital importance in itself, and it is also an important expression of our concern for human welfare. Painted on the side of our fire truck are four words that sum up the mission of the Saint Michael’s community: “Our Family Helping Yours.”
All our families have been helped by members of our community who have come to Saint Michael’s after serving in the military. We are honored to have these veterans as members of the Saint Michael’s community, and we are grateful to them for their service to our country.
Today, like the Janus figure, we look both to our past and to our future. We look with pride to our past, and we look with optimism to our future. Our vision for the future mandates that we be as bold, as brave, as courageous, and as creative as the Edmundites who founded this college.
We are well aware of the challenges that higher education faces. These challenges are real, but we must not be defined by them. We must fight back. Just as Saint Michael himself fought and conquered Satan, so must the College that bears his name fight and conquer the challenges confronting higher education today. We must CELEBRATE the idea of education as intrinsically worthwhile AND as preparation for careers. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. They are two sides of the same coin. Every major at Saint Michael’s can and does lead to a career that is satisfying in every way.
As we look to the future, we maintain and steadfastly uphold the dedication to service that brought our college into being and remains at its core today. We must also put forth our very best thinking in a spirit of creativity, innovation, and imagination to envision an educational program for the twenty-first century that is second to none, an educational program that is intellectually stimulating AND prepares students for careers. We must also address the issues of our day, such as poverty, lack of access to healthcare, violent conflict, prejudice, and threats to the sustainability of our planet and the species that inhabit it.
In addition, we must not hide our light under a bushel. We must let it shine before everyone we encounter. We must tell the world about the hidden gem that is Saint Michael’s College. We must give people the opportunity to come and see.
Saint Michael’s College exemplifies a combination of education and service that gets to the very heart of the human condition. We must teach our students to do well and to do good: to do well in all their endeavors, and to do good in a world that desperately needs people who are both idealistic and practical, a world that faces many challenges and many opportunities and that needs talented and high-minded leaders in every area of human endeavor. “Our Family Helping Yours.”
In closing, I invite each and every one of you in your respective roles to renew your commitment to the great cause that is Saint Michael’s College. We all have a responsibility in the service of Saint Michael’s.
This is the first time in history that all of us have been gathered together in one place. Let us remember this day as we fan out into the world to serve, and to do what is fitting, right, and just.
Thank you very much.