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Inaugural Address James A. Gray III

To the North Carolina Wesleyan College community of students, faculty and staff; the Board of Trustees; former President Stanley and Karen Caine; the hardworking Inauguration Committee; guests from near and far; Dr. Lomax, a mentor and hero of mine since 1977; Methodist clergy; and more family that I have seen together in recent years, I say welcome to our wonderful school.

Please join me in a special welcome to my wife Beth, step mother Jane Gray and mother-in-law Caroline Carter—graduates all of Salem College in Winston-Salem, founded in 1772. My two Moms processed in at the head of the line this morning as Salem’s representatives.

I am humbled by your presence, prayers and expressions of support. I feel blessed far beyond my merit.

But I also feel in this room a solidarity of spirit as we gather to celebrate these rituals around a new president. Like a congregation at a wedding, you signify by your presence a pledge of support for this marriage of a new president and our venerable institution.

You today endorse learning that molds lifetimes-- learning as Harvard University’s new president said at her own inauguration, that transmits the heritage of millennia-- learning that interprets the past and shapes the future.

I read with great interest a lot of inaugural speeches—some from here at Wesleyan and that one in particular that Harvard’s Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust delivered in 2007. She said: “Inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre. They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don’t yet know what they are talking about. Or, we might more charitably dub them-- expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience.”

So here goes.

Let me begin by turning back the clock to this school’s founding in 1956 by the community and the church. And to the actual opening in September 1960.

At the opening convocation for 92 students, held in downtown Rocky Mount at the First United Methodist Church, Bishop and school co-founder Paul Garber spoke of how the founders “have dreamed the dreams and seen the visions.”

They were searching for a better way to educate their young people. They wanted a better region and state, partially emanating from the brains and brawn of our young and adult learners.

As the buildings grew from the sandy soil six miles north of that downtown location, to borrow a phrase from famed English aviator and author Beryl Markham, one could “feel the future under your feet.” The visions had begun to be fulfilled.

Move ahead with me to October 25 of that year when the first Wesleyan President Thomas Asa Collins was inaugurated. Scared-- yet most likely bored-- Wesleyan freshmen were in the audience along with North Carolina giants Gov. Terry Sanford and Sen. Sam Ervin.

Dr. Collins pledged himself to see that “the torchlight of truth may be kept burning with increasing brightness.”

That’s also an enlightened way to define what we do here at Wesleyan and in higher education across our America. We tend to the torchlight of truth to the good of mankind.

To W.E.B. DuBois in 1903, “Education and work are the levers to lift up a people.” Translated to 2009, education continues to make the promise of America possible.

It is this promise that we at Wesleyan make each day to our young and adult students. It is this promise that I make today to you and those who follow you.

So how do we deliver on our promise? Simply put, for us to fulfill this pledge, we should get better. We must get better.

We have accomplished so much in the past—some before the legendary dark days of the mid 1970s when the future of this institution was in serious question. But the Wesleyan community again showed that solidarity I mentioned and put the school on its positive and permanent path. Much, much progress has been made since then—driven by the dreams and determination of many of you in this room.

Beyond what we have accomplished in the past, in the future we are aiming at betterment with a celebratory sense of commitment. We in this room know we are on our way.

You are aware of our recent path of “onward and upward.” Enrollment is up significantly on this campus and in our three Adult Degree Program sites. We have a balanced budget that is allowing us to give long-overdue raises and repair and refresh our campus—while avoiding the trauma of other campuses with layoffs, furloughs or salary cuts.

Just recently we announced the launch of our International Student Services and Admissions Center (just call me by the acronym ISSAC). ISSAC is needed immediately to support our 70 international students from 23 countries ranging from Cameroon to Finland. At least 20-30 more are on the way in the second semester. It means that we can further celebrate our diversity with a geographic diversity and world view of life and learning. No campus anywhere around can match that.

So how else are we continuing to get better? Today I am happy to announce four initiatives that will make us better.

This week we are unveiling our first Office of Community Engagement. In an organized way, the office will help us fulfill the mission in our charter. That charter requires us to help Rocky Mount and eastern North Carolina grow and prosper. The theme for all our Inauguration events is Service Beyond the Serpentine Wall, and this Office of Community Engagement will guide our service in an organized, collaborative, sustained, and powerful way. Our first campus-wide Day of Service was Oct. 10, and it was the beginning of service transformation for us and the community.

We have crafted a partnership with the hugely successful Wake Technical Community College to further our “2 Plus Wesleyan” program that we have with Nash, Edgecombe and Wilson community colleges. Wake Tech’s 2-year graduates will easily move to Wesleyan-- at a discounted rate equal to state university costs—so they can get their BA or BS in two more years.

Third, we have signed a cooperative agreement that will bring up to 30 highly qualified Chinese students here in our second semester. Just think of that—some 100 of our 760 students here on campus will call home on the weekends using international long-distance services.

And finally, we are launching with RBC’s generous sponsorship “Wesleyan Windows on the World,” which starting with two days in January will bring to campus 50-75 adults who want to learn about important academic topics. They will learn from our best faculty teamed up with the best from neighboring universities such as UNC, N.C. State and Duke. Our first will be a collaboration between our faculty with UNC History Chair Lloyd Kramer, who will teach: “The Meaning of a Good Life—from Plato to Prozac.” Please sign up. As they say on TV, order now… operators are standing by!

What will it take for us to get better beyond that? To advance, refine, overcome obstacles?

Two weeks ago the Board of Trustees approved a 2009-2012 strategic plan that is aptly named “New Beginnings.” It will be our collective lighthouse to mark our way in calm and stormy seas.

To be more specific about where we are going, let me borrow some very good thinking from accomplished surgeon and best-selling author Atul Gawande. The title of his book, no surprise is: “Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance.”

In it he lists three core requirements for betterment in medicine, and I would add education.

The first is diligence, which may seem an easy and minor virtue—you must pay attention and be steadfast, right? But diligence is neither easy nor minor. It is central to performance and fiendishly hard. Diligence.

The second is to do right. Education is a fundamentally human profession. Like medicine, he says, we are forever troubled by human failings like avarice, arrogance, insecurity, poor communications, and misunderstanding. We believe each member of our community is blessed with sufficient clear thinking and integrity to do right.

But we have a third core requirement for betterment. It is ingenuity. It arises from deliberate, even obsessive reflection on failure and a constant searching for new solutions. It is thinking anew as Dr. Gawande said—not merely intelligence. It is where the Japanese term for continual improvement, Kaizen, meets up with a small-steps strategy for betterment.

In January 1961 our new President John F. Kennedy spoke passionately at his Inauguration of what he called a New Frontier. He did not use the word “ingenuity”—but listen to what he said. It relates to how we run this college and what we teach our students. “Today our concern must be with the future for the world is changing. The old era is ending. The old ways will not do.”

Back to Dr. Gawande’s list of requirements, I would add a fourth that is prompting discussion here among my colleagues—resilience. This school has learned how to bounce back. We will hit walls and bumps. We will be resilient and overcome them. As Mr. Kennedy declared that freezing day from the steps of the Capitol, “The problems of the past are not all solved, and the battles are not all won.”

Let me say clearly that betterment requires perpetual labor. To be an educator or a lifelong learner is to live a life of responsibility. The question then becomes not whether we accept that responsibility of being a dedicated educator. Our presence today commits us to accept that responsibility.

This is a ceremony in which I pledge—with medallion, seal and stole—to believe in the purposes and potential of this college. I promise to help it get better each day before I sleep—and each year that I serve proudly and optimistically as your president before the seal and the robe are passed to another.

However, as you know, a president cannot walk on water-- even with the divine guidance of the four distinguished Methodist ministers here today. There are limits to what I can do, even with your help. I will fall short sometimes and will make mistakes. That’s where not only diligence, doing right, ingenuity and resilience are needed. That’s where you come in.

It was Franklin Roosevelt who so famously said in 1936 as the Great Depression was ending-- “This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

Many of you have heard me and others say that North Carolina Wesleyan College has the ability to be “America’s Next Great College.” We can do it.

I believe-- and I see by your presence and support today you believe-- that this is our destiny. We can do it. We will have that rendezvous with our destiny, and it will be a glorious day indeed.