Inaugural Address

"Dare to Dream"
President Kent C. Trachte
April 5, 2014

Chairman Lynn and Members of the Board of Trustees: I am grateful for and humbled by the opportunity that you have given me to serve as President of Lycoming College. During my nine months in office, I have come to appreciate what all alumni know—this is a special place—a place of opportunity where lives are shaped a place where community thrives and a place where relationships are formed that last a lifetime.

I want to thank:
Mayor Campana for his warm and enthusiastic welcome and the key to the city; Dr. John Piper for his moving prayer; President McMillan of Albright College, whose remarks were delivered by Professor John Whelan, and all the delegates for honoring us with your presence; Professor Sandy Kingery and the Lycoming faculty and professional staff for the energy with which you have embraced our work throughout this year; Student Senate President Greg Vartan, the students who served as flag bearers and all the students of Lycoming College who never fail to delight and inspire me; and Christine Zubris, the class representatives in attendance and all the alumni of Lycoming College who exhibit such great passion for their alma mater.

I also want to thank the Lycoming College Choir, the Concert Band and Reverend Le Crone for their participation in today’s ceremony.

I am moved that so many friends have come to support me today. Thank you all for being here. I also extend a warm welcome to all community members who have joined us.

Lycoming College has benefitted from strong and exceptional leadership during its history. Several of those leaders are with us today; former board chairs, Bob Shangraw and Art Haberberger; the College’s 13th President, Fred Blumer; and its 14th President, James Douthat. We are grateful to these four men for their vision, their love of this college, and their commitment to securing its future.

I would like especially to acknowledge President Douthat and his wife, Emily. On Thursday, we unveiled a plaque naming the College’s residential apartment complex the Douthat Commons. The words on the plaque read in part, “Dedicated to James and Emily Douthat Lycoming College’s 14th President …In Honor of Twenty-Four Years of Leadership and Service.”

Jim and Emily, on behalf of the trustees and all the members of the Lycoming community: thank you again for devoting more than two decades of your lives to Lycoming College.

All of us have people who have impacted our lives in special ways and I would like to take a moment to thank some of the people who have made a difference in mine.

Neither my parents nor Sharon’s can be with us today, but we are both grateful to them for providing environments where learning was valued and independent thinking encouraged. Were my father still with us, I would tell him that he has served as my role model for my adult life.

My brother, Paul, and his wife, Elizabeth, are in the audience today.  I thank them for sharing this day with me. My friend, Mike Stickney, has truly been like a second brother and I am very happy that he and his wife, Beth, have also joined us.

Professor Edward Weisband ignited my passion for teaching and launched my career in higher education.  I am grateful to him, and his niece is here today as the delegate from Colgate University, where she is a faculty member.

Bob Ross has joined us today as the delegate from Clark University. He and I shared a labor of love during the formative years of my career at Clark University. Bob, thank you for being here and for that time together.

John Fry is the person who is most directly responsible for my having the privilege of serving as a college president. I learned from him that leadership means inviting a community to imagine what is possible. Thank you, John, for being here today and for all that you have done for me.

Finally, to my spouse and partner, Dr. Sharon Trachte, my son, Kenyon, and his wife, Lucille. Kenyon, your mother and I love the relentless healthy skepticism that you bring to our conversations with you. Lucille, you have become like a daughter and the two of you bring joy to Sharon and me. Sharon, you give meaning to my life. Your intelligence, passion and selflessness inspire me every day.

As we mark this moment of leadership transition, it is vital that we renew our identity as a college in the American tradition of the liberal arts. Since our founding in 1812, we have lived by the core values of the liberal arts. We have pursued truth through cultivating both critical reason and an appreciation for wisdom. We have contributed to the preservation of democracy by preparing young people for citizenship. We have mentored graduates for lives of meaning and careers of substance by educating the whole person in a residential setting.

Not only have liberal ideals defined our past, they should serve as the compass that guides our passage into the future. They should shape our strategic plan. They should inform the decisions that we make about the physical campus. They should inspire our daily work. And they should define the ways in which we live as a community.

Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” illustrates the idea of truth seeking that is at the core of Lycoming’s mission. At the beginning of the allegory, we are introduced to prisoners who are confined and shackled in a subterranean cave. Unable to view objects directly, they mistake shadows as representations of reality. They cannot perceive the essence of shapes. They draw conclusions about the world that are shaped by preconceived notions rather than reason.  

As the allegory unfolds, however, one prisoner has the good fortune to be liberated from the cave. Initially his eyes cannot adjust to the bright sunlight, and he is confused by the change in his surroundings. Gradually, however, he begins to perceive things clearly. He discerns connections among things. He acquires knowledge.

At the end of the allegory, Plato explains its meaning through the voice of Socrates: “It is our dream …to…travel into the region of the known where the last thing to be seen and hardly seen, is the authentic source of truth and reason.”

Lycoming College’s leaders have evidenced a continuous commitment to the pursuit of truth. The founder of Williamsport Academy, the Reverend Benjamin Crever, defined its fundamental purpose as inspiring students to seek truth. President Long charged the graduating class of 1928 to reflect upon the Greek word for truth that was and still remains on the institutional seal.

At a symposium held during the inauguration of President Wertz, Robert Ewing, one of the intellectual leaders of the faculty, spoke eloquently about the role of the liberal arts college in the cultivation of wisdom.   Ewing argued: “If the experience of living is to be worthwhile, man must acquire in some way a sense of life’s possible significance…he must take due account of the insights acquired by the generations that have preceded him and the wisdom distilled from their experience.”

The curriculum is the primary means by which a liberal arts college nurtures in its students both the desire to discover truth and an appreciation of wisdom inherited from the past. With this in mind, as we move forward, we must give priority to implementing the significant revisions of the curriculum that the faculty recently approved. In particular, we must ensure that we put in place universal first-year seminars, sustain the distribution requirements and create more enhanced academic experiences such as internships, study abroad, student research with faculty and community-based learning. Toward this end, I am pleased to announce that our Strategic Plan will call for the creation of a Center for Enhanced Academic Experiences. This Center will play a pivotal role in how Lycoming delivers a first-rate 21st century liberal arts education.

The leadership of the college has also understood that place constitutes an integral component of the model of education that we offer. Presidents and trustees have partnered to bring our residential campus to life. They have envisioned and constructed a campus landscape and academic facilities that support our mission.

The perspicacity and generosity of our trustees continues. In July, we will break ground on a new science building and planetarium. Today, I am delighted to announce that our Board Chair Peter Lynn and his wife, Joyce, have made a magnificent gift to name the new science building. Their generosity will make possible the construction of the Lynn Science Building. Trustee Jay Cleveland Jr. and his wife, Mary, and Trustee Jay Cleveland Sr. and his spouse, Sandy, have joined Peter and Joyce in making a major commitment to the building. Their philanthropy will be recognized with the naming of the Cleveland Atrium—the beautiful central gathering space in the building. The construction of the Lynn Science Building will be tangible evidence of our rededication to the residential model of liberal education. Thank you to the Lynns and the Clevelands.

The trustees have also committed to renovating the residential buildings that were constructed during the Long and Wertz presidencies. Last summer, we rebuilt the interior of Rich Hall so that on the inside it now looks and functions as a modern residence hall. During the coming summer, we will undertake a similar rebuilding of the interior of Crever Hall; and the following summer, Wesley Hall will be renovated into a space capable of housing learning communities. All this work will be accomplished without disturbing the stately neo-Georgian architecture that defines our physical surroundings.

During the first half of the 19th century, the number of colleges and academies in the United States proliferated rapidly. The founders of these institutions shared a sense of mission articulated in the 1828 Yale Report, which declared that, “Our republican form of government renders it highly important, that great numbers should enjoy the advantage of a thorough education.”

This view that democracy requires an educated populace inspired the founding of Williamsport Academy and influenced the decision by the Methodist church to purchase and reincarnate the school as Dickinson Seminary. The ideal was affirmed again in 1949 when the newly named Lycoming College sought accreditation as a four-year institution dedicated to “educating… better informed, socially competent and contributive citizens in a democracy.”

The need for an educated citizenry is arguably even more urgent today, and so as we renew our identity as a liberal arts college, we should also contemplate the type of education that our students need for 21st century citizenship.

The American philosopher John Dewey provides a starting point. In his seminal work, “Education and Democracy,” Dewey suggests that citizens need an education that both builds emotional connections to others and fosters habits of mind that incline us to be interested in problems beyond our narrow individual interests.  Becoming connected to one another allows us to appreciate our common humanity and accept the premise of equality that lies at the heart of democracy. Acquiring disciplined habits of mind develops our inclination to understand the viewpoint of others and our capacity to answer complex and ambiguous questions. Together, the mind and the emotions nurture a predisposition to compromise and find common ground so that our society may, in Dewey’s words, “secure social changes without introducing disorder.” 

In “Cultivating Humanity,” contemporary scholar Martha Nusbaum makes an argument that can be understood as building upon Dewey’s work.  She contends that our thinking about citizenship must now incorporate a global perspective.

More specifically, Nusbaum proposes that preparation for global citizenship requires cultivation of a narrative imagination. In her words, our students need to acquire “the ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of the person’s story and to understand the emotions, wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

Through our strategic plan Lycoming College is taking steps to meet the challenge of educating for 21st century citizenship. First, we have committed to recruiting a student body that reflects the full spectrum of American society and includes students from around the world.  Second, we will expand opportunities for students to study abroad. Third, we are extending the classroom into the city of Williamsport and beyond by creating more ways for students to engage in community-based learning. Fourth, our curriculum revision continues our tradition of requiring an extensive exposure to the humanities.

Interacting with an international and diverse student body will help Lycoming students build connections with others--others who represent the variety of cultures that compose our nation and our world. Studying abroad will enhance our students’ ability to understand the wishes and desires of others—others whose cultural constructs differ from their own. Working in the Williamsport community will deepen our students’ understanding of others--others whose lives may be quite different from their own. Exposure to the humanities will help our students develop a narrative imagination—so that they might become intelligent readers of the lives of others.   In these ways, we are renewing our historic commitment to educating for democracy.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the great historian of American higher education, has argued that the aim of the American college has been “to develop the whole person—body and soul as well as intellect.”

Morison explains that “It is only though studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same college community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors that the priceless gift of character (is) imparted.”

At present, higher education risks failure in its quest to develop character and educate for lives of meaning. As Bard President Leon Botstein has argued, this risk emerges because too often the residential environment of colleges and universities is dominated by the values of a popular culture that frequently displays an anti-intellectualism that undermines the ideals of the liberal arts.

This popular culture contradicts our commitment to truth seeking when it appeals to dogma rather than reason. It undermines the democratic ideal of tolerance when it promotes images that dehumanize human beings. It diminishes our commitment to preparing graduates for lives of meaning when it insists that the acquisition and consumption of things is the only measure of success in life.

So it is important to note that our new strategic plan will also propose initiatives that signal a reaffirmation of our commitment to educating the whole person and developing character.

We anticipate that it will include a new housing system where students an faculty will be organized into a set of communities that place students in closer and more constant association with each other and with their faculty.

Each residential community will also include spaces that can be used to teach courses and host other academic experiences, especially events that foster the interactions among students, faculty and staff about which Morison writes.

Athletic competition and recreational sports, including outdoor recreation, also offer many opportunities to educate the whole person and develop character. Through physical activity students come to value a healthy body. Though outdoor recreation, they develop an appreciation of the beauty of nature. Through competition, they absorb lessons of leadership. Through membership on teams, they learn to appreciate the contributions of others. Our strategic plan will also develop additional ways that athletics and recreation contribute to educating the whole person.

The histories of Lycoming College and the city of Williamsport are deeply intertwined.

Encouraged by the idea that the Susquehanna River could become a great inland waterway, Michael Ross established a county seat in this territory in 1795. The Ross plot was named Williamsport in 1806, and six years later, the residents established Williamsport Academy, the forerunner of Lycoming College. That Academy prepared the youth of the fledging city for higher education and for participation in democracy.

During the decades preceding the Civil War, Williamsport became an important stop on the Underground Railroad, which assisted thousands of slaves in gaining freedom. Leaders of the Seminary, including Board Chair Abraham Updegraff, provided financial support for this effort.

Both Williamsport and its Seminary experienced golden ages during the latter part of the 19th century. Williamsport became the center of the global lumber industry and one of the most prosperous cities in Pennsylvania while Williamsport Dickinson Seminary evolved into one of the Commonwealth’s premier academies.

Today, Williamsport has entered another era of prosperity—among small cities in the United States it ranks sixth for economic growth. Similarly the College is on the threshold of a new period in its history.

At this moment, Lycoming College has both an opportunity and an obligation to rededicate itself to being a leader in the economic, civic and social life of Williamsport and the surrounding region.

The College’s new Strategic Plan will call for us to take such a step. It recognizes that as an institution, we can invest in the ongoing economic renaissance of Williamsport. It encourages our employees to invest their human capital in the civic life of Lycoming County. It will enable our faculty and students to invest intellectual capital and assist with the identification of community needs and capacity building. In committing to this work we are both reaffirming our grounding in the values of the liberal arts and acting in a way that makes good business sense.

As a national liberal arts college, Lycoming should also look for opportunities to be relevant at a national and even global level. We should seek ways in which we can contribute to important national dialogues and build scholarly knowledge around issues of national and global significance.

I believe that such an opportunity exists because of Williamsport’s location at the doorstep of the Marcellus Shale deposit. As I see it, Lycoming College sits at the epicenter of a dramatic transformation of local, national and global energy systems.  

With that in mind, our Strategic Plan will call for the establishment of an Institute for Energy Studies. Employing an interdisciplinary approach, this Institute will provide an umbrella for our faculty, students and alumni to research energy systems and their social, economic and environmental impacts. It will provide the College with a way to organize our intellectual capacity and pursue national recognition around an issue that matters.

In his bicentennial history of the college, Dr. John Piper has argued that the history of Lycoming College can be understood as a continuous progression toward a greater Lycoming—a theme has been echoed by many of my predecessors. We began as an academy in 1812, evolved into a seminary in 1848, added a junior college program in 1929, earned accreditation as a four-year college in 1950, emerged as a residential college during the 1960s, and achieved the status of national liberal arts college during the first decade of the 21st century.

President Wertz’s inaugural address laid out a sweeping plan for the creation of a residential campus. He then noted that, “We are not such dreamers as to think that this can be done overnight. Nor are we so naïve as to believe that it can happen easily. But we know that it cannot be done at all unless we “dare to dream.”

Today, we stand at the beginning of another exciting era in the history of Lycoming College, and we must again dare to dream. We should aspire for Lycoming to be recognized as one of the very best liberal arts colleges in the country.

Like those who listened to President Wertz in 1955, we know it will not happen easily. But we have reason for optimism. We can imagine an even greater Lycoming because we have a faculty and staff that deliver an undergraduate liberal arts education that is unsurpassed. We can be bold in constructing our vision of the future because the college’s leadership has built an endowment equal to the task. We can dream because we have an alumni body that believes in the College’s future and is ready to lend its support.

Let us resolve then that we will follow in the footsteps of those who have preceded us. Let us resolve that we, too, will build a greater Lycoming.