Inaugural address, ‘Rising Together’

Good morning!

What a joyful day. It’s an absolute delight to be here, to gather with all of you — at last! Today we actually celebrate the amazing, historic, and life-changing Bates College.

Thank you, Greg, for this, and for all that you do for Bates, every day.

Friends: I am so deeply touched and profoundly honored that you are all here today. And I am moved beyond words by the warm welcome that you have offered me — here on this stage, on this day, but even from the very first moments that my joining this community even became a remote possibility. This place — our college — is a place of warmth and welcome, and you have made that abundantly and beautifully clear. And for that, I thank you.

As Greg noted earlier, you all surely know, today’s ceremony was originally meant for earlier this academic year, on October 27th. With him, with all of you, I too remember all those whose lives were lost or suffered injuries here in our hometown of Lewiston on October 25th. I honor them and their families.

I also honor the helpers: the police officers; the first responders, the medical professionals (which included three Bates EMS students); the many who jumped in and reminded us how strong and caring we are as a community.

And I honor our community and region — all those whose lives were touched in some way by that horrible day and the three-day lockdown that ensued, all who helped us navigate collectively an unimaginable crisis, and who have helped us heal. 

There was tragedy in the events of late October. But there was also grace and beauty in the response. I know that this community will hold both of these truths as we continue to move forward into the future. And move forward we will: stronger, bolder, and more resolute.

Now: I must begin my remarks with some words of thanks.

First, to our brilliant and dedicated faculty, and our remarkable and talented staff who make all we do both possible and meaningful.

Thanks to our alumni who keep us strong, who sustain and inspire us. To our Bates families. And to our amazingly smart and driven Bates students. Thank you for all that you give and bring to Bates. 

To Governor Mills, who is here — it means so much that you are with us here in Lewiston today. I am honored, and excited to work with you in the future to advance the great state of Maine. To the delegates and representatives from near and far, thank you for being here. Our institutions of higher education are, today, more important than ever.

Now, a celebration like today’s doesn’t just come together on its own. And — in this case — people moved mountains to make it happen in October and had to move them yet again to make it happen in May. So I offer an enormous thanks to our inauguration planning committees for their vision, for their execution, for their fortitude. And to our many staff and volunteers, whose herculean efforts have made an occasion like this not just functional — which is important! — but also wonderful. Sincere thanks — please join me in giving them all a round of applause. 

I also want to express my enormous gratitude to the Bates presidents who have most recently preceded me for their personal support, their encouragement, and their institutional leadership. With us today are past presidents Clayton Spencer and Elaine Hansen. Thanks too to Don Harward, who was unable to travel to Maine, but I know is watching on the livestream. So, we welcome you, and thank you, and acknowledge you, too, Don.

To all of the performers and speakers — anyone participating in the ceremonies — thank you, thank you so much, so wonderful. This is really going to be one of the most memorable days of my lifetime, so thank you.

And special thanks to President Wendy Raymond and Chancellor Joan Gabel. I am beyond grateful for those touching words, but your friendship, your mentorship, and for carving out time in the absolute busiest time of the year to be here in Maine this weekend. Also I appreciate just a little bit of perjury to make me sound good in front of this audience here.

To the presidential search committee and to the Board of Trustees, thank you for putting your faith in me, especially our search co-chairs Greg Ehret and Andrea Bueschel, as well as former Board chairs John Gillespie and Mike Bonney. Thank you all for your incredible leadership and support before, during, and after the presidential transition. I am inspired by all that you all do for your alma mater.

And to my many, many dear friends and mentors and beloved former colleagues, your presence here is heartwarming. 

I want to give a special shout-out to all my family members who came, and close family friends who are family, who are here and some are online, but many came from New Jersey, Connecticut, and West Virginia. Thank you for being here. And a special thanks to my brother, Chris, and his wife Lauren, and my nephew Jackson, and my nieces Ella and Ruby who are up here. Welcome, I love you.

But words could barely capture how extraordinarily grateful I am to my husband, Jon, for his encouragement, his brilliance, his support, his willingness to embark on this new adventure with me. Jon is a wonderful teacher-scholar in his own right, and he has slipped into a new role as Bates’ “first friend” extraordinarily well and easily. 

And then there’s my parents, who are also here: Garry and Leslie Jenkins.

They’re both retired now. My mom was a public school teacher and my father was a computer programmer and a community college instructor. My parents instilled in Chris and me a belief in the power of education, the importance of thinking for yourself, and the value of building and supporting community, and community around you. They worked long hours and they sacrificed to provide the two of us with every opportunity, especially when it came to education — second jobs. This wouldn’t be possible without them. Love you, love you.

Part II

The end of the academic year is nearing, but in the broader context this day actually represents an exciting beginning and it celebrates also some historic firsts. I feel, intensely, the weight and the honor of standing before you today, embodying many of those firsts. In many ways, a rarity in higher education, particularly higher education leadership. I remember a time, not too long ago, asking, would our nation’s most selective colleges ever be open to a Black president? To an openly gay president? Would that be possible? Was that a dream too big? And I am so glad that today, with places like Bates in the world, and with people like those who make up this community, no dream is too big.

I have sometimes said that I see Bates as an “improbable” place. On the one hand, Bates is “improbable” in the sense that any residential, small liberal arts college is improbable: It’s an ambitious undertaking, lofty in ideals and mission. It’s independent, it’s focused, and it’s personal in scale — and as a result high-touch and, as we know, resource-intensive. 

Also “improbable” in that we are just a small piece of the vast higher education landscape, and somewhat counter to the prevailing currents of higher education in our emphasis on broad and deep traditional liberal arts education that affords students the opportunity to freely explore their interests, rather than more technical preparation and specialization. For us, education is not a transaction or a ticket to be punched — instead, it’s an experience to be had, a developmental and reflective process to undergo, a strengthening of knowledge and attributes and skills — that lead to a deeper understanding of the world, of others, and, ultimately, of ourselves.

But Bates, specifically, is improbable because it was a radical notion from its very founding in 1855, six years before the Civil War, founded with a distinct vision of higher education: women and men, people of all races, learning together. Steadfast in an idea of what it meant to be fully human. But an outlier. All this, at a time, the middle of the nineteenth century, when even one of those concepts would have been unconventional enough on its own. In fact, when you think about it, through the bulk of the twentieth century, those were still radical and highly unusual practices. It would take more than a century for the rest of higher education to catch up to Bates. Yet we persisted, we thrived, we led the way. 

So yes, improbable. And yet in improbability, there is great potential. And I see potential everywhere at Bates.

I see it in the depth and breadth of intellectual ambition that knows no limits. Our faculty are working at the forefront of their fields, breaking new ground and creating new knowledge that expands and improves understanding and the human experience. They are able to draw upon their training and talent and expertise because Bates is a place where both research and teaching are valued. These things rise together. They are mutually reinforcing.

In Bates I see an education that aims to treat the entirety of each student with care and attention. One that combines the academic rigor, whether it’s in the classrooms, in labs, on the stage, in the studio, with deep investment in every aspect of success, well-being, and engagement. A place where our students — supported in all that they do by our faculty and staff — have the opportunity to explore a dynamic, surprising curriculum and test academic interests where they grow and develop across any number of dimensions. Taken all together, I see a Bates education that lays a foundation for a rich and satisfying life allowing our students to discover their interests, to hone their talents and skills, and grow as leaders and contributors across all walks of endeavor. 

In Bates I see the lived commitment to equity — to access — to belonging. Our founding story and history shouldn’t and doesn’t leave us complacent or self-satisfied; it should inspire us to continue to pursue and advance those ideals, so that everyone feels supported, feels included, feels empowered. At Bates, these are values — they’re not something to be threatened by or swear words, as they are treated in some parts — maybe even too many parts of the country— these days. 

Here, diversity and differences are embraced, even as we acknowledge that we are not yet as equitable or inclusive as we need to be, as we want to be; even as we acknowledge a college may not always get it right. But we have the commitment to try, to learn, to improve, and we know that this commitment requires constant attention and effort. Yet the essential truth remains that at Bates there is room for everyone — everyone — regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, political or ideological viewpoint, or background — as long as you respect what others bring to the table. It’s all of us at that table — we thrive, we rise, together.

In Bates I see a porous campus, a college that’s unbounded by literal or figurative walls, fully part of the heart and soul of the community that surrounds us. Of Lewiston. Of Auburn. Of Maine. Of the world. All of us with so much to give to and gain from one another — all our fates intertwined — rising together. 

In Bates I see leadership at work. Leadership in action. Leadership modeled and taught and cultivated so that it can be taken out into the world and deployed for the greater good, lifting us all. I see it in our inclusive pedagogy work, designed to identify and remove barriers so that we support all students for success. As a result, today, STEM-interested students from underrepresented backgrounds at Bates are on average 38 percent more likely to graduate with a math or science major than those enrolled at similarly selective peer institutions. That’s something to be proud of!

Potential and leadership are at the heart of our pioneering Center for Purposeful Work, which helps students connect the liberal arts to the lives of leadership and meaningful work opportunities during and after Bates.

And it’s on display practically every day of the academic year as students lead in clubs and organizations, in community-engaged learning, in residence life roles; it’s on display in the fields, on the courts where our student-athletes compete at the highest levels and where they develop and cultivate lifelong skills of teamwork and leadership.

Indeed, I see in Bates bountiful markers of ambition and achievement. Bates has an outstanding record of placing students in top graduate programs, sending alumni to leading medical schools, law schools, business schools, to Ph.D. programs across a variety of fields, as well as noted graduate programs in social work, journalism, and public policy; in engineering, education, and divinity; in public health, dental, and veterinary medicine; in architecture, design, and creative writing; and so many more disciplines. In recent years, we have produced Truman, Watson, and Goldwater fellowship winners. And Bates has been recognized as a Top Producer of Fulbright awards for more than a dozen consecutive years.

Now, am I bragging? If so, I brag for us all! There’s so much to be proud of! But how did we do it? We did it together.

Bates just radiates potential — reaching and stretching and developing into an even mightier version of itself. But it also instills a sense of potential in those who work and study here. A sense that you can find meaning — find purpose — you can find who you are, and who you want to become, at Bates College.

This is the college I have come to know and love. Bates, like any great and durable institution, is truly a gift. It’s a gift from one generation to the next. But we can’t take it for granted. It’s incumbent on each generation to contribute further — not just take from the gift, but to renew it and even strengthen the resource. If it has value and makes a difference — and I believe most emphatically that it does — it’s the duty of each generation to leave it stronger, richer, better-positioned. We are all its temporary stewards and guardians. We nurture and support this place — and the education that occurs here — because ultimately it advances a greater good for all.

Part III

As I have settled in at Bates, I have found myself thinking, as I so often have throughout my career, about those core lessons learned so early from my parents, that I mentioned earlier. About the power of education. The value of community. The importance of thinking for yourself. Mom and Dad, don’t say I never listened.

But you see, an education is not a private good to be consumed for selfish ends. Rather its results yield benefits for everyone. Our society needs liberal arts graduates now more than ever: critical thinkers who listen, question, and connect; lifelong learners who think freely and across boundaries; artistic visionaries who create and preserve beauty in the world; curious minds who investigate and experiment to discover truths; consensus builders who engage across difference to find common ground so that we rise together. 

I chose “rising together” as the theme for this address because I believe deeply in the power of collaboration and teamwork; because I believe that when people and institutions join forces, opportunities multiply; because I believe that win-wins are better and more lasting than just wins; and because I believe that we go further and are stronger when we lift one another up.

The meaning, the power, is in the relationships: relationships between student and faculty learning together, between college and community, knowing that they are forever bound by a shared destiny. It’s the relationship between the liberal arts and leadership, where a college like Bates helps students realize their own capacities to learn, to lead, and to be effective forces in the world.

The power of the liberal arts is also in the relationship between democracy and higher education: As Derek Bok, former law dean and president of Harvard and one of my former professors, has written, “If colleges miseducate their students, the nation will eventually suffer the consequences.” Accordingly, we need higher education to help students gain facility in communication, analysis, civic engagement, critical reflection, the appreciation of the arts and humanities in society, in considering the moral and ethical dimensions of our choices — if we do a better job in developing those skills and habits — and I think we do at Bates — our students benefit, and so does democracy. They rise together. 

This is what we do at Bates and we do it exceptionally well. The task before us is to continue to evolve and raise our sights. To bolster the relationships that are at the core of our success as an institution and to do even more to cultivate and prepare humane leaders of the next generation. To protect and enrich the gift that is Bates for the future. 

When I look forward and envision the next chapter for Bates, I see a Bates in demand. I see a college leaning into its academic strengths. I see a fiscally strong Bates. I see a Bates that is an employer of choice. I see a Bates that is thoughtful about outcomes and leadership development for its students, and I see a Bates that embraces its own role as a leader in higher education. And, I hope you see it, too.

Part IV

Four cornerstones will guide our work and propel us forward — in service of both Bates and the world.

The first is Innovation. 

As I mentioned earlier, Bates has been an innovator from its founding. That spirit threads throughout our history, up through the present moment, where Bates is a model for inclusive excellence, for our approach to life and career, for our environmental stewardship, for embracing optional testing in admission 40 years ago, for integrating theory and practice in the liberal arts through Short Term. As we move into our next chapter, we will need to draw on that innovation and flexibility to fully take advantage of our personal scale, to heighten even further the power of collaboration, and to meeting changing student interests and enrollment needs. We will preserve the intimacy of the Bates education — marked by a truly competitive student-faculty ratio — to ensure the kind of robust interaction and active mentorship that is our promise. 

The second is Opportunity. 

As we all know, attending an elite college or university places a significant financial burden on families. We want to educate the most promising students from a wide range of backgrounds. We want Bates to be a place of opportunity for all. And we will continue to open the doors of opportunity wider to highly talented students from all backgrounds, geographies, and family incomes. 

Access and opportunity also mean equalizing the experience, and ensuring that students can fully take advantage of all that Bates has to offer and fully thrive during their time here. We need to better understand the hidden cost of being a student at Bates, and think about addressing barriers to opportunity that are not necessarily covered by tuition — things like technology needs, summer research support, funded internship opportunities, graduate school test prep and fees, travel and clothing funding for interviews and conferences, and so on. We don’t want any of the great students we work so hard to recruit and identify to walk away from Bates or not fully realize the transformative opportunity we provide because of a lack of support.

Third cornerstone: Leadership and Well-being

We need to attend to the entire student experience, especially when it comes to leadership development and supporting well-being. 

In the years ahead, we must focus on thoughtfully and intentionally preparing our students to lead and serve for the benefit of industry, disciplines, organizations, and communities. This will involve taking a good look at how we invest in those areas that help students grow; that nourish and sustain habits and practices that support a healthy and well-rounded life; that build character; that help students become leaders in all walks of life, particularly in co-curricular programs; in athletics, fitness, and wellness; in the arts; and in community-engaged work.  

And the fourth cornerstone is Civic Engagement. 

American institutions of higher education are essential to democracy and communities. The work of equipping emerging adults for the responsibilities of citizenship with an understanding and development of the skills of civil discourse, constructive dialogue, active listening, respectful debate, openness to different viewpoints, negotiation, and collective problem solving has never felt more pressing. In advancing this work, we help to uphold all of higher education as a public good in service to society and democracy. 

And no college or university is an island unto itself. We are anchors of our communities, and must therefore model civic engagement. 

I spoke before about the intertwined fates of Lewiston/Auburn and Bates College. We will strive to deepen those connections in ever more substantive and rewarding ways, for the benefit of all the people who live and work and study on the shores of the Androscoggin. We will build on the outstanding work of the Harward Center for Community Partnerships to extend our already strong and trusted relationships with off-campus partners. And we shall broaden the college’s role as an advocate, as a convener, and as a key institutional partner for the development and quality of life for our region.

I believe we can do all these things and more. We will need to re-commit our energies and resources, our generosity and patience, our creativity and courage. It will also require further growth of our endowment, and striving for the financial standing and security that allows us to fulfill our highest aspirations. But, whatever we do, we will do it together: through joint vision, through joint imagination, through joint labor. And in so doing, we will help make it so that Bates is even stronger and more distinguished at its 175th anniversary (a mere 6 years away!), but also its 200th, and its 300th. As we sustain Bates’s momentum, enrich the Bates experience, and capitalize on Bates’ special history and culture, we will write the next chapter of our improbable story — together.  

Part V

Every era in Bates’ history has brought particular challenges. Today, we all read the same headlines. We know the world is in conflict, in need. Violence, extremism, insularity, hateful rhetoric are all too present. Higher education is under attack; it’s vulnerable to government interference. The very value of a college degree is questioned in some quarters. 

The challenges won’t stop coming. History teaches us that. But it also teaches us that Bates is capable of addressing the challenges of the moment, able to anticipate the demands of the future, and poised to be a leading voice in higher education. We know this because of what Bates was, what Bates is, and what Bates promises it can be. We step forward with confidence, grounded in, and buoyed by, our commitments to innovation, opportunity, leadership and well-being, and civic engagement.

Our predecessors, whether they be the presidents and trustees, the faculty and staff, the students and alumni, the parents and friends, whoever came before us, have carried us far, but they did not complete the journey. In any perpetual institution like a great college or university, you never do. But what we can do is accept — or grab — the baton that is passed to us. Embrace the work and challenges that await us. Run as fast and as hard as we can during our leg of the race. 

We can renew the resource, strengthen it, present it — in the strongest possible position — to those who follow us, ensuring that future generations — and our society — will benefit even more from a Bates that has served so well, for so long. That is our task. That is our privilege.

I am honored to accept the responsibility of leading Bates College. I do so with humility and transparency. With tenacity and enthusiasm. And, of course, with ardor and devotion.

Thank you, thank you. I can’t wait to see what we can do to help Bates rise — together.