Thank you all for being here and for that very warm welcome.
What a great sight to see so many of you here in the Cistern Yard today, especially so many good friends from years back.
First, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge our elected officials in attendance. We sincerely appreciate your public service, and we thank all of you for your continued commitment to our school and our community. Will all of the elected officials please stand so that you can be recognized? [applause]
As I look out and see family, friends and mentors – as well as think about the people who are watching this ceremony online and from above – I am reminded that I did not get to this moment alone.
I want to say thank you to my father, my late mother, and my two sisters. Through a childhood filled with turmoil and hardship, their support, their guidance, and their faith were my bedrock and fueled me to dream big. They gave me hope that my life could be anything I wanted it to be.
To my late aunts and uncles and all my cousins who are in the audience, I want to say thank you for taking me in 40 years ago when I first arrived in the United States with just $26 in my pocket. All of my relatives went above and beyond to ensure that I received an education that would transform me and provide me with a chance for success in this great country. I am certain that had it not been for their sustaining faith and kind generosity, I would not be here today.
And, of course, there’s my wife of 30 years, Rongrong. You have been with me every step of the way, and I attribute so much of what I have been able to do in life to your being at my side. You’ve been supportive and full of advice. I could not have done this without you. Thank you for everything!
To my daughters – Carol, Kristie, Jenny, and Emma, and my sons-in-law Dan and Victor – thank you for being here. I owe a special thanks to my daughters for always keeping me grounded and humble, for helping me choose my outfits, and for educating me about Spotify so that I can share my love of music with my students through playlists.
Throughout my life, I have been blessed to have great colleagues and mentors … two of whom I am honored to have with us today. West Virginia University President Gordon Gee, whom you heard from moments ago, was the first one who believed in me and took me under his tutelage 11 years ago when I was an American Council on Education Fellow. He taught me about higher education leadership, the importance of genuine student engagement and how to form consensus on campus in order to create lasting change.
Then, there is University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Chancellor Steve Angle. He worked with me at Wright State University, helped to deepen my understanding of higher education and has been constantly supportive of me throughout my career.
President Gee and Chancellor Angle, thank you for having taught me so well and for your support over the years. [applause]
I am honored that so many other great institutions are represented here, particularly my alma mater Georgia Tech. My thanks to Georgia Tech Provost Rafael Bras for speaking earlier and my thanks to all the university delegates in attendance today.
I also want to thank the Board of Trustees for your trust in me, especially board Chair David Hay, Vice Chair Demetria Clemons, and the chair of the presidential search committee and board Secretary Renée Romberger. The Board’s leadership is what I, and the entire College of Charleston community, have relied on and will continue to rely on for our shared success. Thank y’all for taking a chance on me.
The College would not be the university it is today without the work of my predecessors, particularly the ones who are still with us today, Steve Osborne, Glenn McConnell, George Benson, Conrad Festa, Lee Higdon, Alex Sanders and Ed Collins. I express my thanks to all of them for their thoughtful stewardship and leadership of the College of Charleston.
Finally, a special thanks goes to Professor Gary Jackson for the performance of his new poem “Forward and Back.” In addition, I want to thank senior Harper Mobley for lending her vocal talent to us this afternoon. I also extend my gratitude to our students and the members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra who are performing works by Beethoven and Brahms. You also heard the members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra perform an original composition by former College of Charleston faculty member Trevor Weston entitled “Fanfare of Changes.” Let’s give all of these incredibly talented people a round of applause. [applause]
On this day, surrounded by all of you, and with deep gratitude, I stand before you as the 23rd President of the College of Charleston. It is my great honor to celebrate our College and imagine our future together with you.
What has been built here at the College over the past 250 years is the realization of our founders’ hope for our university. We put our students and academic excellence first and, being true to that principle, it has brought us great distinction. But we must not be complacent and satisfied with our progress. We must be driven, excited and passionate about moving forward, and we must continue to transform our university.
Because transformation – that ability to change – is one of our most important traditions. The College has constantly innovated over its 250-year history. The very founding of this College was a great innovation in colonial South Carolina. Our founders knew right from the beginning that the world was changing, and status quo was not an option.
Take a look around you … What do you see? For me, I see the historic Cistern Yard, the heart and soul of our campus. But the Cistern Yard wasn’t always that. Our first classes were held on the ground floor of the President’s House that fancy residence on Glebe Street that President Gee just referred to moments ago. I have to believe that our students back then felt that that was the heart and soul of the College, because that’s all they had. Eventually, that would all change.
The College’s campus footprint would grow with facilities being constructed out of old military barracks that were located here in the Cistern Yard. The cornerstone for Randolph Hall would be laid right here in 1827. Beginning in the 1850s, Randolph Hall would undergo an expansion; the College’s first library, Towell Library, this beautiful building on your left, would be built; and Porters Lodge, located behind you, would be constructed. From then on, life at the College of Charleston would be centered right here.
If all that can happen in the span of 250 years, just think what can happen to our university in the next chapter of our story. If our first 250 years were primarily about physical growth in facilities as well as growing our student, faculty and staff populations, then our next 250 years must be about something far bigger.
I want to challenge our entire College community and our city and state leaders to imagine who and what we can be if we only dare to dream big and are willing to take risks. We can be anything we want, but we cannot choose to do everything we want. Wise and bold choices will have to be made – sometimes very difficult ones. But all of it will be in service to a greater good: A College of Charleston that provides one of the best educations anywhere in the world.
On this day, I make a commitment to all of you here in person, and those watching online, that the College of Charleston will never abandon … that which has made us great. We will never shy away from our commitment to be a diverse and inclusive campus community because there is strength in having people of all races, nationalities, genders, sexualities, socio-economic and religious backgrounds as members of our campus community.
While some of our most historic structures were built using enslaved labor, an act that we now know was a grave sin with lasting consequences, we, as an institution … and as a society … have come a long way and will continue to build on past and present efforts to open our gates to more diverse students, faculty and staff.
We will never shy away from our commitment to undergraduate education OR our liberal arts and sciences tradition because they are the hallmarks of who we are.
If you consider the subjects that have stood the test of time, it’s been the arts, literature, music and science that have had the most enduring historical significance.
As the 13th oldest university in the United States and one of the oldest liberal arts and sciences institutions on this continent, we have a special responsibility to continue educating our students in these important areas – without fail … without compromise.
However, this does not mean that we should stay static. It doesn’t mean we should shy away from change. Quite the contrary: just as our founding fathers did 250 years ago, we need to embrace change, or risk being left behind by a rapidly changing world.
In the next few months, we will develop a shared vision of our future through our strategic planning process. In that plan, we will chart an ambitious course for our future. We will set some goals that are just within our reach and others that will require great effort, time and attention. But I have no doubt that we can … and will be successful, because we all care so deeply about our students and about our university.
Today as I look to the future, I cannot help but be reminded of my past. I came to America dreaming of opportunity. I came full of hope and full of optimism. For me, my American education was what transformed my life. Because of my education, I am living MY American dream.
I want future College of Charleston students and alumni to have that same sense of transformation through their College of Charleston education, so that they may live their American dreams. In that spirit, let us work together. Let us set bold aspirations for our future.
College of Charleston family, in my life, I choose to be fueled by hope, and I am driven by the promise of what tomorrow may bring. With the traditions of the past 250 years in our hearts … and transformation on our minds, let us go forward with a renewed and reinvigorated spirit.
Together, WE are the authors of the next chapters of the College of Charleston story.
Together, WE will make these new chapters great ones … so that future generations will say of us: HISTORY was MADE HERE.
Thank you very much!