Preparations for this Inaugural ceremony have given me the opportunity to reflect … the 10th president of North Central College. What an honor. It is truly an honor to be standing before you today.
While the time since I assumed this office on January 1 has been a whirlwind, this week has been the most significant—and not because of this Inaugural convocation. Rather, on Tuesday, we celebrated Honors Day—the culmination of an academic year when we honored the work of our most accomplished students and their faculty professors, mentors and advisors. That day began with the Rall Symposium for Undergraduate Research, where we recognized the outstanding scholarship of our students and faculty. And we heard from a keynote speaker—a friend and colleague of mine—Dr. David Fuentes, professor of music composition and theory at Calvin College. Having heard his address titled “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I am confident that, whether I am at the movies or listening to the symphony in Wentz Concert Hall, I will never listen to music the same way again.
After Dr. Fuentes’ presentation, we viewed the impressive research of our students and their faculty advisors in the form of posters and oral presentations. I can recall the research I did as an undergraduate, and I assure you, North Central College students and their faculty have raised the bar very high.
We then continued to celebrate the outstanding accomplishments of our best students—department by department—at Honors Convocation and through induction into Honor Societies.
That day—Honors Day—is what makes this week so significant. Without it—without the hard work of our faculty and students—all of this delightful pomp and circumstance is meaningless.
Today, we are not only celebrating this Inaugural convocation, we are celebrating Cornerstone Day. While the College was founded in 1861 by leaders of the Evangelical Association Church, it was on this very day, May 17, in 1870, that forward-thinking citizens and College leaders made a new home for our College in Naperville. At that time, this area was just an expanse of open land at the edge of an agricultural town that had only recently grown past its frontier stage. But the town was located along the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy rail line, and it supported seven churches as well as bustling lumberyards, quarries and brickyards. Our visionaries saw that these acres were rich with possibility for the education of the next generation. They demonstrated incredible foresight in selecting a perfect location for a college like ours. Since then, our town and our College have grown hand-in-hand, and today this is one of the most unique campus sites in the nation and one of the best places to live and work in the United States.
Many of our early supporters have become familiar names in Naperville and on the North Central campus. Names like Sleight, whose family donated our first eight acres. Names like Nichols, Kroehler and Pfeiffer, whose family funded both this beautiful building and Merner Field House. Over the years, countless friends—too many to mention in this speech—have helped make this College what it is today. You can find dozens of their names on buildings, endowed scholarships and faculty chairs. And as we move into the future, I know we’ll continue to be astonished by the financial generosity of friends—old and new—who share our commitment to the future of North Central College.
I’m thankful today for the wisdom of the nine presidents who led the College before me, and I appreciate the warm welcome into that group by my predecessor, Hal Wilde.
These nine presidents strengthened North Central through its ups and its downs, its celebrations and its challenges.
Nine presidents who felt inspired by the tremendous impact they could have on generations of students.
Nine presidents utterly dedicated to the success and well-being of this College and its community.
If I can live up to the example they set over the past century and a half, I’ll be doing pretty well.
Of course, none of them worked alone—and neither will I. When our first nine presidents found themselves at significant crossroads, they navigated them with the help of the entire community—a community that has always stood together, defending what it believed was right and necessary—even when it went against the tide of public opinion.
Augustine A. Smith, as the first president, felt that a collegiate institution should assume aggressive leadership against ignorance, prejudice and social evils. That view has become part of the very DNA of this institution. Throughout his life Smith supported abolition of slavery, temperance and women’s rights while fighting discrimination. The institution was coeducational from its founding Resolutions in April of 1861—an uncommon approach at the time. The first faculty had female representation, and the first graduating class in 1866 was comprised of two women and one man.
We encouraged a global outlook and an international presence from our earliest days—enabled through much of our history by connections to missionaries located around the world. In fact, we celebrated the graduation of our first Japanese student in 1893. And we welcomed Japanese-American students in 1943 and 1944 when other American institutions rejected them.
Through the social turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s, we maintained our commitment to ethical principles, supporting our African-American students and inviting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak right here on campus at a time when local hotels refused to accommodate him.
Of course, we faced many economic crossroads as well. When the opportunity was secured for Carnegie funding of our library, it was contingent on completing a science facility at the same time. President Kiekhoefer and his team worked day and night to quickly raise funds for that science building—Dr. Albert Goldspohn’s generosity ultimately made that possible. As we look toward a new science center today, we need to see our 21st century Goldspohn stand up in generosity and be acknowledged.
There have been challenging economic times as well. Great leadership and innovative thinking was required as the College maintained its strong moral footing and economic viability through two world wars, the Great Depression and near insolvency in the 1970s.
While facing these and other crossroads, our whole community kept its eyes firmly fixed on our students.
Today, we remain faithful to our most fundamental principles, including a focus on leadership, ethics and values, which—though part of our DNA from our founding—is now a formal academic program in its own right. We aspire to weave those principles through the academic and cocurricular life of every student at North Central College.
It was from reflection on all of these accomplishments that at our recent Sesquicentennial celebration, we chose to describe our history as “A Promising Start”—in my view, a humble assessment of generations of labor and leadership. It is that dedication that inspires me now, as we face new crossroads.
There are three crossroads, in fact, that I would like to touch on this afternoon. If we approach them with creativity, integrity and tenacity—as we always have in the past—then we’ll have an unprecedented opportunity to shine, to make a profound difference in the lives of our students and the well-being of our region and our nation. We’ll have the chance to lead the way from a promising start into a brilliant future.
The first crossroad is a challenge that must be faced by the nation at large, not just higher education and not just North Central College. From the highest levels of government to every outlet of media to the kitchen tables of families contemplating the next steps for their high school students, the value of a college education—especially a liberal arts education—is being questioned like never before. On the heels of a recession from which the recovery has been slow and uncertain, in the face of rising student debt and with low employment rates in many regions, some say, “Is college really worth the cost?”
This question hits home—personally. As a liberal arts graduate myself—one who went on to become a scientist—and an entrepreneur—and now a college president—I couldn’t have predicted any of the twists and turns my life would take … but I’ve been prepared for them by my liberal arts undergraduate education.
Is it worth it? Our answer is unequivocally, “Yes!”
The data is clear. Our graduates have dramatically increased odds of securing good jobs, before or after continuing to graduate school, and garnering the salaries and financial well-being that go with them. And the data is also clear that the lifetime earnings of a college graduate make this investment one of the most profitable.
This is, in part, why North Central is committed to offering not only a great curriculum in arts and letters and in sciences, but also great options for pre-professional education in teaching, business, health and many other areas. Our students receive a strong and broad core liberal arts education woven into their coursework no matter what major they choose. We blend theory with practice and have done so since the first decade of our existence. In its early days, the College not only offered a classical course, but also a science course, a teacher’s course and a commercial course that garnered national recognition. And this also strengthened the financial stability of the institution. Today, more than 70 percent of our students complete internships, practicums or other field experiences by their senior year. It’s not easy to succeed in today’s workplace, so we give students a head start.
But while the ability to succeed in a good first job is important, that’s just the beginning. Today, the average American will change careers—not just jobs—multiple times during his or her life. So when it comes to long-term success, it’s not the subject matter of a degree that matters most, it’s the skills we learn while earning that degree: the ability to think critically; to work with a diverse set of people in a collaborative environment; to connect the dots between one discipline and another; to anticipate, adapt and thrive with change; and to think laterally and communicate clearly.
The faculty of North Central College excels at teaching these skills.
In the words of Shirley Tilghman, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University, a liberal arts education gives students the “opportunity to prepare themselves not for ONE profession but for ANY profession, including those not yet invented.”
I love that. Because when you graduate from a great comprehensive liberal arts college like North Central, you graduate with a broad outlook and the capacity to succeed in any effort—whether you’re leading a large multinational corporation, or kicking off your own nonprofit, or spearheading a literacy campaign, or guiding your family through its own personal challenges.
So how do we respond to the challenging question of the value of a North Central College education? Should we just calculate the ROI—the return on investment—of our education in a spreadsheet? Many suggest that is the answer. We have to calculate both the return and the investment. We can start by calculating the investment—the total cost of tuition, fees, room and board; subtract financial aid; account for the interest costs of loans that will be secured and don’t forget to capture the opportunity cost of the time spent in college. Then we can evaluate the return—the probabilistic return of a long string of paychecks throughout your surely elevated career.
I assert this analysis is lacking.
Colleges like North Central help to make our community better, our nation better and our world better. We challenge our students to question the status quo and defend what they believe. We provide knowledge and information, but we also foster respect for ethical leadership and service—and I mean real hands-on service. About 60 percent of North Central students participate in service projects by their senior year. At North Central, when it comes to making the world a better place—we walk the talk. And that active compassion carries over into students’ personal and professional lives after they graduate. Maybe we haven’t captured all the return in our analysis!
At North Central, we have an important contribution to make to the national discussion about higher education and the value of a liberal arts education. When we think about return on investment …
Is there not a return to our society and to the student when they are inspired to pursue a life of social, civil or religious service?
Is there not a return when a budding entrepreneur or businessperson learns, along the way, to appreciate the historical and political context in which he or she will achieve their commercial aspirations?
Is there not a return when a future scientist or physician sits in community with fellow students and inspiring professors and wrestles with challenging ethical dilemmas that will impact their profession?
Is there not a return when our graduates from all disciplines learn to appreciate the fine and performing arts that—as we were reminded in the Rall Symposium keynote lecture—are literally part of what make us human?
Are these things not a vital part of the return on a liberal arts education? I assert that they are. But that is not enough. No, it is imperative that you assert that they are. We cannot let this seemingly one-sided debate proceed without the voices of North Central College defending the value of the very core of what we do. When you are communicating with prospective students, when you see articles that are devoid of real insights about a liberal arts education, in every place that you have an opportunity, it is vital that we all educate the world around us about the value of what we do here.
We can and we must. And in doing so, we will help to ensure our brilliant future.
A second crossroad concerns our nation’s focus on STEM—that is, science, technology, engineering and mathematics—from middle and secondary school through college and graduate school.
STEM fields are a cornerstone of every great comprehensive liberal arts college. When they’re taught well—the way we teach them here—they equip students to master the specifics of their field ... and to work and think creatively in ANY field.
We have a tradition of great science education here at North Central. Over the years, our alumni have been responsible for some remarkable accomplishments. Their roles have included directing the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; serving as a global authority on thyroid disease; working as a deputy director at the National Institutes of Health; working as a White House physician; developing the first widespread effective drug against typhoid fever; founding and leading global health, science and engineering companies; serving as dean of a renowned school of medicine ... the list goes on and on.
Today, that tradition continues with our students winning prestigious national honors like the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowships. In fact, at a time when the nation is lamenting the fact that too few American students are graduating in science fields, in the last five years, our biology program has grown by 80 percent, chemistry has jumped by 41 percent and physics by 45 percent. Clearly, our students have done—and continue to do—amazing work in the sciences.
The Kroehler Science facility is simply not up to par. So how have science students succeeded? In a word: faculty. Time and again through the school’s history, when the resources were lacking, it has been the faculty who made all the difference. These great scholars are dedicated to great teaching, to engaging their students in research and to mentoring them both professionally and personally, and have rendered significant obstacles into mere inconveniences.
Imagine what they could do with modern science facilities.
North Central is uniquely positioned to help shape the future of STEM education in this country. We need a new science center—one that will serve all our students—scientists and nonscientists alike.
We must anticipate and respond to the ways that science is evolving and recognize that fields are becoming more interdisciplinary than ever before. Some of today’s most exciting challenges don’t fit neatly into one discipline—chemistry, physics, biology, psychology, mathematics—but at the intersections between these disciplines. Our recent focus on neuroscience, for instance, depends on the fundamentals of biology and psychology as well as physics and computer science. We need to teach and work in collaborative research spaces that foster those connections. We also need to recognize that the divide between lecture room and laboratory is dissolving, with the increasing preference to teach in collaborative space, using “hands-on” techniques and encouraging students to “experience” science.
To catch a glimpse of how profoundly a new science center could transform North Central College, consider the impact of our recently completed Wentz Concert Hall and Fine Arts Center. That facility doesn’t just support the work of fine arts majors—it enriches the lives of all our students, our entire faculty, all our staff … as well as alumni and Naperville residents … and the region at large. By adding the Wentz, Madden Theatre, Meiley-Swallow Hall and Schoenherr Gallery, combined with Pfeiffer Hall where we are today, in the span of just a few years, this College has become a fine and performing arts destination for all of Chicago’s western suburbs.
In much the same way, North Central can—and should—become a destination for STEM education in the region around us, which is comprised of robust research, technology and healthcare institutions as well as some of the best school districts in the country. We can be—and will be—the source for cutting-edge scientific work and the best scientific thinkers who are trained with a sound liberal arts education and well prepared to be both citizens and leaders over their lifetime.
Here we have an opportunity—through the generosity of this community—to truly shine, to create something that will have a profound and lasting impact for decades to come. Years from now, people could point here and say, “Did you realize that one of this year’s Nobel Laureates got her or his start at North Central College?” The sciences must be an anchor of our brilliant future.
A third crossroad is the value of a campus-based college. Whether you are a resident or a commuter, you come here physically and sit in community with your classmates and a living, breathing professor as you engage in your courses. Online education, massive open online courses—also known as MOOCs—flipped classrooms and other technology-enabled developments have lots of people asking, “Why GO to college anywhere? Why not get my degree in front of my computer at home?”
We must have a response. We need to envision the campus-based college of the future (which might not be so far off). We need to address the winds of technological change blowing all around us, and we need to do it soon.
We know that our campus community is absolutely critical. This is one learning incubator that can’t be simulated online. Something special happens when you put motivated, intelligent students in the same physical space with an expert faculty member who has dedicated his or her career to teaching.
A long-time faculty member said recently, “I’ve taught this class maybe 25 times ... and yet I’ve never taught the same class twice.” The critical importance of personal, one-on-one interactions between students and teachers who care is something I benefited from greatly during my undergraduate liberal arts experience. I’m privileged to have my sophomore humanities professor with us here today from Milligan College—and we had plenty of one-on-one conversations, especially after he awarded me with the first B I had received in years. Thank you, Tim! Of course, in hindsight—but only in hindsight—I know that’s what I had earned. I learned that and quite a few other lessons from Tim. And I think it says something about the kind of relationship a student can develop with a faculty member that Tim is here celebrating with my family and me and North Central College today.
That’s the kind of impact I have heard about from so many of the alumni of North Central College as I’ve reached out to them over the last few months. At North Central, we understand that it’s critical for students to connect with faculty who don’t just teach, but mentor ... who invite them into their labs for summer research and into their homes for Sunday dinner ... who help them apply for jobs and graduate schools and celebrate every acceptance with them.
David Skorton, Cornell University’s president, told the New York Times recently, “Interactions can occur at a very long distance now, but you still see that many ... steps forward are based on the old concept of bumping into people, having lunch, that personal interaction… . Even with all our technology, proximity still really matters.”
So we face a fundamental challenge. We don’t know how college education will evolve in the coming years, but we need to embrace that uncertainty by making the most of this incredible opportunity. It’s up to us to shape the future of North Central College and assert the value of our community of learners.
This is not about fighting to preserve the old ways, but about using new technological realities to make our best even better.
There are new ways being developed to leverage technology that can reduce the time spent on less value-added activities and increase the value of face-to-face time with students. The art of teaching has a great opportunity to advance—but this must be led by faculty, through both individual and collective efforts.
Sound familiar? Thriving in the face of change is what we prepare our students for. It is what this College has done throughout its 152-year history. It is what we must do as we build on our Promising Start and move toward our Brilliant Future.
And that’s where all of you come in. One of my most important—and most enjoyable—roles is connecting with the extended North Central family, helping everyone find new ways to engage with the work we’re doing at North Central College. That’s always been important—but now it’s more important than ever, because none of us can do this alone. We’re all in this together.
Together, we can “punch above our weight-class.” Some of you have heard me use this phrase that I adopted from the time we lived in New Zealand. New Zealand is a tiny South Pacific country, but business and government leaders there had a national strategic goal of becoming a prominent player in the global economy in a few areas where they were strategically advantaged. They wanted to “punch above their weight-class.” For North Central College, that means aiming even higher, ensuring our programs are even more distinctive, achieving truly prominent recognition in the Chicago region—and beyond—and engaging meaningfully in national conversations about higher education.
We face three important crossroads on the journey to a brilliant future:
We must continue to communicate the value of a liberal arts education and work hard to keep it affordable; e must do the hard work and make the generous commitments required to secure our science future; and we must ensure that we keep the art and science of teaching number one on our priority list, making sure we take advantage of innovation and technology where it improves our teaching.
It’s an ambitious agenda—I like that—and it’s just the way North Central has always succeeded.
I’m honored to wear this medal and accept the responsibilities that come with it, and I embrace the challenges that come with the North Central College presidency. I’m committed to preserving the character of this great College, which means honoring our heritage and longstanding values—and making thoughtful changes when the times call for them. There’s much work to be done. And I’m looking forward to every minute of it.
It’s as clear to me now as it was the first time I learned about the College: North Central is destined for a new and brilliant future.
Dr. Troy D. Hammond, President
To see highlights from the Inauguration ceremony, visit North Central College's YouTube channel.