‘A mind without fear’

‘A mind without fear’


Thank you very much. Thank you for
bestowing on me this awesome honor and responsibility. Thank you to the Board of
Trustees, in particular Chair David Daigle and Vice Chair Ron Lumbra, and the search committee, and all the faculty, staff, students, and alumni for trusting me with
leading this great institution. Thank you to Governor Scott, Senator Leahy — I’m
embarrassed about that thing that’s flying over the Capitol, but thank you
very much — and all the assembled government representatives. And of course to friends who traveled great distances to mark this occasion. I credit my parents
most of all for instilling in their children values and confidence that have
stayed with us. They’re traveling overseas and could not be here today, but I know
they’ll be watching the proceedings. Thank you, mom and dad. My sister and
brother and their families are here today, as are my wife Lakshmi — I don’t
have to look at the names (laughs) — daughter Shruthi and son Sanjay. To all members of my family I dedicate this occasion. Thanks, also, to my mentors and my
predecessors, especially Tom Sullivan, who has given me the greatest gift of taking
on leadership of a university that is on a great trajectory and brimming with
optimism. And to all of you members of the UVM family and the broader community and friends for welcoming us to UVM and helping us mark this important
transition. As I stand at this lectern that belonged to
renowned philosopher and educational reformer and UVM graduate John Dewey, I’m reminded of UVM’s proud history of firsts. Our university, founded in 1791, is
the fifth oldest college in New England, starting as a private liberal arts
school and becoming one of the founding public land-grant institutions. UVM is
the first American university with a charter declaring that no preference
shall be given to any religious sect or denomination. We were among the first
universities to defy custom and admit women as students, and our Phi Beta Kappa chapter was the nation’s first to admit women and African-American students as
members. How do we now continue to build on this proud heritage of 228 years? I
know the faculty of UVM offer great and distinctive strengths that will ensure
that the university flourishes in the face of any headwinds and challenges — as long as we are guided by a threefold mindset. First, we all can agree that our
most solemn responsibility is to the success of our students. They deserve the highest quality education we can offer. Students should expect our support and
mentorship, but we must also have them plan for success in their lives. After
graduation, through advising and connections, to enriching internships and
service learning opportunities right from their first semester. Ensuring
success also means, importantly, that we do all we can to make a UVM education
affordable and accessible to a wide diversity of students. A connected second part of this framework is for us to double down on strengths UVM is known for, enhance our research
and scholarship and our reputation and renown in these areas, and contribute
knowledge for the betterment of society and to solve global challenges. And the
third part of this framework is to fully embrace and celebrate our land-grant
mission. One of the key attractions as you heard in my coming to UVM was that
it is a land-grant university. Indeed, it is the home state of Senator Justin
Smith Morrill who conceived the land-grant mission that President
Abraham Lincoln signed into law, unleashing what I believe to be one of
the greatest experiments in higher education. I have the honor of being
inspired daily by Senator Morril’s desk that sits in my office. It is to me the
greatest perk of my position. Senator Morril’s land-grant vision speaks to our
responsibility to bring the significant assets of our university to bear on our
community. Governor Scott, I sincerely believe that the success of our state is
inextricably linked with the success of UVM, and we will do all we can to enhance the intellectual, human, economic, and social capital of our community. I’ve
been guided in my journey over the decades by a short poem I first studied
and committed to memory in grade school. It goes like this: Where the mind is
without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free, where the world
has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, where words come out from the depths of truth, where tireless striving stretches its arms
towards perfection, with a clear stream of reason has not lost its way the
dreary desert sand of dead habit, where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action. Into that heaven of freedom, my
father, let my country awake. This poem was written by Rabindranath Tagore in
1913, many years before India won its hard-fought independence. So what is that heaven of freedom to which we aspire? Today you heard that I spent some time
at the U.S. State Department as a Jefferson Science fellow. What better
source to draw upon than from the nation’s second President Thomas
Jefferson who said, “Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement
arising out of a democracy of opportunity.” I’ll say that one more time:
“Let us in education dream of an aristocracy of achievement arising out
of a democracy of opportunity.” It is that very democracy of opportunity that I
hope UVM would be proud to help bring about — opportunity made available
irrespective of one’s origin or skin color, sexual orientation or identity, or
economic background. Our university’s early example and our enduring goals
enshrined in the values we call Our Common Ground demand it. Our diversity is our strength. It must be our inspiration. Many have
shared kind sentiments — certainly you heard many today — and best wishes for this special day. One from my master’s thesis advisor
Dr. Richard Kristensen speaks directly to the solemn responsibility of a
president to serve and support the university students and faculty. He said,
“He who would be the greatest among you, let him be your servant. You now assume a position of leadership where you can render great service to your university,
the students, and the faculty. Your most lasting service could be to figure out
how to reduce the cost of a good college education.” Dr. Kristensen I will do my best. Some despair that our nation is
irreparably broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls, but our faith and
optimism must endure. In his acceptance speech to Parliament upon election as
Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi said some see a glass as half-empty
others as half-full. I see it as full — half with water and half with air.
Despite the challenges and headwinds facing us, I, too, subscribe to this glass
full view of the world. UVM has a wonderful tradition of convocation, as
our first-year students embark upon their college journey. The theme during
convocation this year was “Explorers Forever.” It calls on us to explore, to not
be afraid to expose ourselves to new perspectives, to learn from all around us.
Indeed to turn mirrors into windows, which, as noted journalist Sidney Harris
said, is the whole purpose of education after all. If not during our students’
time at the university, then when? Our students are Fulbright, Udall, Goldwater and Truman scholars, and Peace Corps volunteers. Our four-year graduation
rates are at an all-time high and place us in the top few percent of the public
schools in this country, and for the fifth year in a row, our incoming class
has the highest academic credentials in our history in terms of test scores and
so much more. Our students are up to the challenge. I know that our faculty and
staff are, too. This wonderful tradition of an installation celebrates a new era. It
is not about my being installed as president, but a marking of an important
transition and an expression of our collective will and aspiration to reach
even greater heights. I wish for all of us “a mind without fear and a head held
high” as we work to enable our students bright future. You have my commitment to contribute all I can in our upcoming journey together. Thank you very much.
Thank you. (applause)

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