Inaugural Address – United Possibilities: Mind, Heart and Community

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Chancellor Huckaby, representatives of the Board of Regents and the University System of Georgia, platform party dignitaries, presidential colleagues, elected and public officials, delegates of colleges and universities, faculty, staff and students of Middle Georgia State College, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, and my dear friends. Today I welcome you to our Macon campus and I gratefully accept your invitation to serve as the first permanent president of Middle Georgia State College. There are others whom I would dearly welcome here today, not least my father and siblings in England and my two sons, Lewis and Sam, attending out-of-state colleges. They are with me in spirit this day and my heart is tinged with sadness that they cannot be here in person. I am humbled by your confidence and strengthened by your support, and I count absent friends and loved ones as part of that network of support.

Today I pledge my commitment to strive to be a president that earns your confidence each day. With God’s grace and with the collective participation of our outstanding faculty and staff I shall strive to provide the leadership you rightly expect as we serve the public of middle Georgia by educating men and women, as our vision statement promises, with an extraordinary higher education that will transform their lives and that of their communities. There is no professional calling more noble or necessary than education and today I formally join this community of scholars as your servant leader. Thank you for this opportunity to be your president.

College presidents typically stand within a lineage and their presidencies are often measured against a long historic line of institutional success. In the case of Middle Georgia State, there are of course two former institutions, originating in Macon and Cochran, where in the case of the latter presidential leadership stretches back to the 1880s. We are honored today to be in the presence of one of those former presidents, Dr. David Bell, who also today represents the former Macon State College as its official delegate. President Bell, we honor and thank you and the other former presidents from Macon and Cochran for marshaling us to this point in history. I look at their enormous achievements with some apprehension and insecurity about how I can add to their legacy. As an immigrant, whose life and work started a long way east of here across a rather large pond, it is daunting to take the baton and run the next stage. But in an unusual way, the race we now run has changed forever with the union and unity of Middle Georgia State and we will be judged by history on our performance as a single, unified institution.

Nonetheless, we will always be inspired by our predecessors from two colleges, and I am reminded as we consider our future that the foundation upon which we build the future of this institution is the torch we pass on to future generations. George Bernard Shaw once remarked, “Life is no ‘brief candle’ for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.” Those who preceded us made our torch burn brightly. Indeed, they are responsible for creating this place and this occasion. But it is now our calling and our task to make it burn brighter still, and that is what I turn my attention to for the rest of this address. The theme of this Inauguration is United Possibilities: Mind, Heart and Community. In the next few minutes I shall expand on why this theme is essential to me as a person and a professional, and also for us as a community of scholars.

We stand today on the crest of an extraordinary transition and achievement, namely designation as a state University. The story of how we got here is less important today than the vision of where we must soon go. I believe the title United Possibilities gives us a clue. We are united in the responsibility to take diverse communities, places and traditions, originating in Macon and Cochran, and uniting them into a greater organization, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—where our four institutional values of stewardship, engagement, adaptability and learning bind us together.

Whether we educate an aviation student in Eastman, a student-athlete in Cochran, a nursing student in Dublin, a returning veteran in Warner Robins, a first generation student in Macon, an online student in Americus, or any of the 8,000 students who entrust their learning to us, our promise must be a unified commitment to all our students, whatever their ages and stages, with the promise of a distinctly Middle Georgia State education and credential. We do this now with a greater dedication to lifelong learning and across the credentialing range, from associates through baccalaureate to – quite soon! – master’s degrees.

We are educating people in a century in which global technical knowledge doubles every 48 months, in which professional knowledge is constantly reshaped and expanded and in which lifelong re-credentialing will be a norm for multi-career success. As a state university we must address that reality with unified vision, united energy and unifying creativity. By so doing, we will be able to do things – to realize possibilities – that we have not considered before. One example of this is new found research and expertise in cyber security in our School of Information Technology, giving us the possibility of a new way of connecting learning to the career opportunities and global challenges that are emerging as I speak. But unity in this sense of a unified commitment does not mean uniformity. I cannot make this point more strongly. A university is a place of varied ideas, pluralist forces and diverse peoples in a creative, healthy tension. That is precisely why it is a place of such educational possibilities and promises.

My own experiences as a middle-class boy in the London suburbs, a student at Oxford, an emerging educator back in London, a tenure-track professor in Maryland, an executive administrator in Iowa and now your president in Georgia are not because I followed a pre-set path simply of well-worn experiences, fields of knowledge or career progressions, but rather was blessed with countless diverse opportunities that were thrown up by a university ideal, where plurality of ideas and expressions was natural, and complexity was the norm, not the exception. Indeed, at most of those stages of life I was told that a particular door was not open to me – at the age of 11 that I did not have a high enough IQ to attend grammar school, at the age of 18 that I would never be admitted to the oldest English speaking University in the world, the University of Oxford, and at the age of 35 that I would not be eligible for tenure since I was not then a US Citizen.

The good people that informed me of these obstacles were all decent professionals, guarding well-founded traditions and protocols. Fortunately, I carried on learning, doing and being me, and consequently walking through doorways of opportunity, no matter how well intentioned the guardians of orthodoxy were or how well the gateways were kept securely under lock and key.

This creation of a university of possibility for our students, doors that open rather than gates that shut, is what we must commit to, especially at a time when our work is so routinely measured in terms of standardized outcomes, employment metrics and economic ROI. Those gateways must never close down opportunity in the face of our students. As essential as economic accountability is to the Common Good and the fabric of a culturally vibrant democracy, the public square also must be a place of risk-taking, pluralism, exceptionality and innovation, both individually and organizationally.

How will each of us in this room embrace that university ideal? More importantly how shall we inculcate that ideal in our students, where acting justly, loving mercy, persevering in the face of failure, comfort with ambiguity, preparedness for the unprepared, and a capacity to transfer knowledge, skills and values from one environment to a completely unfamiliar one are hallmarks of what a successful university education in all disciplines must look like?

The German physicist Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle was illustrative not only of the complexities of particle physics, but as significantly that our environment is constantly changing and that we are always impacting that environment as participants in reality, not simply observers, whether we realize it or not. Our job is to make sure that we know how our students are affecting that global human environment, and that they do so in the right ways.

This is where the Heart, Mind and Community part of our Inauguration theme comes into play. Our influence on the world – in our friendships, families, communities, politics, professions, nations and places of worship and worth-ship – is not a technical one, but a deeply human and moral one. As scripture reminds us, “what does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose his soul?”

Indeed, in his 19th century masterpiece work, The Idea of a University, Cardinal John Henry Newman understood that an institution of higher learning worthy of the name of “university” is a place of both intellectual growth, and also profound humanity where virtues of wisdom, compassion and betterment prevail as much as utilitarian knowledge. We have a unique opportunity here to create a Middle Georgia State experience – a brand promise, is how our marketing colleagues would deem it – that speaks to the development of our students intellectually and morally as change leaders in this region of the state and as human players on their life’s stage.

I earlier referred to the torch our predecessors handed off to us when we became Middle Georgia State. Two thousand four hundred years ago Plato claimed, “Those having torches will pass them onto others.” Our emblem at Middle Georgia State, emblazoned on our campus banners, is the torch of learning, and as the soon-to-be public university in middle Georgia, we are uniquely placed to carry the torch forward in this region. The vast majority of our students are recruited here and remain in employment in middle Georgia after graduation, and the quality of middle Georgia’s businesses, hospitals, clinics, schools, public agencies and non-profits is profoundly shaped by our students and graduates daily. That quality is not obtained or developed by intellectual activity alone. Mind and reason, while I believe gifts from God that substantiate our humanity, if unused for the Common Good miss the core essence of the human experience of life, which requires our humanity and all our human capacities to work toward the betterment of our communities.

The 17th century poet and cleric John Donne saw this. Aside from his 17th century gender-specific language, his truism that, “No man is an island, entire of itself. Every man is a piece of the continent” rings louder now in a hyper-digitalized, Instagrammed world than it did in Elizabethan England, where communities were more intimately connected and tightly knitted than ours, no matter how many Facebook friends we have. Today we need graduates who build authentic communities through their learning and skills, who shape their professions with character and who exemplify pluralist democratic values that speak not only to our mind, but to our heart, our values, our aspirations and our basic decency as men and women made in the image of our Creator.

Middle Georgia State is well placed for addressing this vision of humanity and this understanding of education, serving a region where communities are deeply established and new professions are emerging. For example, the aerospace industry has a $51 billion economic impact in this state and we are proud as Georgia’s only public aviation school to be building an aviation corridor across the region, hosting soon our first truly multidisciplinary research center, the Georgia Office of Aerospace Industry Research (GoAIR), which will become a go-to source of insight on the aerospace industry.

Being professionally excellent and providing public service are two sides of the same coin, and that coin is the Common Good. This truth provides an anchor in a fast-changing world, though there is a paradox here. On the one hand Middle Georgia State must embrace and lead change, ensuring that the role of higher education is at the very center of a flat world with peaks and valleys within the human economic condition. Yet, while being core change agents, we educators must draw upon and honor some timeless truths about that human condition, reminding each generation of students that all people are created equal, that we learn by trial and error, which means we surely do err both personally and professionally, but need to get back on our feet and try again, and that I am indeed my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. Let us educate the mind and also cherish the heart, so that our graduates can nurture our communities near and far.

My personal journey here to Georgia is from far places and spaces where I received throughout my life the love and support of people who exemplify this essential human awareness and condition and a profound connection of self to others. They were the countless persons who opened the doors for me, even if they were also meant to be its gatekeepers. I honor all those who cared enough over my 54 years to teach me to love the confidence of the past and to embrace the possibilities of the future. I would not be here without their trust, and it is the truth that we are profoundly interdependent that we need our students to comprehend when they graduate our doors and step into their communities with a greater knowledge – and thus a greater responsibility – of what it means to be human.

Shakespeare wrote in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely but players: they have their exits and entrances.” The metaphor of an ongoing play is an intriguing one for us. Today we start a new act in our play, and we are all on this stage together. Ours is the act now to be played, and we are the ones to give it voice and direction. Put simply, you and I are the cast in this new and inviting act. The acts that have come before have surely been wonderful ones; and the acts still in front of us are surely full of promise. Please join me in giving Middle Georgia State its voice in a new act that starts today, and do so with clarity, compassion and unity. As your president, I could ask for and appreciate nothing more.

Thank you.

Christopher R. L. Blake, PhD

President, Middle Georgia State College