Inaugural Address

Dave McFadden Inauguration

Inaugural Address – Dave McFadden
November 7, 2014

Thank you for coming today.

I’m delighted that you’re all here and deeply appreciative of your support.
Soon after it was announced that I would become Manchester’s 15th president, I began getting the “big” question:  what’s your vision for Manchester?  After a few wandering and windy orations, I came to these three phrases: 

  • We will be audacious.
  • We will serve well. 
  • And we will advance our mission.   

I believe that audacity, service and a bold mission can only come from a spirit and mindset of abundance. 

Wendell Berry wrote a series of wonderful novels about life in rural Kentucky.  Hannah Coulter, the focus of his novel of the same name, marries young and then loses her husband in World War I.  Her second husband, a good man, provides for her and their family on a small, rocky farm.  Her children move to the city, leaving behind the place she loves. 

She’s had a hard life, but manages to find joy in each of its seasons.  Her description of those seasons is the inspiration for today’s theme of abundance and the anthem you just heard.  Listen to her words:

You think winter will never end, and then, when you don’t expect it, when you have almost forgotten it, warmth comes and a different light.  Under the bare trees the wildflowers bloom so thick you can’t walk without stepping on them. …
You look around presently, and it is summer.

The world is so full and abundant it is like a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand.  Every puddle in the lane is ringed by sipping butterflies that fly up in a flutter when you walk past in the late morning on your way to get the mail.

And then it is fall and the cornfields are ripe and the calves are fat and shiny and the wooded valley sides are beautiful with color.

You have consented to time and it is winter.  The world seems bigger, for you can see through the bare trees.  For a while in the morning the world is perfect and beautiful. 

The picture of abundance that Berry paints in describing the walk to the mailbox includes responsibility, opportunity and surprise.  The responsibility of a mother for three small children, the opportunity and promise inherent in those young lives, and the surprise of butterflies at your feet and in the air when you are caught up in mundane things.

I have to tell you that abundance wasn’t the first thing that came to mind when I read that passage.  I was stopped in my tracks by the image of a pregnant woman carrying a child in one arm and leading another by the hand.  I couldn’t help but remember when our own two children were in diapers at the same time.  So … let me be honest here:  I know that Renee carried the load at home when Rachel and Sam were little, and so my thoughts went immediately to the mother’s responsibilities. 

Responsibility can be heavy.  There are times, I’m sure, when past presidents of Manchester, when faculty and staff and trustees and students experienced their responsibilities here as an almost unbearable heaviness.  Economic downturns, enrollment shortfalls, student protests, unexpected deaths, rising tuition and student debt, even human anatomy finals. 

Finances, for example, have always been a challenge here.  For most of Manchester’s 125 years, we have worked with a thin bottom line.  I keep a summary of Manchester’s 1947-48 budget on my office wall as a reality check.  It shows total income of over $553,000 and a bottom line of just $938.32.  That’s a margin of just 17/100ths of 1 percent.  0.0017 percent. I can understand, and appreciate, why they included the 32 cents.

Responsibility can weigh on us, but it’s also a privilege, born of relationships and confidence and trust.  It is about stewardship of work that has been done in the past and optimism about the promise of the future. 

As I enter into my presidency and we celebrate our 125th anniversary, we remember those who served Manchester well, who planted what we are reaping today.  They established the nation’s first peace studies major and an environmental studies program before either was cool.  A vigorous study abroad program.  A student-initiated gender studies minor.  They put in place programs and ideas and world changing graduates. 

As Berry writes, “The cornfields are ripe and the calves are fat and shiny and the wooded valley sides are beautiful with color” because of their work. 
If I spoke all afternoon, and I promise I won’t, I couldn’t tell our story fully or express our gratitude lavishly enough. 

Berry says about the past that “speaking of these things tells you that there are no words for them that are equal to them.” 

So let me just say this:  We are building on a foundation of rock.

Abundance also comes with opportunity. 

Those three small children – in womb, in arm and in hand – are full of promise and possibility.  So are our nearly 1500 undergraduate, graduate, pharmacy and other students.  To use a very Manchester analogy, they are like acorns, bursting with potential, ready to put down roots, and eager to reach upward and outward. 

Each year we are shaped and reshaped by those students and they are shaped and reshaped by us.  Our mission statement begins by affirming the infinite worth of every individual.  It calls us to celebrate the gifts and contributions that each of our students brings to our community. 

Our mission statement goes on:  We “graduate persons of ability and conviction who draw upon their education and faith to lead principled, productive and compassionate lives that improve the human condition.”

Our opportunity is to touch one life at a time.  And those lives, in turn, touch others, who then touch many more.  I’m a big fan of planting spring bulbs that naturalize.  Once you put them in the ground, they spread on their own.  And I love that our students and graduates do the same thing.  They flower beyond where they are planted, generating new blossoms and beauty and possibility.  As Berry says, they “bloom so thick you can’t walk without stepping on them.”

Going forward, we will be audacious in embracing opportunity.  We aim to grow our total enrollment by as many as a thousand students by the end of this decade, grounding new programs in our mission and infusing them with our values. 

Why?  Because the world needs more Manchester graduates.  We will be a source of hope and optimism, of promise and possibility, of ability and conviction.  The world needs more Manchester graduates. 

My favorite image from the passage that I quoted earlier is the surprise of butterflies lifting into the air.  You can picture it: an ordinary walk to the mailbox interrupted by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of butterflies. 

That kind of surprise is one of my favorite things about Manchester.  In the midst of our daily work, our routine, on the way to get the mail, we are surprised and delighted by something out of the ordinary.

Early this fall it was seeing delight on the faces of two students when I introduced them to my father and told them he is the Wilbur after whom Wilbur’s coffee shop is named …  and then his surprise when they treated him like a rock star.  Two weeks ago it was a couple of turkeys climbing the steps of the Administration Building and peering in the front doors.  In some years when our financial margins were thin, they might have been invited in for dinner.

Our students also find surprise: when they travel abroad for the first time or wrestle with new, big questions in their First Year Seminars, when they get comfortable giving immunizations even though needles make them nervous; or when they become lifelong friends with a roommate they weren’t sure they could even live with at first.  In my case, the big surprise came when I met the love of my life, Renee, during freshman orientation.

Sometimes the surprises are institutional.  A few years ago, it was surprise at the audacity of President Jo Young Switzer asking the Lilly Endowment for $35M to launch a college of pharmacy … and then the unimaginable generosity of the Endowment in saying yes.

In those moments, as Berry says, “the world is perfect and beautiful.”

This fall at opening convocation, I challenged our undergraduate students to be their best selves.  Being your best self, I said, means sharing yourself and contributing in a meaningful way.  It means learning about and from others.  It means discovering what you are truly passionate about. 

Do you hear an abundance mindset in that charge? 

  • Share yourself.  Accept responsibility.
  • Learn about and from others.  Embrace opportunity.
  • Find what you are truly passionate about.  Be open to surprise. 

Be your best self.  Live with a spirit of abundance.

Okay.  Let’s take a deep breath here.  I will be the first to admit that an abundance mindset can be scary.  First of all, it calls us to accountability.  Do your best.  Be your best.  Give your best.  How often are we truly our best selves? 

It also raises expectations.  Do we really have the resources – time, energy, dollars – to help people change the world?  What if students, faculty, staff, donors, employers – all of you – want too much?  Can I, can we, deliver on our promises?

Living with an expectation of abundance can also be messy.  An abundance mindset encourages and empowers everyone to contribute from their strengths.  It means giving up some control.  And that means people sometimes get ahead of you and stuff goes all over. 

I remember as a kid going to my Uncle Eldon’s farm and helping him milk his cow.  Actually, he mostly milked and I mostly watched.  His cats use to come around and wait for him to spray some milk in their direction.  If he didn’t get to all of them, they let him know it.  By the time he was done, their faces were covered in milk and they were in abundance heaven. 

The poem Rachel read – Li Young Lee’s From Blossoms – brings the same image of spilling over abundance to mind.  Listen to the third stanza again:

O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into   
the round jubilance of peach.

Biting into the round jubilance of peach.  Don’t you feel like you need to reach up and wipe the juice off your chin?  Abundance heaven.

The passage from Hannah Coulter that I read earlier speaks of the seasons of life, but Berry reminds us that we need to live in the present.  He writes:

“And so you have a life that you are living only now, now and now and now, gone before you can speak of it, and you must be thankful for living day by day, moment by moment, in this presence.”

We have much to be grateful for from our past and a lot of work ahead.  But today, this day, let us accept our responsibilities, embrace our opportunities and open ourselves to surprise.