It’s taken me a while to come to terms with this tradition in American higher education to inaugurate new college presidents with great pomp and circumstance, and to do so several months after the official appointment.
As per the peculiar timing, Virginia Governor McDonnell explained it best during the inauguration of fellow president Jonathan Alger at James Madison University last month. In politics, he said, we are elected first, then inaugurated, then we get to do our job. In academia, you first get to do your job for a few months and then you are inaugurated. It actually makes sense to test-drive a new president before you tell the world you’re ready to keep him or her (for at least a bit longer)!
When I first arrived last July, I told my staff I didn’t want to go through this rite of passage. The focus, I said, ought to be on the university, not on any one individual, not even the president. We each play an important role in the life of the university, and I’m not comfortable drawing so much attention on my particular role. After repeated discussions, I conceded to the majority opinion among my colleagues. And the festivities are ready for this coming Friday.
Even though I agreed to move forward, I admit I continued to dread the moment until recently. Then, last week, as I was reviewing the plans for the event with my colleagues, I realized I had been looking at it the wrong way all along. My colleagues were right and I was wrong. It’s somewhat embarrassing that it took me almost 13 years of leading academic institutions to understand this, but at last, I think I did!
The inauguration of a new president is not a celebration of an individual, but of an institution. Universities play a central role in our democratic society. They empower citizens for the responsibility of self-government, they advance the sciences and the arts, they educate our youth, they deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. It is no coincidence that a nation that was built on the principles of individual rights and liberties would build the world’s finest universities. The centrality of the university in American society is one of the reasons why America has prospered the way it has.
The fact that a community takes its universities so seriously, that it pays so much attention to its governance and administration, is a sign that the community understands and appreciates the critical importance of education. I should not dread the inauguration, but embrace it and celebrate it. And so I will.
I look forward to joining our community in celebrating what George Mason University has accomplished, in recognizing what others have done to build this institution and in renewing our commitment to keep working to make of our university another example of what has made American higher education the best in the world.
Let’s have fun!