Liberal Arts Colleges “Vital to This Nation,” Says Incoming DePauw President

Originally posted: June 14, 2008

Brian Casey ARW 2008-mec.jpg

The following is a speech delivered by Brian W. Casey, who will become DePauw University’s 19th president on July 1, 2008. The remarks were made at DePauw’s Alumni Reunion Weekend Celebration, June 14, 2008. Dr. Casey comes to DePauw from Harvard University, where he was associate dean for academic affairs in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Video and audio clips can be found here.

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If you look in today’s program you will see that my remarks are entitled “Welcome to DePauw”. In many ways that is a misstatement. I actually don’t begin my service as DePauw’s 19th president for another 16 days. So in fact, I don’t feel entitled to welcome you to DePauw. This talk might instead be better named “Thank you for Welcoming Me.” From the moment the search committee completed its work this spring, I have received literally hundreds of welcomes and well wishes from so many DePauw alumni. These greetings have been embracing, and they have been energizing. Thank you for that welcome.

We are gathered here today aftertraveling different journeys. You are returning to a place you love and I am just arriving at a place I am beginning to know. You are drawing back to you all the memories of your time here, and I am just now putting together a picture of an institution I am about to serve. You have the opportunity to reminisce, while I am gathering impressions.

So this morning, if you will indulge me for a few minutes, I want to offer you a sense of DePauw that I have learned of both through the search process and over the last few months as I have begun my transition to the president’s office. Let me tell you — briefly — what I now know of DePauw, and (later) what I see for us going ahead.

First, and as a historian this is important to me: DePauw is a place with a deep sense of its own past. You cannot walk around East College, or in front of all the alpha chapters of the Greek Houses, without being aware that, for close to 175 years, DePauw has been an important part of the landscape of American higher education. It is interesting to note how few institutions have a sense of their own past. Many of our great state universities don’t. Many of the urban institutions don’t. Some of the more famous private schools don’t understand their own pasts. DePauw does.

During this weekend I invite all of you, therefore, to go over to East College. On the first floor of that building there are walls filled with portraits of past presidents, past Board chairmen, past faculty members, past deans. You can feel DePauw’shistory in that building. And I welcome that — the past informs us, it enriches us, it offers perspective. It is the source of wisdom. DePauw can and should draw on its great and long past. Know that I will.

Second, this is an institution that embraces and defends the idea of a liberal arts education. And, let me tell you, this is a tough challenge. There are, in this country, in the midst of about 4,000 institutions of higher education, just about 200 true residential liberal arts colleges. Alongside DePauw there is Keynon, and Grinnell, Amherst and Smith, Davidson and Swarthmore. We are brethren to Wabash and Carelton, Wiliams and Pomona. DePauw speaks with Reed College and Haverford College. I am here to tell you that these institutions, the ones committed to a liberal arts education, are vital to this nation.

Coming from Harvard, I can tell you that the great liberal arts colleges serve as constant reminders that, despite Harvard’s and Northwestern’s and Chicago’s billions of dollars in endowment, despite their large faculties and large science buildings, their approach is not the only way. There are a small number of the truly great liberal arts colleges that go about the idea of higher education in a different manner. The Stanfords and the Dukes and the University of Michigans are involved in large, complex and very important enterprises. Through their research efforts, and in their professional schools ,they produce the scientists who shape our lives and the doctors and lawyers who refine and improve them. But it is the DePauws that provide that first intense learning communityfor college students, and an education grounded in the notion of the liberal arts. These are the places where students know each other, where faculty know the students, where students sit in smaller classrooms and in laboratories built just for them. And it is here that they must encounter the timeless questions and ageless subjects.

To maintain this is a challenge for DePauw. The way DePauw teaches and the way it organizes students is expensive, labor intensive, and often tough to explain to the world. But DePauw has done this, and done this well.

Finally, I have come to learn of the DePauw “type.” DePauw is one of those rare places that attracts and trains students who have multiple talents. The classic DePauw student is not just the class valedictorian, but the valedictorian who was also a team captain, or the student body president, or a community service leader. DePauw students are social, and they are welcoming. They are open to each other and to the world. DePauw students have a sense of joy in life, a curiosity, about themselves, about each other, and about the world. And it will be my job to push those students.

So, where to now?

As the next president of this university, I am going to ask constantly whether we are doing all that we can to ensure that this is the strongest DePauw possible. Are we attracting the best students in the nation, and in the world? Are we hiring and promoting the great teachers and supporting them in the ways outstanding colleges do? Are we managing our considerable resources wisely? Is the campus as beautiful and energizing as it can be? Are we enriching Greencastle, and is it enriching us?

No institution stays at the same level for long. I have worked at and have observed far too many colleges and universities to believe that any institution can just arrive at a place, with a certain reputation, and stay there. All colleges and universities are either improving themselves, striving to be more dynamic, more rich, more challenging, or they are becoming less so. I have been asked by the Board of Trustees to choose that first path.

And — and perhaps this is the most important thing I can say to you today — I ask you to choose that for DePauw as well.

Why do we gather here? Why do DePauw alumni return for a weekend? On the one hand it is to engage in our own past, to see our own histories written not just on the walls of East College, but in the houses, in the residence halls, in Marvins. We come to remember. We come to have fun and to laugh.

But we come also to add our voices to the discussion about this university. By sitting in this auditorium, by marching with your classes, by coming back, you are engaging again in this community of learning.

DePauw is a conversation. DePauw is an idea. DePauw is a community of learners and leaders, who gather in Indiana. But we also gather in Chicago, in New York, in London and in Beijing. DePauw is talking to your classmates about your time here. DePauw is interviewing a prospective student and telling them about this jewel of a liberal arts college. DePauw is about living a rich and intelligent and meaningful life.

When we gather as alumni, and as friends, we are engaging in this necessary conversation.So coming to an alumni weekend is not a small act, or a merely social one. You were shaped here. You entered the larger world by coming here, to this campus. So, by being here you are saying to those of
us on this stage who work here, and to the faculty who teach here, that we must continue to shape the current generation of students and the next with the same love and intensity that you recall of your time here.

Were these weekends to end, were the alumni not to come back, DePauw would be impoverished. The conversation that is DePauw would be smaller.

The world needs DePauw. And I mean that with a deep and heartfelt certainty. There are a small number of truly compelling educational institutions in this country. This is one. But together we must make sure that we continue to strengthen this place, to make the conversation that is a DePauw education richer, broader, open to the world.

We must — now and in the decades ahead — have young people who can ask critical questions. We must send young people with character and strength into our medical schools, into our foreign service offices, and into our graduate schools.We must turn out students who become active intelligent leaders of their towns and cities and states who come back and gather in Greencastle. DePauw is one of those rare places where this can, and must happen.

On July 1, I begin my work for DePauw. But you carry the history of this institution in your hearts and in your minds. You are DePauw.

So send me your thoughts, gather as groups of alumni. Talk of what we can and should be. I will be visiting as many alumni groups in the next several months as I can. I will be listening to you. I will be asking you questions. I will be demanding much of me, of you, and of our DePauw. I am committed to this university and to ensuring that all know of its rightful place among the truly great colleges and universities. I will be asking for your help, your guidance, and your enthusiasm.

In closing then, I must thank you and congratulate you. In so many ways and in so many walks of life you have had inspiring successes. I am humbled by what you have achieved as I am humbled by the task before me. This IS a jewel of an institution. Together let’s hold it up to so the world can see it. This is our job.

So thank you. Thank you for being here. And welcome to DePauw.

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