Abandon the Ivory Tower, New University President Urges Faculty, Students

At University of Puget Sound, Thomas urges support for liberal education as the foundation for civic engagement and a more secure world

In his inaugural address on April 23, University of Puget Sound President Ronald R. Thomas laid out his vision of liberal education as the foundation for a more secure world. Thomas, the 13th president in the 116-year history of the university, sounded a clarion call for academics and students to venture out of the ivory tower, assume a meaningful leadership role in the broader community, and fully embrace civic engagement. He also challenged the nation to return to its commitment to higher education as a strategic priority.

University of Puget Sound President Ronald R. Thomas“We will not choose between the path of local leadership and the road to national prominence,” Thomas said in the address. “We will show that the first journey maps the way to the second, that excellence in the sphere of common duty, in the useful and the good, is, for those truly committed to the values of the liberal arts and sciences, the foundation for national distinction and leadership.”

Thomas sees rough seas on that voyage toward the useful and the good. He expresses concern that the nation’s commitment to higher education is not what it once was.

“We face a time of great challenge in higher education when we have sometimes lost the gleam of appreciating our role in the public good,” he said. “There was a time when this nation recognized higher education as the key to our future, when we made the brilliant sacrifice following World War II of investing in the GI Bill and making a college education accessible to a whole generation of veterans when they returned from their adventures in battle abroad. College campuses throughout the nation became vibrant centers of public debate, political discourse, and social action in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Today, America does not regard higher education so seriously. It is often considered more a consumer good than a public good. It is commonly regarded as a mere job credential or a training ground for the labor force rather than as a caldron for leadership, a great national asset through which to create and test ideas, to discover and expand knowledge, to critique and transform our culture.”

Ultimately, Thomas is optimistic. He finds great opportunity among the challenges.

“In the business of higher education, we deal in hope. Hope is the product we make. Hope is the service we offer. Hope is the benefit we provide, and hope is the only profit we earn. I believe that there is no more important business for our future as a nation and as a human community than this. What we are about every day at the University of Puget Sound is nothing less than the cultivation of the leaders of the next generation—they are the ones in whom we invest our hope to secure our future.”

The title of Thomas’s address, “To Shine in Use: The Trojan Horse and the Sphere of Common Duties,” was drawn from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem about the classical hero, Ulysses. Thomas compared our current cultural crisis with Ulysses’s choice when he returns home after years of overcoming the challenges of war with Troy and is faced with the challenges of citizenship in “the sphere of common duties”: “Today we hear a great deal about the higher priority of maintaining the security of the homeland. Not unlike Ulysses, we heed again the siren call to arms. But we must remember that true security is based on understanding as well as power. An uninformed obsession with security can be the breeding ground of fear.” Quoting Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas affirmed that since democracy depends on a knowledgeable citizenry making informed choices, “the true safeguard of democracy is education.”

The installation ceremony and address were the culmination of a week of campus lectures, symposia, performances, and poetry readings under the theme, “The Liberal Arts and Civic Engagement.”

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