My first day on this job 24 years ago, I wrote two letters: one to Sam Marble and one to Jack Ryder. I thanked them each for all they had done to help create the opportunity I had inherited. I was deeply grateful then; in retrospect and knowing what I know now, I am even more grateful tonight.
Twenty-four years ago SVSU was ripe and ready to become what it has become. It had been created with bold imagination, had persevered through difficult times and grown and matured into an extraordinarily promising institution.
Cindy and I arrived from Vermont with Sara and Seth and a timid Labrador retriever and a predatory calico cat. We felt lucky to be here. In fact, we were incredibly lucky to be here.
During these past twenty-four years some buildings were constructed – lots of them, actually: buildings to support and improve academic programs . . . buildings to house and amuse students . . . buildings that encouraged the arts to thrive and recreation to enrich the lives of a campus community. So . . . how did all this happen?
It happened because a number of key legislators endured the tenacious and persistent lobbying of Gene Hamilton and still chose to dedicate their political careers to the development of this institution in and for their Region. Then thoughtful board members took the risks of borrowing money to build a residential campus that would bring students from throughout Michigan and, indeed, from around the world to this flat valley.
Skilled architects and planners worked hard and long to make the difficult and critical decisions about what to build and where to build to create the theaters and stages on which the performances of a University would play out. And then the women and men of the maintenance and custodial staff gave these places the care they needed to serve the people and programs they housed. That is how this wonderful and beautiful campus came to be . . . all these people made it happen.
There were endowments created and programs developed: endowed chairs to provide academic leadership . . . fellowship and grant programs to give students extraordinary opportunities . . . lectureships and performances to enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the campus for students young and old and a community.
How did all this happen? Generous donors were inspired by the possibilities . . . friends did the difficult and often awkward work of explaining these possibilities and asking. . . and then dedicated faculty and staff did the hard work of making these programs and possibilities come alive for students.
And so now we have the Roberts Fellows and Gerstacker Fellows and Braun Fellows and Kantzler Fellows and Vitito Fellows. We have endowed chairs and the Dow Visiting Scholars and Artists Program and the Dow Student Research and Creativity Institute. We have Rhea Miller concerts and the Rush and Edwards and Barstow and O’Neill lectures, and we have the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute. And there are literally hundreds of endowed scholarships to help and reward our students.
These and more are now part of the fabric, the culture of our University. But they weren't always there . . . people made them happen.
And there were new academic programs developed and existing ones upgraded and redeveloped . . . countless lectures and projects and exams were constructed and delivered . . . books and articles were published – the most important and most difficult work of an academic institution.
New ideas added excitement and enjoyment to the life of the campus – games and conversations and . . . yes, just plain fun. These and other initiatives brought the campus alive with ideas and opportunities.
How did this happen? Faculty and staff worked and cared, day to day, sometimes going unnoticed and often unappreciated. We appreciate them now.
Over these years, the reach of the University was extended around the world. Students and visiting scholars were drawn here from every continent. And SVSU students and faculty boarded airplanes from Michigan to distant places and returned forever changed. Friendships were deepened and new ones created with institutions and colleagues in Japan . . . and India . . . and Ghana . . . and Taiwan.
In fact, as we have already seen, distinguished representatives of those sister institutions are here with us tonight to celebrate this moment with us.
Board members – the Board of Control, the Board of Fellows, the SVSU Foundation Board, the Alumni Board – gave of their time and treasure and talents to guide and direct the course of the University. They gave – that’s it, they gave – because they believed in what the University did and could mean in the lives of others. And vice-presidents and deans and key staff members joined as a team to work – incredibly hard – and to worry – they do worry, 24/7.
It was their calling to push and prod and ensure that tasks, large and small, were done to move the University forward to its better future. I can tell you first-hand that no one tried harder or cared more than these colleagues – colleagues who also became friends.
And, of course, students came and went – tens of thousands of them. They came from the Thumb, and the Great Lakes Bay Region, and along the I-75 corridor, and then from places twelve time zones away and everywhere in between. They learned and, sometimes, they taught the rest of us. And they left something of themselves here too. They created traditions – new clubs, fund-raising events like their annual “Battle of the Valleys,” parades and parties and painted rocks and all manner of mischief.
They won and lost games of sport; they acted out important ideas and characters in plays; they grew as we watched them on stages and in laboratories. They made memories – for themselves and for those of us who were privileged to share these moments with them. And because of all they did, and what we knew they might become, they made us all want to do better, to be better.
Perhaps now, on an occasion like this, we might begin to see it all come together – rather like an impressionist's painting. The collective work of so many people . . . each adding strokes from their own brushes . . . each adding their own artistry to the shared canvas.
They all did it, individually and together – hundreds and thousands of faculty and staff and board members and donors and politicians and, of course, students. And you all did it. It's a thing of beauty to behold tonight.
I confess to being something of a hopeless romantic about the very idea of a university – often given to rhapsodizing what it is and does in the lives of people and a society. But I do believe that the university is the chosen instrument of our highest and best hopes.
So now, half a century later, we have in our care and keeping an institution that has touched and inspired and lifted the lives of literally tens of thousands of individuals and tens of thousands of their families.
None have been more profoundly touched and enriched than the Gilbertsons; and none could be more grateful.
But here’s the thing: this collective work of art is never finished. Never.
The university is always about the business of creating and being created. It’s fascinating to imagine – or try to imagine –the university students will need fifty years from now. But there are tens of thousands of yet unborn – not yet conceived – human souls who are counting on us.
We know only this: the University they will need will have to be far better than the one we have created so far. Far better.
We also know that fifty years is not really a very long time. Looking back tonight it seems to have passed in the blinking of an eye.
And now the clock is ticking swiftly and relentlessly towards the year 2063. There’s so much yet to do . . . we’d better get to work. Thank you.