Inaugural Address

President Nayef Samhat
April 25, 2014

To begin, let me thank The Reedy River Brass, The Wofford Goldtones and Laura Kate Gamble, for your wonderful contribution to our ceremony today – you have provided memorable music and verse.

Let me take a moment to thank the men and women in our grounds and facilities division who have made this campus beautiful today, like they do every day. And let me thank all of those colleagues on the Inauguration Committee who organized these events – and done so with great attention, grace and humor.

To our students here present, those past and those to come, our faculty, coaches and staff, our Board of Trustees, delegates of institutions across the land, I thank you for the opportunity to stand here and accept formally the charge of leading this great institution, founded on the principle of John Wesley to “take care of the rising generation;” the vision of its first president, William Wightman, to promote “broad and liberal views;” and in the spirit offered by Benjamin Wofford and that resonates and resounds to this day and beyond: Intaminatis fulget honoribus – shining with untarnished honor.

Welcome to all those – delegates, family and friends – joining our Wofford family on this special and wonderful day. I offer a special thank you to Bishop Holston for his invocation – I am honored that he has joined us today, a presence that reflects the shared bonds of purpose and mission between Wofford College and the United Methodist Church; and a special thanks to Reverend Mike Alexander for the benediction to come.

For me, the journey here is an unexpected one, for as I have often said, one does not enter into the academy necessarily to become an administrator or provost or president, but because one loves the act and duty to learn and to educate, one loves to engage students in intellectual explorations, and to participate in the extraordinary transformation of young lives that define the experience we teachers – all of us engaged in this enterprise whether in the classroom, the residence hall, the fields or courts of play, the stages or the studios – the experience we teachers all feel and in which we find a deep and abiding personal and professional fulfillment.

And yet I stand here – 

My sisters, Diane and Sharon, and I, are first generation college graduates, raised by a mother and father who grew up in the Depression era in Detroit and Windsor, Canada, and had little opportunity to attend college. But to be sure, in their lives and words, they have modeled all of those qualities that define a good life: true wisdom, love, family, understanding, and the fulfillment derived from a dedicated work ethic and compassion and empathy for others. Whatever good I have become, I owe to them.

My wife, Prema, and daughters Alia, Jehani, and Leila have given me a peace of heart and soul, a reason to be and to do, and have given worth to my life. Simply by their being, they make me a better person – and like the smart women they are, they are sure to let me know when they think otherwise! Prema, of course, is my longest and dearest friend, and I can say only that I would not be here without her. And I am truly proud to say that having passed her citizenship exam, she is to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen on May 2, and so I am assured she will remain here with me long into the future!

I stand here because of the many friends who have joined us today – colleagues and friends at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, my first position after graduate school, and also Kenyon College. And the many new friends we have met in the Wofford family here and throughout the region, since we arrived last summer. You are our dear friends from long and near ago, with whom we have shared and will share so much of our lives.

And I stand here because of the support and mentorship of wonderful colleagues in my career. The encouragement and guidance of President John Roush, Dean John Ward, President Liz Kennan Burns, and Dean Stephanie Fabritius, while I was at Centre, and President Georgia Nugent at Kenyon College. In the course of life one’s path crosses in most unexpected ways with others, individuals whose honest advice, encouragement, and support can have the most profound impact on your imagination of life’s possibilities. These people, in particular, did precisely that – believing in me, and offering me the opportunity to imagine a career and professional path that has led me and my family to this day, on this ground, and this stage. To all of them I am forever grateful.

And so we officially join the Wofford family. We know that institutions stand not as buildings but as stories, stories of the people who have shaped a history and informed a future, and I am proud and humbled to share in the extraordinary and transformative stories of so many before me. I honor the names of those leaders who grace our campus; we stand amidst a landscape of exceptional beauty given by the leadership and vision of Mr. Roger Milliken and so many others too numerous to name, but whose graciousness and generosity have made possible our campus today.

I honor and stand in grateful appreciation of my predecessors, Dr. Paul Hardin and his wife, Barbara, who are unable to be with us today, and those who have joined us: President Emeritus Joe Lesesne, and Ruth, and President Emeritus Bernie Dunlap and Anne – whose leadership, wisdom and vision I can only hope to emulate and realize in the coming years. Wofford is today the great institution it has become because of these gentlemen, and my service will always honor their own. Let me ask them to stand so that we may recognize their legacy and express our appreciation. 

And I honor the stories of those who have walked these paths, for they define our college. I know my colleagues Phillip Stone and Doyle Boggs can spend hours on end recounting stories of students and faculty who give life and meaning to Wofford College. 

Stories like Dr. John Harrington, who found a calling in teaching and, as the story goes, came to Wofford at the urging of the legendary dean Philip S. Covington to teach geology – a subject not even available at the college. Dr. Harrington’s bus-trip laboratories reflected a guiding mission that informed the title of his book, “To See a World.”

Or Dr. John Q. Hill, a 1947 graduate. John grew up near Spartanburg, and due to illness, did not attend school until he was 11 years old. After military service in World War II, he entered Wofford as a sophomore and graduated with Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1947, aged 28, and was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, becoming only the fourth Wofford graduate to receive this honor. He returned to Wofford to teach mathematics in 1953, remaining on the faculty until his passing in 1972.

Of course, there is story of Dr. Constantinos N. Papadopoulos, a 1954 graduate of the college, born in Greece and who came to Wofford speaking very little English. Faculty members like Frank Logan and Philip Covington took Gus under their wing. Through hard work, Gus learned English well enough to graduate from Wofford in three years, and went on to attend medical school in Texas, where he practiced anesthesiology. Gus moved into the real estate business and was a long-serving Wofford trustee.

Stories like Michelle Phillips, a 1995 graduate, who interned with the Children's Hospital of Greenville and graduated first in her class at Wofford. She went on to the Medical University of South Carolina, where she also finished first in her class and completed a pediatrics residency at Johns Hopkins, where her colleagues honored her with the David M. Kamsler Award for excellence and compassion in pediatric care, before returning to MUSC as a faculty member and director of the pediatric bone marrow transplant program. 

And Douglas Wood, a 1990 graduate who grew up hearing stories about Wofford from his grandfather, Russell Miller, who was a groundskeeper at the college from the days of President Walter Greene in the 1940s through the administration of President Joe Lesesne. As Dr. Wood noted when he accepted the young alumnus of the year award in 2001, "He was my first teacher of Wofford history... and he instilled in me an intense pride in the college's many contributions to humanity." Doug majored in history and was active in the music and theatre programs, and completed his doctorate in the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is now with the Ford Foundation’s Higher Education Program.

And finally, Dr. Paige West, a 1991 graduate who just this spring spoke movingly in her Phi Beta Kappa lecture about the transformation she underwent while at Wofford. Contact with professors such as Dr. J. R. Gross, Ab Abercrombie, Gerald Thurmond, Gerald Ginocchio, Susan Griswold, John Pilley, and others transformed a very smart woman without much direction into an accomplished, confident, and insightful student of anthropology, who now mentors her own students as a professor at Columbia University. 

These are just some of the stories that define the experience and meaning of Wofford College. There are so many more stories of the ways in which Wofford changed the lives of young men and women under the guidance of legendary faculty and coaches and staff – stories that belong to many of you sitting here today, whether students, alumna or alumnus, faculty, coaches or staff, many of whom are already legends.

But we are here today to look to the future. I am asked often, what will Wofford be in 10 years? Or, what is the value of a liberal arts education? These are sound and sensible questions. Yet in thinking about my remarks today, it occurred to me that perhaps we should consider our notion of the Wofford of the future, or the value of the kind of education we provide, in an alternative frame of reference.

About a month ago I was reading an essay in the New York Times by astrophysicist Lewis Dartnell. The title, “Civilization’s Starter Kit,” caught my attention. He recounts a question once asked by physicist Richard Feynman: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?” Feynman answers with the atomic hypothesis – that all things are made of atoms. Dartnell broadens the question – wondering what factors are needed to support our modern civilization?

And so let me reshape the question a bit – that is, as we create a vision for Wofford in the coming times, how might we as a community of learners fulfill a responsibility to educate young women and men who, themselves, are responsible for supporting our civilization? What, in other words, will we contribute to their “Starter Kit”?

Because the world and its change is constituted by an infinite volume of particular acts – of kindness and cruelty, of creation and destruction, of exchange and theft, we are all responsible for nurturing this kit for students today and into the future.

And let us be clear on a crucial point and principle. For us, as educators and places of higher learning, whether public or private, large or small, no matter the type of institution, to fulfill our responsibility to nurture this starter kit we must commit to the preservation and defense of the principle of academic, intellectual and creative freedom in all that we do and practice. The classroom, the campus ground, and the individual, are the preserves of liberty and human progress if, and only if, the fetters of those who fear inquiry, debate, and change, are cast aside. We at Wofford, with institutions in our state and nation, will lead in word and deed in the defense of this most high principle.

And to this end, I therefore assert that our kind of education, a liberal arts education, is the highest form of preparation for the breadth and depth of learning, the intimacy of pedagogy, and the formation of character and community, all contribute to the capacity to embrace challenge and change without fear or hesitation. Indeed, our kind of education is designed to address in a most direct manner the vast majority of questions that shape the nature of our society and the world in which we live, the kinds of questions that are foundational to the human experience, and from which all of our endeavors have their source.

This is because we insist on a comprehension of values, of ethical positions, of an assessment of what is good and right, of what is just and orderly, in the things we do. It is because we foster an understanding of method in our modes of inquiry, particularly of the unbounded complexities posed by the sciences of nature and of society. And because we cultivate an appreciation for the ways in which we interpret the world and ourselves on the canvas, the stage, in verse, stanza and melody. 

In other words, all of the ingredients that constitute the essence of civilization’s starter kit are to be found in the unparalleled experience of students assembling year after year on our campus, acquiring the knowledge, understanding and skills to make their lifelong contributions to the human experience in whatever way they may find appropriate.

And as we look ahead to Wofford College of the coming generation, it remains our responsibility to ensure we continue to reflect on what elements contribute to that starter kit. We must do so with recognition that classical and worldly knowledge and culture are the foundations for all that lie ahead. We must reflect on the ways in which the challenges, social, natural, technical, and humanistic, do not arise in isolation but are embedded in trans-historical relationships that are complex and nuanced, and demand of us a discipline and commitment to sophisticated, inclusive, and empathetic engagement. 

Our Wofford of the coming times shall embrace a rapidly changing world: A more diverse world in which race, ethnicity, faith and sexual orientation are points of celebration and understanding; a world in which environment and sustainability become the foundation of a new relationship with nature; a world in which the understanding and exploration of self and others is nurtured by the creativity of the performance, the paintbrush, and the violin; a world in which we recognize that global poverty, the ground on which ecological degradation, disease and violence flourish, is a scourge to be banished; a world in which innovation and creativity, accelerating at historically unprecedented rates, offer an infinite horizon for human advancement and well being in harmony with all around us.

We will embrace these challenges in our design of curricular and co-curricular programs, in the ways we build character and citizenship in our students and ourselves, and in the lives we live, because we see these challenges not as threats to fear but as opportunities to make a difference. And in the end, that is what the stories of Wofford College are all about… They are about making a difference in the lives of young people so that they may, too, make a difference in the world around them – whether through commerce, law, medicine, teaching, social work, public service, or parenting and friendship. And in so doing, all of us, the Wofford family here today present and those to follow, will remain true to the trust handed down by the generations of this great family that preceded us, and we shall shine with untarnished honor.

Thank you.