Welcome Speech

Remarks by Dr. Nayef H. Samhat at the announcement of his appointment as president of Wofford College, May 14, 2013

Thank you so much. 

I would like to thank Harold Chandler, the Board of Trustees, Mike James and members of the search committee, David Beacham for his talents at organizing this process, and the first friend I met at Wofford, Ed Story. Of course, I particularly want to thank you, the Wofford community of faculty, staff and administrators, and students, whom my wife Prema – who is right there - and I met a couple of short weeks ago. 

Everyone we have met throughout this process exemplifies a deep care and affection for this wonderful college, and welcomed us with a graciousness of heart and spirit that we easily and sincerely embraced. 

You may not know this, but one of the great things about being announced as a college president is that you get to see all of your kids in one place at one time! 

And I am happy to show them off for anyone who wants to see! Alia, Jehani and Leila…With them is, of course, is my wife, Prema, whom many of you have seen and met already…. 

And next to them is my dad, Harold. He is 85, and spends lots of time shooting around from Detroit to Tampa, with an occasional stop in Mt. Vernon, Ohio – soon to be Spartanburg. Whatever good I have become in my life, I owe to him and my mom … hard work, sound and ethical values, loving and devoted partner and father – those are the principles of a good life. 

I have to admit that when I started out in the academy I never imagined that I might be standing here before you, at this great institution bearing the name of Benjamin Wofford, as the 11th president, following in a long line of great leaders. 

So I’d like to offer a brief thought on the concept of imagination – something easily referred to but much underappreciated, and it comes in different forms. 

For example, in my own scholarship I’ve written about a world political order that might be more just, humane and inclusive, built around representative non-governmental organizations, transparent international organizations, and a rising consciousness and commitment to enhancing the human condition for all. 

But this is the thing about imagination. It is flexible – it evolves with experience, understanding, opportunity and, to be sure, a dose of luck every once in a while. Just as I never imagined standing here, I know plenty of colleagues who considered the idea of a more just world political order quite fanciful, even naïve, in a world dominated by conflict and power. 

Yet without imagination, where are we? Without imagination, how do we know where we might want to go? How do we push the horizons our reality appears to impose on us? 

I argue we cannot do so without imagination. Absent the capacity to create in our mind a certain vision of what we want to be or do, or what our world might be like, we are mired in a constant place and space, without inspiration, without hope. 

It is, in other words, imagination that allows us to change the world in which we live, to make it a place we want to live, a place we hope it can be. 

These sound, I am sure, like aspirational words that lack substance. Even the kind of words you might hear at the announcement of a new college president! 

But for me today the point is a central one, for higher education has a profound role in fostering imagination – expanding the horizons of young women and men – to guide them to thinking and conceptualizing all of the ways in which they can push their own horizons of the possible and, thereby, in collective, change the world in which we live. 

And here, it has been my belief that the small, residential liberal arts college is the most extraordinary experience for students in that pursuit. Small classes, intimate learning environments, easy access to all of the opportunities available, a community fabric that is real, deep and enduring, and from these elements come lifelong friendships, lasting memories, and a set of skills that allow students to adapt to a world and its own opportunities that we cannot yet imagine. In other words, I believe the kind of educational experience provided by our liberal arts colleges offers students a lifetime of re-imagination. 

Of course, this is no small order, but it is essential to fostering the kind of citizenship that is meaningful, productive and defined by strong ethical purpose. 

The task, however, is to begin to imagine what these, our kind of liberal arts institutions, might be like in the future of higher education. And I would argue that the world of higher education is at a critical point deserving of much imagination. There are challenges: the rapid impact of technology on learning inside and outside the classroom, the changing nature of knowledge, the pressures on families to afford college, and the pressure on colleges to afford providing it. We ask ourselves not why we should become, but how will we become a mirror of a changing society? More importantly, how will we continue to strengthen the experience of the small residential liberal arts college? 

Absent the creative and imaginative mind, we would, indeed, be stuck, mired and fixed, without a clue of what to do. But this is our time – challenges are not roadblocks, but opportunities to re-imagine the possibilities. 

And here we are at Wofford College. I stand with terrific pride and deep humbleness, following the footsteps of President Bernie Dunlap and those before him, a college strong in every way, and I imagine: What can we do? Who will we be? How will we do it? 

The beauty of these moments of opportunity is that they allow us the inspiration to activate the collective imagination of the community, to bring together voices, ideas, visions, of Wofford College not today, but for the next generation in this, the 21st century. 

It is an opportunity for us to define the place of Wofford College among the great liberal arts colleges in American higher education. 

It is an opportunity to shape the ways in which young women and men will define their own imaginations of the possible, to create the world I myself have imagined: a more just, humane and inclusive world. 

It is not a frivolous suggestion that students come to understand that they can make difference in their world – this is our essential purpose in educating. 

And so we now will be inspired by this great and unique opportunity to imagine Wofford College for the coming generation, an institution well aware of its past and well eager to embrace the future. 

For the ability to simply imagine, I hope you see, has shaped my life, and brought me here, to this college, on this day, on this stage, and I am grateful, humbled, and thank you.