Beacon on the River| Inaugural Address, May 13, 2022

Cory, thank you for that wonderful introduction and for your extraordinary leadership. And thank you all for joining us this evening. I would like to express my gratitude to the Board of Trustees for the honor of serving as the 17th President of Lawrence University. I thank the search committee for their role in bringing us to this day, to the presidential transition team, to the Lawrence students, faculty, staff, and alumni for the warm welcome my family and I received when we arrived in Appleton, and Mayor Woodford and the Appleton community for embracing us.

On behalf of the entire university, I want to extend this same warm welcome to all members of the Appleton and Fox Cities communities who are with us tonight. I look forward to seeing even more friends from the community at our Brighter Together picnic tomorrow, which celebrates the 175-year connection between Lawrence and Appleton. Not only are we brighter together, but we are also stronger together.   

I would also like to thank the speakers, artists, and dignitaries participating in tonight’s ceremony. Carl Allen, my partner in Jazz, thank you for your music and your friendship. And to Joseph, Ron, and Dan, your kind words mean a great deal to me. Each of you continue to play such an important role in my life. And Robert, watching you grow from a 17-year-old dancer into the leader of The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s preeminent dance companies, has given me incredible joy. My career has always focused on students and their success. Having you here tonight is an honor. Thank you.

And for the last 17 days, Cole Hepburn and Carter Robinson, with the help of students and staff started the inaugural process by spreading kindness across campus and in the community. Thank you for reminding us that kindness matters.

I am incredibly blessed to have an extraordinary family and amazing friends and colleagues. Thank you for your support and for being here with me. I especially want to thank my three brothers, James, Bryan, and Jason, and my sister-in-law, Yolanda and brother-in-law Michael. Your support means the world to me. And to my nephew Willie, who with his three-year-old daughter, Maya, flew here from Italy to be with me at this moment. Thank you for being here to support me and to honor your mother. I know she is smiling down on us.  

And I would not be standing here tonight without the love and support of my husband, Gary and our son Carter. Gary, thank you for always being there for me while I live out my purpose. Carter, you are the light that your father and I brought into the world. We love watching you shine and know that you will use your light to make oceans cleaner and the world a better place.

Many of you know that I was a first-generation college student. Like many first-generation students, I didn’t have anyone to guide me through the college process. I had to figure things out on my own, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Thankfully, I had people around me who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself: Coaches, faculty, and administrators who introduced me to literature and ideas that opened my eyes to the world, guided me when I needed direction, and challenged me when I got off track. I also had great cheerleaders in my parents, James and Harriet Carter, who were always there for me. I am so grateful for their love and support. They may not have known firsthand about the college journey, but they knew that their support mattered in my success. 

I stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before me. I observed my parents and grandparents live lives of service in the midst of adversity. Over the course of my college career, I leaned into those lessons and developed grit, determination, and drive through my experiences as a first-generation student. I thrived both inside and outside of the classroom. I tutored other students, performed in theater productions and hosted my own radio show. I was often first on the track in the 100- and 400-meter hurdles, as well as in other sprints, relays, and field events. I earned a spot in my alma mater’s athletic hall of fame and that competitive spirit still lives in me.  

I brought that drive with me when I started my career. I was the first African American and youngest director of residence life at Fairleigh Dickinson University and then the first African American Vice President at The Juilliard School, where I was also the first General Counsel and the first Executive Director of Jazz Studies, a program I co-created. I was the first woman and first African American President of Shippensburg University and am now the first African American President of Lawrence University. Without realizing it, I embraced the first in first-generation and made it into a career of firsts.  

These opportunities have given me the chance to work with young people from across the globe and to mentor and support them as they grow and develop into people who are changing the world. I have had the honor of seeing them at their best and at their worst. 

Maya Angelou said nothing can dim the light from within. Experience has taught me that sometimes you need to help others find their internal light. When students feel they are in their darkest days, it has become my purpose, my “why,” to be a beacon to help them find their way, their light within, and, ultimately, to achieve their purpose. It is a gift to have been that beacon for so many young people.  

Not surprisingly, it is the light that drew me to Lawrence University. 

For the last 175 years, Lawrence University has sat on the banks of the Fox River, calling students to its light: a Beacon on the River. And this beacon’s light, more light called to me. The more light I have, the more I can share, and the more lives I can impact. This is why I am so honored to be standing here today.  

I came to Lawrence knowing that a liberal arts education is exactly what today’s society demands. It is what society has always demanded. When I review the resumes of Lawrence’s alumni—top lawyers, leading corporate executives, dedicated teachers, cutting-edge doctors, community organizers, entrepreneurs, and award-winning writers and musicians—I am inspired to ensure that Lawrence deepens its commitment to the liberal arts and secures its place as a national leader in the higher education.  

For 175 years, this Beacon on the River has illuminated students’ journeys of enrichment and exploration, igniting their passions and propelling them into meaningful careers that impact their communities, our nation, and the world. This is what a liberal arts education—a Lawrence education—does. 

Prior to arriving at Lawrence, I sat of the Board of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Commerce. I listened to my colleagues from the business sector talk about the need for employees who can write well, present strong presentations, solve complex problems, work in teams, and think critically. It was apparent to me that they were talking about the skills gained through a liberal arts education. 

Not everyone shares this same appreciation for the liberal arts. Society questioned the value of higher education and the liberal arts, in particular, even prior to the pandemic. Some of the most prominent issues in this national debate are the cost of tuition, student loan debt and access to higher education. I am grateful to my predecessor, Mark Burstein, for his work to address these issues at Lawrence. 

Mark raised significant funds to put Lawrence on the course of becoming a full need institution, while reducing the amount of loans our students need to cover their costs. He also led the Lawrence team in creating a more diverse student body and a campus culture that is working toward creating a stronger sense of belonging for all students. Thank you, Mark.

Yet more work remains as we face the challenges ahead. The task before us will require all of us, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and community members alike, to work together to ensure this Beacon on the River shines brighter than ever before.

We know that students succeed when the faculty and staff supporting them have the resources they require to provide an exceptional academic experience. We have spent the last few months working across campus to identify Lawrence’s most pressing needs, listening to our community and exploring institutional data. The data tell us that we at Lawrence need to better resource our faculty and staff, increase our applicant pool, deepen our work in diversity, equity and inclusion, and continue to build our reputation. 

As Lawrence has done throughout its 175-year history, we are prepared to address these needs head-on. Earlier today, the Board of Trustees agreed to strategies and metrics for a strategic investment in the institution that includes additional support for academic programs and faculty development; facilities and technological infrastructure; diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism; reputational enhancement; and better compensation for our faculty and staff. 

This historic action by the Board will permit us to secure the equipment faculty require to prepare students for life after Lawrence; create more technologically advanced classroom spaces; and provide additional resources to some of our newer academic programs as they continue to grow. These innovations will enable us to keep pace with the demands and expectations of prospective students and their families. They will also send a clear message to our faculty and staff that we value them and understand that excellence requires investment. I want to thank our Board for investing in the future of this remarkable institution.

In the current challenging environment, maintaining our position as a selective national liberal arts institution is key to our future success. Lawrence continues to attract high academic achievers, yet the enrollment cliff predicted for 2025-26 means that there will be fewer high school graduates, particularly in the Midwest and the Northeast. We are already seeing the results of more aggressive recruiting and financial aid packaging from our peers as the higher education landscape becomes more competitive. But Lawrence is well positioned to continue to lead during this turbulent time.  

Thanks to generous donors, we have already made improvements to our residence halls. The investments approved by the Board continue our work, allowing Student Life to reorganize to respond to changing student needs; develop a first-year experience program to provide extra and co-curricular support to our students; review our student advising program to ensure it is consistent with best practices. We are also taking another look at our Career Center to create ways for students to have earlier engagement with the office and experience high-impact practices like internships, mentoring, and study abroad. Increasing support for the Conservatory and Athletics, which account for 20% and 25% of our student population, is also vital to the university’s success. 

Enhancing these student experiences will ensure that Lawrence remains a beacon for current and future Lawrentians.   

I mentioned earlier the diversity, equity and inclusion work taking place on campus. Last May, the Board determined that Lawrence should deepen that work and become an anti-racist institution. This work is consistent with the values of our founder, abolitionist Amos Lawrence, and Lawrence University’s status as one of the first co-educational institutions in the country. Our commitment to diversity extended even further when Lawrence joined with the all-women’s Milwaukee-Downer College in 1964.  

Our continuing work will be consistent with the needs of today’s society. A demographic shift is taking place in the country. It is forecast that more students of color will be attending college in the coming years. In addition, the number of first-generation college students is on the rise.  We must be prepared to receive these students and provide them with a sense of belonging. In all of my roles as a first, I have worked to create an environment where everyone can thrive, and I am committed to working across campus and in the community to do the same at Lawrence.

I have heard many stories from students and alumni who have not felt welcome or supported, but I am confident we can do better. Just last month, we held the annual President’s Ball. It was wonderful to see students of different colors, identities, and nationalities come together for an evening of music and dancing. The event demonstrated that there is a place for everyone at Lawrence. And we will continue to work to ensure that all students can thrive at the university.

You may have noticed our new website, which launched earlier this spring. I want to thank our communications and marketing team, as well as the entire campus community, for their work in updating that critical recruitment vehicle. The website was an important first step in better showcasing the university’s strengths and value. We have recently engaged a nationally recognized marketing firm to assist us in telling Lawrence’s story and highlighting the excellent education we provide so that it is more compelling to prospective students and their families. We also plan to expand our outreach by investing in more digital marketing opportunities. So don’t be surprised if you see Lawrence pop up in a few more Google searches.

Continuing this theme, I’d now like to take some time to boast a little on behalf of the university. Did you know that Lawrence is the #1 liberal arts college in Wisconsin? It’s also one of 40 schools featured in the New York Times bestselling Colleges that Change Lives. And home to a world-class Conservatory of Music. 

Our students regularly win national prizes like Fulbrights and Watson Fellowships. Our faculty conduct cutting edge research that is supported by grants from entities like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Their work is featured in the New York Times and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and receives local and regional honors from community organizations and professional associations. 

These examples all showcase Lawrence’s extraordinary scholars and artists and the transformative education our students receive. And it’s more important than ever that we share this news with the world. And we ask each of you to share Lawrence’s good news as well.  

Lawrence students, faculty, staff, alumni—you are the best examples of a transformative Lawrence education. Lawrence parents and friends—you are our biggest cheerleaders. When you leave this ceremony tonight, share what you love about Lawrence. Or what you’ve learned about the university and its community during your time in Appleton. 

You can even start with this Tweet: Lawrence University is an extraordinary liberal arts community dedicated to excellence and integrity, collaboration and creativity, nestled in the vibrant city of Appleton, WI. Help us share our story far and wide!

This is not an easy time to be a university president, and I do not accept the challenge of leading this great university lightly. But as Langston Hughes said in his poem Mother to Son, “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair,” and leading two different universities during a pandemic while grieving the loss of loved ones has taught me a lot about shining light into darkness.  I know full well that a flickering light can recover its brilliance. 

The world is rapidly changing. We cannot stand still. Like the river that flows through our campus, we must move with the current while honoring the shore around us. Buddha said, “Doubt everything and find your own light.” We have heard the skeptical discourse around higher education and the liberal arts. We doubt that it is insurmountable. We see clearly the shifting student demographics before us. We stand firm in our belief that the education we provide will meet the needs of current and future students.  We know that Lawrence is at a pivotal moment in its history. We illuminate a path forward.

We are Lawrentians.  

And as this Beacon on the River provides light, more light, we will continue to hold firm to our tradition of providing an exceptional liberal arts education to our students.

Students, you inspire me. You bring so much light to this campus. You have a light within that gives you the potential to become a beacon of your own. The beacon the world needs for a more kind and sustainable future. I encourage you to let your light shine. 

More coverage of Inauguration.