Inauguration — Telling the Story of Liberal Arts Education

Liberal arts colleges observe two kinds of ceremonial events.  One of these – commencement – centers on students as new matriculants or graduates, commending their hopes and achievements as they embark on a next phase of life.  The other – inauguration – involves similar academic regalia and ritual, but its subject centers more on the college itself – its founding, notable achievements, leaders, and events that have brought it through the decades to the present moment, when it celebrates the installation of a new president to lead the institution into the future. 

A recent presidential inauguration of Dr. Hilary Link at Allegheny College exemplified the ritual in grand style.  These are events in which the extended community of the college assembles; all of those who participate can see and feel themselves to be part of something larger than themselves.  There is emotional power as the procession advances across campus to the inaugural gathering place:  faculty and staff, students, alumni, trustees, members of the community, and beyond.  Delegates from other academic institutions signify that this is a celebration not just of one college, but of liberal arts education in the U.S. and abroad, with all the values and aspirations it affirms. 

Beyond these elements, the speeches of welcome to a new president collectively tell the story of a college.  There are recountings of its humble beginnings in the nineteenth century as an institution of learning founded at the edge of the frontier by leaders of a protestant denomination for the purpose of training clergy. The details include the number of students first enrolled (less than two dozen) and of faculty (two or three), the initial cost of tuition (less than $50), and increments of growth through time.  Sometimes there is particular notice of an extraordinary president who served for two decades or more, as well as transformational moments, including the decision to admit women to the student body.

Events of this kind in any era express hopes for the continued vitality of a college, while also acknowledging forces that could prove challenging in the time ahead.  Our liberal arts colleges face heightened challenges today, ranging from financial and enrollment concerns, to growing questions about the value and utility of a liberal arts education. 

This balance of affirmation and apprehension was evident from the speeches given at the Allegheny inauguration.  Three of the key speakers addressed the relevance and importance of a liberal arts education in the current age. 

Some paraphrases of such statements affirming the liberal arts included these:

  • Independent liberal arts colleges are a small segment of higher education in the U.S., but the small campus residential experience prepares students especially well in fostering respect and celebration of differences.  Inside and outside of class, our colleges prepare students to reflect seriously on the possibilities of democracy, including the development of empathy for others.
  • Puzzles can be solved by assembling pieces that are all readily at hand, but to solve a mystery requires a deeper process, entering a world of possibilities not yet foreseen and drawing on other realms of knowledge.  We may think we know what we are preparing for, but the study of liberal arts helps prepare us for futures we haven’t imagined. 
  • Immersion in the study of languages was a window into other ways of seeing and thinking.  It was a way of shifting the angle of the lens and seeing familiar things from an altered perspective.  The experience of otherness – whether though the study of language, study abroad, or other means of experiencing different cultures – is a key element of learning and development. 
  • Liberal arts education can teach students the humility and openness to see things from other standpoints, to pursue avenues that offer different ways of understanding, and to embrace rather than reject otherness. 

These paraphrases cannot express the richness of the speakers’ statements in the context of their full remarks.  Collectively, however, the thinking delivered at this inauguration offered compelling narratives of the power of liberal arts education to shape and transform a life beyond what one might have imagined.

An inauguration demonstrates that the ability to tell stories of the impact of the liberal arts on individual lives is one of the most effective strengths our colleges possess.  Individual story-telling of this kind is an advantage that could be applied to even greater effect in making the case for the liberal arts beyond our own academic communities.

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This year three new presidents have been appointed  by member colleges of  the GLCA – Matt Scogin at Hope College, who was inaugurated on September 13, 2019; Hilary Link at Allegheny College, who was inaugurated on October 18, 2019; and Anne Houtman at Earlham College, whose inauguration is yet to be scheduled. 

By Gregory Wegner

Photo by Bill Owen