Inaugural Address, January 13, 2018

The full text of President Hass’ inaugural address as prepared for delivery:

I stand before you in joy and gratitude, humbled to be at the center of this morning’s activities.

We gather as a full community today—esteemed faculty, talented students, dedicated staff, supportive alumni, and committed trustees—to honor a transitional moment in the life of Rhodes College. We are joined by a circle of well-wishers—delegates from our sister institutions, leaders of Memphis, and friends of the College. I am particularly pleased to welcome President Emeritus Bill Troutt, and two women who have made immeasurable contributions to Rhodes College: Carole Troutt and Libby Daughdrill. And it means a great deal to me to have my family with us—the first gentleman of Rhodes College, Dr. Larry Hass, my parents, Drs. Mike and Sally Hoit, and my children, Cameron and Jessica.

I am grateful to Bill and to the 18 presidents who preceded him for their legacy of leadership. Becoming the President of Rhodes College is a lifetime highlight for me, and I keep the memory of these men in mind as I strive to live up to the very strong model they have set.  

I am also mindful today that my appointment marks the first time a woman—and a Jewish woman at that—has served Rhodes as president.  And I want to thank those who worked to open the doors that I now walk through. I am committed to holding those doors open even wider for the leaders who will follow me.

We gather today at Rhodes in the midst of strength and promise. We have a magnificent campus, a balanced budget, a talented and diverse student body, a world-class faculty and staff, a reputation for academic excellence, and a location in one of America’s most historic and vibrant cities. Rhodes is a truly extraordinary place—a place that changes the lives of our students and through them, changes our city and the world.

We are justifiably proud of what we do. We are filled with hope about our future. But I assure you, we are not complacent. 

We know the deck is increasingly stacked against liberal arts colleges like ours. We find ourselves on the defensive, having to justify not only the cost of the education we provide, but its value. Many of the things that matter to us—the disinterested search for truth, the honing of expertise, careful critical thinking, lively engagement with new ideas—are politicized or rejected in the Twittersphere that is now our public square. I sometimes feel a kinship with the monks and scribes who held aloft the fragile light of learning and literacy in the midst of the Middle Ages.

But at Rhodes, we cannot afford to adopt a purely defensive posture or to hole up in a stone tower (of which we have many!) and outwait the forces of chaos. Our mission won’t allow that.

Our mission is “to graduate students with a life-long passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.” To do that we must open our ears and our eyes to the world around us, and we must make sure that our students are prepared to enter it not as monks, but as knights.

The disruption we see around us is in part the fallout of the new technologies that have come to be during our lifetime. It is startling to recall how radically these technologies have changed our daily lives. They have also altered the very nature of work and the scope and power of the institutions within which work exists.  

Even the power of the nation-state is changing as communication technologies make location less relevant for coalition-building and cooperation. Armies, companies, cultures, and movements can now operate across national boundaries as well as within them. Even currency no longer needs to be backed by the authority of a state.

The backlash to these forces for change is real, too. Isolationism, nationalism, and racism provide some with the illusion that the consequences of the rapid pace of technological and demographic change can be forestalled. We all know that “May you live in interesting times” is intended as a curse. And we can understand why. But the effects of our new technologies can only be delayed or rerouted; they cannot be stopped.

Our students are going to need an education that equips them with the skills to lead and act amidst this backdrop of massive technological and cultural change. 

A decade ago we were warning our students they would need to compete with their most talented and ambitious peers in India, China, and Kenya. Today we are warning them that their fastest growing competition is technology itself as artificial intelligence threatens to replace even well-educated human workers. My colleague, Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, writes that students have to learn to be “robot proof.” As more and more of our routine work is mechanized and as mechanization expands to include even higher-order heuristic work, the human jobs of tomorrow will be those that trade on our most human traits: our ability to make meaning, to identify problems, to love, to understand, and to imagine. An anti-mechanistic education is one that hones those skills and offers practice in applying them to real-world change.

If today’s education needs to be anti-mechanistic, it also needs to be “anti-fragile.” “Anti-fragile” is a term invented by noted author Nassim Taleb to describe things that benefit from shock and disruption. While a fragile system, such as a glass bowl, will shatter when it encounters a barrier, an anti-fragile system, like your immune system, gets stronger and better under pressure. The more narrow your training, the more likely it is to fail you when conditions change or when an unexpected event occurs. 

The good news is that Rhodes College already has a massive head start. The education we offer—which is grounded in the liberal arts and deeply personalized—fosters the very skills needed to transcend mechanization and fragility. And the Rhodes version of the liberal arts goes even farther, integrating theory and practice, encouraging interdisciplinarity, and staying deeply connected to our surrounding community. 

As we move forward we will need to focus on becoming even better at what we do and how we do it. Over the next decade, we will take this challenge seriously, and we will build on our strong foundation as we emphasize the new themes that our rapidly changing times require.

A first commitment is to make sure that we are offering an education fit for future world-changers. This is a high bar. If we want our graduates to lead, we have to equip them with the ability to embrace change in all its complexity and ambiguity. They will need a holistic education that focuses on problem-solving and multidisciplinary approaches. And these world-changers are going to need to understand both the emergent technologies themselves and the ways those technologies can be harnessed for the common good.

Secondly, our education must remain grounded in face-to-face relationships. The connections made here at Rhodes College—between a student and her professor, within a student club, in a vital and vibrant class discussion, over a shared meal—are an antidote to the intensely mediated interactions we have online. It is here—on campus and in the city of Memphis—where we come together face-to-face, that we learn how to have hard conversations, to stay at the table when we disagree, and to value diversity of thought and experience. It is here that we hone the deeply human skills of care and engagement that undergird citizenship and give us the courage to pursue justice.

Thirdly, a Rhodes education must support the spirit. Widespread change has always exposed human beings to the temptations of nihilism. If our students are to be equipped to lead us towards a better future, we have to nurture their hope and their resilience.

And finally, a Rhodes education must remain relevant and accessible to the talented students of tomorrow. Shifts in national and world-wide demographics mean that the upcoming new student majority will be even more diverse. Our students will continue to come from all over the country, and indeed all over the world. They will be more likely to be first-generation college students. Many of them will be poor in terms of material resources, but they will be rich in terms of cultural ones. They will be more likely to be bilingual, to be second- or third-culture kids, and to have online and in-person friends from around the world. We will build on their strengths, and we will work tirelessly to build need-based financial aid so that we can make sure that a Rhodes education is affordable for the talented students of this coming generation.

That is my deepest hope for Rhodes’ future: that it offers a liberal arts education fit for world-changers, grounded in face-to-face relationships, supports the spirit, and is vitally relevant and accessible to the talented students of tomorrow. 

We are launching a yearlong visioning and strategy process to bring forward the best ideas our campus has to offer about how to meet these ambitious objectives. And over the next month we will be unveiling several new projects that already instantiate these commitments.

For example, this spring, we are introducing a new master’s degree in urban education. Our faculty have built a unique curriculum that incorporates both state-of-the-art research and hands-on learning. We have raised over eight and a half million dollars in seed funding from donors who believe in what we are doing. Once the program is up and running, we will be producing 100 teachers annually, each of them ready and able to make a difference in the lives of children in Memphis’ city schools.

And we will soon release a comprehensive economic impact study that shows where and how Rhodes College affects the city of Memphis. Initial results show that our overall contribution to the Memphis economy is more than $250 million each year. These metrics—for example, the number of graduates who build lives and careers here, the ways we invest in the community, and the strength and intensity of our volunteer work—will be used to set benchmarks and inspire us to even greater impact.

Finally, I am delighted to announce for the first time that, thanks to a transformational gift, we are going to more than double our investment in college and community partnerships. The newly named Lynne and Henry Turley Memphis Center will focus on four areas of community transformation: urban education, the arts and social change, neighborhood and community development, and youth empowerment and justice. I am deeply grateful to Henry and Lynne for their vision and their belief in our students, faculty, and staff.

I hope you can hear and feel my enthusiasm for the work ahead. Already in the six months I have been on campus, I have felt enthusiasm from all of you. I have a deep confidence in our ability to work together and to harness the unique skills and perspectives of our faculty, our trustees, our staff, our students, our community partners, and our alumni. Today is an inauguration, but our work together has already begun. 

Thank you all for being with me today.  And thank you to the many hands and minds that worked to create the special events of this inaugural weekend.

My Rabbi, Micah Greenstein, reminded me that the number 20 in Hebrew is designated by the Hebrew letter kaf. He noted that "kaf" is also an abbreviation for three other Hebrew words: koach (strength), kavannah (intention), and kavod (honor). I ask for your prayers and support as I work to bring strength, intention, and honor to my work as President.

May G-d bless Rhodes College.