The Inaugural Address by Kenyon College President S. Georgia Nugent
Good afternoon. Two things that I would like to do in these remarks I find are already at odds with one another. One, I would like to speak briefly. Two, I want to begin with thanks. And there are so many to whom I want to express thanks that my whole time at this podium might be devoted to that alone-and be more lengthy than any of us desires.
I certainly want to thank the trustees of Kenyon College, who have entrusted to me the responsibility of leading this great institution into the future. And I want especially to thank Buffy Hallinan, David Horvitz and the other members of the search committee for the obvious wisdom and vision with which they carried out their mission!
Special thanks are also richly deserved by Howard Sacks, the members of the Inauguration Planning Committee, and the staff members in my office-who have been just wonderfully creative, imaginative, and also hard working-in planning all of the many activities which we are taking part in this weekend. An event as complex as this requires a great deal of planning, attention, and work from many members of Kenyon's staff. They have done a great job, and I want to thank them for that; without you this event could not have happened.
To those of you who have come to Kenyon as delegates of your institutions and to our special guests such as President Emeritus Philip Jordan and our inaugural speaker Robert Fagles, I want to extend my warm thanks. You add a luster to our proceedings for which I am very grateful.
And then, of course, there are more personal gratitudes that I want to acknowledge. Many friends and colleagues have traveled out to Gambier from Princeton and even other far-flung spots. It is just great to see you all, and I'm deeply touched by your making the effort to come. Now you can see for yourself the truth of the adage, "Princeton is the Kenyon of the East."
Finally, I cannot speak to you at this inauguration without expressing my deep thanks to my husband, Tom Scherer. I know that many of you have not yet had a chance to meet Tom. But when you do, you will understand how incredibly blessed I am in my spouse. From our first discussion of Kenyon, Tom has been extraordinarily excited about this opportunity, supportive of me, and engaged with the Kenyon community. Perhaps fittingly, given his legal career, he is in every sense my "counsellor," and there is no way that I could carry out this role without Tom at my side. It is really impossible for me to express the depth of my gratitude to him, but I believe it is important to try.
And now, I want to turn to say a few words about the theme for this inaugural event, "to seek a newer world." Why did I choose it and, more importantly, what does it mean? The phrase comes from Alfred Lord Tennyson's famous poem "Ulysses." As to why I chose it, I wrote a brief essay for the special inaugural edition of the Collegian which describes the literary history of this theme and why it interests me. I'm sure many of you will have had an opportunity to read that, and I will not rehearse that literary history here. On a personal note, the theme has several particular resonances. One is the crossing of boundaries-it has been a persistent theme in my life, to cross boundaries not only of geography, but of class, of gender. Further, my own intellectual style often proceeds through analogy, metaphor, and bringing disparate things together-another type of boundary crossing. Finally, for me the phrase "to seek a newer world" has to do with bringing the past fruitfully into the future. As a classicist, I am fascinated by the past as a modernist and post-modern theorist, rather than as an antiquarian. To paraphrase a colleague at Brown: this is the study of antiquity not as a museum enshrining the past but as a laboratory toward building the future. These are some of the ideas that, for me, cluster around our inaugural theme.
How does Ulysses' great quest "to seek a newer world" relate to Kenyon? We might first look back to our founding.When Bishop Philander Chase came from his eastern background to frontier Ohio, his was really an Odyssean quest, in two senses. First, he was setting out, quite literally, for uncharted territory. Second, this evolved into a quest for the pursuit of knowledge, when he determined to build a seminary in these new territories. The well-known last line of Tennyson's poem: "To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield" would, from all accounts, well characterize the good bishop-particularly that last bit about not yielding! So-though we may seldom recall that now-when it was founded, Kenyon College very much represented the striving for "a newer world." For our guests, who may not be familiar with Kenyon history, I'd also note that both the College and the village are named for British Lords, because Bishop Chase traveled to England to raise funding for his new world project. Lords Kenyon and Gambier were particularly well-disposed; thus, the old world contributed to the new.
In fact, this aspect of Kenyon's history leads to a unique outcome. As far as I know, Kenyon is the only college that has…well, I'd call it kind of a fund-raising fight song.
Performed by the Chamber Singers
The King, the Queens, the Lords, the Earls
The gave their crowns, they gave their pearls
Until Philander had enough
And hurried homeward with the stuff
In Kenyon's subsequent history, there have been several points at which the College has been substantially re-imagined, or invented anew, if you will. I think particularly of the extraordinary 41-year presidency of William Foster Peirce who, as one College history tersely sums it up: "may be credited with saving the College financially and putting it on the map scholastically." Then, of course, in 1969-at the same moment as my own Alma Mater-Kenyon took the dramatic step of admitting women as students, recognizing that it might be a good idea to extend the opportunity of a Kenyon education to the 50% of the population who had previously been excluded from it. Today, we inaugurate the first female president in Kenyon's 180-year history. This is indeed a brave new world!
Coming back to our present moment, what might it mean for Kenyon "to seek a newer world?" Does it mean a radical break with the past? Emphatically not.
Rather, in this my freshman year, I'd invite you to reflect on the experience of the college freshman. In a sense, every first-year student bravely and purposely strides forth to seek a newer world. There is a constant sense, on a college campus, of renewal with the commencement of a new semester. Enrolling in a new course, meeting a new friend, opening a new book, trying a new activity, studying a new language, embarking on a new research project-all of these are opportunities to re-imagine and renew both oneself and one's world. There is, we might say, a touching belief in the possible, in a future that is not only different but better. This is what I mean by "seeking a newer world." I urge us to look forward, not in a way that breaks with the past, but that reconnects with it, in the hope of advancing to a higher plateau.
For students, this entails having the courage to extend the range of their experiences, their imaginations, their comfort zones (and venturing beyond those comfortable limits from time to time). For faculty, it entails contributing to the very definition and conceptions of their field of study through reflection and research. And it means conceiving continually new ways to teach that field-not as the conveyance of data and information, but as the awakening of (perhaps lifelong) engagement in their students. For administrators and staff members, I would urge us together to be willing to explore new ideas, new ways of carrying out our shared mission, even a willingness to enter into new relationships with one another.
For Kenyon as a college, what might it mean "to seek a newer world"? I believe the odyssey for the college is analogous to those for the individuals who comprise it. That is, I believe we need to have the courage to extend our reach, continually refining our character in the light of the present, with the guidance of our past. This means nothing more-but nothing less-than applying Socrates' simple but profound axiom that "the unexamined life is not worth living." Every aspect of our life as a college bears examination: our curriculum, our student composition, our physical structure, our priorities. Examination will not always result in change; indeed, it may result in recommitment to existing strengths. And, again, just as do students and faculty, the College itself must always be enhancing its abilities-learning, if you will. We must look to enhance our awareness of and by others, our resources, our contributions to our society. We must practice regular and realistic self-assessment and have the courage to extend into new areas.
If we as individuals and as a College take part in this endless odyssey of education, then I would suggest a final, larger meaning for the concept "to seek a newer world." For, by increasing our capacity, for knowledge, reflection, and action we will also increase Kenyon's capacity to act in and transform our world. Though we come together on this hill in a kind of pastoral haven for reflection, we must never lose sight of our commitment, indeed our responsibility to engage the larger world with the fruits of that reflection, to help to build a newer world. And so, of course, I will conclude with Tennyson:
Some work of noble note may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men who strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks;
The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.