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President John E. Burris' Inaugural Address

November 17, 2000


Thank you for the greetings that have been offered here from both the College and the community. It is my pleasure to welcome you all -- both those who labor here each day and those who have come a distance to be a part of this historic program. The institutions represented here today from throughout the United States and beyond are an indication of the high esteem in which Beloit College is held in the international academic community.

I also take great personal pride in welcoming here today three generations of my family and of my wife Sally.

I come before you, 150 years after Aaron Chapin was inaugurated as the first President of Beloit College. The story of this College, from its founding when Wisconsin was still a territory, to its role today as one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the nation, is the story of commitment to ideals and traditions, tempered by the ability to plan, grown, and change with the times.

Our mission has not changed a great deal. In his inaugural address, President Chapin proclaimed that the system of collegiate education in this country came into being, "free born... our colleges are free to become and to do whatever the true interests of learning require."

Today we call it "Invent Yourself."

I stand before you today as only the tenth president in the 154 years since this College was visualized as "nothing but a name, a hope, a purpose, a prayer." People are surprised that we have had so few presidents, but it is an indication of the strong sense of continuity and commitment that Beloit College has demanded.

We have 15 faculty members and numerous staff who have been here since the 1960's, including Professor Jack Street who brought the greeting from the faculty. He joined Beloit in 1961. Unlike many colleges, we also turn to our emeriti for their profound wisdom and commitment to the College and encourage their active role in our community.

And I am indeed fortunate to be able to turn to my immediate predecessors: the sixth president, Miller Upton; the eighth, Roger Hull; and the ninth, Victor Ferrall, who are here today, as well as our seventh president, Martha Peterson, who could not be with us, for wisdom, reassurance, and historical perspective.

It is an overwhelming honor for me to join in that distinguished line of Beloit's leaders, including their predecessors, Presidents Chapin, Eaton, Brannon, Maurer, and Croneis, and to play a role in shaping this great institution in the coming years.

So why am I on the podium today as your new president? What can I bring to this institution to continue its excellence? Such questions are particularly relevant in light of my curriculum vitae; a Ph.D. in marine biology returning to a landlocked state, eight years as a faculty member at a large research university, eight years in Washington, D.C., working in science policy, and finally eight years as a director of the oldest, private marine biological laboratory in North America. And not even a month of service as a college dean.

I am a scientist at the helm of a small liberal arts college. This means that I have a certain set of approaches to questions, approaches that are consonant, I feel, with the traditions of Beloit College and approaches that I feel will continue to keep us on the cutting edge of education, a place we have been for much of our history, whether with the Beloit Plan or the First-Year Initiatives.

So what are we going to do? We are going to continue to experiment, we are going to continue to learn through experience. We are entering a new century and a new millennium, and it is a very different time from the date of our founding over 150 years ago. This is an age of information. We can communicate rapidly with our friends and our foes around the world. What does or does not happen in Washington, D.C., may be as critical to our programs as what occurs in Morocco or Germany, Ecuador or China. We are not in a position to retreat from the real world, nor do we want to. What we need to do is to continue to teach our students to learn how to learn. For only by providing them with such abilities will they be able to stay up with the incredible changes that they will see in society and in the workplace.

To learn how to learn. What does this mean? It can be characterized as follows -- we want our students to know how to approach problems, and how to ask the proper questions. Once they are able to frame the questions, they can then develop a methodology to attack them. They will know the intellectual and practical tools that they can use to answer the many questions they will be confronting. Just as the engineer must retool every five or so years to even begin to stay abreast of the latest developments, so too do all of us have to be constantly learning. Walter Gilbert, a Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist, has estimated that in biology we are doubling our information base every 18 months. How could anyone hope to survive such an information overload or even begin to presume that the factual information accumulated in college would have much relevance after five years? Instead we can only hope to arm ourselves with the methods to approach problems.

This is not a specifically scientific dilemma, as every field and occupation greatly expands its information base using computers and the web. For Beloit College to remain true to its goal of producing an educated person, we must provide our students with the ability to assimilate, integrate, and then conclude. These are the skills of learning how to learn and are key to a liberal arts education; Beloit is not a place to escape from the real world and retreat into an ivory tower.

With the transition to the information age, we need to make certain that the goals and methods of a liberal arts education are not lost, for in the developing of an educated person you indeed prepare a person able to deal with the information overload that confronts us all.

So you have this different president, this marine biologist who feels passionately that we need to prepare our students for a world where they will never stop learning. I also feel strongly that we must provide our students with the opportunities to develop talents and appreciations that will have little to do with their careers, but will enrich their lives forever, whether it be in an appreciation of literature, art, or science. We must continue to provide experiential learning, not only as an approach to the practical or the applied, but also to the many things that we want to do strictly because we enjoy doing them. We want everyone to have an opportunity to plan an instrument, act in a play, run a scientific experiment, or write a poem.

Who can argue with such goals? The tougher problem becomes how to implement them. Clearly we are already doing so at many levels.

First, we have not lost sight of the importance of a strong and rigorous academic program. We have a superb faculty who expects and demands of our students a commitment to their academic endeavors. This is not an institution for those who expect to sleep through four years of classes and emerge with a diploma. From the First-Year Initiatives to advanced seminars and research, expectations exist that students will attend classes, complete assignments, and study for exams. These expectations are reinforced by the faculty and by the students' peers.

If we expect a great deal of our students, we also give them a superb place in which to perform. Students know their professors and their peers. Ideas are freely exchanged. Questions are asked and debate is encouraged, not only with other students, but directly with the faculty. Small group interactions can encourage big ideas which, whether right or wrong, encourage learning how to learn -- the free exchange of ideas can enable one to refine and often to change one's own ideas.

The 10 to 15 students in that classroom are not learning passively, but are engaged in that powerful aspect of Beloit College that I have already mentioned, experiential learning. Here we embrace the experience as a way to learn. Students do surveys in the social sciences, paint in art classes, discuss topics in Russian, and in so doing they better learn and retain that learning.

The students are academically challenged and exposed to a variety of experiences in a small classroom setting, but the College is much more. It includes the broad spectrum of co-curricular activities. One can't help but be impressed by the variety of opportunities that exist for the energetic and interested student. One may sing in a choir, perform in an orchestra, play forward on the basketball team, write for the Round Table, volunteer in a Beloit school.... The opportunities are diverse and extraordinary, always student-centered and, for the most part, student-initiated. Academic excellence and a campus vibrancy make this a great place to be and when combined with an encouragement for all to experiment, indeed make this a place where one can "invent oneself."

But even after we experiment with pedagogy and we ask academic effort from our students, we still will not be successful in our educational goals if we don't function as a community. Much of my first three months here has been as a listener. Against the pressure to state specific goals and changes for the College, I have remained mostly silent, as I have tried to assimilate and understand what is great about Beloit. One thing has emerged - this College will more forward only as a unified entity. The faculty, the administration, the students, the alumni, and our friends in the city will work together to continue to develop the environment needed to enable learning how to learn. We are far too small a place to allow factionalism. We will work together, and just as we emphasize the importance of the international in our education, we will work to make this our global village. This means that everyone will make some tradeoffs and will need to recognize that there will be compromises. Compromise and understanding are of paramount importance. Our goal will continue to be to give the best possible education to our students. I view my role at the College as a straightforward one -- to provide the best possible environment for all in which to work and study.

This College is a community that is ever changing and constantly full of surprises. Where else do 200 students turn our for an international poetry reading, where else is the women's tennis team led by two students from Moscow, and where else is there a formal inaugural presidential ball? This is a great place. Each of you is involved in creating this community, whether in your participation in Brigadoon, noon basketball, frisbee golf, a pancake breakfast, or just relaxing against an effigy mound. This is a place of youth and enthusiasm and the open exchange of ideas. What of the future of this great small place located on the site where Native American effigy mounds were built a thousand years ago? No crystal ball exists to enable us to see the future, nor to let us map the best path to that future. Fewer than three months on campus has also not conveyed to me the clairvoyance needed to map out future directions of Beloit College. With the support of the trustees, faculty, students, staff, and alumni, we are fortunate though to be in position to begin to construct that map. With your input and the efforts of the recently constituted Strategic Planning Committee, we will discern a set of reasonable, responsible and, most importantly, exciting directions for the next five to ten years. I look to all of you, as my friends and as friends of the College, to help guide this wonderful institution.

It is apparent, even in my brief time here, that no school, not even one as strong as Beloit, can do everything. We are not going to become a research university (nor do we want to), nor will we be a Division I athletic powerhouse (sorry, we're not going back to the National Invitational Basketball Tournament). We must prioritize what our emphases will be. We must determine what we do best and do it even better. We must allocate our limited resources to excellence. Our students will continue to have a broad spectrum of experiences, the core values of a liberal arts education will not be abandoned. We will, though, see more emphasis on areas where we are distinctive. We will refine and emphasize those special characteristics of Beloit College. We will prioritize infrastructural expenditures to continue a systematic tackling of deferred maintenance to ensure that the facilities both for academic and co-curricular pursuits are the best possible. The Strategic Planning Committee will have to make some tough decisions, but Beloit will be the stronger for it. We will continue to be an innovative, international place that embraces diversity and encourages experimentation. All such efforts, though, depend on you, the community. Strategic planning is without value if we aren't willing to make tough decisions. In the long run I am convinced what makes this a stronger place also makes it a better place for all of us.

I have lived in many parts of the country and had a broad spectrum of professional positions. I have worked with colleagues who are teachers, policy makers, administrators, and researchers. I have worked at the table once used by Louis Agassiz as he formulated his philosophy of teaching comparative zoology; I have stood before the Nobel Prize of Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, discoverer of vitamin C.

On this campus, I have learned of the ground-breaking anthropological work of Roy Chapman Andrews of the Class of 1906, the commitment to community service of former ABC President James Duffy of the Class of 1949, and the dedication to educational opportunity of Andrew Davis of the Class of 1979. When combined with the foresight of Chapin, the creative leadership of Eaton, and the dedication of all the others who have served in the president's office, I recognize that I stand on the shoulders of giants.

It is not a bad position from which to look ahead.

I take very seriously the commitment and loyalty that all of you feel for this wonderful institution. Together, we will build on past excellence and Beloit College will continue to grow in a manner in keeping with the traditions and expectations of those who took a risk, at the edge of the frontier, in 1846.

I am especially pleased to come home to Wisconsin and I am especially proud to come to the College that I have admired and observed for so long, to serve the College and the community. My wish for you is that you will get up every day as excited as I am about new challenges and changes to continue to learn.

Thank you.