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President Martha Peterson's Inaugural Address

October 10, 1975


The press release for the Inauguration of the President at Kansas State University identified the remarks preceding the new President's as "Expectation Speeches." I assume the new President was then to deal with what he intended to do with those expectations. I have adopted that framework in what I have to say today. An Inauguration is -- should be -- a joyous all-College Celebration of what is, has been and is to be, as seen by those with close ties to the College; it is also the moment of truth for the new President when he -- or she -- states solemnly and publicly the intentions, goals, convictions with which he or she begins the presidency.

You have heard already the expectations of a faculty member, Trustee, student, alumna, civic leader, distinguished historian, and a long-time friend of the College. For the purposes of my remarks I am going to restate those expectations in my own words which I believe encompasses the main theme of what has been said. Since we cannot forget this setting -- planned by the inaugural committee and created by Professor Franklin Boggs and the Buildings and Grounds staff at Beloit -- I shall shift from expectations to a more vivid characterization. What are the banners that Beloit College flies today? I shall name only three. You may wish to identify others that count for you personally.

There is the banner of tradition.

Who could sit here among these Indian mounds in front of Middle College, with the President's house across the street, on this beautiful autumn day in Wisconsin, without acknowledging tradition? On other fall days such as today others must have thought this a particularly special place -- else why would there be Indian Mounds, including Beloit's legendary Turtle Mound to the southwest beyond Middle College? Why would those founders finally have settled on this location for this -- one of the earliest colleges in the Territory, and for building the first building of the College, started in 1847 and still serving today's students? Why would Aaron Chapin have built his own home across the street in 1850 and lived there all his life, including 37 years as President of the College? Beloit traditions grow not only from the good taste and judgment of our predecessors in choosing this location above all others on which to build a college, but also from their reasons for wanting a college at all. You have read and heard enough of the history of the College today to know that the College has continued -- within the limits of human imperfection -- to be imminently worthy of the vision and zeal of its founders. Its graduates have served society with distinction in all areas of human endeavor and in many parts of the world for well over a century. There is no way to escape Beloit's tradition except to depart Beloit, and even then each of us will carry a part of it with us.

The second banner Beloit flies and which it has no intention to abandon is the banner of the liberal arts college. A rigid definition of the liberal arts college is difficult -- it means what each of us chooses it to mean at the moment, but here at Beloit liberal arts surely encompasses high quality teaching and learning in recognized disciplines to the end that the individual can deal confidently and responsibly with the world as it is. To the disciplines are added the exploration of interdisciplinary work and the experiences of World Outlook seminars and the Field Term, all of which help equip students for living and working in the world.

The third banner of Beloit I wish to identify before moving on to a statement of the direction in which I believe Beloit must move is the banner of daring to be different. It is a banner for which I have great personal affection for without it I might not be here today. There are many evidences of this daring to be different that have kept Beloit historically and presently a vital college. There is the summer Court Theatre, the leadership in study of the American Indians, the Beloit Plan which combines rigorous academic work with pragmatic experience. There is Beloit's success with year-round operation, the program to serve the special needs of minority students and community residents, student participation in campus governance, the Volunteer Tutoring Center, and the Faculty's establishment of procedures for achieving reduction of scale while maintaining institutional quality. In retrospect, it is apparent that the "daring to be different" was for the most part based on a combination of what needed or could be done and the fact that Beloit had the resources, intellectual and moral, to do it. But enough of citing the banners under which we march. Let us turn now to the present and to the future. What of this fall 1975 with a new president and the opportunities such a change gives a college for revitalization, redirection.

The hard facts are not encouraging. These are not kind times for the small private liberal arts college, particularly in the Middle West. There is a decreasing number of students of college age, and some of this decreased number believe that life can be lived satisfactorily without a college education. Vocational and career education seem to some a quicker route to personal security. Costs have risen to the point that the private college seems to have no possibility of finding the money to pay necessary operating expenses from the usual sources -- tuition, endowment, gifts, entrepreneurial income and the limited state and federal aid available. In the Middle West, where state universities and colleges have enormous influence, importance and financial need, the private college is in an especially precarious position.

You may ask then -- why in the face of these odds do the Beloits, the Rockfords, the Ripons -- and if you will allow me to look back a moment, the Barnards -- keep trying? I don't really believe those of you who are here today need guidance on the answer to that question. You either are enthusiastic for the likes of Beloit or you are willing to give the Beloits a chance. And being here sharing in this celebration, you must feel even more positive about colleges like this. Who would sacrifice what 129 years have made this institution? Yet what are the non-emotional, hard arguments one can give for private higher education?

The first, I believe, can be expressed in shorthand terms as productive tension.

Most of us believe, except where the costs are too great to sustain, that diversity, some competition, fine teaching are components of an excellent educational system. Let's move from jargon to example.

I believe the University of Wisconsin is a better place for learning and teaching because there are private colleges in the state that challenge it from time to time by choosing a different route to academic excellence. I believe it is good for Wisconsin and for all of higher education that a college or a university outside the state system differs from its public neighbors and can, in its own wisdom, choose to be different -- fly its own banner. I believe it is good for Beloit and the other colleges and universities of the state that there is a splendid University of Wisconsin System that challenges us to examine our own courses of action in light of the excellences and successes of the University. The tension that results can be productive -- provided, of course, each institution is sympathetically and constructively critical of the actions of the other, and respects the right of the other to exist. Certainly no system can tolerate waste, fly-by-night schemes and gimmickry, and because neither publicly nor privately supported higher education has a corner on these abuses, all must be alert to check each other and to minimize the errors in our various ways. Strong institutions such as Beloit contribute to this kind of control which is so essential to the general good. I expect as President to keep Beloit a vigorous watchdog in maintaining high quality higher education in Wisconsin.

There is a second argument beyond the possibility of productive tension that can be made for the private college and university. That is the argument of size.

Smallness is no virtue in itself and can lead to defensiveness and stagnation. But largeness is not a virtue either if it leads to bureaucracy or arrogant assumption of wisdom because of size. Neither conclusion is inescapable. The small college can have a larger outlook which it tests daily in an on-going personal relationship between student and teacher; the larger institution has the strength, power if you will, to implement a great variety of programs. There are those who work more effectively in the smaller community. There are others who respond more positively to the larger. The state is better if the choice be there for individual learner or teacher to make. Smallness is more likely to occur and persist in a private college. And the small private college has unique potential for serving the educational needs of the individual undergraduate in a way that the larger institution can not often match.

There is another possibility offered by smallness and by the individual responsibility of a private institution. That is the possibility of initiating and abandoning experimentation more quickly. We know more, of course, about the initiation of new programs at the private college for these are usually announced with great pride. Are these innovations ever abandoned? Or is the private institution subject to the same inertia of larger, particularly governmentally-controlled bodies, that once a program is created it appears impossible to un-create. Of course, no entity that exists on the good will of its supporters ever announces a failure. But I suspect it could be proven that the small institution, because it cannot hide from itself internally, has a better record than most of us know in experimenting and discarding what doesn't stand the test. I expect as President of Beloit to continue to emphasize this college's contributions to education that result from its smallness in size but not in vision.

There are other arguments for private higher education. Let me say merely that after years of experience in both publicly-supported and privately-supported institutions I think we need -- must have -- both if we are to maintain vitality, credibility and the potential for leadership of institutions of higher education. I do not see the two systems as mutually exclusive or competitive except in the best sense of competition that stimulates excellence.

That leads to the final question: Can we afford such luxury? When the college and university presidents' group with which I went to China last November visited with Vice-Premier Teng, he welcomed us, said how glad he was to have us visit China and then stated politely that we represented a luxury China could not afford in its effort to feed, house, educate, give health care and other necessities to all its people. He hoped in time China could return to the kind of education and learning we represented. Have we in the U. S. reached the same condition? I think not. I hope not. But the future won't be easy.

For Beloit College -- for any individual college -- the factors with which we must reckon if we are to inaugurate seven more presidents are these:

  1. Internal strength and efficiency, without sacrificing the institution's definition of what it is, and its academic excellence -- this inner strength is the direct day by day responsibility of the faculty, administrative staff, students, a President and Trustees;
  2. Relentless effort in securing enthusiastic and quantifiable loyalty from the constituents who should care -- Trustees, alumni, the community, parents and other possible friends;
  3. Resourcefulness in finding and securing support from those others who might have a natural affinity to the College which will produce a wish to help;
  4. Participation in planning and sharing fairly in whatever state or federal support is available to the College without sacrificing its essential characteristic as a private enterprise.

Let me speak to a few current concerns from the last two points; the first two points -- need for internal strength and support of constituents -- are obvious.

In seeking support from outside resources such as foundations, corporations and generous individuals, each college must be single minded in presenting its own case but there is a larger ethic that could be neglected in these trying times. I see some evidence that representatives of colleges in their "life or death" search may be assuming in gaining support an attitude unworthy of the goals of higher education or those who support it. Some colleges may fail -- but they should do so from lack of internal strength and support of constituents, not at the hands of their colleagues.

I was always impressed by an Ivy League assumption: No Ivy League college has ever failed to meet its goal in a fund drive. Even Columbia could say that it would be a loss to Columbia if Yale could not obtain the $380,000,000 it has set in its latest drive. Maybe that's the reason the Ivy League is the Ivy League. Perhaps some of us who would like a mere $10,000,000 are tempted to reflect on Yale's lack of brotherhood in seeking such a portion of limited resources. But the principle is clear. A climate of mutual respect and support is necessary in creating generosity and willingness to support higher education outside one's immediate constituency. Each college is diminished by the weakness of another; each is enhanced by the success of another. To survive alone is not really worth the effort. As President of Beloit I expect to support Beloit's participation in the ACM or other associations of colleges where there are shared convictions.

My final point on the need for state and federal support is a bit more difficult to handle, particularly in this area. There are those who stand strongly on the premise that no private institution can accept federal or state moneys without sacrificing autonomy. There are those in the public sector who applaud this position and endorse private education enthusiastically as long as it does not wish to share in public support.

Recognizing that these positions have validity, I still strongly endorse government support for students to enable them to choose the institution they wish to attend without consideration of tuition differential. I have no difficulty in supporting this goal as a financial and social advantage for the larger community of higher education, and most particularly the students.

I doubt that total elimination of differential between tuition for public and private institutions will ever exist and I don't believe it should. The private institution can develop enough resources to aid the student in covering some fraction of the differential. But no private institution has the resources to provide the assistance qualified applicants to their institution need. The advantages to all institutions and to students in assuring freedom of choice are obvious and can be paid for without eroding support of the public institutions.

If you doubt that such programs are possible, look at the success of New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin plans. Such programs once introduced are rarely repealed; I doubt that they will be, short of a total reversal of governmental priorities in the face of economic necessity. We must not let that happen.

I only wish Wisconsin were the leader in this area of good government that it has been in other areas. I regret that other states surpassed Wisconsin, not only in dollar amount but certain other aspects of the program of tuition support adopted by other states. Of course in the long run, the advantage or disadvantage by the state in which the student is born should be eliminated, but I am willing to wait on that Utopia until we have more states that have developed their own programs. I expect to exert whatever leadership and influence I can in securing state and federal support for students to free them from choosing an institution because of its cost.

That is as far as I should go today in discussing the role of the government in support of private institutions. The institutional support, i.e. direct grant to the institution, in New York State under the Bundy Plan was a great comfort to me at Barnard in balancing the budget. I spoke to it in my inaugural remarks at Barnard. I worked to increase it while there without any threat to institutional autonomy. It is difficult to erode the autonomy of an institution or an individual who has a strong sense of identity. But I recognize Wisconsin is different from New York and I want to know more about the realities of life here before endorsing this particular road to salvation.

We start together today a seventh period in the life of Beloit College. It is a happy day for me because there are challenges, possibilities and the warmth and support of good friends like all of you who are here, including new friends at Beloit. I hope that it is a joyful time of expectation and determination for all of you who love and respect this historic college. I thank you personally and for the College for coming to make this day so special. You help us hold high the banners of our traditions, our liberal arts commitment, our daring to be different. You encourage me in standing firm in my commitment to the expectations of this college and in working to make those expectations a reality.