Beloit College
Banner Image

President Scott Bierman's Inaugural Address

September 25th 2009

I love turtles. I love pig-nosed, snapping, leatherback, box, sideneck, painted, spotted, diamond back, helmeted, and red-eared sliders. I love Mack (Mack was Dr. Seuss’s every-turtle who upended Yertle with a burp). As a slow and steady runner, I really love fables like Aesop’s in which turtles win the race.  I love that sci-fi author Terry Pratchett has his Discworld propped up by a giant turtle, and I love the more general myth that cuts across numerous cultures of an uber-turtle holding up the world. I love the fact that turtles have survived millions of years of adversity, over 215 million years, with only relatively modest evolutionary changes.

Ogden Nash, the poet, speaks indirectly to this point:

“The turtle lives twixt plated decks

Which practically conceal its sex

I think it clever of the turtle

In such a fix to be so fertile.”

I love the anthropomorphic qualities that are attributed to turtles, of being survivors—winners even, of being smart but with a wry sense of humor, of being principled nonconformists, of being responsible and resourceful, of being humble and generous—a lot like Dick Niemiec.

And they live for a really long time.

But I am not an opportunistic lover of turtles. I come to it through a long history going back to a time well before I had heard of Beloit College. When I was in eighth grade, I ran for the exalted office of President of DeWitt Junior High School in Ithaca, New York. An important part of the election process was delivering an address explaining why I was qualified for the position. The speech that I gave was an allegorical, just-so-story kind of thing, featuring an athletic but somewhat egotistical lion, a beautiful but rather shallow peacock, and a turtle intended to be endearing in a self-effacing rather nerdy way—an economist-academic sort of turtle.  All three of these creatures were vying for King of the Forest. The speech was aimed at anyone who was a little geeky and not cool and concluded with an interactive cliff-hanger with the following self-promoting, vote-seeking line: “I am that turtle and only you can complete this story.” It was memorably entertaining in ways the other speeches were not and, as such, it got me elected. From then on out, for the next 40 years, I have been the happy recipient of an endless supply of turtle gifts.

Why Beloit? What is the real reason? Now that I am fully vested, I can say this. Beloit College loves turtles even more than I do.

For those of you joining us today from around the country, those of you who are not formally Beloiters, you may not know that this city was founded because it sits at the confluence of the bubbling and bucolic Turtle Creek, running through the village of Turtle on its way to Beloit, where it flows into the mighty Rock River.  And, the campus was sited amidst the ancient Indian effigy mounds, the most famous of which is the turtle mound.  Since all the mounds look something like a turtle, you will need the help of a local—a student—to point out the one carrying the official title. These mounds give character and a profound sense of both history and place to this beautiful campus. Every day I look out my office window to see classes meeting among the mounds, Frisbees flying between them, dancers twirling upon them, and students, dozens of students, finding a moment of reflective peace on them. The mounds, like the bales of turtles that are gifted among Beloiters, help define this College.

It is humbling today, to be among this remarkable array of talent and wisdom. We have distinguished delegates with us from around the country and, indeed, around the world.

We also have people in this chapel who have influenced me in nearly every stage of my life. My parents, Harold and Florence Bierman, are here. To be honest, to give proper attribution, my mother wrote most of the turtle speech I gave in junior high school. When I suggested that if she were a good mother, she would also write this speech, she simply told me that it was time I got a life. My father has just started his 53rd year of teaching at the Johnson School of Management at Cornell University—a turtle like feat of endurance if ever there was one. I come from turtle stock.

We are joined by my dissertation advisor, Ed Olsen, from the University of Virginia. There are board members from my alma mater, Bates College, a school to which I owe all of the foundational training upon which I have built my life and my career. There are my closest colleagues from Carleton. And I am so pleased that Carleton President Emeritus Steve Lewis is here with his wife, Judy. Steve offered me generous opportunities to learn from the best.

My grown children are here; Lauren and Emily. Grown children—a term that has described Biermans throughout many generations. And these two are no exception.

Beloit’s previous 10 presidents are represented here today by ninth president Vic Ferrall, who generously, ably, and creatively led the College as an unwavering advocate for the liberal arts from 1991 to 2000.

The dignitaries go on and on. I am humbled by your presence, and I am most honored to be here with Beloit College’s exceptional faculty, staff, alumni, students, and board members.

At the opening welcome to new students, I made a case that the Admissions Office at Beloit is perfect: How else can you explain the exceptional success of the students at this school? And I listed a variety of things that are also unequivocally perfect (60-feet and 6 inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate; Pride and Prejudice; a Dove ice cream bar with milk chocolate coating; Sainte Chapelle). But, at dinner later that August evening, I realized that I left out the most obvious element from that list. I seek a mulligan. The most perfect of all the perfect things is my wife of 33 years, Melody. And it is worth noting that her mother, brother, sister, and significant others are also here.

Thank you all for making today so special.

It is common, indeed ubiquitous, to emphasize, dwell on, obsess over—when inaugurating a president—the role that previous presidents have played in the history of the College. This event, after all, has a presidential focus, and it is easy to slip into a presidential fog. I do not mean to diminish the absolute impact that presidents can have—they can do some really good things, and they can cause great damage. But a school owes its soul, its conscience, its essence, its core to its faculty and staff and to its students, past and present. Good presidents find ways to expose this, nurture it, focus it, synthesize it, promote it, and aim resources towards it. That is leadership. And it is a foolish president who does not know this and act on it.

The best Colleges rest on the backs of their faculty, staff, alumni, and students. Turtles.

The very early history of the College provides a particularly revealing moment.

In the fall of 1847, the first five students were enrolled at this College and, in the absence of a formal faculty, were taught that first year by College trustee Sereno Merrill.

In the spring of 1848, the trustees of the new College decided to hire two members of Yale University’s graduating class of 1841: Jackson Bushnell, a mathematician, and Joseph Emerson, a classicist. The trustees chose to do this, to hire Beloit’s core faculty, a full year before deciding to hire the first president: Aaron Chapin.

It is to Beloit College’s credit and critical to its history that the first employees of the College were faculty. Bushnell was already in Beloit when Emerson arrived. In an apocryphal moment, among Emerson’s first words to Bushnell were, “Can we have a college here?” This was no rhetorical question. The College lacked the resources to even pay for either Bushnell or Emerson to travel out to Beloit. There was no assurance that future paychecks were in the offing. Yet, this was a question to which Bushnell offered exactly the right response: “Yes,” he said, “Yes—if we will make it.” Yes—if we will make it.  And this has made all the difference. Bushnell and Emerson’s willingness to accept the responsibility, as faculty, to “make a College” has been the real cornerstone of Beloit’s great history.

Bushnell died in 1873, but Emerson lived until the turn of the century, his influence and his reputation growing and growing throughout. He was a teacher of languages, college librarian, fund raiser, hirer of all the faculty for 40 years, friend and advocate to generations of Beloit students. President Eaton notes, “Professor Emerson was unsurpassed in his patience for immaturity … ” Such are the building blocks of great professors—they are grown children.

Professor Joseph Emerson, as College spokesperson, was asked to give the keynote address for the 10th anniversary of the founding of the school, and he said:

“It is surprising when we consider how small a proportion of the men in the world, and even in public life, have been liberally educated, to see how those few have given to the world nearly all the thoughts which have become embodied in its civilization.”

“ … in the real world, the men of study are the men of power. For the real world is ruled by thoughts.”

Emerson concluded his remarks,

 “The aim of the College is nothing less than this – to raise all mankind to their true royalty. In order to do this…it calls forth individuals, as many as it can, from all portions of the country and of the community, and teaches and trains them, and then sends them forth to bear the fruits of their culture for the help of mankind by a refining, informing, ennobling influence in all the walks of life.”

This is the substance upon which the College was made.

There is an old expression attributed to James Bryant Conant:  “Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.” What turtles were Joseph Emerson and Jackson Jones Bushnell.

Among the first graduates of Beloit College was James Woodward Strong, class of 1858.

In 1870, with little other than his Beloit degree, Strong was offered the presidency, the first presidency, of a brand new college in a Minnesota town not yet even known as the place that stood up to Jesse James. Never was a job description clearer: Secure funding for the College quickly (a job description that sounds more than a little familiar).

Strong decided the one marketable asset the College had was its name. Hence, he established an auction to sell this asset to the first person willing to ante up $50,000. Armed with a vision, a vision borrowed shamelessly from Emerson, Strong traveled to New England where naming new colleges at the time was a hot thing to do. There, he attracted the generosity of a well-to-do brassware manufacturer in Massachusetts. Intrigued, but not swayed, this entrepreneur offered much less than the $50,000 dream.

Depressed and distracted while traveling across the city, Strong’s carriage was struck by a train. His traveling companion died instantly and Strong was gravely injured. Never particularly healthy in the first place, Strong seemed destined to die, and this young Minnesota college with him. But, fortified by a liberal education, he willed his own recovery. Most amazed by the unexpected miracle was the brassware philanthropist. An empiricist at heart, the brassware merchant saw that the young president clearly possessed an uncommon relationship with God and decided that this was a bet worth taking. The philanthropist immediately gave $50,000 to support the struggling college. The college happily accepted the money in exchange for the philanthropist’s name. He was William Carleton.

What do you say about someone, a graduate of this school, Beloit College, with an indomitable will fortified by a principled vision? What do you say about someone with a shell hard enough that it does not crack even after being struck by a train? You say he has the qualities of a turtle.

Alex Catalan, class of 2010, in his opening convocation this year, made the following recommendation to the incoming students:

“The most important thing is to interact with the world around you, with the College around you. The faculty at the College are not the only ones who can teach you. Your life is now your classroom … Take a moment every day to learn something new from someone who is not standing at the front of the classroom.”

To this point, among the most influential employees in the history of the College was custodian Johnny Pfeffer.

Born in Germany in 1829, Mr. Pfeffer immigrated to Chicago in 1850 and later that year moved from Chicago to Beloit. In 1866 he was hired onto the staff by Aaron Chapin, Beloit’s first president. 

Never was there a more effective employee, nor a more loyal employee; never was there a better ambassador for the College; never was there a better friend to the College. Professional and hard-working, it took him little time to earn the admiration and affection of the faculty and students. The faculty learned that they could count on Johnny Pfeffer to support their work well beyond their expectations.

From the students’ perspective, Mr. Pfeffer was known as a good and true friend. He was knowledgeable, tolerant, and occasionally complicit with their high jinks. The most famous story about Johnny Pfeffer relates to his favorite job: that of ringing the bell from the heights of Middle College that signaled the start of classes. It seems the cut-off between being on time and being tardy was the end of the bell-ringing. If Johnny Pfeffer, from his perch, saw a student running across campus, running late, he would continue ringing the bell until the student had safely arrived and only then stop. 

So important to their lives, so dear to their hearts, the students dubbed him their Professor of Ashes and Dust, and he took the role of mentor and advisor most seriously. So seriously that he built a house close to the College diagonally across from the President’s House and, because his work was more important, he purposely built it bigger than the president’s house. From that relative mansion, he housed dozens of students, entertained hundreds of students, and offered them one-by-one safe-harbor from the storms of their academic or personal lives when it was needed.

Is it any wonder then that when Johnny Pfeffer got seriously ill and had to stop working for several weeks—a period long enough that the College had to hire a replacement and stop his pay—the students took up a collection and quickly were able to give him more than twice his normal pay for that time?

Johnny Pfeffer worked until 1917—51 years at the College, until age 88.

But here is the part of the story that really gets to me. Mr. Pfeffer was hired for an annual salary of $500 per year—a sum that never really changed over his 50-plus year career. And for that sum, the College received services far, far above what they paid out. Yet, out of this $500 per year, Johnny Pfeffer gave $150 annually to the College. What loyalty. What honor Johnny Pfeffer brought to the College. Can there ever have been a more meaningful gift received by the College?

As Alex Catalan said, “Take a moment every day to learn something new from someone who is not standing at the front of the classroom.”

One of Professor Joseph Emerson’s relatives, albeit not a close relative, was Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Whosoever would be a man must be a nonconformist.” This, of course, appeals to the non-conforming nature, the turtleish nature, of Beloit students throughout history. Ignoring the gendered language of a different era, never was there a greater non-conformist than Velma Bell Hamilton, class of 1930.

She was born in Pontotoc, Mississippi, in 1910 to a family who, while deeply working class, was committed to the importance of education. She moved early in her life to Beloit, Wisconsin. Here she graduated from her high school class as valedictorian (a valedictorian not permitted to speak at her graduation). She went to the hometown college as the only African-American to graduate in her class. Although only 16 years old at the time of her matriculation, Ms. Hamilton took advantage of probably as many academic opportunities as any student in the history of the College. She graduated in 1930, having amassed more than twice the necessary credits, having earned high Latin honors, and having been invited to join Phi Beta Kappa. A non-conformist.

How does one find time to amass such a prodigious academic record? Talent, focus, and many, many long hours are the key ingredients. But Ms. Hamilton alludes to another. Reflecting back on her experiences in 1930 from the vantage point of 1985, she writes,

“Opportunities to develop leadership skills open to most college students were limited for me because I was a “townie” and lived on what was then the “far west side.”

What gracefully coded language. Clinically free of bitterness.

When Ms. Hamilton talks of her alma mater, she writes,

“…the liberal arts college with its unique mission provided an environment which enabled women to realize their potentials and to make a difference … we were taught to think, to expect and accept change; it gave some of us the successful experience of breaking down barriers … this kind of environment during my four years at Beloit was for me the ‘open sesame’ for whatever I have accomplished since graduation.”

How generous.

After Beloit she taught at a historically black women’s college in North Carolina, finished a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wisconsin, was a legendary teacher at a variety of schools in the Madison area, was a civic leader of the highest order, was named citizen of the year in Madison, mother of the year in Wisconsin, was given honorary degrees by Lakeland College and Beloit College, and had a school named after her in Madison.  And she sent two children, two hatchlings, to Beloit College.

Ms. Hamilton’s grown child Muriel said of her mom, "My mother believes in the importance of human respect and human interaction across all kinds of barriers and in the importance of education in the broadest sense—not only textbook education, but people getting to know and understand each other and making the world a better place. Hopefully, that will be her legacy.”

Muriel, that is surely your mother’s legacy, a legacy about which Beloit College is deeply proud, a legacy that the College aspires to for all of its graduates. 

In 1819 Dartmouth College was profoundly threatened and the president called on Daniel Webster, an alumnus from the class of 1801, to defend it.

At a critical moment in the legal proceedings, Webster is reputed to have said to the judge, “It is, Sir, as I have said, a small college. And yet there are those who love it!" The room was immediately awash in tears, the judge broke down entirely. Dartmouth College won.

In every meeting I have with friends of the College, I am told moving story after story of what this College has meant to them. What it meant to them across time and place. At the end of the day, a college is only as good as the stories that can be told of, and by, its alumni, staff, faculty, and students. And this place is very good; tear-jerkingly good.

Why does Beloit matter? It matters because Jackson Jones Bushnell and Joseph Emerson, who took it upon themselves to make a College, made a College that, once discovered, is movingly, authentically, substantively, and distinctively loved.

At the 50th anniversary of Beloit College, Professor Joseph Emerson was once again asked to speak: 

“The question is sometimes asked of me whether I do not feel somewhat a stranger amid the many changes that have recently come to the College. My reply is that I feel more at home than ever, for this is more than ever the College of my dreams; and should I return fifty years hence I am sure that I shall find myself even more at home then than now.”

Yes, he would.

Why does Beloit matter? Because Emerson and Bushnell made a College that mattered to James Woodward Strong, and Johnny Pfeffer, and Velma Bell Hamilton, and it matters to Alex Catalan, and Tammy Fouche, and Marion Fass, and Pablo Toral, and Barb Cavanaugh, and Bruce Heine, and dot-dot-dot.

Why does Beloit matter? It matters to people who are smart but with a wry sense of humor, people who are principled non-conformists, people who are responsible and resourceful, people who are humble and generous. People like Dick Niemiec.

I suspect you know "The Infinite Turtle Theory."

But, in case you have forgotten, here is a version told by Stephen Hawking.

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down!”

Why does Beloit College matter? Because here, from Emerson to Strong to Pfeffer to Hamilton to Niemiec, to Catalan, to the rest of the Beloiters in this room, and even to this newly vested president, there are turtles all the way down.