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President Victor E. Ferrall, Jr.'s Inaugural Address

October 5, 1991


Board Chair Keefer, President Upton, President Peterson, Interim President Hoerr, Reverend Creech, Ms. Phinney, Professor Woodard, Mrs. Pritchett, Mr. Wilcox, President Drake, Congressman Aspin, members and friends of the Beloit College Family, thank you.

Today is a special, personal joy for me because of the presence of so many old and new friends who have come from every part of the country to be with us and celebrate Beloit College. I am especially happy to be joined by my aunt, Frances Gleason; my brother, Rich, and my sister-in-law Anna; my son Chris and my daughter Kate; my stepsons, John and Will Smith; and my wife and best friend, Linda; and also by the palpable presence in love and spirit of four who cannot be with us physically, my son David and daughter-in-law Beth, who live in the Netherlands; and my mother and father.

The inauguration of a new president, as President Peterson noted sixteen years ago, is "a joyous all-College celebration of what is, has been and is to be, as seen by those with close ties to the College." Seen in this context, a joyous, celebratory, inaugural discourse may be oxymoronic. The joy of President Chapin's inaugural discourse ran on for forty printed pages. President Croneis humorously outlined the mandatory presidential address for an everycollege which he dubbed "Old Libarts:"

  1. Humorous introduction.
  2. How great thy past, O Libarts.
  3. How challenging thy future, O Libarts.
  4. Liberal education at the crossroads.
  5. The need for a spiritual awakening.
  6. Inspirational conclusion.

We all have attended inaugural lectures of new administrators. If your recollections are like mine, the overwhelming remembrance you have is of the audience's certain conviction that it knows more about the subject at hand than the speaker does.

I have tried to avoid this pitfall. I have read everything I could lay my hands on about Beloit College, have poked into every class building and every residential hall on campus, and talked about Beloit College to everyone willing to talk to me about it. I have learned quite a bit. For example:

The College treasures its Yale roots. All of its founders and early administrators and faculty members were Yale men (there being no women at the College until nearly one hundered years ago). President Eaton evinced a particular reverence for what he referred to as "Mother Yale" -- an odd maternity considering that Yale, too, was all men.

I confess that, as one who dallied in New Haven for a few youthful years, I had assumed that the founding of Beloit College was inadvertant; that a group of seven Yale men had been on their way to the West Coast and simply gave out along the way, as Yale men are wont to do. Indeed, at one point I speculated, it now appears inaccurately,that had they been Harvard men on their way to the West Coast, they would not even have made it as far as Wisconsin, and Beloit College would today be located somewhere in Ohio or Indiana.

Happily, Professor John Whitehead's exacting history has set our record straight. Our founders, and others like them from Yale, came purposefully to the frontier to establish beachheads to protect traditional, classical education from the new academic liberalism espoused by Thomas Jefferson and his radical colleagues at the University of Virginia. During the early years, crazed notions like changing curricula to reflect changing times, elective courses, and full attention to the sciences, all of which were seen then as smacking of vocationalism, had no place in a liberal education at Beloit.

The Round Table is said to be the second oldest college publication in the United States. In the early part of this century, when a Round Table editor had the temerity to criticize the president of the College, he or she was routinely, and summarily, kicked out of school. I hope I conceal any shadow of wistfulness in reporting that this tradition has long since perished.

The treatment of The Round Table editors may have been a tad harsh, as evidenced by the fact that Beloit English Professor Marion Hedges was not dismissed from the College. Professor Hedges did, however, move on to greener pastures a year after publication of his fictional account of Beloit in a novel entitled Iron City. This controversial book, published in 1919, described the College's president as "utterly suspicious of an idea." For him, "the old... must be the custom of the College." "Colleges," he said, "must embody the tried, the right, the eternal." Innovation and change of any kind were verboten. "I love this College," he said, "and by God! I shall protect it from all adventurers."

The Beloit faculty fared little better at Professor Hedges' hand. "Formed of individualists and specialists," he said, "... [the faculty] feeds on technicalities; it has no sense of humor, and no soul. It is inclusive of all points of view, but incapable of accepting any. Every member insists on speaking on every subject. Its individual wisdom is rivaled only by its collective unwisdom."

Traditions, in the unusual collegiate sense of the word, tend to survive no longer than forty years at Beloit. The highly regarded Glee and Mandolin Club, the celebrated Shakespeare Society, the famous annual Beloit Greek Plays, the legendary Court Theatre, greased pole fights, Arbor Day tree plantings and picnics, spooning on Observatory Hill, and protests against the barbarism of academic regalia (a noble cause) have come and gone. It remains to be seen how long Folk 'n Blues and the Coughy Haus will survive.

The school colors, adopted in 1876, were blue and ecru, doubtless influenced by a founding spirit with a flair for fashion. (While history is cloudy, Beloit may have been colorless for the first thirty years of its existence.) Ecru, alas, fell from favor and the College toyed with other colors -- red, white and blue; navy and sky blue, among them -- until it settled on gold as its singular color. It is not clear to me that as a matter of scientia vera, one color can exist alone, independent of another color, but there you have it. The blue of Beloit's sports uniforms was and is employed solely to contain the gold.

The mascot of Beloit has been no more stable than its colors. For a time, the school was known simply as "The Gold." At some point, the College's sports teams became known as the Blue Devils although, confusingly, the school color remained gold only. Then in 1949, an undergraduate announcer of the basketball games on the College radio station, who later ascended to the presidency of the ABC Television Network, became bedeviled by the non-alliterativeness of the word "Devils." Virtually singlehandedly, he convinced the faculty and the student body to cast out the "Devils" and replace them with the Buccaneers, ominous newcomers to the bounding main of the Midwest.

As I hope you can see, I have studied you intensively, aided by a wealth of historical documentation. My research raises the question, is there no Beloit tradition which is permanent?, a question which I would like to consider in a moment.

Before I do, however, let me note that, aside from an article in the Beloit Magazine containing a full measure of hyperbole and of a newspaper report or two, you have not had an equal opportunity to study me. In the spirit of fair play, therefore, it seems only fitting to share with you a few things I believe I have learned in the thirty-five years between my collegiate days and my first days at Beloit, and then we can test together the relevance of these things, and of my research about Beloit, to the present and future of the College.

With some trepidation in this era of deconstructionism, I assert that I believe I know the following five observations to be true.

First, by and large, there are not inherent, fundamental differences between groups of people. And this is so even though all of us search for uniqueness and value, worth and merit, in a clique, club or culture to which we belong. The search for group identity is, in fact, a quest for individual, personal security, and is, itself, a common human characteristic.

Most claimed inherent group differences are largely illusory. Put two persons, black and white, Gentile or Jew, western or eastern, rich or poor, in the same societal circumstance and the odds that they will respond to any stimulus in the same way are overwhelming.

The catch in the previous statement, of course, lies in the phrase "in the same societal circumstance." Here we will come to the source of the true differences we percieve; the different societal circumstances in which different groups find themselves.

To predict the behavior of any individual, an extraordinarily useful activity, therefore, one must understand not only the human condition, but also the circumstance that has set its mark upon the group from which the individual comes. I have observed that most persons seem to know this fact intuitively, but are reluctant to admit it; to come to grips with its huge social implications. We laugh at Pogo's great discovery, "I have met the enemy and they are us." We resist, however, embracing the fact that those we condemn are more often fundamentally alike than fundamentally different from us and, therefore, when we condemn them, we condemn ourselves. There is profound understanding embodied in the Hebraic benchmark for interpersonal relationships set out in Leviticus: How much should one love thy neighbor? The answer is, as much as thyself.

It follows, and this is my second observation, that when a person acts with intolerance towards an individual because of that individual's race, creed, color, or station in society; he or she is, more often than not, reflecting self-doubt or a lack of a secure sense of self-worth.

Third, it is always a mistake to judge an individual solely on the basis of the group to which he or she belongs. That is, it is a mistake if one cares whether one's judgment is of any value or utility. And this is so even if a person asks to be assayed solely on the basis of his or her group membership. The only justification for even purporting to acquiesce in such a request is common courtesy.

In this regard, it is perhaps worth noting that most individuals belong to more than one group within society. Typically, however, when they assert that their "groupness" is more important than their "individualness," they have made a prior selection of the particular group they desire to stand and be judged with. In my experience, such group selectivity is yet another shared human characteristic.

Fourth, turning to a different dimension of the human condition, the capability of all persons to advance beyond those who have gone before is small. For example, the capacity of any man or woman, no matter how talented, to create alone, independent of other men and women, is extraordinarily limited. Blank canvases, blank sheets of paper, and uncut blocks of marble intimidate all who approach them. There is a reason why Beethoven's First Symphony sounded like Mozart, and Mozart's first symphonies sounded like Haydn. There is a reason Paul Klee learned to draw like Leonardo before he learned to draw like Paul Klee. There is a reason why potentially great young artists congregate where great old artists already are. Had Gauguin started in the South Pacific, he would not have been Gauguin.

A particularly good illustration of the limited capabilities of human beings is found in Russian painting at the end of the 19th Century. Isolated, removed from the mainstream of art, only dimly aware of what was going on in Paris, men and women of great talent struggled to take even the smallest steps ahead. The same human limitations adhere in scholarship, science, politics, athletics, parenting, and all other human endeavors.

Finally, on a frivolous note, I assert categorically that the squirrels on the Beloit campus are happier than most other squirrels. Their fields are more Elysian, their play more frolicsome, their days more full and satisfying. Given a choice of future squirrel incarnations, we would be well-advised to seek assignment to Beloit College.

Well, does this hodge podge of unordered research about the College's history and traditions, and unscientific observations from a life spent outside the academy, bear on Beloit College today? Perhaps it does.

Let us begin with the question of tradition. At the outset, I submit that there is something manifestly special and unique about Beloit, for people as well as for squirrels. One senses it walking across campus, talking to students, visiting with alumni. It seems to emanate from the historic, Native American, effigy mounds dotting the campus. It springs, I think, from the fact that, despite its growth, innovation and change, the College has been constant in its liberal arts commitment which is strong, passionate and affectionate. Beloit College believes in liberal education, teaching excellence, and the shared experience of learning. These are the Beloit traditions, not songs or clubs or pranks or hallowed sites.

The uniqueness of the Beloit experience is enriched by the unabashed subjectivity by which the College selects its students. Will this young woman or man benefit, and will she or he be benefited by, Beloit? Will she or he grow, dare to dream, seek to serve? These are the benchmarks -- not artificial, so-called "objective" measures -- applied by the College.

Beloit's uniqueness is compounded by the character of its faculty. They do not simply call to their students from the high ground of knowledge; they walk with them up the path of learning. The special relationship between Beloit teacher and student is one of dedication, involvement, trust and mutuality.

The fruits of these traditions -- of these defining characteristics -- of Beloit are splendid and plain to see in the College's distinguished corps of alumni. In every corner of this nation and throughout the world, one meets people who say, "I know a graduate from Beloit. It must be a wonderful place."

In keeping its liberal education tradition for nearly 150 years, Beloit has never wavered; never lost its way. This is what attracted all of us to this graced, old institution. And it is the rock solid foundation upon which the bright future of Beloit will be constructed.

In the first three observations from outside the academy I have presented to you, I have asserted that there is fundamental sameness among groups of human beings, and that differences between them are predominantly the product of societal circumstance. Further, I have contended that tolerance and refusing to judge individuals on the basis of the group to which they belong reflect understanding of these basic truths. These observations, I believe, have special meaning at Beloit.

Since Beloit is an international college and, perforce, a national college as well, understanding the societal circumstance from which each member of the Beloit community comes is absolutely essential to the College's preservation and enhancement. Tolerance and knowing others as individuals, not merely as members of groups, are the predicates of our close community. And they work. In the diversity of our faculty and students, we find great strength. We come together, voluntarily and enthusiastically, into an environment where seeking by each of us to understand the societal circumstance and world view of persons from circumstances different from ours is both natural and necessary.

It may seem paradoxical that in a small midwestern city we would find a true window on the nation and the world, but that is what Beloit is. We discover sameness in difference, unity in diversity, and solidarity in individuality. The Beloit living experience is supported in these regards by liberal education which, while not ensuring tolerance, does tend to instill a healthy distrust of absolutes, claimed certainties, and assertions of singular importance.

Liberal education, I believe, is the best method yet devised for dealing with my fourth observation, the limited capability for human beings to progress. Away from cloistered Beloit, I have had the opportunity to observe many liberally (and not so liberally) educated young men and women, the brightest in our nation. Concrete characteristics of liberally educated persons are apparent. Such persons tend to know at least a little about many things. If something they know only a little about becomes of interest to them, they know how to find out more. They tend to want to find out more more often than do their vocationally educated peers.

An essential part of the liberal education process -- of putting students on "the platform of education," to use a phrase employed by Beloit Professor Joseph Emerson in 1857 -- is broad experience. One need not try one's hand at painting to appreciate Titian's virtuosity; play a musical instrument to love great music; write hundered-page history papers to marvel at the intrepidness and insight of Mr. Gibbon; or, like George Plimpton, play quarterback for the Detroit Lions to grasp the life parallels and lessons inherent in sport. But we at Beloit believe it jolly well helps.

Liberally educated persons are more inclined to notice things than persons whose education has been more practical, applied, vocational, or professional. For the liberally educated person -- or perhaps more precisely, the liberally educating person -- the search for connections between seemingly disparate phenomena he or she has noticed is more likely to be purposeful. Casual empiricism is likely to be less casual. Given the limits of the analytic capabilities of human beings, such noticing and searching tend to yield insight which does not otherwise flash forth without effort. Insight is not effortless, pop culture to the contrary notwithstanding.

The liberally educated person, in sum, seeks to connect knowledge within his or her mind and, in so doing, makes connections with other minds. To illustrate a connection between two, seemingly unrelated endeavors, one might note that there are important lessons to be learned for liberal education from the troubled, current straits of the national Democratic Party. This occurred to me recently, when I was asked by a 10-year-old, "What is the difference between Democrats and Republicans?" and found I had little difficulty articulating the basic national vision of Republicans, but was stumped by Democrats. Twenty-five years ago, this would not have been true.

Without regard to our political persuasions, it is difficult to gainsay that the Democratic Party has lost its way in major respects. Those of us committed to preserving and enriching liberal education must not, like the Democratic Party, permit our goals and aims to become obscured. It is the duty of the academy to lead, not mearly react. Failure by the academy in this regard will weaken liberal education as surely as the Democratic Party has been weakened by its failure to lead. We cannot, as the Democratic Party seems intent on doing, address the important issues that confront us through slogans and shibboleths. Nor can we permit the media to set our agendas or force us from our course.

In the house of the academy, there must always be many mansions. But diversity alone, without tolerance and mutual respect, will surely breed division and destructive -- not constructive dissent. Nothing could make this last truth plainer than the course taken by the Democratic Party during the past two decades.

It is in debating the great issues of the day, I think, that remembering that every man and woman is unique and special, not merely a member of a class or group, is particularly important. A great college must debate the great contemporary issues; but it must not become them. Pedagoguery and pettifoggery must be abjured. It is our obligation to consider popular causes in context; to analyze them; to be vigilant for inconsistency; to remember that tolerance is a keystone of understanding; not to lose sight of the fact that we -- not they -- may be wrong; and never to forget that today is the tomorrow of yesterday, and the yesterday of tomorrow. George Santayana, among others, reminded us that we must know history lest we be condemned to repeat it. Bart Giamatti pithily added that, if we do not have a sense of history, we will "end up solipsistic twits."

Beloit College has passed through trying times. Yet, through the skill and dedication of Roger Hull, Martha Peterson, Miller Upton and the founders and leaders that came before them, the College stands at the brink of true greatness. Our challenge for the decade ahead is to capitalize on the magnificent opportunity we have been presented.

The changing circumstances we confront bring both risk and opportunity. Most persons are risk averse and, therefore, change averse. But success and the willingness to embrace change are closely correlated. Indeed, for those few institutions and individuals who see opportunity in change, we have a name. We call them leaders.

To realize our opportunity will require us substantially to enhance and expand the College's resources, a topic we will be discussing extensively in the upcoming months. There are colleges and universities richer and more famous than Beloit. There is none, however, with greater opportunity to grow in excellence and standing. There is an absolute consensus within the College community that realizing our extraordinary potential is an exciting, ennobling quest. It is what drew me to you and, I hope, you to me.

I believe so passionately in the transcendant liberal education purpose Beloit has exemplified for nearly 150 years, and in the promise Beloit holds, that I can concieve no greater honor and trust than that which you have extended to me. At his inauguration as Beloit's first President in 1850, Aaron Lucius Chapin pledged "to give... [his] undivided energies to the building up of this College." At the inauguration 36 years later, Beloit's second president, Edward Dwight Eaton, said, "I concieve then, that I am charged with a sacred trust to do what may lie in my power to keep Beloit College true to the purpose and promise of her past history." I concieve the same charge and pledge to you no less.