And..still ..we.. Rise
Lori S. White
Oct 1 2021
Good afternoon DePauw!
Wow, is all that I can say.
Chloe, thank you for that stirring rendition of the impossible dream, my father’s favorite song. Chloe, you did not realize when you sat next to me that day in spring of 2000 you would be singing at my inauguration.
Thank you, Holden thorp, for your incredible remarks, and professor Gloria, who is from my hometown of san Francisco (we went to rival high schools) for your inspirational poem.
Thank you to all of the speakers who brought greetings, to the musicians who brought uplift, to the symposium and leadership panel participants the ceremony, the symposium and the leadership panel participants, and to everyone who went above and beyond the call of duty to make this day possible.
It is so wonderful to see all of you here — my DePauw family, my chosen and extended family, and my family, family.
My family, family, includes my mother, Mrs. Myrtle escort white, my sisters, Mrs. Lynn white kell and Dr. Lisa d. White, my stepmother Mrs. Lois white, my mother-in law, Mrs. Joanne Baskerville, Sister-in-laws, Camille Lewis and Nakeisha Williams, my niece, Alaisha reeves, and of course, my partner in life, the first gentleman, Anthony, “tony” Tillman. (will my family please stand and be recognized)
To all my family, friends and mentors present here and tuning in virtually, it means so much to me to have you take part in today’s celebration.
I would like to give a special shoutout to my 90-plus years young aunt betty who was unable to travel to be with us today.
My inauguration is the first family celebration my aunt betty has ever missed—aunt betty, I know you are here in spirit.
And daddy, this is also the first milestone of mine you have missed. I know how proud you would be. And in fact, I know you are marching around heaven, in the booming voice none of us will ever forget, telling everyone that your daughter is a college president.
Dr. Parham, thank you for inviting the ancestors into this space so that we can be sure my daddy, and all of those who come before us, are present to bear witness to the realization of their hopes and their dreams.
Those ancestors dreamed the impossible dream that one day I would stand at a place where the bright gleam of their bright star was cast.
I would certainly not be here were it not for my family-family, and I would not be here were it not for my chosen family – otherwise known as the freedom train.
The freedom train is a metaphor coined by my father, dr. Joseph white—to represent the journey through undergraduate, graduate school and educational leadership. The conductor of the freedom train is a respected elder, teacher, mentor who picks up passengers along the way and passengers in turn, through their own commitments to mentorship and paying life forward, bring others aboard the train.
Today, we’re joined by members of my dad’s and my freedom train from all over the country. Would the members of the freedom train please stand so that all might see how long our freedom train stretches?
DePauw family, it is this train that helped to carry me to the Greencastle, Indiana station. (freedom train please be seated).
And there are so many others, across time and generations, who have helped guide my feet to this place where I stand before you today.
Members of the board of trustees, faculty, staff, alumni and delegates, students, and other honored guests, thank you for your presence on this joyful day, and for welcoming me so graciously into the DePauw family.
Today’s ceremony is an infusion of many traditions, and has included important acknowledgements, music, spoken word and symbols to honor the reverence of this occasion.
Speaking of traditions, those who have heard me speak previously, know I come from the African American call response tradition—that means I am inviting you to be more than just a witness for my remarks—I am inviting you to be an active participant.
So, if in the course of my address, I say anything that resonates with you, it is ok to respond with a hand clap, a snap of your fingers, or even an amen.
And, my favorite musical genre is old negro spirituals that I often quote, and sometimes even sing verses from.
Know that any reference to a spiritual in my speaking is from a cultural perspective. This is an inauguration, not a revival meeting. Though the many bishops who served as DePauw presidents might say amen to that.
When I considered what theme would represent the spirit and vision of my inauguration, I chose “and still I rise,” by the great Maya Angelo – my mother’s favorite poet.
In her poem, Angelo conveys the audacious swagger of someone who, despite all manner of challenge, still believes in the impossible dream—a dream, compelled forward by the hopes and the gifts of the ancestors, that dares to claim a future that looks dramatically different from the past and present.
And so, I rise, because my foremothers and forefathers, including those who were enslaved when DePauw was founded in 1837, “faced the rising sun, of each new day begun and marched on ‘til victory was won.”
I rise, because my maternal grandparents, Ernest and Louise escort, left their home in Beaumont Texas for California, as part of the great migration of black Americans out of the south, so that they and their four children would not be subject to Jim crow.
I rise from the Midwest roots of my paternal great grandparents, Blanche and David Lee, the son of a Missouri plantation owner. Together, they raised six children and each ran their own successful businesses in Lincoln, Nebraska.
I rise, because my mother and forever role model, Myrtle Escort White, was one of only two African Americans in her graduating class to become a registered nurse. She went on to raise three fierce and confident daughters and told us we could aspire to do and be anything we wanted.
I rise, because my father, the first African American to receive his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Michigan state university, became, in his words, “the first black psychologist that he had ever met,” and believed that faith is the evidence of things not seen.
I rise, because of the students who have been the why of my work for forty years, who each year compel me to renew my commitment to this field called higher education.
I rise because our founders, 184 years ago, believed in the dream of a great university.
I rise, because the presidents who came before me met the challenges and opportunities of their time, forging the DePauw legacy that I (and we) now inherit.
And I rise, because of this great institution’s other firsts: Matthew Simpson; Alice Allen; Laura Bewick; Bettie McReynolds Locke; Mary Euphemia Simmons; Amanda Beck; Tucker Wilson; Alma Holman; Katherine Alvord; Percy Julian; Bing Davis, and Stanley Warren and Dorothy Brown.
These are some of the great women and men upon whose shoulders i now stand, who paved the way for me to stand before you now and officially as the 21st president of DePauw university.
I understand the great responsibility that comes with the title, president of DePauw university, and I humbly and publicly accept this title and the responsibilities.
Members of the board of trustees, thank you for entrusting me with the leadership of this special place.
I commit to faithfully exercising all of the rights and privileges that come with all of the bling that I have just been given, and to remember that leadership is most effective when carried out in service to others and for a greater good, and I ask for the support of all assembled for the journey ahead.
And what a great university I have the privilege of leading.
A university that is the #1 liberal arts college in the state of Indiana and among the top tier of liberal arts colleges in the entire country.
A university that has gifted faculty committed to teaching, scholarship and artistic expression; outstanding staff who contribute each day to our mission in innumerable ways; passionate alumni who are so successful in their fields that the famous alumni section of our wiki page has too many columns to count.
And a university with the most incredible students, from all across the country and the world, who have chosen DePauw for their undergraduate education, who approach their studies with fervor and curiosity, who will each make their own indelible mark on our world. (students let me hear you make some noise!)
This is not, however, an easy time to be a college president, especially one who assumed office in the midst of a global pandemic. There are, to quote a line from one of my favorite spirituals, “trials dark on every hand.”
Notwithstanding the pandemic, there are three trials dark, or in layperson’s language, three challenges, for higher education that we must face and overcome together.
First, we confront a declining public trust in the institution of higher education. A 2018 Gallup poll found that less than half of the American public expressed confidence in higher education.
According to the pollsters, no other major American institution has seen a steeper decline in recent memory.
Not the military, not law enforcement, not the church, not the U.S. presidency, not the supreme court, nor the medical profession.
We are viewed as too expensive. Not accessible. And not relevant.
In other instances, we are seen as not reflecting the diversity of our local communities—a perception that “college is for other people, not for me.”
In still other instances, some critics call out student and faculty activism as evidence that higher education is “too woke.”
And debates about what constitutes free expression on campus seems almost daily contested terrain across the political spectrum.
Second, the demographic and geographic make-up of DePauw’s prospective students – particularly in the Midwest – is changing dramatically.
We must expand our reach to serve a population of students that is more geographically dispersed, and the most diverse – racially, culturally and economically – that we have ever seen in our country’s history.
And the competition for these talented students will only increase, as will the expectations of these students for their chosen colleges and universities.
And as we confront this second challenge, we must do so amid the backdrop of our third. And it is a familiar one: the long-held misunderstanding of the value of the liberal arts.
We face ongoing questions about the practicality and sufficiency of DePauw’s hallmark strengths as a liberal arts university--a commitment to teaching critical thinking, exemplary writing, collaboration and teamwork, and the ability to understand difference and engage with those whose life experiences are different than our own.
Right about now, you may be thinking, I thought inauguration speeches were supposed to be uplifting and, president white, you have just spent the last few minutes outlining all that is wrong with higher education.
My point in describing these challenges is so that we can answer the questions that are most pressing as we gather today:
How will DePauw rise?
How will this great institution flourish in spite of these trials?
How will we ensure that DePauw in its 200th year fulfills the mission that has been present since its founding: to ignite in students an educational passion they didn’t know they had.
And to prepare them for lives of promise and uncommon success.
The answer lies before me, in the hearts and in the spirit of those gathered today. It lies in the countless strengths of this community and its people.
And I have every faith that together, we will rise.
First, we will rise because we possess the ability to evolve and change, while still being true to our foundational roots.
But change we must. And likely more quickly and with greater urgency than has been required before.
We must ensure our curriculum is relevant and responsive to the needs of the world that our students will inherit and shape.
We will renew and revitalize our academic programs and deepen our longstanding commitment to the liberal arts, while creating new and distinctive programs that reflect advances in academic disciplines, respond to students’ changing priorities, and adapt to the demands of a rapidly evolving economy and society.
And we will continue DePauw’s long-standing strength of preparing scholars and graduates with skills and experiences that equip them to provide leadership the world needs.
Second, we will rise by making access to a DePauw education among our greatest priorities.
Without question, for far too many, the cost of higher education is too steep. And DePauw’s ability to attract and retain the most talented students depends on our ability to meet their financial needs.
To be clear, the residential education we provide—small classes, personal attention to students, a focus on community, is expensive. It is labor intensive. It is holistic.
And it works. And it is, without question, worth it.
Those of us who love DePauw can be proud that we are among the nation’s leaders in fostering social mobility. And we can take pride in the fact that 98.5% of DePauw students are supported by institutional financial aid and scholarships.
And we must do even more toward meeting the full financial need of students, who I know are making “do out of don’t,” as my mother would say, to pay for their college education.
Our commitment to access is not new, but it is ongoing and as urgent as ever.
It will be one of my highest fundraising priorities as president.
I say this because our model of education must simultaneously appeal to talented students with the means to afford it, while having the resources to make it accessible to talented students who may not.
I have spoken with so many alumni, including many of you here today, who tell me a DePauw education transformed your lives. Many of you credit the generosity of previous classes of alumni for making DePauw possible for you.
It seems particularly fitting that this generosity lives on in one of our newest scholarship funds: the Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. scholarship for public service.
This new scholarship honors one our most illustrious alumni, a student from Atlanta, Georgia who made his way to DePauw, rose to advise presidents and lead one of our nation’s most prominent civil rights organizations.
His story should remind us all that great students hail from all corners of our state, our country and the world.
I want every high school student in the state of Indiana to know that a DePauw education is attainable.
I want Purdue, IU, Butler and Wabash to know that if there’s a talented student in this state, we’re coming for them.
Likewise, in St. Louis, Chicago, Cincinnati and Columbus.
And, we will also find the next Vernon Jordans in countless other big cities, small towns and countries worldwide.
We will ensure the most talented students, including those whose potential is yet untapped, have the desire and means to choose DePauw.
Third, we will rise by becoming living proof that free expression, and diversity, equity & inclusion can and must coexist.
The heart of a liberal arts education is the free exchange of ideas. This approach expects students to learn to express, explore, challenge, refute and debate ideas with those who hold different views than their own. And even when, or perhaps especially when, those ideas make us uneasy, uncomfortable or mad.
However, a commitment to free expression must be built on a foundation of inclusion and equity.
Diversity is a necessary condition for the co-existence of different ideas and perspectives. And inclusion a necessary condition for every member of our community to feel welcomed, affirmed and respected.
And, in the context of freedom of expression, equity means that we develop, sustain and uphold a clear set of community values, standards, and expectations, such that a commitment to freedom of expression, and to diversity, equity and inclusion, extends to and is lived by, all members of our community—our students, our faculty, our staff, our board members, our alumni.
In a community marked by true inclusion and equity, even fierce debates about a range of differences of opinions and perspectives, are not experienced as personal attacks on one’s very humanity and sense of well-being and belonging.
In my time as president, DePauw will become a more diverse, a more inclusive, and a more equitable institution. We will do this by ensuring our systems, policies, and practices align the student, employee, and alumni experience with our values of diversity, equity and inclusion.
These efforts will only enhance our academic life.
In a country, where sadly, we are increasingly living physically and virtually in echo chambers, a small, residential, liberal arts university is one of the few places left where students from diverse backgrounds and experiences can learn to live, study, work and communicate with people who are different from those in the neighborhoods in which we grew up.
And a place where we understand the responsibility to community that comes with the freedom to express one’s self freely.
We will forever remain committed to this endeavor, to equip students to explore and seek answers to historical, philosophical, scientific and moral questions about the human condition.
That is why I believe that liberal arts colleges, like DePauw, are crucial, now more than ever, to our ability to create a better, more just and more humane world.
And finally, we will rise by staying true to this noble purpose and keeping our mission to contribute to the betterment of society at the very core of who we are.
DePauw must live up to its motto and be the splendor and light of the common good.
We will equip students for service and leadership, foster artistic expression and encourage the curiosity that undergirds research and academic pursuits.
Our scholarship will contribute to scientific discovery, to sustainability, to improving the lives of others.
And we will prepare our students to create community, here in Greencastle and in the all of the places they will live and work when they graduate from DePauw.
These are all of the ways in which we will rise as a university and a community to meet the challenges of our time and our responsibilities to society at large and to the world.
I will close my remarks by taking the liberty of using a phrase from one of the many famous speeches of dr. Martin Luther King—this one titled “the drum major instinct.”
In this speech, Dr. King encourages the audience, in describing his work, his leadership and his legacy, to say he was a drum major
(And those of you who know me well are thinking, I knew she would have a sports analogy somewhere in her speech).
In Dr. King’s speech—the drum major is a metaphor for lifting up the values he held most high.
So, one day in the future, when my legacy as the president of DePauw is reviewed by others, I hope the people will say, of our time working together, that I too was a drum major.
That I was a drum major for faith,
That I was a drum major for equity,
That I was a drum major for spirit.
I hope you will say that as a drum major for faith, I carried with me the faith of our founders -- their belief in 1837 that a great university could rise from the mud of a frontier town.
And that almost 200 years later, DePauw is not only still standing, but flourishing,
That it is one of the great universities of the 21st century.
I hope you will say that as a drum major for equity, I lived the values of diversity, equity and inclusion.
That through my leadership and partnership with all of you, DePauw became an institution fully accessible to any seeking to join our affirming community.
And that through our work, DePauw stands as a model of free expression and inclusion.
And I hope you will say that I was a drum major for spirit.
For the spirit that binds generations of DePauw students, alumni and friends to one another, such that each of us who loves DePauw is willing to give our time, our talent, and our treasure, so that each succeeding generation of the old gold will be able to stand where we stand today and achieve their own impossible dream.
That, together, we will rise and forever toast to old DePauw!