Bishop Alfred Schlert, Doug Brown, chairman of the board of DeSales University, fellow trustees, brother Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, dignified public servants, visiting representatives of colleges and universities, fellow religious and clergy, esteemed faculty and staff, beloved students and alumni, honored guests and friends—it is my deep honor to stand before you today to be presented for service and ministry as the fourth president of DeSales University.
Today is a momentous occasion for all of us here in Center Valley … our local Giant will start selling beer and wine!
I am honored by the trust of the entire University community and deeply grateful to the Board of Trustees for its confidence in choosing me as the fourth president.
At the start, I want to thank some people in particular. My predecessor, Fr. Bernie O’Connor, served this university with classic distinction as president for 19 years and began a long career here in 1974 as a professor, dean, and vice-president—but for me he will always be my eccentric philosophy professor. Bernie, your intellect and vision brought more than the several new buildings that augment our beautiful campus. You deepened our embrace of our Catholic, Salesian mission and developed new and lasting relationships here and around the world. Welcome back and thanks for tearing yourself away from Naples, Florida to be with us.
As many of you know, I did not take office until January—and Fr. O’Connor needed to get to Florida ASAP. Dr. Jerry Joyce served as interim president with strong professionalism and deft administrative skill. Jerry, we thank you and the generous spirit of your ever-cheerful wife, Erin, and your five children, Isabella, Liam, Aiden, Amelia, and Adeline, for letting you serve us for those six months. And, I note: for a brief, but exciting, six months this institution had a first lady!
Finally, I want to acknowledge my family, especially my Dad. Dad, you and Mom gave Tom, Jerry, and me such great lives. You taught us to love and learn and provided for our Catholic education at great personal sacrifice. Mom’s spirit is lovingly with us … and I know she is so proud right now … not just for me … but that you are wearing a suit and tie that match! In addition to my dad and two brothers, Tom and Gerry, I am thrilled that my sisters-in law, Patti and Chris are here today. And, a personal message to my nephews and nieces—Matt, Meghan, Sammy, Drew, and Timmy—educated at St. Joes, Temple, Drexel, and LaSalle—from this day forward, you are only to wear DeSales U Bulldog gear! And, happy birthday, Meghan.
I thank those who spoke to greet and welcome me today. Your words were heartwarming and encouraging. I am grateful to President Lynn Byerly from Lafayette College who spoke on behalf of presidents from the LVAIC institutions: Lehigh University, Moravian, Muhlenberg, and Cedar Crest Colleges. Thanks also to Tom Flynn for being here today, president of Alvernia College in Reading, the other Catholic university here in the Diocese of Allentown. And to Don Francis, who is retiring as president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of PA.
Fr. Peter Donohue, OSA – Congrats!! We Bulldogs are proud of you Wildcats! But remember, Donte DiVincenzo, MVP of the game, has his roots steeped in the Salesian tradition as a graduate of Salesianum School.
As I was preparing this speech, a number of inaugural veterans proffered much free advice: “be profound, humorous, and insightful; literate, inclusive, and inspirational; respectful, aspirational, and [above all] brief” (Michael E. Engh, S.J., Inaugural Speech, Santa Clara University).
For the remainder of this inaugural address, I would like to touch on three areas:
- Memories of my alma mater
- Mandate for Catholic higher education
- Mission of DeSales University
In May of 1984 in this very building, Billera Hall, I sat with my classmates for our commencement ceremony presided over by Fr. Dan Gambet, the second president of DeSales. Even though he is one of the finest orators I know, I don’t remember anything he said, or for that fact, what anyone said. But, I still remember the day – a gorgeous Center Valley afternoon. What one former student described as “a place where the sunsets were so beautiful they could cause heartache” (Tom Roberts, January 8, 2016, DeSales University web page).
There are memories of Bishop McShea and Fr. Dooling founding this college smack in the middle of the 60s—what that same student suggested was either horribly naïve or a noble act of hope and courage. While students on other campuses were burning flags, our first students were dealing with the likes of the infamous Dean Sivulich and rallying not necessarily against the war, although there was one on the roof of Conmy Hall, but to have women admitted to the college.
Fast forward to this present moment, back in this same building, on this commencement as the fourth president and its first alum – I share what the Irish poet John O’Donohue wrote: “The human soul is hungry for beauty… When we experience the Beautiful, there is a sense of homecoming. Some of our most wonderful memories are beautiful places where we felt immediately at home.”
Assuming this new ministry, I feel at home – and I am thrilled to be back. Launched as a 21-year-old into the world from this Billera Hall, I now return to it at the youthful age of 56 for this university’s blast-off into its next 50-year chapter. Some buildings we just pass through, but this building has become an icon of what this school has become. Commencing my first weeks in early January, I came here early morning to work out. Surprised how many students were also here due to clinical rotations and internships later in the day – I realized this is a different place from the 15-year-old undergraduate school named Allentown College of St. Francis de Sales that I remembered as a student. Back then, Billera Hall was not even open that early—and there was no such thing as a fitness center—just a room with free weights (and from the looks of me I was not using them).
The gentle strength of Coach John Compardo, who died just a few weeks ago at the age of 97 still fills this place. The Fitness Center at the top of those stairs bears his name ... let me note, there are plenty of opportunities, naming and otherwise, for anyone here who desires to expand that center!
Yes, in 35 years, Billera Hall changed dramatically, so has this great school. And, so has the world and the enterprise of higher education.
Second, a mandate for Catholic higher education.
I am a big fan of David Brooks, a conservative writer and political analyst at the New York Times and a commentator for the PBS NewsHour. In his book, “The Road to Character,” he notes the difference between the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues. In modern society, we too often focus our efforts on what he calls resume virtues, measurable accomplishments and accolades, instead of eulogy virtues, the things for which we will be remembered.
He notes the tremendous increase in the desire for fame and notoriety in this age of social media. He cites one study where middle school girls were asked who they would most like to have dinner with. Jesus Christ came in second, sandwiched between two celebrities whose stars have now faded. The girls were then asked which of the following jobs they would like to have. Nearly twice as many said they’d rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant—for example, Justin Bieber’s—than president of Harvard. Though, to be fair, after 12 weeks on the job here at DeSales, I’m pretty sure the president of Harvard would also rather be Justin Bieber’s personal assistant on some days!
In a culture that is overly-hyped on status, DeSales University is a place where young adults learn the both/and of building resume and eulogy virtues! The cost of college in the United States has skyrocketed from an average of $18,500 in 2000 to almost $39,000 in 2015.That’s an inflation rate of 209 percent, or 71 percentage points higher than the overall rate of inflation over the same period. This has led to the highest levels of student debt we have ever seen! Concomitantly, it has led to an unprecedented level of mistrust for the liberal arts in our country as a result.
Along with our esteemed faculty, I see it as a moral imperative and a matter of justice to make sure every dollar parents and their young adult children spend on an education here at DeSales is worth their investment.
The data suggest that college graduates make more money than others, pay more taxes, are more likely to be employed, hold more prestigious jobs, move up financially, and become entrepreneurs—these are the resume virtues. But, those data also suggest college graduates are more likely to volunteer, vote, be civic leaders, give larger amounts to charity, and report higher levels of personal and job satisfaction—these are the eulogy virtues.
Amidst the mounting suspicion for the liberal arts, keeping the right balance of these virtues is a helpful construct in assessing the value, importance, and even necessity for them.
The great American church historian of the 20th century, Msgr. John Tracy Ellis assailed the trend of Catholic colleges and universities departure from the Catholic intellectual tradition which made them destination points in the middle of the last century. He didn’t have the vocabulary of eulogy virtues and resume virtues; he was more blunt. He said the Catholic Academy was “guilty of athleticism, vocationalism, and anti-intellectualism.”
Of course, we want to get our graduates jobs; we also want them to get to heaven. For this latter journey, they need to understand truth, appreciate beauty, and work and search for goodness. Anything less cheats them of what it means to be a learned woman or man.
Just two weeks ago, almost 300 DeSales students gave up a free weekend to host the Special Olympics here in the Lehigh Valley. Hundreds of them also sacrificed their Spring Break to serve those in need. Faithful to the call to care for our environment, 100 trees are being planted by students as part of an inauguration initiative.
Like many of you, I watched last week in DC and around the world hundreds of thousands of teens and young people protesting gun violence in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida. Young Sarah Chadwick challenged our nation’s leaders who remain silent to sensible legislation to curb gun violence. She said simply to those politicians, “Get ready to get voted out of office by us, the future.” This was especially encouraging not just because she named herself and her vast peer group as the future. Rather, she assured us that she and her vast peer group will all vote. We pray they do and never have such a poor showing at the polls as the millennial generation before them did when fewer than one in five voted in the 2016 election. Young friends, too many people died for your right to vote; please honor them by exercising that cherished right.
Finally, the mission of DeSales University:
Our Catholic, Salesian mission is the centerpiece of DeSales University. Our hope for all of our students is that they fall in love with the ultimate beauty who is God. And, in the words of Fr. Jerry Schubert, the beloved founder of the theater program here at DeSales, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, we need to give beauty back. This is the beauty of social justice—loving and serving others, especially those in need.
It would be somewhat anachronistic to suggest a sixteenth century bishop like Francis de Sales would have a 21st century social justice ethos, but his notion of unidiverse, as defined on our program cover, calls us to a peaceable, loving coexistence with others who are—in any way—different from ourselves. Whether this difference is based on how we name God, whom we love, what our national origin is, which language we speak, what color our skin is, for whom we vote, or how much we earn. These differences add to the rich panoply of delight that illustrates the grandeur of God and the expanse of his grace and goodness.
Higher education in the Salesian tradition connects the pursuit of truth and a commitment to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is especially committed to a Christian humanism that reverences every aspect of human experience as being capable of enlightenment by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I find it utterly inspiring that today’s festivities fall on the 50th anniversary of the death of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King died because many people could not tolerate the unidiverse of his worldview. I quote him: “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” At his death, President Johnson exhorted our nation to “reject blind violence,” as he hailed the slain religious civil rights leader an “apostle of nonviolence.”
St. Paul proclaims that: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body” (2 Cor. 47-10). We can best honor Dr. Martin Luther King and continue to forward his legacy by boldly asking God—today and always—to deepen our own commitment to follow His will wherever it leads in the cause of promoting justice.” (USCCB statement)
This is why we cannot be silent to the social issues of our time on this campus! A primary skill we at DeSales can teach each other is the discipline of dialogue.
Pope Francis is an apostle of dialogue, calling for it in two seminal writings of his five-year papacy. Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Sichampion dialogue as an essential means to peace. What’s more, his Congregation for Catholic Education last April announced a new vision for Catholic education, where dialogue is the lesson plan that puts the human person at the center of education. Here in Center Valley, the human person in dialogue with others shall be the centerpiece of all learning. Such an educational program emerges splendidly from our Catholic intellectual tradition that is rooted in the liberal and creative arts and connected to the sciences and technological pursuits found in business, education, health care, and social service.
Someone once gave a commencement address at Yale University. He spoke to the graduates: "Our civilization stands at the crossroads. Down one road is despondency and despair. Down the other road is total annihilation. I hope you’ll take the right road."
There is so much cynicism about our future. I say this directly to all of our students here today: the education you receive here at DeSales University provides you with an extraordinary opportunity to reimagine the right road to take into your future. Equipped with the Salesian art of dialogue and understanding of the unidiverse, you can be the change our world needs at this present moment.
I began my remarks today by quoting an Irish poet reminding us that the human soul is hungry for beauty and when we experience the Beautiful we feel immediately at home. DeSales University is a home that holds all of us together whether student, faculty, staff, or alumni.
The words of our school seal that hangs behind me instruct us well. They are the words that inspired St. Francis de Sales: Tenui nec dimmitan. “I have taken hold, and I will not let go.” He believed that our God grasps our hearts and souls in love and will never abandon us. My prayer is that we never forget we are held in such a divine embrace – and may we never let go of the ultimate beauty who is God, the master craftsman, in whose image we are fashioned, and who invites us each day to be who we are and be that well!
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