President Byerly’s Inaugural Address

16 October 2021

It is a pleasure to be able to welcome so many colleagues, friends, and family to this occasion, both those here in Northfield and those watching across the country and world. Members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, parents and families, friends of the College, fellow college presidents and delegates, honored guests, and community members – thank you all for being here today. A special welcome to the many families who are here for Family Weekend. I know that for a number of you, this is your first opportunity to visit Carleton, and I am glad you could be part of this special moment in the history of the College.

It is an honor to have Northfield Mayor Rhonda Pownell with us today, and to thank her for the warm welcome she extended to me at the inauguration reception held with local community leaders Thursday night. I am especially grateful to presidents emeritus Steve Lewis and Steve Poskanzer for being with us here today, and for their personal support and friendship. A special thanks to friends who have travelled here from Lafayette and Middlebury and to many others, including those from Penn, Wellesley, and Abington, for their support. (As you can see, I divide my life history up by schools). I am honored by the presence of the former Chair of the Board of Lafayette College, Ed Ahart, and the Chair of the Board of my own alma mater, Wellesley College, Debora de Hoyos, who is also a Carleton parent.

I am more grateful than I can say to my husband Steve Jensen, for his love and support, and to my family, some here and some watching from home. I am especially pleased that our son Ryan is here from Philadelphia, and will be reading a poem by William Wordsworth at the tree-planting ceremony this afternoon. (A nice benefit to his having followed in both parents’ footsteps by majoring in English).

I could never have imagined, when Steve and I moved our daughter into Cassatt for her first year in August 2011, that someday Carleton would be our home, too. I feel so extraordinarily honored and fortunate to have the opportunity to join and lead this special community. I should note that Laramie, a recent Ph.D. in Oceanography who is doing a postdoc at the Univ of Washington, will be watching this ceremony from afar, because she is presenting at an academic conference this weekend. I am sure the fact that it is in Hawaii had nothing to do with that decision. I will say that it gave me some sense of the power of Carleton’s alumni network to learn from a member of the search committee, herself a Class of ‘15 Carleton parent, that the day my appointment was announced her first indication the news had gone out was not the official email, which she had not yet seen, but a text from her daughter saying, “Wait, Laramie’s mom is going to be the next president of Carleton?”

I would like to extend some special thanks to a few groups and individuals. I am very grateful to Wally, Cathy, and the entire search committee, for presenting me with a wonderful microcosm of the Carleton community that made me eager to join you. My personal thanks as well to the transition and orientation committee that has been helping me to feel at home on campus and in the surrounding community; and to the Inauguration Committee, chaired by Professor Susannah Ottaway, that has planned the splendid series of events that make up this special week. Working with the transition and inauguration committees on shared tasks has helped me to feel a sense of partnership with faculty that I truly enjoy, as well as to develop important collaborative relationships with staff colleagues, and get to know some terrific students in a fun context.

We envisioned this inauguration as an opportunity to bring people together for a whole range of activities that would help us to rediscover the joy of community that we have missed over the last year. When I heard busy faculty coaxing each other into forming trivia teams for Friday night, I thought, mission accomplished.

I am also very grateful to the representatives who have offered greetings this afternoon on behalf of their various constituencies. Their presence and remarks serve as a reminder that I take my place as president as part of a community that extends from the center of this campus to the world beyond: students, faculty, staff, alumni, fellow leaders in the world of higher education. I look forward to working with all of you, individually and collectively, to make Carleton the strongest college it can be, and to make it an agent of growth and change within the world of higher education.

And finally, I would like to thank our Director of Events, Kerry Raadt,  the Facilities staff who prepared this and other venues, and the Bon Appetit colleagues who have prepared some wonderful meals for us to enjoy together. Please join me in showing our appreciation for their great work.

As I stand here today, having like all of you spent too much time in virtual meetings, I am especially cognizant of the ways in which the power of today’s ceremony is heightened by physical presence. To enter ceremonially in the company of faculty, trustees, and delegates is to bring academic ritual into the realm of the sacred. I love the tradition of seating faculty not in the audience, but up here with me, at my back, symbolizing their commitment and support. The beautiful medallion representing my investiture was designed in 1987 by one of Carleton’s own faculty members, emeritus professor of art Tim Lloyd. It too is a tangible marker of faculty investment in the institution.

It is also important to recognize and acknowledge the history of the land on which we stand through the land acknowledgment statement read earlier, as well as through our own actions and commitments. Earlier this week, we celebrated Indigenous Peoples Day with a series of events that for me included a meeting with President Shelly Buck of the Prairie Island Dakota Nation. On that occasion, we talked about our desire for Carleton to be good partners to our Dakota neighbors, and specific ways in which we can foreground our shared legacy in our understanding of this place.

Such acknowledgement is especially fitting because the Carleton community itself clearly has a deep attachment to this landscape, and to the many unique spaces that make Carleton Carleton. For example, the Bald Spot, a place that other schools would call a quad but that here has been known since the 1920’s by that more self-deprecating name, epitomizes the college’s humility, its identity as a place that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  Dacie Moses, I have discovered through conversations with many students and alumni, is not just a person, or a house – it is a caring community and spirit. The Arb, an extraordinary resource for research and recreation, is a symbol of our longstanding commitment to forward-looking stewardship. And Gould Library, named for the Carleton president whose Antarctic journeys made him a scientific celebrity, marks the college’s deep respect for intellectual exploration. In hearing students or alumni talk about these beloved spaces, I hear not mere sentiment or nostalgia but a sense that each place is the repository of a prized aspect of the Carleton character.

For all of our students, as well as for our faculty and staff, reconvening this fall represented both a return to the familiar and a step into the unknown. As the campus began to fill with students, and meetings and classes resumed, you could feel the extraordinary energy and excitement, the sheer pleasure of being in one another’s presence again. Seeing enormous numbers of students gathered for events like the student activity fair, or the ‘make-up’ frisbee toss held for the sophomore class, was evidence of how deeply students missed each other and the community of the campus. You could also feel continued anxiety and tension about COVID, how it might still impact us individually and collectively, and the continued pressure of unresolved issues and difficult conversations about race, community, and belonging that intensified in the Spring of 2020.

This feels like a threshold moment, a time of tremendous change. I believe one of our major tasks as a community, in fact, is to decide what change will look like for Carleton. Change can take the form of “disruption,” a kind of imposition from external forces, or change can be a “transformation,” an intentional seeking of new possibilities. Remaining the same is not an option.

Our experience of COVID certainly disrupted most of our typical operations, assumptions, norms, and expectations. At the local level, here on campus, it required enormous flexibility and a re-thinking of our usual ways of doing things. At a broader level, it brought about a seismic shift in higher ed pedagogy and methods of course instruction.

At the start of the pandemic, there were some who claimed that our shared experience of remote learning might signal the demise of residential colleges, as students would want to retain the convenience and cost savings that remote education could offer. In fact, the opposite seemed to happen. Students and their families came to recognize more clearly than ever before that the educational experience depends not just on the material, but on the place and the people. As a residential liberal arts college, we live and educate in community with one another, and COVID reminded us just how much learning depends on personal interaction and trust.

In talking with many Carleton students about their experiences over the last 20 months, I heard enormous appreciation for the ways in which their faculty adapted to the new environment. But this was never presented in terms of technological accomplishment. Nobody said, “she was great at managing Zoom breakout rooms” or “his internet connection was never unstable.” Instead, they talked about a faculty member who called them to check on how they were doing, a professor who did extra Zoom sessions for students in different time zones, a teacher who packed up and sent them art materials in the mail. Those were the things that mattered.

Nevertheless, we cannot afford to overlook the impact of increased remote offerings at other institutions, and the ways in which the COVID experience has changed student expectations, and encouraged students to think about different aspects of their education – individual courses, extracurricular activities, housing – as separate commodities, rather than an integrated whole. We will need to be even more intentional in making the case for a holistic, integrated, liberal arts education.

Scholar of technology and education Cathy Davidson has said, “If we can be replaced by technology, we should be.” Meaning, that it is incumbent on us to ensure that the education we offer continues to make the best possible use of the expertise, creativity, and personal connection that distinguishes in person teaching from online courses. It seems clear that there are many ways in which technology can be used to add flexibility or incorporate new material into courses, for example by bringing in distinguished guest speakers via Zoom, or sharing video content in advance to free up time for discussion.  The many creative ways in which faculty learned to make use of technology can be added to the repertoire of strategies that make up the integrated educational experience at Carleton.

This will be a time of widespread re-examination of pedagogy throughout higher education, and with a faculty that embraces a true commitment to teaching, (and has regularly been ranked #1 in undergraduate teaching by US News, not that we pay any attention to rankings) Carleton should be a leader in defining what the next generation of teaching looks like. Because we already have a strong tradition of ongoing pedagogical development, our ability to examine and adapt our own teaching practices can serve as a model for other colleges and universities.

Having said that our education is grounded in community, it is important that we make that community as committed, connected, and equitable as possible, so that every student is able to bring their full self to the work of learning. Difficult conversations about race, inclusivity, and justice that took place following the killing of George Floyd have highlighted many challenges in the experience of BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Confronting these issues is not easy. As a place that has always prided itself on being a close-knit and welcoming community, Carleton has found it painful to hear that not all members of the community have felt equally at home here.

We are working to confront these issues through programs and discussions on campus, through the efforts of our Community, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion leadership board, within academic departments and college committees, and in the creation of an Inclusion, Equity, and Diversity Steering Committee that is working with a series of groups to finalize a ten-year diversity and inclusivity plan. While we may not reach complete agreement on every aspect of the plan, there is widespread agreement that change is needed.

Considering any level of change can feel risky for a successful institution. After all, the qualities that Carleton currently embodies have brought it to the highest rank of liberal arts colleges in the nation. While liberal arts colleges have always been a small subset of the higher ed ecosystem, we are a sector that has traditionally had outsized prominence and impact. In recent years, however, liberal arts education has been under attack by those who argue that the education we offer is too expensive and rarefied, and that students benefit more from a professionally oriented education. This claim continues in spite of the fact that studies have repeatedly shown that even if you limit your assessment of the value of a liberal arts degree to the question of return on investment, students with liberal arts degrees on average have higher lifetime earnings than those with undergraduate majors in professional fields. And of course, we are making a mistake if we fight the battle on that territory. At this moment in time, it should be easier than ever to demonstrate the need for thoughtful, versatile, engaged, and ethical citizens.

The strength of Carleton’s liberal arts education is its integration of different disciplines and more broadly, its integration of theoretical frameworks and experience. Carleton’s historic strength in the sciences is matched by tremendous depth in humanistic inquiry, breadth in the social sciences, and distinction in the arts. These areas work together synergistically within a curriculum that has been enriched by the development of vibrant interdisciplinary programs. It has been striking to me in talking with students how broadly they range across this landscape, and how comfortably an individual student will toggle between talking about a physics lab and talking about a course on Jane Austen.

Moreover, students are not simply told about research, they are asked to engage in original scholarly research and production. Many courses and programs provide vital linkages between classroom experience and community or world issues that students can help address. For example, in a course on Globalization, Pandemics, and Global Security, students are examining the impacts of COVID 19 on global public policy. In the ongoing Historians for Hire course, students completed a multi-year public history project with the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind (MSAB) in Faribault, helping to organize the institution’s extensive archive to make it accessible by creating audio descriptions of objects and digitizing materials. Many Comps projects provide the opportunity for students to take the concepts they have studied and apply them to a specific area of interest. If you attended the Undergraduate Research Symposium held yesterday, you got a taste of the extraordinary ways in which our students are learning to use the habits of research, creativity, and scholarly inquiry they have acquired from our faculty.

At this moment in time, I believe students want to be part of what I would call a community of values, and are looking for an education that equips them to make a difference in a world with many challenges. Carleton can be a distinctive model for how a communal, broadly integrated, and equitable liberal arts education retains its relevance because it is always renewing itself.

In many ways, we are grappling with our fundamental identity as an “elite” liberal arts college. These days, we try to avoid using the label elite, but whether we name it or not, it is an accurate description of a critical dimension of colleges like ours: we are selective, and much of our value stems from an economics of scarcity. Not everyone can get into Carleton, so being a Carleton student or alum is itself a marker of quality. This aspect of our identity is in tension with the contrary principles of access and inclusion which we have also embraced.

As we continue discussions on campus, with alumni, and within the higher education community about the need to create a more inclusive and welcoming community, it is important that we recognize that if we aspire to the word “transformative,” we must be willing to re-examine the structures that are currently working well for many of our students, and ask how they need to be different if they are to work well for everybody. As with all algorithms, if we are not satisfied with the outcomes, we need to rewrite the code.

Such change does not come easily to colleges and universities. At the most fundamental level, academic institutions are about hierarchy and judgment. Our most cherished processes – admissions, recruitment, hiring, tenure – are processes of selection. If we would like to see a broader range of candidates move successfully through these structures, they may have to change.  That does not mean we abandon the habits of discernment that are fundamental to the academic enterprise. Education is all about filtering information and making judgments about it. But we could look more critically at what precisely it is we are trying to discern, and why. These gateway moments in academic life can function as filters — or as ladders. As we look to expand the diversity of our community, we must consider the entire trajectory of an educational career and the path an individual must follow if they are to land successfully in our first-year class, our graduating class, our new faculty cohort, or an endowed chair. Looking holistically at our relationships with community partners and secondary schools, community colleges and peer institutions, and the graduate programs and jobs to which we send our students may help us to strengthen the pipeline of diverse students and candidates we would like to see across the entire academic landscape.

We must also recognize that our initial goal of recruiting and admitting a more diverse group of students is only the first step towards creating a more inclusive community. We must ensure those students have the support they need to thrive. Access to a Carleton education does not simply mean financial access, but cultural, social, and emotional access as well.  The BIPOC students, faculty, and staff we bring to Carleton do not want simply to be welcomed to our space, they want to feel that it is their space — to feel not just inclusion but belonging and ownership.

A prerequisite for making progress in all of these areas is that we as a community are able to talk openly and honestly about these issues. We need to feel free to express our views, but remain respectful of the views and identities of others. Managing these kinds of conversations can be challenging, but we should not be afraid of disagreement and debate.

I noted earlier that one of Carleton’s leading characteristics is its humility. That is in fact one of the qualities that was most important to me as I considered the opportunity to be president of Carleton. I believe one of the biggest threats to top liberal arts colleges right now is their own complacency. It is easy to assume that what has worked well for you in the past will continue to work well in the future. At Carleton, we don’t take our accomplishments for granted, and we don’t stop trying to make the institution better. There is a kind of midwestern work ethic behind everything we do that I believe positions us better for real advancement than many of our peers.

At the same time, we need to recognize that being humble does not mean being invisible. Seeking greater visibility for the college means expanding our reach so that we can be seen by those who aren’t already looking for us. Though Carleton is very well known in specific and influential circles, we have tended to accept the idea that we may have less general name recognition than some other top ten colleges. We may even have felt a certain pride in being the kind of place known only to the cognoscenti. But a greater willingness to celebrate our strengths would help make Carleton known to a wider and more diverse audience. Our central location, with direct access to both coasts, could make Carleton the hub of a broader network that reflects the changing demographics of the country.

Public perception of the complacency and exclusivity of elite liberal arts education is reflected in that classic image for colleges and universities, the ivory tower: precious, isolated, cut off from the real world.

When I imagine Carleton, I picture the precise opposite of an ivory tower. I think of the geothermal wells deep beneath the Bald Spot: unassuming on the surface, but with extraordinary energy and power underneath. Carleton does not stand above the world, but digs deep into its core to get at the real root or truth of things. That authenticity is a source of power and potential that has yet to be fully tapped.

By elevating its unique strengths and values – humility, commitment to community, joy in intellectual exploration, and a capacity for growth – Carleton can become more than a static model of excellent liberal arts education – it will be a renewable resource for our students, broader community, and the world. One of the things we will demonstrate is that we are fearless in the face of change, that we embrace the capacity for transformation and renewal.

Having mentioned President Gould, I will close by noting that I feel a special affinity for him as a scientist, as my daughter’s research takes her, too, on long ocean expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic. In fact, coincidentally, Laramie’s first research voyage was a 50-day Arctic cruise on the NSF R/V named Lawrence M. Gould. Now, it remains to be seen whether I can emulate Gould as a president so popular that students celebrated an annual “Larry Gould Day” on which they wore his favorite red ties in his honor. But I will take the liberty of quoting an old chestnut from Gould’s days as Carleton’s president. He often told students at opening convocation, “You will always be part of Carleton, and Carleton will be part of you.” That to me is still a compelling image of full commitment to community. That is what I hope we can aspire to today: to be a place that students do not just visit, or get invited into, but a place they inhabit, and become.

We have an exciting road ahead of us, and I could not be more thrilled to be on this journey with all of you. Thank you.