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Making Inauguration Meaningful

Making Inauguration Meaningful

November 7, 2006

I don’t like one-off events. In small, educational institutions where the need to leverage resources is great, a once every 5- or 10-year event is problematic. Programs and initiatives need what I call stickiness; they need staying power. One-offs require a good deal of time, money and person-power.  These types of events all raise the same fundamental question: What is the long-term benefit of a one-off event to the educational institution and its many stakeholders?

As a new college president, I obviously knew there would an inaugural event. What worried me was whether we could create an event that was at once celebratory in nature and replete with lasting institutional value.  It is for this reason, among others, that I decided to launch my “Five Inaugural Books” initiative.  In the interest of full disclosure, this is but one of several events on our campus using books, and hence is also part of a larger strategic effort to signal about education, the world of ideas and the importance of community through the printed word.

The Five-Book Initiative

Here’s the concept.  I agreed to name, well in advance of the inauguration, five books that I would cite in my inaugural address on November 18.  I also agreed that, since we have five divisions, the books would correspond (more or less) to these academic programs. The names of the books were released on our Web site through an "inaugural countdown" page. They appear on the back of the printed inaugural invitation -- which, itself, is constructed to look like a book.

We also decided that sets of the five books would be available on campus before and after the inaugural event and would be displayed in our library.  Local bookstores and libraries have been willing to feature these five books, and our local commercial radio station (WBTN 1370-AM), which is owned by the college, is running a contest for its listeners: If you were named a new college president, what five books would you reference in your inaugural address? The winner, chosen by the Southern Vermont College community, will receive lunch with me in the president’s office (a nice catered affair) and whichever of the five books he or she wants (OK, the prizes are not great).  In addition, the president of Bennington College, Elizabeth Coleman, has agreed to develop her own list of five books, and she and I will share and discuss our respective lists on our radio station.

I am delighted, too, that Inside Higher Ed has joined us in this enterprise and has invited several presidents and others in higher education to publish their own list of five books. Those lists appear below. I also hope Inside Higher Ed readers will weigh in with their own lists. Then, we will all be engaging in a wonderful conversation about meaningful works that have influenced our thinking. That is a conversation well worth having, and personally, I am curious as to whether some books will appear on multiple lists -- I suspect there will be repeaters!
 
Not as Easy as It Appears

Before turning to the actual books I picked and what drove their specific selection, I want to make several observations. When I undertook this initiative, I had not picked my five books and I did not think the task would be that difficult. I read a lot, I have thought about education for an extended period and I collect books -- both old and new. I was wrong. I underestimated the difficulty of selecting the right books, although the exercise was, to be sure, intellectually engaging. It enabled me to read and re-read lots of wonderful books in a very short time period. During the decision-making process, new piles of books appeared around my home, and I got no shortage of advice and suggestions from family and close friends who knew about the initiative. One suggestion (that I did not really follow) was to pick at least several books that were very well known – books that everyone would have heard of, if not read (think Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Walker).  Books from centuries ago were also frequently recommended (Shakespeare, Plato…).

The hard part was deciding on the criteria to use in making my selections. I wanted books that had personal meaning to me; I wanted books that moved me. I also wanted books that were diverse in every respect -- by gender, by race, by nationality, by perspective, by topic.  I would think I had found a book that would make the list only to change my mind the next day. The addition of a certain book frequently bounced another book off the list (too many American authors, too many political books). The list of discarded books is actually worth reading.

There was one other aspect of all of this. By selecting the books before actually writing my inaugural address (which I still have not written as I write this), I was working backwards. Usually, I write a speech and then find support for what I am saying. In this instance, I was finding books that signaled the content of the speech – before one word of that speech appeared on the computer screen. One student’s parent who saw the books at Homecoming last week remarked, “I hope you picked well because you are sort of stuck with what you have chosen.” That parent is right.

The Response

The response to this whole initiative has been quite remarkable and has exceeded my expectations. Every time I mention the initiative, people start naming the books they would pick (and so far, they have not named any on my list – which could be a good thing or a bad thing). The point is that the initiative enables all of us to think about books, to think about the messages within books, to peruse our existing bookshelves for books we do not remember and to find books suggested by others that we have neither heard of nor read. My chief academic officer said she would pick Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a book with which I had no familiarity.  (It is on its way to me now via Amazon.) The initiative has engaged the community at many levels and, as such, has convinced me that the inauguration will not be a dreaded one-off event.

The Chosen

The five books I selected (not in order of importance) are: 

  • The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway (Vintage Books USA, 1990)
  • Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paolo Freire  (Continuum International Publishing Group, 30th anniversary edition)
  • Complications, Atul Gawande (Metropolitan Books, 2002)
  • Solving Tough Problems, Adam Kahane  (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004)
  • How to See, George Nelson  (Little Brown & Co., 1977)

For those who know me, some of these choices are obvious.

I am a graduate of Smith College, and Jill Ker Conway was Smith’s first woman president (after my time as a student, to be sure). She has written about women and empowerment and women in leadership, but her own story is, for me, the most compelling one. She understood the need to leave home (literally and figuratively), and she recognized the power of education.

Paolo Freire’s book is also a natural choice in that much of my academic writing (about the consumer financial markets and financial literacy education) is about empowerment, and the ability of education to help underserved communities.

 

Freire’s disdain for education as “banking” (where a teacher just deposits information to students) is a bit ironic in that my academic writing reflects concerns about actual banking (and the consumer financial markets). Both of us are expressing a similar concern about the potential overuse of power by those in positions of authority and the need for greater reciprocity.

The other choices are, perhaps, less obvious. Adam Kahane comes out of corporate America and took some of the skills he used there and parlayed them in a different arena, including trying to help eradicate apartheid in South Africa.

 

I like the idea of transportable skill sets, and I suspect that my work in restructuring financially troubled companies early in my career has guided my thinking about organizations and what makes them fail or succeed. 

Atul Gawande’s book was initially considered because we have strong healthcare programs on campus; it was ultimately chosen for other reasons. Gawande is trained in multiple disciplines. Yes, he is a doctor, indeed a surgeon.

 

In today’s world, a single knowledge set is not enough. Our problems (global and national) are so complex that interdisciplinary skill sets are critical to developing understanding and solutions. The book’s observations on the nature of science and its lack of exactness is critically important, too.

Then, to round out the fivesome, there is the stunning book by the designer George Nelson.

 

In a sense, his work reminds me of that of Marshall McLuhan, whose book The Medium is the Message captured my imagination in my teenage years. How to See is a book one can pick up and put down, a book with haunting staying power, a book that, once read, influences how one marches through one’s day.

Ready to Engage

The coming weeks and months will determine whether I’m right about the inaugural idea’s staying power, whether it has allowed the Southern Vermont  and Bennington community to engage in the world of books and to experience the power the written word has to offer. As a new college president, that result would be my fondest hope. And, for anyone else who wants to take this idea, tweak it and move it to their campus and their community, please do and let me know how it works.  I’d welcome that.

*****

Michael J. Hoyle, interim president and vice president of finance and operations, McIntosh College:

  • To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee: A classic that continues to inspire with subsequent reads.
  • Marley & Me, John Grogan: Admittedly a light read, but with humor and emotion, Grogan captures the essence of our relationships with our dogs.
  • The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini: An emotional reminder of the core principles of democracy and a telling personal story of the destruction of Afghanistan and why the world must help this fledging democracy.
  • Will in the World, Stephen Greenblatt: Greenblatt offers a unique view of how Shakespeare became "The Bard" and draws on documentation, but the book reads like an interesting piece of fiction.
  • Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin: Goodwin combines politics, humanity and the tragic face of war to show modern day executives how to make decisions.

*****

Susan Herbst, officer in charge, provost and executive vice president, State University of New York at Albany:

  • The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers, Robert L. Heilbroner: Underscores how the field of economics has always been deeply embedded in cultural and social life. Heilbroner has made many a student -- aggravated or bored in Macro -- realize why economics is central to human existence.
  • Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America, Garry Wills: It is the only book on Lincoln we simply cannot do without; there is no more elegant argument for the power of words to change a nation.
  • The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth: The young Roth delves deeply into the complicated craft of writing, the nature of human imagination, and of course, the trials of a neurotic intellectual in lust.
  • Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann: Ignore all election season pundits, and spend time with the master! Written in 1922, yet still the very best book we have on the nature of public opinion in American democracy.
  • Old School, Tobias Wolfe: A quiet, stunning novel about growing up, how literature shapes our character, and the unexpected ways a life can become unraveled.

*****

Ellen McCullough-Lovell, president, Marlboro College:

  • Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: An inspiring description of the practices of creative people and a definition of creativity that informs how colleges can support original work by students, faculty and staff. This book reinforces the importance of the college years where young people can risk, fail, experiment and find mentors.
  • Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, Edward Abbey: A beautiful, singular book about discovering the power of wilderness; an essential writer and book for the environmental movement.
  • Emerson: the Mind on Fire, Robert D. Richardson Jr.: The exciting and complete biography of Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of America's most original and seminal thinkers, gave me the intellectual journey behind his essays, "Nature," and "The American Scholar," and others, which have so influenced my own thinking about the educational mission.
  • Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, Martha C. Nussbaum: This compelling book, especially the chapter, "The Narrative Imagination," draws the connections between education in the arts and the humanities and the cultivation of the imagination, thus the ability to compassionately understand others and to take part in a democratic society.
  • Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems: The work of a singular and humane voice, whose poems remind me that the senses, insights and soul of the individual must be attended to, especially if she or he is to teach others.

*****

Beverly Hogan, president, Tougaloo College

I have chosen the five books listed below in general because they are well written, introduce the reader to America’s history that is seldom taught in our schools and a history that should be shared and known by educated citizens. These books inform my thinking and inspire me to see the world and situations in other terms. They further provide me with a sense of connection, purpose and grounding. Changing Minds helps one to embrace the other books.

  • Mirror to America, John Hope Franklin: Dr. Franklin is an eminent historian who played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement. He continues to educate America about racism and the measures of our progress.
  • Changing Minds, Howard Gardner: I like this book. It causes one to think mindfully and critically about deeply held opinions, what works, what doesn’t and why. Through this thought process, one opens the mind to change.
  • All Deliberate Speed, Charles Ogletree, Jr.: I like Professor Ogletree and the way he thinks. A leading scholar-activist, Ogletree traces the history of race and integration in American society over the last 50 years from Brown v. Board of Education. Too few of our students, of every race and ethnicity, know enough about this transformational period in America’s history.
  • Equal Justice Under Law, Constance Baker Motley: I admired Constance Baker Motley for her courage, brilliance and determination. This book provides a detailed account of the legal conflicts of the civil rights movement and an account of Motley’s struggle as a black woman to succeed and how she lived a remarkable life of great courage and responsibility.
  • Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas: This is a new book. I like the author. She spent most of her life as an actress, starring in "Room 222" and "In the Heat of the Night." She is an intellect with a deep commitment to social change and education. She was engaged in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. She describes the experience of coming of age in Mississippi during this time through the fictional character, Celeste. It is interesting reading and informs the mind and heart. I chose it however because I want more people to know about this book and read it.

*****

Kimberly Corey, dean of education, McIntosh College:

  • Miss Rumphius, Barbara Cooney: This children’s book has a wonderful message: Each person has to find a way to make the world a more beautiful place. Everyone should read it and find a way to improve the world.
  • Leading with the Heart, Mike Krzyzewski: Leading with the Heart is about team building. A team isn’t just created in any workplace, on any campus, or on any basketball court. It takes planning and effort to teach people to trust each other and experience success and failure together.
  • A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens: The ending of this story is what caught me: sacrifice for another person.
  • The Stories of Eva Luna, Isabelle Allende: One of my favorites in this book of short stories is Walimai a story that tells of culture clash, tradition, and the grieving process. It's thought provoking in terms of seeing things from another perspective and questioning what we do as we try to let go of someone.
  • Can It Happen Again?, Roselle Chartock and Jack Spencer, editors: Wonderful excepts from a variety of genres tell the tale of WWII. As the title suggests, if we forget where we've been, we are probably going to make the same mistakes in the future.

We encourage you to add your own selections below.

Bio

Karen Gross is the president of Southern Vermont College.

 

 

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