Reflections at the Goucher College Inauguration of President Jose Antonio Bowen

Goucher College
Baltimore, Maryland
April 24, 2015

What a privilege to be invited to celebrate this extraordinary moment for this community.

For 130 years Goucher College has carried forward the distinctive tradition of the residential American liberal arts college.  Throughout our history, American higher education has introduced extraordinary innovations—the land-grant schools, community colleges, research universities.  But the one enduring source of our strength has been the presence of our liberal arts colleges. 

In our academic communities we seek to expose, understand and negotiate tensions.  How do we reconcile the “ways of knowing” of the arts and the sciences?  How do we work within the boundaries and outside the boundaries of the disciplines?  Is there an inherent structure of our world that we seek to discover, or do we construct our understandings?  What can we know with certainty?  What knowledge is relative to our particular time and place?  What knowledge has the status of universal or objective knowledge?

The characteristic tension in the American context is between the practical and what might best be called “formation.” 

The historian, Daniel Boorstin, who served our nation with distinction as the Librarian of Congress, wrote of the Colonial experience in America:  “The primary aim of the American college was not to increase the continental stock of cultivated men, but rather to supply its particular region with knowledgeable ministers, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders” (181). 

This focus, this attention on the instrumental, the practical, the useful, characterizes the earliest days of the Republic.

This view is in tension with another: writing in the decades just before the founding of Goucher, in what is still the greatest defense of the liberal arts experience, John Henry Newman captures the “main purpose” of the university as “a real cultivation of mind…formed to have a connected view or grasp of things….”  (XLII-III).  For Newman, liberal education is the formation of a habit of mind which “lasts through life” of which the attributes are “freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom…” (76). 

This is the most extraordinary moment in American higher education in our lifetimes.  Much is at stake: can we develop models of pedagogy that will prepare our students for the responsibilities of citizenship in our globalizing world?  Can we develop economic models that will ensure access and affordability for all of our people?  Can we harness the potential of new technologies to strengthen the teaching and learning in our communities? 

The most significant tension we negotiate is that between continuity and change.

Today we celebrate all that has been built over these past 130 years, through the fidelity and integrity of your commitment to the enduring values of the distinctively American, residential liberal arts college.

And we celebrate this exhilarating and sometimes terrifying, unprecedented moment, in which we find ourselves in America today.

Continuity and change: what do we need to protect and what of the new opportunities do we need to embrace? 

This is a moment that demands the very best of us: how can we ensure that the unparalleled gift of the liberal arts will be available to our young people as we move forward into this uncertain future?  And what should they look like?  How might they evolve and adapt?

Today we celebrate all that has been built over these 130 years.

And we honor the colleague who has accepted responsibility for leadership in this community—the responsibility for negotiating these tensions that define our work.

A colleague who is among the most daring, creative, imaginative, and fearless leaders we will ever meet. 

A man who has prepared for this moment—at Georgetown, Miami University, and SMU.

An artist—who has consistently demonstrated his ability to “capture lighting in a bottle.”

A leader born to explore the “unknown.”

It is an honor to join your community to honor and celebrate all that has been built over 130 years and all that you are called to be at this moment in your history. 

It is an honor to celebrate the man who will lead your community, my esteemed colleague and friend, José Antonio Bowen.

Works Cited

Boorstin, Daniel. The Americans: The Colonial Experience. New York: Random House, 1958. Print.

Newman, John Henry.  The Idea of a University.  Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Print.