Inaugural Address

September 29, 2018

Members of the Westminster College Board of Trustees; alumni, faculty, staff, and students; delegates from colleges and universities; honored guests from near and far; thank you for joining us today. I am honored by the presence of Tamy Pyfer, from Governor Herbert’s office, and grateful for the legacy built by Steve Morgan and all of Westminster’s past presidents. I am deeply humbled by the generosity of benefactors who have, and who continue, to support the College.

This weekend has been something of a reunion with my Saint Mary’s and San Diego colleagues, who have shared a fantastic journey with me. My gratitude extends to my friend and yesterday’s symposium keynote speaker, Amy Loomis, as well as Richard Badenhausen and Erin Coleman for their support of it; to the generous comments of my former student, and now Professor, Kristin Moran; and of course to my family, my brother and sister-in-law, Donn and Mandy, my daughter Alexandra, my son Randall, and of course, to my biggest fan, my husband Randy (you know, the “First Dude”).

Two people for whom I owe significant gratitude are my parents, Bette and Milt Dobkin. My father, Milt, passed away about two years ago at the age of 94. My mother passed away 8 years prior to that. Their influence set me on the path that brings me here today.

My mother grew up in California, fiercely independent and self-sufficient, the daughter of entrepreneurial, Eastern European parents engaged in various businesses, including chicken farming. “This was a big thing for Jews,” Bette wrote, “because in Europe, Jews mainly hadn’t been able to own land, and even in Southern California then, there were whole areas and cities where it was illegal for Jews to live.”  She also called this commercial venture a disaster. After the chicken ranch, her parents ran a gay bar in South Central LA until payments to the local vice squad became too high. Her father, my grandfather, then pursued and earned a law degree. A passion for justice, combined with a deep commitment to advancing the dignity of all people, was passed from my mother to me in countless ways, as she forged her own career first as a teacher, and later as a real estate broker.

This focus on justice was a bit frustrating to me as a young girl, because I contrasted her passion with my own protests about various family decisions. When I said, “but that’s not fair!” my mother sometimes responded, “life’s not fair.” This little exchange about fairness illustrates an enduring conflict between the belief that we all exist in a world of equal opportunity, it’s simply what we make of it, and the recognition that all things are never, really, equal. So my path has been one to support education that promises to make the world more equitable, more just, and more inclusive, recognizing both the power and promise of human potential, and also the enduring challenges created by socioeconomic structures and historical circumstance.

My father met my mother when she was a high school student and he a teacher at a neighboring high school. In the early 1940s, after earning a Civil Air Patrol pilot’s license, passing all tests for enrollment in the Army Air Force, and waiting to be called for active duty in WWII, Milt was ordered a good discharge. He protested in a letter to President Roosevelt, writing: “The one-man selection board… sarcastically implied that I would not be accepted because my parents were born in Russia… I am a private pilot by Civil Aeronautics Authority license, and my dream has long been to strike my individual blow for freedom in my country’s battle for life and liberty.”

Milt was eventually called to active duty, which he completed in 1945, and then earned a baccalaureate degree, made possible in part by the GI Bill®. While teaching at Beverly Hills High and during a stint as a forensics coach, his principal told him to find a student to compete in an American Legion oratory contest. The rules required speaking from a manuscript in defense of the Constitution. When Milt’s student got to the event, he gave an impassioned, extemporaneous (because he left his manuscript at home) defense of the Bill of Rights, in particular, the right of free speech and the right of dissent.

This was 1955, the height of McCarthyism, and Milt’s superintendent was asked, “Who is this communist that allows his students to give these kinds of speeches?” While recognizing that my father was not a communist, the superintendent, nevertheless, advised Milt to resign, which he did. He moved his family north, eventually becoming Vice President and Interim President at Humboldt State University, where he remained an active member of the community until his death. Defense of free speech and the principles of democracy were central to his identity and values; he was giving civics lessons to his caregivers two days before he died. These commitments to democracy, informed citizenship, justice, equity, and inclusion, long cultivated and pursued by my parents, also inform everything that I do, and, I believe, have guided me to accept and embrace, with deep respect and humility, the presidency at Westminster College.

Westminster’s trajectory stretches back nearly 150 years, from beginnings as a college preparatory academy, to junior college, to baccalaureate institution, to comprehensive university that retains the identity of a liberal arts college. Westminster began with an explicit, Calvinist belief in education, for “the tongue without the mind must be highly displeasing to God.”  Like most faith-based institutions, Westminster had an explicitly evangelistic mission: to convert those who were different—at the time, namely, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Mormons. Westminster has long since abandoned its evangelistic mission, dropping the mandate of conversion while retaining the commitment to students and their intellectual engagement. And throughout Westminster’s history, the College has emphasized personal and progressive education. There’s an underlying optimism and willingness to innovate on behalf of all students.

I—really we—chose Westminster partly because of the history, values, and traditions of the College which align with our own. The place we chose needed to be a vibrant scholarly community dedicated to teaching and learning. It needed to be a place committed to inclusive excellence, the understanding that respect for human dignity and the pursuit of equity are fundamental to educational purposes, and the belief in serving a good greater than ourselves. It needed to be a place willing to explore and experiment in support of that greater good. It needed to be in a place that Randy and I found physically compelling, a place and community where we’d want to build a life.

We’ve found those things in Westminster College. I’ve seen the impact in students who tell me that they’ve completed courses they never imagined they could pass, in alumni who talk about the incredible connections made and possibilities that opened up to them because of their Westminster experience, and in employers who rave about students who are self-confident, articulate, and able to transfer skills across many different contexts.

We’ve also found a place ready to shape and claim a future, and a hunger for a unifying vision. This day, for all its solemnity and pomp, is a celebration of this particular college and a change in leadership, but more importantly, of tradition and vision and of the future we will craft together.

At its core, Westminster is about developing people, bringing students together in community, where they learn the freedom to think, the wisdom to know, and the aptitude to act. Each part in the Westminster education is indispensable to the others, and together with our unique place, make Westminster a truly remarkable institution.

First, the freedom to think is a foundation of the liberal arts. The value proposition of liberal arts colleges is under attack at the very time it is most needed. Part of the problem is the very word, “liberal.” In public communication increasingly truncated to tweets and labels, the word has been drained of substance, shutting down consideration of what it has traditionally meant. So, set aside the politics of “liberal” arts for just a moment.

We need to practice both the liberties and responsibilities of free thinking, which involves discovery of knowledge, breaking disciplinary boundaries, suspending judgment, and respectful engagement in difficult conversations. There’s great work being done in these areas across campus, from the WCore, to team teaching in the Honors College, to our hybrid courses at graduate and professional levels. In talking about the master’s program in strategic communication, our faculty colleague Curtis Newbold writes, “We’re essentially liberating students to discover how learning works in a very uncontrolled, unpredictable environment.”  We need to continue to encourage connections and collaboration, and “make what students study in college truly span all academic disciplines.”  As a teaching institution, dedicated to access and success, our faculty must be willing to stretch their own ideas of learning and collaboration, so that they become conversant not just in the disciplines in which they earned their own degrees, but in a range of intersecting ones. They must become increasingly skilled in the ways of thinking and learning that bring disparate perspectives, and people with diverse life experiences, into conversation.

The success of these conversations depends on whether students are motivated to participate in them. When students feel respected and valued, free thinking, discovery, and exploration happen at their best. Truly free thinking requires inclusive communities, because our own restrictions, boxes, and mindsets are liberated when we engage with others in ways that call us to connect, empathize with, and understand those who challenge us. The more we cultivate curiosity and creativity, perforate disciplinary boundaries, and bring diverse students together to solve problems, the more relevant their educational experience will be to all kinds of future work environments, and to living a fuller life.

Next, we must cultivate the wisdom to know, the ability to sift through overwhelming amounts of data, evaluate their integrity, synthesize knowledge, and develop a worldview that, while remaining open to the possibility of challenge, provides one with a set of enduring values and purpose with which to move through the world. Wisdom is a quality of human development; it comes with education, with testing, evaluating, and connecting ideas. It comes with reflection. It comes in knowing and respecting the past while understanding the dynamics that have been created for the present. It comes with sometimes entrusting Google’s search algorithm to find relevant and trustworthy information,  while also understanding when we ought to look elsewhere. The wisdom to know is where experience meets ideas, where context informs interpretations, and where people develop the cultural agility necessary to thrive in a globalized economy.

Reclaiming wisdom, like liberating thinking, is a tall order. Faculty have to help students sift through “information pressed on them every day from myriad sources, reliable and unreliable,”  and mentor them in ways that help them develop a moral compass, avoiding the evangelism of the past, while supporting an ethic of care and pursuit of greater good.

Westminster College, for some time now, has been encouraging the freedom to think and providing approaches to knowledge that cultivate wisdom. We must also develop the aptitude to act, the entrepreneurial mindset that combines technical ability with the willingness to seize opportunity, the leadership capacity to step in and step up.

Many institutions that focus on the freedom to think and wisdom to know stop short of this third piece, the aptitude to act. They rightly tout how liberal arts can be applied and how skills are transferable. At Westminster, we mentor students along career trajectories from the moment they matriculate, we value and integrate the expertise they bring to their educational programs, and we promote community and project-based learning. I’m asking for even more. I’m asking to become the best private college in preparing students for flexible, adaptive, and ethical leadership.

At Westminster, the freedom to think, wisdom to know, and aptitude to act are cultivated by a learning community that recognizes both the importance of human relationships and our connections to the physical environment. This is the advantage of small colleges like ours, which already have the learning communities that other institutions are now trying to replicate. We facilitate real-time conversations and social connections that have lifelong cognitive benefits and collaborative learning that contributes to the development of higher-level thinking capabilities, such as planning and abstract thinking. The challenges of intellectual engagement, problem solving, and working with novel concepts and skills in collaboration with others changes brain structure, improves neuroplasticity, and creates a ‘cognitive reserve’ that preserves mental functioning later in life.

The needs to connect with others, to develop a personal identity that is acknowledged and respected by others, and join in communities of shared values and pursuits, are timeless. We’ve become great at claiming personal identities, but less adept at respecting them while building connections across peoples, places, and contexts. One Westminster student I spoke with last week talked about how she valued being pushed outside of her comfort zone, understanding the complexity of identities and social structures, while also coming to realize the deep connections and desires that people share. All people, at some point in their lives, seek identity, community, and purpose. There is no better place to develop one’s identity in relation to others, no better place for a young person to grow up, no better place for a working professional to redefine oneself and build community than at Westminster.

Westminster boasts a final quality which I mentioned a few minutes ago: an irresistible and beautiful natural environment. Westminster’s education is compelling because of its stunning physical location, which inspires action, creativity, and care for the environment. It reminds us of a world greater than ourselves, and of the importance of physicality and lived experience in understanding humanness. We have a beautiful, dynamic, and vibrant world right here, where we can continue to connect programs in science, health, education, and leadership to our place in the Intermountain West.

Westminster is poised to take advantage of a region that is growing and diversifying in people and industries, a country built on creativity and innovation, and a world looking for the next generation of ethical and adaptive leaders. The freedom to think gives students mental agility and analytical reasoning; the wisdom to know brings compassion, creativity, and cultural intelligence; the aptitude to act creates leaders who can build the communities that will solve today’s problems and those we have yet to imagine. And at a time when our social and political institutions seem the most imperiled, we need to provide education that reclaims our common humanity and restores our faith in democracy.

Claiming this future will require investments in our students, in scholarships that promote access, and in the faculty and staff who help ensure their success. We will need greater support for faculty as they stretch disciplinary boundaries, integrate new technologies, facilitate difficult classroom dialogues, and collaborate with students and each other. We will need to explore more robust pathways to a Westminster education, not only from transfer initiatives, but through educational and corporate partnerships, programming for parents and families, summer activities, and community outreach. We will need greater integration of data literacy in our curriculum, data analytics in our decisions, and technological advancements in service of our students. We will need to attract a large and diverse enough student population to support creative collisions and collaborations; to build a performing arts addition that allows greater artistic and physical exploration; to increase engagement with regional businesses and non-profit organizations where students can practice, explore, fail, and learn to lead.

This can be Westminster’s moment, with your support. We are a small college, in a big city, in a wider world. We are “geographically spectacular.” We combine traditional programs in business, education, liberal arts, and nursing with innovative, practical approaches to discovery and leadership. We leverage the power of place with a learning community that challenges students to explore, inspires them to create, and prepares them to lead. We create educational opportunity, so that people, working together, can think freely, know wisely, and act powerfully to create a world of beauty, integrity, and joy.

Like some of the stories my parents used to tell, some of my most memorable ones are those about students. I remember a brilliant graduate student with awful handwriting, and telling him, on his last essay exam, “it’s a good thing the words I can’t read are adjectives.” I remember the morning of 9-11, retrieving a voicemail message with the lonely, plaintive voice a former student: “Dr. Dobkin, what’s happening to the world? I don’t understand. I need to be in your class right now.” I remember the conversation I had with a Westminster student last week, who asked, “President Dobkin, how are you going to bring more women into the sciences?”

We have great problems to solve and great possibilities to imagine as we move forward in this rapidly changing world. No one can do it alone, but we can do it together. We are Westminster. Let us begin.