Inauguration 2007

Inauguration Address: “Challenge and Response”

April 13, 2007


I want to talk today about life’s challenges and how we respond to those challenges as individuals and as institutions.

Each of us finds ourself in a particular set of circumstances. Some of these circumstances endure: our native culture and language, our family, old friends, our economic conditions, a chronic illness. Others are fleeting: the weather, acquaintances, traffic jams, jobs perhaps. Of course, the circumstances just mentioned appear to be external to us, and there is another set of circumstances that we experience as internal. Here again, some of these internal circumstances endure and others are fleeting: these include such things as talents, temperament, and physical characteristics which endure, while attitudes, ideas, perceptions, beliefs, and emotions are often fleeting.

As a developmental psychologist, I attempt to understand the functioning of these conditions as an interaction between the external circumstances we each experience and the internal characteristics which we possess. This rich and complex interaction, called by Uri Bronfenbrenner the ecology of human development, is the stuff that constitutes our daily experience of life.

We can’t escape these external and internal circumstances any more than a fish can escape the water or a hummingbird can escape the air. They are intrinsic to our lives, to life itself, in fact. Now, we humans are rather unusual in that, while a bird never wishes to escape the air, we sometimes try to escape the circumstances of our lives. This human phenomenon has implications for institutions, which I will cycle back to later.

Another key aspect of the ecology of human life is that this interaction between the external and internal circumstances is reciprocal. By this, I mean that the direction of effect goes in both directions, and thus they are mutually influential.

The external circumstances; culture, family, economic conditions, and so forth, influence our internal attitudes, perceptions, ideas, and emotions, and the reverse is equally true. The culture, family, friendships and economic conditions in which we live are in turn influenced by our ideas, emotions, attitudes, and talents. And this is the really cool part: this reciprocity operates simultaneously; precisely as our family is influencing us, we are influencing it. So everything is all always dynamic and changing.

This is pretty complex when you really think about it.

But wait, it is actually even more complex than that, because we are not simply robotic expressions of these internal and external circumstances are we? We bring another factor to the equation; our choices and our decisions. Some call it free will: given this and that, I choose to do this. Given the poverty in my community and my deep belief in social justice, I choose to work for Head Start.

So, we individuals face this complex reciprocal ecology: and we therefore must answer some fundamental questions: what will I choose to do, why, how, and when?

Interestingly, we can understand institutions as functioning in society in a similar fashion. Each institution faces a complex set of external circumstances and brings its internal characteristics; its mission or reason for existing, its values and purposes, into interaction with them through the choices it makes. In a very real sense, institutions face the same kind of reciprocally interacting circumstances that we face as individuals.

A for-profit company, for example, might ask: Given poverty and hopelessness in the third world and our company’s commitment to social justice, we choose to pay a living wage at our overseas manufacturing plants.

So, institutions also face important questions within their own complex, reciprocal social ecology that we as individuals face: what will be our role as an institution in society and what will we choose to do to actualize it, why, how, when?

In our personal lives, it is easy to get lost in the details of all of these complex interactions that we live with, the external details and the internal details, and loose touch with the big picture and the role that our choices play in the outcomes of the reciprocal interaction that composes our changing and evolving life experiences.

This is perhaps THE big challenge each of us faces in our lives. We each have to look in the mirror, have a conversation with our selves, and decide how to act. In a very real sense, institutions must do the same.

Responses to the Challenges

Like individuals, each institution, whether it is a for-profit company, a non-governmental agency, a religious institution, a government, or an institution of higher education, must choose its response to these challenges. It must ask: given our mission, purposes, and values as an institution, what will we choose to do and why, how specifically will we do it, and when should we start? Furthermore, I believe that it is one of the fundamental responsibilities of institutional leadership to lead this conversation and ensure that the institution focuses clearly on its unique response to the challenges of the day.

The founding mothers and fathers of Antioch University New England faced the circumstances of their day, 44 years ago, and answered these challenges. In 1963, as the planning was underway at Antioch College in Ohio to found a graduate teacher education program in New England, this country was experiencing a new awareness of the grinding effects of poverty on America&rsquos children.

The Antioch Putney graduate teacher education program established the mission of this institution with stunning clarity. This is how it was described in the first catalog of the institution: This program is designed for those who want to help meet pressing social needs by teaching in disadvantaged communities, or working in other community programs, in rural or urban poverty areas. In other words, if you are not interested in making a profound difference in the lives of children living in poverty, don’t bother to apply.

This original DNA of Antioch University New England has guided our mission throughout the institution’s history and still does today as we continue to provide graduate degree programs that address pressing societal needs. Over its 40 plus years, AUNE has consistently adapted its programs, in a kind-of reciprocal dance with an evolving and changing society, but always with a clear focus on its core mission of addressing pressing societal needs.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, as the environmental movement was just beginning, AUNE founded the very first graduate program in the country in environmental studies.

Based on a growing body of scientific research in child development in the 1970s and 80s, our education department designed programs that focused on the whole child, through integrated learning.

Our business programs were designed to address society’s need for business leaders who can promote organizational integrity. And in the 1980s and 90s, AUNE developed a variety of counseling and clinical psychology programs to prepare professionals to help individuals, families, and children successfully face their life challenges.

The commitment of Antioch University New England to address pressing societal needs continues today with our new autism spectrum disorders certificate program, and new programs focused on issues related to climate change: our new green MBA and educating for sustainability programs.

As I have thought about my presidency at AUNE and the direction this institution is taking or should take in the future, I have been struck by the power of our current, brief branding statement. ‘ Some might call it our motto because it kind of has that flavor. But I find it to be a very powerful statement that responds to the basic questions I have been discussing today: given our mission, purposes, and values as an institution, what will we choose to do and why, how specifically will we do it, and when should we start.

This little statement is everywhere at Antioch University New England: Because the world needs you now. I would like to analyze this motto at bit with you, so please be patient with me for a few minutes.

Because the world needs you now. Of course, this statement has multiple purposes for Antioch University New England. It is meant to both define our institution’s purpose in this world and also to define the kind of students we seek. So, it speaks to our institution and to us as individuals. And importantly, it carries forward that amazing attitude expressed in that very first Antioch Putney catalog: If you are not interested in changing the world for the better, don’t bother applying.

BECAUSE the world needs you now. Because THE WORLD needs you now. Because the world NEEDS you now. Because the world needs YOU now. Because the world needs you NOW.

This seemingly simple, short statement captures the essence of our DNA as an institution. Every word is meaningful and important. Why does AUNE exist, what is its fundamental mission in society? Because there are pressing societal needs. Who do we serve? The world’s people and environment: its individuals, organizations, schools, and the earth which supports and nurtures all.

I think it is also interesting to note the word needs in this statement. This is a purposeful word choice. It doesn’t say the world wants us or the world would kind of like us to help if we get the time someday. The world needs AUNE – it is an imperative that harkens back to the origins of AUNE in Antioch Putney’s mission to serve children living in poverty.

Of course, the question of who this statement addresses is pretty direct as well – you! Not your neighbor, your sister, or a governmental office, or, for Antioch University New England, not another institution of higher education. It is us. And when? Well, this isn’t a statement that gives us a lot of room for procrastination is it? It’s now. There are pressing societal needs, action to address them is needed by us and it is needed now.

Throughout its 40 plus year history, AUNE has addressed this challenge. Its faculty, staff, and students have directed this institution’s internal characteristics to respond to the evolving external, societal challenges it faced.

Today, more than ever before, we are aware of the global nature of many of the problems we face as a society. I believe that, for Antioch University New England, this means that we must take the words the world in our motto quite literally. It is not just a euphemism. But rather, it is an imperative that takes our challenge to another level. In the coming years, Antioch University New England must extend its reach and take its core mission of addressing pressing societal needs beyond the boundaries of its usual audiences and geographical region.

Through new program delivery modalities, we will extend the opportunity to take advantage of an AUNE education to people around the world who could never come to Keene, New Hampshire, empowering them to make a powerful contribution to pressing societal needs in their locales. And through their service, practice, and scholarship, our faculty and staff will continue to grow the scope and reach of their work nationally and internationally.

The leadership of an institution has a very special responsibility to ensure that it does not lose its focus on its core mission and values and that it addresses that mission to the unique external circumstances it faces. This is perhaps the most basic responsibility of organizational leadership. I am honored and humbled to have been given this responsibility for Antioch University New England at this time in its history. It is an exciting and challenging time indeed.

And so I pledge to you, to Antioch University’s trustees, to my colleagues on the Universities Leadership Council, to our faculty, staff, students, and alumni, and to my family and friends in this room and outside of it: I will dedicate my every energy to serve you and this marvelous institution’s very special role in society.