Office of the President

Inaugural Keynote Speech

"Great Plenty" - Dr. Constantine (Deno) Curris - September 19, 2008

Seven years have passed since I last visited St. Cloud State University. Like today, it was a joyous occasion—the inauguration of a president and a celebration of the richly layered history and powerful promise of this university.

The book of Genesis refers to "seven years of great plenty," and while I would not wish to suggest that recent appropriations from the state of Minnesota have been adequate, much less "plenty"—I am struck by how this campus has grown and prospered during these seven years, and how today St. Cloud State University, unencumbered by divisiveness or distraction, is poised to enhance its stellar reputation and to enrich the lives of its students and the community here in central Minnesota and beyond. So on this beautiful September day, I join you in congratulating President Earl H. Potter III and celebrating this University.

A week ago we commemorated the anniversary of September 11, honoring those who fell, and recalling that horrific tragedy which brought together all Americans in support of the "common good," binding us to the place and its ideals.

9/11 and its aftermath changed our campuses, as well. We are far more conscious of safety issues and energy usages, but we also grapple with economic conditions that have produced the free flow of capital and human resources across natural borders, the globalization of employment opportunities, the massification of higher education on all continents, the adoption of English as lingua franca, and the immense challenges to prepare students for this new world order.

In this context universities across this country are re-examining their missions and re-assessing their educational programs. They are seeking to adapt to the challenges of the 21st century while not abandoning the basic values of the academy or compromising their commitments to the public trust.

Our nation’s public universities have a marvelous heritage which has helped define those basic values and public commitments. As the newfound nation struggled to exist under the Articles of Confederacy, momentous legislation was enacted. The Continental Congress, through the Ordinance of 1785 and the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, provided public lands to fund and stipulated the establishment of public schools in the Northwest Territories in what we now refer to as the Midwest.

The motivation behind this landmark legislation establishing public schools was to prevent religious orders from colonizing the new territory and establishing religious schools. Thomas Jefferson was determined to keep the clergy out of education, especially fearing the Presbyterians.

Of course, if there were to be public schools, there had to be teachers. And for many years, male high school graduates filled that role. But then the tempest which had long tormented the new nation consummated in the Civil War—a conflagration which produced the stark necessity, especially in the new territories, to permit women to teach in these "common’ schools. Simply stated, there were not enough men. Under these circumstances, a national movement arose—the establishment of "normal" schools to prepare teachers for the public schools. This was the genesis of St. Cloud State University.

In the same timeframe, another movement began: the land-grant college. While public colleges had earlier been established in Georgia and South Carolina, these institutions were modeled after their private, religiously-affiliated counterparts in New England. They existed for the privileged classes, not for the common people. But in the midst of the Civil War, Congress enacted and President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which extended higher education to the sons and daughters of the working classes. The Morrill Act was groundbreaking in its support for the "liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions of life."

From these two movements has evolved today’s public universities. They were created to respond to the needs of the people. We are creatures of the state, but more importantly, we are places of public purpose. We are here to promote the common weal. We believe in access and affordability. We open the portals of opportunity—not only for individuals, but for all American classes and groups. We nurture citizenship. We promote civic engagement. We help our fellow citizens solve problems through research—especially applied research focused on bringing probing analyses and good science to bear on issues facing society. We are partners with local, state, and the federal government—in the words of that old General Electric commercial: "To bring good things to life."

Yet for all we do, there is much more left to be done. The economic upheavals in the 21st century are real and troubling. Economic globalization has resulted in a world without borders—a world where jobs pass effortlessly from one nation to another, where people stream across borders, often with the wink of an eye, where technological capacity for both good and evil is widely dispersed, where the concentration of wealth and power threatens the human rights we proudly acclaim and long took for granted.

In this new world order, the public’s universities remain a repository for good. It is here that ideas, both sound and goofy, and at times controversial, can be discussed openly and freely, where discourse is civil, where people seek the unvarnished truth rather than blindly accept distortions and dogma (both of which, I might add, are in abundance this election year.)

What is heartening to me as I view higher education across the country is the movement of public universities, including St. Cloud State University, to engage their communities and regions in a dynamic effort to strengthen the quality of educational experiences offered their students, to enhance the economic viability of their regions and to improve the quality of life of their citizens. We are recognized as "stewards of place." We have a special and critical responsibility not only to educate students anew, but to provide continuing education for adults—including many who are victims of economic dislocation. An anxious public looks to us to help solve their problems, to better their schools, to help business and industry adapt to change, to improve health care, to strengthen the nation’s economic viability, to provide guidance to confront the impact of environmental change, and to enrich the quality of life for all who live not only in our home communities, but for those who reside in the broad region we serve and beyond.

Across this nation, public universities increasingly recognize they are no longer insulated by ivied-clad walls. Your university, through its teaching, its clinical experiences, its research and its programs of public service, engages its fellow citizens and helps shape common dreams and aspirations.

As is readily apparent any institution of higher education can describe itself as a "steward of place." That nomenclature is not limited to one type of institution. But for those of us whose lives have been intertwined with public universities, stewardship is more than an option. It is integral to fulfilling our responsibilities to the public. It flows from our heritage, and complements our student-centeredness. The involvement of students in our work enriches their educational experiences and helps fulfill the vision that our graduates have not only the preparation for economic success, but they also have developed the ethical compass and civic commitment to insure that our country and its democratic traditions survive and thrive.

I extend to President Earl H. Potter III my sincere congratulations and best wishes, and I commend the University community on its leadership choice and on a deep and abiding commitment to the work of the public university which today we celebrate and renew. And, of course, to you all I wish many years of "great plenty."