Inaugural Address

Presented Oct. 5, 2019 to an assembly of college and university delegates, elected officials, students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members

Words cannot express my profound gratitude. When I arrived in Oneonta last year, my first experience as a college president was this institution greeting me with open arms.

The community, which I now am proud to serve, made sure that I felt welcome. So when it came time to plan this event, it came to no surprise that across campus, everyone put their heart and soul into it. Please join me in recognizing the many people who contributed to making this week great.

Thank you, SUNY Board member Ostro and Chancellor Johnson for your support and leadership. To all who have spoken at today's gathering, I hope you know how much I value your inspiration, your mentorship, your affirmation, your encouragement, and your belief in me. It means the world.

As I look around this arena and, across this podium, I am struck by something quite remarkable. Women and under-represented minorities in leadership are greatly represented here today. I cannot explain the social science behind what is happening right now, but I am proud of this moment.

If you are a woman or an underrepresented minority in a leadership and/or faculty role, please stand, as you are able. We all have likely had a tough slog to get into places of leadership. Perhaps because of this, we feel a deep responsibility to serve as roles models to our students. We have endured, and we have served. We will not be silent, and we are determined to make the path easier for those who chose to join us. Let us stand together not only as worthy examples but as warriors for change for our students.

Amazing, thank you. You may be seated.

Now, those of us who stood before you, know that we do not get here on our own. I must thank my special friends who have traveled here to support me today. Thanks again to Pete and Noelle, especially for your PG stories and reflections of me. Special thanks to Kelly McVeigh, Jay Harrison, Tony and Melba Affingne, Ryan Haaland, and Kelly and Chuck Walker for sharing this day with me. You are all part of my family and have been with me through so much. My journey would not have been the same without you. I love you all.

I am also blessed to have my family with me here today. I am so proud of my children, Moriah, Jacob, and Michaela and my son-in-law Mohit. My two grandbabies Jaya and Joshua are the reasons for all of us to continue our passion and dedication to creating a more just, humane, and sustainable world.

I appreciate my brother-in-law Robert, nephew Greg and my older sister Margie for being here. I was often the irritating little sister; to this day I continue to take some pride in this, but through it all I know that my big sis always has my back.

You might have noticed the symbol of a feather in a circle on my inaugural invitation, the cover of today’s program, and the banners behind the stages. The Native American symbol of the circle best illustrates my desire for a community that is based on mutual understanding, respect, communication, and a shared commitment.

The feather is a tribute to my father. It is often described by native cultures that “Part of the role for the two-legged beside whom Red Tailed Hawk flies is that of Guardian of the Earth Mother and her children. These individuals possess an astute awareness of the concept of the interconnectedness of all things and will have an inner reverence for all life. They are the souls who are involved in making the world a better place, whether locally or globally. Red feathers are not easily given and must instead be earned over time. Thus, the beauty and depth of the Spirit that shines brilliantly forth will be both an inspiration and guidance for others who may be just beginning or in the process of their own awakening.” (Source)

On the day and in the place my father passed, the red-tailed hawk laid its feathers.

In honor of my father, I offer this adapted Cherokee poem by Bonnie Rae:

O’siyo Father

A moment in time is gone forever
The wind is stirring,
My hair is blowing gently in the wind.
As I sit here on this highest hill
I look into the valley below
I see the herd and the stallion in the lead
His tail blowing free behind him
and his mare keeping pace beside him
Mane flowing in the wind
as he races across the valley floor.
Softly I hear a whisper in my ear…
O’siyo father, I hear you
I know you are here beside me,
It has been awhile since last we talked
I have missed you.
Your wisdoms and the stories of old
I have longed to hear them once again
Yes they are beautiful, the horse below
they are free as we once were, in the long ago.
The stallion has the spirit of the fire and the
swiftness of the wind.
Also the wisdom of mother earth to
lead his herd far from the dangers to grazing
that is pure and untainted.
He too must remember the camp fires
that used to glow in the night
When our people and his kind
shared this beautiful land.
The time of peace and harmony.
Soon father I will join you
we will cross this land and remember
Ah yes I see… brother hawk in the distance
He too longs for those days as well
father must you go soon?
I will wait for your return….
As father faded from my sight
trees stir and I felt his touch upon my brow
His words echoing in the wind…
be well my child
remember who you are…
Cherokee Earthkeeper
As a feather drifted to land at my feet…

(Source: By Bonnie Rae)

In addition to having a wonderful role model in my father, my mother Betty Morris is here with me today. My mom finished college later in life after spending time raising my sister and me. She has been a tireless advocate for access and developmental early childhood education. In California, she was instrumental in creating legislation, policy, and funding that helped advance relevant, affordable, and quality education for underserved populations. Her leadership, passion, and dedication has directly impacted teaching, learning, and education in the California public school system. As a co-generational student, my mom served as my orientation leader at San Diego State. She gave me the tour of campus and helped me register for classes. My mom has always been my advocate. She has supported my activism, even when it landed me in the principal’s office. She has supported me financially when I was a single mother, and she has always encouraged me to follow my dreams, even when they take me 3,000 miles away to New York.

My parents’ passion for each other and their family, for the community in which they live, for educational opportunity and for service and paying it forward, laid the foundation for my resilience and values and why I now call SUNY Oneonta home.

SUNY Oneonta since its founding in 1889 has been dedicated to making communities better through education and training. Fundamentally, the core belief that has endured is that education can both empower and transform. Embedded in this transformation, are three core values of SUNY Oneonta. The first value is inclusivity. Today, inclusion, tolerance, and civility are often missing in our discourse. How will we continue to uphold this value? How will we be the example of nurturing a community that celebrates personal and intellectual diversity, that is free from bias, but also welcomes opposing voices? We must be diligent as we embrace the challenges and opportunities that question our boundaries and the status quo. We will be tested but hate has no place here.

Equity has long been a focus of SUNY Oneonta. The college framed its first plan to increase diversity and inclusion over a decade ago and has twice won national awards for its efforts in these areas. We continue to have success attracting a student body that is more and more diverse each year. Yet, we need to do more, and we will, because underneath data and accolades, inclusivity is about ensuring human dignity. It demands that we seek out unfairness, acknowledge hurt where it exists and commit to shaping a strong and just community. This will be the charge of our recast Office of Inclusion and Civility to be introspective and unafraid, to be a force for understanding and for change.

Our second enduring value is service. In order to build community, we must be willing to serve it. Service takes on many forms, but we all have a responsibility to participate, to enhance, and promote the betterment of our community. This involves a commitment. It involves time. We must be intentional as we create avenues to serve. We also need to be held accountable and understand our impact. Last year our students logged well over 50,000 hours of community service. I expect that number to increase substantially. I want to applaud our students for organizing two special service events for the inauguration: First, our “Yes We Can” drive which has been collecting nonperishable food items for local food pantries, including one on our campus; second, the “SUNY’s Got Your Back” program, which helps victims of domestic violence. Both causes are very near to my heart. Thank you to the student and staff organizers. Our dedication to serve demonstrates the strong ethic of care that defines SUNY Oneonta.

Our third value is sustainability. Not only environmental stewardship, but also sustainability in its broadest form. Fiscal sustainability and what I like to call sustainability of the soul. I reflected a great deal on this value as I trekked Mt. Kilimanjaro this past summer. Witnessing firsthand the retreating glaciers, and the erosion of the landscape on some of the more terrifying exposed portions of the climb created an urgency for me regarding our commitment to environmental sustainability. Testing my fear of heights, pushing my body and mind, was exhilarating, albeit at times exhausting. Essentially, the whole experience was me having a soul-searching debate for eight days on the mind-body problem. What are mental and physical states? Does one influence the other? What is consciousness? What is intentionality? And, the biggest question; what was I thinking?! I have searched for an adjective to describe my experience. In a word, it was extraordinary. I am not sure why Descartes, Plato, and Aristotle were on my mind during the trek, but I do know that my exposure to the liberal arts and sciences likely contributed. Forty years later, in addition to my introduction to philosophy course, I reflected on the one geology class I took and wished I had taken more. I am proud of our faculty looking at ways to embed notions of sustainability throughout our curriculum and reviewing our general educational program, asking the big questions; essentially, what do our students need to know, why do they need to know it, and how are we ensuring that they get it? Relevancy and innovation in our curriculum and pedagogies stand at the forefront of what we need to be as an exemplar residential campus.

If we are to set the example, then what is our responsibility? It is not sufficient to rest on statistics that demonstrate an increase in wage and social mobility of our college graduates. Even with all the statistics regarding the benefits of obtaining a degree, a growing percentage of Americans doubt that college is worth the cost. As perceptions of value fade, the cost of college skyrockets, and the commitment of state and federal governments to support higher education declines, we must have the courage to challenge the status quo, test our assumptions, and ask difficult questions regarding our relevancy and impact. We must be willing to ask, “Why?” Not like a 13-year-old, but rather like my grandchildren, out of curiosity and wonder. In asking why we do something, we should not settle for the answer “because we have always done it this way.” We must posit our intent, a rationale, and then be held accountable for the outcome. This seems simple. However, the academy is built on traditions, and often our traditions stymie our ability to act. But act, we must. Acting effectively calls for some good old-fashioned research. We must understand the needs of our students, not only of today, but importantly of tomorrow. We should visit elementary and middle schools to understand how teachers are teaching and how students are learning. We must understand how machine learning and the global access to content will affect our roles as educators. We must listen to employers and our communities. We need to confront the obstacles that face rural America and the disappearing middle-class. I believe that our personal challenges will become our political ones. The personal is political. As a community we must figure out ways our students can learn, live, and stay in our region if they desire.

There are daunting social problems facing the world today. I believe the solution lies in our mission.

It starts with, “We.” As the chancellor often states regarding the SUNY system, we are stronger together than alone. I believe that is the case at SUNY Oneonta as well.

We nurture a community where students grow intellectually, thrive socially, and live purposefully. If we march to our values and work to fulfill our mission, then we will achieve the vision of being an exemplar residential campus that provides relevant educational experiences now and for years to come with the aim of promoting a more just, humane, and sustainable world.

In the words of California activist Cesar Chavez, “Si Se Puede!” We are able!

Thank you all for sharing this special event with me.

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