Chairman Stevens, President Emeritus Corts, members of the Board of Trustees and the Board of Overseers, distinguished representatives from universities across the land and from churches throughout the state, honored citizens from the state of Alabama, treasured friends from Arkansas, Samford faculty, staff, alumni, students, and assembled guests...thanks for the bling.
To all those who have labored to make this a proud day for Samford, those who have managed the thousands of details necessary to wave with spirit and with drama the Samford flag, especially to the members of the Inauguration Steering Committee--Bill Stevens, Brad Creed, Taylor Clement, Sarah Latham, Jim Lewis, Michael Morgan, and Don Sandley, and those who served with them--you have earned our gratitude and our respect. If your name is included in the printed program as a member of the steering committee, or as one assisting the committee, would you please stand so that we may applaud your efforts?
The tendency in our age, our culture, in our conceit, is to view ourselves as distinct beings, with scarce recognition of our past and with little sense of obligation for the future. In fact, we did not arrive here alone. This room, this campus, a few acres in East Lake, a spot of ground in Marion--all of these places are filled to overflowing with memories of the birth and rise of what we know today as Samford. It was almost 165 years ago, on Monday, November 15, 1841, that Baptists gathered a few miles to the east, at Talladega, to authorize a plan leading to the establishment of Howard College. Weeks later, on December 29, an act of the legislature empowered the trustees of the college to begin their work, and on January 3, 1842, President Sherman opened the school with nine students. As we now know, the tuition for the first term didn't pay President Sherman's board bill. I suppose he was maintaining a very extravagant lifestyle in Marion, Alabama.
The memories of which I speak have faces. They are the men and women who paid the price, with God's full blessing, to make of this a strong institution. Memory, I believe, is the foundation for gratitude, and with a grateful heart, today I wish to remember one of those many faces. For twenty-three years, he led this institution, with his wife, Marla, to the greatest heights we have known. Together, they modeled for us lives of integrity, an appreciation for the highest standards of scholarship, and a commitment to service. The Sherman Oak, the legendary tree from the East Lake campus, long ago gave up its life, but the splinters of wood that remain are occasionally put to commemorative use, so today, to thank a friend for his encouragement during these months of transition, I wish to present a pen, made from the wood of the Sherman Oak, to Samford's seventeenth president and our current president-emeritus, Dr. Tom Corts. Will you join me in expressing our appreciation to Dr. and Mrs. Corts for all that they have done for Samford University?
To Jeanna, my wife of twenty-six years, and to our daughter, Riley, I say today, thank you for giving up the comfort that we knew as we have begun to build new family traditions here, in Alabama. I love you more than life itself. I knew, Jeanna, when I first saw you that day at Ouachita in September of 1978, that I had found new hope for life. Where my obsession with, now, these two institutions--first Ouachita, then Samford--has caused you to pay too high a price, I ask your forgiveness before all these witnesses. And I'll ask your forgiveness again next week, when the obsession is not abated. Thank you for pouring your life into these places, for loving our students and our colleagues, and for bringing a measure of tranquility to our home. Riley, as the daughter of obsessive parents, you seem to be turning out just fine. When you're ready to talk, I have at least two good colleges for you to consider.
Amazingly, I've managed to make it through the mushy stuff without completely losing my composure. Now, Samford, let's talk.
A few minutes ago, John Duren, the chair of our Board of Overseers, read the scripture for this ceremony, a passage from Romans 12. The members of the committee did not ask my preference for the text, but had they asked, I would have been hard-pressed to find a more appropriate passage for us to consider as--together, as a Samford family--we begin this portion of our journey. One body in Christ, with many members, many gifts, and with all functions prized by the whole.
My father was a Baptist preacher in Arkansas, serving small congregations throughout his ministry, at times working two other jobs to provide for the needs of our family. He died in late October of 1980, a year after my graduation from college. The Bible I have been carrying this morning is the last Bible that he used, and the Bible that my mother used following his death, until she passed away two years ago. In our home, I have a collection of my father's sermon notes, along with a few of his books. In his notes from a sermon on this passage, I found this hand-written statement: "The human instrument may be weak and needy, a body of clay, yet the message is of God."
I stand before you this morning, acknowledging the obvious. Alone, I am utterly inadequate to provide sustained leadership for Samford University. I am a flawed vessel, "weak and needy," as my father wrote in that sermon decades ago, "a body of clay." Individually, weak and needy, we will accomplish very little; together, with the depth of our gifts, we may accomplish much. It is a simple, yet time-honored, message; a strategy for moving us forward; a means for respecting our differences; a hope for adding strength to strength. I need you, each one of you, and I need you for the long haul. Tom Corts said last spring, as he prepared for a retirement that didn't quite materialize, that this is a relay race, and I agree with his analogy, although the laps at Samford seem to be measured in decades, and not in meters.
So how will we run this race? What will you and I do to leave the institution stronger than we found it? How will we accept all that has been provided for us, and build on it, and use it for the greater good? My voice will be joined with those in this room as we seek to build that future--and what is my voice, what is my vision, inquiring minds want to know.
My vision for Samford is that, first, we step back to see the breadth of this great institution, and to understand anew where we may make our most significant contributions. That is an elaborate sentence to describe what is otherwise known as strategic planning. The process is already underway, and we will move forward throughout the winter and spring to achieve broad consensus regarding our challenges, opportunities, and priorities. We will monitor our progress and adjust our plans, as necessary.
As I reference the breadth of Samford, and the importance of our appreciation of that breadth, I acknowledge that this is a unique institution: an undergraduate program built within the context of the liberal arts and graduate and professional programs in diverse fields; a teaching-centered approach to education and stronger-than-ever interest in faculty research; students coming to us from across the country and around the world. Samford's institutional profile is not easily adapted to a standard rubric. My vision for our future is that we ought to embrace this somewhat peculiar arrangement, that we ought to celebrate the opportunities these programs afford us, and that--in every case--we ought to make them as strong and as challenging and as deep as we can--at all levels of the university. Effective teaching is born of meaningful research; meaningful research grows from inspired teaching; deeper knowledge within the disciplines fuels renewed appreciation for the liberal arts; the liberal arts ignite a passion for deeper study in the disciplines. We will do well to recognize these connections, and to build upon them. We are one Samford University, and we are strong because our units are strong. They will grow even stronger in the years ahead, and they will do so under the Samford banner. My great hope for this era of our history is that, with our friends, we will build an endowment that will insure the Samford promise, indeed, for all generations. Endowed scholarships, endowed professorships, endowed research funds, endowed support for international programs, endowed funds for internships and other value-added components, endowed funds for maintenance, even endowed funds for the lush, green grass on Sherman Circle . . . you'll find me working alongside our friends to realize these dreams in the years ahead. Probably not in the immediate future, but on the horizon, we ought to be looking toward an endowment for this institution that will exceed one billion dollars. I cannot imagine a vision for Samford's future that would neglect the importance of getting this done.
Second, my vision for Samford is that we take careful account of the needs of our students. Major Harwell Davis, our fifteenth president and a legendary figure in Samford lore, said in April of 1939, a few months before he began his tenure, that "it is largely the student body that makes the spirit of an institution." He was right, of course, just as he was right in leading what was then Howard College in a radical redesign of the campus, so radical that he moved it here--along with Frank Park Samford, the grandfather of Sam Upchurch, and others--forty-nine years ago to what was then a forested, muddy outpost at the base of Shades Mountain. "The student body makes the spirit of an institution." That spirit soars at Samford. My vision for student life in this place is that we would preserve, nurture, and build a community in which relationships are cherished, ideas are encountered and debated, athletic competition promotes student development, citizens are prepared for engagement, men and women are strengthened in their values, faith becomes real, and life meets meaning. The path to that vision is through decisions small and large. First, for instance, before we can achieve a sense of community, we must find a parking space. (Trust me, help is on the way, despite the fact that I do love that Samford Shuttle.) Beyond that, we ought to look at the ways in which our physical campus either inhibits or promotes the kind of community that we aspire to build. We will seek to limit the inhibiting factors and expand on the opportunities that await us. In the process, I will draw sustained energy from these great students of Samford University, and I will challenge each employee, each day, to remember that they are our great prize, even when they cut in front of us to get the last parking space near our building.
Finally, my vision for Samford is that it would rest on the eternal truths of this book, the eternal truths on which the institution was founded 165 years ago, and that we would keep faith--good faith--with the depth and breadth of our Baptist constituency. I will be a friend to Alabama Baptists and believers throughout the world as we aim to be Christ-centered. For as long as there have been universities connected to bodies of faith, there have been questions regarding the balance between faith and academic freedom. My view is that in Christ, we find the highest standards for each aspect of life, including the life of the mind. Others have said (and I have agreed) that--far too often--Christians have neglected their duties in the realm of scholarship. We have not taken up the work of the academy, but we have not diminished our voices in complaining of that work. As I said to my Ouachita friends eight years ago, and in words upon which I cannot improve, I believe that our Christianity is no excuse for a lack of scholarship. Instead, our faith should move us to the highest standards for excellence. And in that search for excellence, we do not fear the discovery of any truth, because all truth is God's truth. The freedom we find in our faith will challenge, inspire, and sustain us in the most fruitful work of the mind. So let us be anchored, let us be in harmony, and let us be free in our quest for knowledge. And may God take us, and bless us, and use us in bringing hope to a world in need.
Great tasks, requiring great commitment, lie ahead for us. We may be encouraged in the knowledge that our predecessors faced even greater tasks, and that their efforts met with success. A proud heritage calls us to a bright future. Together, we will seek that bright future.
Last fall, just one year ago, as Jeanna and I wrestled with what would become one of the most significant decisions of our lives, a friend in Arkansas, a close friend, sought to advise me in the form of a question. He asked, "Is it possible for you to give your heart to Samford?" It was a question that I could not answer at that moment. As the father of only one daughter, I have not yet experienced the ways and means of loving two or more children, and loving them all equally. But months ago, Jeanna, and Riley, and I learned the answer. Yes, we have given our hearts to Samford, in no way diminishing the depth of our appreciation for the institutions and people who've led and inspired us at other points in our lives. You've taken us as a family, to a family, and we are humbled, honored, proud to serve with you in this place.
So, this morning, a point near the end of our 165th year of service, Mr. Chairman, I affirm that I will do my best, as God gives me light and as our friends lend their support, to faithfully administer the affairs of Samford University with a commitment to that excellence that honors God.
May God bless each one of us, and may God bless Samford University.
Last updated: February 24, 2011
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