It was the summer of 1981, I was 24 years old, and I was entering my final year as a PhD student in chemical engineering at the University of Minnesota.
My CV at the time was a bit... thin.
On a positive note, all of its empty space suggested I had room to grow.
So I was excited to make my very first professional oral conference presentation at the 55th Annual Colloid and Surface Science Symposium, which happened to be on the campus of Case Western Reserve University.
And I gave that talk just a few hundred steps behind me in the Strosacker auditorium.
I knew that Case Western Reserve was a nationally recognized research university with a reputation for excellence.
I knew about the strength and influence of its chemical engineering department.
I knew that for me, the only child of working-class parents and a first-generation college graduate, this was an important opportunity.
I knew that my academic and professional career could grow because of it.
And, I hoped that I would have something to offer that would make a difference to those at the meeting.
You should know that as I stand here on this campus four decades later, I am desperately fighting back the urge to give all of you an encore performance of that presentation.
For the record, it was entitled “Small-Angle X-ray Scattering and Viscometric Studies of the Microstructure of Microemulsions.”
And trust me, it was FASCINATING.
Since then, I have been a professor, a department chair, a dean, a provost and a president.
I also have the same strong positive views of Case Western Reserve that I did all those years ago.
Though now, of course, I see it through a different lens—as someone whose CV has grown to be both less, and so thoroughly and unambiguously more, SPARTAN.
I am excited to devote the next chapter of my life to this university, to its mission and to its students.
Friends, together, we have room to grow and the opportunities that lie ahead for us are important ones.
I ask you today to join me in continuing to propel this great university forward towards a goal of excellence.
Because I know that working together, we can realize the mission of Case Western Reserve University—even in, and especially in, these uncertain times.
Working together, we can transform—our students, our campus, our neighbors, our community, our world.
Board Chair DiSanto, Vice Chair Richards, Vice Chair Callahan, Vice Chair Gerberding and to all the members of our Board of Trustees, thank you for your wise counsel, your support, your governance of Case Western Reserve University and your confidence in me as its president.
And to all of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students, Emeriti Trustees, my fellow college and university presidents, distinguished guests, elected officials, community partners and friends—and to all of those watching online and at the watch party happening at Strosacker Auditorium—welcome and thank you for joining us.
No mention of gratitude in my life is complete without acknowledging my best friend, my partner, my better two-thirds, my wife, Karen Kaler.
Karen, our sons Charlie and Sam, our daughters-in-law Lisa and Lizzy, and our precious granddaughter, Ophelia, inspire me every day to do and be better.
We all have room to grow and we all have transformative work to do.
And in order to grow and to transform, our work must follow a handful of guiding principles that will point the way.
We must commit to:
Cultivating a campus community that is welcoming, diverse and inclusive—we thrive when we combine our collective life experiences, perspectives and knowledge.
We must commit to:
Encouraging imagination, innovation and collaboration across disciplines through rigorous classroom and experiential learning.
Our students’ experience is enhanced when our faculty do all they can to ensure student learning occurs both within and beyond the classroom.
We must commit to:
Engaging with our Cleveland and East Cleveland neighbors to achieve positive social change.
All of our futures will rise together.
We must commit to:
Enhancing our ties with our healthcare, entrepreneurial, education, business, community and non-profit partners.
These connections will amplify the impact and scope of what we do.
We must commit to:
Using technology and research to improve humanity while keeping ethics and equity top of mind.
It is incumbent on us to consider all of the consequences—the good and the undesirable—that arise from our research.
And as we move forward, guided by these principles, we will put human lives at the center of our decisions.
Putting people first has been a part of the university ethos since the 1826 founding of Western Reserve College in Hudson, Ohio, then an anti-slavery town.
A two-sided historical marker, that’s just across Adelbert Road, shares this history.
One side of the marker is titled, “A School with a Viewpoint.”
It notes the anti-slavery views at the college, its connection to the Underground Railroad and that in 1854, university abolitionists invited Frederick Douglass to deliver the commencement address—it was his first-ever invitation to participate in a college commencement.
The other side of the marker is titled, “Fields of Ideals.”
It marks the home of Horatio Cyrus and Martha Cozad Ford—whose home, near this corner of Adelbert and Euclid—was a stop on the Underground Railroad.
It was only fitting, then, that when Western Reserve College moved to Cleveland in the 1880s, the Ford homestead eventually became part of Western Reserve University, and, as the sign reads, “two legacies in the struggle against slavery would come together.”
Indeed, we are a school with a viewpoint. And we are a home to modern day fields of ideals.
In his commencement address on July 12, 1854, Frederick Douglass presented the Western Reserve College graduates with a challenge.
He said, “I am animated by a desire to bring before you a matter of living importance—[a] matter upon which action, as well as thought, is required. The relation subsisting between the white and black people of this country is the vital question of the age. In the solution of this question, the scholars of America will have to take an important and controlling part. This is the moral battle field to which their country and their God now call them.”
Douglass’s words still resonate today.
Sadly, we still have much work left to do. But rather than be discouraged, I ask you to take heart from Douglass’ call to action.
And to recognize that the scholars of America must be an important part of addressing injustice.
We must remember that when we put all people first, we all grow and we can all transform for the better.
Today, we see that principle reflected in our students.
Students like Alex Berrum-Navarrete.
Alex is a fourth-year student from Hammond, Indiana, who, this May, will earn his bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in bioethics and medical humanities.
Like so many of our students, Alex is bright, ambitious and driven.
The youngest of five children, he was raised by a single mother who came to the United States from Mexico. He was also among the first in his family to attend college.
Alex arrived at Case Western Reserve in the fall of 2018 with big plans.
He wanted to be a doctor.
But a few weeks into his first year here, he felt alone and isolated.
Many of his peers didn’t come from the same cultural and socioeconomic background that he did and Alex felt out of place.
He felt like an imposter.
He was eager to find something that had been so important to him when he was growing up—a sense of community.
So Alex went looking for it.
He knew that at a place like our university, a place where, he says, there are so many opportunities to develop leadership skills and to get involved, that there had to be a place for him.
He soon realized that differences were not limiting factors to success for him, or for any other student.
On the contrary, he learned that his background and his perspective were among his strengths.
He’d heard about something called First CWRU, a new student group for first generation college students, like him.
At the time, First CWRU was still in its infancy and in need of executive board members, so Alex joined as a founding member.
Last year, he served as the group’s president.
And that’s just one of his many accomplishments.
All told, since he arrived at Case Western Reserve, Alex has been a caucus representative to the USG, a community council member of the residence hall association, a literacy tutor, a blood donor ambassador, an emergency medical technician, and a resident assistant—and more.
He’s also on the Dean’s Honors List.
Even during the pandemic, Alex stayed connected. As an RA, he was on campus all year last year, so he used it as an opportunity to focus on building community in new ways.
Of course, pandemic living wasn’t easy.
Like so many, he struggled with the blurred boundaries of living and working in the same space.
So he did the one thing that had helped him in the past. He reached out.
Only this time, it was to the community at our counseling services office.
That choice helped him through the year and empowered him to set boundaries and to make positive changes that would help him move forward.
And today, Alex appreciates everything he is.
He identifies as a scholar, a first-generation college student, a LatinX gay man, a community leader.
Alex’s story speaks to a question I believe every college and university should ask themselves:
What is our ability to transform a student?
No, it’s not a metric that’s as easy to measure as graduation rates or retention rates.
But it actually matters MORE.
There are literally thousands of versions of Alex’s story here at Case Western Reserve and we should continue to share them.
Alex, please stand.
Thank you for letting me share your story.
And Alex, don’t forget about us when you start applying to medical school. No promises, but we do have a good one.
Friends, when we follow our guiding principles, when we put people first and when we create opportunities that have the power to transform, then we achieve excellence.
Consider our own recent history.
The 1967 federation of the Case Institute of Technology and Western Reserve University was forged to achieve excellence.
The university’s first campus master plan in 1988 emerged from a new vision for the university’s future — a vision to achieve excellence.
The 1992 creation of the Case School of Engineering and the College of Arts and Sciences fashioned a clear pathway for both of them to achieve excellence.
Ten years ago this week, President Emerita Snyder launched the Forward Thinking campaign to strengthen philanthropy at the university, which in turn, would lead to new opportunities to achieve excellence.
In 2012, the university adopted its first Diversity Action Strategic Plan to achieve inclusive excellence.
In 2013, our Provost Scholars program, which prepares high school students from Cleveland and East Cleveland to attend college, was founded to expand opportunities for young people and to remove barriers to achieving excellence.
The Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box], a seven-story tinkering playground for innovators, collaborators and entrepreneurs, opened in 2015 to achieve creative excellence.
Our Case Comprehensive Cancer Center, The Health Education Campus and the National Center for Regenerative Medicine demonstrate that when we partner with our regional hospital systems, we can achieve better patient outcomes and excellence in healthcare and medicine.
And two days ago, we dedicated Phase II of the Milton and Tamar Maltz Performing Arts Center—a truly stunning renovation that will inspire performing arts students to achieve excellence.
A recent piece by the well-known Washington Post columnist George Will reminded me of a contradiction posed for higher education in America by Alexis de Tocqueville nearly 200 years ago, namely, “Can a nation so thoroughly committed to equality cultivate and celebrate excellence, which [by definition] distinguishes the few from the many.”
The answer to that question continues to be, and must be, a resounding yes.
There is no doubt that our university must be a place where access and opportunity are equally available to all who are prepared to join us.
It must be a place where excellence is forged by challenging work, relentless intellectual rigor, an appetite for risk, and a will to succeed.
Don Randel, the former president of the University of Chicago once shared:
“The ultimate foundation of any society ought to be the human imagination, honed to the greatest degree and in the company of its faithful companion…CURIOSITY.
So what are our roles, as individuals and as a collective, to focus imagination and curiosity into our pursuit for excellence?
To our faculty:
We are a research university that prides itself on providing students with collaborative, service-oriented and interdisciplinary learning opportunities.
Many of our students share that the reason they choose to attend our university is because of you, our outstanding faculty.
Your work drives this university.
But let me be clear: if your research is uninspired, if your syllabus remains unchanged each semester, if your students are not engaged, then you are stale.
And you must reinvent yourself.
As you expect me to deliver on my job, I expect you to deliver on yours.
To our staff:
In every aspect of our operations, we must question what we do. We need to know the intended outcome or if we could do it better, or perhaps, not at all.
We must be data driven, decisive and sure that everything we do at this university is as effective as it can be.
And for those of you who are front line workers who persist each day, tending to and caring for our students, we are especially grateful for your work.
You are changing their lives and their view of the helpfulness in humanity.
To our alumni:
Your advocacy, your stories and your willingness to give your time and resources to this university makes a tremendous difference.
Consider how you can be a force for change to one of our students or programs.
You can be a mentor, a tutor, or you can provide a student with an internship opportunity.
Remember the folks who helped you along the way and, then, pay it forward.
To our valued industry and nonprofit partners:
Our ability to collaborate on life-saving research, to bring cutting-edge technology to market and to be agents for change within our community will solidify our region as a hub for innovation.
As the saying goes, success breeds success.
Our successful partnerships will enable us to attract and retain the best talent, drive further investment, and more importantly, to discover new things.
We ask for your continued and expanding partnership.
To our campus and community neighbors:
We pledge to be a good steward of this precious ground and to be welcoming, inclusive and responsible community citizens.
We’ll look out for you, we’ll support you, and we’ll respect your spaces. We ask you to partner with us and share your input as we continue to put people first.
The choices we make and the actions we take for our community members improve life for us all.
To our friends and supporters:
Your gifts and your generosity support our research, our campus infrastructure, and our ability to expand opportunities and access to our university for students who otherwise could not afford it.
We are grateful for all of your contributions and your commitment to philanthropy.
And finally, saving the best for last, to our undergraduate, graduate and professional students:
You are the future.
Whether you are students of the humanities, the arts, science, engineering, medicine, dental medicine, business, social sciences, law or nursing—each of you has the ability to transform yourselves and the world around you.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith so profoundly shared at our fall convocation: “I invite you to look at yourselves in a courageous way and to care about a larger and farther flung version of community. A community that includes people you may never meet face-to-face, but whom your choices inevitably touch.”
As I conclude, I ask you to take time in the next few days to look inward with an objective, unsentimental lens and ask yourself:
Who am I driven to serve?
What is my impact?
When do I take risks?
And how do I define excellence and make it my goal?
I’ll close today with one of my favorite African proverbs:
If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
I look forward to going far together in this next chapter for Case Western Reserve University.