“Let us tell the story of our College’s pioneers, explorers, investigators, champions, entrepreneurs, and ambassadors. Let us tell the stories of adversities overcome, and triumphs achieved. Let us share the spirit of Utica College, and in so doing, help the women and men who will be the future of this College to find their way here.”
- Laura M. Casamento, Ninth President of Utica College
Inaugural Address, September 23, 2016
The World Needs More Utica College Graduates
a profound sense of gratitude, a deep sense of responsibility, and a great love of this institution, I stand before you as the ninth president of Utica College. I deeply appreciate your being here today – your presence is powerful testimony to the value of the work that takes place at this institution.
This afternoon we gather in a ceremony marking a transition of leadership at the College, and we do so in the context of the weekend known as Homecoming. What a perfect time to reflect on the purposes and accomplishments of this noble institution, now seventy years young, and to consider our collective responsibility to see it forward into the future.
For those of you who have joined us today from other places, I would like to welcome you to Utica and the Mohawk Valley. I’m grateful to have had the good fortune to be able to raise my children in this wonderfully diverse, warm, and caring community. The City of Utica and the Mohawk Valley in which it is nestled is home to many first-generation families, from many ethnic backgrounds, who settled, struggled, found common cause, made friends, and came to feel the promise of America – right here. As you know by now, this is home for me – this is where I grew up, where I learned to take care of myself, to stand up for myself, to figure things out myself, and most importantly, to keep moving forward – to, as we at Utica College often remind ourselves, never stand still. Life is too short, the journey too long, and the views around the next bend too breathtaking, to ever stand still.
Having deep roots in the Utica area proved most helpful to me when I first came to work for the College in 2004 as Todd Hutton’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement. As I was settling into my new work, I became aware that I had come under the watchful eye of one Dr. Virgil Crisafulli, a founding member of the faculty of Utica College, a legendary teacher, and a highly respected and beloved figure in this College community (and well beyond it). No one knew this College better than Dr. Cris did. At first, I thought he was keeping an eye on me out of a concern for the future of the College: after all, what could a former bank president know about the considerably less linear ways of higher education?
But I soon came to appreciate that what he was actually doing was looking out for me – that he “had my back,” as we say today. Why he extended such kindness to me I’m not exactly sure (maybe he liked that I also had a Sicilian last name.). But whatever his reason, he befriended me; he wanted me to really come to understand this institution and the journey it was on from its adolescence to adulthood. He wanted me to understand, I think, how humble were its origins, how human its mission, how transformative its effect, and how deeply profound was its contribution to the lives of its students and to the life of this community.
One of the essential truths about Utica College is that we almost invariably believe in our students before they come to believe in themselves, and this hastens the day when they confidently take the reins of their own futures. We help them develop their self-confidence by showing our own confidence in them, and by urging them along when, perhaps, they stumble. So it was in 1946, when our first students started filing into their classes. If a professor such as Dr. Cris noted the absence of a student on a particular morning (and they always did notice), that student could expect a knock on his or her apartment door that evening, inquiring as to whether everything was all right (sometimes it wasn’t) and then urging that student, gently but emphatically, back on course.
Many a former GI needed to be convinced that they could make it work in college and in their private lives nearly as well as they had managed to survive the war. The faculty of this College recognized from Day One that our students didn’t arrive fully ready to succeed: they came as they were, bringing with them whatever talents, aspirations, memories, and fears they had developed thus far in life. The Utica College faculty wasn’t dealing with uniformly prepared students; it was dealing with variously prepared students now out of uniform. Our earliest students more or less shared the same objective, but the path each would need to walk to achieve it would be their own. It took a special kind of guide, and a special kind of teacher, to help these students walk their own paths. And it always has.
I’ve been here for quite a while now, and I’m struck on an almost daily basis by how this College’s contemporary faculty and staff honor the work of our predecessors.
Every day, in classrooms, in offices, in hallways, and on the athletic fields, students take one more step toward that day in their own lives when surety will overtake hesitancy – when the fundamental belief that they can figure it out finally defeats their fear that maybe they can’t. This academic community knows how to build the fire and
strike the match, and that allows our graduates to leave here not just sure they are well prepared for that first job
, but empowered by confidence and intellectual curiosity, critical qualities shared by people who lead fulfilling and rewarding lives
In Dr. Cris’ history of the early years of Utica College, he recounted what he said to those early students – most of whom were prematurely sophisticated and hardened by war, but at the same time, made uncertain and vulnerable by peace. He said to them: “Within twenty years of when you get your college degree, you will be leaders of this city.”
He confessed to his readers: “I knew that was an extravagant statement, but I believed what I was saying. Some of them laughed, but many others took it in good faith and gained confidence from what I said. And I was only off by a few short years. In twenty-five, thirty, or thirty-five years our graduates were all over the area, in leadership roles as mayors, judges, legislators, teachers, lawyers, doctors, government and business leaders.”
Sitting among us today are a few of those original Utica College success stories, and many of their sons, daughters, grandchildren and great grandchildren, alumni in their own right. You all know what this College did for you, and by extension your family and we all know what you, and your families, have done for this community. We thank Dr. Cris, and all the hardworking women and men who came before us, for showing us how to be a college that truly transforms lives.
I hope that when the next chapter of the History of Utica College is written, that it will be said of our time, simply this: that we strengthened the College’s educational core, reaffirmed its most deeply held convictions, greatly increased the number of students who completed their degrees and graduated on time, and tended to the needs of this institution and the people who comprised it with discipline, wisdom, care, and love.
In particular, I look forward to focusing our collective attention on working with the faculty and staff to evolve new and effective ways to create improved conditions for student success, so that not just most students, but every student who enrolls at Utica College is able to persist in his or her studies, complete his or her degree, and graduate in as timely a manner as personal circumstances allows.
When a student does not persist to a timely graduation, chances are we will have not lit the fire: he or she will have made an investment that did not pay off, and we will have made a promise that we did not keep. Both the student and the College will have lost.
Despite all we have done, and will continue to do in the years ahead, to keep the cost of the education we provide as affordable as possible, a college education, ours included, represents one of the biggest expenses our students will ever incur in their lives, and for the majority of our students, it’s an expense incurred before their real income producing years begin. For that expense to prove a good investment, students need to complete their studies, walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and shake my hand.
As long as I serve this college as its president, it will be my goal to shake the hand of every student who enrolls at Utica College, and hand each and every one of them a diploma.
I love this College; I love its entrepreneurial spirit, the deep commitment of faculty and staff to the transformative work we do. I’ve seen the effect of that work in my own children, and in other members of my family who were fortunate enough to find their way here. I love the students we teach: so bright, so optimistic, so much the hope of their families and their communities. I love the way our faculty members teach them – how they spark their intellectual curiosity; how they help them come to believe in themselves.
I believe that the whole world, not just Utica and the Mohawk Valley, needs us to keep our promise to the students we are preparing. The world needs more Utica College graduates – their intelligence, their groundedness, their openness, their willingness. So I intend, in the strategic planning work we are about to undertake, to focus our objectives on strengthening the core of the College. I want us to stay light on our feet, be open to new ideas, and continue moving, deliberately but inevitably, forward.
Utica College is on the move. We are attracting more and better-qualified applicants than ever before. Our reputation – our brand – is strengthening and spreading. The caliber of our academic programs is high, and our athletic programs continue to gain momentum. This is all good news, and a great and just tribute to the hard work of our faculty and staff, and to my predecessor, Dr. Todd Hutton and his inspired leadership over the past eighteen years.
When my presidency comes one day to its inevitable close, I hope the College historian will say of our years of work together that we never stood still, that during our time Utica College became more united, more focused, and more financially secure. I hope he or she will write that the College never forgot where it came from, or who it was here to serve; that we never forgot what our dedicated founders (like Dr. Cris) had in mind, and that we both urgently and creatively found new ways to meet the needs of the “serious and guardedly hopeful” students of our own time, as they sought to climb the ladder of economic prosperity. I hope it will be said that it was recognized throughout this region and state of New York, that this “first College of Utica and the Mohawk Valley” was this region’s most dedicated and stalwart economic and cultural partner – an institution proud of its home; in a home that is proud of it.
I hope it will be said of these years that the College welcomed a brilliant new generation of colleagues into the fold; that we attracted next generation of teachers and administrators who Dr. Cris himself would have recognized in a heartbeat as “his kind of people;” that they brought with them, and we welcomed, new ideas and perspectives that allowed this College to become an ever better version of itself.
I also want it to be said of these years that the College conducted its business in a manner consistent with certain bedrock principles of our democracy, so that we provided a good example both to our students and for ourselves.
Utica College is a shining example of one of America’s greatest achievements – the small American College. Institutions like ours are largely unheard of in other places in the world, and they are coveted all over the world for the unique things we are capable of doing with the human mind and spirit.
But in this time of great divide in our country, I hope you will agree, America is having some trouble being its own best self. As a body politic, we seem unable to engage in healthy debate, or to sway one other toward opinions not already held. This is hardly a new phenomenon in our country’s history – it’s more like a swing of the pendulum.
The freedom of speech is the cornerstone of a free society. The Freedom of Speech comes with obligation not just to allow others to speak, but to be willing to consider what they are saying. It is in the trading of ideas (not in the shouting of intractable points of view) that we find societal grace. Utica College must always be a place in which it is safe to bend, safe to reconsider, safe, even, to change one’s mind. And because this is a place open to debate and respectful of the debaters, it must also be a place of discernment, a place where good ideas are able to emerge as good, and bad ideas are eventually found out. We must, as an educational institution, always allow for the exchange of ideas, without judgment as to their right to be heard. It can never be the case at Utica College that an idea dies for lack of air; if an idea dies, let it be because it could not prove itself.
And most of all, let it be said that we met head on the greatest threat to this institution’s full realization of its promise, by raising to the highest number possible the percentage of our students who persist to on-time graduation. In my view, doing this is nothing less than a moral imperative: we must keep our promise.
We have the talent, we’re hard at work acquiring the resources, but what we need most of all is your continued, redoubled and generous commitment to our shared mission.
In closing, I would ask each of you on this day, at least all you who have not joined us from another institution to which you are yourself dedicated, to reflect on your own relationship to Utica College, to reaffirm your loyalty, your appreciation, and your determination to ensure that this institution will always be here, always in Utica, always at the ready to help the next generation. Let all of us become this institution’s storytellers: let us tell all those who don’t know it the story of our College’s pioneers, explorers, investigators, champions, entrepreneurs, and ambassadors. Let us tell the stories of adversities overcome, and triumphs achieved.
Let us share the spirit of Utica College, and in so doing, help the women and men who will be the future of this College to find their way here.
I thank the search committee and the Board of Trustees for the honor of the opportunity to serve as the ninth president of Utica College. I will need the help of everyone gathered here today as we move forward, and I can assure you that I will not hesitate to ask for it. For now, though, I ask only for your commitment to, and enthusiasm for, telling others about the promise this institution makes: that we will inspire our students to create for themselves a future that is beyond their imagining.