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Inauguration remarks of Katherine A. Rowe

  • Charter Day:
    Charter Day:  President Katherine A. Rowe was inaugurated during the 2019 Charter Day ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The following are the prepared inauguration remarks of W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. - Ed.

Good afternoon, and welcome! Ok, everyone – let’s bring it in, just like every championship team does before a big game. 

Justice Mims, Rector Littel, members of the Board of Visitors, Chancellor Gates, presidents Verkuil, Sullivan and Reveley:

Thank you for being here. I am humbled by your trust and grateful for the support and welcome you have shown to me and my family. It is a privilege to serve the Commonwealth and William & Mary with you.

Delegates and distinguished guests from around the Commonwealth, the nation and the world: welcome to you as well. William & Mary is grateful to have such strong bonds in the ancient and universal company of scholars.


Colleagues and friends: nearly four decades of my academic life are gathered here, including mentors, co-authors and co-teachers – those like Professor Thompson, who have been my closest intellectual partners. It is exciting to share with you all the new partners I am discovering at William & Mary.

Looking around at Kaplan Arena, it is fitting to be joined by athletes that Bruce and I have played with, or against, or coached, since we were in college. We have shared a lot of universe points, muddy fields, wet cleats and a spirit of fierce and joyful competition. The post-game rehashes are especially memorable. Thank you for always encouraging my game plan, which is to go for the long pass at every opportunity.

I’d like also to welcome my family – parents, siblings, nephew, nieces –you have embraced our new William & Mary family wholeheartedly. My dad, brother and sister and sister-in-law walked among the delegates today, making this ceremony so special for me.

Danny, Beah and Bruce. My dear hearts, your true love and steadfast support sustains me every day. You know exactly the right thing to say when I need to focus, get on the line and get ready for the disc. “Go kill it, mom.”

Lastly, I hope everyone here will join me in thanking the planning committee — and the hundreds of our colleagues on the staff who created this grand and beautiful celebration.

I am honored by your presence all, by the warmth and strength of this gathering. In this ceremony, we celebrate a community that spans space and time – the thundering chorus gathered in this arena, singing out to so many other places and times. My theme is the power of those long connections and their futurity, captured in the phrase that runs through William & Mary’s Charter seven times. This university was founded “to continue for all times coming.” I evoked this phrase almost a year ago, when my appointment was announced. That dedication to futurity has gained deeper meaning for me since then.

How does one sustain and advance an institution for all times coming? This is a grand charge, exhilarating and sobering. We have explored it implicitly in our Thinking Forward conversations this past fall. (For those of you visiting, these were a series of generative discussions about the future of knowledge, work and service.) In these university-wide discussions, we grappled in different ways with the tension between “sustain” and “advance”, tradition and innovation. The conversation at our most recent forum, just a few weeks ago, captured that tension at W&M with eloquence.

A colleague from Facilities Management was describing the difficulty of bringing needed change to our workplaces at W&M – the difficulty of making them more inclusive, more open to differences of experience and perspective. She explained to the room, “when you harbor old ideas, you harbor old ways.”

Now, as a Renaissance scholar, I’m partial to old ideas. Yet I heard our colleague’s acute sense of being stuck, her urgency for change. And that urgency prompted my inverse thought. As we cultivate new ideas, can we cultivate new ways? That afternoon we talked through an alternative approach – what new ideas and ways might we cultivate in our workplaces at W&M?

It wasn’t until the next day that I began to rethink the underlying assumption that pits old and new always in competition, not collaboration. The question I want to put to you now is: How might new ideas revitalize old ways, while also helping us part with them when we need to? How might old ideas illuminate new ways – test and strengthen innovative practices as they emerge?

What that staff member and I were talking our way towards was a philosophy of change: not change for its own sake, but change we cultivate with the intention to become more ourselves.

This philosophy of change harks back to the period when William & Mary was founded. So before I continue, I need to pause and note that for the past seven months, I have been fairly restrained with my literary references. Because I am a literary scholar, and it’s Charter Day – and our minds are already in the Renaissance – I’m not holding back any more.

The philosophy of change William & Mary is exploring now is captured gracefully by a phrase in John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The moment I’m thinking of is a scene of hospitality, when an angel visits Adam and Eve for dinner. Eve prepares the meal. It’s the seventeenth century, so yes Eve prepares the meal. After the fall, Adam will learn to shop for groceries.

Milton’s Eve is the first human artist, the first maker. She is in her test kitchen and she combines the fruits of the garden inventively, so that “taste after taste” is “upheld with kindliest change.” That’s the phrase I want us to think about together: “kindliest change.”

It’s a counterintuitive way to talk about transformation. For many of us, it’s not easy to take change kindly, particularly when we don’t control it. 

But Eve sets the table for us to think differently. “Kind”, in the Renaissance, is a synonym for “kin.” Kind means “natural, true, or innate.” This dinner takes place in Eden, so everything Eve cultivates and combines is by definition locally sourced. Milton rates these artful yet natural variations so highly because (as he argues) it is via transformation that we discover what we value most, and can then grow towards it. For Milton’s Adam and Eve, even though the cost of change is Eden, their gain is unfolding self-knowledge and with it, the ability to improve and be redeemed.

This powerful Renaissance idea of change – as a process of both loss and improvement that makes one more oneself – underlies the aspirations in William & Mary’s Charter. William & Mary was the test kitchen and start-up lab for higher education before our country’s founding. Its graduates went on to cultivate sibling institutions around the country – many of whose delegates are here today.

The first person to receive an honorary degree here, Ben Franklin earned it, in 1756, as an inventor, writer and university founder himself. For this first honorary degree, the citation reads, the president and faculty sought a person quo nobis & Juventuti Virginiensi exemplum valde egregeium proponamus – “renowned, celebrated … who we might declare to be a great example to us and to Virginia youth.” The citation goes on to note Franklin’s appointments to the Royal Academies of Science in Paris and London, and “likewise his fame and glory, on account of his miraculous devised revelations in natural philosophy.” Franklin the scientist and entrepreneur was not yet a founding father. Nor was he the Franklin of his later abolitionist writings. That evolution expanded the scope and humanity of his thinking, making him more himself, as I imagine it.

Now is the moment to reflect on the change that will make us more ourselves, and make the Alma Mater of the nation more the global leader we aspire to be. The urgency to engage with change is felt across higher education, not just here. It comes from external forces that we don’t control and must respond to creatively. Globally, changing demographics and technologies set an imperative for all organizations to raise our standards of equity and inclusion, for universities to recruit the most talented staff, students and faculty in the world. With the accelerating pace of change, the human capacities we cultivate — those of sophisticated citizens and professionals — will become our most powerful resources.

So in listening to and with the William & Mary community these past months, I sought out our best recipes for transformation. What ingredients for productive change do we have in hand, locally? What techniques are W&M faculty, staff, students and alumni brewing in our academic test kitchens? I invite you to join me in gathering recipes, this spring.

For now, here are three local approaches to change that I have seen us cultivate with positive impact.

First, an entrepreneurial approach of disciplined experimentation – which is also the approach of the competitive athlete and the researcher. The practice here is collaboration. The mind-set is an appetite to take one’s team right out to the edge of knowledge and then play in that ambiguous domain, where neither the questions nor the answers are fully known.

  • I want to begin with an alumni example, because so many W&M graduates break new ground in their fields. Mike Tomlin class of ‘95, the 12-year head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, popularized the strategy of calling aggressive two-point conversions in the NFL. That’s an old idea that he revitalized through the use of new tools – analytics – to inform a winning strategy that other teams have since adopted. (You are surprised that wasn’t a New England Patriots story, aren’t you?).
  • In our curriculum and classroom practices as well, we can cultivate and amplify such disciplined experiments. This spring, W&M is planning a new, university-wide Learning Studio. This is a long- sought aspiration of faculty and staff across the university. And it’s now in the design phase.

Second, faculty, staff and students at W&M prize the practice of reflection — reflection on how we do what we do:

  • Among students, ambassadors at the new Integrated Wellness Center spread the power of reflective practice as part of a holistic approach to wellness.
  • Faculty are building systematic reflection into our curricula, because we know it accelerates learning.
  • In scholarship, we see the fruits of historical reflection in the decade-long Lemon Project, that set out to uncover the legacy of William & Mary’s racial history with rigor and transparency. Through archeology, archival research, oral histories and more, graduate students, faculty, undergraduates and staff are unfolding a fuller history of the enslaved persons who built and stewarded this campus. This spring, we will select the concept design for a new memorial for the enslaved. Funds have been contributed by every living Rector of William & Mary’s Board of Visitors to help support the building of this memorial.

I have discovered at W&M a third, powerful recipe for change, our openness to question our assumptions about the future of discovery, learning and work.

Who will be our students, in the decades to come? They will be lifelong learners, returning regularly to learn as adults. They will be pioneers coming to W&M from non-traditional paths. Many will be the first in their families to go to college or graduate school. Our primary obligation is to cultivate their love of learning and their understanding of how to be effective as learners ... because those capacities are essential for the life-long process of self-transformation ahead of them.

Where will we learn? W&M leads public universities in the US in study abroad. Students are extending their reach globally and learning in robust internship and service experiences, bringing back to campus what they learn. W&M is finding new partners among the business community and among our dedicated alumni, to nurture these cosmopolitan journeys.

What essential capacities define the liberal arts and sciences and professional education, now? A faculty member’s suggestion that we weave data literacy and data ethics through our core curriculum reveals how old ideas can guide new ways. The current transformations in software robotics and AI resemble technology change in the seventeenth century – when the new economies of cheap print created a public sphere that in turn required new ethics. We have yet to develop the platform guidelines that will ensure that values of equity, transparency and privacy are reflected in our algorithms. It is imperative that we do so, and that we engage every discipline in this work.

Experiment in a disciplined way, prize reflection, question assumptions, in company with others: These are the capacities we seek to cultivate at William & Mary: for the student who is equally equipped for the labor of learning and the labor of leading, who encounters difference with appreciative curiosity and who delights in complexity. For the graduate who walks out through the Wren building prepared to chart a course as a professional and as a citizen in a networked world.

The urgency of this last conjunction – the urgency of this dual calling, in periods of substantive transition, such as we now face – is met by a principle I have long held, and that my time at William & Mary has reinforced strongly. The power of higher education is that we play the long game. We foster lifelong relationships across differences of age, ethnicity, politics, religion, nationality and more. We quest into grand, hard problems where the answers are not yet clear.

And at a liberal arts & sciences university of W&M’s size, we can connect diverse disciplines and modes of thinking in flexible ways, as partners with industry and governance. We have the privilege and obligation to plan for the long term, and to do so sustainably.

326 years ago, we were founded on the impulse to try for the two-pointer, to expand in unlikely directions, to cultivate surprising ideas. Now, on the 100th anniversary of co-education and 50 years after our first African American students were in residence, we celebrate each change that makes us more ourselves. Indeed, the promises of innovation, inclusion, and partnership have been hallmarks of this institution since our Charter, down to the ampersand in our name … professionals and citizens … “loved of old” and “in all time coming”... Alma Mater to our nation’s founders and innovator for its future …

William & Mary, let’s go for the long pass together at every opportunity.