Dr. Ajay Nair
Presidential Inauguration Address
October 13, 2018
Distinguished community servants, childhood best friends, loving family and friends, newly discovered cousins, patient and encouraging golf buddies, supportive Board members, wise mentors, loyal alumni, courageous students, exceptional staff, and brilliant faculty —
I am honored and humbled by your presence.
What an honor it is to stand before you today on this beautiful campus. In 2018 we celebrate 120-years of our national historical landmark, the Grey Towers Castle, across this beautiful green. And while the castle and this gorgeous campus are certainly highlights of Arcadia, the people are what make this institution special.
I owe a debt of gratitude to our donors, facilities staff, and the committee of volunteers who put this program together.
Can we give them a round of applause?
In case you are wondering about the song that was played as I came to the podium, that was my wedding song. That song is relevant because the presidency is like a marriage, between the president and the institution.
In fact, many colleagues and friends first though I was getting married based on the look and feel of the invitation.
My wife wasn’t pleased.
Paayal, since we’ve got the making of a great wedding, let me take this opportunity to tell you how grateful I am for your love and support.
You are my heart and soul, and I can’t imagine life without you and our two beautiful and challenging children.
A presidency, however, is a special kind of marriage. My life is intricately intertwined with Arcadia even after only a few months on the job.
We have a special relationship, a commitment that is deep and profound. The university is my new extended family that I hope to learn from and grow with for many years to come.
I’m grateful for the privilege of serving as the 22nd President of Arcadia University.
I stand before you today, as one of the first Indian Americans to lead a liberal arts institution in America.
Much has been made of me being the first — a trailblazer, some say.
I will do my best to live up to the great expectations, but the excitement has the potential to obscure the real issues at hand — issues that are part of my talk today.
The reality is that the reaction to my presidency typically comes in the form of binary that is prominent in society today, to celebrate or criticize.
But what if there was a better option? What if our goal was to seek the truth?
In our current world, the binary discussion of my appointment would look something like this:
The Criticism: a person’s heritage shouldn’t matter. One’s merit is all that matters.
The appointment of the first of any identity simply doesn’t matter, meritocracy is all that matters.
On the other end of the argument, is the celebration of my presidency because of my identity.
This, too, can be a dangerous proposition, if the celebratory aspect ignores the many things that underrepresented leaders bring to the table. If we could move beyond the binary, seeking the truth would reveal that less than a fifth of college Presidents are members of a racial or ethnic minority group. That number is even lower for Asian Americans.
The search for truth would educate us about the history of Asians in America; that since the 1800s, we have been contributing deeply to the growth and development of this nation, including higher education.
But anti-immigrant laws, xenophobia, reminiscent of what we are seeing today, and other discriminatory acts prevented substantial immigration until the 1960s.
The search for truth would broaden our knowledge and open dialogue.
Friends, the truth shall set us free.
Truth as a Weapon
In the role of President, I am privileged to serve my community by working to transform the higher education landscape through truth, justice, and liberation.
This is not a stretch for Arcadia University. We have a long history of a pioneering spirit.
Beginning in 1853, educating women in such liberal arts as ancient history, rhetoric, and logic at a time when there were very few institutions open to young women.
Our reputation in international education began when a professor and 17 undergraduate women experienced post-WWII Europe. And, the theoretical foundation of Writing Across the Curriculum in higher education started here on our campus.
These pioneering moments now seem monumental, if not impossible, in our current climate.
To work in higher education today is not like it once was. The work of being President of a University, some would say, is now an impossible job.
A colleague of mine from Johns Hopkins contacted me a few days after my appointment and said, “Ajay, why in the world would you take a job as President?”
I thought he would provide me with an insightful examination of the challenging politics ahead of me.
Instead he said, “You’re just inviting more people to mispronounce your name.”
I wish that was my only challenge!
But why is it so difficult and challenging to work in higher education today?
Isn’t higher education the idyllic place where where faculty, staff, alumni, and community members can dream about the possibilities and go after those dreams with strength and conviction?
An idyllic place to be, by the way, is the Greek definition of Arcadia!
Unfortunately, darkness abounds and the newspaper headlines are ominous:
“Higher education costs too much and doesn’t do its job.”
“The Crisis of Race in Higher Education”
“Public loses faith in higher education”
“The end of the academy; free speech and the silencing of dissent”
“Coddled Kids Crumble: Today’s Students are Snowflakes.”
These headlines suggest a crisis in higher education, a decline in the public’s faith in us, an existential crisis.And while there is certainly room for improvement in higher education, let me be clear: Higher education is under siege much like marginalized communities are under siege today. And this is no coincidence.
Our greatest threat and the threat to our democracy comes from the current war on humanity.
A war that reifies the institutionalized mechanisms that cause our social, economic, ecological, and political challenges.
What is missing from the headlines is:
An understanding of the forms of capital that our marginalized students must access and negotiate to succeed.
An understanding of activism as an important expression of freedom and speech.
A lack of understanding of the complexities of the social experiment we call our campus community.
A lack of understanding that when we ask our students to be resilient, we are asking them to stand tall, only to get beat down again by cowardly acts of racism, sexism, and other forms of violence.
Yes, The truth shall set us free
Now is the time for us to fulfill our promise by living up to the core values we espouse.
Only our moral fervor and our values are adequate weapons against the war on humanity.
But, can higher education serve as a social institution of mass democracy, as an engine of mobility for people and communities?
Only if we live up to our values.
These days, the values that we espouse that are justice-oriented make for good words on coffee mugs and water bottles. But core values are different. Core values serve as our moral compass, values that distinguish us, and hold us accountable for our actions.
The core values that help us practice community are: open expression, courage, humility, generosity, and intellectual curiosity.
These are the values that will help us rise above the war on humanity and help restore the public’s faith in us as an agent of positive change — a place where societal problems are addressed.
But educational institutions must be willing to endure the pain of living up to their core values. These commitments will undoubtedly come under attack, because:
The war on humanity loves a scapegoat — anyone that seeks the truth.
The war on humanity perverts the truth and plays to people’s emotions
The war on humanity is, as Orwell said, the “human boot stomping on the human face forever”
The war on humanity will crush you if you are not morally and ethically grounded.
I am not asking us to fight in this war. To fight a war is to succumb to the binary that obscures the truth, and we need the truth because the truth shall set us free.
One of Arcadia’s most notable alumni is Anna Deavere Smith, who unfortunately couldn’t be here today because she is in production for a television show.
In her HBO production, Notes from the Field, she speaks the truth:
She tells the story of a teen who was brutally arrested in her South Carolina classroom;
Of the deli worker who videotaped the beating of Baltimore's Freddie Gray;
The woman who climbed a flagpole to remove the Confederate flag in South Carolina.
Smith does her part to dismantle the falsehoods spread by the war on humanity. But we cannot and should not fight this war in the traditional sense.
The binary choice of truth must be rejected, as Smith does through her art and values. Through her drama, she allows the audience to search for their truth.
The truth shall set us free.
Justice and the Moral Compass of Society
To serve as a moral compass for our nation, the university must tackle the most pressing issues facing society. Just recently, Arcadia received a Department of Justice grant from the Office of Violence Against Women. This grant will help us discover new ways of reducing sexual violence and creating a more just campus community.
We have also made substantial progress on providing access to higher education. More than one-third of our new incoming undergraduate students are low-income students, and one-third are first-generation college students.
But this is just the beginning.
To be successful, we must challenge American higher education exceptionalism. We are not exempt from the socio-political, economic and cultural dilemmas of the world, yet too often we turn a blind eye to critical issues.
And, we are not exempt from our own histories.
We must write the next chapter of our history and be truthful about the language of access, diversity, and inclusion. As we know, in American higher education, our students have challenged our hackneyed and self-congratulatory narrative.
I am not proposing that we become the university of the left, or “Social Justice U”; but I am proposing that we be ideologically grounded; that we are positioned to do the right thing.
The notion of an ideologically grounded institution can of course be problematic if it limits diversity of thought, so it is imperative that an institution’s ideological grounding is not a political position in the traditional sense, but a way for the institution to understand the politics of the world around us.
An institutional vision for truth in motion, guided by our community’s shared passions, values and commitments; an acknowledgment that there is no such thing as purity in ideas.
Ideology then becomes a work of art, fluid, in motion, arrested only in urgency.
Our critique of the war on humanity should focus on systems, structures, and perceptions rather than the ambiguous enemy.
There is no single enemy. If we create an us vs. them paradigm, we will fall into the trap of ignoring the complexities of the challenges we face to become a more just society.
To be sure, the university must be vigilant in its protection of the scholarly community’s ability and freedom to pursue new viewpoints, to pursue the truth.
My proposition is that justice should be a goal and priority for higher education, imbued with values that reimagine our roots of exclusion to a future state, where the paradox of preaching inclusivity and diversity while increasing our exclusivity, is addressed through a new paradigm of higher education.
In our current paradigm, the University cannot be a primary site for effecting positive social change, especially since many of our values push us to educate only a small segment of the community.
So, it is my belief that our justice work must focus on all of education, not just higher education.
We cannot call ourselves community anchors if our ships have set sail with no one from the community on board. As Stephen Metcalf suggests, we must also change our view of society as a kind of universal market, as profit-and-loss calculators, to community as polis, the bearers of grace, a family, people with inalienable right and duties—then perhaps the war on humanity that plagues the United States will become a search for humanity, and a search for truth.
The truth shall set us free.
And when society, understood in different terms, confronts itself on our campuses, we are then seeking justice. If diversity and inclusion at its best asks who’s at the table and ensures everyone’s voice is heard, justice will ask for the truth and will push for structural, permanent change by redefining the center, by reimagining the boundaries of our relationships bound by power, hierarchy, and control.
The truth shall set us free.
Justice, then, is the wholeness, rightness, and the wellness of people and their communities.
As we know, our communities are fractured, and the rhetoric of diversity and inclusion have obscured the harsh reality of those anchored in despair.
In the context of higher education, access is still out of reach for too many.
Our educational community is a tool to address these global issues. We are training the next generation of change agents, and our faculty are solving serious problems and searching for truth.
In this way, justice is served when people find value in the work they do and can flourish in society.
This is the future of Arcadia, and I hope the future of higher education.
The truth shall set us free
An important part of justice is understanding how to live. Too many of us dismiss our personal needs, especially in regard to how to live and cope in a world where oppression exists.
We need to be free from our own self-imposed prison. To do so, we need each other, we need our community, and we need our flourishing selves — which is what this inauguration is all about.
It is about all of us — our liberation, our legacy, and the good we will do for each other, ourselves, and the world.
An Arcadia education will prepare its students to do good, and to live well.
I end today by sharing with you a profound message I received from my cousin in India this past summer.
When my cousin learned about my appointment as President, he wrote:
“Heartiest congratulations to Ajay. Like the Greek God, Pan, who returns to his homeland, Arcadia, so also, Ajay returns to Philadelphia. May God be with him in all his endeavors.
“My mother was literally weeping, saying that [Ajay’s mother], up above, will be very proud, as her sacrifices have borne fruit.
“Although her words in no measure reduce the impact of any person connected to Ajay’s successes or belittles any efforts including his own, a generation who makes grand efforts for their children is coming to an end in this hedonistic world of today.
“Ajay will repay his societal obligations.”
My societal obligation, our societal obligation, is to rebuild our community and ourselves to restore humanity.
This is a watershed moment for higher education and the world. We have a unique opportunity to reimagine our work on justice, learn from our history, and move beyond it by redefining our role as institutions of learning.
This moment affords us a chance to respond with sincere compassion and true justice, to finally transform into reality the vision of our campus communities as caring and diverse centers of learning where all students are afforded equitable access to opportunities to grow and learn and contribute to the greater good.
Now more than ever before, we need higher education’s moral and intellectual leadership — not the leadership of coercion and hegemony that plagues our world today.
We need leadership to inspire dynamic social movements for transformation.
We need leaders that can promote new ideas and to challenge the old ways of operating.
We need leaders that are committed to justice, leaders that can problem solve and think critically, leaders that are thoughtful and imaginative in their approach.
And leaders that seek the truth.
This is the kind of training that Arcadia will provide its students. This is the kind of struggle that we want our students to endure — a struggle of the heart and mind in search of truth.
To struggle is to explore the nature of memory, presentation, representation, imagination, and self-determination.
To struggle is to seek liberation.
To struggle is to put others first.
To struggle is an awakening.
To struggle is to find new ways of seeing and feeling.
Our struggle has just begun, and we are about to embark on an amazing journey that will pave the way for others and change the landscape of higher education and the world around us, forever.
The Truth, the Truth, the Truth shall set us free.