Inaugural Address

If the academics of Medieval Europe could see us now, sporting our velvet robes and our fancy hats … they’d probably say … “Why are you still wearing those old things? We only wore them to keep warm!” But I am glad we continue this tradition because it honors the ongoing significance of the work of learning. Our regalia reminds us that we are engaged in something important – not self-important, but important for our world.

So let us now take a bow. Let us celebrate this endeavor we call education. It is, I believe, the most powerful activity humans undertake. If you are here today, you are demonstrating and celebrating your love for this endeavor, and, I hope, my commitment to it.

Because you are here, in whatever capacity you are related to Framingham State University, you are adding a verse to the extraordinary song of this institution. 184 years of reformers, leaders, thinkers, and dreamers have offered stanzas, melodic lines, and bass notes, to the composition of our institution. You are now among them.

There are so many who have contributed to this event and my place in it, for whom I have deep and boundless gratitude:

  • My Executive Assistant, Katie Hebert, and the Inauguration Committee. None of what you experience here would have happened without Katie and her team’s leadership and determination to make the best things happen. Katie, you are a dream of a colleague, and I would not function as president nearly as well without you by my side.
  • My Framingham State University Executive Team members: Like a family, we are composed of long-time FSU members and brand-new ones. I look at you, and I am so honored, so proud, to be your colleague, to share your wisdom, your dedication, and your belief in what we want to accomplish. By the way, you’re also a lot of fun!
  • Our Trustees: you give your time and your intelligence, and even more importantly, your passion for service to our community and Commonwealth. Your dedication to our students’ success is evident in everything you do.
  • Our Alumni: you invested your faith in our ability to help you get what you needed to grow and learn, and we are now harnessing that trust you placed in us, to give to the current generation of students.
  • My presidential predecessors, including Dr. Helen Heinemann, 14th president of this university, who continues to share her love of FSU through her teaching, and support.
  • The Faculty Members of FSU: Your service to our students demonstrated through your commitment to teaching and all-encompassing advising is evident in our graduates’ lives; your pursuit of the disciplines that drive your inquiry, evident in the work you publish, and the arts you create, energizes and defines our campus
  • My FSU Staff: No leader could ask for a more devoted staff. Your work makes our campus. It is evident in the coaching, tutoring, career support, food service, gorgeous buildings, support of employees … you make FSU unique and extraordinary.
  • FSU students: Of course you are the reason we all are here. We believe in you and your futures and without you, FSU is just a bunch of buildings.
  • My parents, Richard and Shirley Niemi: I cannot begin to express the depth of my thanks and gratitude for all you have contributed. Dad, by your example, I learned that if I could harness my passion for making positive change to an iron-clad work ethic, anything was possible. Mom, by example you made sure I knew that love needed to be the center of that work.
  • My siblings: Patti Niemi, Jen McLernon, and Julie Wolf: You keep me laughing and humble, you keep me simultaneously sane and insane, and you love me even when it seems like all I do is work at a job where we wear funny robes.
  • My children: Andrew, Nathaniel, Anna. My world turns because you are in it. The pride and love I have for you bursts from all of my being. I love experiencing the world through you, watching as you take the privileges you were born with to make the world a better place. I also wanted each of you to have a special someone to sit with at the proverbial lunch table, and each of you have found spouses – Rose, Amy, and Alex – whom I would have picked as my own children, such is their wonder.
  • My husband: Michael Morris. Where did I find you? You have accompanied me for the past decade with passion, honesty, and above all, humor – it is more love personified than I ever thought possible. It is also an excellent benefit for FSU that you gently and lovingly set me straight when I just might … might … occasionally lose my perspective. I love you.
  • My friends: From the dark nights of the soul to, well, the podium, you have been with me. You are here now. We are part of each other and I love you.
  • My past colleagues: From each of the institutions of higher education that I have called home: Nazareth College, the University of New Haven, Yale University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – You emerged as colleagues who became friends. It was so hard to leave you. But we did not really part. Many of you are here today, and all of you are part of my spirit, for I could not be here without the gifts of advice, learning, friendship, and joy, that you have offered me.

And here we are now, celebrating all that is higher education.

Public higher education, the kind that is the work of Framingham State University, educates almost 50% of all students seeking bachelor’s degrees in the United States. Almost 40% of these students are first- generation students.

Schools like FSU -- regional public institutions -- educate 58% of Black students attending public four-year colleges. We and our sister institutions enroll 35% of Asian American students, 47% of American Indian or Alaska Native students, 39% of Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander students, 44% of Hispanic or Latin-X students, and 44% of multiracial students.

Even if measured by access to higher education alone, public higher education has been a raging success in helping create more educational equity in our country.

However, we know that success in higher education is so much more than the achievement of a degree.

The reason public higher education has succeeded is because it has made learning about the world, knowledge of the world, and questions concerning the world available to so many who have been previously denied this opportunity, largely because they were not considered wealthy enough, white enough, or smart enough. Learning, through public education, is a public, not a private, good.

Public higher education has helped millions of people in the United States learn the beauty of balancing a chemical equation; the eloquence that emerges from a creating a forceful argument; the reality-changing perspective that comes from hearing Arabic spoken for the first time; the mind-blowing role that food systems play in world cultures; the tears that cannot help but form when you see Act Three of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It has helped most of those same learners find employment, using the skills, the perspectives, and the knowledge they gained, weaving what they have learned into lives all their own.

Right now, we hear the roiling accusations:

  • there is little return on investment in public education;
  • employers do not actually need workers with degrees;
  • college doesn’t teach students anything, or
  • it teaches the wrong things.

Why is this narrative so strong? I believe that higher education, particularly public higher education, is being challenged because it has succeeded. It has succeeded in allowing people who are working class and middle class, first generation, brown, black, and BIPOC, to learn. It has delivered on its promise to make the acquisition of knowledge, skills, and diverse perspectives a public good.

Having skills, appreciating multiple and varied perspectives, formulating provocative questions, and gaining knowledge, cannot return to the province of the privileged. We cannot let current zeitgeist drive the idea that “we really don’t need college to succeed” because that is a path to the disempowered remaining disempowered.

Public higher education is a means of creating an equitable society. With knowledge comes the power to create and connect, to question, to imagine, and to execute a plan. It is the power to know others who can help. Those with education have more power to shape theirs and others’ lives into the inclusive, thriving, more equal communities to which most of us aspire.

I have long believed, and still do, in the truth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What I had not really counted on – not as a K-12 teacher, not as a school board member, not as a professor, and not as a university leader – was the force of the counteraction to justice; the force of those who see social equity as a zero-sum game: the belief that if minoritized communities, if women, if transgender people have access to and are succeeding in what only a few used to have, it is scored as a loss for individuals and for society.

As a society we do not want to make this zero-sum claim out loud, for public education is an American secular religion. In theory -- and in law at the K-12 level -- everyone has the right to a free and equal basic education. That belief has been extended in the last 75 years to higher education as well. But it is not an accident that higher education, particularly public higher education, is being devalued and defunded just as more “regular people” aspire to attend.

What is so ironic is that we have spent the last hundred years encouraging people to have that aspiration. The history of the expansion of American higher education over the twentieth century is an extraordinary one. Its story is now herstory and theirstory, and much more, ourstory, as college institutions grew to be more than for the privileged few.

State land-grant universities and urban city college systems were created and funded by their states, expanding opportunities for entry into the middle class to groups who never could have afforded college before. The GI Bill expanded those opportunities further through the infusion of federal cash, as did Cold War imperatives, demanding greater and faster scientific development. Normal schools like Framingham became State colleges, educating teachers and consumer scientists. (For those of you new to FSU, the term “normal school” comes from the French école normale, a sixteenth-century teaching theory and practice, in which classrooms were created to demonstrate model teaching practices to teacher candidates. A great idea!) The social equity movements of the 1960s and 70s furthered the call, demanding that women and racially and ethnically oppressed students have equal access to and acceptance in higher education.

“The expansion of college education,” Rick Perlstein wrote, “became a genuine ornament of mass democracy. It made America more decent, more lovely, more cultured, and more critical…. It made America richer too, both spiritually and materially, though in an important sense the first condition fed the second, as the liberation of intellectual imaginations midwifed a thousand productive careers in every field, careers that were productive precisely because they were inspired by a ‘liberal arts’ attitude.”

But then the purpose-of-college pendulum began to swing and we began to juxtapose liberal arts thinking and job training. As Governor of California, Ronald Reagan was a leading indicator: he instituted tuition in the University of California system in 1970, famously asking why California taxpayers should be forced “to subsidize intellectual curiosity.”

Subsidizing. Intellectual. curiosity.

What would Reagan have the public pay for? The job market.

He and others made the claim that intellectual curiosity could be divorced from skill development. If the public was going to pay for people to go to college, he and others reasoned, the primary focus should be on creating a stronger capitalist economy.

If the tide shifted so that public higher education was no longer about nurturing wide-ranging intellectual curiosity – if it no longer prioritized the tools of creative thought, of argument building, of perspective-taking, of learning to research a claim, learning to write and so on – then those in state government could justify at least partly subsidizing students because they were training them for jobs that the market demanded: jobs that did not involve so much contrarian thought.

Or trouble.

Or ultimately knowledge.

When we start to limit who is allowed to know what, what we are really saying is that we are afraid of what will happen when those people, previously denied, begin to use their intellectual curiosity.

Access to knowledge is denied precisely because it is so powerful, and it is this fear, I argue, that is driving the current U.S. higher education zeitgeist; we hide this fear of who is gaining power by questioning the value of the educational enterprise in the first place, and by controlling access to knowledge.

Many are afraid of the power unleashed by intellectual curiosity. They are threatened by ideas that explore new and different perspectives. They are intimidated by unfamiliar languages, lyrics, and conceptions of love and relationships. Curricular restrictions are under consideration in more than a dozen state legislatures, as communities look to limit diversity, equity and inclusion efforts across the U.S. Every time they succeed, they restrict access to knowledge for those who cannot or choose not to afford private higher education.

And this is why we are here at Framingham State University – because democratic higher education cannot die. The people who come to college cannot only be the people whose families can already afford it. We need to nurture every student’s growth and learning.

We also need to have teachers – faculty members who come with multiple and varied perspectives -- those who create new knowledge, new understandings, new art, and new analyses cannot be the equivalent of the “gentleman scholars” of the 19th Century – those white, wealthy men with enough family income to nurture their own “intellectual curiosity.” We need faculty and staff from every perspective, every discipline, and every corner of the planet so that they, in turn, can nurture students from every corner of the planet as well.

From the great diversity of students, faculty, and staff comes diverse and more equal communities that become more inclusive, thriving places to be.

Communities like Framingham. And Natick. Like Hudson and Westborough and Hyde Park. Like Nashua, NH and South Berwick, ME. New England needs its public universities. It needs Framingham State University.

Framingham State and its regional public sister institutions in Massachusetts and throughout New England need to thrive – must thrive – if we want our communities to do likewise.

Successful democracies are bound collectively by social networks built on trust, shared stories, and strong institutions. We are entrusted with the education of our communities. If the communities we are designed to serve lose trust in our ability to help them develop the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, then our communities will decide they no longer need us.

We must embrace the social trust on which our institution is built. Public universities’ institutional purposes are place-based and oriented toward serving multiple communities – the communities we are now, not those we served 25 or 50 or 100 years ago.

We serve first, second, and third generation strivers; we serve people new to the United States whose communities are not sure they are welcome on our hill, or on Beacon Hill. We serve people who have been told too many times that they “aren’t college material” and people who are not sure they have a right to learn. We serve people whose families are not sure they can spare them from the fragile occupational network that comprises their means of support. We serve those who identify as black and brown. Those who learn differently than the norm. We offer everyone the opportunity to seize the power that comes from learning, from engaging with their intellectual curiosity, and from interacting with people who think differently than they do.

We do this with creativity, passion, and strategy, in spite of the serious challenges to public education financing.

We must provide hope to our communities and explain the process and pains of a changing higher education. It is up to us to help our communities understand what makes Framingham special. People have 300+ educational institutions to choose from in New England; they judge educational worth too often on pre-existing prestige rather than the quality and fit of education. Our continued success and growth to a greater version of FSU will come from being bold enough to:

  • Create and market educational opportunities that few others offer;
  • Nurture and support an exceptionally high quality of teaching, fed by the scholarship and research of our faculty;
  • Increasingly refine the services and programs that our students need, such as robust student support; career mentorship; and significant internship opportunities for all students;
  • Value and develop professional growth opportunities for all who choose to work at FSU, and
  • Build increasingly deep relationships with our Framingham, MetroWest, and New England community partners – our nonprofit, corporate, and government allies, helping everyone see that fostering intellectual curiosity and knowledge development is in the interest of us all.

Doing this will arise from our courage to embrace the educational mission that is public universities’ alone: to serve the public good. We do not live in community as isolated units. By working with and serving others, we nurture their faith in themselves and in humanity, helping us to imagine and create a better future. A more equitable future. Prioritizing the common good restores our faith in the common good, and beautiful things grow as a result.

I said it on the first day of my job here, and I believe it now more than ever: Our future is extraordinary, Framingham State University – let’s go.