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David Yellen Inaugural Address – November 5, 2016

Thank you, Ellen.  It’s an honor to receive the Marist charter and be entrusted with helping to shape the future of this wonderful institution.  

Today is a day to celebrate all that Marist College has become and talk a little about the future.  Let me begin, though, by expressing my gratitude to the people who have made today’s festivities possible and all the more meaningful by their presence.

I’d like to thank our speakers for their very thoughtful remarks.  I’d particularly like to thank Kurt Schmoke, President of the University of Baltimore, for being with us and addressing us so eloquently.  You’re someone whose life’s work I greatly admire, and to have you play a role in my inauguration is a memory I’ll always treasure.

Thank you to Laurie DeJong, Jim Honan, and the members of the Inauguration Committee for their efforts to make today’s ceremony so elegant and so in keeping with the Marist spirit.  I know how much preparation went into today’s events, and I’m grateful to the Committee, the technicians, the McCann Center staff, the housekeeping staff, and the caterers for all the work they’ve done to plan a flawless ceremony.

Thank you to Art Himmelberger, Sarah Williams, and our alumni and student musicians for the beautiful music we’ve been hearing today.

Thank you to President Emeritus Dennis Murray for giving so generously of your time and advice.  Marist has been one of the great success stories in higher education in recent decades thanks in no small part to Dennis’ remarkable leadership.  As a new president, I have appreciated the opportunity to learn from the best, and I’m grateful for your friendship.  I would also like to acknowledge Dennis’ predecessor, President Emeritus Richard Foy.  Dr. Foy served as Marist’s president for 21 years and led it through another transformative time.  Over an incredible period totaling 58 years, these two men guided Marist from its beginnings as a small local school to a nationally and even internationally prominent institution.

I’d like to thank the entire Marist community – faculty, staff, students, alumni – for welcoming me and my family into the Marist family.  This community has made me feel incredibly welcome, and I’m so grateful for the cooperation and guidance I’ve received during the transition process.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank Chair of the Board Ellen Hancock, the members of Marist’s Board of Trustees, and the members of the Presidential Search Committee, led by Ross Mauri, for the confidence they have placed in me.  It can’t have been easy to choose a new President, particularly after 37 years of great leadership by Dennis, but I promise I’ll do everything I can to live up to your expectations and to help Marist achieve even greater things in the future.

Let me acknowledge my friends and family who are here with us today.  Friends from many chapters of my life are here.  My aunt and a number of cousins are here, too.  I’m also delighted to be joined by my father-in-law Dr. George Richards, my sisters-in-law Allison and Lia, and my brother Howard.  My incredible daughters, Jordan and Bailey, are here.  Unfortunately, Meredith, the middle of our three daughters, couldn’t join us – she’s a new medical student in Chicago and is about to take exams.  And of course Leslie, to whom I have now been married for 30 years, is here.  We don’t like to gush about each other in public, but let me just say that it was an open secret during the search process that the Committee really wanted Leslie to come to Marist, so they had no choice but to recommend hiring me.  Finally, I only wish that my wonderful parents and mother-in-law were alive to join us today, but I know that they are here in spirit.  If they are looking down from above, my mom is proud but slightly embarrassed by all the attention, while my dad is busy bragging to anyone who will listen.

As I got to know Marist College better during the search process, I was extremely impressed.  Marist has been on a trajectory that is matched by only a small number of colleges and universities.  Our academic programs, our finances, and our campus have never been in better shape.  There is a sense of dynamism and optimism about the future.  In a higher education landscape that is full of challenges, Marist is a real success story.

Let’s talk about what makes Marist special.  Our college was, of course founded by the Marist Brothers.  Even though Marist College has not been a religiously affiliated college for many years now, the values of the Marist Brothers remain central to who we are.  Those core values are excellence in education, a strong sense of community, and a commitment to service.  I’d like to say a few words about each of these values.

Excellence in education is demonstrated by an emphasis on quality teaching in a small classroom setting – the special relationship that develops between a student and a professor, leading to mentorship, joint research, and intellectual guidance.

Marist also believes that all students, no matter their primary field of study, should receive a broad education across many disciplines, learn to think logically and creatively, and be able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing.

Excellence also includes a forward-looking educational philosophy, which incorporates the use of technology and meaningful learning opportunities outside the classroom – everything from internships to study abroad to leadership development programs.  Because we know that the best type of education helps prepare students for success after college.

The sense of community is something that you can’t help but be struck by as a newcomer to Marist.  The way people interact with and support each other – this is a place where students hold the door for you and ask visitors if they need help finding a building.  The way the community rallies around someone in need.  There’s no doubt – Marist is where the goodness in people shines through.

It’s also a place where students are actively involved in the life of the College, and their engagement makes us a better, more vibrant institution.  There are scores of student clubs; an active student government; exciting Division I athletics, intramurals, and club sports; and first-rate opportunities in music and the arts.  I have been so impressed with our students’ enthusiasm for all they do.

Although our sense of community is primarily based on the people who work and study here, it is greatly enhanced by our physical setting.  I have spent time on a number of beautiful campuses in my life, and Marist compares well with the best of them.  It is not just the majestic buildings, but also the incredible natural surroundings.  I used to have a view of Lake Michigan, but it is inspiring to watch the Hudson River flow by every day.

Our commitment to service is a very important Marist value.  At Marist, we recognize that those of us who have been blessed by good fortune – students, faculty, and staff – have an obligation to give back.  The College’s commitment to social justice and to helping the less fortunate runs deep, and it’s what really sealed the deal and made me want to be a part of this community.

As an institution, Marist runs programs for the disadvantaged, supports a wide variety of programs to meet the community’s needs, and sponsors programs that broaden access to education.  

We also encourage our students to get involved in community service projects – not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s also good preparation for life.  Our students volunteer in our local community and around the world – everything from mentoring kids right here in Poughkeepsie to building houses in Arkansas to teaching computer skills to kids in Mexico.  They raise money to help wounded warriors, fight HIV/AIDS, and defeat breast cancer.  And they do it all with a sense of optimism that they can have a lasting impact.

And it’s not just our students who are making the world a better place.  Each year, led by our wonderful Campus Ministry, the entire Marist community comes together to donate food to the hungry and provide Christmas gifts for kids who might not otherwise receive anything.

If we want our school and country to live up to their ideals, it’s important that every one of us contribute to their betterment, whether in large ways or small ways.  This is character.  This is “doing good quietly,” as the Marist Brothers would say.  And this is what all of us are called upon to do.

So we remain rooted in these three values handed down by the Marist Brothers – excellence in education, a sense of community, and a commitment to service.  By remaining true to these values, Marist has thrived as an institution.

But as we look to the future, we must not be at all complacent.  As President John Kennedy once said, “Change is the law of life.  Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

Those words are truer today than when President Kennedy spoke them.  The landscape in higher education is changing rapidly.  The gap between successful and struggling institutions is widening.  If we hope to thrive in this environment and enhance, or even sustain, our commitment to our values, we must be nimble, creative, and determined.

Over the next year, we will be developing a strategic plan to guide us over the next five years.  But even at this early point, there are a few themes I would like to highlight that are going to be critical to our success in the future.

To enhance academic excellence, we must continue to innovate and diversify.  Marist has been very proactive in this regard.  We must continue to develop new programs, frequently at the graduate and professional school level, that appeal to students and enhance our reputation and revenue sources.  We also must explore new delivery methods to reach new groups of potential students.  Distance learning is still in its infancy, but its importance is likely to grow exponentially in the coming decades.  We have been, and must remain, a leader in the use of new technologies.  We must leverage our most distinctive programs and invest more in our faculty to grow our regional, national, and international reputation.  We can do all of this in a way that enhances our central focus on providing a broad education to undergraduates.

To translate our sense of community effectively into the 21st century, we must continue to become more diverse and inclusive.  This is both a matter of social justice and enlightened self-interest.  America’s demographics are changing, and Marist must reflect that to appeal to the best and brightest students.

Over the past several years, Marist has made a concerted effort to diversify our institution, and there is a clear momentum – the Class of 2020 is the most diverse in the College’s history, with 22 percent of students coming from diverse backgrounds.  Indeed, Marist has students from 48 different states and 49 foreign countries.
Increasing numbers is the first step, but it’s important that all students feel valued and supported here.  Marist must feel like home to all of our students – students of color, LGBTQ students, students from all religious backgrounds, international students, students with disabilities, and veterans.  

Finally, to pursue excellence in education, enhance our sense of community, and serve others, we must maintain financial soundness.  This may sound rather mundane, but as the late Governor Mario Cuomo said, “You campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose.”  The most impressive vision and goals are largely meaningless unless you have the means to pursue them.

Marist’s success over the decades has been built upon superb financial management.  But new challenges confront us, including demographic trends and family concerns about cost and career outcomes.

All around us, we see colleges that are struggling, even failing.  In addition to continuing to make smart decisions about our current resources, we must redouble our efforts to expand our financial base.  Many of the goals I have mentioned, such as enhancing our academic reputation through the work of the faculty and increasing diversity and inclusiveness, will require additional resources.  We have developed some excellent new programs in areas where there is potential for enrollment growth.  We must continue aggressively on this path.

We must also increase our endowment over time.  As a young college, we have a relatively small number of alumni who are capable of making transformational gifts.  That number is growing, though, and we must make a compelling case for philanthropic support of Marist.

So we know that change is coming.  The years ahead will not be quiet ones.  They will not always be easy.  But we should embrace the challenges and opportunities ahead on our journey.  Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., the father of the famous Supreme Court justice, wrote, “I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving – we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”

I also look forward to our journey with great confidence.  Marist College has an incredibly strong foundation on which to continue building.  The timeless values handed down to us by the Marist Brothers will continue to guide us.  Working together, there is no limit to what Marist College can accomplish.

Thank you all so much for being here today, for your support during my first few months at Marist, and for all that you will do in the future.