The Inauguration of President Christine Plunkett

The Inauguration of President Christine Plunkett
Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 1:30 p.m.


President Christine Plunkett Inaugural Address

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Burlington College trustees, faculty, students, staff, alumni, distinguished guests, family and friends, thank you for your warm welcome. I am honored by your presence, and so pleased you have joined us here today. Vice Chair Brendan Donaghey, thank you for granting me the rights and privileges of the Presidency. The trustees of Burlington College give generously of their time and resources to provide a foundation of support for the college. I am grateful for their deep commitment to the college, for their faith in my leadership and for their broad perspective.

Thank you, Secretary Vilaseca and Mr. Barewicz for your introductory remarks, and Rev. Abele for your thoughtful invocation. Thanks to Susan, Anna, Katlyn, Lauri, and Sandy, for your greetings and to Dean Stephen St. Onge for your introduction. It is great honor to accept your good wishes on behalf of all of my colleagues, as today is really not about me, but rather it is a day of great celebration for the entire college as we look to a very bright future. Peter, you are a dear friend of the college, and I want to thank you for your participation in today’s celebration. I always appreciate your wit and your generosity of spirit.

A special thank you to Burlington College founder and President Emeritus Steward Lacasce, without whom there would be no Burlington College.  Stew and I have become good friends over the past year, and I am very grateful for the words of wisdom and support he regularly shares with me over the phone, by email, and through his comments shared here today. I also want to express my gratitude to my predecessor and mentor, former President Jane Sanders.  It is thanks to Jane’s entrepreneurial vision and tenacity that Burlington College now occupies this magnificent campus.

I would like to acknowledge the love and support of my family, including my partner, John Watson, my mother Connie Plunkett, and my five children, Sarah, Emily, Paige, Evan and Peter. My father, Geoffrey Plunkett, was one of my greatest cheerleaders.  He heard of my appointment to the Presidency just days before he passed away, so I am thinking of him today. Last, and most important, I extend my heartfelt gratitude to the students, faculty and staff, who are the life of the college.

There are approximately 1500 small liberal arts colleges in the United States.  By some estimates this number may decline by as much as 25 to 50% in the coming years.  Those privileged and tasked to steer these colleges into an uncertain future have cause for concern.  How many tomorrows will their schools live to see?

Traditional higher education is said to be going the way of the passenger train, if not the passenger pigeon. Students and families are increasingly focused on the very real concerns of affordability and job preparedness. In the scramble to address these concerns, it is all too easy to lose sight of the qualities lying at the heart of a meaningful education. What are these qualities? What can give us confidence that Burlington College, only forty years old and with just 229 students, will live to see a century of tomorrows? At a time when massive online courses are affordable, if not free, and many colleges are shifting their focus to vocational preparation, what can give us confidence that Burlington College will thrive and become an exemplar of student-centered learning?

As I prepared today’s remarks, I spent time reflecting on the principles Steward Lacasce put forth when he founded this institution in 1972 as the Vermont Institute for Community Involvement. The seeds he planted were those of independent thinking, self-awareness, and community engagement. Our vision for the future remains true to those distinct roots

In our changing and unpredictable world, while students do need practical skills in their discipline, it is the spark of self-awareness and a sense of place in one’s community that bring a Burlington College education to life. These are the lessons that will remain with our students forever, regardless of where they live, who they live with, or how their careers and lives unfold.

How do we learn to know ourselves? It’s hard work. The development of self-awareness requires deep personal reflection.  It requires building relationships and putting them to the test. It requires daring. It requires trial and error and persistence.

As Thomas Edison is said to have remarked, “I have not failed. I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.”

Self-awareness also grows organically out of discussion and debate. The intimate nature of discussion in small classes is particularly conducive to exploration and self-discovery. At Burlington College, our small classes, always fewer than 20 students, don’t necessarily make us unique, but they do define us.

Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on Sandy Baird’s Civic Scholars class. Sandy’s class uses our Institute for Civic Engagement speaker series as a lab for exploring contemporary issues. The speaker in class that evening told the story of her recent trip to a World Social Forum in Tunesia.  At the end of her talk, a student in the class asked whether there is a single root cause of the ongoing conflict in Northern Africa and the Middle East. The speaker thought for a moment and replied “oil.” One by one, the students spoke up. “What about religion,” said one. “Borders,” said another. “Gender.” “History.” “Greed.” Students, faculty and guests wrestled with this large but unanswerable question…How are these issues related? Are they, in fact, related? Can a World Social Forum make a difference? What role can an American citizen play in resolving complex problems on the other side of the globe? Does an answer perhaps lie in social media? What about the Occupy Movement? Can these movements have an impact?

Such discussions unfold on a daily basis, in classrooms throughout Burlington College. It is easy to witness our students’ personal growth and transformation. And faculty member Anna Blackmer will tell you that growth is occurring for her as well.  Anna has written:

“…this approach to education is extraordinary because it’s based on the value of individuality in community.  It emphasizes the importance of each person’s experience in relation to every other person in any given group.  It means that new meaning is almost always generated out of interaction with others.  Though we may discover something new on our own, most often, in my experience, it’s with other people, in those rare moments when we are truly open to listening to each other, to each other’s thoughts and experiences, that I really learn something.  It’s different than consuming information or being entertained.  I feel connected to both myself and other people.  When it happens, it’s maybe one of the most exciting experiences in life.  And I have witnessed, many times, students who create the best work they’ve ever done out of the crucible of this kind of dialogue…”

Thank you for those thoughts, Anna.

Anna will also tell you there is a catch to the freedom this kind of education provides: responsibility.  In order to get something out, you have to put something in. All of us, faculty and students, depend on each other.   This is a partnership; without it, there is no dialogue.

What about a sense of place in one’s community?  What does that mean for our students? At Burlington College, we do not simply “serve” a greater community.  We do not simply study a greater community.  We engage with it.  We do this not out of a sense of obligation, rather, we do it intentionally, for engagement is life.  Engagement is the bone and muscle of a Burlington College education.

Many students come to Burlington College seeking their own path of inquiry within our sound academic foundation of creative arts, humanities, and social sciences. Others come seeking a career path through our expanding hospitality and tourism degree program. Whether they are pursuing a Master’s Degree, a Bachelor of Fine Arts, Bachelor of Arts, Associates Degree or a professional certificate, almost all of our students are drawn to the college for the sense of belonging that arises from community and engagement.

What does engagement at Burlington College look like? Engagement is a legal and justice studies student interning with a faculty member in our free legal clinic for low income citizens. Engagement is a student, documenting through art, film and creative writing, the experiences of Occupy Movement participants in Burlington and across the country. Engagement is a group of students staying up all night to create an award winning film in the annual 24 Hour Film Festival, under the mentorship of an accomplished filmmaker. Engagement is a student interning at a local senior citizens center or serving as a voting member on the College’s Board of Trustees. Engagement is a faculty member spending evenings and weekends with fine arts students painting vibrant wallscapes that enliven our hallways.  Engagement is students and faculty immersed in the life and classrooms of Cuba or Paris or China developing a deeper understanding of those cultures and forming lasting relationships with international friends.

Burlington College plays a unique role in Vermont’s diverse array of higher education institutions. Vermont is home to both public and private colleges and universities, research institutions, liberal arts colleges, and technical schools. We have colleges ranging from under 100 students to over 10,000. These schools grant a mix of two and four year degrees, as well as advanced degrees. We are a collaborative group, each offering opportunities and programs well suited to our individual missions.

I am very proud of the niche Burlington College fills in this landscape. Our student-centered learning environment is at the heart of all we do. Regardless of how our students come to know themselves or choose to engage in the community, their voices are distinct and they are heard. This is a campus where students develop a deep sense of belonging and purpose. Our graduates are guided by social consciousness.  Through their Burlington College education they have developed qualities which lie at the core of all human endeavors in life, work and community: initiative, empathy, imagination, resourcefulness, and creativity.

Burlington College will have its century of tomorrows.

The hallmarks of Burlington College’s tomorrows will be growth, innovation, and community involvement. Our campus, an aesthetic and historic landmark, will serve as the centerpiece for these initiatives.

We are frequently asked about our plans for growth.

With a building four times the size of our previous quarters and 35 acres of magnificent land overlooking Lake Champlain, yes, we do intend to grow! We prize the intimacy of our small, engaged classes and will not sacrifice it as we double our enrollment. It is, indeed, these very traits that will contribute to our growth.  For the student who seeks the engagement and the hands-on learning environment we offer, Burlington College is an ideal destination. Our classes will be supported, although not replaced, by technology. We will continue to attract independent, creative, thoughtful students, and hold firm to our recent designation as the country’s most free-spirited campus!

Innovation has driven the college’s success from the beginning.

A common foundation we all share as Vermonters is that we are in a geographic, political, economic and social environment that is beautiful, relatively open to change, and generally free of obstacles for those who choose to become engaged.  Vermont is the state in which civil unions first stepped on the national stage before the issue was open for discussion in other states.  Vermont is the state that is actively working to enact universal health care for its citizens.  We live in a beautiful environment, thanks to legislation enacted decades ago prohibiting billboards and establishing the returnable bottle bill. It is no coincidence that these actions have taken place in Vermont.  It is a reflection of our small size and our willingness to work together as Vermont citizens, educators and public servants.

Burlington College reflects some of the finest qualities of our home state. We are small and independent. We are innovative and nimble. Our acclaimed woodworking program, which graduates skilled wood artisans, was newly launched just 4 years ago. Enrollment is now nearing capacity, with an increasing number of those students pursuing our Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Woodworking and Fine Furniture Making. Our hospitality and tourism degree program, only two years old, is building partnerships in corners of the state where tourism promises a fulfilling career for our graduates.  Our innovative Individualized Masters’ Degree program, with two students only one year ago, and now 15 students, is sought after for the connections we provide to highly experienced faculty and for the flexibility of our low-residency model.

Our innovative approach continues to yield new and successful initiatives. Our Institute for Civic Engagement will soon launch a literacy clinic, providing free cultural literacy and language support for our New American neighbors, and serving as a companion to our long-standing free legal clinic. Our recently announced Institute for Contemplative Studies will be a destination for scholars, students, and visitors from Vermont and across the nation seeking inspiration and training in mindful leadership and self-reflection.  Our academic programs will continue to evolve to meet the needs and wishes of our students while remaining true to the college’s mission: a film program expanded to include media activism; a new initiative for contemplative photography; a human services program focused on underserved populations and hospice care. And our newly developed English Language Learning programs, dual enrollment options, and other flexible pathways for high school students, will provide the early spark that fires the dream of a college education.

Remember we were once called the Vermont Institute for Community Involvement.  These were not empty words for us.

Located in the heart of one of Burlington’s oldest and most diverse neighborhoods, and a stone’s throw from Burlington High School, where more than 40 languages are spoken, we remain deeply committed to our local community.

In our academics, we do not set arbitrary boundaries between reading great literature and starting a business; between studying the American Revolution and producing award-winning films.  In the same vein, we do not set boundaries between our college and our neighborhoods, between our college and our high schools, between our college and our local businesses.  We are a college without walls.  We are a college for the community, open, welcoming and inclusive.

When local high school students cross-enroll in our classes, they experience the excitement of campus life in a small and supportive environment, and their first taste of success with college level academics.  When our Somali neighbors arrive with their children to hoe a garden in our field, they are preparing for a summer of vegetables to feed their family or to sell in Burlington’s farmer’s market.  When a local resident crosses the street for a cup of coffee and a bagel with me during our monthly Community Breakfast, he knows he has a distinct voice; that his questions will be answered, his ideas considered. When New American students from our community arrive at Burlington College, the first in their family to bravely step onto a college campus, they do so knowing that they are pursuing a more fulfilling life for themselves and their families. 

We encourage local residents to join us for films, lectures and gallery exhibits, and to enroll in our continuing education programs. We will be mindful of our bond to the community as we transform our campus.  For over 125 years the Catholic Diocese of Vermont preserved this historic building and beautiful land.  We now have the opportunity to transform it, preserving its historic character while making it a home for our dynamic and thriving College.  Our campus master plan reflects this.  It envisions a striking lakeside pavilion as a home for our Institute for Contemplative Studies, furthering the College’s mission of transforming student lives.  It envisions fertile ground for community gardens, quiet spaces for contemplation and reflection, and a recreational walking path, to enrich the spirits of our students and our community.   We will continue to open the College’s doors to our community, welcoming individuals, public meetings, and private functions.

In placing this institution in my care, the trustees have charged me with serious responsibilities.  I must ensure the delivery of a meaningful and worthwhile education to our students. I must maintain financial stability through times of transition and economic challenge. And I must demonstrate careful stewardship of our property. Because of my unwavering belief in what Burlington College stands for and my confidence in its future, I am honored to accept these responsibilities. I pledge to work together with faculty, staff and students to safeguard our college and pass it on ever stronger.

Burlington College is a beacon of light and learning. We engage students with our state, our nation and our world, while enriching the lives of the North End community, in all its diversity and cultural richness.

Thank you very much.