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Words from Waller

February 9, 2022

Dear Bearcats,

Tomorrow marks 10 years since I was formally inaugurated as president at Willamette, one of the most moving and humbling days of my life.

The weather was Oregon winter-time bleak, but the day was filled with color and music. Traditional Taiko processional drums gave way to an angular new composition by Prof. John Peel. Most memorable were the moving songs of welcome from Bud Lane and Bobby Mercier, of the Siletz and Grand Ronde tribes, reaffirming the connection between Willamette and the Native communities on whose land we have the privilege of living, working, and learning.

Marking the arrival of a new president is only nominally the purpose of such an event. These ceremonies are really a celebration of connection. The inauguration of a university president is a rare opportunity for students, staff, faculty, and alumni to gather and share their commitment to alma mater and to each other, surpassed in the last ten years only by the 2017 solar eclipse as an excuse for a university-wide party. But the symbolism of the installation ceremony is outward rather than inward looking, illustrating the university’s place in the wider world and its connection to communities larger than itself.

In addition to all the insiders who offered words of welcome that day, we had many visitors here to make connections explicit. Kate Brown who was Oregon Secretary of State and Anna Peterson, Mayor of Salem, represented government and public life. Wim Wievel, president of Portland State University; Colin Diver, president of Reed College; and Chancellor Nobuyasu Kurata of Tokyo International University represented our educational peers and partners around the world. And my friend and colleague David Helfand, president-elect of the American Astronomical Society, represented scholarship and learning.

My inaugural address also focused on the theme of connection, expanding on the well-known passage from E.M. Forster urging us to “Only connect!” I explained that the theme of connection had come up repeatedly in the listening sessions I undertook in my first year here. Again and again I was told that this is a community that values and seeks connection. And in my remarks I reflected that message back to the community I had just joined, that I had formally committed to serve with all of my heart and energy.

Ten years later, I think I undersold the message. Today, I believe Willamette is defined by the call to connect. We often think of our core value as service, but it is telling that in the passage from On Duties from which our motto is excerpted, Cicero is not calling us to serve some abstraction, like Good or Virtue or Art, but to serve the people around us. Our friends and country have a share in us, he writes, and we are called to be kind and “by our skill, our industry, and our talents to cement human society more closely together.”

It has been a tough decade for connection, even before COVID arrived to wall us off from each other in little boxes on a Zoom screen. Political polarization, geographic sorting, and social media bubbles have all decreased opportunities to interact with, much less communicate with, people whose views are different from our own. A study reported in the Journal of Adolescence in December reported a remarkable doubling in the number of high school aged kids reporting loneliness between 2012 and 2018.

In all of our schools, the “special sauce” in a Willamette education is the intentional way that our faculty build interactive spaces where different ideas and viewpoints can be tested against each other. Seminar-style classes, late-night problem sessions in departmental lounges, community-based programs, and so-called “consequential learning” where students make decisions that have effects in the world beyond campus are all examples of ways in which learning moves far beyond the passive lecture format many imagine when they debate whether it really matters if learning moves to Zoom. At Willamette, we believe that the deepest understanding comes from work in these connected learning communities.

And of course a great deal of the value of an education at Willamette comes from connection that occurs in venues unrelated to specific classes, sometimes in co-curricular activities like athletics, sometimes in venues where deep questions of personal identity can be explored, perhaps for the first time. Forster’s call is not just to connect to each other and the world, but to seek connection among the sometimes contradictory pieces that make each of us an integrated human.

This week, I traveled to Washington D.C., visiting with members of our congressional delegation to press our case for expansion of student aid, and meeting with leaders of other colleges and universities. After two years without travel, I had almost forgotten how much more effective communication can be when it isn’t mediated by Zoom, and the ways that informal, in-person gatherings of people with diverse perspectives and experience can crystalize into networks of support and learning. But many of the people I talked with remarked that they, like me, are finding this in-person work surprisingly stressful.

We don’t know if there are more COVID-related surprises in store, but for now the Omicron wave is ebbing fast. If re-emergence into a post-pandemic world seems a scary prospect, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. In addition to the millions of lives lost and other health impacts, this pandemic’s social and psychological effects will be with us for years. But just as Willamette was a regional leader in developing institutional public health approaches to COVID two years ago, we can be leaders in modeling a safe, intentional approach to post-pandemic life.

This is going to require effort, Bearcats. Real human connection is hard work, especially the rewarding connections we make with people very different from ourselves, which have been perhaps the most damaged by the loss of face-to-face encounters. But we need to rebuild all those connections, and to re-invigorate Willamette’s connections to the world. And we need to remember what a hard two years it has been for every member of our community, and that each of us has our own healing to do, on our own terms and timescales. As Cicero instructed, be kind – to others and to yourself.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

E.M. Forster, Howards End

Non nobis solum,

Willamette University

Office of the President

Salem Campus

Waller Hall, 5th Floor
900 State Street
Salem Oregon 97301 U.S.A.