Dr. Lyle D. Roelofs’ Inaugural Address

Our Berea: A Celebration of Commitments and Conviction

Thank you all, to Professors Bolster and Clavere and the many talented musicians for the beautiful and stirring music.

Thanks to Marshall Tolliver for leading us into this place and welcoming me; to all the many delegates of other wonderful Colleges and Universities – we are so honored by your presence and participation today; and to two wonderful Pastors, Rev. Gail Bowman and Rev. Kent Gilbert, who invite us into and usher us forth from the spiritual place that each of us honors.

Thanks also to the members of Berea’s Board of Trustees, led today by Trustee Eugene Lowe, representing Board Chair David Shelton, and past chair Elizabeth Culbreth. Gene, David, and Libby, along with Nancy Blair, were key players in the search committee that brought Laurie and me to this place; and to the esteemed members of our community here on the platform with me.

Thanks as well to the members of the faculty and staff of Berea who are here led by Academic VP and Dean of the Faculty Chad Berry and to my long-time special friend and mentor, Elaine Hansen, whose remarks were so perfect for this occasion.

Finally, there was a very hard-working committee of Bereans who labored tirelessly over the last several months to make this celebration both very special and very appropriate to this unique institution. They are listed in the program, and if you know and encounter any of them today, be sure to add your thanks to mine. In their exhaustion, a bracing hug might be appropriate, too.

Laurie and I are so happy that many family and friends, including our brothers and sisters and our mother, Cynthia Roelofs, were able to join us for this celebration.

Welcome to all!

I will, if I may, refer to all of us today as Bereans. Many of you have already embraced that identification. Those others of you, here for the first time this weekend, we would like to include you, too, in our community from now on. You only need to imitate the first Bereans, who are mentioned in the book of Acts and who “were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness.” It’s all about eagerness to learn!

I will even be so bold as to address everyone as Beloved Bereans. That idea is due to our College Chaplain Gail Bowman, who since her arrival last summer, has been calling us to Beloved Community, a sharing of what’s most important in life, our intellects, our spiritual commitments, our respect, our esteem for one another, and our willingness to do our utmost for this place. Deep caring, conviction and commitment, in other words.

It’s an honor and a great responsibility to serve as President of this place that we all hold as our own. I accept this responsibility and the specific charges that come along with it, gladly and with Conviction.

  1. Beloved Bereans and Prof. Silas House, I accept the charge of the 1st Great Commitment to provide an educational opportunity primarily to students from Appalachia, black and white, who have great promise and limited economic resources. Our first task is to educate and transform the young women and men who come to the college regardless of their need. I have come to appreciate, too, how the sense of our place is so fundamental to our commitment. Through traveling in Appalachia, Laurie and I have been deeply blessed by getting into the hollers and the hilltops, to recall your words, Silas. Learning that reverence for the places we inhabit and need to be stewards of is essential to the Berea learning experience. Ron Rash, the noted Appalachian author, in discussing the importance of place in Convo this week, reminded us of a quote from another fine writer, Eudora Welty, who said, “One place understood helps us understand all other places better.”
  2. Beloved Bereans and Prof. John Carlevale, I accept the charge of the 2nd Great Commitment to provide an education of high quality with a liberal arts foundation and outlook. You are correct, John, to point out that the liberating potential of the liberal arts can be unsettling at times. However, this is ultimately a good kind of discomfort; it means we’re learning and open to change. I am reminded of Bethany McLean, who as a young journalist was the first to unearth and expose the fraudulent dealings and deeply flawed leadership that eventually brought down the ENRON Corporation. Bethany, who grew up in rural Minnesota, later credited her liberal arts education at Williams College for enabling her to see what many other investors and analysts had overlooked. She said that her liberal arts education had prepared her “not only to answer questions but also to question answers.” It’s also significant that Ms. McLean majored in mathematics but is pursuing a successful career in journalism. A liberal arts founded education prepares you well for many careers, even for careers that do not yet exist!
  3. Beloved Bereans and President Emeritus Larry Shinn, I accept the charge of the 3rd Great Commitment to stimulate understanding of the Christian faith and its many expressions and to emphasize the Christian ethic and motive of service to others. We were founded by Rev. John G. Fee, an abolitionist preacher whose primary purpose was to advance the cause of Christ, so this 3rd commitment goes back to our very origin. But the story of how John Fee got the idea to start a college, in addition to the number of churches he had planted in Central Kentucky, is less often told today. Our 3rd president, William Goodell Frost, an Emeritus President himself at the time, delivered a Thanksgiving Sermon in 1926 entitled “Eight Berea Heroes” in which he shares the nugget of when and from whence came the idea of a College. You might be surprised to learn that way back in the 1850s college students were already doing funded internships, and an Oberlin student named George Candee had received support from the American Missionary Association to come to work during the long winter break with John Fee, serving the small church Fee had founded and in Fee’s words to “preach the gospel of impartial love in all this region.” One afternoon, the two men were chopping wood in Fee’s yard when in conversation the idea arose, “We ought to have a school here and educate not merely in the ordinary branches of learning but in love as first in religion and justice as first in government. We must enlist young people.” The idea, the “great thought,” as Frost termed it, had been born: “A school can be a machine for propagating progressive ideas!” So, there you have it, the central connection between spiritual commitment and learning, right from the very start, and due, not so surprisingly as it turns out, to a student. Students, by the way, continue to contribute at Berea as full, active participants in our community.
  4. Beloved Bereans and Vice President of Labor and Student Life Gail Wolford, I accept the charge of the 4th Great Commitment to provide for all students through the Labor Program experiences for learning and serving in community and to demonstrate that labor, mental and manual, has dignity as well as utility. Here I will share an anecdote from my very first visit to the campus, when being interviewed as a finalist in the presidential search. A campus tour had taken me to Presser Hall, and as I walked through the building, a student pushing a cleaning cart emerged from a bathroom on the first floor. I wouldn’t say he looked happy that he had just cleaned a bathroom or that there wouldn’t have been other things he would have liked to do with his time, but in his bearing and demeanor, he exemplified that dignity of labor referred to in our 4th Great Commitment. And I thought also in that moment of the utility of student labor, because if students take on most of the custodial work on campus, as they really do, the savings can be used to educate more students! Let me now publically thank that student, whose identity I have not yet discovered, for contributing early and essentially to my deep understanding of Berea, and if I had to identify the moment when I first knew that I really wanted to come to Berea, that was it!
  5. Beloved Bereans and student Laura Tate, I accept the charge of Berea’s 5th Great Commitment, to assert the kinship of all people and to provide interracial education with a particular emphasis on understanding and equality among blacks and whites. Carter G. Woodson, Harvard Ph.D. historian and long serving faculty member at Howard University, is known for founding the academic discipline of African American studies and originating Negro History week, which eventually evolved into Black History Month. Woodson graduated from Berea in 1903, one year before the Kentucky legislature’s passage of the infamous Day Law, which mandated segregation of educational institutions. The Day Law had been sponsored by Representative Carl Day after he visited Berea College and was disturbed to see black and white students learning together. Berea College challenged the law all the way to the US Supreme Court, which upheld it in 1909. That “Berea decision” followed the rule of “separate but equal,” decided years earlier in the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson. The dissenter in both cases was Justice John Marshall Harlan, a native of nearby Boyle County, who studied at Centre College and Transylvania University, both of which are represented among today’s delegates. After that decision was rendered, the College had no recourse but to comply with the law, doing so by founding a separate institution called the Lincoln Institute near Louisville. The Day Law was effectively repealed in 1950, after which the College quickly began the work of re-integrating its student body. Earlier this spring we dedicated our new Carter G. Woodson Center, where our founding commitment to interracial education is explored and furthered. Joining us at that dedication was Jessie Reasor Zander, now 84 years old, and Berea College’s first African American graduate post segregation era. Since Jessie’s years at Berea, we have continued to build a diverse community that pursues education interracially, aims to enlarge everyone’s understanding of culture and identity, and equips us to confront the persistent evils of discrimination and racism shoulder-to-shoulder. [This includes our current planning around admitting qualified undocumented students in the foreseeable future.]
  6. Beloved Bereans and bell hooks, I accept the charge of the 6th Great Commitment to create a democratic community dedicated to education and equality for women and men. bell, I did not give you a title, so let’s call you beloved Berean, gifted author and poet and thoughtful feminist. Your words and our friendship, which have resulted already in so much sharing, will be a guide to me going forward in the daunting challenge of creating an institution that deserves to be called a “democratic community dedicated [equally] to education and equality.” In our emphasis on equality, as you point out, we must seek the mutuality in all our relationships and value the aspects of gender that are complementary.
  7. Beloved Bereans and Joe “Deuce” Saleem, I accept the charge of the 7th Great Commitment to maintain a residential campus and to encourage in all members of the community a way of life characterized by plain living, pride in labor well done, zest for learning, high personal standards, and concern for the welfare of others. Here are the nuts and bolts of our Beloved Community. Here is where we learn to care for one another; to find enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life and to delight in learning; to care for our own physical well being, the health of our community and our region and our planet; and to hold ourselves and one another to high and noble standards. Here is where we commit to sustainability in our personal lives, in our buildings, and in managing our little part of the planet, which includes not only a school but also a farm and a forest. Here is where we develop the understandings and commitments that enable us individually and as a community to provide leadership for our culture in the most critical task facing it in the 21st century.
  8. Beloved Bereans and founder of the New Opportunity School for Women, former First Lady Jane Stephenson, I accept the charge of the 8th Great Commitment to serve the Appalachian region primarily through education but also by other appropriate services, and I thank you, Jane, for providing an example, through the school and program you founded, of that commitment of ours to serve disadvantaged populations of our region. As you pointed out in your charge, that great work continues in so many ways today, providing benefits not only to the persons served but also to us as we learn how to take on deep challenges in our region and experience the satisfaction of doing so.

Thanks to all of you for your eloquent statements of charge. Addressing them is a simultaneously humbling and inspiring prospect. Some mischievous persons, noting that I am Berea’s 9th president and that we have only 8 Great Commitments, have asked if I will be leading the College to commit to a 9th. That’s tempting in a way, because I have enjoyed so much our morning running and walking program together with students, faculty, staff, and some townsfolk. And the 5K race on two mornings ago was a great success with more than 150 participants. And our Founders were all very hardy persons, traveling on horseback and on foot into the mountains, building the campus buildings, some part of our campus still today, themselves, even making and laying the bricks, and cutting trees and sawing wood. And wellness is just so significant to a happy and rewarding life. So, with all that in mind, perhaps a commitment to running and fitness would be “fitting,” so to speak. But, no, in fact, we do not need a 9th commitment to running or fitness. Joe Saleem pointed out in his charge that wellness and sustainability understood broadly encompass learning to run and to finish strong in all the races you run. So you can count on me and Joe for reminders about that 7th Great Commitment. The 7th Great Commitment is about simple living and taking care of ourselves and our community, thus encompassing a commitment to wellness and sustainability at all levels.

So, we needn’t look there for an expansion of our Great Commitments.

With our Great Commitments as they are, Berea is and can continue to be a Beloved Community with great reach and impact. It can and should be a national model. Laurie often says that every state should have a Berea. That’s so true. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see articles, statements, or commentary on the urgent national search for better ways to provide affordable higher education opportunities to deserving young men and women. Here at Berea College, we have an answer to these questions, one that has been working well and successfully meeting challenges for a century and a half. So far, we are the only Berea, but as we continue to thrive and to celebrate our mission and identity, I am convinced, and I want you to join me in that conviction, that we can be an example, a model to follow, a pattern that in being adapted with discretion to other circumstances, can bring the same benefits of “Our Berea” to many other places and people. Would that not be a truly wonderful thing to add to the Legacy of Our Berea? Berea College has transformed so many lives and it will surely continue to do so. But let’s dream bigger. Beloved Bereans, let us go forth in the conviction that in carrying out our mission and our Great Commitments, this little school in Kentucky could inspire a transformation of higher education across our land.

And now, Beloved Bereans, to put a real exclamation mark at the conclusion of my remarks, the combined choirs will sing our alma mater “Berea Beloved” as we all continue to celebrate our unique community and this day together.