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Ursuline College President

ter Christine De Vinne

Sr. Christine De Vinne's Inaugural Address (November 17 2015)


A Founder's Day and an Inauguration: two ritual celebrations in the life cycle of an institution, each looking in a different direction. In the perfect synchronicity that brings them together, they remind us of who we are and who we can become.

On Founder's Day, we celebrate our history.   We reflect on the boldness of Mother Mary of the Annunciation Beaumont in coming to Cleveland from France in 1850, with just four companions-and never looking back, never returning home but creating a new home and a new future here in this Western Reserve.   We marvel at her audacity in founding Ohio's first chartered college for women, one of the oldest Catholic colleges for women in the country. 

On Inauguration Day, we honor this legacy by looking to the future.  We take stock of our present, and we imagine ourselves even better in the years ahead.  Just as we share a past, we share a vision for this gathered family, our students, our alumnae, our staff, our trustees, our faculty, all our benefactors, and the community where we thrive, our Greater Cleveland. 

These reminders-and this ritual-are wrapped in gratitude and faith.  We celebrate today on a campus with a state-of-the-art Parker Hannifin Center for the Creative and Healing Arts and Sciences and a Sr. Diana Stano Athletic Center that is the envy of the NCAA Great Midwest Athletic Conference.   We are thankful for the generosity that raised those bricks and mortar out of ground plowed by a tornado.

We are grateful to our trustees, whose dedication supports us on a daily basis.  We are grateful to our staff and faculty, whose service transforms us into a dedicated community.  We are gratefully inspired by our students, whose fresh wonder and miracles of growth delight us.

In the first-person singular here, I am grateful for the Ursuline of my past and of my present.  I know that the Ursuline Sisters, who hold this College in sacred trust, daily support me.  It is a true honor to have been called home to lead my alma mater-and I have my own sister here with me, my parents in heaven, and all my family backing me up.   So, Virginia, Maureen and Jake and Kelley, Mike, Martha, James and Nick, the cousins-in-residence, and special friends: thank you.  You've gotten me ready for today, and I'm going to need you more than ever starting tomorrow.

Every one of us lives in gratitude to our own personal heroes and support teams.   But as community we also find heroes to share.

Heroes have shaped our Ursuline past.  In Mary Beaumont's line, our foremothers lived for a future they could not themselves foresee.  Barely thirty years after our founding, Mother St. Peter Mallin, in 1902, dared to suspend the liberal arts curriculum and turned instead to meet a critical need, training Sisters to teach in the Diocese of Cleveland's fast-growing parish grade schools.

Twenty years later, Mother Mercedes Keegan worked with-yes-the North Central Association, to reinstate the baccalaureate.  The photograph of the first graduates under the restored curriculum, the Class of 1926, has pride of place in Mullen Hall across from the photos of the Board of Trustees.   That was the same year that the College's basketball team won the citywide Class A championship.   Arrows, your home season begins tonight: we're counting on you.

That same fearless Mother Mercedes also oversaw the move, less than a year later, to the Overlook campus at the top of Cedar Hill.  Behind the two grand mansions, which would house the classrooms, offices, library, and residence hall, lay a horse stable and coachman's house.  Those would become the chemistry and biology labs.  Chemistry and biology, really, someday the last will be first.

If we don't remember the reversals, leaps of faith, and trials overcome in our 144 years, it's easy to be daunted by what we face in higher education today.  We can catalog the erosion of public funding, the burden of loans, and the inequities of access.   Skeptics question the value of the liberal arts, while the "un-college" movement ignores the very real wage advantages that graduates win, in 2014 still estimated at a million dollars over their lifetime.   As a private institution, we face competition from public universities, for-profit universities, and online universities.  Collectively, our students, many of them the first in their family to attend college, face critical personal issues, home responsibilities, job responsibilities, and pockets of academic unpreparedness. 

We know all this.  And still we find, in our values, voice, and vision, the means to challenge our students to transformation, at the heart of our mission.

What transformation will light Ursuline's future?  Ours will be a transformation based on the needs of our students and our prospective students, increasing student enrollment and student success.  Under our Catholic identity, we will thrive in what Pope Francis calls a "culture of encounter" with the world.

The results will raise our profile across Northeast Ohio and beyond, expanding community partnerships and enhancing the value of an Ursuline diploma, based on the reputation of thousands of Ursuline graduates.
On campus, our transformation will invest in the professional development of our faculty and staff, whose work in curricular and co-curricular design, research, and academic support anchors all student learning.

Transformation like this is won by an infallible combination of pure faith and hard work.  A leader has to be an example of both.  A leader at Ursuline has the great good fortune to find a host of people ready to inspire, encourage, and embolden.   A president here can be the first among equals, persevering in both wisdom and commitment.

Because they persevere, committed leaders often discover the right answers to the problems they tackle.  But even more, they discover the right questions.  They ask about group identity, goals, strategies, and membership.   Who are we?  How are we doing?  Why are we doing this?  Where are we going?  A good leader realizes that all participants need to be sharers of knowledge, active creators of group invention.   All around us are initiators of Ursul-innovation.

The community holds wisdom.   So in my own version of crowd-sourcing, I have been out on campus asking what Ursuline wants in a leader.

I've talked to our random student-on-the-street.  I've been to the library, the Pilla atrium, the hallowed halls of Mullen, Dauby, the soccer field.  I've asked Board members, alumnae, faculty, staff, community leaders.  In four months, I've barely scratched the surface.

What do you want of your new leader?

As the superhero, Agents of Shield job description warned me, you want someone committed to traditional, undergraduate education yet able to grow our adult and graduate programs.  You are looking for "firm, decisive leadership," but within a collaborative and consultative environment.  From a position of independence, you want to forge new connections.

One person supplied presidential characteristics as nouns:  honesty, trustworthiness, vision.   Another gave me adjectives:  inspiring, intelligent, hard-working, compassionate.

A UCAP alum suggested that a leader needs to spend time with our students, because that is the best way to see effort pay off.  A staff member reminded me of the value of inclusion on our campus and the hopes we have of a more diverse faculty and staff.

Someone, not at all partisan, suggested that I should support her department, and a very valuable one it is, but she almost immediately launched into an encompassing vision.  "There are struggles at Ursuline, like on every campus," she said, "but here you will always find people to help you.  People will say hello to you and welcome you.  Our students are like that," she observed, "because they watch us."

Because they watch us.  Because what we do teaches more than what we write on our syllabi or post on Instagram or cheer at a volleyball game.   We need to be role models, living symbols worthy of trust.

We need to trust each other, because we know we'll make mistakes along the way.   My new favorite example comes straight from the Vatican, which two years ago, on the first anniversary of Pope Francis's election, had to pull thousands of commemorative medals off the market.  It seems they had misspelled Jesus's name on them.

I don't need to read the entrails of sheep or take the auspices of birds-our resident blue heron, the bluebirds we house, or our ubiquitous Canada geese-to foretell this future: I will make mistakes.   I will try not to frighten you with them.  I promise to learn from them. 

Surely, forgive me, Mary Beaumont must have made her own mistakes and recovered from them.  Her mistakes have been erased by the past, small ripples against a faith-filled tide.
But keeping faith day after day is no small thing, either.   We never know when a single moment might call us far beyond our present.

Among my narratives of inspiration-I've been an English teacher for so long that everything gets cast as narrative-I keep a copy of a note supposedly found on the desk of a martyred missionary in Africa.  Its attribution is variously reported; it proves impossible to track down but seems to have been in circulation since at least the 1940s.   Even of unknown origin, it rings with a cadence and a confidence that are undeniable.  On days when what they call "the grace of office," which I'll need, seems lacking, I will borrow from its conviction.  This anonymous writer proclaims in part:

I am a part of the fellowship of the unashamed.
My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, my future is secure.
I am a disciple of Jesus.
I must go till he comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, work till he stops me. 
And when he comes for his own, he will have no problem recognizing me-my banner will be clear.

Those of us who know our Ursuline College history know that we carry the banner of our own martyr.  Sister Dorothy Kazel, who graduated from Cedar Hill fifty years ago, died in El Salvador thirty-five years ago next month.  She faced down the injustice, poverty, and violence of a civil war in Central America.   She left the security of Cleveland for a future she chose without foreseeing its end.

Today, we inaugurate our future.  We face injustice, poverty, and violence in our communities and our world, with every fresh headline.

But we believe with our students in Arts and Sciences, Nursing, and Graduate and Professional Studies, in every major, every student organization, and every support office, there is hope for transformation.  We lead each other to empowerment. 

Each of us inserts ourselves into the "length of days" we wish for Ursuline in our alma mater.   From our oldest alumna to our newest graduate, from our longest serving faculty member to our latest staff members, we are this dynamic, ever-evolving community.   I challenge myself, and I challenge all of you, to fill "the halls of Ursuline" with our hopes and the bounty of God's gifts.