President James M. Smith Inauguration Remarks

March 2, 2017

Good afternoon, and welcome.

I’m excited, honored and privileged to be speaking to you today as Eastern Michigan University’s 23rd president. And, let me tell you, I feel a sense of wonder standing here.

If you’d have told me during my days as an undergraduate college student at Miami University in Ohio that I’d end up as a university president, I’d have fallen on the ground laughing, incredulous as can be.  As would my Miami friends, David and Kathy Cassady, both of whom are here today. As an aside, Mr. Cassady and I were undergraduate roommates in the 1970s at Miami!

So, as I look back on my career, from teaching elementary school and middle school to working in various capacities at colleges in Texas, South Dakota, Ohio and Michigan, a line from the Grateful Dead comes to mind.  “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” A nod to Jerry Garcia.

For that journey, I’m exceedingly grateful.

This is the place where I want to end my career. Not now, but ten years from now. That’s a long time, but that goal shows how much I value this University, how much I value who we are, and what I believe we can accomplish together.  Now, I like to think I came here with some appreciation of Eastern’s character. I did my homework on you, and had some relevant and parallel work experience as well.

Like so many of our students, I’m a first-generation college graduate. I am an only child; my father was a draftsman and my mother a homemaker. I grew up in Washington Court House, a small town of about 13,000 near Columbus, Ohio. I have spent my educational career in what you and I would call “places of opportunity,” a label we readily apply here at Eastern.  At my last position, as President at Northern State University, in Aberdeen, South Dakota, we were often “The College of Only Resort” for some students. We were the place where farmers and ranchers’ kids would go in order to remain close to home and be able to help out. We prided ourselves on great customer service for these students, much as Eastern serves its first-generation students or our many students with multiple jobs or family obligations. So I think I understand Eastern, which helps me find this place so endearing.

Now, I do have several people I want to thank, who were crucial in helping me get to this spot in my career.  The first is Dr. Sidney Ribeau, who served 13 years as president of Bowling Green before a distinguished presidential tenure at Howard University in Washington D.C. Sidney was the best boss I ever worked for, and taught me a great deal about how to treat people with respect, how to listen and how to work toward shared goals. He never micromanaged, but was a leader who trusted; it was a joy to work for and with him day-in and day-out.

My two most powerful mentors, as academics, are here today as well: Drs. Charles Teckman and James Burchyett. Charley and Jim were fundamental to all I am today. As an added critical element, they are the two leading signatory lines on my doctoral dissertation from the year 1988.

And, of course, my wife, Connie. She has been a great source of perspective and insight to me, all the while managing her own career.  It’s a challenge being a presidential spouse. You’re on every day, just like a president’s on every day. To do that and have your own professional career, where she’s been able to publish and travel around the world in support of international students … That’s a delicate dance, and one I greatly and forever will appreciate.

But this job, here at EMU, is a role we – Connie and I – both eagerly accepted. Yes, I did my homework on Eastern. I knew what I was getting into. And that’s said in a most positive vein.  When I got here, I vowed to listen. A lot. And for the past eight months, I’ve enjoyed a fact-gathering odyssey of sorts, walking around campus, hearing your stories, questions and concerns. I’ve met so many of you; it’s been exciting and, of course, deeply informative.  Based on that deep, eight-month dive, I have three themes I’d like to share with you and reflect on today as we collectively confront the future of our University.

The first theme is the need for unity and shared purpose on this campus amid the challenges we face.  As I look out on the coming years, it’s clear we face serious challenges.  Increased funding support at the state and federal level is not the answer.  Obviously, we cannot build future revenues on the backs of our students. Tuition increases must be limited and then thoroughly justified and explained. And they will remain minimal.   

How do we confront these challenges? I believe the first and most important step is that we on this campus realize how much we have in common, as opposed to any differences we might have or inevitable issues that might arise.  We share something precious at Eastern Michigan, and that’s a love for our students. Staff, faculty, administrators. We all really care. All universities say that, but I believe we demonstrate it, over and over.  There’s no better example of that bond than the upcoming Undergraduate Symposium, on March 31. About 230 faculty will be working with nearly 450 students on various projects and presentations. The symposium embodies what we so value here – our connection with our students.  I hope we can all take pride in that focus, and in who we are at Eastern Michigan. I hope we can work harder and closer than ever before, and truly reach our potential through a shared purpose and vision.

The second element I want to emphasize is to note the opportunities we have if we work together with shared pride in our University and its mission.  I’m excited to think about the various areas where we can grow, evolve and improve. I’ll give just a few examples. One of them is fundraising. We have a fine EMU Foundation staff that works very hard, but they cannot do it alone.  I believe there is a considerable niche of goodwill and community support in our immediate area and in southeastern Michigan that we can enhance, if we work together.

What if each of us converted the sense of pride and gratitude we feel in working here into outreach efforts to those we know? How much more could we accomplish? How much more could we raise as a collective EMU team? I hope you consider this question.   Another area of significant opportunity is in terms of growth in international students and study abroad. Both are essential to our future.  We can and must grow international student enrollment, but also must find ways to get domestic students to study abroad in larger numbers. It’s what students of today want, and need.

The potential impact of growing our international footprint is striking. For instance, the continued growth in international students coming to the U.S. for higher education has a positive economic impact on the United States. International students contributed $35.8 billion to the U.S. economy in 2015, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.  Locally, Michigan derives $1.1 billion from 33,848 international students coming to the state for postsecondary education. Economic activity from these students supports 13,722 jobs statewide, according to recent figures from the Association of International Educators.  These are just two areas where we can grow, all the while preserving that special aspect of EMU, which is a place of opportunity for so many students to flourish and grow.

Regarding that, I want to tell you the short story of a wonderful young man, Desmine Robinson, who is a sophomore in the Psychology program here at Eastern.  Desmine was hurt and saddened last semester when racist vandalism targeting black students occurred on our campus. He felt his own anger, but was also touched by the wishes of other students in his classes – those not immediately targeted by the vandalism – who wished to express their support for inclusion and against racism, but were unsure how to do it.  In response, Desmine led several unity marches around campus, punctuated by his own remarks and inspiring songs. Shortly after those events, having shown his distinct brand of enthusiasm and highly expressive leadership, he was chosen to serve as a master of ceremonies at our annual MLK luncheon. Not only that, but he received the EMU Student Humanitarian Award. He is also a student member of our new Commission on Diversity and Inclusion.  It’s been quite a year for Desmine. And I suspect this is just the beginning for him. It is with his enthusiasm and determination that we will all move forward.

I also love to tell the story of Nino Monea, a recent graduate in Political Science. You might have seen him around campus. With his ready smile, the crisp dress shirt and bow tie, he cut a distinct and striking figure around campus.  Nino was a home-schooled student who became a very active and engaged student government leader at Eastern, along with competing for EMU in Moot Court and Mock Trial events. Nino favored an old political saying – “It’s amazing how much can be accomplished if no one cares who gets the credit.”   Among Nino’s accomplishments was working with Student Body President Desmond Miller and the Board of Regents to develop a new tuition policy that offered a path for undocumented immigrants to gain admission to Eastern.  Nino also worked incredibly hard academically. Along with his 4.0 grade point average, he took more than 60 practice tests for the LSAT. 60!  Harvard Law School where – no surprise – he was elected Student Body President. After graduation this spring, he’s coming back to clerk for a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

Stories such as Desmine’s and Nino’s are indeed exceptional. But they represent a crucial element of continuing opportunity at EMU that we must embrace and cherish. Together, we must seek to preserve Eastern as a fertile ground for such remarkable student growth.  

The third and final area I want to focus on is innovation.  I ask you here and now, and in the months to come: Working together, with a shared sense of pride and passion, what are new areas we can develop, in terms of research, academics or to continue to broaden our community outreach? What can we do to nurture the culture of innovation here?  Dr. Ben Edmondson, the Superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools, told me just the other day how much he appreciates what our School of Social work does with and for Ypsilanti students. “By having you as partners, you’re making the lives of so many children so much better,” he said.  I can recite myriad, creative efforts that epitomize this community commitment, such as our Bright Futures after school program, our family empowerment program at the Hamilton Crossing housing development or our support of the Early College Alliance program.  We need to continue to push for ways to help our community, and to broaden our footprint and reach in Washtenaw County and southeastern Michigan.

Academically, we must continue to strategically grow, offering creative programs that align with the needs of our students and the state’s economy.  A great example began this past fall, with our Fermentation Science program. It is built around rigorous science. Science that not only prepares students for careers in the scientific support of the brewing industry, but in pharmaceutical companies, biofuel producers or management.

Another example of strategic innovation is our Physician Assistant Program. In the coming years, when you have a sore throat infection or the like, you can’t be going to the E.R. It’s too expensive. Too time consuming. You need to be seen by a P.A. or Nurse Practitioner. There’s just a huge need for this profession.  Our outstanding Physician Assistant program, which started in May 2014, draws thousands of applications for just a few dozen spots. The students train at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, which just loves us. We have a terrific relationship with St. Joe’s and are looking to grow it further.

In February, the regents approved two new academic programs: A doctorate in the Practice of Nursing, and a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering. These are the kinds of directions we need to be headed, while continuing to nurture the arts and excel in business and education programs.

In terms of innovation, our students inspire us as well.  Some of you may have heard of a recent graduate named Zach Wigal,  who this winter was named on Forbes “30 Under 30,” defined as the definitive gathering of today’s leading young change-makers and innovators in the U.S.   Zach, who now lives in Los Angeles, is the founder of Gamers Outreach Foundation, a nonprofit that helps children cope with long-term medical treatment by providing gaming hardware and software to hospitals.

And there’s Aleksandra Efimova, a graduate of our business school and founder and CEO of Russian Pointe, a worldwide seller of ballet shoes and other dance products.  Aleksandra, a Russian-American, graduated from art school at Russia’s State Hermitage Museum before founding Russian Pointe five years later during her days at Eastern. She now comes back for COB events, offering her advice to students.

Students such as Zach and Aleksandra epitomize the kinds of opportunities for innovation and creativity that abound here, and in which we are all united in supporting. 

Unity, opportunity and innovation.

It’s my fervent hope that we can embrace our shared pride in our University and work together to take advantage of our opportunities while continuing to create new ways to innovate, evolve and grow.   Consider this a call to unified action, to nurture a culture of innovation and ideas that seizes our opportunities while maintaining EMU’s welcoming character.  I’ve found this to be a special and singular place, with a clarity of purpose and shining mission to support its students, and you are the people who make it that way.

In closing, I want to again emphasize the gratitude I feel to all of you, to this University community, for the privilege of serving as your president and being able to stand here before you this afternoon. 

A strange trip? Indeed, I’ve enjoyed quite a varied ride to get to this point. And I think the best part of that ride is yet to come.