DR. DEBBIE COTTRELL, 16TH PRESIDENT OF TEXAS LUTHERAN UNIVERSITY
Inaugural Address, October 26, 2019
Thank you, Andy. And thank you to all who are on this stage with me and in this auditorium today to show your support for me, but more importantly, for the future of Texas Lutheran University. Regents, delegates, family, friends, faculty and staff colleagues, students and former students, former TLU presidents, community members, and other friends of TLU, please know how honored I am today and how grateful I am for your presence.
As a person who has been blessed with great support, much love, all kinds of encouragement, and many, many good friends, I want to start today by acknowledging especially the role of my family in my being before you today. First to Alan, my lifelong partner, supporter, and really smart and principled husband, and to Andy, our intelligent and witty son, both of whom have offered every encouragement that a wife and mother could ask for. And then, to my only sibling and older brother, Richard, who long ago mastered the art of loving me through equal parts teasing and equal parts supporting, as well as to his children whom I love dearly, and to cousins and in-laws, Cottrells and Mauldins and Heltons, each of you have loved and cared for me in such great measure and have ensured that the power of family has been a daily part of my life. Thank you.
As the current leader of TLU, I am also particularly grateful to have the support of former TLU presidents, two of whom are here today. I want to recognize them for their work, dedication, and leadership in past years at TLU: Dr. Charles Oestreich (president from 1976-1994) and Dr. Stuart Dorsey (president from 2011-19). Stuart, you are the newbie to the past presidents’ club, and I’m especially pleased to announce today that just this morning our Board of Regents approved president emeritus status for you, a position that doesn’t come with any compensation but does recognize the critically important work you did for TLU in your 8 years as president here and puts you in the very good company of Dr. Oestreich and Dr. Jon Moline. Congratulations, and a special thank you, Stuart, for bringing me to TLU 7 years ago and for your great support, guidance, and friendship throughout those years!
And speaking of the Board of Regents, I also want to acknowledge their critical leadership and work on behalf of this university. These 26 individuals are exemplary supporters of TLU, and I am grateful to them for their leadership and also for the faith they have demonstrated in me to serve as TLU’s 16th president.
It is also a great honor today to have with us all three of the bishops of the ELCA who serve in Texas. I’ll ask them to stand and be recognized: Bishop Sue Briner from the Southwestern Synod, Bishop Mike Rinehart from the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, and Bishop Eric Gronberg from the Northern Texas Northern Louisiana Synod.
No president has a chance to succeed unless she has a strong leadership team, and I’m so grateful to be working with such a team here at TLU. These individuals collectively bring experience, passion, creativity, and vision to their leadership roles, and they are fiercely devoted to TLU’s success. I’d like to recognize these vice presidents and ask them to stand: Interim Vice President for Academic Affairs Annette Citzler, VP for Student Life and Learning Kristi Quiros, VP for Admissions and Marketing Sarah Story, VP for Finance and Administration Andrew Nelson, and VP for Development Renee Rehfeld. Your commitment to TLU and your support of me is deeply appreciated.
And if you’ve ever planned one of these kinds of events, you know how much work and coordination is required. Though she will hate this, I want to give a special acknowledgement to my assistant Susan Rinn for her incredibly hard work and good spirit in planning this inauguration, along with the assistance of the Inaugural Planning Committee. I also want to thank Dr. Doug Boyer and Professor Beth Bronk, and their students for today’s beautiful music.
I come to the podium today knowing that your assessment of my wisdom may well be determined by my ability to not talk too long. I regret that my parents, now both deceased, are not part of this occasion but were they here and had they been a part of the lead-up to this event, I am absolutely certain, based on past experience, that my mother would have asked me—maybe more than once—“now, Debbie, how long are you going to talk?” And my dad would have reminded me that this would be a good time not to mess up. So, here we go, hopefully not too long or off course.
The history of presidential inaugural addresses at TLU suggests a variety of approaches but also some common themes. Dr. Oestreich invoked the essence of TLU as a community of learning and a community of faith. Dr. Moline noted the sense of both thanksgiving and hope as he moved into the TLU presidency. Other presidents noted the importance of being good stewards of the gifts of our forbearers. Dr. Dorsey noted that leadership is not about making promises but rather about getting to work. (He also said no one every remembers a presidential inaugural address, so there’s that.)
Today, I would like to use my inaugural moment—no matter how quickly it is forgotten--to reflect a bit on the past as a way of understanding our future in higher education.
I’ll start briefly with my own history. I am a first generation college student. My dad was a jeweler (or a diamond-setter as he preferred to say) with a GED and my mom held a high school degree plus one year of training that certified her as a licensed vocational nurse. College was never remotely on the radar for either of them. Yet, they both believed passionately in the power of higher education and it always seemed to me that they had made some kind of pact early in their marriage that no matter what, their children would go to college. In my family, preparing us and enabling us to get to college was a component of good parenting—just as important as—maybe more important than--making sure we ate well, got our vaccinations every year, and did our homework. There was an intensity to their belief in the power of college that was tangible in our home, and the clear message for Richard and me was that attaining a college degree was worth whatever sacrifice it required.
Somewhat in contrast to the home I grew up in, and perhaps to the experience of many of you here today, the last several years have brought forth wide-ranging critiques of higher education in the U.S., in a confluence of grumpiness, economic challenges, isolated bad examples, and rising expectations. Whatever we make of these critiques, it’s hard not to recognize that public faith in colleges and universities has diminished. The hope and faith that Jack and Earlyne Mauldin put in a college education is not always readily apparent in today’s world. A little more reflection might also lead us to recognize that the critique of higher education today is, at least in part, tied to a lack of agreement on what higher education is for. But, as it turns out, this is not the first time we’ve had this debate.
In 1947, shortly after the end of World War II, President Harry S Truman appointed a Commission on Higher Education to reexamine the role of colleges and universities in post-war America. Ultimately, the Truman Commission, as it was known, produced a report that not only addressed the nuts-and-bolts of higher education but also the role of this education in advancing our nation’s values, along with the need to connect an investment in colleges and universities to the country’s priorities. The report referenced the need for colleges to keep pace with changing societal conditions, to be willing to adapt and change, and to keep a focus on preparing students to live satisfying and effective lives in contemporary society. It took a bold stand on accessibility, diversity, financial aid, community colleges, and adult education. I promise that if you read the 6 volume report (which I realize you probably won’t), you’ll wonder whether it was written in 1947 or 2019. The big take-away for me from the Truman Commission is that it’s important to know what our purpose is and it’s important to realize that the high expectations around higher education will always make this a challenging question, yet one we should endeavor not only to answer but to live.
So what does this mean for Texas Lutheran University in 2019? How can we best help answer the question about the purpose of higher education and then make an impact beyond the boundaries of this campus in Seguin? What are the opportunities before us that will allow us to serve our students well not only now but many years into the future? And what is our part in restoring confidence in higher education in the U.S. today?
Again, I’ll return to the past to help us find answers, this time the specific past of this institution. The history of Texas Lutheran University is quite a story, and not necessarily a story for the faint of heart. Economic downturns, enrollments dropping as low as 60 students, natural disasters, disagreements with the church, name changes, relocations, debt and uncertainty not only over how to pay it but who was responsible for paying it, and, in one particularly challenging financial period a litany of actions that included reducing the faculty from 12 to 8 while cutting their salaries 10% AND giving them additional duties, and also requiring 12-month employees to spend six week each summer recruiting students with the rather faint reassurance that if necessary, the college would buy 2 cheap cars to help with this work. And yet, throughout the setbacks, the dire straits, the seemingly insurmountable challenges, there was always reason for hope and always a link between hope and faith. Whether readily accepted as divine intervention or just with a spirit of gratitude, this is a place that has long linked mission and purpose with faith and action. A place that has had both its share of struggles and its share of miracles. Alongside a long list of challenges and setbacks sits a recurring list of miraculous events occurring against all odds. A Carnegie grant that vastly increased the college’s library holdings at a critical moment. The hiring of new faculty who would go on to have a profound impact on students for years to come. The start of long-distance choir tours that put us on the map with our Lutheran college peers. The return of football (that happened more than once.) The belief that four-year status was possible, even if the estimated cost of the buildings required for this change was a staggering $645,000 in 1944. (When I read this part of TLU’s history about trying to become a four-year institution, with all of its setbacks and delays, the suspense was real to me and I found myself wondering if, in fact, TLU would ever become a four-year institution.) A bit after that, the miraculous faith of a doctor from Fredericksburg and Texas Lutheran regent who borrowed the money to purchase 34 acres on the west side of campus—including where we sit today—to secure a larger campus footprint for the future. And more recently, the sale of some stock with significant returns that moved several important projects along and repositioned us for the future. These miracles didn’t just happen, they became imbedded in the ethos of this place, moving us forward and helping us overcome our Lutheran humility and think more confidently and even talk about the possibility of becoming a “St. Olaf of the South” or a “second Rice Institute of Texas”.
As I take up my presidency at TLU, my sense is that there are still challenges (though reading about past ones puts them in perspective) and there is still reason for hope, not the kind of hope that sits back and waits for the next miracle, but the kind of hope that instills optimism and joy and good decisions in the spirit of building a stronger and better institution. The kind of hope that links faith and work. The kind of hope that embraces and generates bold inspiration. The kind of hope that is centered on our students. If we know our history, we know we can demonstrate the purpose of higher education as being focused on sending well-taught, confident, grateful students to live and lead with grace and purpose in the world.
The activist Rosa Parks once remarked that “knowing what must be done does away with fear”. My sense is that we know what must be done here. We know we need to broaden the base of students we serve and need to work hard to advance diversity and inclusion through a lens of pluralism. We know we need to continue on a growth trajectory and continue to focus on our financial stability. We know that we need to be a good community partner in Seguin, advancing a strong working relationship with our local neighbors and bringing our strengths to help with the needs in this community. We know we need to tap into and live deeply the Lutheran ties that have always been a part of this institution, tenets that root and focus us on the liberal arts, freedom of inquiry, rigorous learning, and an openness to serving all. I fully embrace the recent mission statement created by the organization of Lutheran colleges and universities in the United States that says our purpose is to equip graduates who are “called and empowered to serve the neighbor so that all may flourish”. We know that we must live into the words of the hymn we sang earlier this afternoon, that encourages us to see this as a place “built of hopes and dreams and visions, rock of faith and vault of grace” and, most importantly, a place where “all are welcome”. We know that we will have to change and be fearless and take some risk. We know that we have to believe in our past—both the struggles and the miracles--as way to understand our future.
I close today by circling back to my parents, the one who worried about me talking too long and the other who encouraged me, well, not only to not mess up but also to recognize opportunities. These loving, supportive, high-standard parents who knew poverty and the loss of family in both war and peace, whose lives were often more difficult than I can imagine, figured out that sending their children to college was the most important way for them to ensure that our lives would be better than theirs and to give us both a cornerstone on which to build our lives and a buffer as we encountered the challenges of life. They grounded us in the gifts of love, faith, support, and stability, and then they packed us up and sent us off to college. They sacrificed and they prioritized and, as part of the Truman Commission generation, they never wavered in their belief that college was the path to the best life for their children. And while they surely hoped we would become gainfully employed, and not once offered to let us return home if things didn’t work out, they never framed the opportunity of college in that way—it was about the experience of learning, the opportunity to grow and be exposed to great and diverse minds, it was about college as preparation for life, and college as a place that would give us a direct connection to a larger world. Their dreams certainly have undergirded my choices and opportunities and brought me to this moment today. And that personal link also means that my own history is deeply tied to the history of higher education in this country and also deeply tied to the purpose and mission of Texas Lutheran University.
And so, my hope today for TLU and for all of us is that the power and purpose of college is never forgotten, that the bold inspiration of a community focused on faith and learning never waivers, and that whatever challenges we may face, we will always know what it is we must do and believe that what we do will serve to help generations of students find the path to the best life, leading, giving, and serving in a world that so desperately needs them.
Jo Anne Creighton, former president of Mount Holyoke College, has observed that “we are in this life together on our fragile earth, united by a vast, rich, stunning legacy of science, arts, and letters, and by an awesome history of human struggle and achievement. Institutions of higher education are the primary vehicle through which that heritage is reflected upon, added to, and passed on to succeeding generations.” She also notes that those who lead institutions of higher education must always, to borrow a line from a Matthew Arnold sonnet, “see the institution steadily and see it whole.”
It is in this spirit that I gladly accept the opportunity to serve as TLU’s 16th president. I embrace the challenges and the miracles that will come, I promise to see the institution steadily and whole, and I vow to honor our history by living into our future.