Investiture of Jeffrey S. Vitter
November 10, 2016
Thank you Provost Stocks. Welcome, everyone! I also thank the members of the Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, Commissioner Boyce, and my fellow IHL presidents and administrators for your support and your service. I am privileged to be your partner in building a vibrant Mississippi through higher education.
I offer my appreciation as well to the Federal, state, and local officials who are with us today. Your counsel and support are crucial elements in the success of this flagship university, and we are honored by your presence.
To the Ole Miss family — thank you for so readily welcoming and embracing my family. From day one, I have relied upon members of our superb Senior Leadership Group, the excellent University of Mississippi Medical Center Executive Cabinet, the two “wonder women” Sue Keiser and Kim Barnes, and a host of talented faculty, staff, students, and alumni across our many campuses.
I believe in the adage that we all stand upon the shoulders of others. And though they are too numerous to name, I would like to acknowledge the many mentors, collaborators, and friends whose support has made it possible for me to stand before you today. I am especially grateful to the IHL board, and to my siblings, family, and friends who not only encouraged Sharon and me to return to the South, but to the best possible place in the South — right here at Ole Miss!
I’m only sorry that my parents could not be here today. They were amazing, loving people who instilled in my five siblings and me a passion for education and the importance of using education to help people.
Sharon and I are so proud to have our three kids here today — Jillian, Scott, and Audrey. We love them deeply. They are each wonderfully talented and accomplished. But we are most proud that they are kind and loving individuals who sincerely care about others.
Of all the things I say today, none will be more heartfelt than the statement that I would not be here were it not for Sharon. For the past 34 years, Sharon has been my life partner, chief advisor, and champion. Anyone who has met Sharon understands that she is the real reason I was hired. She is consistently patient …well, she’s usually patient …and always both loving and steadfast. Sharon, I am so blessed to have you in my life and to share this day with you.
Higher education creates opportunity as well as the ideas and innovations that drive our economy and society forward. I chose to be an academic leader because I am so passionate about the transformative power of higher education. There is nothing more important to the future of our society than higher education. It is the great enabler that helps people lift themselves above their circumstances and disadvantages.
I join in Nelson Mandela’s belief that “education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
I was drawn to this extraordinary University of Mississippi because of its rich tradition of academic excellence, strong sense of community, recognized history as an economic driver and thought leader, and good fortune to be located in a culinary mecca like Oxford.
Success of this magnitude is the shared legacy left to us by the thousands of faculty, staff, students, alumni, government leaders, and friends who have invested their time, talents, and resources in the university. And the crown of this legacy is the visionary leadership of former chancellors Gerald Turner, Robert Khayat, and Dan Jones, and Morris Stocks as provost and interim chancellor. I offer my personal thanks to each of you for your vision and your role in advancing this incomparable university.
When I arrived at Ole Miss 314 days ago, we began a dialogue around greatness and the hallmarks of being a flagship university.
- What does it mean to be a great university?
- What does it take for our flagship university to go to the next level of excellence — to go from great to greater?
- And what is so distinctive about our university, so intrinsic to our very being, that we should never change as we go forward?
This vitally important conversation began in January with the Flagship Forum — a 100-day listening and learning tour that touched thousands of stakeholders — and continued through university-wide senior leadership retreats and a Town Hall meeting in August that generated over 550 ideas.
I would like to briefly summarize this 10-month conversation and how it can fuel our imagination for a bright and exciting future.
The University of Mississippi is indeed what Chancellor Robert Khayat prophesied in his investiture address 20 years ago — a great American public university. We are indeed a great public international research university. While great institutions share many things in common, none is more primary than the relentless drive to be ever greater.
Greatness has many aspects, but on a university campus, it all starts with academic excellence. In a commencement speech here 15 years ago, Jim Barksdale quoted Stephen Covey when he said, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” And, at the University of Mississippi, the main thing is academic excellence.
Like all great universities, we measure ourselves against standards and metrics related to national rankings and academic performance. We also stand out nationally with unique academic programs and learning experiences, such as the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College (which I will attest is the absolute best in the nation), the Croft Institute for International Studies, and the list goes on and on.
Greatness through academic excellence includes research excellence. For the first time in our history, this past February, the University of Mississippi achieved the pinnacle: the Carnegie R1 highest research activity designation — attaining a stature afforded only the top 2.5% of universities nationwide.
The value of a University of Mississippi degree continues to increase, as attested by a student body that has doubled in size over the last 20 years. We are the largest university in the state, with the largest freshman enrollment. We have the highest entering ACT average and the highest entering grade point average, as well as the highest retention rate.
As Mississippi’s flagship university, we also embrace our responsibility to address our state’s most pressing issues, many of which have to do with the health of Mississippians. As the only academic medical center in our state, the UM Medical Center receives over 1 million patient visits each year and is a national leader in telemedicine. We are the preeminent complement to local hospitals and sustainable community healthcare, and we provide the leading venue in the state for trauma, pediatrics, transplants, and telehealth.
We also promote economic and community development through partnerships, community-engaged scholarship, innovation, and entrepreneurship.
Underneath our persona as a great public international research university beats the heart of who we are. At our core, Ole Miss is a family. It is in our DNA to enable every student — from the least prepared to the most prepared — to succeed and thrive. Every day, across all our campuses, we see the power of higher education transform lives, communities, and the world.
We are bound to one another through our UM Creed that calls upon us to respect every individual, embrace fairness and civility, and commit to integrity and academic freedom. An Ole Miss Rebel is an innovator, a mentor, a teacher, a teammate, a caregiver, a champion for others, and a fiercely loyal family member.
Ours is a large and extended family, including tens of thousands of alumni, for whom Frank Everett’s words ring true — “the university gives a diploma and regretfully terminates tenure, but one never graduates from Ole Miss.” You are likely to exchange a “Hotty Toddy” with a fellow Rebel any place in the world, just as I did in a large square in Venice, Italy, this past summer.
Ole Miss alumni “give back.” Literally! This past year, philanthropic gifts from our alumni and friends shattered our all-time giving record. Without their selfless support, we would not be where we are, and we would not be in a position to dream of what can be.
We are standing atop a peak in our history, and, from where we now stand, we can see higher peaks. In becoming what we are, we have created greater capacity for what we can be. The important conversation we must have now is not “What makes us great?” but rather, “How do we go from great to greater?” and “How will we get there?”
It goes without saying that in seeking to become greater, we will sustain and advance the excellence we have already established. Using our strengths as a spring board, we will — together — create a roadmap into the future focusing upon the four themes that emerged from the Flagship Forum:
- academic excellence,
- building healthy and vibrant communities,
- athletics excellence, and
- the key enablers: people, places, and resources.
We live in an increasingly complex world with many pressing problems. Imagine what we can do when we make a great learning environment even greater by expanding international presence on our campuses, and educating our students — tomorrow’s leaders — to prosper in a global society.
No one person or discipline has the full breadth of knowledge capable of solving any one of the world’s grand challenges. As management expert Ken Blanchard notes, “none of us is as smart as all of us.”
Just imagine what we can do if we identify university-wide priorities where we can be international leaders in addressing the important challenges in our state and world. Imagine what we can do if we take our collective strengths, leverage them, exploit multidisciplinary synergies, and in the process come up with imaginative solutions to these grand challenges.
I am excited today to announce that we will soon call for ideas of high-impact multidisciplinary research initiatives called Flagship Constellations. Flagship Constellations will comprise clusters of faculty, staff, students, alumni, and partners to address compelling challenges where no one discipline has all the answers and only collaboration and deep insights from multiple points of view will discover solutions.
We will establish joint degree programs across disciplines and campuses, engage in strategic growth of our graduate programs, and establish key partnerships revolving around innovation and entrepreneurship.
Intersecting our disciplines will take many forms. As an example, imagine what we can do when we build upon the momentum from our recent CEO Technology Summit to establish an interdisciplinary program in data science and big data, which will inform and support discovery and decision making across the spectrum from health and medicine, to science and engineering, to the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Imagine what we can do when we intersect the arts and sciences, humanities and technology to reveal the nexus where true innovation flourishes. Famous biographer (and fellow New Orleanian) Walter Isaacson made that very point at our CEO Technology Summit, using the iPhone as an example of innovative design thinking that has transformed how we communicate.
I am pleased to announce today that to our immediate east we will develop a Cultural Gateway to draw together our arts and cultural programs, anchored by this wonderful Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts, one of the gems of our campus. This space will create performance, experiential learning, and enrichment opportunities that will support our community and our region.
Our greatness is visible across every spectrum — from the academic classroom to athletics and service. Athletics excellence, long a hallmark of Ole Miss, has achieved even greater heights under the leadership of Vice Chancellor Ross Bjork and his talented team of coaches, staff, and student athletes. Athletics is our front porch to the university, and it has ignited the passions of thousands of people as we have had unprecedented success in recent years. From our student-athletes this past semester achieving their highest-ever GPA of over 3.0, to construction of premier venues and fan experiences, and to multiple team rankings in the top 25, Ole Miss athletics continues to rise!
I am proud to announce today that we will soon launch an athletics endowment initiative. Imagine what we can do with an endowed resource base to provide the resources to sustain competitive excellence.
A key part of our flagship mission is to build healthy and vibrant communities — a mandate that takes many forms. First and foremost, we have a responsibility to keep our communities — and the people who live there — healthy. As the state’s only academic medical center, we are uniquely positioned to lead healthcare strategy for the state.
Imagine what we can do to improve the health of Mississippians with our new Bower School of Population Health and its Department of Data Science. Only the third of its kind in the country, the Bower School will transform healthcare practice in Mississippi and beyond.
Just imagine what we can do when each year we graduate a new cadre of students from our School of Education in our Mississippi Excellence in Teaching Program. These students are among the best and brightest, and they commit to stay in Mississippi to teach Mississippi children. Imagine their impact on future generations of Mississippians!
As we all know, community needs in Mississippi are not limited to healthcare and education, and range from economic to environmental to policy.
Imagine what we can do if we channel the talents of our university — our entire university — to partner with towns and cities — one at a time — to enhance every aspect of community life. Imagine!
This big idea surfaced in our university-wide leadership retreat and was appropriately dubbed “The Big Idea.” As we move forward and further develop the Big Idea, we will be looking to all of you to identify resources and partnerships to support an integrated approach. And maybe you can even come up with a better name than “the Big Idea.”
Nothing we imagine will be possible without great people. As Jim Collins, the author of Good to Great, observes, “great vision without great people is irrelevant.” At Ole Miss, our people are the comprehensive enabler for all that we might do in achieving excellence and building healthy and vibrant communities.
Sharon and I came here because of the people — because of all of you. The audacious record of success that the University of Mississippi has achieved is because you imagined what could be and made it so.
Recognizing that our greatest asset is our people, we will continue to invest in them, renew them, reward them, and appreciate them. Imagine what we can do when we increase the resources dedicated to their development. I am pleased today to announce that we will grow faculty excellence by creating new endowed professorships around the Flagship Constellations and by providing more opportunities for engaged scholarship and creative achievement. We will also establish an endowment specifically to support the development, retention, and engagement of our highly talented staff.
I believe deeply that excellence and diversity go hand in hand. Diversity — in ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, culture, academic training, and scholarly discipline —makes us stronger as a community. Diversity makes our ideas better, our approaches more effective, our results stronger, and our relationships deeper. I know from personal experience that when done in a principled way, we can and will focus upon hiring for excellence and, by so doing, simultaneously build diversity.
We will sustain an atmosphere that is welcoming and respectful of individuals and multiple viewpoints. We will model and actualize our UM Creed, and we will serve as a guide to our nation in learning from our past and creating a vibrant positive future. Noted poet Maya Angelou was right when she said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
What we can be will require additional resources. Whether it be our new STEM Building on this campus, the expansion of translational science and clinical trial capabilities and a new Children’s Hospital wing at our Medical Center in Jackson, or exciting new programs and venues, we must work hard to plan in a focused way, garner resources around that vision, and execute the plan.
And I commit — with your help — to moving our endowment, which currently sits at $600 million to over $1 billion.
I believe our greatest calling in life is to make the lives of others better. And that is why I believe, more strongly than I ever have, that it is the mission of higher education to transform lives, communities, and the world. Ole Miss has transformed lives, including mine and many of yours.
Just imagine what more we can do.
As French novelist Marcel Proust so aptly observed, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” We became a great American public university because you imagined we could be and made it happen, proving that composer Richard Wagner was right when he said that “imagination creates reality.”
Just imagine what we can do and how far we can go.
Thank you again, all of you, for allowing Sharon and me to be a part of this tremendous family, for letting us realize our own personal goals in a place of such amazing grace and beauty. We have lived in many places on our journey to arrive home here at the University of Mississippi. And we are so proud that we are Ole Miss Rebels!
The next chapter in the life of this magnificent university sits squarely in all of our hands, waiting to be written — and read by future generations. All of us will ultimately be defined by what we leave behind. It is our destiny as a flagship university to desire more, to give more, to be more and to leave more behind. It is our calling to transform lives, communities, and the world.
JUST IMAGINE WHAT WE WILL DO!
. . . JUST . . . IMAGINE!