posted October 6, 2013

Text of Inaugural Address by President John C. Knapp

On Friday, October 4, 2013, Dr. John C. Knapp was inaugurated as the 12th president of Hope Collegein a ceremony in Dimnent Memorial Chapel. This is the text of his inaugural address, "The Promise of Hope".

Chairwoman Bauman, Presidents Van Wylen and Bultman, trustees, faculty and staff colleagues, students and friends, I am humbled by the trust you have placed in me, and I ask for your continuing prayers as together we write the next chapter in the remarkable story of Hope College.   It is a great privilege to receive a Hope College degree and I am proud to be counted now as an honorary alumnus.

I want to welcome and express my appreciation to the representatives of learned societies and the presidents and delegates from colleges and universities across this nation and around the world.  Your presence honors Hope College.

To the chapel choir, I speak for all of us when I say that you have lifted our spirits, as you always do.  And let me also express my deep gratitude to those who served on the presidential search committee chaired by Joel Bouwens and to the members of the inauguration committee led by Provost Rich Ray.

Exactly 100 years ago an earlier president took office at Hope College.  At the inauguration of Ame Vennema, the charge was given by an officer of the board who said, “We see for the new president golden gates of opportunity wide open.”  He might well have stopped there.  But he went on to predict, in his words, “burdens of responsibility which only the strongest shoulders can bear.”  A bit daunting, I imagine, for the new president!  Thankfully, as I assume responsibility for leading Hope College, I gain confidence from the knowledge that I serve alongside many capable and dedicated leaders who unselfishly shoulder these responsibilities together.

As the wheel of succession turns, this is an occasion to recognize all of those present who daily devote their talents, energies, hearts and prayers to sustaining this college.  It is a time as well to remember those who came before and stayed true to the mission bequeathed to us by our founders.  The pageantry of this installation service is not about an individual, but is an occasion to give thanks to God for all who have stewarded this college so faithfully.  We are mindful that we drink from wells that we did not dig and from vines that we did not plant.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that the same is true of my own life, for I am a product of a family that has supported and encouraged me each step of the way.  With us today are my mother Grace and our children Amanda, Tracy, Charlie, Mary, and Ronnie.  Amanda is joined by her husband Brian and their daughter – our new granddaughter – Sophia.  And of course many of you have already come to know Kelly and to understand why she is my indispensible partner in life and work.  I’m so pleased that her parents and sister are here as well.

Kelly and I are grateful for the warm and genuine welcome we have received since arriving in July.  We are honored by your invitation to serve.  And we are inspired by the opportunities that await this special college. 

For the next few minutes I wish to share my perspective on the promise of Hope College.  This institution now occupies an enviable position on the landscape of American higher education.  We are financially strong in every respect.  Our well-maintained campus is being transformed in dramatic ways through the generosity of the contributors to the largest campaign in our history.  Demand for a Hope College education has never been greater, as we now enjoy record enrollment and our longest-ever waiting list of applicants.  Every indicator of student success places this college near the very top nationally in student retention, graduation rates and overall student engagement.  Our stellar faculty consistently delivers an undergraduate academic program that is among the best in America.  And at our heart, we take our Christ-centered mission seriously and strive to live it out in an inviting and winsome manner. 

I am confident our forebears would be proud of the Hope College of 2013.  Dr. Van Raalte rightly foresaw that this college would be an “anchor of hope” for Dutch settlers and their descendants, but surely he would be pleased to see how it has grown in size and influence, with graduates living as agents of hope throughout the world.  We have been blessed with strengths that make it possible to plan for an even brighter and more promising future. 

Yet we know all too well that this is a time of change and challenge when many independent liberal arts colleges are struggling to remain viable.  Hope College is in a far better position than most of these, but we too must respond to the nation’s shifting demographics, public pressure to contain costs and demonstrate greater value, and an atmosphere of continued economic uncertainty.  In short, this is no time to be content with the status quo.

I recently read the words of a college president who said, “All the smaller liberal arts colleges are under fire today. And this is due not alone to the fact that with limited endowments and meager equipment, they find it difficult to justify their place in the educational arena, but it is also due to the fact” that liberal arts education is not sufficiently valued.  He went on to say, “it is the Christian college that is facing the greatest onslaught today.”  These words might well have appeared in this morning’s newspaper, but they didn’t.  They were spoken 82 years ago by Hope College President Wynand Wichers in his 1931 inaugural address.

Today, with the availability of an expanding array of educational options, including free online courses, some vocal critics question the relevance of residential liberal arts colleges, especially those with faith-based missions, seeing them as quaint relics of a past age.  They view a college degree as little more than a ticket to a trade, arguing that the value of education is measured solely by one’s future earnings. They have lost sight of the worth of an education that builds character, develops faith, broadens perspective, and gives meaning to life and work.  Perhaps much of our society has forgotten that higher education is a public good, preparing adults for responsible citizenship in a democratic society, and not simply a private benefit for the degreed individual.

Ladies and gentlemen, Hope College must lend its strong voice to this national conversation, for the lives of our graduates make the case eloquently that both the individual and society are best served when colleges are dedicated to the highest purposes of higher education.  This was just as true at the time of our founding, when a nation still reeling from the devastation of the Civil War looked to fewer than 200 colleges and universities to raise up a generation of leaders for the newly restored union.  Many of these colleges were in dire straits, having lost everything to the war, and many did not survive.  But Hope College pursued its mission on the leading edge of a new boom in American higher education.  When Wynand Wichers retired from the presidency in 1945, Hope was among nearly 1,800 colleges and universities nationwide.  Today the number is two and a half times that.

With higher education and the world itself changing at an ever-accelerating rate, Hope College’s time-honored, holistic student experience has never been more relevant.  Our mission calls us to prepare students for leadership and service in a global society, to give them the knowledge, competencies and perspectives of a superb liberal arts education, and to do so in the context of the historic Christian faith.  This is not only a commitment to our students; it is an expectation we create with everyone we serve – families, employers, graduate institutions, the church, and society itself.  Indeed, recent surveys of employers – nationally and in Michigan – find that the most sought-after qualities in graduates are not technical skills, as important as those may be in some fields, but such competencies as critical thinking, problem solving, agile learning, communication, collaboration, ethical reasoning, global awareness, and understanding of diversity.  It should come as no surprise, then, that 94 percent of last year’s Hope graduates were employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation, and more than eight in 10 of those employed were working in their fields of study.

I have seen for myself that this mission, in its fullness, is taken very seriously here.  I have been impressed by a broadly shared ethos of excellence, a desire to do all things well, from the classroom and laboratory to the athletic field, dining hall and health clinic.  This matters greatly, for I am convinced that an uncompromising commitment to excellence is the only sure way for Hope College – or for any college – to flourish in uncertain times.  Most important, we honor Jesus Christ when we devote our God-given gifts to pursuing the very highest standards.

So what is the promise of Hope College as a new chapter begins, and what must be done to realize it?  The Hope community will soon begin a new season of strategic planning to answer these questions with greater clarity and specificity.  However, it is already apparent that achieving our full potential will depend on several crucial factors.

First, we must ensure that our academic program continues to rival those of America’s very best liberal arts colleges.  Not only is Hope’s academic quality outstanding, it is distinctive in several essential ways.  These include an unusual balance of nationally recognized offerings in both arts and sciences; an exceptional knack for building first-rate professional and pre-professional programs that remain deeply rooted in the liberal arts; and a 40-year track record as a pioneer and national leader in collaborative student-faculty scholarship.  Going forward we must continue to invest in these strengths and leverage them to even greater advantage.  We must support our faculty in extending the proven undergraduate research model to every discipline where this may benefit students.  We must foster and reward greater interdisciplinary and inter-professional convergence to bring multiple perspectives to bear on the thorniest problems facing the world that our students will be called upon to lead.  Our splendid faculty and collaborative culture can make this a distinguishing attribute of Hope College’s reputation, and one that is not easily achievable by many other institutions.   What’s more, approaching problems by “thinking in the round” is consistent with our Reformed tradition, which reminds us of the essential unity of God’s creation and of our responsibility to act within it as instruments of transformation.

A second imperative for reaching our greatest potential is to cultivate a more expansive view of Hope College’s place in the world.  Dr. Isaac Wyckoff declared in his 1866 inaugural charge to Hope’s first president Phillip Phelps, “This is a shrinking world, and we must learn to be at home in it.”  How much more true is this in 2013!  Some of you will recall that it was soon thereafter when Dr. Phelps invited the first Japanese students to matriculate at this college, beginning a relationship with the people of Japan that continues today.  Hope has long been known for international education, thanks to leaders like Paul Fried and Alfredo Gonzales, but we must do significantly more to keep pace with the needs of our students and the rapid globalization of higher education everywhere.  This will require more innovation in the curriculum and co-curriculum, and stronger partnerships with institutions worldwide, among other initiatives.  We must design and carry out a strategy that once again sets Hope College apart as a leader in global education.

A more expansive view of our place in the world also suggests that Hope College must be better known nationally and internationally as a destination well worth the trip.  In too many of our conversations Hope is spoken of as a regional Great Lakes college, indicating to me that we may not fully embrace our true identity as a leading national liberal arts college.  As I said recently to our faculty and staff, we have earned a reputation that we have yet to claim in the national consciousness.  But to achieve this, we ourselves must see Hope College for all that it is and can be.

President Phelps felt an obligation to offer the Hope experience to students anywhere, knowing that they, just as much as the children of Dutch settlers, would benefit from a quality college education in a Christ-centered environment.  In our time, we must reach out to more students who reflect our country’s demographic and geographic diversity.  Hope will continue to be a college of choice for this region’s students, to be sure, but population trends tell us that they too will be a more diverse group in years to come.  We must be prepared to serve them well.

A third key to Hope College’s promising future is to remain steadfast in our discipline of sound fiscal management, a longstanding commitment that has given us more than 40 consecutive years of balanced budgets.  Like most independent colleges, we rely heavily on student tuition and fee income for about eight in ten of our operating dollars.  Despite this, we work diligently to make a Hope education as affordable as possible, and over the last five years have kept annual tuition increases significantly lower than those of our peer institutions. 

From our very founding, this college’s leaders have strived to make education accessible to students whose families are not wealthy and for whom excessive debt is not a prudent option.  Reflecting on this, I remembered my grandmother Mary Knapp who graduated from a four-year college 102 years ago.  She often spoke of her father’s belief that young women in their rural southern community should better their lives through a college education.  He was not college educated and was not a wealthy man.  But he wrote to colleges to request catalogs and invited the county’s girls to his home to show them the possibilities.  He helped more than a few of them become the first members of their families to complete college and paid them to do summer jobs at his farm and shop to help with expenses.  Four decades earlier, as America emerged from the devastation of war, Hope College’s founders also saw education as the key to a better life and determined early to admit both men and women to their new college. 

It is no small challenge to pursue excellence while striving to keep the Hope experience within reach of as many students as possible.  It must be our priority to augment tuition dollars with support from a growing endowment to fund more scholarships and sustain highly competitive academic programs.  In his 1894 inaugural address, Hope College President Gerrit Kollen said, “Colleges established by Christian people ought to be endowed and as well-equipped as those funded by the state, both as to brain and money.”  A long-term, sustained commitment to building our endowment will help secure Hope College for future generations, while keeping quality high and tuition affordable.

Finally, no distinctive of Hope College is more crucial to our future than our deep commitment to our Christ-centered mission.  The Reformed theological tradition inherited from our founders is a solid foundation upon which to carry out this mission, for it invites us to see all areas of life and work as the domain of one sovereign God.  It is a tradition of earnest engagement with the big questions of our lives and our world.  As a newcomer to the Hope community I have been struck again and again by how seriously my colleagues take this mission.  The faculty-led “Faith and Scholarship” discussion series is one example among many.

Yes, we talk a lot about our Christian purpose at Hope College.  We wrestle with what it means to do our work in what our mission statement calls simply “the context of the historic Christian faith.”  As a broadly ecumenical community, we debate and discuss how this might inform our thinking, and sometimes we do so in very public ways.  But in the process we deepen our experience of what it means to take faith seriously.   Confident of our unity in a shared faith, we have not felt a need to resort to simple dogmatic answers to shield ourselves from tough questions.

One might say that a college is not unlike any of us as individuals.  For Christians, faith formation is an ongoing process.  There are moments of uncertainty when we pray for deeper understanding, situations where we struggle hard to discern what a disciple of Jesus ought to do.  Sometimes we choose poorly and seek forgiveness and a greater measure of wisdom.  There are times, too, when our Christian growth is fed by others who question and challenge us.  For individuals and the college alike, Christian formation is, and ought to be, a lifelong project.

Hope College’s ecumenical bearing is an important distinctive that sets us apart from many other faith-based institutions.  One need only look at the makeup of our student body to realize that we invite and serve students from the broadest range of Christian traditions, as well as those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  All students are welcome to join us in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.  This inviting posture will be even more essential in years to come, as we anticipate far greater changes in the religious preferences and identifications of college-going young people.

Most of all, Hope must always be a place to encounter the gospel in life-changing ways, where the love of Christ is shared generously in word and deed.  It is our responsibility to model for our students and the world how Christians with diverse backgrounds and differing views can live together in unity. Certainly this is one of the noblest lessons we can impart in preparing students to be agents of hope and grace for a world in need of the good news that is Jesus Christ.

The promise of Hope beckons us forward, urging us not to be too satisfied with what we have achieved, and challenging us to make this college an ever greater blessing to the world.  Our very name – Hope College – resounds with promise, God’s promise of a bright future

Chairwoman Bauman I humbly accept your charge.   To this assembled community, I ask your prayers for Hope College, ever mindful that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it.”

Spera in Deo.