President Lambert discusses Elon’s ‘long plays’ in his final opening address

In kicking off the 2017–18 academic year, Elon’s president gave his 19th and final opening address by talking about five issues that are critical to the university’s future.

Elon President Leo M. Lambert provided a long-term view of the university’s future as he delivered his final opening address to kick off the 201718 academic year. Last February Lambert announced his plans to conclude his presidency and the Board of Trustees is conducting a search for Elon’s ninth president.

Lambert talked about the university’s leadership transition with faculty and staff assembled in Alumni Gym on Aug. 21. “This morning is the 19 and final time I will have the privilege of offering an Opening of the University address to you, my dear colleagues,” Lambert said. “This is a special and exciting year. We are finishing the Elon Commitment strategic plan and the University community will soon likely begin to ask what’s next? The leadership phase of the Elon Leads Campaign is going well and we are thinking about the public phase launch. And, of course, we will soon welcome the ninth president of Elon University. So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what I might say to you in order to be most helpful in this time of transition.”

Lambert said Elon faculty and staff are using their talents to “do the most important work imaginable—shaping the minds and hearts and souls of a new generation.” He said the essence of the university is in the relationships that students develop with “an extraordinary faculty and staff who are committed to helping students become their best and truest selves.”

The five “long plays” outlined by Lambert included the following:

  • Safeguarding Elon’s culture, which keeps the focus on students and learning, values a strong teacher-scholar-mentor model, encourages innovation and creativity and values kindness and community
  • Keeping a disciplined focus on maintaining Elon’s identity, which aims to set the global standard for engaged learning
  • Building the university’s endowment to provide greater student financial aid, including more Odyssey scholarships for talented students with high financial need, Fellows scholarships for highly qualified students, and Elon Engagement scholarships for students from middle income families
  • Staying connected with Elon’s young alumni who are making an impact in the world and are critical to the university’s future
  • Boldly anticipating the disruptive changes ahead in higher education and remaining nimble and innovative.

Lambert concluded his remarks with heartfelt thanks for the support he has felt during his tenure as Elon’s president. “Everyone in this room is a gift, to me, to this university, and especially to our students,” Lambert said. “I am truly grateful for your counsel and guidance, and for the inspiration you have given me by your own extraordinary work. You called me to be better.”

Lambert will assume the role of president emeritus after his successor takes office. He will take a yearlong writing sabbatical and will remain associated with Elon as a faculty member and to support the new president, primarily in the areas of alumni relations and development.

Watch the video of President Lambert’s address:

Text of President Lambert’s address – August 21, 2017

Good morning and welcome to the beginning of the new year at Elon. I hope you all had the opportunity this summer for some rest and to rejuvenate your bodies and your spirits.

On the Monday following Commencement, Laurie and I moved out of Maynard House into our new home. We love our new space, and frankly, it felt wonderful to dramatically lighten the load of “stuff” we accumulated over 40 years. It took me two months to realize I had left my hair dryer affixed to the wall of my old Maynard House bathroom. [I guess if you don’t use something for 15 years, it falls out of mind.]

This morning is the 19th and final time I will have the privilege of offering an Opening of the University Address to you, my dear colleagues. This is a special and exciting year. We are finishing the Elon Commitment strategic plan and the university community will soon likely begin to ask “what’s next?”  

The leadership phase of the Elon Leads Campaign is going well and we are thinking about the public phase launch. And, of course, we will soon welcome the ninth president of Elon University. So, I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what I might say to you in order to be most helpful in this time of transition.

Most important of all, I want to offer the perspective that each of you is using your unique gifts and talents to do the most important work imaginable—shaping the minds and hearts and souls of a new generation. I cannot think of another time in my life where the leadership of a new generation was required more. We need new leaders who are more hopeful. More capable of addressing the issues of our time: health care, the scourge of racism and how to respond to the rapid changes taking place in our economy due to technology. More globally-minded. More creative. More kind. More courageous to stand up for American ideals of liberty and justice for all. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu charged us on this very stage, more committed to see the face of God in every other human being they encounter.

It takes a very special environment to help form such leaders and citizens. But nowhere else in my life have I encountered a group of people who are better at doing this work collectively than you. You have often heard me say that the essence of Elon is in the power of the transformative human relationships that are formed here. I am often asked, “What’s Elon’s secret sauce?” And my answer is: an extraordinary faculty and staff who are committed to helping students become their best and truest selves.

As I have been on the road this year engaging with our alumni, I have been speaking about “long plays”—ideas that we are committed to today, and I believe must remain committed to for the next 40 years or longer. I know, 40 years sounds like an eternity. But that is the length of just one extraordinary faculty or staff career at Elon, or two Elon presidencies. Tempus fugit.

I have five “long plays” to talk about this morning that I believe are critical to Elon’s future success.

The first is to safeguard what is best about Elon’s culture. Management gurus often observe that, “culture limits strategy” or “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Here at Elon, we have been big on strategy. The successful execution of a series of ambitious strategic plans has catapulted us to a place of prominence on the landscape of American higher education. But I am convinced that the reason we have been able to carry our plans forward is because of our strong institutional culture. Here are some of its most important features:

We keep a constant focus on students and learning. It sounds so simple, and self-evident, but this ethic has kept us grounded and focused, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

We have a staff that consistently rises to a higher calling. Many of our program assistants are some of the most important student mentors on campus. Our environmental services staff are significant adult presences in the lives of students and extend encouragement. I have had grateful parents thank me because Jana Lynn Patterson gave their kid a much needed “get your act together talk” and moved, for example, an 18-year-old young man along the continuum from being, shall we say, unfocused, to earning a full scholarship to a prestigious law school. Those are but a few of a hundred examples.

We take our faculty teacher-scholar-mentor model seriously. We have kept our bearings. We prize great teaching and mentoring as the most important professional activities of the faculty. No one is prouder than I am of the advances we have made in supporting and celebrating faculty scholarship, but superb teaching remains at the heart of the work of Elon faculty.  

In recognition of the critical importance of faculty excellence to Elon’s mission, I am pleased to announce today that upon recommendation of a committee chaired by Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs Tim Peeples, we will honor two of our colleagues this fall as Distinguished University Professors: Jeffrey Pugh, Maude Sharpe Powell Professor of Religious Studies, and David Copeland, A.J. Fletcher Professor and Professor of Communications. They will be the fifth and six faculty members to receive this title, which recognizes senior full professors for their inspirational teaching, scholarship, service and leadership. We will be investing Dr. Pugh and Dr. Copeland as Distinguished University Professors in formal ceremonies later this academic year, but this morning, I ask you to join me in congratulating them for their years of dedication to Elon and generations of students. 

We prize innovation and creativity. This is a community that is constantly asking, “How can we be more excellent?” Let’s never stop asking that question.

We value kindness and community. The world needs institutions that model kindness and inclusive community. Especially now.

I am not a Pollyanna. I know we are not perfect. Individually and collectively, we have our rough edges and our bad moments. But, all in all, this is a pretty great place because we are so invested in it.

A second long play is that we need to keep a disciplined focus on maintaining our institutional identity. Brands, including those of academic institutions, are very important, and I believe this will be ever more increasingly so. Bates has a brand. Vanderbilt has a brand. Villanova has a brand. My own view is that Elon’s identity is to set the global standard for engaged learning. That’s powerful and distinctive, and maintaining a distinctive place among top colleges and universities is critically important to our future.

Elon can be found on many top-100 lists for colleges and universities. Our leadership in engaged and experiential learning here is unsurpassed. Thanks to you, when asked which institutions are doing the best work in international education, in undergraduate research, in writing across the curriculum, in first-year seminars, in senior capstones, in internships, in residential learning communities and civic engagement, people point to Elon. Our arts and sciences tradition is distinguished. We have a business school in the top 40 and a top-ranked communications school.

We prepare great teachers, lawyers and health care professionals. And we are proud of many other distinctions, such as the Elon Poll, the Doherty Center for Entrepreneurship, our students’ success in winning Fulbrights and many other national and international fellowships, the work of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, our track record of success with the Peace Corps, our work in multi-faith, and so much more. The challenge is to maintain distinctiveness as we compete alongside the best institutions of higher education in the country, many with longer-established reputations and much greater wealth.

The third long play I want to address with you this morning concerns maintaining a sense of urgency for building our endowment for a principal purpose—student financial aid.

More than a decade ago, the estate of Leon and Lorraine Watson provided an unrestricted gift that was used to create the Watson Scholars program, our first major gift to support multiple endowed scholarships for students with high financial need, almost all Pell-eligible. Then Furman Moseley, Class of 1956, and his wife, Susan, created the Susan Scholars. Others followed, and the Odyssey Program was created to support a growing number of students with major financial awards, which today totals 118 scholarships. The key to Odyssey’s success is not only the scholarships, of course, but the program’s strong mentoring and sense of community.

Odyssey Scholars today are among the most amazing students at Elon. Bridgette Agbozo, Class of 2019, studied at the University of Bristol this summer with an award from the U.S.-U.K. Fulbright Commission. Steven Armendariz, who graduated last spring, is teaching in Spain this year after winning a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship. Miss Oprah Winfrey dropped by last spring to celebrate the graduation of Nosipho Shangase, who is now studying epidemiology in the School of Public Health at UNC. Nosipho’s journey from her childhood in Johannesburg, to the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, to being a Susan Scholar at Elon, to one of the nation’s top graduate programs in public health is a story of incredible human potential being realized. Oprah made two telephone calls to both Furman and Susan Moseley to celebrate the connection they shared in Nosipho.

Because of the success of the Odyssey Program, many others are stepping up in the Elon Leads Campaign to expand the program. LabCorp’s gift this summer will support four more Odyssey scholarships for graduates of the Elon Academy. The estate of Edna and Doug Noiles will create six more Odysseys, along with endowment support for the Elon Academy. Trustee Ed Doherty and his wife, Joan, are supporting eight additional Odyssey scholarships. Trustee Cindy Citrone and her husband, Rob, have supported two Odysseys for graduates of the Horizons college-access program. Former SGA President Cam Tims, Class of 2000, has generously added Elon and Odyssey to his estate plan. And we’ll have more exciting additions to Odyssey to announce later this fall. We are making great progress to grow the program to 200 scholars by the end of the Elon Leads Campaign; this work is incredibly important to both the character of Elon and to supporting the American dream of a better life through access to education and hard work. This is a big and strategic bet for Elon; we already have about one-quarter of our endowment funds invested in Odyssey scholarships, but I am convinced that growing this program over time remains one of Elon’s most important commitments.

We are aiming for similar growth for endowments to support our Fellows scholarships, which enable us to enroll some of our other most well-qualified students. For example, this past spring and summer, Trustee Catherine Weaver and her husband, Mike, endowed two Honors Fellowships, parents Larry and Anne Clarke are establishing two Elon College Fellows and two Business Fellows endowments, and the estate of Carolyn Alspaugh endowed two Teaching Fellowships in honor of the memory of her late husband, John. 

Additional aid for students from middle income families in the form of Elon Engagement scholarships is another top priority of the Elon Leads Campaign, and will be key to helping us meet our future enrollment objectives.

The big picture here, folks, is that we are on a decades-long journey to increase student financial aid, principally through endowment. This is the long-term, strategic and most sustainable approach to building our aid pool. In my view, this represents the single most important strategic priority for Elon, and it will require hard work, patience and the commitment of our growing alumni body to succeed.

And speaking of our alumni body, they represent the fourth long play I want to address this morning. You have heard me say many times that great universities are ultimately known by the accomplishments of their alumni, and I have overwhelming confidence that our growing alumni body will propel us to new heights. At President Danieley’s memorial service last December, I observed that when he graduated from Elon in 1946, the college had produced a total of 1,600 alumni in its then 57-year history, fewer than we graduate in a single year these days. So our alumni base is both extraordinarily young and filled with exceptional promise for future leadership in society and of this university. We must stay close to them, encourage them and engage them in meaningful interactions with the university. Each of you can play an important role in making this happen, because it is not the physical campus they are attached to, it’s the people of Elon.  

Nneka Enurah, president of Elon’s alumni chapter in Los Angeles, said to me last spring that they try to hold events in LA that make alumni feel as if they are back at Elon. That’s special.

Our alumni body is a garden and we must tend it with love and care.

The last long play I want to address this morning is a question we have been asking for years: What will learning and the college experience look like in 10 or 20 years?

Elon has a decades-long and distinguished track record in innovation in higher education. We are the national leader in experiential education. Engaged learning is not a slogan here—it’s a practiced art form—and the people in this room are admired nationally for your leadership in this arena. Look at how online learning has reshaped summer school at Elon over the past decade. I remember the debates about that subject in faculty meetings, and how Professor Emerita Carol Chase spoke forcefully against what she saw as a potential depersonalization of an Elon education. And then to her great credit, she tried teaching an online class, and became convinced that the pedagogy indeed could be surprisingly intimate, if done well.

Everywhere we turn these days there is talk about technology disrupting business models. Amazon has changed our shopping habits with far-reaching consequences. Doesn’t the way you access your news differ from 10 years ago? I look at the technological experience of my six-year-old grandson and wonder, how will he be shaped by the online world by the time he reaches college in 12 years? How will he access and make meaning of information? Will human relationships in college matter as much as they do now?

So, the big question is: How will higher education be disrupted?  

I think the residential campus experience will continue to be important for many students. At the same time, we recognize that most of our students already do some portions of their university experience off-campus—in study abroad, internships and research in the field. Will education increasingly become a blend of experiences—on campus and off, online and in-person, in ways that we do not fully imagine at the moment? Will the paradigm of four years of high school and four years of college morph into something else? Will our students increasingly seek two degrees, one undergraduate and one graduate, in a compressed time frame?  

Frankly, I don’t know the answers to these questions. But Jack Welch, former head of GE, once famously said, “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” And I do know that Elon’s nimbleness and innovative spirit, and willingness to experiment and avoid imitation, have always helped us respond to changing times. Let’s continue to be bold experimenters as the world changes around us. This will involve some risk. We will make some mistakes. And the status quo will be challenged. But the biggest danger is to become stagnant and watch the wave of change overtake our efforts. Elon has always embraced change, and today that is more important than ever before.

Culture. Institutional distinctiveness. Endowment for scholarships. Alumni. Boldy anticipating how learning will take place in the future. I hope you will reflect on those five big ideas as we move forward together.