Inauguration Speech

Susan West Engelkemeyer, Ph.D.
October 21, 2011

Thank you. It is with an immense sense of joy and gratitude that I address you today. I am honored by your trust, grateful for your support, and inspired by your love for this special place on the Hill.

I want to thank the Board of Trustees for their leadership and intense commitment to Nichols College, and in particular, Chairman of the Board, John McClutchy. My sincere gratitude to the 15 members of the Inauguration Committee, co-chaired by Trustee Jane Birckhead and Associate Vice President Bob LaVigne, for their boundless energy and attention to detail. I am grateful as well to our faculty and staff, whose dedication and wisdom helps to guide our students every day. And of course, to our students, thank you for bringing life and purpose to our campus community.

A special thank you is also extended to my family who has shared in and shaped my life’s journey.

My parents, Howard and Peggy, who gave me the foundation to grow and the freedom to dream. My sister, Karen, who says that any success I have is credited to her because she forced me to learn the alphabet as a toddler. My children, Kristy and Jason, who have evolved into caring and wonderful adults. I love to engage in their lives with their terrific spouses, Brad and Erin, and the newest member of our family, Baby Grace. Thanks also to my loving sister-in-law, Margie. And then there’s the world’s best husband, Dave, my co-pilot for life’s adventures for more than thirty years.

I am also grateful to my close friends and former colleagues, from years back and more recent, who have enriched my life in so many ways and who provide support and guidance in my own continuing education. Many of them are represented here today, in the front rows, among the delegates, and on stage, such as Dianne Lynch, who is a dear friend and the president of my undergraduate alma mater. and Bill Glavin, a mentor during my early years at Babson, whose presence here today as keynote speaker has not only brought special significance to me, but serves, I hope, as a good omen for my own presidency.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the hard work, thoroughness and gentle nudging of Cindy Brown and Lynn Looby, who run the tightest ship around – our President’s Office.

We are here today to celebrate the past, present and future of this remarkable institution, with the knowledge that while educational institutions grow and change over time, the enduring ones retain the best of their traditions and values.

Nichols owes a great deal to its past…not just for the buildings that have survived (with a few facelifts) for nearly 200 years, but for the industrious and pioneering spirit that springs from our roots, making Nichols what it is today.

As some institutions try to be all things for all students – Nichols has deepened its commitment to the past and to its founding traditions of developing leaders.

I want to share with you some of the remnants of the past that have guided us to where we are today, and how the past and present will inform how we will shape Nichols’ future.

Nichols traces its origins to a wealthy Dudley industrialist named Amasa Nichols, who erected the first campus building for Nichols Academy in 1815 entirely at his own expense at a cost of $10,000. The building burned down before it was completed but, undaunted, Nichols built it again.

This may have been one of the first defining moments for Nichols, the institution, when the resolve to overcome challenges and persevere took root. Nichols Academy also first admitted women in 1819, during a time when women were not generally offered the opportunity to obtain a secondary school education. I’m happy to say that we continue to pursue opportunities to empower and encourage the leadership potential of our female students.

Fast forward to 1931 when James Lawson Conrad became the first President of the College. He started a new school (for men only this time) in existing buildings, three of which are still in use today: Academy hall, built in 1881; Conant Hall, built in 1885 as a boarding house, but renovated in 1970 for faculty offices; and the original library and observatory, built in 1883, which is now the chapel.

During the 35-year administration of Colonel Conrad – or “The Colonel” as many fondly referred to him – Nichols achieved several firsts and expanded rapidly.

It was the first all-male junior college of business administration in Massachusetts and the first junior college in the state to be allowed to grant the Associate in Business Administration degree. The campus grew to 200 acres, and by the time the Colonel retired in 1966, there were about 36 buildings.

Colonel Conrad left his legacy in many ways, including the dedicated service of his son, Dr. James L. Conrad Jr., who is with us today. Jim has been Dean of the College, a vice president, a member of the Board of Trustees, and a revered history professor and local historian who is currently working on the second volume of Nichols’ history.

Until 1958, we were named “Nichols Junior College of Business Administration and Executive Training,” a clear statement of what we were about: managerial leadership.

In 1958, we became a four-year institution, and graduated our first four-year class in 1961. In 1971 our name became simply Nichols College, and we admitted women for the first time since academy days. The MBA degree was authorized in 1974, under the leadership of President Darcy Coyle. In a speech that President Coyle delivered on October 23, 1975, he spoke of initiatives designed to build bridges between the College and the business community, a persistent theme in the evolution of Nichols.

Engaging students with the world beyond the campus borders and – since bridges are two-way forms of passage – inviting the world to Nichols, was seen, even early on, as contributing to the development of the “whole student.”

Over the years, those bridges have been strengthened with increased opportunities for students to put their education to productive use; with alumni returning to campus to share their experience and expertise; with speakers, dignitaries and performers from around the globe exposing our students to politics and culture through the Institute for American Values, which is now the Fischer Institute; and with accomplished business executives who have found a second professional home at Nichols making textbooks come alive every day in College classrooms.

The Present:

So, the past provides a bridge to the present. In my first three months here, I have been involved in a lot of listening and learning.

I’ve asked faculty, staff, alumni, students and their families what they believe is special about Nichols. They remark about a true sense of community at Nichols and feel deeply about its transformative qualities and its potential for greatness. I love hearing stories from alumni about how Nichols made a difference for them.

Making a difference in the lives of our graduates is central to our mission. Nichols has survived for the past 196 years because of its unwavering commitment to that mission in the face of challenging times.

In her book, When Giants Learned to Dance, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, former editor of the Harvard Business Review, states that for companies to be successful today, they must be “Fast, Focused & Flexible.” Nichols is all that and more. We’re fast, focused, flexible, and friendly – characteristics that will serve us well in what many are calling the “new normal” in business and higher education. What is the new normal?

Today’s colleges and universities must be able to respond to higher levels of competition, more calls for accountability, uncertain economic conditions, shifting demographics, and students who are seeking challenges, relationships, and opportunities for personal and professional development now and throughout their lives. For those of us responsible for leading organizations in today’s times, we must be adept at managing in a context of uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity.

Why do I relish the opportunity to lead this special place in today’s turbulent times? Because there is nothing more important than helping young men and women realize their potential as they prepare for that first position and the numerous careers they may pursue. We owe society graduates who have a solid foundation of the skills needed today, skills such as communication, problem solving, and teamwork. And we need to ensure they have a broad perspective that will help them span those career bridges they choose to cross.

I believe a primary responsibility of higher education is to enable students to face the many challenges and opportunities they will encounter throughout their lives. What will characterize the successful colleges and universities in this new normal? They will be highly differentiated to effectively compete. They will be focused in order to harness collective energy for a shared purpose. They will embrace the needs of the marketplace and use that to continually shape and reshape their offerings. They will understand that there is no more important work than the development of young men and women. In short, they will all need to be more like Nichols College.

Here I stand, in one of my favorite places on campus – our cozy auditorium. But this fun and funky place has evolved over the years, from a barn to a basketball court to our primary large meeting space on campus. Nichols College is still located on the site of the first (1815) Academy building. We are an institution that evolved from an academy to a specialized junior college to a specialized four-year college to a college that offers multiple degrees, to a graduate level institution. Our evolution took place where we planted roots – in the halls of Academy, Conant, and the original library and observatory, known now as the chapel.

This special place on the hill has a spirit of optimism and entrepreneurship. We are a college that is steeped in tradition, but innovative in the way it capitalizes on the ideas of its community to best serve our students.

We are flexible to the demands of the market place, but responsible about academic integrity and planning for the development of strong leaders. Putting students first is what guides us. We see competency as more than intellectual ability, but also the means to make the world a better place for all. We produce ethical and hardworking leaders who help bring change and innovation to the workplace, who are team players, ready to lead, but equally adept to follow.

The Future:

As we move toward our bicentennial in 2015, together we will polish this “hidden gem” and focus on what does and will distinguish us as we enter our third century.

Many folks have asked me what my vision is. They want to know where we’re going and what my – Susan’s – Nichols is going to be. Many of you are waiting for profound comments about Nichols’ future.

Dan Seymour, in his book Once upon a Campus, remarked that “Sailing a Ship across the Pacific is no different from organizing a college or university for performance improvement. In both instances, it is immensely helpful if we can come to some agreement on which way to aim the pointy end.”

As we begin to aim our pointy end, the charge I have given myself is to honor the past, cherish a tradition of a practical, career-focused education, build on the momentum of the present, and make sure the pointy end of the ship is heading in the direction that will enable us to make the next evolution; to reach the “next level.”

Today’s Nichols is both very similar to and very different from the Nichols of the past. The Chapel and Academy and Conant Halls are still part of our present. Yet, there have been many changes and additions to the lower part of campus.

We have gradually moved up the hill and now are building a new Student Center at the crossroads of campus. This project embodies and symbolizes change and will have a tremendous impact on both the culture and complexion of the campus. It is not an accident that our latest building is focused on our students.

Our next evolution will involve moving uphill from the crossroads – both literally and figuratively – and focusing on academics. We are in the midst of articulating a new strategic plan and goals. Our first step has been to revisit the mission statement. In support of that mission, we will:

  • remain a student-centered institution that continues to deliver on its tagline “your success is our business,” a place where alumni – whether out one year or fifty – can name that special faculty or staff member that profoundly impacted their lives;

We will:

  • redouble our focus and commitment to undergraduate education and determine which current and prospective programs map to our mission, fill a niche, and/or create a stronger brand;

We will:

  • carefully rethink the portfolio of graduate and professional offerings as we explore certificate and other professional development opportunities for adult learners;

We will:

  • balance our short-term financial needs with the long-term fiscal health of the College; and

We will:

  • systematically focus on effective processes in order to improve the programs, services and initiatives that impact student retention and ensure that students who are accepted to Nichols have both the will and the skills to succeed.

Jim Collins, in his monograph to the book, Good to Great, notes that, “Enduring great organizations are characterized by a fundamental duality. On the one hand, they have a set of timeless core values and a core reason for being that remains constant over long periods of time. On the other hand, they have a relentless drive for change and progress.”

Nichols can build a bridge to the future because of what we’ve been given in the past: a tradition of innovative thinking that is partnered with progressive pragmatism.

As we engage this year in our strategic planning process, as we envision the Nichols College of its third century, we will continue to evolve and build our future on the execution of a vision that is clearly articulated and effectively implemented.

Through the revision of old and the development of new programs and partnerships, through a commitment to lifelong learning, and through the excellence of our faculty and staff, we will anticipate and respond to the changing needs and expectations of tomorrow’s leaders, our students.

We will reach beyond our limitations, imagine the possibilities of our future, and discover our potential.

Thank you for the privilege of serving this special place on the Hill.