Inaugural Address - October 22, 2022
Thank you, Mike. Good Morning, everyone.
A presidential inauguration is a curious thing. It’s an important academic ceremony that occurs infrequently over the course of an institution’s history—this is just the 19th time since 1856 that St. Lawrence has had an inauguration. A presidential inauguration always marks an inflection point for an institution—because it only happens when a new person has been called to serve as the president. And with that change in leadership comes a time for deep reflection about both the history and the future of the institution. It is a time to celebrate what is special about an institution, a moment to be proud of its successes, and an opportunity to face its challenges head on.
At the same time, a presidential inauguration is a deeply personal moment for the individual being inaugurated—and today, that’s me. Here I stand as the newly invested president at St. Lawrence, and it is an inflection point for me, as well—a time of deep reflection on my personal sense of purpose and vocation. It also represents a significant professional accomplishment. As I stand here today, I am full of gratitude, admiration, respect, and humility as I contemplate the responsibility you have invested in me.
In my remarks this morning, I will do my best to capture the dual nature of this inauguration—the personal and the institutional.
But first, I have a lot of thank yous to share, so please bear with me.
Thank you to our musicians—Sondra Goldsmith Proctor and the Brockville Pipes and Drums, for lending your musical talent to the opening and processional.
Reverend Dr. Whitehead, I am grateful for your beautiful invocation.
Thank you, Hannah, for representing our student body with grace, and for transitioning into the role swiftly.
Ronnie, it is a pleasure to work with you in your role as chair of Faculty Council. I appreciate your leadership.
Thank you to Kimberly for the tremendous work you have done over the past year. I am happy to be your colleague.
Sue, we are all appreciative of your leadership of the Alumni Executive Council. Your enthusiasm for St. Lawrence is infectious.
I’m pleased you are here representing parents, Amy, you bring incredible energy to our Parents Committee!
Mary Ann and Carol, what a delight it is to be a part of the Canton Community—thank you both for welcoming Brian and me to the North Country.
I am grateful to you, Benjamin, for your meaningful welcome. I was pleased to be invited to meet with leaders at Akwesasne last year, and I look forward to our continued partnership.
Stephenie, thank you for the great honor of speaking today. Our relationship has matured over the years from that of student and teacher to that of colleague and friend.
Thank you to Barry and the Laurentian Singers. You lend your beautiful voices to so many Laurentian traditions.
I am fortunate to have my parents, my brother and his family, my sister-in-law and brother-in-law here today.
I’m grateful to my husband, Brian Giesler, and my children, Logan and Erin Giesler, for being with me.
To my friends from Gettysburg College, the University of Texas at Austin, Butler University, and Indianapolis, I am honored that you made the trip.
To the St. Lawrence University trustees, I thank you for your steadfast support and partnership over the past 16 months. It is humbling that you have entrusted me to serve as the President.
I am grateful to the many members of the Alumni Executive Council and other St. Lawrence Alumni, Parents, and Friends for being here.
Thank you to the delegates who are with us today representing other academic institutions. And a special thanks to the presidents who are here among the delegates. I am honored to have you alongside of me during my inauguration.
To President Emeritus Bill Fox and Lynn Fox, and to President Emeritus Dan Sullivan and Ann Sullivan—I am grateful to each of you for charting a course of success at St. Lawrence.
To my colleagues on the faculty and staff at St. Lawrence, it is an honor to work alongside you and to learn from you as we fulfill our institutional mission. Thank you for being here today.
And to all the students who are here—our Thelmo leaders, student delegates to the board and the alumni executive council, admissions ambassadors, calling all saints students, Laurentian singers, members of the women’s cross country team, for whom I serve as faculty adviser, and SLU EMS students who are here to support this event—to all of you as students, we are all here because of you. To those of us who work in higher education, it is a calling—it is exceptionally rewarding to challenge and support young people who are finding their way in the world. And selfishly, we enjoy our work because you keep us on our toes, and you keep us young at heart!
Truly, thank you to everyone for being here.
I’d also like to speak for a moment about some people who are not here today—except in my heart and mind and in the hearts and minds of my family members who knew them—I’d like to talk for a minute about my grandparents.
I really wish my grandparents were here today. I know they would be proud of me, as a person. But they would also be proud of what they set in motion for their families and for their descendants.
You see, of my four grandparents, only one had a high school diploma. In fact, two of them never even got to high school. My Grandma Morris, to whom I was the closest, and after whom our daughter is named, left school at the age of 12 to take a job pasting labels on bottles.
And despite my grandparents’ lack of education, they worked hard to empower their children, my mom and dad, to attain not only a high school education, but also a college degree.
For my grandparents, it was a financial struggle to send their kids—my parents—to college. They sacrificed much to make it a reality. Actually, I can’t even imagine how they made it work, but they did, and I am grateful.
My parents not only finished high school, and then college, but they both have graduate degrees. And my parents both found higher education as their calling. Not surprisingly, between growing up on a college campus and having parents who were higher education professionals, my brother and I knew from an early age the importance of academic success and higher education.
And now my brother and I are supporting our own children as they attain their education.
In reflecting on my family history, the differences between my grandparents’ formative years and those of my children are vast, particularly when it comes to the economic conditions they experienced growing up. Simply put, higher education forever changed my family, both personally and in terms of our economic mobility—and that has affected us for generations.
My beloved grandma, that girl who quit school at age 12 to make money for her family by pasting labels on bottles of Jack Daniels—she put something really positive in motion. I wish she could be here to see that her granddaughter just became a college president! I’m forever grateful to her and my other grandparents and I know this day would have made them very proud.
That’s a little bit of my personal history, and I hope it provides some insight into why I feel compelled to work in higher education, even though it’s difficult and sometimes thankless.
Given my history as a member of a family that was raised up by higher education, you can imagine how happy I was to join St. Lawrence—a place that is known for creating this same kind of opportunity for students and their families as has been the case for my own family.
- US News recognized us as a “top performer on social mobility,” meaning we are successful in attracting, retaining, graduating, and setting up for success students from challenging economic backgrounds
- NASPA, the student affairs organization, and the Suder Foundation have recognized us as a “first gen forward” institution, to attract, retain, graduate, and set up for success first-generation students, regardless of their economic backgrounds
- The Princeton Review lauded us as an institution with excellent return on the tuition investment. No doubt our #4 ranked alumni network helps to ensure that students are prepared for a bright future, no matter how challenging their past
As it turns out, St. Lawrence has a long history with promoting equity and access for students, and for delivering impactful educational experiences. When St. Lawrence was founded in 1856, it became the first coeducational institution of higher learning in New York State.
Over the years, we have been innovative academically—we were one of the first schools in the country to have an environmental studies program. We are among the original pioneers of living-learning programs for first year students. And just recently, we launched a suite of academic majors that are grounded in our liberal arts mission and that prepare students for high demand careers, competitive graduate schools, and meaningful service opportunities after college.
Our location in the North Country has always been a defining characteristic for us. We have special relationships with, and special obligations to, our North Country neighbors. We are proud of our Augsbury North Country Scholars program and our St. Lawrence Public Interest Corps summer internship program, where student interns help regional non-profits fulfill missions that range from children’s education and legal aid to wildlife conservation and public assistance. Our students are actively engaged across the North Country through our community-based learning initiatives—completed by some 80% of our students. And, our students can spend a semester deep in the heart of the Adirondacks, living in yurts and learning in a close-knit community in the wilderness.
Yet St. Lawrence is more than the North Country. While we maintain close connections to our local community, we are also an institution with global ties. We are among the very first Peace Corps Prep programs in the United States, and are recognized as a top producing school for Peace Corps volunteers. We educate students who hail from over 70 countries around the world. We own and operate a campus compound in Nairobi, supported by 17 full- and part-time St. Lawrence employees, who partner with Kenyan host families to offer transformative study abroad experiences for students—and this truly unique program is 50 years old.
As a further exemplar of St. Lawrence embodying both the local and the global, the two high schools that sent us the largest number of students in the first-year student class, with seven students each, are Hugh C. Williams high school, right here in Canton, and the United World Colleges of East Africa in Arusha, Tanzania. Local. And global.
Whether serving students from the North Country or from around the world, St. Lawrence offers educational and co-curricular experiences that challenge and support students to do their best and to be their best as they transform their curiosities into passions.
I began my remarks by stating that a presidential inauguration is a mix of the personal and the institutional, and I hope that by sharing some of my personal and family history, and through sharing some highlights about St. Lawrence, you can see that there are commonalities between St. Lawrence University and me—that we are a good match for each other, and that we share important values and principles. I hope that is reassuring for all of you because it is, indeed, reassuring to me.
I also mentioned earlier that a presidential inauguration is an inflection point—it marks a shift in leadership, an opportunity to turn our attention to the future, and to contemplate what we can become, all of us, together.
St. Lawrence has a long history of success, a long list of points of pride, and a steadfast commitment to our institutional mission. Across our 166-year history, many important characteristics of the University have remained constant—our institutional mission, our commitment to academic excellence in the liberal arts, and our many institutional traditions. Yet since our founding in 1856, St. Lawrence has always been in the process of becoming. Across time, we have added and subtracted various majors, we have seen co-curricular programs come and go; and we have invested in additions to our campus infrastructure and renovations to our heritage buildings. Even our people change across time. Our students come and go in regular cycles; and St. Lawrence faculty and staff, though here for longer than our students, also come and go over the decades. While our grounding in our foundational values remains steadfast, we are always becoming the next best version of ourselves.
Across our 166-year history, many important characteristics of the University have remained constant—our institutional mission, our commitment to academic excellence in the liberal arts, and our many institutional traditions. Yet since our founding in 1856, St. Lawrence has always been in the process of becoming. – President Kathryn A. Morris
During the past two years, St. Lawrence has gone through a significant evolution. In addition to a presidential transition and several other leadership transitions, we have launched six new academic majors, in disciplines like finance and public health and biomedical science. We added E-Sports as a varsity sport. We invested heavily in the Center for Career Excellence and preparing students for success, and impact, after college.
Even with these recent changes and initiatives, we are never done evolving. As we look to the future, we need to continue to contemplate, develop, and implement new initiatives to ensure St. Lawrence continues to thrive as a relevant, competitive, and strong university.
I am pleased to announce today that one of those new initiatives is the development of our first center for excellence at St. Lawrence—a center for the environment, that we will launch in 2023. This new center of excellence will capitalize on our unique location between the Adirondack mountains and the St. Lawrence River. It will also take advantage of our faculty, staff, and alumni expertise and our student interest. And, it will capitalize on both our local and global commitments, with a center here on campus, and ultimately, outposts at Camp Canaras and on our compound in Kenya.
It is my vision that we will develop other centers of excellence beyond our center for the environment, and that we will continue to innovate within our academic and co-curricular programs. It is essential that we envision a future that complements our existing strengths and positions us uniquely in a competitive higher education landscape.
As we contemplate who we are becoming, institutionally, we will do so, all of us, together. Our Laurentian community is large and it is diverse. Our faculty and staff bring academic and professional expertise. Our students push us to view the future through their eyes. Our alumni, parents, and employer partners help us to understand what makes young alumni the job candidates of choice. When thinking about what is next for St. Lawrence, it takes all of us.
It is vital that together, we do this important work of envisioning the next evolution of St. Lawrence, precisely because when we educate students, when we challenge them to be and to do their best, we are building a better future for them, and for the world. This outcome is what I call Laurentian Impact.
Laurentian Impact is what happens when St. Lawrence graduates use what they learned in college to make a positive difference in the world after graduation. It’s about empowering students to discern their passions, to develop their sense of purpose, and to use their educational experiences in college to build futures that not only ensure our graduates can make a living, but also to make a life that is meaningful and that positively impacts others through their professional work, volunteer activities, or civic engagement.
Over the coming years, it is my vision that our combined Laurentian Impact will reach farther and wider than ever before in the history of our institution.
I am excited for what lies ahead at this inflection point. I am confident that St. Lawrence’s future will continue to shine brightly, as it always has, as our candle in the wilderness, here in the North Country, and around the world.
I am profoundly grateful to all of you for welcoming me and making me one of your own—a Laurentian. I look forward to what we will accomplish, all of us, together.