Inauguration Speech: Alan Davis

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Inauguration Speech: Alan Davis

March 26th, 2009

  • Chairman Carl Hayden

  • colleagues from the State University of New York system administration

  • Assemblyman Mark Schroeder

  • Chairman Richard Liebech and members of the College Council,

  • Chairman David Smith and members of the Foundation Board,

  • chairwoman Marian Conway and members of the Alumni Federation Board,

  • former presidents James Hall and Joseph Moore,

  • my Empire State College and other SUNY colleagues: faculty, professionals, support staff and administrators from all over the state

  • our colleagues from Greece, Mr. Foutsis, the Czech Republic, Sotiris Foutsis, and from Lebanon, President Sakr and Dr. Haidar, who travelled the furthest to be with us today,

  • the honorable Scott Johnson, Mayor of Saratoga Springs, and County Supervisor Joanne Yepsen

  • and all my friends and family.

Thank you all for being here today, to not only witness my investiture as the 3rd president of Empire State College, but also to celebrate and recognize this college for the outstanding and crucial work it does for nearly 19,000 adult learners each year throughout this state and beyond.

I would particularly like to thank those dear family members and friends who traveled from Canada: from Vancouver, Kamloops, Edmonton, Peterborough, Ajax, and Niagara. You have been very much part of my journey so far and it means everything to me to have you here today.

Dangerous though it is to start thanking individuals, for fear of inadvertently forgetting others (and all of you have, in one way or another supported me as a colleague and helped me in the transition to a new country, a new state and new system), there are a few I need to recognize.

Richard Liebech, as Chair of our College Council, and who played a special role in chairing the presidential selection committee, has been, along with his colleagues on the Council, a source of solid support and advice.
David Smith and the Foundation Board have been gracious and helpful in so many ways as I learned the complexities of fund- and friend-raising and related duties.
Marian Conway and the Alumni Federation Board likewise have been welcoming and highly engaged in making me part of the community of 57,000 graduates that we now have around the world.
I especially want to thank my cabinet colleagues and the staff in my office who have supported me so much over the last 8 months, especially Joyce Elliott, who as interim president prior to my arrival, did such a good job of smoothing out what could have been a very steep learning curve.
And Hector, Elaine and Ed: thank you so much for being here and for bringing your special greetings to this wonderful event.
It is exactly one year ago to this day that I was called by SUNY with the formal offer of this job. There was no deliberation needed: I was thrilled to be so honored, and accepted immediately.
Since then, and despite a lot of turmoil for the SUNY system, I am convinced that I made the right decision, especially when I listen to Chairman Hayden, whose enthusiasm and passion for public education is itself a wonder to behold.
I am very excited about the arrival of Dr. Nancy Zimpher as our new Chancellor on June 1st, and I can’t wait to make her part of our unique college community and to tell her our story.

And last but no least, the phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” comes to mind as I recognize the first and second presidents of this college: Dr. James Hall, and Dr. Joseph Moore. Thank you both for being here, and for your wonderful legacy, which I am so proud to inherit.

As I have explained to those who were involved in recruiting me, I came to this presidency by a circuitous route, veering between

  • very traditional, campus based classroom teaching and administration, and

  • teaching and leadership in highly non-traditional, adult-focused and online environments.

Having no formal background in adult and higher education, and certainly no formal training in management, I often wonder (and you might wonder too) …….

  • firstly, what qualifies me to lead one of North’s America’s most innovative institutions, which is part of one of the finest state university systems in the USA, and

  • secondly, what inspired me to seek opportunities to try to serve those traditionally under-represented in higher education?

To the first point, make no mistake: Empire State College is one of the most outstanding institutions of its kind in the world. I knew about it from my days with the BC Open University and at Athabasca, as one of the top adult learner friendly institutions in North America, if not beyond. Since arriving, all this has been confirmed in many ways, and it is my firm belief that it will become better, bigger, and bolder if 2 conditions are met ….

- we develop a collective willingness and resolve to determine the destiny of the college (which we have spent a good deal of time thinking and talking about during the last few months as we attempt to develop a widely agreed upon vision of our future), and

- we have a fair, solid and predictable level of support from SUNY and the state, unencumbered by rules and regulations that do nothing to ensure true quality and accountability for our core business of providing access for adults to higher education, and which also inhibit our ability to do more, and to do it better.

One aspect of Empire State College that ensures its wonderful reputation in the world of adult learning is its leadership in prior learning assessment. So, let me use a prior learning assessment approach to defend my qualifications for the presidency, from my formal and informal learning.
My formal education was about as traditional and seemingly unrelated as you could imagine: it was in Chemistry: and there I learned about academic rigor and integrity, I learned how to think and how to write, and how to find meaning in reams of data, especially in determining the underlying molecular structures of new substances, which is the wonderful visual theme of this event.
(By the way, this graphic also illustrates the increasingly multi-dimensional, networked world we live in, and the ways that this college is harnessing these networks to better connect its staff in more than 35 locations, and its students and alumni on-site and online across New York and beyond, and thus to improve, enrich and expand all of its offerings and operations.)
As happens to many of us in higher education, my pathway from research to teaching to administration was somewhat accidental and unplanned. I learned from my own successes and mistakes and from those of some exceptional leaders with whom I served.
I came to understand why in Danish, the same verb that means “to teach” also means “to learn”, and why the common silos between teaching, learning, research and administration are, in fact, artificial, and shouldn’t be isolated from each other (except for convenience at times) nor (for that matter) should they be isolated from simply living.
But outside of this formal education (which I started at age 5 and have never really left in the 54 years since) and my salaried employment…..

  • I have been a father and a husband, thus being on a daily and intimate basis a scholar of the human condition (the outcomes of this work are here with us today, and this is my obtuse way of thanking all the members of my wonderful family for their support and for providing the internship for my training);

Davis with, from left to right, Alexis, Caitlin, Alex, Denise, and Hilary, 2008

  • I have been involved in theatre in many ways, learning how to work to a deadline with creative people;

Davis as Antonio (kneeling) in “The Merchant of Venice”, circa 1975

  • I was a boy scout, and learned …..well….how to tie knots, and how to light a fire in the rain with only 2 matches;

Davis (lower left) in Hound Patrol,

5th Bracknell Troop, circa 1963

  • I have been a soccer coach for many years, learning how to win and how to lose graciously (I was not always so successful at the latter);

Davis as coach of the Chilliwack Blue Jays

  • I have loved and been loved by several pets, mostly dogs, who have taught me tolerance and other ways to communicate;

Pete (left) and Max, 2006

  • I have owned and maintained several houses and gardens, and, not being really very good at any manual endeavors, I have (in some kind of Zen way of gaining self knowledge) been sometimes humbled by the physical tasks I have attempted, but on other occasions thrilled with the sense of accomplishment of rebuilding a fence or a deck, especially when I have sweated, cursed and cheered alongside my friends and especially my family.

Vancouver, 2008

Now, if any mentor out there would like to help me make better sense of this life experience in relation to my learning goal of being as good a president as my predecessors, I would be happy to dialogue with you over the next few years.
And to the second question, what inspired me to focus my career on alternative, adult focused education?
To answer this, I need, in true Empire State College style, to tell you a story: the story of my father, and in so doing I will fulfill a promise I made to some groups that I met with during my recruitment, in the event that I was to be invited back.
My father, Ross Arthur Davis, was born in Reading, in England in 1916.
His mother, Lillian Maria Penny, was the youngest in a large family of farm laborers in rural Wiltshire.
His father, James Davis, appeared one day in Lillian’s neighborhood, but no-one quite knew where he came from, or why.
Lillian and James married and moved to Reading, presumably to make a better life for themselves, but really only traded a life of farm laboring for one of city toil.

James and Lillian Davis, circa 1945

They raised five children, of which Ross was the youngest, the smallest and quietest: he had a keen interest in books and in other intellectual endeavors.

At the age of 9 he wrote the exams and won a scholarship to the prestigious Reading School, and did the same thing each year until the age of 14, but his family understandably considered his continuation in school to be forgone income, and he entered the workforce as early as legally possible.

Ross, lower right, with his brothers

Ross joined the gas company as an apprentice pipe-fitter, and he always had a healthy respect for people who fix the technical problems that the rest of us create.
About the time of the Second World War, Ross met and married my mother, Daisy Jean Archer, who had escaped from a life of very limited opportunity in South Wales.

Ross and Daisy, circa 1940

It was the war that provided Ross with new opportunities. He joined the Royal Air Force where his academic and mechanical prowess was recognized, and he was promoted in short order to Flight Engineer on a Halifax aircraft in 78 Squadron: captained by Alan Fergusson.

Ross, third from the right. Alan Fergusson is second from the left.

After one leave, Daisy walked with Ross to catch the bus: she leaned over her bicycle and gave Ross a kiss good bye, and he was gone, for a long time.
Whilst returning from a mission, Ross’s aircraft was hit. Here are some excerpts from the report of the navigator:
It appeared that we had successfully penetrated through the fighter belt when suddenly without any warning we were hit by cannon fire from a fighter.
Ross, despite the fact that he was injured, attempted with me to get the fire out. Suddenly the aircraft went into a screaming dive and I was thrown into the nose. The situation was hopeless as the fire was increasing.



I put on my parachute and left the aircraft. When he left, Ross said that that the aircraft was flying straight again and that Alan was still at the controls. Ross said he heard an explosion as he was floating towards the ground, and I think this was caused when the aircraft crashed.



Alan Fergusson always told me that he never expected to get out if we were hit, and I think he deliberately sacrificed any chance he had of getting out for the benefit of the rest of the crew.
As he drifted down in his parachute towards the German countryside, Ross was shot just above the heart.
He was picked up by the German soldiers, and put into a local children’s hospital. During his recuperation, the famous bombing of the nearby Möhne Dam occurred and my father helped the nuns keep the children safe when the hospital was inadvertently hit.
The response was to seek out and publicly hang all wounded allied personnel. Ross was saved because the nuns put him among the dead in the morgue until the anger had subsided. Eventually he was fit enough to be transferred to a Prisoner of War camp, where he remained until it was liberated by the Russians about 2 years later.

Ross as POW, in 1943

And my mother? She carried on at work and also served as a Red Cross Nurse. She didn’t know for several months if Ross was even alive.

Daisy in 1942

Prisoner of war camp was rough on Ross: he wasn’t a tough warrior and he suffered from the cold and poor food. But he met people who would change the course of his life: educated men: American, French and British. Ross, for the first time, shared an intellectual camaraderie. They mentored each other, and formed study groups in their unit. The Red Cross provided books and crude correspondence courses, and even sent high school matriculation exams for those interested.

Ross later wrote an essay, in diary form, about his experience, and here are some excerpts from that:

Muhlberg, February 5th, 1945
200 men trickle out of their tiny home on the frozen snow, to stand in funfs in the biting wind. To my relief, no one is late, so there are no punishment parades. One of the “detaining power” counts us, then blows a whistle. We stampede back in to comparative warmth, and drink tepid Jerry coffee, sans milk, sans sugar and sans coffee. I spare myself 3 small chips of bread.




The Education room is a small space thinly divided from the Camp office. The Education Secretary struggles to light the tiled stove but we are still shivering when he gives out the exams at 9 am sharp.




For the essay, I choose to dilate on “Pride of Ownership” although my immediate possessions are almost nil. My shoulder gets stiff – the rickety home made table is too low and the box I sit on is too high. I scribble on and finish with 10 minutes to spare for reading through. As I hobble out I realize my feet have been icy all the time, and I try to stamp them into life.

After being liberated, my father was thin and emaciated, but was reunited with my Mother and was determined to go through a post-war accelerated program at a temporary teacher’s college, where that essay was written for the college’s magazine: here is how the essay concluded.

Kensington, September, 1945

I feel old as I mingle with the juvenile throng on the steps of the Great Hall. I think of those February exam scripts that never reached England, thus making a repeat performance necessary. We surge into the Hall and sit down to the very well equipped desks. The subject for the essay is “My Journey to the Examination Room”.

Ross became a mathematics teacher, and by all accounts he was masterful, interspersing the rigors of algebra with his sharp wit and snappy one-liners, and creating a fun and engaging learning environment for what many found to be a difficult if not impossible subject.

In 1950, Ross and Daisy had their only son, who was named after the pilot who went down with Halifax aircraft in order to save his colleagues.
I joined my sister who had been adopted 2 years earlier. Ruth was named after a dear friend of my mother’s who was the wife of the navigator of the Halifax.

Alan and Ruth, 1953

Ruth, sadly, died just last month.
Ross taught high school for 25 years. My sister and I were raised with none of the hardships my parents endured, and my Dad lived long enough to see me off to university.
On St. Georges Day, 1971, Ross died at home after a 6 month fight with cancer. He was just 55, and I was 21.
I hope he would be proud of what I have accomplished (culminating in today’s events) in my easy, peaceful, materially-rich life, with the influence he was able to have on me from his life of struggle, restrictions, impossible odds, and war.
That is the story that inspires me, and I know that every day, we at Empire State College are inspired by the stories of our learners and our alumni. We are enriched as much by them as we know they are by their experience with us.
I am fond of the word privilege: while originally meaning “law relating to a specific individual”, it can be used to describe, for instance, the advantages that accrue to people as a result of wealth or power or race or gender; or it can mean, simply, “the special enjoyment of a good”.
This college is founded on the belief, that education is essential to the future of freedom in our society, and thus cannot ever become a privilege just for some, but has to be a right for every individual.

I also believe, using the word in the second meaning, that our learners especially appreciate the privilege, “the special enjoyment of good” of studying at Empire State College.
Likewise, we consider it a privilege to be involved in their learning and in their lives.
And lastly, of course, I consider it a privilege and an honor to lead such an institution.
Thank you.

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