Inaugural Address

The text of the address delivered by President Merchant at his Inauguration on May 4, 2018.

Thank you and good afternoon.

Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, students, special guests, and alumni: I am humbled and honored to be standing before you today and grateful for the confidence you have entrusted in me to lead Buena Vista University. On this glorious afternoon, we honor Buena Vista University, a remarkable institution with a proud past and a promising future. A future that we will build together. I begin my remarks with gratitude.

Board Chair Norm Nielsen and members of the BVU Board of Trustees: Thank you for the trust, confidence, and partnership. I am impressed by your unwavering love for our University, your respect for its history, and your confidence in its future. I look forward to working with you as we chart BVU’s destiny.

I am grateful to those of you who have welcomed me today. Trustees Quentin Wittrock and Becki Drahota: Thank you for your kind words and participation in this momentous ceremony. Chaplain Ken Meisner, Provost Brian Lenzmeier, Dr. Gwen Hart, Dr. Shawn Stone, Student Senate President Rosie Russell, and Alumni Board Chair Kevin Hoyt: You represent the Buena Vista University community — faculty, staff, students, and alumni. Like me, you are immensely proud of BVU. And, like me, you believe deeply in the power of our mission.

Dr. Kirk Heinze and Marti Heil: I am humbled to have you both participate in today’s celebration. You are highly recognized professionals in your field, and your words of wisdom and guidance will be forever catalogued in my mind and heart. You have encouraged me, counseled me, and challenged me. Because of you, I am a better man.

To the faculty: I express my support and partnership with you. Your student-centered teaching, scholarship, research, and outreach – it inspires me. It inspires me to be a president that champions a culture of shared collaboration and teamwork for a better BVU.

To the staff: I am proud to join you in advancing our mission to support current students, future students, and the Storm Lake community. Your hard work and dedication will ensure that our University remains a strong institution.

To the students: You are my inspiration and motivation. I am energized by your passion. I am encouraged every day by the future you represent. Raw and full of idealism. I love your curiosity, your confidence, and your optimism. Your search for meaning and refusal to accept “what is” gives a voice and confidence for a better future. If you remember one thing from today’s celebration, I hope it is this: Our motto – Education for Service – will prepare you to be women and men of promise. Living lives of distinction and purpose.

Mayor Porsch and our neighbors of the Storm Lake community: I look forward to years of partnerships with citizens of “The City Beautiful.” You have welcomed my family with open arms and because of that, you have made Storm Lake our home.

We are fortunate to have with us today former president and first lady, Keith and Carmen Briscoe. I will carry your legacy forward with deep respect for all that you accomplished. Keith and Carmen, would you both please stand so we can recognize you for your years of leadership and service to BVU.

To the alumni: I am always impressed when I hear about the impact of your Buena Vista University experience. You affirm the power of a BVU education and why the work we do is so vitally important.

To the delegates here today, representing institutions around world: Know that you honor Buena Vista University by your presence. Thank you.

To the members of the Presbyterian Church and Reverend Dr. Debora DeMeester of the Synod of Lakes and Prairies: I recognize and value our historic connection. We are bound by a shared commitment to learning, faith, and service. We value our connection to one another and the world, continually honoring the dignity and worth of every person.

My journey to this place would not have been possible without the support of some very special people who are with us today: Dr. Andrea Beach, Professor of Educational Leadership in Higher Education and Co-Director of Western Michigan University’s Center for Research on Institutional Change in Postsecondary Education; Ms. Shannon Duvall, Chief Development Officer for the School of Business at Virginia Commonwealth University; Ms. Ann McCullen, Vice President for University Development and Alumni Engagement at the University of North Florida; and Dr. James Daniel, Executive Associate at Bentz Whaley Flessner and former Vice President of Institutional Advancement at Buena Vista University. Andrea, Shannon, Ann and Jim: I am deeply grateful to each of you.

Joining me today are members of my family from Michigan. To my three brothers: Justin, Jared and Joel. We know first-hand what it was like to grow up in a family of four boys, and we have the scars to prove it. Mischief and shenanigans bonded us. Differences of opinion and debates defined us. We are brothers, and that is what we do. We are better because of one another.

I am so thankful to have my mother and father here with me today– Douglas and Mary Merchant. Unselfish and hard-working– you always put your children in front of self. You taught us the value of integrity and hard work. Mom and Dad: With your unwavering love and support, I stand here today because you allowed me to be me, and that was no easy task.

To my boys, Eli and Griffin: I am proud of you and I love you. You are my greatest achievement and my most valued commodity. Being your “dad” is my most important work and I promise to always put you first.

And lastly, to the girl who sat behind me in 4th grade, the love of my life, my partner, my everything, the First Lady of Buena Vista University, my wife Carrie: Thank you for joining me in this grand adventure. We are partners in this journey and I am fortunate to have you by my side. I love you.

Today is a proud day for Buena Vista University as we reflect on our past and anticipate our future.

In the 127 years since the founding of Buena Vista College by the Presbyterian Church, our institution has advanced despite many challenges along the way. The present moment of transition arrives at a time of uncertainty for private rural colleges and universities. We are living in a world that will test our University. We must remain rooted in our principles and focused on our founding mission. We must be mindful and accept our strengths. And yes, we must also accept our weaknesses. We must, we absolutely must, be ambitious in fulfilling our promise.

BVU may sit quietly along the pristine shores of Storm Lake; but we are not an institution of arrogance. Nor, are we an institution of exclusivity. From the outset, we have proclaimed that we would be an institution dedicated to teaching, education, and service. The values set forth by our Founding Fathers will endure. Our values may be the same, but the world is different. Considering the myriad of challenges facing institutions like us, we must be open to being bold, taking risks, and challenging our norms. My good colleague and friend, Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, stated it well, “We must become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Today we honor Buena Vista University’s founding men and founding women. They were entrepreneurs who had a cultural and academic vision. Dr. William H. Cumberland wrote, “The history of Buena Vista College reveals a determined effort to survive in spite of harsh economic times, wars, and often a churchly indifference to its success and growth.” Despite our perseverance, despite our success, we cannot be complacent.

I want to consider how we can rethink, and reimage, our purpose and relevance to proliferate our University for future generations. For centuries, critics have predicted the extinction of college and universities that are grounded in the liberal arts. To think that institutions, such as BVU, cannot adapt and cannot flourish. It is absurd. However, we cannot ignore the external threats. They – are – real.

Buena Vista University, as a contemporary institution of private higher education, can be a case study of flexibility and strength; key components of the resiliency needed to meet the demands of a twenty-first century university. However, we can be better. We should be better. We must be better.

If Buena Vista University is to navigate its way through this turbulent world, our purpose and relevance must be even more profound. If we are to persevere. If we are to flourish. We must be clear. And, we must be confident.

We must take risks and implement a bold vision. A vision that reaffirms our University’s worth and dynamic ability to embrace change and impact lives.

  •  I suggest that we reimagine and reaffirm our distinctive and defining qualities.
  •  I suggest that we reposition Buena Vista University to be a recognized destination of higher education filled with intensity and innovation.
  •  I suggest we amplify our investment in our faculty and encourage students to push academic boundaries.
  •  I suggest we reclaim our worth — our worth as a known commodity with profound outcomes.

I offer three affirmations intrinsic to BVU needing to be reimagined for a new era of prosperity.

First, we must affirm our willingness to expand accessibility, increase diversity, and enhance student success.

As a first-generation college student, I know the transformational power of higher education. BVU will increase our commitment to offering a stellar educational experience to students who are first in the family to attend college. We fulfill this pledge by strengthening our commitment to increasing access to education and serving historically underserved student populations. We live in an increasingly diverse world and it is important that we reflect diversity in both appearance and culture. We are renewing our commitment to advancing access and strengthening diversity.

Our newly-established Education for Service Scholars program is one way we will provide an opportunity to students who demonstrate financial need and are first in the family to attend college. More than 30 students from BV County applied to the program, and two weeks ago we welcomed our first cohort of scholars who will begin this fall. This…This is just the beginning.

BVU must have an appreciation for the various communities we aspire to recruit, and it is important we understand our ability to authentically connect within those diverse communities. As demographics continue to change–specifically here in Iowa–it is imperative we augment our enrollment strategies. We must intentionally focus our work to attract and retain diverse students at a considerably higher rate. We will expand our recruitment efforts to include a bilingual member of the admissions team; We will print admissions material in Spanish; We will partner with community organizations serving diverse populations; And, we will increase assistance to those families with financial need. This…this is just the beginning.

In the spirit of collaboration, BVU will officially launch a new Office of Diversity and Inclusion with the re-opening of the Harold Walter Siebens Forum at the end of the year. The newly-formed Office of Diversity and Inclusion will be the first of its kind at BVU and will provide leadership, partnership, and resources for diversity programming. We will work across the campus community to support and sustain the growth of a just, equitable, vibrant, and intellectually challenging educational environment for all. This…this is just the beginning.

New programs and partnerships in student success will help students stay on track, thrive, and succeed. We will increase our focus on students facing a myriad of challenges and obstacles. Our enhanced Student Success initiatives will foster student development through research, services and advocacy. New retention resources will promote successful college transitions, engagement, timely graduation, and lifelong achievement. This…this, too, is just the beginning.

Second, we must affirm our willingness to strengthen and invest in our academic enterprise to meet the needs of a changing economy.

Buena Vista University is unapologetically committed to the ideals of academic excellence. We pride ourselves on hiring the best faculty – ones who are teachers, scholars, creators, researchers, challengers, and questioners. Our students are admitted selectively, and our graduates are prepared to immediately impact their life’s work. BVU’s commitment to academic excellence endorses some of the finest scholarship, research, teaching, and creative activity in all the world. But…is this enough?

We do not, and we will not, compromise our standards. However, the concept of academic excellence itself has evolved. The commodification of higher education has forced colleges and universities to rethink their academic offerings. A prescribed academic curriculum has long been considered essential to building a robust academic community. Prescription, however, risks stagnation. It tends to inhibit the appreciation of innovation and discovery.

My good friend, Central College President, Mark Putnam, recently participated in a panel discussion at Governor Reynolds Future Ready Iowa Summit. He shared with me that the word “relevance” was repeated…repeated over and over to describe the types of academic offerings needed to prepare Iowans for future jobs and careers. It was an intriguing discussion. However, what was absent was how institutions like BVU, and Central, can support the growth of an educated society prepared for success and prosperity. Institutions like ours can, and must, be part of that conversation. I believe we will be leaders in these efforts.

At Buena Vista University we have an opportunity to reimagine our connectivity to our community and world. Do I, as a newly installed president, have the immediate answers? No. However, I do believe I am equipped to ask the right questions. I believe the University’s Board of Trustees, administration, and faculty can, and will, work collaboratively to reimagine our academic enterprise. And, in doing so, we will meet the needs of a changing economy and stay true to our academic mission.

A renaissance in thinking-such as this-will take time. It will deserve an appropriate attention to process and procedure. But, can we afford to wait? I would advocate for a balanced approach, which I believe we have found. BVU will soon be launching new academic programs to meet the needs of the community we serve.

Just last week, we announced a new interdisciplinary academic institute: The Institute for Agriculture, Food, and Resource Management. The Institute will be built to meet the demands of a flourishing agricultural sector in NW Iowa and beyond. New academic majors will be launched in Agricultural Business and Agricultural Science with future discussions focusing on majors in Food Systems, Agricultural Innovation, Natural Resources, Sustainability, and Energy Management. The initial response has exceeded my expectations and gives me great hope for the future.

In collaboration with the Harold Walter Siebens School of Business faculty, exploration will shortly commence to completely rethink our entrepreneurial studies offerings. It is my goal to be even more relevant to our region and I will work with faculty to re-focus our current entrepreneurial studies programs and create a Center for Rural Entrepreneurship. The Center will prepare students for life…a life of community leadership. The Center will equip students with the necessary skills to build a prosperous future of supporting and empowering social, civic and economic growth needed in rural America.

We will prepare students to support communities of all sizes by combining entrepreneurial research with the practice of civic engagement to advance community-driven strategies for prosperity. BVU will be the leader in helping rural America, not only survive, but thrive. While much of the Institute and Center are still in the formative phase, we believe that programs, such as these, will be transformative.

And third, we must engage the community with authenticity and tenacity.

Andrew Delbanco, a professor of American Studies at Columbia University and incoming president of the Teagle Foundation, feels strongly that private institutions need to do a better job of meeting their public responsibilities. He stated, “I think there is a sense that private institutions serve their own students well, that they serve mainly students from affluent families, although that can be an unfair charge. But I feel the strongest should be doing a better job at understanding their community as larger than their students, alumni, and donors.” This we do at BVU.

Community engagement has emerged as an unofficial movement in higher education, with terms such as “the engaged campus,” “civic engagement,” and “the public good.” Our motto – Education for Service – is more than just a description of what we do. It is who we are. Buena Vista University lives its mission each and every day. We do this through our curricular and co-curricular programming, which are often in partnership with one another.

BVU is one of more than 450 institutions nationwide that has committed to implementing a Civic Action Plan as part of our ongoing commitment to encourage and enhance community engagement. And BVU is the first Civic Action Plan to be launched by any college or university in Iowa. BVU’s Civic Action Plan is a comprehensive tool that allows us to deepen, and build, mutually beneficial partnerships within the community. It allows us to prepare students to be engaged citizens, responsible citizens, and bolster our impact on the public good.

Our Action Plan is incredibly important because it ensures that we continue to hold ourselves accountable. Accountable to our motto: Education for Service. The plan not only further solidifies our commitment to the Storm Lake community, but also extends to surrounding communities where BVU has a presence. We are proud of our students, faculty, staff, and alumni who are making a huge impact in Iowa and beyond. And this plan…this plan, helps us increase that footprint.

Community Engagement Matters. It matters to Buena Vista University and it matters to Storm Lake. As I have said numerous times, a stronger BVU is a stronger Storm Lake, and a stronger Storm Lake is a stronger BVU. Together we are better.

These commitments — to promote Buena Vista University’s openness, to engage in public service, and to build productive partnerships with our neighbors—will ensure that BVU continues to flourish in a way that is consistent with the high purpose of our founding.

To aspire to and achieve our own version of change, Buena Vista University must shape its future through an explicit articulation of mission—an articulation which is a reflective statement of purpose and priorities. I offer you this statement for consideration: "BVU is not in competition with other institutions of higher education. We are however, in competition with our own vision and ideals."

We are called to reimagine the scope-and reach-of how we will discover, challenge, teach, create, and preserve knowledge. We must apply to our study of institutional self the same principles of continuous examination and rigorous inquiry that guide academic research and dialogue. We will do this. And we will do this well. Today, we are here for a reason– to celebrate Buena Vista University. 

I stand on the shoulders of past leaders, and I say to you: Thank you. Thank you for leading Buena Vista University. And thank you to the faculty, staff, students, alumni, community members, and friends whose devotion to BVU has cultivated and sustained this institution for more than 127 years. Our work is never complete.

And, as I look ahead, I want to not only build on our current distinctions; but re-imagine a vibrant future.

  •  I imagine a future where we openly engage with, and invest in, Storm Lake, Buena Vista County, the Iowa Lakes Corridor, and the State of Iowa.
  •  I imagine a future where we are an institutional destination, not a second choice.
  •  I imagine a future growing in our knowledge and relationship with the Presbyterian Church that embraces our rich 127-year affiliation.
  •  I imagine a future where our campus culture is transformed by the full participation of the increasingly diverse student body who are choosing Buena Vista University because we champion differences and are reflective of the world in which we live.
  •  I imagine a future where Buena Vista University is bold, daring, and risk adverse.
  •  I imagine a Buena Vista University that learns from its challenges and mistakes and doubles down on good strategies when they merit success.
  •  And most of all, I imagine a future where Buena Vista University embraces a shared vision for today, tomorrow, and beyond.

Allow me to share one final story with you. Amidst our tour of goodbyes and farewells in Jacksonville Florida, I found myself sitting one night with my good friend who was a retired Officer in the United States Navy. He reached into his pocket and pulled out an object. He handed me this object and proceeded to tell me the story of a story — the story of the Naval Challenge Coin.

Traditionally, coins such as these are given to prove membership when challenged, in celebration, or to enhance morale. He gave me the coin as a symbol of friendship. And he gave me the coin as a congratulations and challenge of prosperity in my new adventure at Buena Vista University. I cherish this coin.

Today, I extend a coin to each of you. Today’s coin will commemorate a vision of unity, collaboration, and challenge each of us to make Buena Vista University a better University for us all. You will receive your coin as you depart today’s ceremony.

I am deeply honored to accept the role of president at Buena Vista University. I accept the responsibility with deep humility. The trust you are extending is great. I do not believe anyone is wholly adequate for the task. I will need your patience, faith, and companionship. Together we will learn that the work that lies before us is without easy solutions. And together we will learn together that the decisions that we will be called to make will not come without strife.

We will encounter frustrations on our path. These are moments of disequilibrium. These moments, they are gifts. These moments are also opportunities. These moments will afford us the change that is needed.

Today, we celebrate Buena Vista University. This is our legacy. This is our future. A future with reimagined purpose and relevance. Together we are better.

I end with a poem from Wendell Berry.

It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Thank you and may God bless Buena Vista University.