President Mark Thompson Inauguration Speech in Full

October 18, 2019

The following is the full speech delivered by Wentworth President Mark A. Thompson during his inauguration ceremony on October 18, 2019.

Good morning and welcome.

I am honored by your presence here today. I want to start by thanking my family members.  They have seen me at my best /and they’ve seen me at my worst, but whether I’m at my best or my worst or somewhere in between their support has been a constant for which I am grateful.  I want to thank my mother and my sister for their love and encouragement throughout my life.  I want to thank our daughters, Elizabeth and Kathryn (Lizzie and Kat) for their love and being a steady source of pride and joy.  Most importantly, I want to express my deepest appreciation and love for my wife, Karyn, who has been unwavering in her love and support for over 35 years.   You have been the key to any success that I have enjoyed, and you are my source of happiness.

Many people have supported me along my career path and I don’t have enough time to thank them all by name.  But, I do want them to know that I am most grateful for their support.  I do want to mention one person who has served as a mentor and I know that I would not be here today without his support.  John Lahey was Quinnipiac’s University president for over just over 31 years.  I had the good fortune of working with John for 20 of those years.  He gave me many opportunities for career advancement.   I remember a time when a chance for promotion was opening up and I decided to go over and see John to get an idea from him about whether or not I’d be a good fit.  He looked at me and said, “Mark, this would be a propitious time for you to apply.”   At the time I had no idea the meaning of the word “propitious”!   I had no idea whether he was signaling something positive or telling me it wasn’t the right time!  In a mini panic I went back to my office, looked up the meaning of the word and found it means “favorable”.  So, it was all good!  

To the inauguration committee – thank you for the extraordinary effort you undertook in putting together a series of events this week that celebrated Wentworth’s accomplishments and helped to re-energize our community as we look to the future. To our students, faculty, staff, alumni, board members, university advisers, industry and community partners, and esteemed guests, I am deeply honored and thankful for the privilege of serving as Wentworth Institute of Technology’s fifth president.  I thank all of you for entrusting me with the responsibility of leading this university. 

My message today is about the work we must do together to secure Wentworth’s bright future, work that must be done with a sense of what I call optimistic urgency.  My source of optimism derives from the accomplishments to date of this great university.  There is no doubt that we have much to be proud of. Wentworth has a remarkable history and most certainly has a bright future.  I stand before you today confident that Wentworth is in a position of strength.  We offer the educational programs for which there is strong labor market demand. We are committed to applied learning. We have highly dedicated faculty and staff. Our institutional and community partnerships are strong.  All of this contributes to producing graduates who I am told /time and time again /bring extraordinary value to the world. My sense of urgency comes from the recognition that higher education is facing many headwinds and we must move now to build on the firm foundation that we have to secure our vibrant future.

I want to start by taking us all back to July 15, 1960. That day, in the late afternoon in sunny Los Angeles, California, then Senator John F. Kennedy gave his presidential nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. At the time, the nation was challenged by significant problems including the spread of communism, proliferation of nuclear arms, and racial unrest. Coupled with the fact that a substantial proportion of the population was living in poverty, it’s no wonder that JFK described the country as facing “serious challenges”, / “burdensome responsibilities” but also / “great opportunities.”

He indicated that “the world is changing” and that the country was standing “on the edge of a New Frontier”, a “frontier of unknown opportunities and perils.”  He said, “The New Frontier is here whether we seek it or not.”  “beyond that frontier are uncharted areas” and that in response “it would be easier to shrink from that new frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past.” But, he said “.. the times require imagination and courage and perseverance.”  He asked the American people “to be pioneers toward that New Frontier.”  He said, “we can have faith in our future only if we have faith in ourselves.”  “The harsh facts of the matter are that we stand at a turning point of history.”  He indicated that the nation was faced with the choice “between national greatness / and national decline, between the fresh air of progress and the stale, dank atmosphere of normalcy, between determined dedication and creeping mediocrity.”  His was a speech that reflected optimistic urgency.   It inspired a generation leading to the establishment of lofty goals and great accomplishments.

Among the inaugural events this week was a symposium that recognized the 50th anniversary of successfully landing a man on the moon.  This accomplishment and source of national pride came as a result of JFK’s optimism and confidence in what the nation was capable of - even in the face of substantial challenges.  It came as a result of the high ambition and courage necessary to establish and pursue bold goals. As we work together to chart the course for Wentworth’s future, I ask that we embrace a similar level of high ambition and courage.  We need to, if you will, / plan and implement the equivalent of a moonshot.

Much like the challenges JFK described in his acceptance speech, today’s higher education industry, particularly private higher education, is facing increasingly difficult challenges.  There are fewer high school graduates, increasing questions about the value higher education is providing, concerns over the cost of education, states implementing plans for free public college, price cutting among competitors and the list goes on. As a private institution in this market we are facing our own new frontier with uncharted territories of challenges, responsibilities and opportunities.  Our new frontier is here whether we seek it or not. 

I believe that our future success depends heavily on our understanding and appreciation of our past.  I have come to admire Wentworth’s founder, Arioch Wentworth.  Wentworth Institute was founded in 1904 as a result of a revision to his will just seven weeks before his death.  He indicated his desire to “organize a corporation to be known as Wentworth Institute for the purpose of furnishing education in the mechanical arts.”  Arioch carved out a market niche when he added this to his will in 1903 and it is a niche that Wentworth has been successful in filling over its history and will carry us into the future.  It has been said that Arioch was a 19th century man blessed with 20th century foresight.  I would argue that he had 21st century foresight.

Despite this tough market, there are plenty of opportunities that Wentworth is uniquely positioned to successfully pursue, going back to Arioch’s vision.  As in 1904, we need to be imaginative and creative and have faith in ourselves at this important point in our institutional history.  We must be optimistic, move forward with a sense of urgency and recognize that much of what needs to and can be done is in fact under our control.   We are faced with choices between institutional greatness or stagnation, between progress – extraordinary in its impact on our students and others that we serve – or mediocrity representing a forgone opportunity to fulfill our responsibilities to them.  

The level of ambition I have already seen exemplified in our planning process is just another example of our tradition of boldness and courageousness.  This university has a long history of being bold and courageous - evident in the various iterations of its development.   Join me as I recall our history for just a moment – Wentworth had its beginnings in its establishment as a technical school in 1904 to becoming one of the first technical institutes to offer associates degrees and then baccalaureate degrees.  Wentworth’s history includes the admission of women nearly 50 years ago and the establishment of co-op education which remains a hallmark of a Wentworth education today.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my predecessor Zorica Pontic. Under her leadership, Wentworth saw substantial improvements in facilities and the achievement of university status with the development of master’s degree programs. All bold steps, taken by courageous people.

At this point in our history, we must acknowledge, understand and accept the realities of the world in which we live.  We are not immune to market forces.  What we are is up to the challenge of understanding the issues we face and effectively responding to them.  And, I think we should recognize that we are well situated in our ability to make necessary change.  Our efforts must be directed toward distinguishing ourselves further by conveying a compelling value proposition.   In this competitive marketplace a clear and distinctive value proposition is imperative.  Students and families are asking us “Of all of my choices, why you?  Are you worth the investment?  Show me why.”

Part of my message to incoming students is that they are at a turning point in their lives, a critical juncture, as they are entering an important transition period from childhood to adulthood.  I share with them that this point in their lives is one where the decisions and choices made have an enduring impact on future success.  Their success depends on how they go about building on their strengths which likely requires a different approach to things.  Among them is to be an active participant in the design of their own future.  I tell them that they have significant control over their own success and that they are clearly capable of achieving whatever bold ambition they decide to pursue.

In recognition of the challenges we face as an institution, I share a similar message with you.  Wentworth is at a critical juncture in its history.  It is a point where the decisions and choices made will have an enduring impact on the future of our institution.  We must build on our strengths which likely requires a different approach to many things.  Your active participation in the changes necessary to solidly position our university and improve results is critical.  We are the architects, engineers and designers of our destiny.  I ask that we be pioneers, together, as we advance toward our new frontier and to be courageous and bold in doing so.

The theme of this inauguration week is to do Whatever it Takes to provide a transformative education.  To accomplish this, there is a broad constituency at work on Wentworth’s new strategic plan.  I have been clear about my expectations that the plan be bold and transformative because market forces are such that incremental changes will not result in Wentworth reaching its full potential nor will it secure a thriving future. Following numerous discussions with faculty, staff, students, industry and community partners, and alumni, we are developing our new plan for the future with four areas of strategic focus. 

The first area of focus is Inclusive Excellence.  This has been put first intentionally as it is my firm belief that Wentworth will reach its full potential only if every member of our university community is valued, engaged and supported in the ways needed to reach their full potential.   This is, in part, about fulfilling our academic mission.  When we look at the educational outcomes most desired by employers – such as critical and creative thinking, / innovation and problem solving, /and awareness and experience with diverse cultures - these are the very things that are enhanced when students are exposed to and learn from those who are different from themselves.  But this is also about equity and social justice.  It is about access to education.  Wentworth has long been known as a university of opportunity.  Education has been called the great equalizer and our commitment to inclusive excellence includes opening the doors to all who seek to reach their potential.  I am deeply saddened and concerned about the increasing levels of divisiveness and overt calls to exclude various groups and people in our nation.  It is hard to understand why human kindness is so elusive for so many.  In the current climate, it is especially important that we have a university that is welcoming and safe for all.  We must model the behaviors that reflect our hopes for the broader world.  I ask that you join me in doing Whatever it Takes to ensure Inclusive Excellence.

The second area of focus is in High-Value Learning.  High-value learning has been the hallmark of a Wentworth education from its origins.  High-value learning has been provided via a hands-on approach to education that has stood the test of time in its effectiveness.  For example, while many in America found themselves out of work and struggling to make ends meet during the Great Depression, Wentworth graduates were able to weather this economic storm because they had skills that remained relevant and in-demand despite the downturn.   Hands-on, high-value learning is evident in our co-op program, which allows many students to move seamlessly from their co-op at a company right into a full-time job.  We also know that that employers care less and less about what someone knows, instead they want to know what value one can create with what they know.  It is no longer enough to simply know something, but rather how to apply that something.  So this is a call to extend the benefits associated with applied learning with an understanding of what skills will be most valued in a technology economy.  There is increased concern about “technological unemployment” or the phenomenon of automation putting people out of work.  Going forward, we must prepare graduates for success in an era of artificial intelligence and automation.  The skills that will be of the highest value are the ones that improve technology and how technology is utilized.  The labor force of the future will need to be able to couple human intelligence and machine intelligence in new and imaginative ways.  We have the right programs.  But we need to ensure that the education provided within these programs produces graduates with skills that include creativity, problem-solving, people management as well as social and emotional intelligence.  This will require us to examine and shake up how we deliver education – from curricular requirements to pedagogy.  Success in the future labor market will depend on one’s ability to engage in “big picture” thinking including the ability to think creatively and integrate knowledge across disciplines.  These are the transferable skills that can be universally applied and will be of the greatest value.  Further our high-value learning opportunities must extend beyond serving traditional undergraduate students.  The competitiveness of the market requires us to diversify our revenue base and pursue opportunities to serve adult learners and veterans, as examples.  We need to pursue opportunities in workforce skills development and ongoing certification to assist regional businesses.  To do this, we will need to offer programs that eliminate boundaries of time, place and modality.  We must commit to doing Whatever it Takes to provide High-Value Learning.

The third area of focus is in providing an exceptional overall student experience.  The purpose of higher education can be summarized in a number of ways, but my personal philosophy is that we are in the business of transforming lives.  This carries with it a high level of responsibility.  In that spirit, I believe that Wentworth’s commitment to students goes beyond academics.  We have a responsibility to student well-being and quality in all aspects of the student experience.  This will require us to make significant improvements in a host of services to students. First and foremost, at a very basic level – we need to ensure that students who choose to live on campus have a safe and welcoming place to live and nourishing food to eat. This includes developing institutional support systems and resources for students who may experience periods of homelessness or food insecurity during their time with us.  Another important issue centers around our students’ mental and physical well-being.  In recent years there has been a surge in students suffering from mental health concerns.  The American Psychological Association reports that more than one third of college freshmen experience a mental health concern.  The most common are depression and anxiety and more than 40% do not seek help.  It is my hope that we become the exemplar in higher education in how we respond to this crisis, while also implementing proactive strategies that help identify and address concerns before they escalate.  Finally, we need to identify and remove needless barriers and outdated practices that stand in the way of students fully engaging in their college experience.  We have a responsibility to do all we can to support students such that they can focus on their academic pursuits and take with them the full value of their educational experience.  We must do Whatever it Takes to provide an exceptional student experience.

The fourth and final focus area is next-generation partnerships.  Wentworth enjoys strong partnerships in industry, with our community and with our alumni.  Developing and implementing strategies to expand and maximize the mutual benefits of these partnerships is critical to our future.  We must expand industry participation in curriculum design and the delivery of education to ensure that we are consistently up to date on industry trends and providing the highest value to students. In turn, we can provide training and development as lifelong learning will be more and more important over time.   Done well, collaboration with industry partners enhances innovation.  Through engaging students and faculty; industry partners will benefit from the creativity needed to solve complex problems, drive economic growth and create a more skilled workforce.  Another benefit centers around the university assisting industry partners in achieving their goals in diversifying their workforce.  Working together we can implement initiatives to recruit a more diverse student body who will be well-prepared to transition as full-time employees with our partner companies.  Universities also have a responsibility to be good neighbors and to be in service to the community in which they reside.  There are certainly numerous examples of positive outcomes that have been achieved as a result of collaboration between Wentworth and our partners in the community.  I am inspired by Wentworth’s success in service to Boston Public School youth.  Through working with area schools we are achieving great success in presenting the college experience to area high school students, assisting them in successful transition to college, providing financial assistance and the support necessary to complete their degree program.  Given this record of success, I’d like to substantially expand the scope of our work around college access, persistence and completion. Regarding alumni, our responsibility to you does not end at commencement.  In recognition that skills needs will change over time, we must provide you with opportunities to fine-tune and develop skills over the course of your lifetime.  In return, I would ask for your support in recruiting and mentoring our students as well as finding them greater opportunities for co-ops and employment upon graduation.  We must do Whatever it Takes to develop next generation partnerships.

Let me finish with this.  As a young boy I attended Sunday school regularly.  I loved going to Sunday school primarily because a big, mid-day meal followed when we got home!  At Sunday school I was told the story of David and Goliath.  It was presented as a story about the importance of faith.  For those less familiar, the biblical account presents the story in a way that leads us to believe that the result is unlikely. The young, small shepherd boy (David) representing the Israelites, absent armor and with rocks and a sling defeats a huge, well-armored giant of a man (Goliath) a battle-hardened warrior representing the Philistines and equipped with javelin, spear and sword.  I was led to believe that David prevailed in this lopsided battle because God had his back – a story about faith.

But then I read Malcom Gladwell’s book – David and Goliath – Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants.  Gladwell argues that David’s defeat of Goliath shouldn’t come as a big surprise.  Goliath failed because it never occurred to him that the battle with David would be fought on terms different from what he was used to.  Goliath approached his goal of defeating his opponent via traditional means.  David ultimately prevailed through a combination of innovatively applying his own experience, self-confidence in his ability, agility and guts.  He took a risk, but a calculated risk with high reward.

Institutions that are failing behave in Goliath-like ways.  Big, lumbering giants.  Weighed down and cloaked, not in armor, but heavy tradition and cultures that limit mobility.  They are using outdated tactics in taking on the challenges of the marketplace.  And, like Goliath they will fall.

We need to be David-like as individuals and as an institution.  We need to recognize that the needs and expectations of students today can’t be met via traditional means. We are better equipped than most in our self-assuredness, expertise, nimbleness and willingness to try new approaches that we know will benefit our students.  I am most pleased by your willingness to embrace change.  Despite what Gladwell says, I still believe that faith played a partial role in David’s victory.  For us and our work, we need to have faith and be supportive of one another as we pioneer toward our new frontier.   As JFK said on that sunny California afternoon in 1960, “We can have faith in our future only if we have faith in ourselves.”  This is no time for fear but rather a time to demonstrate our full capability in seizing the opportunities that will propel our university forward to new heights. 

You should expect that I will be bold and courageous.  It is my responsibility and my commitment in my role as president to do Whatever it Takes to ensure inclusive excellence, to provide high-value learning opportunities, to ensure the highest quality student experience, and to establish mutually beneficial partnerships with industry, community and alumni.  Whatever it Takes to provide a transformative education.  But know that I cannot do this alone and need your support.  I ask that you also do Whatever it Takes.   Let’s move forward with optimistic urgency.  I am confident in our collective ability and excited about what we’ll accomplish.  I know that Wentworth’s brightest days are ahead.  I am most grateful to each one of you.  I look forward to our important work together. And I won’t let you down.

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