The Office of the President Emeritus: University of Oregon

Speeches and Writings

"A Personal Journey"

Investiture Speech
October 4, 1996

Dave Frohnmayer, President
University of Oregon

Chancellor Cox, members of the University Foundation Board of Trustees, directors of the State Board of Higher Education, and the Alumni Association Board; my gifted and revered mentors by the ethical example of their lives, Presidents Emeritus O. Mere dith Wilson and Robert Clark - and may I add special thanks for the daughters and sons your families have given to this university, and to higher education in the United States; members of my beloved family; my extended family of University of Oregon coll eagues, both faculty and staff; alumni, students, friends, ladies and gentlemen:

I am extraordinarily happy, and profoundly privileged to stand before you today to accept the presidency of the University of Oregon. I must also add that I have a sense of d�j� vu.

Two years ago, when I was first called on short notice to assume the presidency, I gave a brief but heartfelt speech of acceptance.

One year ago, when the State Board of Higher Education endorsed the decision to make my post continuing - if not necessarily permanent - I again gathered my thoughts for a short expression of thanks.

Now, I feel a little like the fellow who signed a marriage license two years ago, and having behaved with utter fidelity, only now is exchanging rings.

We first planned to have this joyful ceremony last year. But our plans were derailed by a daunting emergency in my daughter Kirsten's battle against leukemia. The delay initially led me to suggest that we simply should ignore this formal rite of passag e. But ultimately I heeded other voices, those of the faculty and staff who wholeheartedly welcomed this chance to celebrate our traditions and our prospects.

The donning of robes for a President's investiture is an ancient and important ritual in the life of the academy. This link from our past to our future represents simultaneously the strengths of this civilization's last surviving medieval institution a nd our most revolutionary modern one.

I will add that the intervening months have strengthened Kirsten, my family, and me, in ways quite difficult to express. As any parent should have the reflective humility to confess, I learn many things from my children. This is true of all my children , but Kirsten especially has opened for me vast dimensions of understanding about courage, perseverance, optimism and the most essential qualities of love. I am joyful beyond measure to report that she is here with us today. Thank you, Kirsten.

And on behalf of our family, let me convey our most profound thanks for the thousands of prayers and words of support from this community. You have given us renewal and strength. You have fortified, in ways that you cannot calculate, Kirsten's will to survive.

The capacity to learn from our children is not alien to our enterprise here: It truly is an essential metaphor for what we do. The best professors understand that in the classroom, the laboratory, the studio and the unscheduled heart-to-heart talks bet ween classes, good teachers become students; learners can be transformed into teachers. Education, when engaged with heart and spirit, is - of course - a two-way process. When this call-and-response, exchange and insight ignites minds, the joy of learnin g can illuminate and change the course of a lifetime.

* * * *

Different and very personal voyages of discovery have brought each of us to this assembly today. Yet I will wager that we all share one thing in common: a history of small but decisive moments in which education has had that transformative effect on ou r lives.

It certainly has been true for my family. Indeed, the Frohnmayers and the University of Oregon are abidingly linked.

In 1906 my father, Otto Frohnmayer, immigrated to Oregon with his family from Germany. For him and our family, the University of Oregon was our ticket of admission to the American middle class.

Dad earned his undergraduate degree here at the UO in 1928, then returned during the depths of the Great Depression to work his way through law school as a bell boy and a night clerk in the Eugene Hotel. Somehow my mother-a particularly gifted musician , a wonderful parent and a community treasure-earned her undergraduate degree here as well during those wrenchingly difficult times. Both my parents are here today, and I affirm with unabashed pride that I revere them.

My father practiced law in Medford, where I grew up. My memories of higher education start with watching my parents take the family car to University of Oregon events, everything from football games to lectures. We eagerly awaited their return. In our southern Oregon home, the University of Oregon was the center of higher education in the state.

I am, in many ways, a UO brat. So are my sister and two brothers who came here to earn their advanced degrees. I now calculate that my immediate family has something like 225 years of living UO alumni history amongst us.

My own experiences at Harvard College, Oxford University and the University of California School of Law at Berkeley, Boalt Hall, provided some of my own transformative moments, and helped define my place as parent, teacher, public servant, and communit y member:

  • Discovering a book I never knew in a quiet corner of a nurturing library;
  • Working painstakingly, word by word, to translate Kafka's Hungerk�nstler from the German;
  • Visualizing for the first time the snake-biting-its-tail that is organic chemistry's benzene ring;
  • Seeing, awestruck, the mighty Winged Victory of Samathryce as I rounded a corner in the Louvre;
  • Realizing that the mutated substitution of a single base pair out of millions in the gene sequence of DNA could threaten the life of a beloved child-or a friend.
  • Studying the intricacies, puzzles and wisdom of American Constitutional law.

I made the exhilarating, the sometimes frightening, transition from student to teacher 25 years ago, here, at the University of Oregon. My kaleidoscopic memories of those days mix professional excitement with personal happiness. I was only four years o ut of law school. I married Lynn just six days before the law faculty's rude insistence that I teach my first class on schedule. My children were born a block away-I fondly remember students in my classes celebrating their births.

I treasure my memories of the welcome and warm collegiality of the faculty. Here in the early 1970s I found a community of scholars, colleagues in the truest sense, willing to help one another not only within the law school but especially across the la rger university. There were mentors for me here, great names and great people. There was the incredible beauty of this campus, underscored by the beat of creative energy that emanates vibrantly around us.

There were happy and inspiring moments with students. There were times when I saw a light break across a student's face and realized that in a small way I might be responsible for helping her or him make a new connection, that in some incremental or ev en substantial way I could make a positive difference in a struggling student's life.

Except for my need to provide for my family, those occasions made me want to teach forever without pay-at least until the weeks I had to grade exams.

To my surprise, on occasions, much later, I'd be stopped in the street and thanked. I've gotten letters saying that although my course was confusing then, it made a continuing difference now.

It is that sense of "continuing difference" that I grasp as essential, as the simple and true purpose of this and all great universities. This purpose I reduce in my own synthesis to just four words: Transforming lives through knowledge.

* * * *

Perhaps that brief formulation seems too simplistic for an institution as pluralistic as this. Or maybe it does not seem grand enough.

Some may think that on occasions such as today's, the president-to-be should appear unshaven and unkempt, descending from a high mountain peak bearing freshly inscribed tablets, or emerging red-eyed from a vast desert in flowing robes (more colorful th an these I am wearing) proclaiming in the gravelly cry of the prophet that we have lost our path, and must be guided by an exalted new vision.

This might seem especially important now, when critics of higher education have sharpened their knives, thrusting and cutting at the efficiency, relevancy and values of our academy.

But today I offer no Utopian vision of a vastly different university. I do not think we need one. Ours is an ancient enterprise, refined and proven through the tests of two millennia. The worth of our great modern research universities like this is rec koned over and again in the currency of great teaching, invaluable research, and outstanding public service.

We do not need a different university. But we must constantly dedicate ourselves to the development of a better one.

  • A university that accepts no substitute for quality, and no excuse for mediocrity.
  • A university that challenges itself every day to become better.
  • A university that recognizes and realizes its essential and overriding goal of transforming lives through knowledge.

Of course we face challenges - challenges that are today more numerous, more compelling, and more rapidly developing than at any time ever. In the past two years I have read treatises, essays and, sadly, even epitaphs, about university presidents suffe ring "burn-out" from overloaded schedules, overstretched resources, and overwhelming demands. A recent authoritative report concludes that many university presidents had been reduced to being "jugglers-in-chief," who spend all their t ime balancing faculty pressures and student demands, financial needs and the pleas of special interests. This recent report continues that adding to their problems, juggler-in-chief Presidents are often slowed by the hurdles of outdated academic decision- making. The results are universities in paralysis, unwilling or unable to cope with the need to address new challenges.

I can tell you - after considerable time on the job - that these two principal concerns simply do not apply to the University of Oregon as I know it. The traditions and behaviors of this campus have given me the latitude to be far more than a juggler-i n-chief. I have a dedicated and talented-if smaller than usual-administrative staff that guides the day-to-day operation of the university, freeing much of my time for the increasingly important tasks of policy formulation, fund raising, friend-making, an d elevating the appreciation of higher education in our state. At the same time, our strong tradition of faculty governance has been refined and streamlined. This gives our campus the ability to move ahead with due deliberation, but without the sclerosis that affects other universities. Our faculty and staff understand that this world's race does not belong to the large or the strong, but rather to the swift and creative.

Our constraints, therefore, are not internal, but external to this campus.

Every day we must struggle with the same slate of problems that affect all higher education today:

  • diminishing resources
  • reduced research support
  • an accelerating telecommunications revolution
  • the challenge of access and diversity
  • and conflicting public expectations.

How are we responding?

Two years ago, in my first address to the assembled university faculty and staff, I issued an outline for change. Our imperatives, I said, are to reach out, reach across and reach beyond:

  • We must reach out to our students, regardless of differences in race, gender, ethnicity, appearance or life experience. "Diversity" should not be a scary word that identifies a series of separate encampments marked by an unwillingness or in capacity to hear the voices of others. True diversity is the affirmation of identity within community.
  • We must reach across narrow disciplines, regardless of their interior fascination, to link with colleagues across the campus - and to those beyond - who are also engaged in the process of fundamental discovery;
  • We must reach beyond the boundaries of the campus to exchange ideas and technologies with our neighbors in our region, state and world.
  • We must look inward, ceaselessly reviewing our performance of teaching, research, and service, and make every effort to improve each of them.
  • We must remember that in the economy of the 21st century, where knowledge is wealth and information commands power, a region that does not nurture a major research university in its midst is a region that will doom itself and its people to economic s ervitude.
  • And we must be mindful that far from being an enterprise peripheral to the people of the state, we are central, and central in the most ennobling sense: A center for the creation and dissemination of knowledge; a center for lifelong education; a cent er for discoveries that better our lives; a center as never before for helping energize Oregon's economy, Oregon's culture and Oregon's polity.

Our university campus has answered and will continue to answer my call for change and continuous improvement, with energy, creativity and enthusiasm.

* * * *

Mr. Chancellor, you charged me today to lead this institution with all the vigor at my command.

I accept that challenge with humility and honor. I commit my full energies without reservation. I pledge to exercise authority with equity and decisiveness, without abuse of power or person, with an attentive ear to those who offer wise counsel, and wi th an abiding respect for the traditions of our governance.

You charged me, Mr. Chancellor, to believe in this institution with all the intensity I can muster.

I accept that charge with a belief that is fueled by deep allegiance to the fundamental mission of higher learning to transform human lives for the better. I will act on that belief with passion and urgency.

You charged me, Mr. Chancellor, to nurture this university and love it with the most profound affection.

Mr. Chancellor, this university has been an enduring source of inspiration and renewal in my life, and in the lives of my loved ones. I love not only the beauty of these emerald acres, not merely the stones and bricks of its architecture, but the memor ies, dreams and hopes that give life to our vibrant and eternal spirit. I pledge that this great university and those people who give it sustenance and meaning will continue to have my most profound and continuing affection.

Having so pledged, it remains only for me to ask you all now to join me in continuing to build, in continuing to nurture, and in continuing to celebrate this great enterprise, this heritage, and this promise, our University of Oregon.

Thank you.