Inaugural Address

Kristin G. Esterberg - April 24, 2015

Welcome to our journey, old friends, new friends, family, colleagues, neighbors—all who have gathered here to celebrate the future of SUNY Potsdam.

Welcome students, whose exuberance fills me with delight and reminds me of the rowdy promise of a liberal education.

Welcome faculty and staff, whose commitment to creating a warm and intimate environment for our students inspires me to lead with the same depth of passion and creativity.

Welcome alumni, who have continued to support this vibrant and far flung Potsdam community, and who so generously Take the Lead in supporting our beloved campus.

Welcome community leaders, who make the North Country so dynamic, and whose service inspires.

Welcome College Council, Chancellor Zimpher, and the SUNY Board of Trustees. I am grateful for the trust you have placed in me as the 16th president of SUNY Potsdam, and I am honored and humbled by the charge.

You have warmly welcomed me and my family—my partner Sue Bergmeier, and our daughters Katie and Qiong Qiong, who are here with us today. And our extended family, many of whom are also here today. We are grateful.

Today, I am asking you to go on a journey with me. To run with me for a while.

The start of any race is filled with anticipation—of the pleasure of the day ahead, and also the knowledge that what we are about to accomplish is impossibly hard. The start of any long run is filled with questions: Can I actually do this? Will I finish? Am I ready? As we run together, imagine the smell of dirt and pine and sweat.Imagine we are climbing a small hill. At the end of the day, that small hill will feel like a mountain. The journey that we are about to embark on is longer than anything you have done before, and it will be taxing.

For those of you who know me well, you know that I occasionally like to go by foot on just such a long journey—an ultramarathon, or a run longer than a standard 26.2-mile marathon. You might be wondering: why would any seemingly sane person want to do such a thing? It is long, true. It can be painful, true. But I submit that it is also a journey full of joy and satisfaction and beauty. It is gnarly—and that is a good thing.

The peculiar journey of an ultramarathon is about constant motion, relentless movement, taking opportunities to replenish oneself, even while still moving, inexorably, forward. It is about commitment to the journey, even though at times the finish seems perhaps too distant, and your feet hurt. Running like this is primarily about persistence, knowing that even as things feel bad and everything aches, they will also feel better. It is about pacing yourself, testing the limits of your abilities, and your will to finish.

An ultramarathon is also, perhaps surprisingly, a collective effort. As we fellow travelers move throughout the day and even night, we often begin as strangers to each other, but we create a small community of hardy runners, and we encourage each other through our singular devotion to the task at hand: continuous forward movement. Doing things together builds community, and not only in ultramarathons.

An ultramarathon is fundamentally about patience, but it is also about urgency. It is a "wild patience," as the poet Adrienne Rich called it in her poem, "Integrity."[i]

"A wild patience has taken me this far."

Even as we move urgently forward, we must be patient. We must pace ourselves. This dynamic between patience and urgency creates tension, anxiety. And as we go on this journey together, we are going to feel it. We are going to wonder: is the pace too fast? Will we burn out before the finish? Or are we too slow? Will we fail?

You may never have attempted the foolish pleasure of running 50 miles, or even a 5K, yet I think all of you know something about this kind of journey and the challenges we will experience. You know something about moving toward a goal that seems impossibly far. You know something about moving relentlessly forward, about resilience, and about the wild patience that has not only taken us this far, but the patience and urgency that we will need as we chart our future course.

We are at a critical point in our campus's history. These are, without doubt, challenging times for college campuses. As campuses face eroding support for public higher education, fiscal challenges, and new sources of competition, we must find ways to remake ourselves, to use our scarce resources wisely, and to continue to make ourselves relevant. Our challenge is to expand opportunity—to help SUNY meet its audacious goal of providing access and success to a larger and more diverse population than ever before: 150,000 graduates each year by 2020.

To succeed at our challenge, we must cultivate the creativity that is within every student. We must ensure that every student has the opportunity to apply what they are learning in the classroom in a real world setting, and guarantee that every student leaves our campus well prepared for the turbulent future that confronts them.

Standing at the cusp of our bicentennial year, we have the opportunity to remake ourselves as SUNY's pre-eminent creativity campus. SUNY Potsdam has evolved and grown and thrived for nearly 200 years.But for too long, SUNY Potsdam has been a hidden gem. We have been keeping this gorgeous campus, tucked between the foothills of the Adirondacks and the Canadian border, a secret.

We must be secret no longer.

The artist Alan Crichton talks about creativity as "the capacity for hard work, imagination and openness to new ideas, the capacity to see fresh connections between chance phenomena, to being open to accident and mistake and the unexpected as a means to new breakthroughs and solutions." [ii] This is exactly the creativity our students will need to draw on as they enter into the world. And it is just this creativity that we will need to access as we re-invent our future in our bicentennial year.

Creativity is the energy that sparks our lives, and keeps us moving forward.

As a creative campus, we thrive on diversity. As a sociologist, I am never happier, more alive, than when I am surrounded by people who can help me learn about and appreciate different cultures. Diversity is brilliant for its own sake.Yet a diverse campus is one that leads to much greater creativity as well. If SUNY Potsdam is to claim the title of SUNY's pre-eminent creative campus—and we are well on our way—then we need to ensure that diversity flourishes in our campus community.

Imagine a campus where every single person feels radically, fundamentally at home—no matter their background, their history, their identity or their beliefs. Imagine a campus that thrives on a diverse array of viewpoints and perspectives.

What will it take to get there?

Will you help me create it?

With over a third of our entering class consisting of students of color, we have the opportunity and duty to ensure that we create a welcoming campus climate, one that embraces diversity and welcomes the growth and learning that come when people from very different places encounter each other in an educational setting. We want every student, every employee, every graduate and every visitor, to feel wildly at home here at SUNY Potsdam.

I use the word "home" advisedly and explicitly. The notion of home entails the most basic sense of belonging and familiarity, a fundamental acceptance of one's core existence. But "home" also implies a sense of responsibility. We are responsible for our homes, for doing the dishes, for picking up after ourselves and taking care of each other. Home is where we are pushed to grow and develop, and to become better persons. Home is where we welcome each other, even when we differ, and especially when we argue.

What will it take to get there?

Will you create this home with me?

Imagine a notion of diversity that is itself diverse, expansive enough to include all who would seek to learn on our campus. From the North Country to New York City, from Buffalo to Plattsburgh, we are home to students from every corner of the Empire State—and beyond, including in our family students from as far as California and Alaska. We have many Canadians both in our classrooms and among our faculty, and our international students come to us from Brazil, Italy, Japan, Côte d'Ivoire, China and elsewhere.

Imagine a campus that is home to the gender queer and nonbinary, as well as the traditionally gendered. Imagine a campus that is home to everyone, no matter whom they love, just as we celebrated at our second annual pride parade a couple of weekends ago.

What will it take to get there?

Will you create this home with me?

Imagine a campus that is home to people from all faith backgrounds and those with none. Home to our Akwesasne and native students. To our Latino and Caribbean students, as well as those who identify as black, Asian, white, or some glorious combination. A campus that is home to college Republicans and Democrats as well as our Greek Life community, our athletes, our musicians, our artists and our gamers. A campus that is home to those who choose not to affiliate or identify with any groups, as well as those whose identities are passionately claimed. Home to those who identify, simply, as human.

What will it take to get there?

Will you create this home with me?

Diversity enhances our ability to think creatively, to make better decisions. When we are surrounded by those who are unlike us in identity and experience, we are helped to think outside our own narrow limits. When the North Country native encounters a native of the Bronx, both grow.

This notion of creativity and diversity includes all of us, and expands on our grand tradition as an arts campus. The renowned Crane School of Music, our extraordinary theatre and dance department, our exquisite Performing Arts Center, our new program in graphic art and new media, and our longstanding programs in the creative and performing arts all demonstrate that form of creativity.

But our claim to be SUNY's creative campus also hearkens back to our roots as a Normal School. What more creative work is there than the resourcefulness of the teacher in the classroom, or the creation of new curriculum or ways of teaching?

At SUNY Potsdam, we also claim the creativity of the sciences, through the power of STEM education infused with the Arts, as STEAM. Scientific labor is creative labor, and we honor the ingenuity of faculty and students in the lab and in the field, and the research our students and faculty conduct together. Whether a chemistry study funded by the National Institutes for Health, or a survey of prenatal health care knowledge among North Country women, or an analysis of insect ecology, our professors and students have explored some amazing topics.

We celebrate and honor the creativity of the sciences and social sciences, our humanities and liberal arts. From Chemtoberfest to archaeology digs, and from Blueline literary magazine readings to an interdisciplinary seminar series on happiness, our faculty and students prove that creativity extends to all disciplines. As Potsdam alumnus and bestselling author TC Boyle shared recently in a PBS interview, a liberal arts education encourages one to "find out who you are and what you are." This process of discovery—creating a life—is a deeply creative process.

When I think of this kind of creative process, I think of Gene Gaffney, a theatre major originally from Yonkers, who was transformed by our wilderness education program. Despite his lack of experience in the outdoors—he did not grow up feeling the dirt between his toes--early on in his time at Potsdam he took a backpacking course and learned outdoor skills. He went on to take our wilderness education minor, complete a 20-day expedition in the Gila Wilderness, and he is now a field guide at Open Sky Wilderness Therapy in Colorado.

Gene exemplifies creativity in action. Were it not for his applied learning experience, he would never have been able to become the skilled outdoors educator he is today. Experiences like these are critical to help our students discover their passions, learn real-life skills, and develop the tools they need to succeed in our fast changing world.

And so I am proud to say that SUNY Potsdam is becoming a leader within SUNY for applied learning opportunities, which we want to make available for every single graduate. Supported by the generous gift of Joy and Dick Dorf, our Center for Applied Learning will enable us to ensure that every Potsdam student will have the opportunity to apply what they are learning in an internship, a study abroad opportunity, research with a faculty member, or a service learning experience, and to reflect on the meaning of that experience.

Imagine a campus where every student has the ability to apply what they are learning outside the classroom.

Imagine a campus where every student has access to a creative makerspace, where they can create and build things that we cannot imagine today.

Imagine a campus that is richly diverse, where every student, every person, is valued and where the whole is significantly greater than its parts.

Imagine what SUNY Potsdam can become in our next 200 years.

What will it take?

Will you help me build it?

The role of the president is to love her campus unabashedly, to embrace its traditions, while at the same time building toward a new and as-yet-unseen future. What I love about SUNY Potsdam is its resilience and the warmth of its community. Like all North Country natives, and like an ultramarathoner, SUNY Potsdam is hardy. We have learned over the years to thrive in winter, and we have done so brilliantly, building a spectacular creative community of teachers, scholars, students, and artists for just under 200 years.

As we look forward, as we embrace our creative future, as we seek to create and nurture our diverse community, we will need every bit of that fortitude. Crafting our next 200 years together will take us on an ultramarathon; it is not a sprint. And as in any long run, we will need the community that we build together to get us through. We will need to lean on each other for encouragement.

As we commit ourselves to our shared pursuit, our ultramarathon—nothing less than the transformation of our beloved campus—we will need wild patience, and hope, and urgency.

I am counting on you to join me on this journey. Thank you.


[i] Adrienne Rich, "Integrity."A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far: Poems 1978-1981. WW Norton, 1981.
[ii] From Mitchell Thomashow and Anthony Cortese, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus. MIT Press, 2014, p. 198.