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Inauguration addresses of OHIO’s presidents speak to past, future, and changing role of higher education


Ohio University’s presidents have led the institution through the challenges of a changing society, responding to the evolving needs of students and reaffirming the important role of public higher education in the United States. As each presidential transition has brought new promise and hope for OHIO’s future, the men taking on the role took great comfort and guidance in reflecting on those who came before. 

From the national tumult of the Civil War to the economic and societal shifts of the 1960s and 1970s, the inaugural addresses of incoming OHIO presidents serve as a valuable lens through which to understand the story of the University and the role each has had in shaping it. 

As OHIO prepares to hear the inaugural address of 21st President M. Duane Nellis on Wednesday, Oct. 18, during his investiture ceremony, Compass looks back on five addresses from the University’s history. 

Robert G. Wilson (president from 1824-1839)
In his inaugural address on August 11, 1824, Robert G. Wilson, OHIO’s third president, reflected on the necessity for colleges and universities in a free government, noting that these institutions had the important responsibility of educating students for their role as citizens in maintaining the peace, order and prosperity of their communities. 

“Men are needed to represent us in Congress, and in the Legislature of the State; to judge in our courts, advocate our rights, combat the diseases of our climate,” Wilson said. “…To furnish suitable characters for these important stations, is the province of colleges and universities – a province so closely connected with the prosperity, honour, and happiness of the community that it has been thought the wisdom of states to establish, endow, and watch over them.” 

Wilson expressed the importance of looking to history for guidance on the knowledge and subject matter that colleges and universities could use to shape the minds of young students. In 1824, these subjects included Latin and Greek languages for cultivating perception, attention, memory and judgement; the study of Greek and Roman literature; and the study of mathematics “to fix the roving attention of youth, and induce a habit of close thinking and patient investigation.” 

Wilson felt the weight of his duty as president of Ohio University, noting that the institution’s management “requires extensive learning and daily watchfulness; and that it must unavoidably involve me in perplexing toil, and great responsibility.” 

Still in its infancy, Ohio University was quickly rising in prominence, as Wilson noted in his address. He was excited, he said, to take charge and continue to guide the university to “emulate the best literary institutions in our country.” 

“The destinies of our fellow men must soon pass into the hands of the rising generation – the youth of this Seminary must soon appear in the great council of the nation, the legislature of the state, and in all our publi[c] offices,” he said. “And as their minds shall be stored with knowledge, and their hearts formed to the practice of virtue, so will they be ornaments to us, and a blessing to men. Stimulated by the perseverance, economy, and wisdom of the Trustees, it shall be the unwearied effort of the Professors, that Ohio, elevated in rank among her sister states, shall not be inferior to them in the education of her sons.” 

Solomon Howard (president from 1852-1872)
Ohio University’s sixth president, Solomon Howard, delivered his inaugural address on August 3, 1853. Howard led the University through the decline in student attendance due to the Civil War, and also saw the admission of women, including Margaret Boyd, during his presidency. 

In his address, Howard chose a practical approach – addressing the trustees and faculty of Ohio University, providing them insight into the values and principles he would employ as the University’s leader. 

Like Wilson before him, Howard paused to reflect on Ohio University’s history, the mission outlined by the University’s founders and how he, as steward of that mission, would carry out his duties as president. 

“The example of Ohio University in previous years has been worthy of imitation,” Howard said. “Her course, in this respect, has always been high and dignified. The curriculum of studies adopted by the Ohio University is thorough and extensive compared with those of sister colleges. And though she may not have sent out as many graduates as some other yet those who have been sent out from her halls have done her honor.”  

Howard vowed that he would continue the work of those who came before him who had built Ohio University into a well-respected institution of higher education.

“It shall be my aim while I preside over the interests of the Ohio University, to maintain in all its integrity that character for sound scholarship which it always under the administration of my honored and learned predecessors bore,” he said. “And as much lieth in us it shall be our object to urge on young men…to develop the moral and intellectual powers, to furnish and direct the youth of our country for their wonderful destiny, is, gentlemen of the Board, our great work.” 

John C. Baker (president from 1945-1961)
Fourteenth president John Calhoun Baker celebrated his investiture with a simple ceremony in front of Cutler Hall on May 11, 1945, due in part to the nation’s involvement in World War II, which would end in a few short months. 

Baker’s inaugural address focused on questions surrounding the objectives of higher education – and whether the same objectives of higher learning outlined with the University’s founding in 1804 still held true nearly 150 years later. 

He focused on objectives like character, training for citizenship and knowledge when describing the institution’s mission to not just train students for careers as technicians or specialists, but to be well-rounded citizens. 

“To achieve the objectives outlined in this short talk will entail many changes to University programs,” Baker said. “These changes should lead to integration and correlation of subject matter and make possible general education for all of our students. Quality in terms of human achievement is what character is in an individual. It brings its own reward and is remembered and effective long after courses are forgotten.” 

Baker explained that he felt the objectives of a university can be defined, and that leaders of the institution should understand and remember them as OHIO’s founders intended. 

“When the history of this period is written we will not be judged by the variety of courses offered, by educational fads adopted, by the number of students enrolled, or by the attractiveness of the buildings, but by the quality and character of our graduates and their contributions to society,” he said.  

Vernon R. Alden (president from 1962-1969)
On May 11, 1962, Vernon R. Alden became the fifteenth president of Ohio University, bringing about a growth in enrollment, expansion of research activity and broadening of the University’s academic programs. In his inaugural address, Alden invoked the story of the founding of Ohio University, noting that a “precious heritage is being passed on to a new generation of teachers and administrators.” 

Alden, who came to OHIO from Harvard, outlined the challenges facing Ohio University as the 1970s were expected to bring significant change and an increase in the nation’s student population, as well as how the University, as a public institution, should address this challenge. 

“We at Ohio University will respond to the needs of the state and the nation,” Alden said. “We shall become a larger, more complex university. But growth does not necessarily mean a lessening of quality…Ohio is a mature university and rich in tradition…Already I have sensed here a willingness to experiment, to take risks, to innovate.”  

Alden outlined a plan to challenge students and encourage academic excellence. To do this, he laid out several goals for OHIO, including the creation of an honors college within the University, the construction of a new library, the development of additional doctoral programs and a program for supporting faculty research and scholarly pursuits. 

“Across the nation the great state universities will be educating the young people who will assume responsibility in thousands of communities tomorrow,” he said. “These are the men and women who will be teaching the children of the next generation, who will be managing businesses and governments, who will be carrying forward our free way of life. We must do our job well.” 

Charles J. Ping (president from 1975-1994)
During his inaugural address on March 6, 1976, OHIO’s eighteenth president Charles J. Ping spoke about the future orientation of the University and how this perspective is shaped by the past. 

Though society has changed significantly since the University’s founding, Ping said, its mission remains the same – it’s just carried out in new ways that are shaped by these changes. 

“The contemporary academy still prepares men for tasks requiring disciplined intelligence,” Ping said. “The nature of the work to be done changes with different eras. Certainly our society is different from the Greek city state of the fifth century B.C. or the Northwest Territory of the early 19th century, but the educational mission is constant.” 

Though the types of professions for which students are prepared may change, universities also challenge students to live fulfilling public and private lives in addition their careers, Ping explained. 

“The thesis that continuity, not discontinuity, marks university education reflects an acceptance of the mission given to us to prepare graduates for work, for public life, for private life,” Ping said. “What we give ourselves is the quality of our life together. It is in this dimension that the greatest challenges exist and the possibilities of change are most evident.” 

University Archivist Bill Kimok helped research information for this article using the resources of the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections.