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Ohio University will celebrate history, tradition with inauguration of 21st president


On Wednesday, Oct. 18, in what will only be the 21st time in the institution’s 213-year history, Ohio University will formally install M. Duane Nellis, Ph.D., as its president. 

A presidential inauguration is a rare and historic time in an institution’s history; the ceremony, formally called the investiture, is rich with tradition and symbolism – the hallmarks of officially installing a university’s new leader. From quiet ceremonies to elaborate affairs, OHIO has observed only 20 inaugurations since its founding in 1804, which in some ways serve as mile markers in its journey as the first institution of higher education in the state. 

OHIO’s first two presidents, Jacob Lindley and James Irvine, signed oaths of office with little pomp and circumstance. It is the University’s third president, Robert G. Wilson, who celebrated the first public inauguration in 1824. "Ministries of the gospel, patrons of this flourishing seminary and all friends of literature of [Ohio] and adjoining states" were invited, according to the event's official invitation. Wilson was administered the oath of office in front of Athens City Hall by then Ohio Governor Jeremiah Morrow. Many of the elements of this investiture, including the presentation of the University charter and key, continue today. 

Inauguration ceremonies of presidents following Wilson brought their own contributions to the University’s tradition with the inclusion of musical performances, inaugural addresses and delegates representing other institutions dressed in colorful academic regalia. 

Through OHIO’s history, inaugurations have reflected both the preferences of each president and the circumstances affecting the state, country and world. For example, when John Calhoun Baker was installed as OHIO’s 14th president in 1945, toward the end of World War II, the ceremony was simple yet significant; Baker was given the oath of office by Ohio Governor Frank J. Lausche and presented the charter and key by outgoing President Walter S. Gamertsfelder. Similarly, the investiture of Claude Sowle, OHIO’s 16th president, was a short, private ceremony held in the midst of the turmoil of the Vietnam War. 

Past presidents have also highlighted diverse locations on OHIO’s beautiful Athens Campus as the backdrop for their ceremonies. Herman Gerlach James, the University's 12th president, was the first inaugurated in what is now Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium. Vernon Alden was inaugurated on the auditorium's West Portico in an elaborate ceremony with much fanfare. Ceremonies for Charles J. Ping and Robert Glidden were conducted in the Convocation Center. 

Much like the week-long inauguration celebration for President Nellis, many of the University’s past presidents have observed the occasion through luncheons and dinners welcoming dignitaries and special guests, musical performances and student-focused festivities. Student forums and a Kennedy Lecture featuring Philip Handler, president of the National Academy of Sciences, took place the evening before the inauguration of 18th president Charles J. Ping. 

Most recently, Ohio University celebrated the inauguration of its 20th president, Roderick J. McDavis, in 2004. The first African American and second alumnus to serve as president, McDavis’ investiture took place in Templeton-Blackburn Alumni Memorial Auditorium, where he attended many events as a student in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Presidential inaugurations at OHIO have been both a time for reflecting on the institution’s history while looking ahead. While each investiture may change slightly to suit the personality and preferences of the incoming president, the importance and symbolism of the ceremony remain as constant and steadfast as the oak trees framing Cutler Hall on College Green – remembering the past while breathing new life into OHIO’s future. 

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