Moving Towards a Yes World

Inaugural Installation Address by Dr. Benjamin Akande, 21st President of Westminster College, Fulton, MO on October 31, 2015

Chairman of the Board of Trustees Hal Oakley, Your Excellency Governor Ajimobi, Chancellor Wrighton, members of the Board of Trustees, honored guests, faculty, representatives of America’s universities and colleges, staff, students, Mom and Dad. With great pride, a sense of humility, and a call to service, I accept the responsibility of the 21st president of Westminster College.

As I look around the room today, I appreciate that today marks a crossroad where challenge meets opportunity … where history meets the future … where people come together to accomplish great things – that no individual could have accomplished on his or her own.

“When nothing is sure, everything is possible.” With this quote, English novelist Margaret Drabble reminds us that a society in transition creates new possibilities.  This concept seems particularly relevant for Westminster College in the year 2015.

We live in a time in which our world is rapidly shifting—a dichotomy of global and national politics, economic and environmental changes and technological innovation that becomes obsolete almost as soon as it is introduced.  All these factors combine to create a quicksand of considerations, which can be overwhelming.  Yet, confronting these challenges can also unleash our best thinking and boldest action.  We respond to uncertainty by creating new ways of doing things.

We forge new partnerships because we know we cannot overcome our challenges alone.  We scale to new heights because that is where the air of possibility is freshest and where we have the farthest vision.

In the world we live today, there really is no us vs. them.  As Pogo the Possum might have said in Walt Kelly’s long-running comic strip, we are both us and them, and while the world around us seems uncertain and unpredictable—particularly if you are a college-aged adult—Westminster College is still as enduring and relevant today as it was 164 years ago.

On a spring day, March 5, 1946, just a few yards away from where we are today, Sir Winston Churchill first introduced the world to the phrase “iron curtain.” He warned of the emerging Soviet threat to democracy, and called upon the world to face this menace with our eyes wide open.

But Winston Churchill was much more than the speech he gave on this campus that March afternoon nearly 70 years ago.  In the book the Churchill Factor, Boris Johnson described Churchill as a phenomenal workhorse, a prolific writer who has written more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined—authored dozens of memoirs a day in beautiful prose, a policy wonk who entered Parliament when Queen Victoria was on the throne and left 64 years later having founded the welfare state, created the royal air force and served twice as prime minister of Britain.

It was Churchill who led Great Britain through World War II with his indomitable spirit and his steadfast leadership. Churchill described his own achievement as his “walk with destiny” — a destiny he believed he had spent all his life preparing for.

And now, we are here today to celebrate this storied institution as we embark on a new chapter in our own walk with destiny.

My friends, it is now our time to lead – our time to invent our intentional future and ensure that our beloved Westminster does not have an expiration date.

Westminster must be Churchillian in our clear-eyed examination and participation as flag bearers of excellence.  Higher education as we know it is in a state of flux. Declining enrollment and increased competition for students and donors threaten many colleges. This is particularly so at small liberal arts colleges like ours.

Westminster College is a respected institution with a venerable heritage. Yet, we must recognize that our legendary past does not guarantee our future success – or even a future.

So how can we ensure our success in an uncertain future?

We must be our own best teachers and our own best students.

We must study our past and prepare to meet the future head on.

We must set the highest standards and be our own toughest critics.

In an increasingly harsh and competitive world, we must become an oasis where every opinion is heard, every person is valued and every idea is nurtured.

And we must do all this with the highest degree of respect, integrity, and humility.

And by doing it, we will ensure our continued relevance. But we must not stop there. Together, we must strive to move from success to significance; learning from the great teacher called history, to becoming a part of history, the mantra of liberal arts education. My friends, it is not enough to only prepare for the future. We must create it.

Westminster College will achieve significance by empowering learning communities, creating landmark academic programs and embracing corporate and global opportunities and thereby truly demonstrating the courage of our convictions. We will achieve significance by ensuring that every single student now and into the future is equipped and empowered with the knowledge and skills to lead in an ambiguous world.

So how do we remain relevant in a world that appears to be continually embracing irrelevance? Where ideas are expressed in 140 characters and the news cycle makes even 15 minutes of fame feel like an eternity?

We will do so by being bold enough to challenge the status quo. This is no easy task because status quo has a large constituency. Leading change is a lonely journey because change has very few followers. Yet we cannot allow the lure of status quo to prevent us from creating a more promising future.

And so, if we are open to learning from the great teacher of history, by embracing a broad spectrum of possibilities, we will create a truly exceptional place.

This exceptional place for which I speak I call “yes.” “Yes” is that place that doesn’t forsake the past but builds on it. It is a place that’s bold and forward looking. It’s an affirmation that is not satisfied with things as they are, but strives towards creating things as they could be.  “Yes” is a world that is empowering and liberating. It is a wonderful place where our distinguished and diverse pasts converge with the present and our future.

I submit to you that we must seek to live in a place that releases us from the binding and chafing routines that crowd our comfort zone of skepticism and tradition, and become comfortable living in a state of openness and open mindedness—developing the capacity to look around corners.  Because this is where the future lives and where prosperity can be found.

This “yes” is a state of convergence, the heart of transformation—this is what Westminster aspires.  It is here we harness unbending tradition with the power of cutting edge innovation, where we actively promote different and new thinking—all the while, tempering it with respect, balance, and the audacity to embrace change.

For Westminster College to remain relevant in an increasingly competitive higher education space, we must embrace “yes” as if it is our only option. Because it is. “Yes” will make us stand out in a world that is increasingly saying no.

Moving into this realm of “yes” means doing more of what Westminster College has excelled at for decades: challenging conventional wisdom, creating next practice—allowing ideas to lead us to a better place. Real leadership is not following and affirming what others have done but recognizing what else need to be done.

I believe that “yes” is having a sense of constructive impatience.

“Yes” embraces the ideal of shared governance and shared responsibility.

“Yes” is the mindset of not waiting for opportunity to knock at our door but instead building a door so large that opportunity has no trouble finding us.

“Yes” is collaborative and team-oriented fostering an approach that is essential to success in the world of the present and into the future. To quote an old African proverb: if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, then we must go together.

I say “yes” is perception of opportunities before they become visible.

I am speaking about being visionary, demonstrating the value of anticipation, and the courage to change before we have to.

“Yes” welcomes diversity with open arms and open hearts – and invites others to the table of learning and sharing and creating knowledge.

Shawn Manning, a member of Westminster College Class of 2007, an assistant vice president at Fifth Third Bank, said it best: “The world is changing and we must make sure that Westminster is acting in anticipation of that change, not in reaction to it.”

Let me be clear: I will be the first to admit that change is difficult, and that doing things differently takes sacrifice because if it was easy, everybody would do it.  That is why I am convinced that the only person that likes change is a wet baby.

If we are indeed committed to bring solutions to poverty, geopolitical turmoil, social dysfunction, infectious diseases and the litany of issues that afflict our world today, then we must embrace and demonstrate the courage to cultivate change. Not because it is new and different but because it will sustain our existence and ensure that Westminster never becomes irrelevant.

Let me assure you that this new world of yes will not be a utopia. To be sure, it will bring greater challenges and uncertainty—shifting sands beneath our feet. Yet together we shall confront it with confidence and a sense of responsibility and sure-footedness.

This special place called “yes” will foster significance, where thought leads to action and action to impact, whether on our campus, in our community or across the globe.  “Yes” is bringing people together to consider the challenges we face and to seek creative and new answers to the overwhelming problems that our world must confront.

In this new world of “Yes”, the entire Westminster constituency will not complicate the simple, nor impede the swift, neither will they harshly judge the well-intentioned.  In this new era, we will drink not from cups that are half-full or cups that are half-empty, but cups that runneth over.

Our world of yes will be enabled through institutional integrity, creative collaboration, productive partnerships, and inventive entrepreneurship. Our vision will be clear.  Our mission will be understood—Westminster’s future will not be a place that is waiting for us but a place that we shall create.

To make this world of “yes” a reality, I need your help, support, and feedback from the vital members of a vibrant Westminster community.  I cannot act alone as your president; I will depend on the active engagement of all of you in our quest to take ownership of our future.

Please join me as we begin this journey of transformation to remake Westminster into “Yes”minster. I am humbled by the challenge that lies ahead and inspired by the opportunity to overcome all obstacles, to live and thrive in a world of “yes.”

Thank you.  God bless Westminster, and God bless each and every one of you.

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