Laura Skandera Trombley
I would like to express my appreciation to the Faculty and Staff, Trustees, parents, alumni, guests, family members, and especially our students. In particular, I am sending a great note of gratitude to Patricia Witt and the staff of the President’s office, to our facilities and IT staff, custodians, grounds crew, university relations staff, and food service workers. We gather here today as a community of scholars and learners committed to the ideals of truth and inquiry, diversity, belonging, inclusion, and equity.
It is particularly fitting that we begin with an acknowledgment not only of whom we are, but where we stand. Southwestern University is located on the traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous peoples. This land, first populated over 15,000 years ago, holds great historical and spiritual significance. We pledge to respect and teach about the traditions and culture of the original inhabitants as well as to be caring environmental stewards. We are all, to paraphrase Heraclitus, a newcomer on the scene compared to native peoples, just moments in a river of time where there are no second chances, yet together we can change the current.
I arrived on campus on June 16th, 2020, after an 1800-mile road trip, something of a Connecticut Yankee—by way of the beaches of Southern California. It’s fitting that today isn’t just inauguration day—a moment when we mark a new chapter in our history—it’s also a time to celebrate family, tradition, loyalty, and the ties that bind—Homecoming weekend. And that’s what today feels like to me, like coming home. Still, an inauguration is a time for introductions, so let me tell a bit of my story, which is now woven into the greater legacy of Southwestern.
After graduating from Pepperdine University with my BA and MA, while in the Ph.D. program at the University of Southern California, I was fortunate to travel abroad and lived for nearly three years in Bavaria, Germany, teaching in the American Studies department at the University of Eichstätt. While there, in addition to learning how to speak Bavarian, I joined the Town of Eichstätt’s women’s basketball team, as well as the local volleyball team. Despite my best efforts, I quickly realized that my international athletic career, like many of my jump shots, fell pitifully short. After spending thirteen years as a college student, I became the first in my family to earn a Ph.D.
I am by training a literary critic, by disposition, a biographer. Beyond the complexities and beauties of the literary work, I have always been fascinated by the figure of the writer, and the equally fluid and elusive text that is a life story—and we all have stories to tell. In my scholarly work, I have explored the worlds of Maxine Hong Kingston, Margaret Fuller, Grace King, Isabel Lyon, and Mark Twain—as well as the lives of the many women who made his fiction and celebrity possible. While we may assume that identity is fixed by tangible markers, like a name, a birthdate, or even by the legacies of blood and culture, I have found that these are as ephemeral and shifting as any metaphor. It’s a particularly intimate lesson for me.
I am an adopted child, and my birth name is Sharmen Wheeler Gallegos; I was born to a 19-year old woman, who had been sent by her family to a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers; I learned that my Hispanic birth father was 26 years old when I was born. My birthname was immediately redacted, as was the law at the time, and replaced with a number; I became Baby Girl c-3121. At three months, I was adopted by John and Mary Skandera. My adoptive father, his brother and sisters, abandoned as children, grew up in an orphanage during the Great Depression—my dad, a first-generation college graduate became an elementary school teacher and taught for 42 years. My adoptive mother, also the first in her family to graduate from college, was one of the first women in Los Angeles to become an elementary school principal and showed me by example that women can be leaders. Both of my parents taught me what Joan Didion wrote in Blue Nights: “Do not whine… Do not complain. Work harder.” I went on to marry, to add my partner’s name to my own. And after that story ended, I kept that last name, a connection to my son. Somewhere out of this chorus of names and dates and ethnicities, I emerged, Laura Skandera Trombley.
My history taught me to read a name as one-part fate and two-parts fiction. It’s an insight I discuss in the first-year seminar I’m currently teaching, “Autobiography in the Age of the Selfie.” I encourage my students to remember that every life is a text worth reading and their lives are absolutely special. As we have read our way through the memoirs of celebrated authors, from Frederick Douglass to Mark Twain to Maya Angelou to Joan Didion, I remind my students that a life is a work of art—or at least—it should be. Frederick Douglass wrote about the trauma of anonymity, the violent erasure inflicted upon him by the American slave state. As a child he was haunted by questions about his existence: how old am I? Who is my father? What is my name? Where was I born? Robbed of these most intimate facts, in his adulthood Douglass created a name out of this void; more than that; he formed an identity as original and creative as any poem. Unlike Frederick Douglass, whom he knew and admired, Samuel Langhorne Clemens knew exactly who his parents were, where he was born, and what world he came from; his self-invention reflects the burden of that history and the guilt that often framed it. Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the fact that the name “Mark Twain” was in all likelihood a tavern joke, a record of how many drinks—two for those of you counting—Twain would perpetually leave on his tab. He was too sensitive to the evocative power of language, however, not to realize that his pseudonym would echo in the divided America in which he lived. His name also marked the battle lines and boundaries between East and West, North and South; his name was a geographical invitation either to heal or to divide.
And that brings me to our name, Southwestern University. We are the oldest university in Texas and the entire Southwest. We are the first institution to have a Homecoming celebration. As we trace the history of our name, we can see a Texas-style iteration of E Pluribus Unum. Prior to 1873, we were Rutersville College, Wesleyan College of San Augustine, McKenzie College of Clarksville, and Soule University of Chappell Hill Texas. In 1873 we opened in Georgetown as Texas University, but in 1875, the Texas state legislature renamed us Southwestern University. Thus, we were named: not after an individual, not after a sect, not after a company, not after a town, but after a point on a compass that is America.
We’ve travelled a long path since our founding. We were once a white male institution, then white women were admitted as students. In 1969 the first African American student graduated, Ernest Clark—one more point on the map, another measure of growth and reckoning. Today, we are among the most diverse private liberal arts institutions in the country, with 40% of our student population identifying as students of color. Rebecca Solnit comments in her essay “How Change Happens,” about the consequences of transformations: “The unknown becomes known, the outcasts come inside, the strange becomes ordinary.”
As I have often discussed with my students, one measure of a life well lived is how well we read our history. What use do we make of the gifts we inherit or the traumas that mark us? As we research our institutional history that increased knowledge will require a reframing of past narratives. While he was the first black man to receive a vote for President of the United States, Frederick Douglass could never forget the scars on his back; Mark Twain exorcized the ghosts of his youth and the tragedies of America through the satire he created; Maya Angelou turned the suffering of her childhood into the song that a caged bird sings; and Joan Didion speaks of unspeakable loss with wry wit and clarity. All these writers translate their past into truth, into wisdom, into action, into art—and they transform all of us along the way. This same process is the hallmark of great institutions. At Southwestern, we do not fear or ignore the facts of our history; we use this to map a course for our future. The historical accident that gave us our name is also a powerful symbol of whom we are and what we do from here.
We are a point of convergence; we are a place of coming together. We attract multiple, sometimes opposing, perspectives, orientations, experiences, and ideas. And yet, as the points on the compass suggest, Southwestern represents a crossroads of intellectual transition. After four years on this beautiful campus, our students use their talents and imagination to chart a path forward, beyond Southwestern. We invite them to choose a direction that honors not just their ambition, but the lessons they’ve learned: to comprehend the past, not to enshrine it; to remember that people are not avatars or numbers; to measure their wealth not materially but spiritually, and to create opportunities for the next generation.
Meeting our students here has been, without doubt, the greatest joy and privilege this first year and a half of my presidency. While I met with many groups last year, somehow RingCentral chats ring a bit stiff as we all try to remember to turn our mute button on or off. This year, I am hosting student dinners at my home on campus, cheering our student-athletes at games—along with parents and friends—and loving being in the classroom again. I’ve treasured watching our students evolve from first-year students to scholars, from interns to professionals, from applicants to graduates to alumni, full circle. This is the Southwestern story. Even when our students graduate, we are never far from their thoughts; for well over a century, Southwestern alumni have given back to this institution. They’ve given their wisdom, their loyalty, and also, one gift more.
Just as a parent wills a family home to a child, or hands down a precious heirloom, a quilt for example, our alumni have left us the gift of land. For nearly a century, we’ve been the recipient of hundreds of acres of land, in fact, now, well over a thousand—our own version of the promised land. For the land, contiguous to our campus, we will steward, as mindful of its history as we are of its potential. As we think about our students’ virtuous circle we will develop opportunities for entrepreneurship, cultivate space for creativity and community, provide more high impact experiences and paid internships, grow our relationships with the city of Georgetown, and the world far beyond—widening the scope of Southwestern to reach every point on the compass.
Over the coming decades our student, faculty, and staff population will increase. The campus will expand, and Southwestern University will grow and thrive, in concert with the community of Georgetown. Yet, no matter the opportunities that present themselves, our mission, our core investment in the liberal arts will never waiver. We know, through the stories our students and faculty and alumni tell, that what we do matters. Not just for the individual who is transformed, but for their families and communities. We do the good work. The important work. As difficult as this past year has been, it allowed me to see how much this community cares. Across the national map of higher education, last year we saw students become usernames and bodiless faces on a computer screen, too many steps removed from the place designed just for them. Despite the tragedy and fear of last year, what shone through here was the importance of the human experience and the ability to make a seemingly impossible situation possible. As we watch the increasing commodification of learning or the ways in which slick wordplay is mistaken for wisdom, or even the ways in which the liberal arts have been cast as a luxury or worse, as a waste, it’s reassuring that when we think about Southwestern’s future we all appreciate and believe in our essentiality.
In difficult times, the image of the academy as an Ivory Tower may be comforting; it may suggest that one function of higher education is to remain static, wedded to certain immutable truths. But that image has never appealed to me. When I think of what a liberal arts education can do, and what we do here at Southwestern, I think of a rainbow-colored prism, refracting light into a thousand variations and possibilities, constantly expanding from the center outward, into the future.
I would like to close with a few personal reflections: I know very well that I wouldn’t be here, there wouldn’t be any graduate degrees or books or academic positions, if it hadn’t been for my faculty mentors, my students, my faculty colleagues, the philanthropists who funded my scholarships and fellowships, dear friends who have stood by me through the good and the hard, my mom and dad, and my son, who has always been my morning star. My life has never been separate from education and academia, and the people in it have been dedicated to helping me achieve what is most important to me, just as I dedicate myself to the students of Southwestern.
A great deal of my scholarship has been devoted to the life of Mark Twain, to exploring the shadings of his moral universe; but lately I’ve been feeling more of a kinship with Henry David Thoreau. In August I completed what has been a long-time goal: to hike the entire 217 miles of the John Muir Trail. It took me 7 years; at the end of each segment, I return to my family and friends—bruised, burnt, exhausted—and they cluck with concern. A few folks understand why I do this without explanation. In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau asks us, “to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness.” Certainly, that’s part of the appeal. As you climb the Sierra Nevada passes, higher and higher—close to the precipice, the sun enveloping you, peering, terrified over the edge—you feel both the fragility of life and the exhilaration of being fully immersed within it.
But there’s something more to it than that: I’m not a great backpacker. I blister, my legs ache. I scare easily and I hike slowly. I lose my way and have to retrace my footsteps. Yet, I persevere on those trails. I know that success means measuring your way step by step. I become the most determined when I feel the most hopeless; I hike with my house strapped to my back, and I also keep my friends by my side. In August, I reached the highest point of our climb—Glen Pass just under 12,000 feet. The Pacific Ocean was to the west, and below a seemingly endless, rocky descent. Thoreau wrote, that as “strange and whimsical as it may seem” whenever he left his house for a walk, he “finally and inevitably…set his needle…always point[ing] due southwest.” As I stood there on the mountain top, I set my needle as well. I turned and looked toward this magnificent University, your home, and now mine, Southwestern.