Greetings from the Higher Education Community
Read by David J. Gaines, Professor Emeritus of English
Ann M. Ryan
Professor of English, LeMoyne College
It seems entirely appropriate to me that I come to you today via the voice and talents of David Gaines. We stand here before you, the bard of Grand Prairie Texas, and an Irish banshee from the westside of Syracuse; a Dylan scholar and—I’m ashamed to say—a Disco devotee; the southwest and the northeast, present and absent, twinned, doubled, and conjoined, just as Mark Twain would have wanted it.
Critics of Mark Twain’s life and literature tend to fall into—not surprisingly—two camps: either he’s St. Mark, an icon of humanistic values; or, he’s a caricature of those same values, a white man in a white suit, unconsciously performing his privilege.
Those are the opposing camps, the lovers and the haters.
And then there’s Laura Skandera Trombley. In her life as a scholar, Laura has peeled back the layers of whitewash—most often applied by a culture desperate to turn Samuel Clemens into an American exemplar. In the process she has exposed—neither a fraud nor a hero—but the complex artist who lived behind and beyond the pseudonym he created. Laura invites her readers and her students to embrace the fragile humanity of a writer deeply aware of his own flaws, and those of the country in which he lives.
I share this insight into Laura’s scholarship because I think it reveals something about how she lives her life. Laura has never been interested in hagiography; she has no desire to build monuments to saints or, for that matter, to judge the sinner. Perfection bores her (which by the way—is why we’ve been friends for 25 years). As a biographer, she has an obligation to the truth—as messy, and heartbreaking as it can be—but Laura tells that truth as Emily Dickinson would have it: with a slant, positioned so that the full humanity of the subject appears, scarred and sacred both. Now that I think of it, maybe Bob Dylan would be a better allusion: Laura understands that “Behind every beautiful thing, there’s some kind of pain.”
What a gift it is, then, to be her colleague, her student—and as I know so well, to be her friend, to feel an empathy that abides. In any storm I have faced, no matter the struggles, no matter the hour of the day, or the distance between us, always, I have found in Laura a welcoming heart. When Twain described his wife Olivia Langdon, whose reputation Laura helped to redeem, he wrote that she had “inextinguishable fires of sympathy, energy, devotion, enthusiasm, and absolutely limitless affection.” It’s a wonderfully apt description of Laura Skandera Trombley as well.
But you did not choose Laura to be the 16th president of Southwestern University because she is a true and faithful friend; clearly, you recognized that this generosity, energy, enthusiasm, and dedication are inherent to Laura’s habit and philosophy of leadership.
I teach at a Jesuit institution, which means that—in addition to there being an ample supply of good food and wine available at faculty functions (a tradition I hope Laura will want to explore here at Southwestern) there’s also a lot of Latin on campus. In 1546 AD, St. Ignatius of Loyola described one of the hallmarks of Jesuit Pedagogy “Cura Personalis”—the care of the whole person. And so, it would seem that as early as the Renaissance, philosophers feared the world we live in now: where alienation, objectification, and fragmentation—the stepchildren of modernity—make it just a little easier for us to turn each other into scapegoats and targets.
For all her cosmopolitanism, for all her love of innovation and progress, in this regard, Laura is a Renaissance woman. Laura Skandera Trombley has dedicated her life to telling the story of “the whole person.” And more to the point, this is what she sees as the function of higher education: to celebrate and cultivate human dignity, in all its dizzying variety and complexity. For 188 years, Southwestern has been a beacon of academic excellence. Other institutions happily treat students as avatars only, and the curriculum as just a means to an end; however, with Laura Skandera Trombley as its president, Southwestern University will continue to honor the unique potential of all students and—as it has done for generations—to provide them with an education that feels like a legacy.
I am so sorry that I cannot be with you today, to celebrate my wonderful, extraordinary friend and to congratulate her in person. Laura has arrived at a place that matches her wit and wisdom, a university that values what matters in an education, a place that I know will flourish under her care and creativity.
Congratulations, Southwestern University, on choosing this remarkable woman as your president, my thanks to David Gaines for representing me so well. And to you Laura, I send you warmth and love from your friend in the blustery wilds of Syracuse New York.