President Michel's Inauguration Speech

President Keith Michel's Inauguration Speech  

October 24, 2013  

Please view the entire Inauguration Ceremony here

I would like to begin by extending my thanks to all of you for joining us here today, to celebrate another milestone in the history of a most special place – our college – Webb Institute.  To return to one’s alma mater as its president is a unique, extraordinary gift that few are given.  I am humbled by this privilege and extend to the trustees, faculty, students, and alumni of Webb my sincerest gratitude for allowing me to serve as your president.

The undergraduate years are a transformational time, when lessons are learned, skills are honed, minds are expanded, and a person’s curiosity and imagination are encouraged to run wild.  No student can endure the rigors of the Webb educational experience if he or she chooses to go it alone.  You quickly learn to trust and lean upon those around you, and they learn to return the favor.  Bonds are formed that last a lifetime.  With that in mind, I extend a special thanks to my classmates and my professors, those that are here today and those unable to attend.  How can it be that 40 years have passed since we walked these magical grounds together?  I can assure you that none of them could have anticipated this day when I would stand before you as Webb’s 15th president – especially my professors.  Three of my former professors are here today.  Please take a moment to acknowledge Prof. Walter Maclean, Prof. Larry Ward, and Prof. Tom Bond.  

I would also like to acknowledge my family, my wife Peggy and son Josh.  Peggy and I met at Webb during my sophomore year.  When the opportunity presented itself to return to Webb, there wasn’t a moment’s hesitation.  It was like returning home after a long journey.

Inaugurations are joyous occasions.  They represent a chance to reflect on the past, take stake of the present, and express dreams and aspirations for the future.

We can all rejoice in the extraordinary generosity and vision of Webb’s founder, William H. Webb.  In 1888, William Webb petitioned the New York State legislature to approve the incorporation of “Webb’s Academy and Home for Shipbuilders.” His intent was to provide any young man who proved “…himself competent and of good character and worthy, free and gratuitous education in the art and science of the profession of shipbuilding, both theoretical and practical…”  To this end William Webb committed the greater part of his fortune, by building the original Webb Institute in the Bronx and then bequeathing an endowment that he believed would serve the institution in perpetuity.  Webb Institute would encounter many disruptions over the ensuring years, including a Great Depression, two World Wars, and stunning advancements in ship design and shipbuilding technology.  Webb’s original endowment dwindled over time, but the legacy endured.  Perhaps the legacy was more important than the endowment itself, as it set an example for others to follow – a tradition of philanthropy, of giving back.  Webb Institute has been described as “America’s most loved school,” an acknowledgment of the steadfast support provided by its alumni and friends.  Today, our beloved college is the only engineering college in America that provides every student with a 100% tuition scholarship.  William Webb’s dream is as vibrant as ever.  We are all beneficiaries of that dream.

Upon graduation from Webb, I found employment at a small naval architecture firm in San Francisco.  The founder of the firm, Robert N. Herbert, was an exceptionally talented engineer who understood the bigger picture.  Before “cradle to grave” and “supply chain” were everyday words in the engineer’s vernacular, Bob preached about how a ship was only one part of a transportation system, and that optimization of the entire system over its lifetime was needed to insure a successful outcome.  Optimizing a system requires a level of specialization within each component.  He was fond of saying, “A ship designed to do all things does nothing well.”

The same philosophy applies to colleges and universities.  Colleges that strive to do all things for all people will be challenged to adapt to the rapidly changing world around us.  As Webb Institute approaches its 125th anniversary, it is appropriate to reflect upon the core values and competencies that have served us well over these many years.

We maintain an uncompromising commitment to excellence.  

Our faculty prides itself on the excellence of its teaching and its commitment to student mentorship.

A Webb education brings together the practical and the theoretical, with an emphasis on problem solving.

The art and science of naval architecture and marine engineering remains the focal point of a Webb education.  

All students live on campus.  They always have.  This builds a strong sense of community, providing a powerful environment for social and personal development.

Every student at Webb receives a 100% tuition scholarship.  They always have.

A strong ethical and moral basis underscores all that we do at Webb.  Webb life is built around the honor code and student self-governance.

While maintaining a focus on our core competencies, Webb continues to adapt to a highly globalized, technologically integrated, and ever changing world.   This means constant self-assessment and, when appropriate, embracing change in our culture, our curriculum, and our approach to doing business.  Let’s reflect for a moment on some of our successes – on where Webb is at today.

We are attracting outstanding students.  A comparison of test scores and class rankings puts Webb in the upper echelon of selectivity among U.S. colleges and universities.

We have a rigorous academic curriculum taught by an outstanding faculty, complemented by a strong internship program.  Industry feedback indicates our graduates are exceptionally well-prepared for the workplace.

Personal development is an integral part of the Webb experience.  Over 50% of Webb students participate in intercollegiate sports.  Later this afternoon you will hear from the WOOFS, our talented singing group.  Webb students take an active interest in community service.

Webb ranks number one among colleges in the U.S. for graduating students in four years.

All our graduates get jobs, very good jobs, and in most cases high paying jobs, unless they choose to pursue a passion with lesser compensation.

The percentage of students nationwide that default on federal student loans has risen six years in a row.  Our graduates have a zero default rate.  That’s right – to the best of our knowledge, a Webb graduate has never defaulted on a federal loan.

Approximately one-fourth of Webb’s operating costs are covered by the Annual Fund.  Over 70% of our living alumni contribute to Webb, year in and year out.  This is the highest percentage participation in the country.

Our unique approach to higher education works and works well.  Webb changes lives.  A few years ago, Peggy and I had the pleasure of visiting one of Webb’s distinguished alumni, Al Zeien.  Al had two careers:  the first designing submarines at Electric Boat and the latter at Gillette, which culminated with an eight-year stint as Gillette’s Chief Executive Officer.  Along the way, he attended Harvard Business School.  I asked Al how important the Harvard education was to his success at leading Gillette.  “It was helpful,” he explained.  But then he paused for a moment and said, “Webb transformed my life.  It was Webb that made me the person I am today.”  On November 8th, at Webb’s annual alumni banquet, Al will be the recipient of Webb’s prestigious Selkirk Owen Award, in acknowledgment of his outstanding achievement and service to his profession and to his alma mater.   I look forward to seeing many of you in Seattle, as we celebrate Al’s lifelong passion for the Institute.

In the sacred halls of higher education, such transformational learning is more important than ever.  We must never forget that personal and social development is every bit as important as intellectual growth.  This is achieved only through example.  To be successful, the professor, in the practice of teaching and mentoring, must demonstrate a commitment to continuous learning.  He or she must exhibit a willingness to explore and take risks side by side with the student.  The same applies to the administrator.  This is no time to stand still, or the world will pass us by.

I am optimistic that Webb will continue to be uniquely successful.  Some of my confidence is derived from our past, our 125-year history of thriving in uncertain times.  Much of my confidence is derived through interaction with our students and younger alumni.  They are, of course, the reason we are here.  But unbeknownst to them, they hold the future of Webb in their hands.  They are an extraordinary group of young people who will provide the energy and intellectual capital that will help mold Webb’s image in this 21st century.  What are some of the qualities I find in this new generation?

Our students have a yearning to change the world for the better.  They believe in civic participation and have a desire to engage in public service.  They recognize the fragility of our planet, and they recognize the need to change how we exploit our resources, including the world’s oceans.  They are the ones we will lean upon to provide solutions.  I am confident they will respond.

Our students have a yearning for understanding how systems work.  They are curious, but understanding the disciplines of engineering is not enough for them.  They want to comprehend the intellectual, social, and emotional integration in all that they do.

Our students have a yearning to embrace the global community in a bigger way.  The maritime industry connects the world.  They want to be part of that greater society.

Our students have a yearning to make the right moral and ethical choices.  They embrace the importance of ethics in their future profession, the importance of ethics in their daily life.  They hold themselves and each other accountable.

Our students will shape the future; they will imagine tomorrow’s problems and challenges and have the foresight and fortitude to meet those challenges.

Our challenge going forward is to build upon our storied past; to let loose the same creative juices that allowed William Webb to have the audacity to believe that he could create an Institution unlike any other.  There was no blueprint for a home for retired shipbuilders.  There was no blueprint for an academy dedicated to naval architecture.  He had a dream, and he had the passion and commitment to pursue that dream.

We are now in the quiet phase of Webb’s next capital campaign.  I can assure you that we will use the proceeds well.

We need to build additional classrooms, to provide space for breakout sessions and enable additional academic tracks.  An alumni survey indicates that roughly one-fourth of our recent graduates pursue careers in the offshore oil & gas industry.  Offshore alternative energy attracts others.  Small craft and high-tech yacht design are of increasing interest to our students.  The marine and maritime industries are technologically driven.  We must and will respond as the landscape changes around us.  In response to the ever increasing demands for our graduates, the additional academic space will enable limited growth in our student body.

We have need for new facilities to co-locate our faculty and our administrative staff.  They are currently dispersed in various buildings around campus.

A significant portion of our faculty will retire in the next five years.  We have identified a need for limited on-campus faculty housing, to assist in the recruitment of new faculty.

We intend to further develop our beachfront facilities.  We have plans to construct a boathouse and student meeting center that will transform the waterfront into a center for student life.

And, of course, we will grow the endowment.  My unwavering commitment is to work with our trustees, alumni, and friends of Webb, to increase the endowment to a level that is intergenerationally sustainable.  Ensuring the continuance of William Webb’s dream, that this Institution provide every student with a tuition free education in perpetuity, will take a collaborative effort.

No doubt these are challenging and uncertain financial times for colleges and universities.  I have every confidence that we will not only prevail but thrive.  Disruption is the engineer’s friend.  It creates opportunities; an environment where the imagination is given the freedom to search for solutions to problems still being visualized.   We have the tools to adapt to the changing world and, as a small college, we can be nimble and flexible.

I would like to conclude my remarks by reflecting on this quotation by John Adams, ourcountry’s second president.  He said:

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”  

John Adams could not have envisioned the complexity and dynamic nature of the world in this 21st century.  To be a successful naval architect a student must first be exposed to and have an understanding of all of the above; be it politics, philosophy, history, commerce, or the arts.  A background in the humanities is as important as an understanding of statics and vibrations, thermodynamics and hydrodynamics.  Today’s engineers must have the ability to imagine, to explore alternatives and to make well informed decisions.

Today is a day to reaffirm our commitment to the broad mission of higher education: preparing our students to pursue their lives with a sense of purpose, accomplishment and integrity.  We have an obligation to cultivate those skills that will allow our students to help build a better world.  We are all partners on this voyage.  Together, we will succeed.

Thank you again for sharing this special occasion with Peggy and me.