With all the pomp and circumstance befitting a 154-year-old institution, Simpson College inaugurated Jay Simmons on March 20 as the College’s 23rd president.
Sunny skies on the first day of spring added to the sense of renewal as the Simpson community celebrated its past, present and future during the ceremony, held at the First United Methodist Church in Indianola.
Simmons took office in June 2013, but tradition calls for holding a formal inauguration a few months later, to give the new president time to get settled and establish his vision for the College.
Representing the Simpson faculty, John Epperson, a professor of political science, reminded Simmons that all new leaders are accorded a honeymoon period.
“Enjoy it while you can,” Epperson said, as the audience laughed, “because now the real work begins.”
Simmons granted as much in his speech, saying Simpson, like all liberal arts colleges, faces challenges on a number of fronts.
But “over the long term, I could not be more optimistic about our prospects,” he said. “The value of what we do has never been greater or more important than it is today.”
The ceremony attracted all segments of the Simpson community, including Board of Trustee members, three past presidents – Steve Jennings, Bruce Haddox and John Byrd – and faculty members dressed in formal regalia. In addition, several college presidents and many representatives of other colleges attended.
Sunnie Richer, chair of the Board of Trustees, said during the presidential process the board determined “that you were the best choice to lead Simpson, and we have not been disappointed. We have come to know you as knowledgeable and results-driven, but with a deep respect for the mission of a comprehensive liberal arts college.”
The Rev. Julius C. Trimble, resident bishop of the Iowa area of the United Methodist Church, said the setting was appropriate, given the historic ties between Simpson and the Methodist church.
Trimble advised Simmons to remember the words of John Wesley – “Do all the goodness that you can, by all the means that you can, in all the ways that you can, in all the places that you can, for all the people that you can, as long as ever you can.”
Alex Severn, student body president, said students have been impressed by Simmons in their dealings with him.
“President Simmons makes it a point to include student leaders in discussions regarding our institution’s growth and future, and makes a concerted effort to keep the best interests of students in mind when making strategic decisions. This assures each student that they have a voice that is not only heard, but also appreciated.”
The ceremony included an anthem composed by Michael Patterson, professor of music, using the lyrics of an Alfred Lord Tennyson poem. Simpson College Choir and Chamber Singers performed the anthem.
After Simmons was invested with the College’s hood and medallion, he gave what amounted to a State of the College speech.
He said a strategic plan, the result of work by several task forces and a committee, would soon be unveiled to guide Simpson’s future.
The challenges, he said, include a pool of Iowa high school graduates that has shrunk by 20 to 25 percent in the past decade, as well as questions that are being raised about the cost and value of a college education.
“Political leaders openly question whether we should even be doing what we do anymore,” he said, adding that a faculty member recently asked him if a comprehensive liberal arts institution remains relevant in today’s world.
“In my mind, the answer to that question is most emphatically, ‘Yes!’” Simmons said.
Today’s college students are more career-minded than ever, he said, at the same time that employers are looking for those skills – ability to write, to solve problems and think conceptually – that Simpson always has taught.
“Who else is better situated to pursue that work than us, and to provide those individuals who are so needed by society and our communities today?” he asked.
At the same time, recent studies have shown that while the starting salaries of graduates from liberal arts colleges may not be as lucrative, their career earnings are greater over the course of their careers because they possess the skills that eventually put them in leadership positions.
But Simmons said the primary reason he remains optimistic was driven home during a recent dinner with Simpson students, who described how the College had changed their lives.
Those students, he said, “demonstrated extraordinary capacity for self-reflection, an ability to think of the welfare of their community, an understanding that the worth of a society is measured by how well that society cares for those in need, and that every person, regardless of any demographic or socioeconomic factor, irrespective of any disability or endowment, has worth and a voice. That’s what our College does for our students.”
He asked again: Is Simpson still relevant?
“Not only relevant, but vital.”
“The challenge for us is to translate the quality and character of what we do into a statement that can be communicated to those who are looking for those kinds of answers, yet at the same time captures the essence of the work and education we provide for our students,” he said.
“Failure to do so denies our students – and, frankly, our Republic – the benefit they rightly expect and demand from us.”