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Inaugural address of President Daniel A. DiBiasio

ONU Trustee Chair Bob Smith and devoted members of the Board of Trustees, thank you for giving me this wonderful opportunity to serve Ohio Northern University. I accept this medallion with humility and honor and embrace the responsibilities it symbolizes with purpose and joy.

Valued members of the ONU family – vice presidents, deans, faculty, staff, students, alumni, friends, civic and business leaders – I am sincerely grateful not only for your warm welcome to this campus and this Village, but also most especially for your willingness to roll up your sleeves and go to work in behalf of this University, this community, and society at large. Thank you.

Years ago, when one of my friends and mentors was inaugurated as president of another great University, he noted just how humbling it was and how difficult it was to describe his feelings. On that occasion at the University of New Hampshire in 1984, Gordon Haaland compared his feelings to a walk in the New Hampshire woods on a crisp fall day and to the power and majesty of  the opening phrases of a Bach organ cantata – although the experience is exhilarating, one feels very humble indeed.

For me, today, that sentiment is similar, except I would say a walk in the Vermont woods, a Mozart clarinet concerto, and the power and majesty of Cleveland Indians slugger Jim Thome hitting a home run. That last one is for you brother Bob!  But the point is the same, one does feel humbled.

Today, more than any other day of my life, a verse from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses resonates, for “I am a part of all that I have met.”

I am a part of my family, one that valued and encouraged education. My parents, Julie and Tony DiBiasio, who are with us in spirit, saw opportunities for their children that they did not have and selflessly encouraged us to reach them. The same is true of my parents by marriage, the late Marcy Burns and Dr. Stan Burns. I regret that Stan could not travel to be with us.  He would feel a true kinship among our faculty based on his distinguished career as a teacher – scholar in the College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. I would be remiss not to acknowledge two special friends who are so important to Chris and me that they are like family to us – Bruce and Christie Alton - I can’t thank you enough.

To my wife and academic life partner, Chris, I am deeply grateful for the many roles and many ways she enriches my life and the colleges and universities where we have worked together.   Those of you who have gotten to know Chris and her deep commitment to community engagement can appreciate why, when it was announced that we were leaving Wilmington for ONU, someone quickly opined to me, “You can go; but we want Chris to stay!” 

I give appreciation to our two sons, Matthew and Michael, for giving me some really good preparation for the presidency.  Of course, I am referring to parenthood. Unfortunately, my actor son Matthew could not be here today because, fortunately, he is acting and has a role in Shakespeare’s King John in Portland, Oregon! And to my brothers, Tony and Bob, and our extended family, thank you for being here because your presence epitomizes what our parents and especially my Italian immigrant grandparents had in mind for family and the pursuit of the American Dream. 

I am also a part of so many friends and mentors who are here today, and want to thank all of you who have come from other places and other times of my life. Your presence means the world to me.

All of this being said, to all of you present - including guests, friends of the University and delegates - we are so pleased that you have joined this celebration. You have come from far and wide and from just across Tundra. Some of you have done this before; for others it’s a first.

I am especially pleased to be in the presence of presidents emeriti Ken Baker and DeBow Freed. Would you both please stand to be recognized. I want you to know that I stand on your broad shoulders of accomplishments. What an incredible legacy I have inherited thanks to both of you.

I also want to acknowledge presidential spouses Toby Baker and Kitty Freed for the unselfish and inexhaustible service they have rendered over the years to enhance the life of our University.

Presidents Baker and Freed, along with the other eight presidents whose images are displayed in the portraits behind the platform, represent a legacy of leadership at Ohio Northern.   Each one advanced ONU’s vision and commitment, and the faculty, staff, students and board members with whom they served turned those visions and commitments into academic and co-curricular excellence.

Celebrating that legacy of excellence is truly the highest purpose of today’s ceremony because it speaks to things more fundamental, more consequential, and more significant.    
This University started with a single person and a single idea. The wheels of a dream brought twenty-eight year old, Henry Solomon Lehr, to Ada, Ohio by train in March of 1866. He was a recently discharged Union veteran, and came here in search of a site for his projected university. In 1871, Lehr founded the Northwestern Ohio Normal University, which later morphed into the Ohio Normal University, and in 1885, became Ohio Northern University.  

By that time, the DNA of the newly named University revealed a penchant for innovation, experimentation, and a willingness to adapt its curriculum to contemporary needs. In only its second decade of operation, ONU had combined traditional arts and sciences departments and education with several other professional fields. Programs in engineering, pharmacy, law and business emerged in the 1880s. In the last year of that decade, ONU sold its assets to the Central Conference of the United Methodist Church, and thus became a church-related institution.

Yet, not all innovations and experiments succeeded. Efforts to start a medical college never got off the ground, and a College of Agriculture failed to take root, closing 12 years after it had started. By 1900, ONU had a remarkable set of professional programs that were grounded in the liberal arts. This distinctive program mix set ONU apart from other private, church related colleges and universities in Ohio of that time and continues to define our distinctiveness today.

Surviving in the 20th century proved to be difficult for many colleges and universities, including ONU. The title of the University’s centennial year history – Tempered by Crises - suggests the struggles and challenges of two world wars, a Great Depression, and other vexing economic and cultural conditions.  In his introduction to that history, author and ONU English professor George Belch, casts a precarious image of survival during the first 100 years when he writes:

“For much of its history, the course of Ohio Northern University might be compared to the journey of a high wire walker across a wind-swept canyon on a frail wire – blindfolded.
We know the rest of the story, and how that genetic inheritance of experimentation and innovation, coupled with a deep love and an abiding faith in God, the fierce loyalty and dedication of stakeholders, and a commitment to excellence propelled the University to make extraordinary strides since 1971. By putting students at the center and at the core of what the University does, by achieving academic prominence in so many programs, and by sustaining excellence in co-curricular areas as well, ONU has successfully journeyed across the canyon and beyond.     

And now we are in a new century and face a new time. Like the last century, this one already knows war and economic dislocation. There is an increasing and uneasy sense that these times are different and that governing, leading, surviving and thriving will require a vision and strategies attuned to present circumstances. Clearly, these are not the best of times, but this is our time and this is our place. If we are to grow and advance, we cannot do it contingent on optimal conditions.  We have to move now; we cannot wait for a more prosperous era or a more hospitable climate for higher education. As John F. Kennedy once said, "Actions deferred are all too often opportunities lost."  We need to take charge of the changes that surround us, and the place to start is with a vision, because vision trumps everything.

In a University environment, however, it is important to create a shared vision and to develop a plan to implement it. Inventor and Ohio native Thomas Edison knew this when he said “vision without implementation is hallucination!” Thus, a presidential vision must be organic.  Its elements should emerge from the fabric of the academic community, from our particular heritage and historical context. 

In the time before my formal arrival here, I tried to learn as much as I could about ONU, about its treasures of people and place.  Since my arrival a little more than sixty days ago, that education has continued and those treasures of people and places have become more real and personal. There are challenges here, to be sure, but there are also opportunities.  I am grateful to have observed a restless desire to improve, to raise our sights, and reach the greater heights that we can reach together. Given what has been accomplished and what can be achieved, I believe we should aspire to be the best small private University of our kind. First and foremost, that vision for ONU means that we should build on our unique strengths.
We have a strong and solid foundation in the arts and sciences, one that combines with a distinctive set of exceptional programs in business, engineering, law and pharmacy. We have faculty who are teachers, scholars, advisors, and mentors and staff who are professional and caring; together the members of this community greatly influence student success. And we have an unrivaled combination of big University-like academic choices with a small college-like atmosphere for student involvement, a combination that makes us a just right kind of place.

So drifting into the future is not an option under this watch. Now more than ever, we need to identify the purposeful actions and sure steps that will help us become the best of our kind and carry us forward successfully to our sesquicentennial in 2021. We can fulfill such a vision in five specific ways:

  1. By engaging students
  2. By engaging faculty
  3. By engaging the administration and support staff
  4. By engaging the Board of Trustees, alumni, and friends
  5. By engaging the University with its many communities

First is by Engaging Students in excellent academic programs as active learners who are well prepared for advanced study and the professional workforce.  We will strengthen and sustain our efforts to support what are known as the Praxis pedagogies – those ways of learning that connect theory to practice through opportunities such as student-faculty research collaborations, internships, service learning, and other high impact activities. ONU’s recent positive results from the National Survey of Student Engagement and the examples cited at yesterday’s symposium with George Kuh give us an impressive base upon which to build.

Propelled by our recent success in admissions, we will seek to manage our enrollment and attract more students who value not only the rigor and relevance of our academic programs, but also the quality of our co-curricular experiences. A hallmark of ONU is that we attract academically strong students who also pursue their talents and passions as student-leaders, student-performers, student-volunteers, and student-athletes. This semester, for example, pharmacy students comprise the vast majority of the string section of the symphony orchestra, and students from all four undergraduate Colleges are among the 139 members of our highly regarded marching band.   

We will also consider two other student engagement strategies. One is intended to optimize volunteerism activities and foster more opportunities for service and civic engagement. The second is to increase the number of students who study abroad and the number of international students who enroll here. In so doing, we will continue the trend at ONU to become a more internationally-focused University.   

Second is by Engaging Faculty as teachers and scholars within their fields of study and as collaborators across disciplines and colleges. We must support and encourage collaborations like the one between the Colleges of Engineering and Business to find ways to help faculty across the campus embed the entrepreneurial mindset in our students. And we must leverage the distinctive set of programs we have in our five colleges in order to discover connections and synergies that no other small, private university could replicate. Our innovative interdisciplinary programs such as those established in Engineering Education and Pharmaceutical Business are models to emulate.

Third, by Engaging the Administration and Support Staff to lead, manage and serve the University’s mission effectively and efficiently. Our administrative and support departments help the University to produce effective educational operations and educational outcomes, and they do that extremely well. We will continue to engage these loyal and dedicated staff to provide mission-critical support and to develop cost-saving and cost-sharing ideas for the future.

We will enhance our physical plant, prioritizing proposals for new and renovated facilities and extend our commitment to sustainability beyond wind and geothermal energy sources. And we will invest in our Information Technology resources in order to improve academic and administrative management through data-driven decision-making.

Fourth is by Engaging our Board of Trustees, our Alumni, and our Friends to help recruit prospective students, mentor current students, financially support present and future campus needs, and promote the success of the University. The Board has provided exceptional leadership throughout the current $100 Million dollar comprehensive campaign which will conclude this year and is currently at 95% of its goal - a remarkable and record setting effort in very difficult economic times. We expect the campaign’s success to positively influence future fundraising efforts.  

We will continue to let our prospective students and their families, our stakeholders, and the public know that ONU has the evidence to demonstrate its excellence. When people talk about excellence and innovation, they should talk about ONU.

And Fifth is by Engaging the University in partnerships to benefit local, regional, and global communities. We will become more involved in the wider community and seek to make the resources of the University more available to the Village of Ada, to Hardin County, to west central Ohio, to the nation, and to the world.  

Our involvement with economic development through The Ohio Energy and Advanced Manufacturing Center, headquartered in Lima, is an excellent example of an effective strategic partnership. OEAMC seeks to drive economic development in the region through applied research and development in the areas of energy and advanced manufacturing. Our College of Engineering, working with the OEAMC, received three separate grants from the State’s Third Frontier Program in partnership with American Trim in Lima and Crown Equipment in New Bremen.  On a more global scale, the prison management program the University has in partnership with Saudi Arabia is another example of how we can engage the world.

This vision, to be the best small private university of our kind, can motivate us to look inward as we examine our programs and finances and to reach outward as we engage communities, to address our challenges and make the most of our opportunities, and to enhance the University’s prominence regionally and nationally.  It is a vision that can boldly propel us forward to 2021 and that will help us to reach the potential we are poised to realize.

And so today is about celebrating this great University and its legacy of excellence, a legacy guided by 10 leaders, each one of whom has turned the wheels of H. S. Lehr’s dream ever forward. Today is a time to be grateful for the past, even as we open ourselves to a future that may seem uncertain and unpredictable, but that can surely be ours. And today is a time to remember and to celebrate that Ohio Northern remains a United Methodist-related University that is student-centered, service-oriented, values-based, and a place to discover your true north.

To paraphrase the laconic Vermonter Calvin Coolidge, “It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the university, to know that he is not a great person.”  I serve ONU with both a deep sense of humility and the knowledge that I can only succeed with the continued help and guidance of this board, faculty, administration, staff, students, Northern’s many alumni and friends, and my best friend and life partner Chris. New friends and colleagues, we can only accomplish together what we are willing to dream together.

This journey we now begin together will not be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.  It will require faith; it will require action. It will involve engaging the University and engaging communities. Turning again to the poetic inspiration of Tennyson’s Ulysses, we all must be

“ . . .strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, but not to yield.”

I am ready to join with you, as we turn the wheels of our dreams for Ohio Northern University into reality.  With hard work and God’s help, we will continue President Lehr’s commitment to experimentation and innovation and to providing our students with a transforming education.  

Let us continue and let us begin.