Inauguration of Dr. Gregory J. Vincent '83

President Gregory J. Vincent

President Gregory J. Vincent '83
Inaugural Address
October 27, 2017

Good afternoon. Thank you all for being here to celebrate this milestone moment in the history of the Colleges. And thank you, Dean Butler, for that wonderful introduction.

I am honored to have the Board of Trustees with us today including the Chair of the Board Thomas Bozzuto and the Vice Chair Cynthia Gelsthorpe Fish. The Board of Trustees is tasked with providing oversight of the Colleges, and for nearly 200 years they have done so faithfully and with the strong belief in the power of a Hobart and William Smith education.

A special thank you to Trustees Tom Poole and Katherine Elliott who chaired the Presidential Search Committee that led to today’s ceremony and to whom I am deeply indebted. Thank you for your trust.

We are joined by President Emeritus Mark D. Gearan who, for 18 years, led Hobart and William Smith through a period of unprecedented growth, and whose vision has positively shaped today’s Hobart and William Smith.

Behind me are the faculty; these are individuals who dedicate their professional careers and personal lives to their students. They are artists, scientists, educators, poets and researchers. Through innovation in the curriculum and classroom, and through their mentorship of students, the faculty guide the heart and soul of the Colleges.

With us are staff, administrators and coaches whose love for Hobart and William Smith is matched only by their work ethic.

We are joined by the alumni and alumnae of the Colleges, represented by Jane Erickson and Frank Aloise. The Colleges boast an incredible group of graduates who are leaders in every imaginable field, some of whom are with us today.

I am grateful to the parents in the audience who send their children to be educated on the shores of Seneca Lake are who are among the Colleges’ most ardent supporters.

Every student group on campus from the Debate Team to Sankofa has sent a representative to today’s inauguration. In my first months at the Colleges, I have found our students to be creative, ambitious and engaged. I am honored to serve as president of young men and women so committed to community and so passionate for the future.

We have with us delegates from other colleges and universities that, like Hobart and William Smith, understand the power of higher education to make a difference in the lives of individuals and the world. 

To the members of the Geneva and regional community, I thank you most sincerely for the warm and gracious welcome you have shown to my family and for creating such a wonderful place to call home.

Finally, thank you to my wife Kim Wilson Vincent and our children who are all here with us today my sister Leslie and my Cousin Virginia. Also here are my parents Cyril & Gloria-who gave me three priceless gifts: unconditional love, a love of reading, and a church home.

Inaugurations are about looking to the future but they are also important moments to look to the past.

For that reason, I am honored to be in Trinity Church today.

When the Right Reverend John Henry Hobart, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, visited Geneva in 1818, he recognized that this beautiful lakeside village was an ideal place to build what he called an "outpost for civilized and learned behavior." The building we are in today was named in honor of Trinity Church in New York City where Bishop Hobart was rector. And it was through that New York City Trinity Church that Bishop Hobart secured a grant to establish Geneva College, which has grown and evolved into today’s Hobart and William Smith.

Bishop Hobart’s ministry was ahead of his time. He consecrated one of the first African-American Episcopal congregations in the country and ordained Peter Williams as the first African-American priest in New York, only the second in the country. Father Williams served as rector of St. Philips in Manhattan, which was a strong force in the movement to abolish slavery and would eventually become the church home to W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall, and my family. My uncle and Justice Marshall served on the vestry together at St. Philips.  It is where I started my own journey of faith. My family’s connection to the Anglican- Episcopal faith dates back to 1877 when my great grand parents helped to found the Diocese of the Windward Islands.

William Smith College was founded in 1908 by William Smith, a Geneva nurseryman and philanthropist. Smith was influenced by the events of the Women’s Rights movement in nearby Seneca Falls. He had strong friendships with local suffragettes who encouraged him to found a nondenominational, liberal arts institution dedicated to educating women broadly, not just vocationally. Again, an audacious move in its day.

Fast forward 20 years to 1928 when a bright and promising young man from Omaha, Nebraska arrived in Geneva, only to discover that Hobart College, which had granted him a scholarship, would not house him because he was black.

Despite the segregation of the era and the financial difficulties of the Great Depression, this young man excelled. He triple-majored in Greek, English and psychology, served as an assistant in the psychology department and published his undergraduate research in the American Journal of Psychology – all while washing dishes in local restaurants and working odd jobs to support himself. With the encouragement of the African-American community in Geneva, which welcomed him with open arms, in 1932 the Reverend Dr. Alger L. Adams became the first black man to receive a degree from Hobart, graduating magna cum laude and named to Phi Beta Kappa.

Adams would go on to become an Episcopal clergyman and the editor and publisher of the Westchester County Press. He literally changed the course of history at the Colleges and made it possible for me, 51 years later, to enroll at Hobart.

One last coincidence or twist of fate, if you’d like, that is not lost on me: In 1983, the very year I graduated from Hobart, the Colleges awarded the Reverend Dr. Alger Adams an honorary degree in recognition of his remarkable career and his commitment to community. We stood together on the very same stage.

With gratitude to Dr. Adams, I am honored to have in the audience today his daughter, Patricia. Thank you for being here; it means so much to me.

Dr. Adams’ powerful story is one of many that distinguish the Colleges – like Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to receive a Doctor of Medicine degree, which she earned at the top of her class from Geneva Medical College, the precursor to Hobart and William Smith.

Or John Grotzinger who came to Hobart to be a geologist, had a great idea that connected his study of millennia-old rocks to the search for water, and came up with the Mars Rover Curiosity Project, which he now runs and that is expanding our understanding of the universe.

Or Dr. Julia James who arrived at William Smith from Brooklyn to be a poet and a dancer, and who attended a chemistry lecture, changed her major, and went on to become the first William Smith student to earn a Rhodes Scholarship. It’s an honor to have Julia in the audience with us today. 

Or Ali Marpet who was told he couldn’t compete in a Division I football program and then came to Hobart where he became the highest Division III student ever drafted in the NFL. Today he’s the starting center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and one of only 11 players in the NFL on the Union’s Finance Committee, a fitting role for Ali who studied economics at Hobart.

And then there’s me. I grew up in New York City, grandson to West Indian immigrants and son to an amazing Mother and Father. As a first generation American and college student-athlete, my father served in one of the last racially segregated units in the Army during the Korean War and then used the GI Bill to earn a degree with honors at the City College of New York. After graduating, he enjoyed a 35 year career as a professional electrical engineer with General Electric and the NYCTA.

My mother went to earn her master's degree while also taking care of her elderly parents, raising three children and serving on our community school board for 13 years. When she was first elected in 1970, five years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, she was only one of 1,400 African American elected officials in the country.

 Thanks to a generous scholarship, they sent me to Hobart and William Smith, a private college that – like today – believes it has a responsibility to serve the public good. I took amazing classes that changed my perspective on the world, served as a resident assistant, represented the Colleges as a student athlete and received the Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award at graduation.

What do all these people have in common? Alger Adams, Elizabeth Blackwell, John Grotzinger, Julia James, Ali Marpet and me? Hobart and William Smith invested in each one of us, gave us opportunities to soar, and then rewarded us for daring to dream big and for making our dreams a reality. At Hobart and William Smith, I learned that being bold means questioning the status quo, looking beyond my own perspectives and engaging in serious inquiry.

Hobart and William Smith have a history of taking chances and being bold. Led by our faculty, Hobart and William Smith were among the first in the nation to offer programs in women’s studies, African American studies and LGBT studies.

We believed in community-engaged scholarship long before it was a buzz word because we have always understood that learning can happen inside and outside the classroom. And today, for the 6th consecutive year, Hobart and William Smith are on the President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll, the highest federal recognition an institution can receive for community engagement.

We were ahead of the game with our commitment to global education and study abroad. And today, we boast the number one study abroad program in the country.

We knew that the best kind of education to prepare students for careers in finance and entrepreneurship is one that pushes students to think about the world from multiple perspectives. And today our students compete for internships and jobs at the top firms on Wall Street and Silicon Valley.

We knew that the pursuit of varsity athletics creates character, and the ability to work on a team to seek solutions for the greater good. And today, the Statesmen and the Herons have won 23 national championships and our student athletes are consistently recognized for their commitment to academics. 

We understood that we have a responsibility to our environment so we created the Finger Lakes Institute as a source of research and education on this unique area we call home. Today, the Finger Lakes Institute is a leader in the field.

We have a strong history of being gutsy, of graduating men and women who go on to do bold and big things. Of taking action that is ahead of the times. Of punching above our weight class to succeed in the face of formidable odds.

Our gift here at the Colleges is the ability to take students where they are and make them even better… like 60 Minutes Correspondent Bill Whitaker, the CEO and Chair of Fidelity Investments Abigail Johnson, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church Michael Curry,  the editor of The New Yorker Dorothy Wickenden and 2016 & 2017 Primetime Emmy Winner Warren Littlefield.

It is this bold environment that shaped me, that enabled me to go to law school and to successfully argue major civil rights cases before the Ohio Supreme Court. It is this bold environment that gave me the courage to go to graduate school and earn a doctorate, become a professor and leader in higher education, and now a college president.

And it all started with a grant from Trinity Church in Manhattan, a grant that has resulted in nearly 200 years of excellence.

In the coming year, I intend to focus on four pillars of effort that I strongly believe will give us the additional resources and motivation necessary to take our place among the best colleges in the country.

First, we must ensure that the student experience is multi-faceted, relevant and comprehensive.

Second, we must deepen engagement within and among key constituent groups, ensuring that all members of the broad HWS community and beyond understand, experience and can leverage the return on investment of a Hobart and William Smith education.

Third, we must be market smart and mission driven, allowing us to dominate the liberal arts market.

Fourth, we must claim inclusive excellence and diversity as a key strategic priority.

This bold place – Hobart and William Smith – is a physical reminder to each one of us to move into the future with wonder and intent.

This bold place – Hobart and William Smith – represents the values we hold dear.

This bold place – Hobart and William Smith – inspires us to lead lives of consequence.

To all of you, I pledge my loyalty to our mission. I do so in recognition of all that has come before me and with high expectations for future. It is an honor to serve as president.

Thank you.