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President Cole Inauguration Remarks

Good afternoon. Welcome to all who have come from near and far to share in this special moment of transition and hope for the Loyola University New Orleans community.

It is with a great sense of gratitude, humility and joy that I accept the responsibility of leading this vibrant Catholic, Jesuit university rooted in the great City of New Orleans. I thank the Board of Trustees and the Central and Southern Province of the Society of Jesus for entrusting me with this honor. I take this responsibility seriously and will partner to fulfill our mission in light of shared and collaborative goals. 

Here we are together. Sharing this spectacular moment in this  beautiful church surrounded by colleagues, supporters, and so many people I love. This is incredible. I am blessed. God is good.

Over the last several weeks, I have received many generous blessings leading up to this day. Friends and family who are of deep faith who wish God’s wisdom and favor upon me. As Loyola’s representative, all of these blessings flow naturally and rightfully through me to our Loyola community of students, faculty and staff, and Board members. We accept these blessings and thank you.

I am also mindful of the historic nature of this appointment, as the first African-American and second layperson to lead Loyola in its 111-year history. I see the pride in the faces of my family members, current students, faculty and staff and alumni, and numbers of people here in the New Orleans community. Just two days ago, a staff member who shares my identity told me she was so proud of me, and HER 80-year-old MOTHER was proud of me. Know that I stand on all of your shoulders who marched the streets and fought for Civil Rights so that this very moment could be possible for me. I carry your prayers everyday, and I am grateful for you.

Inaugurations are special. It’s almost overwhelming for one person. I suspect it’s akin to a very large wedding! Mine was small and intimate, so this week has come as quite a surprise to plan and absorb. I thank our planners here at Loyola who have done a masterful job to highlight the best we have to share with all of you. 

Today, I have the great privilege to be reminded of all those in my life who have loved and supported me through my journey. 

My mothers’ sisters are here with their families (children and grandchildren): My Aunts Willie Nell, Catherine, Lucille, and Barbara. My mother Rose (and her baby sister Pat) have passed on and are watching now with pride from the heavens. Both possessed angelic singing voices. And both were gone much too soon.

Growing up, my Mississippi family used to call me “the Little Professor.” Their pet name for me held within, hopes for my future, and acknowledgment of my potential as an educator. Well family, you were right on the nose! Except I’ve grown into more of a “Husky Professor”. Know I love you all so very much, and thank you for being here.

I’m going to name a few of my other important connections quickly, knowing I can’t possibly name off all of them and many of them are able to be here in person today – My high school English teacher, Mr. William Coleman, who introduced me to Shakespeare, and taught me the difference between a gerund and a participle; and my high school band director, Mr. Thomas Walley, who demanded excellence from every one of his students and taught me to always be ready to share my gifts and talents freely, and that preparation and discipline would always allow me to meet my moment. Thank you, Sirs.

My Master’s in History advisor, Dr. Mary Kupiec Cayton is present, who saw me as a history scholar well before I ever believed in myself as such. I am a proud product of a humanities education. Mary, if anyone ever asks “what can you do with two History degrees”, you can tell them, be the President of Loyola University New Orleans. Thank you, my friend. 

My dissertation advisor at Penn is here, Dr. Matt Hartley, who helped me “see the forest through the trees” during my writing process. Matt, without Penn, your mentoring, my C11 Cohort-mates and our excellent higher education curriculum, I would not be in this moment. Thank you, all.

And of course, my beautiful wife, Dr. Susanne DeBerry Cole, who has encouraged me and supported me over our 28 years of marriage. You are my rock, Susie. Colleagues recently asked how you were doing in your transition to New Orleans and the South. I told them the words you shared with me when we were contemplating this move to New Orleans—“Wherever we both are TOGETHER, we are good.” 

Like a marriage, the ask and expectation of a new President is that I be completely and hopelessly IN LOVE with the institution I am leading. To see its potential and areas for growth and love it unconditionally. In just six short months, I certainly feel this deep love for Loyola. We’re still in the “honeymoon” phase, I think! This love allows us to ask difficult questions of each other, commit to moving forward together, and most importantly, provide grace to each other when we make mistakes with one another. This is how we grow and learn together. This is how we strengthen relationships to be ONE LOYOLA. 

The work we embark on together is central to the mission of the Jesuits. We educate our diverse student populations in mind, body, and spirit to be persons for and with others.

Former Superior General of the Jesuits, Fr. Peter Hans Kolvenbach famously shared in 2000, that the measure of a Catholic, Jesuit University is who our students become in service to others. This is the work of the Society of Jesus. Establishing the conditions by which people can be intentionally formed is a distinguishing characteristic of Jesuit education.

At the same time, I want to encourage us to use this opportunity – this change – to reflect on and recommit to our foundational values.

In particular, I want to highlight two elements of Ignatian spirituality: finding God in all things and serving others. There are several ways we can live out these practices – but I also believe that they can boil down to the simple, and yet immensely important, act of making meaningful connections with those around us. 

For just a moment, I encourage you to think of some of your most powerful connections—those people who have moved you closer to your calling just through their encouragement and care—those people who altered the course of your life through what may seem like a simple act.

I feel so passionate about this idea of making connections because I know it’s the only way to change people’s hearts and minds. The way I know that - is because, it is what changed mine. Many of you have heard me talk about my experience as a young adult. I’ve described myself as rudderless, a twig on a lazy river. I might have been going somewhere, but I had no sense of direction. That is — until I connected with someone who was living for others. 

At 22, I crossed paths with a young man whose example and friendship impacted me to my core. He was doing serious service, setting up international trips to serve those in need in Central America. He was truly a man for others, and seeing him in action lit a fire inside me. It created a hunger and a desire not just to emulate him but to understand what made him tick. Of course, the answer to that question – was his Jesuit education. I knew from that point on, that serving students at a Jesuit institution was something I needed to be part of; that helping others gain access to the transformative power of a faith-based academic experience was my life’s calling. His name is Kevin Yonkers-Talz and he is here this afternoon. Thank you, friend.

This is one connection that made a profound impact on my life – but I have countless others; we all do - those formative moments where we discover our shared humanity. These bonds allow us to walk in another's shoes, to understand their joys, pains, and aspirations. They move us to do better, to stretch beyond our perceived limits. They're the threads that weave the fabric of our social and emotional lives and enrich our journey through this world.

It’s been such a refreshing experience to observe our campus climate in my first few months on the job. The hospitality, the creativity, the strong sense of belonging. I see it in the esteemed faculty, dedicated staff, proud parents, and, most importantly, in our bright and promising students.  

As much as our work is about “who our students become” as graduates, these last couple of weeks have confirmed that the JOY of the work is about meeting our students where they are and in their experiences. In real time. Last week, just when the mounting administrivia of the job met with the reality of world geo-political issues making their way to our campus, I left my office to walk across campus to the Danna Student Center, saying hello to students along the way. 

Just the consolation in their beaming smiles back at me. The recognition of being seen, heard and known. 
Our students are so generous. I’m always being invited into what they are doing at the moment. On days when I’m REALLY smart and paying attention to a need to recharge, I accept their invitations into their spaces. This “yes”, almost always leads to a joyful revelation. 

Last week, I was leaving the student center and a music student stopped me–a trumpet player. He notified me that a weekly jam session occurs in the music complex on Wednesday nights. Students honing their improv chops coming together to play jazz standards. Then the moment–there was the all-important invitation to join them on any given week, but they would love to have me visit that evening. Well . . . you know, I was totally there! 

I relished their freedom of musical expression. I found myself swept away by Miles Davis’s Solar being played so beautifully by this quintet. In that moment, our students lived out Cardinal Newman’s Idea of a University, where if students left to their own devices with food, shelter and warmth, a library (or in this case, a musical one), they would teach each other in fine fashion. Bearing witness to this moment, my cup runneth over.

Looking forward, we are committed to holding ourselves to this high standard we’ve set – to attracting and embracing talented students regardless of their backgrounds, to fostering their gifts when they arrive on campus and to preparing all of them for success after graduation. 

I am dedicated to ensuring that Loyola staff and faculty have the support and tools they need to innovate and discover and to help every student succeed.  Focused strategic enrollment, sharing Loyola’s story broadly, and improving our great campus, will shepherd us along a path to greater financial stability and student retention. Expansion of our residential campus in 2025 with a new state-of-the-art 600-bed residence hall will help realize this goal.

I am dedicated to working as a faculty with our students in these challenging times where information is freely available on the internet to not accept this information on face value, but to interrogate the sources of information and build enough context about an issue to form an independent opinion. Higher education should not tell you what to think, but rather teach you how to think, and to apply that knowledge for the betterment of our society.

I am dedicated to continuing to seek out and form partnerships that allow us to secure the resources and opportunities we need to prepare future leaders. Current Nursing partnerships with Oschner will not only provide career pathways, but will also help address the dire national nursing shortage. By  establishing programs that are aligned with the jobs and needs of tomorrow, we’re strengthening our commitment to academic excellence and broadening our programming in essential fields like accounting, law, education and hospitality.

My vision for this university is to serve as an anchor institution in this city. The students we develop – with their commitment to servant leadership and social justice– have the power to shape the future of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana and our country. 

A great example of this is the work we are doing at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, LA, helping hundreds of incarcerated persons earn a Loyola degree and, just as importantly, find value in themselves and their lives. The act of reading allows the mind to find freedoms of the imagination that expands their humanity and connects them with each other and something larger than themselves—an academic community. The most frequent question asked on my visit in July was, are we full-fledged Loyola students? And the answer was an emphatic “yes”. You are a member of the Wolf Pack! 

Our alumni make connections every day through their patients, their clients, their customers and their students. They are the living embodiment of our values. I have such deep pride and love, and I intentionally use the word love, for this community and what we stand for. What we start here, the bonds we build with one another, have the power to create real change.

Our alumni amplify their experiences of care and support and extend the impact of a Loyola education into our communities.
This is the power of a Jesuit education.
Person-centered. 
Rooted in care.

We will graft this approach onto all our programs and student touchpoints.
The result? We will produce and send forth a Loyola Nurse; a Loyola lawyer; a Loyola Media professional. 
All charged to have preferential treatment of the poor. 
All charged to serve where they are rooted.
All ready to lead with ethics and integrity.
They will be servant leaders.
They will be difference-makers for our City, region and world.

I want to close out today by sharing one more story about the power of connection. In the last month or so, I have had the unique opportunity to visit potential students, alumni and leaders in cities around the country. And one of my stops took me to the home of Cathy and Hal (Toby) Raper, whose son attended Loyola. We began swapping stories – you all know how shy I can be – I recognized and commented on one of the photos in their home of Franklin D. Roosevelt at Warm Springs, Georgia. 

I came to find out that Toby’s father and mother who were in the picture with Roosevelt were pioneers in polio therapy and research – their work helped patients to alleviate the dastardly effects of the virus. And as we were speaking, I could feel deep down that this was a God moment. This was a moment of true connection. 

You see, my mother, Rose Wallace, born in 1945, contracted polio fairly late, as an infant. She spent part of her early childhood in an iron lung. She walked with a brace on her left leg her entire life. When I told Mr. Raper that my mother wore a leg brace, he asked if she needed walking assistance with a walker or a cane. I said, “no”.  You just needed to KNOW my mother. She tried to ride a bike, she could drive a stick shift car. She even put high heels on that brace! But because of the techniques from early pioneers like Toby’s parents, she was able to live a full and fruitful life and to be the very best parent to me and my sister, Tia. I could question why or how this knowledge came to me on my travels for Loyola. But I KNEW this was a God-moment. A confirmation that I am in the absolute right place, at the right time, engaged in a vocation meant particularly for me. I am right where I am supposed to be. Here at Loyola. And, my mother, Rose, is with me.

A connection made so long ago – had a profound and deep impact on my standing here today.

The underlying goal of higher education is to humanize and connect. It is to create capacity for understanding so we can have a better world – one filled with more love than hate. A world filled with more kindness than rejection. God puts in your path people you need to see in that moment, who help you understand why you are here, why you're important and why you're loved.  

Our connections have the potential to change lives in ways that resonate far beyond our campus. This education is the potent force that enables us to make a tangible difference.

Thank you for your attention today.

May our shared journey at Loyola continue to be a testament to the enduring power of connection.

Peace and blessings upon you and may God bless Loyola University New Orleans.