URBANA – With an amount of pomp and circumstance usually reserved for graduation ceremonies, the University of Illinois inaugurated its 16th president, B. Joseph White, Thursday afternoon. It was the first such ceremony in almost 50 years.
White, 58, who has been on the job since Jan. 31, spoke about his vision for the UI. He said the university is at a "tipping point" where it could slowly decline toward mediocrity or create a brilliant future.
"A future of mediocrity for the University of Illinois is both alarming and absolutely unacceptable," White said. "Understand: I did not come here to preside over decline."
To create a future of greatness, he said, the UI needs high aspirations; money from the state, tuition, research grants and contracts, and private donors; leadership; and big ideas.
White quoted Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who said, "Make no little plans." Some examples of big ideas for the UI, he said, are creating a virtual university as a fourth campus to fully participate in online education; becoming a leader for sustainable energy production and consumption in the state; and developing "successful intelligence" in young people to help them achieve their professional and personal goals, in addition to academics.
White remembered the UI's first student, then introduced one of its most recent. Jared Perry of Decatur was called to active duty with his Illinois National Guard unit in 2003 and sent to Iraq early in 2004. While there, he took two UIS courses online, studying between missions. He returned to Illinois last spring and finished his classes.
"Jared Perry's resolve is a tribute to his character and also to the global reach of the University of Illinois," White said.
During the formal installation, White was presented with a presidential medallion, with the UI's seal and names and dates of former presidents, and a copy of the UI's charter.
The two-hour ceremony began with a procession of students, faculty, staff, administrators and trustees in academic regalia.
It included congratulations from various groups, including the UI Foundation and UI Alumni Association, leaders of other universities, and lawmakers. Gov. Rod Blagojevich, U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, and U.S. senators Richard Durbin and Barack Obama sent videotaped messages.
Edwin Goldwasser, a former provost at the Urbana campus who served under five UI presidents, spoke on behalf of Harvard University, which both he and White attended. Goldwasser noted his "vast experience as a president-watcher."
"I can testify no president in my time has been able to convey more quickly ... the warmth of feelings and effectiveness of action that Mary and Joe White have already displayed in their adopted community," he said.
White said renewing the tradition of a presidential inauguration was the idea of Jane Phillips Donaldson of the UI Foundation's board of directors. The event was held in conjunction with the Foundation's annual meeting.