Dr. Gervasi's Inauguration Remarks
I am humbled and honored to accept the great responsibility of this appointment as president of Ohio Dominican University. I’m also awed and reassured by the great passion for this University on the part of so many people, as exemplified by the kind greetings we’ve just heard. I want to thank the Dominican Sisters of Peace, their leadership team, and Prioress Sr. Pat Twohill, for the inspiration they provide to our students, faculty and staff—and to me. You are a treasure, and we are blessed by your strength and heritage. More about that in a moment.
Thank you, Bishop Campbell for being a part of this day, both at Mass earlier and for your role here today. I want to share with all of you that the Bishop not only is a member of our Board, but he graciously took time from his schedule to join me on a tour of Diocesan high schools this past year. The impact of those visits is already showing in greatly increased interest in ODU from those students and parents. For that, I am very grateful.
(Columbus City) Council President (Shannon) Hardin, you were with us at the beginning of the year to mark the rollout of our solar lighting project under the umbrella of the Smart Columbus initiative. It is an honor to have you back on our campus.
Matt (Yuskewich ’74), Mira (Wright ’78), Nicole (Powell, Ph.D.), Sharon (Reed) and Emily (Hardman ’20) – I look forward to working with trustees, alumni, faculty, staff and students to advance Ohio Dominican University toward our shared goals and aspirations.
Thanks, too, to the members of the Inauguration Steering Committee, art students and many others who have been working for months to make this day possible. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.
Welcome to Franciscan Father Tom Nairn, who earlier concelebrated Mass with Bishop Campbell and our Priest Chaplain, Fr. Paul Colloton. Fr. Tom is Provincial Minister of Sacred Heart Province of the Order of Friars Minor and the Chair of the Board of Trustees of Quincy University, where we worked together.
It is also an honor to be able to share this occasion with so many friends and colleagues from other institutions, as well as with members of my family: my wonderful wife and partner, Jen; our daughters, Clare, Irene and Sarah, and Sarah’s fiancé, Colin; and our grandchildren, Sofia and Francis, who bring us joy beyond measure. Also, I’d like to recognize Jen’s dear sister and brother-in-law, John and Elaine Alexander, and my brother, Dr. Michael Gervasi, who came unannounced as a surprise last night with his lovely wife, Carolyn. And a special thanks to Dominican University President Donna Carroll for that very kind and generous introduction. Donna has been a colleague, mentor and dear friend for many years. Jen and I are thrilled that we are also now your sister and brother in the Dominican family. Thank you all for being here today.
I have to tell you that I absolutely love being the chief spokesperson and advocate for this amazing institution. It is a role I feel very comfortable in and am constantly energized by. I relish it. I especially relish the ceremony and celebration of graduation, when we recognize our students' achievements and send them forth into their futures. At the same time, I must confess that personally being the center of attention at a formal ceremony like this is a bit less comfortable. So I look forward to our informal conversations after the ceremony—and many more such conversations in the years to come.
I’d like to frame my remarks this afternoon from three vantage points. First, we’ll reflect on our history. As the Roman philosopher Seneca suggested two thousand years ago, our sense of history shapes our capacity for gratitude. Then we’ll look through the lens of faith, since we are a Catholic, Dominican institution. Finally, we’ll look toward the future as we journey forward confidently together. On balance, it’s most important to recall where we’ve been and what makes us who we are in order to embrace more fully where we’re going.
So, some history.
Five score and seven years ago, our Dominican mothers brought forth upon this region a new college, conceived in charity, and dedicated to the proposition that to contemplate Truth and to share Truth actively with and for others will bring us peace, prosperity, true freedom and joy.
That sentence expresses the essence of why we are here today; everything else we may say is elaboration.
That sentence also, I know, sounds something like the opening of the Gettysburg Address, and for that I beg your indulgence. I would never presume to compare myself to Abraham Lincoln personally, but I couldn’t help noticing some curious connections in our respective circumstances. The most obvious, of course, is that Lincoln was the sixteenth president of our great nation, and you have given me the honor to serve as the sixteenth president of our beloved university. Also, Lincoln spoke at Gettysburg in 1863, 87 years—four score and seven—after the U.S. was founded, as reckoned from the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The college that eventually became Ohio Dominican University was founded in 1911. That’s 107 years ago—not four but five score and seven—a similar resonance to Lincoln’s famous opening phrase. I just couldn’t resist that resonance.
But the deepest and most relevant connection is about respect and reverence. Lincoln had profound respect and reverence not only for the fallen heroes at Gettysburg, but also for the founding heroes of our nation. He respected them for their vision, their wisdom, and their courage. In like manner I—and I know all of us— have a deep gratitude and respect for the Dominican Sisters who first came to Somerset, in Perry County, Ohio in 1830 to found a boarding school for girls called St. Mary’s Convent and Academy. The commitment to education of those very early Sisters—Benvin and Angela Sansbury, among others, not to mention all the Sisters who followed—and their courage in challenging circumstances was nothing short of astonishing.
The Sisters' achievement is even more astonishing in view of the social restrictions that women often faced, then as now. Nevertheless, they persisted. And the persistence and passion of those early Sisters continues today, through all of us who have been inspired by their example.
In that context it’s appropriate that this weekend we also celebrate the feast of Catherine of Siena, the great fourteenth century Dominican saint and teacher. In fact, yesterday Professor Matt Ponesse gave a wonderful lecture about St. Catherine’s commitment to the common good. Her passion and prophetic spirit was legendary, and she has often been associated with the image of fire—a core Dominican motif going all the way back to St. Dominic’s mother, Jane of Aza. Jane dreamt that she was about to give birth to a dog with a flaming torch in its mouth—the idea being that the world would catch fire with the passion of St. Dominic’s preaching. (I should acknowledge, as our students will know, that “Catching Fire” also is the title of the second “Hunger Games” movie, but St. Dominic came first.) Fire, of course, is a part of our University’s emblem, and it is also embedded in St. Catherine’s most famous exhortation: “Be who God created you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”
Of course, fire not only can create; it also can destroy. The early Dominican Sisters in Somerset knew that dual meaning all too literally.
On June 7, 1866, disaster struck in Somerset. A fire broke out in the Academy chapel. No lives were lost, but within minutes the entire convent and academy and most of its contents, to quote a newspaper account at the time, “were a hopeless prey to the devouring flames.”
Fortunately, a nearby community of Dominican friars offered refuge to the Sisters and the Academy for two years in an available building on the grounds of the former St. Joseph College, which had closed shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War. The Sisters had always been determined to rebuild St. Mary’s Convent and Academy. But where? Despite the treasured home they had lost in the fire, and the treasured memories from Somerset they held on to, they decided to accept an invitation to start anew in Columbus.
They did so exactly 150 years ago, in 1868. The new foundation in Columbus was named St. Mary of the Springs Convent and Academy, to distinguish it from the Old St. Mary’s in Somerset. Columbus Bishop Sylvester Rosecrans suggested the name after he apparently noticed some bubbling springs on the property. By the way, Bishop Rosecrans was the first Bishop of the Diocese of Columbus, which also was founded in 1868. We congratulate Bishop Campbell on the sesquicentennial celebration of the diocese this year.
And in 1911, the Dominican Sisters of St. Mary of the Springs—today the Dominican Sisters of Peace—secured a charter to found a college, which today is Ohio Dominican University. So we are grateful to the Sisters for their resolve and their faith, which continue to animate us.
Now let’s talk a bit more directly about faith, because our University is joyfully Catholic and Dominican.
Grace to you and peace…The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
If you are a Roman Catholic, you will recognize those words from the alternate greetings that begin the Mass, the celebration of the Eucharist—and Eucharist of course means thanksgiving. The greetings are rooted in the Christian affirmation of the Holy Trinity. If you are a member of another Christian community, you will recognize those words either from other liturgies or from Scripture, especially the letters of St. Paul. Members of other religious traditions, such as our Jewish or Muslim sisters and brothers, will respect the acknowledgement of the love of God; and each of us, whether religious or not, whether Buddhist or Hindu or Unitarian or agnostic or atheist or seeker of any description, each of us can embrace the heartfelt wish that grace and peace and love and communion, whatever their source, might be with all of us.
Grace and peace and communion and love. Those are the transcendent values that anchor the four Dominican pillars on which our University stands—prayer, study, community and service.
Grace is the source of prayer. Peace is the necessary condition for study. Our sense of communion prompts us to work for the common good. And service of any kind has the most transformative impact when it is the expression of love.
Grace and peace and communion and love. Prayer, study, community and service. These values bridge the apparent divide between persons of different religious faiths, or different expressions of the same faith, or between persons of no religious faith at all.
For surely each of us, as we open our eyes each morning in thanksgiving for the incredible gift of a new day—surely each of us can earnestly pray, or simply wish, that our day and our world be filled with grace, and peace, and communion, and love, made manifest in prayer and reflection, in study, community, and service. At Ohio Dominican, these values animate our commitment to excellence in teaching and learning, in student support, in our core curriculum, in career preparation, in community outreach, in everything we do to encourage the pursuit of truth in a spirit of love. It is a culture in which the excellence of the Dominican tradition in education takes root and grows. It is a culture in which—in classrooms, in labs, in campus activities, on playing fields, in casual conversations—students come to experience the joyful epiphany of understanding, of ideas coming alive, of words becoming flesh, of their own becoming who God created them to be, so that they can set the world on fire.
And it’s a culture that enables us in our academic programs to adapt to changing times and emerging needs in our society and economy while continuing to integrate the humanities, arts and sciences in a thoughtful, purposeful educational experience.
Looking forward, I pondered for some time on how best to comment on our present strengths and strategic vision. There is much I could say.
I could—but won’t—list all the elements of the University’s nearly completed new strategic plan, framed around five integrated areas of focus, which the entire University community has been involved in shaping over the past nine months.
I could—but won’t—recite a catalog of the University’s achievements, such as regional and national recognition for our faculty’s excellence in teaching and research; championships won by Panthers on the basketball court and the football field, positioning them for even greater success going forward; student successes in academics, as well as dramatic increases in graduates’ placement in jobs and in graduate school; and the outstanding commitment of students and colleagues engaged in community service both locally, regionally and abroad.
I could—but won’t—list the many points of contact among colleagues on campus with business and civic leaders in the broader community to ensure that our students and graduates are well prepared to contribute to our region’s economic and cultural development.
I could—but won’t—spell out the key challenges facing higher education generally, especially independent higher education, and how those challenges are likely to affect Ohio Dominican.
All those key strategic topics merit extended discussion, especially in informal dialogue, rather than in a formal speech. Besides, to do them justice would take all day—and longer. (We want you to stay awake for the reception!)
And while specific strategic initiatives are important, the overarching point, as management guru Peter Drucker famously put it, is that culture eats strategy for breakfast. Culture is vastly more important. Ohio Dominican's warm, inclusive, proactive culture, rooted in the Catholic, Dominican intellectual and spiritual tradition, especially the Dominican pillars of prayer, study, community and service — that culture is the North Star that guides all considerations of strategy. That conviction about culture is what I’ve tried to emphasize in these remarks.
For now, let me simply highlight three key elements of our vision—what I see as our navigational compass:
First, I see Ohio Dominican University continuing to build on our historic mission commitments and academic strengths: seeking and sharing truth, in action as well as study; the compatibility of faith and reason in an environment of respectful and often challenging dialogue—what Dominicans call disputatio—which means not antagonistic debate but literally "thinking things through"; and the impact of the humanities, arts and sciences in guiding students not only from college to career, but more importantly from college to career with character and compassion.
Second, I see Ohio Dominican University continuing to build on our tradition of inclusion—welcoming all students who seek academic excellence, with particular support for first-generation students. This means strengthening our outreach to and support of misunderstood and marginalized persons, such as racial and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ students, and international students. Such support is consistent with our Catholic, Dominican mission and indeed the mandate of the Gospel.
Finally, I see Ohio Dominican University deepening our commitment to enhance the economic development and quality of life in our city and in our region. This means renewed involvement in our immediate neighborhoods as well as the larger Columbus region. I’m pleased that we’ve already begun that process through strengthening connections with a number of community leaders and organizations, such as the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, Columbus 2020, and of course Columbus City Council. This commitment to outreach also means that we will continue to develop a flexible and market-responsive academic program portfolio consistent with our strengths and our mission. Science and technology, allied health professions, education and business are among the areas we’ve identified for still more intensive program development.
In short, our University’s ongoing success in fulfilling its mission will depend on a careful yet bold embrace of both tradition and innovation. It will depend on many alumni and friends who, along with faculty, staff and students, catch the fire of this mission and are willing to feed those creative flames by contributing their time, talent and treasure to its success. And it will depend on our ongoing discernment together, in rapidly changing and challenging times, of what to hold on to, what to let go of, and what to move forward toward with confidence.
In that spirit of discernment I’d like to close by sharing a poem written in 1968 by a Dominican Sister of St. Mary of the Springs—today the Dominican Sisters of Peace—on the 100th anniversary of the Sisters’ move from Somerset in Perry County to Columbus. The poet, Sr. Estelle Casalandra, taught English at Ohio Dominican for many years. She now lives in the fullness of the Communion of Saints and in the hearts of those who knew her, as well as in her writings about the history of her Dominican community.
The poem is called, appropriately enough, “The One Hundredth Year.” From our vantage point we might also call it “The One Hundred Fiftieth Year,” or “Any Year”—or any day in which we resolve to live a life—and promote a culture—of grace, and peace, and communion and love.
Customs are in-and-for time and place
like April rain and mountain snow.
But in the evergreen here-and-now of meaning
branches of custom wither and cease to grow.
The pruning of branches is an art
like the making of a painting or a song:
it cannot be too little or too much
if the roots are to remain rooted and strong.
Those women who left Perry County’s green hills
lived well this green secret a hundred years ago—
that the many small nostalgias of the heart
cannot all be kept, that some must sometime go.
Yielding with grace the thousand inconsequentials,
they brought with them only the triangled essentials
their daily bringing to the offertory of God’s people:
the wheat of their will
the wine of their love
the incense of their vows
These were their heritage, and these are ours still.
Dr. Robert A. Gervasi began his term as Ohio Dominican University's president on June 26, 2017.
Dr. Gervasi came to ODU from Quincy University in Quincy, Illinois, where he served as president. During his tenure, the university expanded its academic profile and community outreach, strengthened fundraising, increased enrollment, and enhanced campus life.
Before joining Quincy, Dr. Gervasi was president and CEO of the Institute for Study Abroad in Indianapolis, Indiana. There he served more than 3,000 American students annually at 80 universities worldwide. Prior to that, he served as dean of Kentucky Campuses and dean of external programs for McKendree University at its Louisville campus. In these positions, he had responsibility for all executive functions such as strategic planning, faculty development, marketing, fundraising and recruitment.
Dr. Gervasi has taught at the University of Louisville, McKendree University, Chatfield College in St. Martin, Ohio, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, Xavier University in Cincinnati, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, and The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He also lectured as Senior Fulbright Scholar in Classics at the University of Zimbabwe. In addition to his work in higher education, Dr. Gervasi has worked in public relations, marketing, and publishing for companies such as Bristol-Myers and Procter and Gamble.
Dr. Gervasi received his A.B. in Classics (summa cum laude) from Xavier University, an MBA in Marketing from the Wharton School, and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Classics from The Ohio State University. He also studied at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, as well as Corpus Christi College at Cambridge University, and he received a certificate in fundraising management from The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Dr. Gervasi previously served on the executive committee of the Council of Independent Colleges, the Council of Presidents of the Great Lakes Valley Conference (NCAA Division II), the board of directors of the Great River Economic Development Foundation and the executive committee of the Associated Colleges of Illinois. He can read or speak Spanish, Italian, Greek (ancient and modern), Latin, French and German. Dr. Gervasi is an avid runner and has completed 14 marathons.
Dr. Gervasi’s wife, Jen, is a former executive in the home fashion industry and arts organizations. They have three adult daughters, Clare, Irene and Sarah, as well as two grandchildren, Sofia and Francis.