Investiture Address by President Michael D. Amiridis
January 20, 2023The following remarks were delivered by Michael D. Amiridis, Ph.D., on the occasion of his investiture as the 30th president of the University of South Carolina.
Mr. Chairman and members of the Board, I accept the challenge you have presented with a strong sense of the responsibility that accompanies it. I am honored and humbled, at the same time, to guide and guard the University of South Carolina, and I’m prepared to lead this historic citadel of learning as we write together the next bright chapter in its long history.
Chancellor Jones and President Becker: Thank you for your insightful remarks and for being a special part of our ceremony today. And I also want to thank all the other speakers who brought greetings from different groups of our community.
Your Eminence Archbishop Elpidophoros, your Excellencies Governor McMaster and Ambassador Papadopoulou, Mr. President of the South Carolina Senate, Mr. Chairman and members of the Board, colleagues, friends and members of the University of South Carolina community: Thank you for honoring me, my family and our university with your presence here today.
I want to offer a special welcome to our 28th president and the former First Lady, our great friends for over 20 years, Harris Pastides and Patricia Moore-Pastides, and I want to thank you both for all that you have done for our university and for me and Ero.
I would also like to recognize our two children – Aspasia (class of 2019), who is watching us today from Madison, Wisconsin, and Dimitri (class of 2022), who is here, as well as my uncle Timos and my cousin Mia, who are with us. Their family are our only direct relatives in this country.
And, finally, I would like to introduce to you the new First Lady of the University – the ideal partner in life for me, and a great mother for our children, and the most intelligent, sensitive, passionate, caring and elegant person I have ever met. She loves this university as much as, or even more than, I do, and she has a very broad perspective, as a student with two advanced degrees from USC, as a spouse of a faculty member and as a mother of two USC students. She also is USC’s newest cheerleader, and she is more excited than the students are during the Sandstorm! Knowing all of these, I suspect that the Board decided first to bring her back to USC and then considered me, but they are too kind to tell me. Our first Lady, Dr. Ero Aggelopoulou-Amiridis.
When Ero and I arrived in South Carolina in August 1994, we knew very little about the university, the city and the state. I know that many of you in this amphitheater were born and raised in this state and have multi-generational ties with USC. But there are others in the audience who came here later in life – as we did – and likely had the same experience with us. Once you arrive, slowly but steadily, this university, this city and this state grow to become part of you, and as Pat Conroy describes it, “South Carolina is a state of constant surprise … a state that on occasion can rise up and steal your soul with a magical moment.”
All of us who are connected to the University of South Carolina have the great privilege of experiencing these magical moments frequently on our campus, and during our interactions with our students and our alumni. I missed these moments during the last few years, and I wanted to experience them again; and I did during this past fall. These magical moments brought us back to Carolina.
Over the last few years, I have been frequently asked to talk to different groups – academic and non-academic – about university leadership. My opening comment in these discussions is that if you plan to be a university leader in today’s environment, you must first think carefully about the reasons that led you to this decision, and then you should also check your sanity.
The reaction of the different groups is similar to yours and leads to very interesting discussions. But the two points that I’m trying to make from the very beginning are, first, that academic leadership has to be one’s calling – because otherwise it’s a disaster – and second, that we are in a very challenging period for our institutions of higher learning.
When I was in high school, my classmates and I were frequently reminded by one of our history teachers about Alexander the Great – the superhero of our childhood in Greek Macedonia, since we had never read a Marvel story then! Alexander said, “I was indebted to my father for living but to my teacher for living well.” I’m not the son of a king, and I was not a student of Aristotle as Alexander was, but I’m a proud product of public higher education, and indeed I’m indebted to my many teachers for living well.
I am a first-generation college student who was given the opportunity to pursue his dreams of earning an advanced degree in this country and becoming a teacher and a researcher at a great American public research university, and every one of these last four words – “American, public, research, and university” – have defined who I am. My calling, what makes my life meaningful, what puts a smile on my face every day and gives me the energy and stamina needed to lead a large university, is my passion and desire to give the same opportunity to every individual who works hard and wants to advance in life through knowledge. This should be at the heart of the mission of every public university!
Over the last 20 years, we have experienced in our country an erosion of public trust and confidence in higher education. During this period, we have seen significant changes in societal and technological trends that have directly affected higher education, including the shifting demographics of our country, the rapid advances in technology, and the large increase in the national and global mobility of students and scholars.
These changes have strongly affected the work environment and expectations across all sectors of the economy, while creating unique challenges and opportunities, as universities try to adjust their educational and research models to fit this new reality. The relatively slow response of higher education to these trends, as well as the increasing expectations of parents and students and the cost of a college degree, have contributed to a significant negative shift in public opinion about higher education.
At the same time, the need for a well-educated and diverse workforce is now greater than it has ever been in our history, with a focus on innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. In the late first century AD, the Greek philosopher Plutarch, in his text Moralia, which one can call his philosophical manifesto, wrote that “a mind is not a vessel to be filled, it’s a fire to be kindled.” Not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled. I find it amazing that 2,000 years later, this is a very relevant statement about modern higher education.
Today, information that can fill a mind is readily available to everyone, anywhere, at any time. Furthermore, even solutions to specific problems are also readily available. As a college student 40 years ago, I took several courses and spent countless hours learning how to calculate the optimal size and the operating conditions of large units used in the energy, chemical or food industry, a task that could take days for even very experienced chemical engineers in the industry. Today – and for over 20 or 25 years now – all of these problems can be solved in less than a minute after one enters the parameters into the available software.
We no longer need to fill the mind with information or with algorithms and processes that lead to technical solutions. Instead, we need to prepare the mind for how to develop the right questions, what to do with the information provided and how to apply the solutions. This is what separates and defines a well-educated workforce in our times. Our role in all our courses and extracurricular activities will have to be focused on kindling the fire of the mind for every student and unleashing their potential to innovate and to lead.
Similarly, the importance of basic and applied research conducted by universities is much higher than it has ever been in the past. When I came to the United States 38 years ago, the global dominance of American research universities was unchallenged. This was the only reason I came from a coastal town in Greece to Wisconsin – and actually stayed there after the first winter I experienced. But the landscape has changed in the last four decades. Europe, China and even India have built significant research capacity. They have caught up with us and, in some areas, they may already be ahead by now.
Under these conditions, the future global competitiveness of our country and our state depends more than ever on the success of our top research universities. At USC, we are eager to expand our research efforts, focusing on both local and global critical challenges. And we should not forget our obligation to advance the humanities and the arts. Pat Conroy also said, “The University of South Carolina has always played a role … in the intellectual life of South Carolina.”
We have a unique opportunity through our USC System to create a statewide innovation network, leveraging the expertise of the flagship campus with the local knowledge and relationships of the rest of our campuses – a network that will address local problems, support local industry and inform local policies.
To regain the public trust, it is imperative to demonstrate the ability and willingness to innovate in all our operations – innovate in the ways we teach and mentor students inside and outside of the classroom; innovate in our research and scholarship efforts; and innovate in the way we finance and conduct our operations. I aspire for USC to be known nationally and internationally as one of the cradles of academic innovation of our times, the same way we are recognized today for our innovation in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, under President Tom Jones, when we created the first-year student experience program, the Honors College and the first international business program.
At the same time, we need to protect one of our biggest assets, our unique academic environment – an environment that brings together all those who wish to advance through knowledge; nurtures, recognizes and rewards excellence; respects all opinions and allows them to be expressed freely; and finally, contributes to the improvement of the quality of life for the surrounding communities, especially the most vulnerable communities in our state. To protect this environment during this time of change, we need to protect our core values of access, inclusion, meritocracy and service.
I was thrilled to hear Governor McMaster last week, as he started his inaugural address, referring to the young people who were on the steps of the Capitol and committing to creating an environment in which all of them can reach their full potential.
Governor, we are going to be your strongest ally in this effort. We will continue to provide the best education and the best college experience to the young people in this state and also to the not-so-young who are catching up later in their lives. We will protect access and affordability; we will innovate in our course offerings and academic credentials, preparing our students to be outstanding professionals and engaged citizens; and we will work with you and your agencies, assisting in your economic development efforts and contributing to an advanced knowledge economy for the state. I agree with you that education is a pillar of prosperity and happiness, and I want all of our graduates to stay, work, prosper and live a good life here in South Carolina. I want them to experience all the magical moments this state has to offer!
When the University of South Carolina was established in 1801, public higher education was an experiment in this country. We are all very proud of the fact that South Carolina agreed early to be part of this experiment and to be one of the first public universities in the nation. And despite the many challenges and difficulties we faced during these past 220 years, this experiment has been successful, since for many generations USC has been building the future of this state by educating its leaders and contributing to improving the quality of the life of its citizens.
Today, as we reflect on the past, evaluate the present and plan for the future, we also have the opportunity to renew our commitment to our state and to our community. Together with our board of trustees, together with my academic colleagues who are wearing their robes today, together with our staff members and our students, and together with our alumni, our friends and supporters, we commit to building an even better future for our city, for our state and for our country. This is, after all, the common thread through the 29 presidencies that predate mine, this is our collective legacy and this is our greatest contribution.
Thank you for this great honor and your confidence in me.
May God bless the University of South Carolina.