Installation of President Mearns
Geoffrey S. Mearns Installation Address
2 p.m., Friday, Oct. 26, 2012
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Thank you very much for joining me on this special day. You honor me and my family with your presence.
At the outset, I need to express my appreciation to several people.
First, to Kathy Stewart and to all of the other staff who organized the installation events. I know that you have worked very hard to make these events a success. You have demonstrated once again that the staff at Northern Kentucky University consists of dedicated professionals who deliver great service with a warm, welcoming smile. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in expressing our appreciation for their efforts.
To the students who have provided the music for this ceremony and to the faculty who helped them prepare for these performances. As I had hoped, and as we have come to expect, you were – simply put – great. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give them another round of applause.
These students and these faculty are truly outstanding. But you know what, they are not unique on this campus.
In fact, as I have come to learn in just a few short months, these students and these faculty are representative of the excellence that permeates every program on our campus. From the arts to the sciences, to the professions, to athletics, and everything in between, this institution is populated by men and women – students, faculty, and staff – who are excellent in every way.
Today, you were fortunate to hear some outstanding music. I hope that you will return to our campus again, so that you can experience what I get to see and to hear every day – talented men and women working together to learn, to grow, and to serve.
It is for this reason that I must also express my appreciation to the members of the Board of Regents and to the members of the presidential search and screening committee.
You have known for quite a while that this university is a very special place. Over the past six months, I have come to know why you are so proud of this university – and why you care so much about its future. I am honored that you have entrusted me with this responsibility, and I am very grateful that you have given me this special opportunity to serve. Thank you. Thank you very much.
I must also express my appreciation to the faculty, to the students, to the staff, and to the alumni who are here today – as well as to all of your colleagues whom you represent.
I know that, in every important respect, this is your university. And I know that, without your support, I would not be here.
I also know that, without your continuing support, I cannot be successful. I am proud to be your colleague. I look forward to working with you – and to working for you – to make this excellent university even better.
To my friends and colleagues who have traveled some distance to be here. Thank you very much for sharing this special day with me.
For years – and for some of you it’s been many more years than we would like to admit – you have been a source of strength and a source of comfort for me. Thank you for your advice, thank you for your support, and thank you for your friendship. Thank you.
To my family – now, ladies and gentlemen, please get comfortable because, as you know, I have a very large family. I am one of nine children – three of my seven sisters are here today: Alison, Kathleen and Tracey, please stand. I love you.
My father is also here. Dad, please wave. At the end of my remarks, I will have a few more things to say about you and about my mother.
My five children are also here. Bridget, Christina, Clare, Molly, and Geoffrey – please stand.
Seven months ago, when it was announced that I was a finalist to be the president at NKU, I spoke with each of them separately about this opportunity and the possibility of moving. They each had essentially the same response: each one said, “Dad, you have always taken care of us. Whatever happens, we know that you will take care of us – that you’ll do what’s best for us.” They are great children, and I am fortunate to be their father. I love you.
But you know what, when they responded that way, they were really talking about their mother – my wife. For them, and for me, Jennifer has been the foundation for all that we have achieved – and she continues to be the inspiration for all that we dream we can become. Jennifer, please stand. I love you.
Now, I need to say just a few words about two of the men who participated in this ceremony.
First, Judge Martin. Judge Martin was not born in Kentucky. But he moved here as a young boy, and he is Kentucky through and through. Six hundred years ago, Copernicus determined that the earth revolves around the sun. But for Judge Martin, the center of the universe continues to be right here in the Commonwealth of Kentucky.
So, when I called him to tell him that I was a finalist to be the next president of Northern Kentucky University, the judge had a quick response. And it came in his distinctive way. See, when the judge gets excited, his voice raises at least two octaves. I can’t imitate it, but when he gets excited, he sounds a bit like…Frankie Valli.
So Judge Martin said, with that high-pitched drawl, “It’s time to come home, Geoffrey. It’s time to come home.” I tried to explain to him that I was only one among three finalists, and that I had only spent one year of my life in Kentucky. But Judge Martin would have none of it. He simply repeated, “It’s time to come home.”
Well, judge, I’m here – I’m home.
And I aspire to serve the people of this commonwealth with the honor and the integrity that have characterized your service for so many years. You have shown me and so many others that it is incumbent upon us to exercise our authority with humility and with compassion.
To Judge Gleeson. As you know from the provost, John has been a mentor and a friend for many years. He has always been a loyal friend. He has always been an excellent mentor – well, almost always.
You heard that he was the lead prosecutor in the case that resulted in the conviction of John Gotti, the infamous boss of the Gambino crime family, the so-called “Teflon Don.” Gotti earned that nickname, in part, as a result of an earlier case that John helped to prosecute – a previous federal trial that resulted in the acquittal of Gotti and all of the other mob defendants.
It turned out, though, that that trial was not a fair fight, because Gotti had bribed one of the jurors. Four years later, when we had gathered enough evidence against that juror, John assigned that case to me.
As you might imagine, there was a lot of media interest in the case. And there was a lot of pressure from law enforcement officials to prove that the first Gotti trial was fixed. That pressure was particularly pronounced among those who were involved in the first Gotti investigation and prosecution. These people – including John – wanted to be vindicated.
On the morning of the trial, I stopped by John’s office on my way to the courtroom, looking for some final words of advice – seeking the wise counsel of a good mentor – seeking encouragement from a good friend.
We spoke briefly, and as I turned to walk out the door, John said, “Hey, pal, one more thing.” He always called me “pal.” It was a term of endearment, so I knew that he was about to say something meaningful – something very memorable.
John continued, “If you lose, don’t come back.” I smiled, signaling to him that I was looking for real wisdom, not playful sarcasm. John simply said, “No, I mean it. If you lose, don’t come back.”
Now to you kind folks, that probably sounds pretty tough – pretty cold. But in Brooklyn, that’s what we call “mentoring.” Fortunately, at least for me, the former Gotti juror was convicted, and I was able to return to the office.
But my greatest good fortune was being given the opportunity to work for John for nearly six years. He was – and remains to this day – a true mentor and my dear friend.
John gave me the opportunity to try important cases before I had proven that I deserved that chance. John trusted me, before I had earned that trust. John had faith in my ability when I had doubts.
Most importantly, John gave me a very special gift: he showed me how I could use my ambition – my passion for justice, my desire to serve, and my competitive spirit. He showed me how, in a practical and real way, I could direct those passions and that ambition to help others and to advance the common good.
John’s support and guidance led to many great opportunities. Throughout my nine-year career with the justice department, I tried many challenging and interesting cases, and I obtained a great deal of supervisory experience. As a result of his mentoring, my career as a federal prosecutor culminated in the chance to participate in the prosecution of Terry Nichols for his role in the Oklahoma City bombing.
For me – for any prosecutor – this opportunity was truly special. Each day, for nearly a year, I had the honor of representing the United States in one of the most important criminal cases in our nation’s history. We were trying to prove that Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols committed heinous crimes. We were trying to prove that these two Army veterans were murderers and traitors.
We were also trying to demonstrate to the world that our nation’s greatest strength lies in our commitment to justice and our commitment to the rule of law.
But all of the lawyers on the team also appreciated that we were representing people – the families and friends of the 168 people who were murdered in the attack. On April 19, 1995, McVeigh and Nichols killed 168 men, women, and children. They killed 19 children – infants, toddlers, and pre-schoolers – because McVeigh and Nichols bombed a federal office building that also contained a daycare center – a daycare center called “America’s Kids.”
The most gratifying aspect of that experience was knowing that these people – people who had lost so much – had put their trust and their faith in my colleagues – and in me. That realization motivated us throughout the trial. And that memory still inspires me today.
After serving for nine years as a federal prosecutor, I was in private practice for about seven years. Most of my clients were corporations and business executives.
From time to time, though, I also accepted appointments to represent indigent defendants in federal criminal cases, and I was actively involved in my firm’s pro bono work. Many of these cases were relatively routine from a legal perspective, but they were all important to the people I represented. And some of the cases were somewhat unusual.
For example, I was appointed by a federal judge in Cleveland to represent a man who was charged with a series of bank robberies. After accepting the appointment, I learned from the judge that I was the third lawyer assigned to represent this defendant. Apparently, it was pretty difficult to develop a good attorney-client relationship with this man because he had unrealistic expectations for the outcome given the strength of the government’s case.
The government was not accusing my client of armed robberies. These robberies were what we call “note jobs” – cases where the robber slips the teller a threatening note demanding money. In all of the robberies, my client had not even bothered to wear a simple disguise, like a baseball cap and some sunglasses.
So, the pictures on the video surveillance cameras were very clear – better than any photograph I have ever taken. And my client had left the demand notes with the victim tellers, so that the FBI could easily lift his fingerprints off of the paper.
But the agents didn’t have to use any fancy forensic science techniques to track him down because my client had written his demand on the reverse side of the deposit slips to his personal checking account. No need for those CSI folks in this case.
At about the same time, I also had the privilege of working on a truly remarkable pro bono case with my law partner and my good friend, Dan Warren, who is here today. Our client was Anthony Harris. At that time, Anthony had just turned 13 years old, and he was being held in a maximum security juvenile detention facility in Massillon, Ohio.
A few months before Dan and I took the case, Anthony had been convicted by a juvenile court judge of murder – of murdering a five-year-old girl. The only evidence in the case was some statements that Anthony had made during an aggressive, coercive interrogation conducted by the police after they had separated this young boy from his mother.
About a year later, Dan and I persuaded the state appellate court to overturn Anthony’s unjust conviction. He was released the next day after spending nearly two years in custody.
Dan and I then filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on Anthony’s behalf against the police and the county prosecutor. After several years of litigation, the defendants settled by agreeing to pay Anthony a total of $3.7 million.
These results make this case noteworthy. But what makes the whole experience truly remarkable is what Anthony did next: Anthony enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. He then served two tours of combat duty in Iraq.
Anthony could have spent his time spending the money he received from these law enforcement officials in compensation for the damages they inflicted upon him. Instead, Anthony chose to risk his life to protect our democracy – and to preserve the constitutional rights that ultimately liberated him from an unjust incarceration.
As I stand here today, it is very gratifying to know that the service Dan and I provided to Anthony enabled him to make an even more meaningful sacrifice on behalf of our entire nation.
Our commitment to education also produces similar benefits: by educating our students today, we help to create a better world for many others – and for generations to come.
As that case was drawing to a close, I was given another unexpected opportunity. I was offered the chance to become the dean of the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law – the law school at Cleveland State University. The offer was extended by Dr. Michael Schwartz, who was then the president of Cleveland State. Dr. Schwartz is also here today.
At that time, my only experience in a law school was being a law student and being an adjunct professor – teaching a seminar every year or two. After he appointed me to be dean, Michael frequently referred to me affectionately – at least I think it was affectionately – as a “civilian.”
Like many of the opportunities that came before this one, I am not sure that I deserved it. But I am quite fortunate that I received this opportunity – and fortunate that my wife and my family allowed me to accept it. And I am grateful that Michael has served as a mentor and a role model ever since.
After serving as dean for four-and-a-half years, Dr. Schwartz’s successor, President Ronald Berkman, asked me to serve as his provost. Dr. Berkman gave me the privilege to serve as the chief academic officer at Cleveland State. Without the confidence he had in me and the experience I then received, I would not be here with you today.
During my seven years at CSU, I worked with many outstanding men and women. Several of them are also here today. Thank you for coming. During those seven years, I attended 28 commencement ceremonies. Now, that is an awful lot of pomp and circumstance. And those ceremonies included a long list of commencement speakers whose names I will never remember.
But I have a confession: I really enjoy commencement. And what I particularly enjoy about commencement is when the graduates receive their diplomas. At Cleveland State – and perhaps here at NKU – that part of the ceremony can be quite lively. Sometimes the families stand and cheer loudly, and the graduates occasionally celebrate their achievements the way Andy Dalton and A.J. Green celebrate a touchdown reception.
But it is always special to me to see the graduates receive their diplomas. I remember one CSU graduate in particular. She received an undergraduate degree during the first commencement I attended as provost. This graduate did not look like the stereotypical undergraduate. She was at least 50 years old – perhaps 60. After her name was called, she walked gracefully and with dignity across the stage to shake President Berkman’s hand. As she walked across the stage, there was no audible cheering – no air horns. But there were tears streaming down her cheeks.
I don’t recall her name. And I don’t know her personal story. But in that brief moment, I knew that this woman had a dream – a dream to obtain a college degree. And I knew that she had achieved her dream.
That memory serves as a reminder to me in two ways. First, it reminds me how fortunate I am, because each day I play a role – a small role – in helping thousands of men and women fulfill their dreams. That’s pretty special.
Second, this memory serves to help prevent me from losing sight of an important truth. See, from time to time, I refer to students in an impersonal way. Like other academic administrators, I occasionally refer collectively to our students as “headcount,” and I quantify their educational experiences in terms of student credit hours – the infamous SCH.
I also occasionally refer to our faculty and staff colleagues in terms of FTE – as if these men and women might be inanimate instruments in an assembly line. I am also often preoccupied with budgets, lamenting reductions in state support. Or I am concerned that the growth in for-profit, on-line institutions will threaten the up-close and personal educational experience that we provide – and that makes us so proud.
Now, I don’t mean any harm by using these labels. And it’s my responsibility to maintain the financial stability of our university. But I must always remember that our faculty and our staff are our colleagues – men and women who are drawn to this institution because of the same intrinsic rewards all of us receive by assisting students in obtaining an education.
And I must always remember that our students have come here to pursue a very personal aspiration – a unique, human dream. In short, I must never forget the truly human character of our work.
So, let me now end at the very beginning.
I have spoken about certain values that I have tried to embody throughout my career. I have had the good fortune to work with and for so many good people who have reinforced those values – and who have modeled them for me.
But I first learned about the value of education and the rewards of serving others – I first learned those lessons from my parents. In fact, everything I needed to know about how education can change a life, and everything I ever needed to know about my moral obligation to put the common good before my own self-interest, I learned from my mother and from my father. And everything I needed to know about courage and commitment, I learned from them, as well.
More than 61 years ago, my father graduated from college. He was the first person in our family to earn a college degree. The opportunity that he was provided, and the education that he received, changed his life profoundly – and it changed the trajectory of our entire family forever.
My father then spent his entire career – 40 years – devoted to higher education. He was a professor and an academic leader. But his former students and his colleagues remember him for much more – he was a good mentor, a good colleague, and a good friend.
My mother, after raising nine children, became a public official. She served on city council for 10 years, and then she was the first woman to be elected mayor of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
My mother died about 10 weeks ago. Before and after her death, she isconsistently remembered very fondly by her friends and by her constituents as a public servant – as a servant leader who always remembered their names and who genuinely cared about their families and their concerns.
A few minutes ago, I took an oath to uphold the law and to serve with integrity. I have an additional, personal commitment to make to you today. In memory of my mother and in honor of my father, I pledge that, throughout my service to this university, I will embrace and embody the values that I first learned from them.
I pledge that I will cherish the fundamental, human value of education and that I will put the interests of the institution and its people before my own self-interest. And I pledge to you that I will serve with courage – that I will do what is right, not what is expedient.
I believe that, if we join together in this common commitment – to cherish the value of our educational mission and to put the interests of the institution before our own individual interests – then no financial constraint imposed upon us by Frankfort, no technological change, and no competitive threat will deter us.
If we come together, then no external factor will prevent us from achieving our institutional aspirations or prevent us from realizing our own personal dreams. And together, together in service, we will transform this excellent university into an exceptional one.
Thank you for giving me this special opportunity to serve you.
And thank you for joining me and my family on this very special day. I will remember it for a very long time.