Friday, October 22, 2021
Vincent D. Rougeau, J.D., President of the College
Good morning and welcome to the College of the Holy Cross on this beautiful October day. I am honored to have been selected as the 33rd president of this exemplary institution.
Thank you for the generous words of colleagues and friends who have spoken today. I am humbled.
And to Rick especially, as Chair of the Board and to all the members of the Board of Trustees, I am grateful for your confidence and support. Your institution – our institution – is successful because you have believed and invested in Holy Cross. I look forward to working with you to further the work of my predecessors and propel the College to even greater heights.
I am pleased to have three presidents who have preceded me here with us today. Dr. Vellaccio, thank you for your encouragement and the steady hand you provided for the college during critical times. Father McFarland, thank you for the insights and perspectives from your leadership of the college that you have shared with me. Father Boroughs, your wise counsel and spiritual guidance have been a blessing to me and to Robin. I remain committed to building upon your work and the vision you set forth for Holy Cross a decade ago.
I also appreciate the honored guests who have joined us today, in person or virtually, including members of the Dioceses of Worcester and Boston; elected officials; academic leaders from colleges and universities across the country and the world, my dear former colleagues and friends, and of course, a close mentor of mine, Dr. Bert Garza.
To my wonderful wife, Dr. Robin Kornegay-Rougeau, who has been my loving companion, my most trusted confidante, and my rock. Thank you. And to our three sons, Christian, Alexander, and Vincent, Jr., and their partners who are here with us today, Monica Coscia and Hannah LeBaron. No title – not even college president – will surpass that of dad. Finally, I want to thank my father and step-mother, Weldon and Shirley Rougeau, and my mother, Shirley Small-Rougeau. I stand on your shoulders.
Lastly, to our dedicated faculty and staff, loyal alumni, and incomparable students – my fellow Crusaders. I am grateful for your presence here today, and your warm welcome these past few months. No face covering can mask your love for Holy Cross or your unbridled enthusiasm for the future we will create together – in person, over Zoom, or six feet separated. I am proud to be a part of this resilient community.
There’s a small balcony outside my office in Fenwick Hall upon which a cluster of white Adirondack chairs are scattered. These quintessentially New England chairs were invented by a wealthy Boston native, Thomas Lee, who named them for the mountains near his family’s summer home. After earning an undergraduate degree, Mr. Lee dropped out of Harvard Law School ostensibly to spend more time in nature. So, Thomas and I share Harvard Law, a love of the outdoors, and a penchant for durable seating in common.
When time allows, I’ll sit in these chairs to eat my lunch, or steal a moment of quiet contemplation. The views of Worcester from this lofty perch are impressive. Saint Joseph Chapel, the spiritual center of campus, is also clearly visible to the right. Beautiful, but not showy, the chapel’s Renaissance revival style contrasts with the soaring Gothic shrines found at my previous institutions. I appreciate the College’s understated classic beauty.
Faith and Family
Saint Joseph reminds me of my religious roots in the plains and bayous of south Louisiana. My grandparents were part of a rural Black Catholic community where churches were beautiful, yet unpretentious. Catholicism, and specifically Black Catholicism, has deep roots in Louisiana. Its history traces to the colonial empires of France and Spain. In the tradition of those Catholic cultures, Louisiana remains the only state whose land is still subdivided into parishes.
My grandparents spoke French in their parishes and communities growing up, and their Creole French dialect at home all their lives, learning their prayers in French, and teaching me the same. They helped establish a parish to serve the African American community in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Black Catholics could serve as lay leaders and participate fully in church life in the segregated South.
There is something very distinctive, and rich and empowering, about the Black Catholic experience. As a child, I moved to Chicago, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Queens, New York, and eventually suburban Washington, D.C., as my father completed his education and began his career in public service, business, and law. My mother worked in healthcare and social services. They both actively participated in the Civil Rights Movement, often bringing their work into our home, an upbringing and experience that would alter the course of my life, and so many others.
Although we were often one of just a few Black families in our parishes, our faith communities were international and multicultural. The church provided me with a place to belong, despite the occasional racial slight. It also nourished my desire to succeed among people of all backgrounds and experiences.
This exposure to cross-culturalism in my neighborhoods and parishes, and my grandparents’ Creole heritage, sparked my interest to study in France my junior year at Brown. I would spend both semesters there in what was a truly immersive experience.
And as many of you know, my son, Alex, is spending this year in France. The circle continues. And, yes, Alex, you are not the first Rougeau to develop a taste for fine food and wine roaming the French countryside. Thank you, Dad, Shirley, and Mom for your financial support all those years ago. Now it’s my turn to pay!
As I think back, beyond my love of French food and wine, perhaps France was a calling to push my boundaries. I would test my youthful certainties, following in the paths of expat Black writers and artists such as James Baldwin, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and Josephine Baker. On a more personal level, I was following in the path of my grandmother’s father and I learned much later, one of my mother’s brothers. Though I was never able to speak with either of them about their journeys in France, I feel close to both of them because of that shared experience.
I was at that time in the early 80’s a 20-year-old Black man from America, Ivy League-educated, and in some ways quite privileged. I was seemingly confident and cosmopolitan. But I was also a citizen of a nation that continued to discriminate against my race. Viewing my native country from abroad was confusing and sometimes painful. How could I rationalize these complexities and flourish in a place that didn’t always see me as an equal?
The answer was to trust my faith – a Catholic faith that rejects cultural biases and counters this kind of unsettling ambiguity with hope, optimism, and the promise of a more just tomorrow.
Jesuit, Catholic Education
And so it is at Holy Cross.
Our Jesuit, Catholic, liberal arts education draws from centuries-old traditions informed by a set of enduring values. A mere 455 years before I journeyed to France, St. Ignatius of Loyola did the same, arriving in Paris in 1528 “alone and on foot.” He submitted his plan for a new Society of Jesus a decade later, establishing the tenets upon which Holy Cross was founded.
These Jesuit values enable us to be agile learners, capable of interrogating truths, and uncovering predispositions and biases. At Holy Cross, we accept that our world is knotty and imperfect. We believe that the best preparation for the challenges of the 21st century is a broad liberal education rooted in discovery, and amplified by our Catholic intellectual traditions.
When I speak of a liberal education I am not talking about a political persuasion. Rather, it’s the foundational education that students get through their study of literature, science, mathematics, history, philosophy, theology, and art. It connects our students to knowledge across time, cultures, and academic disciplines. It is powerful.
Curiously, the liberal arts have come under fire in recent years. Pundits and public officials increasingly advocate for specialized training and narrow professional degrees. However, as former Secretary of Education Richard Riley memorably said, “we are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.” Is narrow really the solution?
When critics question the value of a broad liberal arts education, I ask how society would tackle a global pandemic without expertise from the sciences, sociology, mathematics and analytics, psychology, or history? Is immigration solely a problem of law, and climate change only a problem of environmental science? To whom, then, would we assign the issues of poverty, healthcare inequality, food insecurity, or racism?
People For and With Others
These complex problems of today are not solved in isolation, but rather in community. In the Jesuit Catholic tradition, beyond the liberal disciplines, we also teach our students that we do not come fully into an understanding of who we are, why we matter, and how we can help the world, until we embed ourselves into a community.
Which takes me back to France. The two great founding democracies of the modern era, the United States and France, share many things. Both have served as inspirations to countries around the world. Both democracies sprang from what were, in the 18th century, radical ideals, and from revolutions that broke explicitly with the old order of aristocratic hierarchy and inherited privilege. But one critical part of the French republican tradition that the United States does not share is the constitutional principle of ‘fraternity’.
In a speech I gave in January when I assumed the presidency of the Association of American Law Schools, I noted that one key difference between the U.S. and French constitutions is the French recognition of the concept of fraternity. To demonstrate the legal impact of this principle, I used the story of French olive farmer Cedric Herrou. In 2018, Herrou was protected from prosecution after being charged with smuggling undocumented migrants across the French/Italian border. The French Constitutional Court ruled that Herrou had acted within his rights as a French citizen, noting that “the principle of fraternity confers the freedom to help others, for humanitarian purposes, regardless of the legality of their presence on national territory.”
Another way of thinking about ‘fraternity’ is through the concepts of social friendship and the common good. As a global religious leader, Pope Francis has emphasized these ideas and has reached out to other faith leaders around the globe who share them. In a recent encyclical letter, which he addressed to all people of goodwill, he highlighted the inspiration that he gained from his meetings with Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb. He offered a rich way of thinking about fraternity for democratic societies in a globalized world, writing:
Radical individualism is a virus that is extremely difficult to eliminate, for it is clever. It makes us believe that everything consists in giving free rein to our own ambitions, as if by pursuing ever greater ambitions and creating safety nets we would somehow be serving the common good. Social friendship and universal fraternity necessarily call for an acknowledgement of the worth of every human person, always and everywhere. Unless this basic principle is upheld, there will be no future either for fraternity or for the survival of humanity.
So why does this matter to Holy Cross? It is simple. We embrace the concept of fraternity by being people for and with others. The faith that grounds our mission reminds us that a proper use of our freedom should compel us to help others, particularly those who are desperate, marginalized, or weak.
The cure to what ails humanity lies within us. Our mission, our faith, allows us to be an antidote to the “radical individualism” that Pope Francis describes. And let’s be honest, we don’t want any contact with viruses these days – even the clever ones.
And what is even more exciting is we have the perfect setting in which to build up this antidote: a truly beautiful campus, nestled within the city of Worcester, with everything the city has to offer. It is within our hometown that we can most readily serve the common good.
I think we can agree that Worcester is a city on the rise, full of opportunities for our students and for us. Already New England’s second largest city, Worcester has grown by a whopping 14 percent since 2010. Nearly 40 percent of the population is ethnically diverse. Our potential is unlimited: we can create new programs, partner more closely with business and other local educational institutions, and increase connections between Holy Cross and city leadership.
We can continue to be an active collaborator in bolstering economic development, creating jobs, and enriching civic life, for example with the launch of our new Prior Center for Performing Arts. Our students will advance the concept of fraternity through SPUD, our wildly popular Service Program for Urban Development; internships, and other faith- and community-based outreach programs.
Worcester also helps us understand the larger world. Every cultural, political, and societal issue can be explored right here in the city. We can open ourselves to differences, address shared problems, and spread this newfound knowledge beyond our campus and community borders. Truly, from Worcester to the World.
Let me share with you what I recently shared with the Board of Trustees about my vision for our College, a closing impression that explains why, and how, the College of the Holy Cross can continue to make discerned choices that inspire and energize:
Through a dynamic expression of today’s Jesuit mission, we will lead Holy Cross to realize its full potential as one of the finest liberal arts institutions in the world.
This is our vision and our charge. And it will require us to change.
But here’s an exciting development; we’ve already taken the first step! I am a manifestation of the College’s willingness to evolve. As the first lay president, and first Black president, I am most excited to have broken barriers that will benefit others in the future.
On a campus with more steps than I can count, taking such a big step like this, is music to my hamstrings.
We also know that the world needs our graduates now, more than ever. Holy Cross must remain affordable and accessible to academically qualified students who seek to study here. So we will complete our Hope + Access Campaign to raise $40 million for need-based financial aid. We are already well on our way at nearly $35M. Today, more than 60 percent of our students receive aid, and we are among a small group of institutions nationwide that meet 100 percent of demonstrated need. About one in seven current Holy Cross students are pell recipients, and we will continue to attract promising students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.
Let’s talk about these students. Generation Z students are driven by important causes. Raised on the internet and social media, these students are highly informed on issues such as climate change and sustainability, racial justice, immigration, poverty and income inequality. They share their passions, motivate each other, and organize effectively online. They want to make a difference in the world.
At the same time, many of them (and their families) have questioned whether the rising cost of a liberal arts education is worth the investment.
Our Jesuit Catholic mission helps answer that question. One of the Universal Apostolic Preferences that you heard Father O’Keefe mention earlier is to “accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future.” At Holy Cross, we walk hand-in-hand with students in this living learning community, and in their personal journey toward a life that fulfills them personally and professionally.
Our message to these students is clear: come to Holy Cross, discover your purpose, and master the tools that together will change the world. This is the promise of a liberal arts education grounded in Catholic values. A just society created by people for and with others.
I’d be remiss not to expand upon what a just society means to me. The example of my parents’ work in civil rights and my time in France, have offered me enduring examples of the concept of fraternity. So has my Catholic upbringing and professional formation in Jesuit institutions. As an institution committed to the belief that all human beings are made in God’s image, Holy Cross has a responsibility to think rigorously about what we owe one another in the pursuit of a just society. We cannot do this if some voices are suppressed or excluded, or if difficult histories are ignored.
Diversity and inclusion are often attacked as “political correctness,” or the fuel for national division and decline. Those views are both simplistic and myopic. It is indeed true that we have entered a moment in history in which tribal, identity-based nationalism is again ascendant. We must do everything we can to make higher education a place where people of all backgrounds can participate in the pursuit of social justice. This means cultivating an ability to listen to how other people experience the world, and a willingness to reflect critically about shameful aspects of our shared past, with an openness to voices and perspectives that differ from our own.
This is our enduring mission, guided by our Catholic faith, and reflecting the changing times. This is a moment of opportunity, of audacious hope, and belief in the transformative power of education. This is a day when a Black layman from the south can lead a Jesuit college in New England.
And though our beginning was humble, our latter days will be very great (Job 8:7).
As Holy Cross’ new president, I promise you my unwavering commitment and tireless effort in pursuit of these goals. I look forward to the work ahead. And I am hopeful. Thank you.
 Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Fratelli Tutti (2020), paragraphs 103-106.