Skip to main content

Inaugural Speech

Barry H. Dunn delivers his inaugural address

Imagining our Future
Barry H. Dunn
Inaugural Speech | Sept. 29, 2016

Thank you, Dr. Thaler for that warm introduction.

President McPherson, Mayor Reed, State Senator Tidemann and Representative Munsterman, members of the Board of Regents, Executive Director Rush, fellow presidents and honored guests, my sincere thanks to all of you for being here today, as well as for your support and encouragement to lead this great university.

I am especially grateful for the discerning work of the presidential search committee and the South Dakota Board of Regents for selecting me.

President Barry Dunn

I am excited and energized to serve as the 20th president of South Dakota State University.

My love and thanks to my wife, Jane, who I met here at SDSU. I’ve said many times that the decision to attend SDSU was the single most important decision of my life, as it opened doors for me that I didn’t know were there and provided me an opportunity to meet the love of my life, Jane, who has been my life partner ever since.

I am very happy to share this day with our sons Thomas and Michael and my brothers Gregg and Roger and Jane’s sister Sue and brother Dean, and Jane’s aunt Ardelle, and the many family members from both sides of our family. My thoughts and prayers are with my sister-in-law Arlene, who couldn’t be with us.

I am very proud of our son Michael, who is both working and attending grad school and is a third-generation Jackrabbit, and of our son Tom’s service to our nation as an enlisted member of the United States Air Force and his three tours of duty in the Middle East in defense of our freedom.

And while our parents left us long ago, Jane and I believe they are with us today in spirit, and we remember them with deep love and affection and are forever grateful for their love and support of us, and belief in us.

As you know, success and achievement have many parents, and I would like to thank all of the teachers, mentors and friends who have shaped and encouraged me over my personal, as well as my professional, life.

A special thanks and recognition of their outstanding leadership to President Emerita Peggy Miller, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Emerita Carol Peterson, Vice President of Academic Affairs Emeritus Harold Bailey and former First Lady Betty Berg who have joined us today, and to former President and First Lady David and Marcia Chicoine, who are vacationing in Italy.

And a great big thanks for your support and friendship to the entire SDSU family—including our 12,613 students, outstanding faculty, loyal retired faculty, dedicated staff, our SDSU Alumni Association and our SDSU Foundation. It’s indeed a great day to be a Jackrabbit!

I am especially grateful for the hard work of the inauguration committee and the many others who organized this week’s wonderful events.

And for our hard-working team in Facilities and Services who did an outstanding job in preparing not only our beautiful Coolidge Sylvan Theatre, but also our entire campus for this week’s events. And not only for this event, but also for the kickoff of our new academic year and the grand opening of our beautiful new Dana J. Dykhouse stadium. Thank you all!

And last, but certainly not least, our friends from here in Brookings and across South Dakota, and our friends from earlier days at SDSU, our ranching days in Mission and Valentine, and our wonderful time in Texas. While our lives have been separated by geography, your friendship continues to bless us. And it’s been great to see and reconnect with many of my former students, from both SDSU and Texas A&M-Kingsville, who have come from across the country to be with us. We share a very special bond.

While the focus today is on the presidency of this great institution, at its heart, this celebration is really about all of us. Today is a time to celebrate our collective past, but it is also a time to focus on the exciting future of our beloved university.

For the past four months leading up to this inauguration, I have challenged people with one simple word—imagination.

I sincerely believe that imagination is the most powerful tool we have to achieve not only our personal dreams, but also the collective responsibility we have to each other and to the generations that await.

Einstein once observed that: “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

The complex issues society faces today—often referred to as the “Grand Challenges”—lie at the intersection of population dynamics, energy, water, food, health, economics and political and social stability.

The efforts to find solutions for these complex challenges will shape our agenda on this campus, in Brookings, in South Dakota, our nation and the world. The solutions will require approaches and ideas that aren’t in place today. They will require the energy, excitement and creativity of our imaginations.

Many of you have asked what my vision is for South Dakota State University. Trust me, I have been considering the answer to that question since I began the application process for the presidency last January.

My vision builds on the foundation of the land-grant mission and belief that accessibility to the benefits of education supports a dynamic society. To achieve that mission, we must continually renew our university to build an exciting future.

The famous French storyteller and author Antoine De Saint-Exupéry once said:

“If you want to build a boat, do not instruct the men to saw wood, stitch the sails, prepare the tools and organize the work. But make them long for setting sail and travel to distant lands.”

To that end then, I invite you to use your imagination and set sail with me for a few minutes, and let’s travel to places not far away, into a not too distant future.

Let’s travel down I-29 to Sioux Falls, to schools where 5- and 6-year-old children have entered kindergarten. Imagine that a third of the students in those schools are from minority families, speaking over 80 languages.

It’s actually not hard to imagine, as those numbers generally describe the more than 25,000 students of the Sioux Falls public school system.

Let’s travel west on Highway 14 to Huron, or north to Aberdeen, or east on I-90 to Worthington, Minnesota, to meet children in classes that look very different from the ones many of us remember from our own life experiences.

Those children, and all children, are why I am standing here today.

For it is our responsibility to welcome them to SDSU and provide them the opportunity to succeed and reach their dreams. Just as SDSU welcomed me 45 years ago.

Alexander Hamilton wrote:

“There are strong minds in every walk of life that will rise superior to the disadvantages of situation and will command the tribute due their merit …”

Hamilton’s words describe my mother, Sarah, who was born on the Rosebud reservation here in South Dakota in the humblest of conditions. She was an enrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe. Her education, especially at our sister land-grant, Iowa State University, lifted her up and lifted the lives of our whole family.

My vision is that we have prepared ourselves and our university so that when all children are ready to build their future, SDSU is ready for them … with a dynamic, strong, exciting array of academic, athletic and artistic programs, in a safe, healthy and stimulating atmosphere, a place that builds opportunity and opens doors they can’t begin to dream of.

I stand before you, pledging with every part of me that this place will be a place where—regardless of ethnicity, race, belief system or station in life—an imagination can be the foundation of a future, with the beacon on top of our campanile, lighting the way.

Let’s set sail again, into our future, to a research laboratory on this campus, with equipment and research topics we can’t conceive of, fulfilling a mission to expand the boundaries of knowledge and understanding in order to improve the standard of living in a dynamic, evolving society.

Let’s travel to a place where the gold standard of our quality of life is built on the investments made in the creative research of yesterday.

Regardless of whether the research is done at a field station or in a chemistry lab … whether the area of study is the environment, agriculture, engineering, human health or nutrition … faculty scientists, and the students they mentor, will be challenging the status quo to provide unbiased, science-based information to meet the “Grand Challenges.”

I stand before you today, committing myself to work with you to prepare this place to be that exciting wellspring of inspiration and innovation, a place well beyond our current imagination. And as a result, in 10 years, we will have doubled our annual research productivity.

Our journey does not end with the exciting and challenging work done on this beautiful campus. Let’s travel across our state and region and observe communities where the Jeffersonian ideal of a strong, vibrant democracy is built on an educated and engaged citizenry of lifelong learners.

From 4-H youth to senior citizens, SDSU Extension, along with our entire university community, serves the people of those communities, using state-of-the-art tools and technology to disseminate new knowledge and education to address the challenges of the dynamic world around them.

That’s because our 102-year-old extension mission has been—and will always be—to break down ivory towers and elitism in order to engage our citizens and stakeholders on their terms and in their communities.

That is why I am standing before you today: to marshal our university and its resources toward its never-ending commitment of outreach, engagement and service to all.

And that requires us to take one more trip.

Let’s start by visiting the Dakota people living in South Dakota.

We’ll start north of Brookings on the beautiful Prairie Coteau, with the people of the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, then move south to the people of the Flandreau Santee tribe, stopping in Sioux Falls, then down to the Yankton Sioux tribe in the Wagner area, and on up north of Chamberlain to the Crow Creek Reservation.

We’ll cross the Missouri River and begin our visit with the Lakota—first, with the people of the Lower Brule, and then with those on the Cheyenne River and Standing Rock reservations.

We’ll travel south to the Rosebud, where Jane and I lived and ranched for 17 years, and then west to Pine Ridge and on to Rapid City.

Taking that trip, we will have just met with approximately 10 percent of our state’s population, and its fastest-growing demographic.

We have also just traveled through some of the most economically distressed communities in our entire nation.

While our state currently has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, the nine reservations we have visited have the highest, reaching over 80 percent of their people.

To navigate properly on our journey through Indian country, we must look forward across the bow of our boat toward a hopeful, bright horizon.

But we must also turn around and look back across the stern, to a complex and troubled past.

This will be a long, long journey. At times, it will be very, very hard. But think of what we have in common and share. Think of the partnerships we can build! Imagine what we can accomplish together.

The word Dakota, in English, means “friend.”

I am standing here with all of you today, inviting you to travel with me on this necessary voyage. Friends await.

As we travel, our collective pledge is to be vigilant in our commitment, visionary in our planning and preparation, and virtuous in our behavior as citizens, teachers, researchers and leaders.

As we travel, our shared responsibility toward the core values of a land-grant university must remain strong. With our forebears’ acceptance of land-grant status came the requirement to accept those values. We are heirs of that responsibility.

As I have already referenced, the first core-value is “access”—that is, access to higher education, not based on any social criterion, but for every person who seeks its benefits. Unfettered access to unbiased, science-based information. And access for everyone to community-building programs grounded in knowledge and understanding through extension, outreach and service.

A second land-grant core value is clearly altruism. The unselfishness of this place—South Dakota State University—is amazing.

Everything, that everyone does, every day, is in service to others.

It’s done for a student, for the economic development of our communities, for human health and happiness, and for our sustenance and the sustainability of our systems—always with a servant’s heart.

A third land-grant core value is that at its very heart, this university is aspirational.

Several years ago, the pop artist Pharrell Williams wrote an uplifting song entitled “Happy” about a room without a roof.

This is a university without a roof. People come here with the biggest of dreams, the highest of aspirations. They don’t see a ceiling or barrier to what they can accomplish.

We are gathered in sight of the university’s iconic campanile, which was funded through the generosity of our 1909 graduate, Charles Coughlin. Mr. Coughlin was once asked how much he was willing to give to the project. He answered: “The sky is the limit.”

During their first weekend on campus this fall, I asked the nearly 2,300 new freshman students what they could imagine about their futures. Here is a small sample of their responses:

Imagine if I … am the person who will lead the world to know the unknown, to see the unseen, to solve all the unsolved equations, to find “the theory of everything.”

Imagine if I … am able to engineer medical implants to be useful but inexpensive so everyone can afford them.

Imagine if I … am awarded Teacher of the Year at the school district I will teach in after college.

Imagine if I … never stop dreaming, never stop hoping, never stop believing. If I travel. If I start changing lives. If I make a difference that can’t be reversed.

These young people certainly came to SDSU, just as Charles Coughlin did, because they recognize that this is a place of tomorrows.

But of course to take our trip, we do need to build the boat and “saw the wood, stitch the sails, prepare the tools and organize the work.”

With only a few exceptions, the people whose names are on the buildings of this university have left us. Luckily, we are standing on their visionary, strong and philanthropic shoulders.

Did you know … one of our graduates went on from SDSU to invent mainframe computing?

Another won a Nobel Prize in economics.

Others have gone on from here and become award-winning journalists, artists and poets.

Did you know that we’ve graduated over 8,500 nurses, and thousands of researchers, engineers, farmers, teachers, pharmacists, entrepreneurs, and businessmen and women … as well as both professional and Olympic athletes?

And as President McPherson referenced, even the literal inventor of Hope—Edgar S. McFadden—was an 18-year-old student here at SDSU, who 100 years ago bred a disease-resistant variety of wheat he named “Hope,” that was credited with saving millions of people from starvation during and after the second World War.

As well as I know this place, I could easily name a hundred more, but to do so would be leaving off a thousand others.

We are the beneficiaries of their wisdom, generosity and courageous leadership.

Don’t you see?  Their stories and examples provide us a detailed blueprint of how to build our boat.

Its keel will be cut from our commitment to access.

Our sails shaped from our aspirations.

And our rudder will be carved from our altruism.

We have all the tools we need. For you see, we have our imaginations!

To “organize our work” and fill our sails, I propose the creation of new program called Imagine—to strengthen and expand SDSU’s commitment to its core values.

Over the next 10 years our university will commit $6 million, funded by our annual revenues from our land-grant land managed by the Office of South Dakota School and Public Lands, to be matched by private gifts, to provide $12 million, in a sincere effort to ensure we’ve left no one behind.

Thomas Jefferson once said:

“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.”

To build the boat to take our envisioned trips, I’ve accepted Jefferson’s challenge. But I also need you to accept it.

South Dakota State University is a public university whose work clearly benefits its graduates.

But it also is a comprehensive university, whose research and outreach spurs economic development and prosperity for all sectors of our state’s and region’s economy, as well as strengthening our community and social structures.

The decisions that need to be made are in our hands. The policies that govern us lie at our feet. The legislation that sets our boundaries will be the result of a compelling, democratic, process that we chose to engage in, or not.

We are responsible for, and are the custodians of our state’s land-grant mission.

Thank you for using your imaginations and traveling with me this afternoon. This is our journey, and it’s for real. Let’s embark together. Let us commit ourselves today.

Children, students, discoveries, communities and friends await us.

Thank you all again for coming and sharing this very special event with me.