Investiture Address on the Occasion of the Installation of Dr. Richard Carvajal as the Tenth President of Valdosta State University on October 27th, 2017.
Chancellor Wrigley, Chairman Hopkins, Regents Griffin & Poitevint, all elected officials, my fellow USG Presidents and institutional delegates, Valdosta State University faculty, staff, and friends, our amazing VSU students, and other distinguished guests, thank you all so much for the trust you have shown in me today. I humbly accept the challenge of serving as the 10th President of this outstanding institution of higher learning. Fully appreciating the charge that comes with my office, I pledge to work with each of you every day to advance the principles upon which Valdosta State has been built, and to live up to the Mission with which our Blazer family has been tasked.
On this special day, I am truly blessed to have so many family and friends who have made the journey to be here. My father and stepmother have traveled here from Oklahoma. Four of my long-time best friends – James, Larry, Patrick, and Sean – have come from points across the country. Joining you are so many great friends from Bainbridge, Albany, and other stops throughout Georgia. Of course, also here are my lovely wife, Cheryl, and our two amazing children, Crystal and Brandon, who were introduced to you earlier in the program. I am so glad that all of you could be here, for you have played highly significant roles in writing my story. To know who I really am, and to fully understand where I hope all who call this place home can go together, I think the rest of you need to know that story, too, for I truly believe that it is those stories from our past that ultimately tell us much about the people we are today, and I am certainly no different.
You see, when I was growing up, we were poor. Not the living-paycheck-to-paycheck kind of poor. No, I mean the I-wonder-if-the-lights-will-be-on-when-I-get-home-tonight kind of poor. When I was in elementary school, my dad ran a janitorial business, and I can remember many a night spent with him picking up trash, stripping and waxing floors, or cleaning toilets. While I know that that doesn’t sound like fun, those were actually the good years of my childhood, for when I was in junior high, my parents divorced. We ate with the help of food stamps, and I learned to love the taste of commodity cheese. Later, when our finances hit rock-bottom, I called the back seat of a 1973 Ford Thunderbird my home. That’s right, I am the university president who was once homeless. But, you see, as tough as things were, I was always an optimist about the future. Clearly, sleeping in a car was scary, and most who knew me then never would have even suggested that better was coming. After all, too many who grow up in such poverty never find their way out. So why does my story not just end there?
Well, one of my friends, who is here with us today, told his family about this friend of his who was living in a car. They invited me to stay with them and made it possible for me to finish high school. With the help of financial aid, the encouragement of those who loved me, and the money I earned from working multiple jobs, I headed off to college, knowing that it was my best, and maybe only, shot at earning the kind of life I dreamed of.
Now to be clear, I knew that future prosperity was anything but assured. You see, even if I was successful in college, it’s not like I was getting a degree from Harvard. I was attending a former state normal teacher’s college – a regional university, located in the southern part of a state, where the affluence of our larger cities still eluded too many. Sound familiar? Yet, somehow, the people there saw something in me that so many would have overlooked, and they reminded me again and again that if I never stopped trying to live up to my fullest potential, there would come a time when it all could be possible.
That instruction has certainly served me well in life, but it served me well in my career, too, and there is no question that the period of greatest professional growth for me came during a time when that lesson was especially driven home. I had just turned 32, and I joined a leadership team charged with turning around an institution that had seen enrollment declines and reductions in force due to shrinking budgets. Some of you have heard this story, and you know that in literally my first six weeks on the job, we dealt with everything from active meth-amphetamine labs on campus, to – and I’m not exaggerating here – a prostitution ring in our residence halls, to understandably harsh media attention after our football coach asked a judge to excuse a registered sex offender from a court date so that that student of ours could play in a football game, to four car loads of our students driving to a rival college, where they got in a fight with well over 100 of their students, and ultimately, one of our students shot one of theirs. But if you’ve heard that story, then you also know that those first six weeks on the job were just the beginning, and the real challenge came when we tried to turn things around. You see, after tackling the drug trade that was poisoning our institution, I became the victim of criminal threats. A log was thrown through the window of our home. A bodyguard was assigned to me everywhere I went on campus. An unmarked patrolman stopped someone scaling our back fence in the middle of the night. Most significantly, my family had to go into hiding on only a few moments’ notice due to fear of what retaliation might be attempted after I expelled a particularly dangerous student.
Now if I’m being honest, there were plenty of days when I thought about quitting. After all, I knew I didn’t have all the answers. Then one day, when things seemed their worst, I realized something that was life-changing. Maybe I didn’t have to have the answers. What if I, instead, asked those I worked with for their ideas, and then together, we created a plan for executing those ideas that we all felt could make the biggest difference. Now as you just heard, the tasks I took on came with scary consequences. What you didn’t hear was that other members of my team had their own responsibilities to fulfill, and theirs weren’t much easier, and since they weren’t quitting, how could I quit? They believed that there would come a time when the vision they had for all that our institution could be would become a reality, and I, in turn, learned that when you have a group of people who love place, and they channel all of their collective talents and energies in a common direction, there is almost nothing that cannot be accomplished. It definitely took a lot of work, but just three years later, we had completely changed the culture on campus, and we had become the seventh-fastest growing institution of our kind in the country.
Now you might be saying, ‘That’s great. These are good stories about another time and place,’ but what do they mean for all who love this institution, and this place? Well, I believe that the lessons learned from those stories can and will serve as a foundation for a future that all who love Valdosta State can create together, and let me explain how.
VSU has so much going for it: an amazing faculty, a world-class fine arts program, no less than seven national championships in athletics, nearly 50,000 proud alumni scattered throughout the southeast and beyond, and more than 11,000 incredible students, some of whom I’m proud to say are with us today.
But if we’re being honest, we have our challenges, too. It’s true we may not have meth labs or prostitution rings, but South Georgia continues to see demographic trends that rightfully scare us all, and the jobs lost in the Great Recession have returned at a rate that is far behind other parts of our state. All that has led a well-regarded economic thinktank to label all but two of the counties in our assigned 41-county region as ‘distressed.’
Here on campus, many of you have told me that an instability of both leadership and purpose created challenges, too. A significant drop in enrollment in the first half of this decade led to budget shortfalls and painful cuts. Retention, progression, and graduation rates continue to lag behind peer institutions. Perhaps worst of all, many of you have told me that VSU has failed to fully embrace its role as South Georgia’s flagship institution. Quite frankly, many of you have wondered aloud to me if we were capable of all that. Maybe, you hinted, that’s just a pipe dream. Maybe, it will never be our time.
But I believe that my story provides an example of what can be. For instance, with the help of many, I climbed out of the car that was my home and climbed onto a college Commencement stage to receive my degree, and stories like that should show us all that even the most trying of obstacles can be overcome. You know it’s true. If we went around this auditorium and heard everyone’s story, some of yours would blow mine away, but, with help, you overcame the obstacles that stood in your way, and you, too, showed that anything is possible.
In my story, you learned of a community that was committed to saving a college that faced far more challenges than most will ever see. Here in our community, many of you have acknowledged to me that we have immense challenges – both on campus, and throughout South Georgia – but you’ve also told me how optimistic you are about our future. You’ve reminded me that if we channel our collective energies behind a common vision, there is nothing than we cannot accomplish.
If my own personal story has revealed anything, it’s that in each situation and no matter the challenge, there comes a time when all things become possible.
Well, ladies and gentlemen – yes, to all of you who love Valdosta State University and this region we call home – I say this. There is today a buzz in our collective air. There is an energy that is so thick it can be held. And it is time to make the most of that momentum and become all that we can be together. That’s right – NOW is OUR time!
And what does that mean? Well, ladies and gentlemen, when someone suggests to you that our faculty’s and students’ research efforts don’t matter, and that the questions being studied here make little difference in people’s lives, you tell them what it means to be an applied research university. Tell them of a place where some of the best minds in their respective disciplines will willingly tackle the biggest questions facing our region, thus paving the way for life-changing improvements. You tell them that at VSU, what we do has the potential to cure disease, transform K-12 education, and make South Georgia’s businesses fully competitive on the world stage. That’s right – you tell them that NOW IS OUR TIME.
When someone tells you that higher education is slow to change, and asks whether or not VSU can ever move beyond talk and truly improve student success, you tell them that the drive to raise retention and graduate rates now permeates everything the university is doing. You tell them that we are using national best practices to build a model advising program. You tell them that 15 to Finish is becoming the norm, and streamlined pathways mean that more students are staying on track to completion. And you tell them that the students who are with us today – and literally thousands more of the classmates they represent – will join me on a Commencement stage to receive their degrees in four years, on time. That’s right – you tell them that now is their time, and because of it, NOW IS OUR TIME, too.
When someone suggests, maybe even aloud, that the Blazers’ athletic teams’ best days are behind us, don’t hesitate to remind those doubters that VSU is a place that has never minded being judged by the number of championships we will win in any era. Why? Because using that standard, we fully expect to BE JUDGED WELL – knowing that there are plenty more banners to be hung, and plenty more championships to be won. That’s right – you tell all who will listen, and of course you can say it with me should you wish, NOW IS OUR TIME.
When someone argues with you that Valdosta State only cares about what happens within its own walls, you assure them that they are wrong. Make sure they know – in fact, shout it from every rooftop – that VSU has a new Vision for ourselves, one in which our success is fully linked to the success of the region we serve. Go ahead and announce that no longer do they have to wonder when we will stand up as one, and plant our flag as South Georgia’s preeminent university. Yes, when we say that VSU will be a catalyst for regional comprehensive progress, we mean it. So let our voices rise, each and every one of us, rise as one united VSU Blazer Family, and declare to the world that NOW IS OUR TIME.
Why, why on Earth, do I believe that we have no alternative but to put everything we have into this effort? Well to answer that, I need to share one last story about me. By now, many of you know that in the summer of 2014, I got a stomachache. It got worse and worse, ultimately forcing me to crawl into an emergency room, where I almost died. Weeks of tests followed – one specialist after another, every one of them telling me that it was probably nothing – a one-time thing that would never happen again. But my doctor asked me to go see just one more physician, and that angel proved to be the only practitioner at the time in South Georgia who knew how to do the only test that would have found that I had pancreatic cancer. If you’ve heard this story, then you know that no matter how many obstacles I had overcome before, my chances of getting through this one were the poorest of all. I mean, to be clear, there is no good cancer to get, but mine is one of the worst, with survival rates of even a few years in the single digits. But obviously, I’m still here. That’s right – in this latest chapter of my crazy story, I beat the odds yet again. One of the most invasive surgeries ever conceived, six months of hell called chemotherapy, and more support than anyone could ever deserve – all of that has allowed me to stand here before you today, fully knowing that I am luckiest, most blessed man the vast majority of you will ever know.
But if I’m being totally honest, there were plenty of days during my cancer journey when I was far less thankful. I used to ask ‘Why me? Why did I get cancer?’ I mean, I was young, fit, and didn’t deserve it – as if someone ever does. But then, my inner conversation changed, and ‘Why me?’ began to take on a different meaning. I started instead spending many a night asking myself, ‘Why did I survive?’ Well friends, at some level, I think I survived so that I could be here, with you, for this time. I think I survived so that I could share this story – a story that provides me with all the motivation I ever need to make the most of every opportunity, and maybe it will have the same effect on you.
You see, what I came to realize was that all my doctors had really done was give me a little more time. I mean, I’m cured to be sure, but we will all retire someday, and we will all go meet our Maker someday, too. All that happened to me, was that I got a few more days before my someday. And as a result, I adopted a new motto, of sorts. If you come into my office, you will see a wood carving that sits front and center on my desk. It was given to me by a dear friend during my recovery, and it says simply, “Make it Matter.” That saying now serves as motivation for everything I do every day, and it’s most certainly why I’m here, and it’s why I think all of you who work here – or who support us with your time and treasure – are here, too. We are here for these students. We are here because what happens to them matters.
So I thank all of you for committing to this work. I thank you for committing to the continual pursuit of excellence that will never allow us to settle for being okay, but will instead help us achieve the tremendous vision we have set for ourselves, and I thank you for telling our story far and wide – a story of opportunities and lives changed for the better. I will do this work because it matters, and you will, too, and THEY will be the reason all of us will know every day that it was worth it.
So may God bless you, may he look down favorably on the work that we will do together, and may he forever bless all who are proud to be a part of VSU. Go Blazers, and thank you very, very much.