The First Word
By L. Jay Lemons, President
On May 10, we celebrated a very special occasion in the history of our beloved Susquehanna. As we concluded our sesquicentennial celebration, the 151st Commencement allowed us to pause and reflect on both our past and the possibilities of the future.
I stood before 426 graduates and told them that their years at Susquehanna have left a footprint on our campus, and that their experiences united them with those in the classes preceding theirs. I wished them well, hoping they had developed a sense of being rooted in a community that isn’t bound by acreage. And as I have done in previous years, I expressed the hope and expectation that the latest graduating class would nurture and cherish throughout their lives their relationship with Susquehanna and its people.
We also honored six individuals whose life stories tell us something about our history and also our future. We honored our distinguished Commencement speaker, Cynthia A. Baldwin, a former justice on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and the first African American female judge elected to the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas. We also conferred honorary degrees on Bishop Mark S. Hanson, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and some of the university’s most generous and esteemed friends: Lore A. Degenstein, Trustee Sidney J. Apfelbaum, Jeffrey C. Apfelbaum and Michael M. Apfelbaum.
In honoring the bishop, we acknowledged our roots and the role of the ELCA in Susquehanna’s formation 150 years ago, which is manifest today in our deep commitment to intellectual freedom, a spirit of serving others, and an ethic of honoring and welcoming people of all beliefs. It also is significant that Gustav Weber, the last Lutheran clergyman to serve as president of Susquehanna, developed a deep and abiding friendship of nearly 40 years with Charles Degenstein, a Jewish philanthropist who helped provide us with our wings.
Gus’ ambitious, audacious and energetic leadership, coupled with Charles’ enduring philanthropic support and tireless encouragement, transformed the university and changed its trajectory. Charles, always in the company of his friend and attorney, Sidney Apfelbaum, nurtured many projects and many people here at Susquehanna. Throughout the last 20 years of his life, he was joined and fully supported in his work at Susquehanna by his second wife, Lore. Upon his death, Charles created a foundation for which Sidney and his two sons, Jeffrey and Michael, serve as trustees. They have continued his legacy of generous giving, making Susquehanna a better place, and their philanthropy has always been guided by an abiding interest in helping students achieve their educational pursuits. The Degensteins and Apfelbaums have understood that financial need should never trump ambition and hard work, and in their own quiet ways, they have made a college education possible for so many deserving students.
The progressive and pragmatic outlook of our founders, the friendship between Gus Weber and Charles Degenstein, and the invaluable roles Lore, Sidney, Jeff and Mike, as well as many others, have played in carrying forward Charles’ legacy have all helped us deepen our commitment to making Susquehanna a larger, more diverse and inclusive place. Indeed, these strands of our history have fused together to create great strength and our distinctive excellence.
In July, we advanced our commitment to these important goals with the appointment of Lisa Scott as special assistant to the president for equity and inclusion/chief diversity officer. (See related article, Page 20.) Lisa brings superb experience and a fresh perspective to our diversity initiatives, which will remain key components of the university’s new strategic plan currently under development. Prior to joining Susquehanna, Lisa served in a variety of executive-level positions supporting diversity and inclusiveness, including her most recent position as director of institutional equity and diversity at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
In the coming year, we will take other important steps in promoting the diversity of this institution, including the opening of a Hillel House on University Avenue and the hiring of our first full-time director of Jewish life and learning. These initiatives will be complemented by our new focus on international student recruitment in the Far East and other parts of the world, as well as the implementation of a new Central Curriculum with its new and unique study-away experiences called the GO program.
Our future is bright. I am grateful to all who have supported us throughout the years, and I am eager to engage and work with all who are committed to building the capacity that will give us the wings to soar higher, intellectually nourishing and preparing our students for a world that is flatter and more diverse than our founders ever could have imagined.