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President Brown's Inaugural Address

December 3, 2004

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Gainesville Times: 12/13/04
New York Times: 12/05/04
Boston Herald: 12/04/04
Boston Phoenix: 11/26/04
 
Photo by Phil Farnsworth
 

As I was in the midst of the Berklee presidential search, my church in Belmont was seeking a new minister. I enjoyed observing a search happen even as I participated in my own. When our new minister was selected, he told a story that has some application to being a college president.

His story goes that when the new minister was selected, his first act of business was to lead the church picnic, which was held on an island. The congregation piled into a small boat and made several trips carting food and people across to the island. As the boat left on the final trip with the minister and a few remaining members of the congregation, an older man noticed that a cooler had been left on the dock. The new minister said, "No need to send the boat back, I'll go get it." And he proceeded to step out of the boat, walk across the water, and retrieve the cooler. Just before the minister stepped back in the boat, the old man muttered, "Look at that, they send us a preacher who can't even swim!"

Since I have actually been in the job for six months, you know that I don't walk on water, but I have plunged into the deep end, and it has been great so far.

I want to thank Allan McLean, Lee Berk, the board of trustees, and the entire Berklee community for your confidence in me. To know me, you must also know the remarkable people in my life. I am the product of:

  • The strong leadership of my great-grandfather, who we called Papa Dobbin, a minister in the mountains of North Carolina, an avid fiddler, and headmaster of the Patterson School for indigent and orphaned boys.


  • I was deeply influenced by the musical whimsy of my grandmother, whom my cousins and I called simply "Ma," and who played piano as effortlessly as most people speak. She was a single parent before we had that term, who lost almost all of her hearing as a young woman and managed to raise her family in the midst of the Great Depression.


  • I was witness to the passion of my godmother, the only person to my knowledge in all of Hall County, Georgia, in the '70s to proudly sport an ERA-Now bumper sticker on her fuel-efficient automobile.


  • I am definitely a product of the determination and drive of my mother, who might have run IBM had she chosen to pursue that path, but who instead played trombone in the Atlanta Symphony, faced down delinquent students armed with brass knuckles and switchblades in her school classroom, and who plays a ferocious game of bridge or poker or golf or Ping-Pong—and plays to win. And, as a word of caution, for those who might come seeking large budget increases, she gave me a heavy dose of Depression-era, Scottish frugality.


  • I am a product of the quiet determination of my father, tempered in World War II, where he hop-scotched South Pacific Islands, building airports, arriving in Okinawa as the war ended. He combines analytical prowess—he can estimate the weight of a large pile of limestone to the nearest ton—with a gentle and unflappable spirit.


  • I am also the product of my 17 years of marriage to Linda Mason, a strong, clearheaded, and fearless woman who has taught me how to focus my energy on the few things in life that really matter. Linda recently spoke at Berklee, and the faculty and staff who have gotten to know her realize I was right when I told the board that one of the best things about me is that I come with Linda Mason.


  • I have been deeply influenced by my three children, who continue the family tradition of having strong opinions and the will to stand up for them.


  • And I have been influenced by my close friends from high school, college, graduate school, and jobs since, many of whom are here and are level-headed advisors and steadfast allies on the Appalachian Trail, the Nantahala River, the great bike ride across Iowa, on the basketball court, or in bands making music together.

The most energizing thing about Berklee is the students!

Katie Locke is a student at Berklee who writes for the Groove. (Isn't it great to work at a place where the student newspaper is called the Groove?) Katie called shortly after the announcement of my selection as president and asked for an interview. I agreed on the condition that after she interviewed me, I could interview her.

I learned that Katie grew up in the town of Bradenton, Florida, had a happy childhood with a supportive family, but felt she never quite fit in at school. While the other students were worried about what prom dress to wear or who won the football game, she was revoicing chords to Tori Amos songs.

She discovered Berklee at the Florida all-state chorus and knew instantly it was the place for her. One teacher asked why she would throw away her 3.7 GPA to study music. But as all our students do, she persevered even though some voices around her "shouted their bad advice," in poet Mary Oliver's words, to which I will return again.

When she arrived at Berklee, she felt instantly at home, walking down Berklee Beach (which for those of you new to us, is the stretch of Massachusetts Avenue that showcases guitars, basses, impromptu a cappella singing, Mohawks, and assorted avant-garde grooming trends).

She took a trolley to the Fordham Road practice facility that first week of school with dozens of students who jammed for hours in a small room on every conceivable instrument. Katie thought, "I'm home, they love this as much as I do!"

Many of our students relate to this story. They come to Berklee and discover there is nothing wrong with them, that they are swans who have been swimming with ducks.

Angela Monet said: "Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music." Imagine suddenly being in a place where everyone can hear the music and everyone dances.

Livingston Taylor, one of our most colorful faculty members, loves to explain that when a student goes to Harvard, where Liv is a resident advisor, it is the result of an 18-year concerted effort on the part of the entire extended family to get that young person admitted. When a student comes to Berklee, it is often despite a concerted effort on the part of the entire extended family to talk her out of it. As Liv says, students don't choose to come to Berklee, they are compelled to come to Berklee. They have no choice.

This September, I spent the initial week of school pretending to be a first-semester student: registering for classes, going through orientation sessions, taking placement exams, and—that most intimidating of all Berklee rites of passage—auditioning on my principal instrument.

At Berklee, everyone is a musician and studies a principal instrument. We have players of violins and other string instruments. We have players of trumpets and other brass instruments. We have saxophonists and woodwind players. We have bass players. Drummers and percussionists. Vocalists. Pianists. And guitarists. And everyone auditions before classes begin so that they may be assigned private-lesson instructors and ensembles.

At the end of the week, I gave a short address to the entering students. I asked for a show of hands of those students who had applied to only one college, and at least 70 percent of the hands went up. Many others came up to me afterwards to say they had wanted to apply only to Berklee, but their parents made them apply to some other schools. Is there any other college in America where 70 percent of the students apply to only one place? For the bright young person who is interested in jazz, the blues, rock, gospel, hip-hop, world music, improvisational classical music, or electronica, Berklee is not a choice, it's the only place to study.

Mary Oliver's beautiful poem, which Henry Tate read so eloquently, is about a journey. "One day you finally knew what you had to do….though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations…it was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones."

Our students have begun their portentous journeys with us, filled with infinite possibility. They have stepped over the fallen branches and stones and joined the road taken by the troubadours and praise singers through the ages. Their journey is underway.

Organizations take journeys as well.

Berklee's journey began almost 60 years ago when Lawrence Berk, known to friends as Larry, had the audacious idea to start a school that would teach jazz using an obscure, mathematically oriented approach known as the Schillinger Method. Larry was a very analytical MIT-trained engineer and admired the rigor of this approach. Dozens of other schools formed across the country as jazz reached an artistic and popular crescendo. Most of those schools don't exist anymore. Larry and his wife, Alma, did what in retrospect seems miraculous—they succeeded. And his son Lee Berk and Lee's wife, Susan, took the reins and had the strategic vision to create the world's largest college of music, focused on jazz and other contemporary music forms.

In the early 1960s, the family generously changed the status of the school from that of a proprietary, family-owned business to a nonprofit college, allowing Berklee to access higher-education financing, to achieve accreditation, and to grant bachelor of music degrees to its students.

In addition to the Berk family, Berklee has had the benefits of the leadership of many great people over the years—Bob Share, Joe Viola, Alan Dawson, John LaPorta, Richard Bobbitt, James Williams, Fred Berman and many more. Gary Burton, among our most musically famous students and faculty members served as the executive vice president for the last several years until retiring shortly after Lee Berk this summer.

Many of the most innovative aspects of Berklee were present early on. Toshiko Akiyoshi, a young and gifted female pianist discovered by Oscar Peterson in her native Japan, wrote Larry Berk and practically begged to come to Berklee. Larry Berk negotiated with the State Department and the Japanese government, gave her a full scholarship, and even sent her airline tickets. She subsequently helped introduce jazz and Berklee to Japan and much of the rest of the world.

Likewise, a young Quincy Jones received scholarship support to attend Berklee and then, while on tour with Dizzy Gillespie in Turkey after leaving Berklee, met a young Turkish musician named Arif Mardin, who stuffed a score in Quincy's jacket pocket. Quincy was so impressed with the charts that he persuaded Larry Berk to offer a scholarship to this young man. Arif has subsequently produced music ranging from Donny Hathaway to the Young Rascals to Barbra Streisand and most recently Norah Jones and Queen Latifah. Of course, some of Arif's finest work was in collaboration with Chaka Khan, who you will meet later.

Given the pervasive racial segregation that existed in American society in the 1950s, the discrimination against women in most musical arenas, the phobia towards Japan just 10 years after World War II and the lack of understanding of parts of the world that are largely Islamic, like Turkey, the capacity of Larry Berk and Berklee to put music first and span cultural chasms by supporting the careers of Toshiko Akiyoshi, Quincy Jones, Arif Mardin and hundreds of others is quite phenomenal, and challenges us to be as visionary and inclusive today.

A large part of our vision is to offer scholarships that will continue this tradition of attracting the finest musicians from around the world to Berklee. I met a talented student who can afford to be at Berklee only because her mother quit her job in Pittsburgh, found a job as a nurse at New England Medical Center, and moved to Boston so her daughter can afford to live with her. While this is wonderful, not every family has that flexibility. We need to be able to allow the world's most talented musicians the chance to come to Berklee, regardless of the means of their families.

Berklee also published correspondence materials that allowed aspiring musicians who couldn't come to Berklee to taste the secret sauce. Chucho Valdez and Michel Camilo, world-famous Cuban and Dominican musicians each studied these materials in their youth and credit Berklee with supporting their early development as artists. This effort anticipated our Berklee online extension college which currently enrolls over 1,000 students and is growing at 250 percent per year.

And always, the focus was on helping talented people make the music they love. If you care about contemporary music, you simply cannot fathom the talent that has passed through our halls:

For example, on December 11, alumnus drummer John Blackwell, who was most recently touring with Prince, will host a benefit concert in memory of his daughter, Jia, who drowned this summer. He is bringing with him Berklee alumni drummers Terri Lyne Carrington and Vinnie Colaiuta among others. Dennis Chambers, who will soon be an honorary Berklee doctorate will be among that group as well. One of the reasons we have so many guitar players is that Mike Stern, Kevin Eubanks, Steve Vai, and John Scofield all studied here. Name your instrument: Abe Laboriel on bass (and son Abe, Jr., who is Paul McCartney's drummer), Branford Marsalis on sax, Danilo Perez on piano. Songwriters—Aimee Mann, John Mayer, and Gillian Welch; rock-and-rollers, like Will Calhoun of Living Color and Melissa Etheridge. Artists from Latin superstar Juan Luis Guerra to Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks.

And much of the most important work of our alumni is no longer performance – we have the largest music therapy department in the world, the music for the Lord of the Rings trilogy was composed by alum Howard Shore, our music business graduates are starting record companies, managing artists and helping rebuild the music industry as technology is deconstructing it. As I have visited classes, met students and learned about our curriculum, I have been impressed that we have continued the tradition of rigor and analysis that was present in 1945 but we apply it to genres ranging from microtonal Indian music to hip hop. And we make room for the creative voices of artists who have something to say and the courage to say it.

And our faculty are equally accomplished. This summer, Mitch Benoff of our Music Production and Engineering Department was selected in a global competition to create a meteor of light climbing Mt. Lycabettus for the Athens Olympic Games. Sheila Katz, who teaches history, is completing her second book on Arab-Jewish relations. In addition to being an accomplished drummer and chairing the Ensemble Department, Ron Savage and his wife have created a music program serving over 50 young people in Cambridge. Joanne Brackeen of our piano faculty was just hand-picked as among Ornette Coleman's favorite musicians for a performance at an award ceremony in his honor.

Our faculty have performed or recorded with Art Blakey, Emmylou Harris, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, the Temptations, Miles Davis, Tito Puente, Jaco Pastorius, Amy Grant, Garth Brooks, Paul Simon, Miles Davis—I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that there is only one degree of separation between 95 percent of contemporary music and Berklee.

And as if that is not impressive enough, I had dinner with Keith Lockhart this summer, who told me that in his opinion, Renese King, who works as a staff member in our Student Affairs area is one of the region's top vocalists. She performs frequently with the Boston Pops.

This is an accomplished and committed collection of people: students, faculty, staff, and alumni. I am humbled by them almost every day.

With as many near death experiences in its early days as famous alumni today, Berklee, like the sojourner in Mary Oliver's poem, has finally seen the "stars burn through the sheets of clouds" and has found its own voice.

The most recent expression of that voice is the college's vision statement—shaped by many community town meetings and by surveying everyone from students to alumni of our online extension college—focused on the year 2015. It was approved last night by our board of trustees and reads:

"Berklee will be the world's leading institute of contemporary music. Attracting diverse and talented students passionate about careers in music, we will offer a comprehensive and relevant curriculum in music and liberal arts. Berklee will engage an unparalleled faculty of inspiring educators and cutting edge industry professionals; provide state-of-the-art facilities for learning and living; and produce tomorrow's leaders of the global music community."

What this vision means in more specific terms will be determined as we build a strategic plan over the next six months, but let me share my sense of what this vision will imply for us:

  • We will create new facilities.


  • Berklee will not grow in enrollment for the next several years until our facilities and infrastructure catch up with our recent growth.


  • We will increase scholarship support for deserving students.


  • With record demand, more scholarship opportunities and limited spaces for new students, Berklee will become more selective. But we will not be selective in the traditional "grades, SATs, and essays" fashion—we are creating our own "Berklee model" of selectivity, looking for students with strong musical aptitude, high motivation, and with a level of preparation sufficient to succeed at Berklee.


  • We will communicate better internally and foster more cross-departmental activity.


  • We will place more emphasis on understanding the culture and history of the contemporary music we make.


  • We will conduct a comprehensive curriculum review to insure that the Berklee educational experience is as effective as it can possibly be given the needs of our students and the realities of the world they will enter.


  • And we will work hard to build a community in which every member's voice counts.

The entire vision statement and principles will be available in hard copy as you leave the auditorium should you wish to see the outcome of our collective work.

We are affirming the commitment to making Berklee the finest education in contemporary music it can possibly be—a great place to learn, to teach, and to work. We must become the best we can be, not just so that no other institution surpasses us; not only because the music we teach and create is such a powerful force in changing the world (who can deny the power of Billie Holliday's performance of "Strange Fruit," John Lennon's "Imagine," or Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On?"); not just because the world needs music and its ability to connect across culture and ethnicity more today than perhaps ever in our lifetimes.

Most of all, we need to be the finest education in contemporary music we can possibly be because students like Katie Locke, and 3,800 others, have no choice.

Our students count on us to work hard, stay strong, recommit to the revolutionary ideas that got us to the dance in the first place, and to keep dancing to the music even when others cannot hear it.

Eighteen years ago, my wife, Linda, and I returned to the U.S. from the Sudan after a couple of years creating the Save the Children development program in the country. In fact, Linda will return to Darfur, Sudan, in January under the auspices of Mercy Corps to assess the impact of the janjaweed attacks on women and children. Incidentally, Linda is as excited as I am about Berklee and has resumed piano studies with Stephany Tiernan, is coming to concerts, and getting to know the college. If all goes well, she will bring with her to Western Sudan a CD quality recording of a song composed and performed by Berklee students to let the people there know that the world has not forgotten them.

Shortly after we returned, the Sudanese man who had been most instrumental in the success of our program received a grant to come to visit the States. Hassan Gibreel was a deeply serious and devout man who prayed fastidiously five times each day as dictated by the Koran, and brought to our home a special compass and reference table that allows you to know precisely the direction of Mecca wherever you are.

Hassan, who died recently, was the equivalent of a governor of a midsized U.S. state. He was leader of the province of Um Ruwaba, which literally means, "mother of sour milk" or yogurt. He was our ally and partner as we undertook to deliver food, seeds, and other essentials to remote parts of Western Sudan.

Sudan is one of the world's poorest countries—its per-capita income is less than the amount of per-capita foreign aid the U.S. provides to Egypt and Israel. It has the highest average temperature of any country in the world, and many parts of the country average less than two inches of rainfall per year, it is the size of the eastern U.S. and has less paved highway than Rhode Island. Most people travel on foot or camel-back. Hassan had never been out of the Sudan.

After a seminar given to a deeply impressed and appreciative audience at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, I was driving Hassan along Memorial Drive in Cambridge. This is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful roads in America. Harvard was behind us, MIT coming up on the left, BU directly across the river with the State House and financial district just beyond the historic homes of Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Rowers and sailboats dotted the Charles River.

I tried to imagine what this must seem like to Hassan, who had spent his whole life in Sudan. I turned and asked him what he thought of this place.

He paused for a long moment and replied: "Your ancestors have been very busy."

The wisdom of his insight has remained with me. Berklee is the result of the life's work of the Berk family and many other brilliant leaders and musicians, many of whom are in this room with us today. People who dreamed big, stayed up late at night sweating the details, who willed this unusual place into existence. The fact that Berklee was conceived and has survived and flourished was not inevitable. Much sacrifice has allowed us to even sit in this hall and reflect on our past and contemplate our future.

My hope is that when our children's children host a visitor from some foreign land and show them around Boston, their visitor will marvel at the Berklee campus, the dorms, the classrooms, the performance halls, the fitness facility, the research center, the online college, the library, and archive of contemporary music, they will marvel at all the music Berklee has produced, the leaders, the therapists, the teachers, the entrepreneurs, the composers and performers and this visitor will say, "Your ancestors have been very busy." And they will mean us!

Thank you.