President Laurie A. Carter was officially welcomed to Lawrence University Friday with a light-filled inauguration ceremony in Memorial Chapel, marking a major moment in the 175-year history of the liberal arts college, according to a press release from the school.
“For the last 175 years, Lawrence University has sat on the banks of the Fox River, calling students to its light—a beacon on the river,” Carter said in a speech.
Carter, who began her tenure as Lawrence president in July, took note of the history being made as she was inaugurated on a weekend that also included a celebration of the 175th anniversary of Lawrence’s founding. She is the 17th president to hold office since 1847, and the first person of color to hold the position.
She was joined at the ceremony by her family, including husband Gary Robinson and son Carter Robinson. She spoke of lessons imparted by her parents and grandparents as she built a life full of firsts. She was a first-generation college student and would become the first African American to serve as director of residence life at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the first African American vice president at The Juilliard School, and the first woman and first African American to serve as president of Shippensburg University.
“Without realizing it, I embraced the first in first-generation and made it into a career of firsts,” Carter said. “These opportunities have given me the chance to work with young people from across the globe and to mentor and support them as they grow and develop into people who are changing the world.”
Friday’s inauguration was followed by a community celebration on Saturday that marked the 175-year anniversary of Lawrence’s founding in 1847. As part of that event, the Lawrence University Black Alumni Network (LUBAN) presented Carter with a gift of $175,000 for the university.
“Thank you for being here at this unbelievable time, this historic time, this celebratory time,” Cory Nettles, a 1992 alumand chair of the Board of Trustees, told those gathered in Warch Campus Center.
He said the financial gift from LUBAN is an opportunity to embrace the moment and help move a great institution to even greater heights.
“We belong here, too, and it’s our opportunity to impact this place and make it greater than it already is,” Nettles said. “To our current students in particular, you are the reason we are here, you are the reason we do this work.”
Carter told those gathered how grateful she is for their support and their ongoing commitment to Lawrence. That support is an important message to current students of color and those who will come in the future.
“I want our students to know they can do anything they set their minds to, just as you have,” she said.
In Friday’s inauguration ceremony, Carter’s journey to Lawrence was highlighted in video addresses from Joseph W. Polisi, president emeritus of Juilliard, Daniel Greenstein, chancellor of Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education, and Ronald A. Crutcher, president emeritus of the University of Richmond.
Addressing the audience in person was Robert Battle, artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. He was a dance student at Juilliard in the early 1990s when Carter served on the school’s leadership team. He spoke of the numerous times he sought guidance from Carter and how her wisdom carried with him as he built his career as a dancer, choreographer, and arts leader. He called her a “champion for students who don’t always get it right or know the right answers” and said Lawrence students will now benefit from her mentorship.
“I know that so much has been said about your accomplishments and abilities as a leader of excellence,” Battle said. “But this kid right here, who was born bowlegged … this kid from Liberty City who sometimes felt I didn’t belong—this kid that still resides in me wants to thank you for showing me that I belonged, that I could only be limited by my imagination.”
Carter then highlighted Battle’s success as an example of the positive influence mentors can have on the lives of students. It’s a responsibility she takes to heart, one that she wants all Lawrence faculty, staff, and alumni to take to heart in their daily interactions with students.
“Robert, watching you grow from a 17-year-old dancer into the leader of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the world’s preeminent dance companies, has given me incredible joy,” she said. “My career has always focused on students and their success. Having you here tonight is an honor.”
Friday’s tradition-filled ceremony featured delegates from other colleges and universities, including a contingent from Shippensburg, where Carter served as president until joining Lawrence last summer. They joined Lawrence faculty, Appleton Mayor Jake Woodford ’13, and other delegates in a procession into Memorial Chapel.
Lawrence students provided music throughout the ceremony, joined by special guest drummer Carl Allen—music that included “rising light,” composed for the inauguration by 2010 Lawrence graduate Evan Williams. It was a beautiful showcase of the deep talent in the Conservatory of Music.
As Lawrence marks the 175th year since being granted its charter, it’s important to remember that no institution can live solely on past glories, Carter said. Two years in the COVID-19 pandemic and the realities presented by the coming demographic shifts in college-aged students have made that abundantly clear to all who are paying attention to higher education.
“The world is rapidly changing,” she said. “We cannot stand still. Like the river that flows through our campus, we must move with the current while honoring the shore around us.”