GREENSBORO — Now comes the hard part.
The Guilford College community came together Wednesday to celebrate its new president, Jane Fernandes, who has led the private Quaker college since last summer.
But in front of an audience of students, employees, alumni and friends of the college, Fernandes and other speakers said there’s a lot of hard work ahead to sustain the school for decades to come.
“Guilford’s vibrant future relies on our becoming a small liberal arts college of distinction doing a few things splendidly,” said Fernandes, the college’s ninth president and its first female leader.
Speakers at the inauguration ceremony praised Fernandes, who’s also the first deaf woman to lead a college or university in the United States. They said she has listened to people’s concerns, communicated clearly, handled problems with grace and embraced the college’s Quaker heritage and values that include community, diversity and equality.
“I apologize in advance if this sounds like a job performance review,” quipped Bradley Anderson, a retired fire chief who’s president of the college’s alumni association.
Johnnetta Cole, former president of Bennett College, said Fernandes brings the right skills to a demanding job.
It’s a challenging time for small liberal arts colleges, Cole said, “especially when there are pressures to put undue emphasis on preparations for making a good living without sufficient attention to preparations for living a good life.”
The 90-minute ceremony was short on pomp and circumstance, and was held in Dana Auditorium on campus right after lunch.
Neither Fernandes nor faculty members wore their academic regalia. Fernandes did wear a red and white lei, a gift from her in-laws. Her husband, Jim, is a native of Hawaii and the pair lived there shortly after they were married.
Jim Fernandes read from Shakespeare, and their children read excerpts from the works of Ralph Ellison, Bryce Courtenay and Helen Keller.
Students and professors played guitars and sang.
The ceremony reached back into Guilford’s past. Former president Kent Chabotar presented Fernandes a copy of the college’s charter. Two students gave her a lock and skeleton key from the original Founders Hall, the first building on a campus that opened in 1837 as a boarding school for Quaker children.
Despite the celebratory mood, Guilford’s budget crisis was not far from anyone’s mind. Fernandes in April announced that the college would cut 52 positions, most of them vacant, to close a $2 million budget deficit. The shortfall came from a 25 percent decline in student enrollment over the past five years.
In her remarks Wednesday, Fernandes spoke about controlling costs and “ensuring adequate funding to sustain our enterprise.”
To those ends, Fernandes said the college will have to grow. “Enrollment is Guilford’s number one priority,” she said. There will be new majors and programs. The college is talking about offering master’s degrees for the first time since the 1970s. Guilford will have more online courses. And, she hinted, some things might get cut.
“Because we cannot do everything well, we need to determine the smartest ways to invest our limited resources,” Fernandes said. “Though we cannot keep doing everything we are doing now, ultimately what we choose to do, we need to do better than anyone else.”
Fernandes said the college has a strong foundation. The faculty are strong, alumni are devoted, recent graduates are finding jobs or going to graduate school and the football team is projected to finish atop its conference this year. The school’s diversity is a source of strength, as is its home in Greensboro.
“Today marks the inauguration of the next phase of Guilford College’s evolving path toward distinction,” Fernandes said. “Let us continue to walk there together.”
Contact John Newsom at (336) 373-7312 and follow @JohnNewsomNR on Twitter.