FERRUM — At a women’s soccer game just a few days ago, Ferrum President David Johns spoke with a student about his upcoming inauguration.
The student was a bit puzzled by the timing of the ceremony. Johns first took the helm at the private liberal arts college in Franklin County in January.
Johns recalled their conversation Friday morning in Vaughn Chapel, just moments after he’d officially been installed as Ferrum’s 12th president.
“He said, ‘Inauguration? You’ve been here almost a year, right? Were you on probation?’ ” Johns told the crowd, which responded with laughter.
In an interview earlier this week, Johns said the inauguration, which coincides with the college’s homecoming, was more than just pomp and circumstance.
“It’s an opportunity to basically publicly say this is where we’re heading,” Johns said. “That’s a question everyone asks right from day one: ‘What’s your vision for this place and where are we going?’ And that’s a hard question to answer on day one.”
But now that he’s been at the college for 10 months, Johns can answer that question easily.
He wants Ferrum to be “the premier institution in this area where every student’s education is impacted by the natural world.” Johns believes the college’s rural setting is an asset.
It’s a natural fit for the college, which has a long-running environmental science program, a focus on agriculture and plans to add a major in ecotourism.
He wants to instill an entrepreneurial spirit in all students, whether they study business or anything else. Graduates of Ferrum should not just seize opportunities for themselves, Johns said, but also create opportunities for others. And hopefully, they’ll do it here, in this community.
As it has done numerous times in its 105-year history, Ferrum College will evolve. The college has applied for a change in status with its accrediting agency so it can offer master’s degrees.
If approved, Johns said it would give existing students an opportunity to continue their education, and also would give an opportunity for the college to engage with adult learners, an entirely new population.
The first-time college president has a full plate.
Though Johns sees a bright future for Ferrum, he acknowledged in his remarks Friday that it, like most small private institutions, faces challenges. But the college has proven resilient.
When Ralph Arthur became Ferrum’s president in 1954, some tried to convince him to close the college, Johns said. But Arthur was a former boxer.
“He was always ready for a fight,” Johns said.
The president said Ferrum’s greatest challenge is a simple one: “the challenge of thinking.”
“The limitations that we place upon ourselves, the conclusions we have already reached about what we can and cannot do,” Johns said.
He challenged the college community to take advantage of the opportunities that will thrust them and Ferrum into the future.
Numerous speakers at the inauguration, from student government president to president of the alumni association, pledged their support to Johns and his vision for the college.
Registrar Yvonne Walker said a third of the college’s staff members have more than 10 years of service to Ferrum, and a third of the faculty have been teaching students for 10 or more years.
“Dr. Johns, as we transition to an entirely new Ferrum College, you will be surrounded by a loyal and committed team willing to take on the challenges before us,” she said.
Beth Rushing, president of the Appalachian College Association, delivered the keynote address. The association is a consortium of 35 private colleges of which Ferrum is a part.
“An inauguration is a joyous time in the life of a college,” Rushing said. “It’s one of those restorative celebrations, like graduation, that reminds us not only that we’re happy for the individuals being honored, but we’re also reminded of the good work that brought us to this point and to the work that’s ahead of us.”
Though Friday marked a celebration, Rushing said there were “clouds on the horizon,” given rising costs of attendance and uncertainties in the world of higher education. These challenges weigh heavily on the minds of college presidents, she said.
Some believe small colleges are less likely to survive in these times, but Rushing is not among them. She said Ferrum’s goal of providing a liberal arts education is a “noble pursuit,” worthy of saving.
Key to sustaining institutions like Ferrum are collaborations, like the association Rushing heads.
“Like the Avengers, we are powerful as individual campuses,” she said. “But when we band together, we are a much stronger force to be reckoned with.”
The ceremony was not just professional, but also personal. Two of Johns’ family members — son Cameron Johns and stepdaughter Madolin Yoshikane — spoke about the president, and the impact he’d had on their lives.
Yoshikane said she was 10 years old when Johns became her stepfather. She said Johns taught her to ask questions and feel excited about learning.
Yoshikane said she was driven to find a passion for something that matches Johns’s passion for religion, philosophy and academia. She found that in art, which she now teaches him.
Cameron Johns said when his father talks about Ferrum, he is reminded of a child on Christmas morning.
Johns’ son borrowed from Aristotle in a nod to his father’s time studying philosophy: “Pleasure in the work puts perfection in the job.”
It’s clear, Cameron Johns said, that his father loves his job and is thinking in the long term about how to serve the place he has come to call home.