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Our History of Excellence: A Foundation for the Future

CONWAY, Ark. (April 23, 2024) — The following is the full text of the inaugural address from Dr. Karen Petersen, 13th President of Hendrix College, delivered Saturday, April 20, 2024, in Staples Auditorium.

Thank you, Hank, and Reverend Smith, and thank you to my colleagues and friends who bring greetings and such a warm welcome today! They represent a community that is profoundly committed to nurturing not just the intellect but the whole person. In the words of Wendell Berry, perhaps our nation’s most well-known philosopher-farmer in modern times—this is a community dedicated to making humanity.1

I am grateful to the Presidential Search Committee, the Board of Trustees, and the Hendrix community for entrusting me with this role. It is an honor and a privilege to assume leadership of such a special place, and it is incredibly humbling to follow in the footsteps of those who led Hendrix through its first 147 years, including Dr. Ann Die Hasselmo, who is celebrating with us today.

Thank you to the inauguration planning committee, who designed an excellent series of events for us. A special thanks to Jan Hundley and Teresa Osam for chairing the committee. Many staff colleagues have made this event possible, from the team that handled set-up to our dining and catering staff. I am grateful to each person who worked to make this a joyous weekend!

A special thanks to our facilities crew, who always ensure the beautiful campus is ready for guests to enjoy.

While Hendrix does in fact have a beautiful campus, what makes this place special is not the buildings, the fountain, the brick pit, or our grounds. It’s the people. Thank you to the Hendrix faculty and staff whose dedication to our life-changing mission inspires me to serve with all of my heart.

Thank you to the many alumni with us today, including representatives from the Class of 1949 through 2023. You are a testament to our great work and a reflection of our statement of purpose.

Of course, a presidency is an all-in effort, which only succeeds with a strong support network. Thank you to my friends from Murfreesboro and Tulsa who are here today. To my family members, particularly my children, Bridgette and Alex, and my grandchildren, Adin and Carson, for always inspiring me to think about the next generations. Most important, thank you to my husband Joey for your unrelenting support. Your willingness to throw expectations aside and support my career makes today possible. I could not do this without you.

Finally, thank you to all of our students. You are the future. You’re the reason I get up every day excited to tackle whatever comes. You are my inspiration when I think about the challenging times ahead. To Janiya, in particular, thank you for serving as a leader alongside me in my first year.

Leading an institution is both a humbling experience and a privilege, particularly an institution like Hendrix College, which for nearly 150 years has changed the lives of not only individuals but generations of families. Before assuming the presidency in June, I read everything I could find about the college, including Jim Lester’s centennial history.2 I learned several important lessons from my research, which have since been confirmed in my first year.

The first one, which I have already mentioned, is that the college is not a collection of buildings. It is a community of people. Lester credits “the efforts of a dedicated faculty, and a spirit of cooperation and loyalty by students, staff, and alumni with sustaining the college through the challenges it faced in the early years of the 20th century” (Lester, p. 117). One hundred years later, I have witnessed the same spirit of cooperation, enhanced by incredible creativity and thoughtfulness, as we undertake conversations about our future, in light of the many challenges facing society in general and higher education in particular.

I can tell you with certainty that Hendrix College benefits tremendously from people whose commitment to this institution goes beyond simply a job. They know that the work we do is essential to the future of our state, and I would argue the future of our country. While all of our colleges and universities do life-changing work in various ways, not all are so fortunate to do so with a spirit of cooperation and dedication like that which I have found here.

The second lesson is that we must remain focused on our mission in spite of, or even because of, the turbulence around us. Former president John Hugh Reynolds once remarked that Hendrix College, in contrast to the world around it, “pours forth a steady stream of balanced minds into an unbalanced world” (Lester, p. 157).

Our responsibility to a society in turmoil is exactly that: to educate our students in such a way as to prepare them to contribute productively and meaningfully to society. We do that by remaining focused on our purpose, which is to inspire students “to lead lives of accomplishment, integrity, service, and joy.”3

To fulfill each component of our purpose, we maintain our liberal arts tradition, which in the words of former president Dr. Matt Ellis, encourages students "to love good talk and good books, to delight fully in the adventures of intellectual curiosity, to become fair minded and generous in all their human responses…to become responsible members of a democratic society” (Lester, p. 199).

Without question, a liberal arts education is the best preparation for life in a free and democratic society. Often, critical thinking is cited as the hallmark of a liberal education. While I agree, I would argue that at least three other aspects are equally important, particularly today.

First, an understanding of and appreciation for our history, flaws and all, provides context for our present. Context allows us to avoid catastrophizing and helps us to understand that the problems we face are complex, lacking simple solutions.

As Dr. Pfau noted, understanding history allows us to celebrate the many, many ways our society and our world have been made better and more inclusive thanks to the work of dedicated individuals. The importance of history is reflected in my decision to make it a central theme of the inaugural experience and of my first year here.

History shows us that we have the power to make the world better. It allows us to cultivate joy based not on our accomplishments but on our place in a larger narrative and, for some of us, the steadfastness of our Creator across the ages.

Second, creativity is an equally important attribute cultivated by a liberal education. Creativity comes only through a willingness to embrace failure. As a professor, I spent a lot of time trying to undo the damage caused by systems that prize one right answer and inculcate a deep sense of fear of failure.

Every successful individual I meet shares a willingness to accept that failure is the most important step on the path to growth and carries with it the lessons that ultimately allow successful individuals to contribute to successful communities.

Third, a liberal arts education should encourage students to maintain curiosity and embrace change. Rigidity and dogmatism stand in contrast to what I believe to be the fundamental outcome of a truly effective education: intellectual humility. There is no resistance more important for the academy at this moment than to resist dogmatic certainty and, in doing so, to “pour forth a steady stream of balanced minds into an unbalanced world” (Lester, p. 157). After all, learning by definition means change. Nowhere should that be more evident than in an institution of higher learning.

The challenge for us all is to balance our deeply held traditions and beliefs against the imperative to evolve.

As a community, we will look for new ways of fulfilling our purpose. Lester cites our flexibility as the key element in the college’s success leading up to its centennial celebration (Lester, p. 170). We all recognize that our college has changed many times in its first 147 years.

In 1876 in Altus, Arkansas, Central Collegiate Institute began as the dream of a frontier educator. From those humble beginnings, Hendrix College transformed into an institution that exemplifies excellence, experimentation, and creativity within a caring community (Lester, p. 224). And it will continue to change. To do otherwise is to betray the very spirit of our college and its pursuit of excellence, which has given it a special place in our community and state.

As our campus plans for the challenges facing this beloved institution, we will center our motto: Unto the Whole Person, and our Statement of Purpose, which ends with “a commitment to inspire students to lead lives of accomplishment, integrity, service, and joy.”3

Our planning processes will identify new curricular and co-curricular opportunities for Hendrix. In addition, I will focus on:

  • Reinvigorating our relationship with our immediate neighbors and enhancing our reputation as the premier academic institution in Arkansas
  • Engaging alumni in new and fruitful ways
  • Strengthening our campus’s commitment to diversity, and
  • Ensuring we build and maintain an environment conducive to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

We have much work ahead in order to ensure that the highly personalized residential liberal arts education provided by Hendrix College continues to produce good citizens who leave here and make our world a better place. It is invigorating and empowering work. And it is particularly challenging work in light of the external pressures facing higher education today. Each of you has a role to play in our future, and for each of you that role will be slightly different.

Some of you will have opportunities to advocate for the value of higher education in important economic and political spaces. Each of you has the power to talk about the ways in which your education made you better and helped shape you into the person you are today and the person you will become.

Some of you provide significant and critical financial support for our college. Thank you. We simply could not do our life-changing work without you. Each of you can be a part of that work. I assure you, there is tremendous value in giving back to an institution that gave so much to you and means so much to this community.

Some of you will lift us up in prayer so that we may “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”4 Others will offer encouragement to the individuals whose daily efforts shape the future of Hendrix College.

Many of you here today will lean into the work ahead with me as we determine the best path forward for our college. To each of you, I offer my deepest gratitude. Though I am new here, I am falling in love with this place in a way I have never before loved an institution.

Hendrix College is remarkable. It is worth fighting for. There is no group of people I would rather have with me in that fight than the faculty and staff of the college. Thank you for all you will do with me in the coming years.

In some way, each person here today has the tremendous privilege and responsibility to ensure that we enter our next 150 years stronger than ever.

Providing a meaningful, life-changing experience for students has never been easy. There were no good old days and very few eras of prosperity. For an institution dedicated to academic excellence to take root in a place like Arkansas 147 years ago, which would surely be described as a hardscrabble environment, required a mix of determination and providence. For that institution to do more than merely survive will require the same.

Our state and our city are far different places today than they were in 1876, and I see both as an asset for us as we move ahead. I am grateful for the enthusiastic and warm welcome offered to me and to my family in our new home. I cannot imagine a better community than the City of Colleges, and I am excited to be a part of the future growth and development of my new hometown and my home state and to ensure that Hendrix College plays a central role in that development.

Our ties to this city are substantial and meaningful. According to Bob Meriwether, the celebration in Conway when they won the bid for Hendrix College was as joyous as the celebration of the armistice ending World War I a few years later.5 We have deep roots in Conway and an important obligation to ensure that the entire city benefits from our presence here.

Finally, I will end the same way Jim Lester did when reflecting on the first 100 years: despite all that has been accomplished in the past 147 years, I am still persuaded that for all those who love Hendrix, the best is yet to come (Lester, p. 262). Our best will come because we are committed to honoring our past and adapting to the future.

Frequently, as I walk around campus, I pass the Altus Bell. Sometimes I wonder what it sounded like. Just as often I am reminded of one simple fact: that bell serves as a beautiful reminder of where we came from, but that bell no longer rings because Hendrix College has changed. Rather than fear change, we must continue to welcome it—embrace it even—because change leads to growth and growth to thriving. However, throughout those changes, that bell will stand as a testament to our humble roots in Altus and the dedication of those who came before us who made Hendrix College what it is today.

Thank you for entrusting me with the legacy of the Altus Bell and with leadership of this excellent institution into its next 150 years.


1The Loss of the University: Selections from Wendell Berry and Jacques Maritain. 1985. Northwestern University Press.

2 Lester, James E., Jr. Hendrix College: A Centennial History. 1984. River Road Press.

3 The Hendrix College Statement of Purpose (Approved by the Hendrix College faculty and Board of Trustees, Spring 2015).

4 Hebrews 12:1. New International Version.

5 Meriwether, Robert W. Hendrix College: The Move from Altus to Conway. 1976. Rose Publishing Company. p. 44.

Special thanks to Alex Keasler for his comments and suggestions on early drafts.