November 4, 2021
Beck A. Taylor, Ph.D.
Chairman Stevens, Vice-Chairman Holmes, members of the Samford Board of Trustees and Board of Overseers, President Emeritus Westmoreland, students, faculty and staff members, alumni and friends, assembled delegates, elected representatives, and honored guests: It is the honor of a lifetime to serve the Samford University community as its 19th president, and I joyfully and humbly accept this calling from you and from God. Thank you for the honor and graciousness with which you have invited me into this community. I stand before you just a man, a sinner saved by the grace of Jesus, but a man also sincere in his love for Samford University, for its people, and for the cause of Christ-centered higher education. To God be the glory!
I am so grateful to my dear friend and Whitworth colleague, Dr. Scott McQuilkin, for his introduction. Thank you, Scott, for your kind and generous words. Dr. McQuilkin represents another university family I love dearly, and many of them are here with us today – thank you. To others on the platform who have brought prayers and special greetings on this day, thank you for your welcoming and inspiring words. Thank you to the Samford Combined Choirs for leading us in worship this morning, and to all those on the Inauguration Steering Committee and others listed in the program for planning the thousands of details of this event and the many others that we’ve enjoyed in the days leading up to this ceremony.
To my dear friend, colleague, and mentor, Dr. Andy Westmoreland, and to you, Dr. Jeanna Westmoreland, Julie and I couldn’t be more grateful to both of you for the amazing ways you have welcomed us back to Samford. Andy and Jeanna, Julie and I look forward to celebrating and elevating your tremendous legacy of faithful leadership. Please know how much we all love you. To Mrs. Marla Corts, thank you, as well, for your many years of service alongside Dr. Corts. Marla, you know that working for Tom was one of the main reasons I came to Samford for the first time back in 2005. I’m so glad that you are here today to celebrate with us.
And finally, to my family – to Julie, Zach and Chloe (who are here with us today), and to Lauren (who is watching online as she studies in Spokane), and to Julie’s parents and her sister and brother-in-law (who are here today), and to our many other family members who are streaming in, thank you for your love and support. And to Chloe, our 14-year-old, thanks for your courage and willing spirit as you’ve left all things familiar in Washington to follow mom and dad on a new adventure back to your home state of Alabama. Please know how proud of you we are.
Ceremonies like this one, with its pomp and circumstance and ornate pageantry, and which at Samford only come around every decade or two, are really not meant to elevate a person, but rather to draw our attention to the life and mission of an enduring institution. By God’s grace, for 180 years – from its humble infancy as Howard College in Marion, to its adolescence in East Lake, to the mature, national, comprehensive institution as it now stands – Samford University has stood at the crossroads of faith and reason, at the intersection of the Christian church and society, as it has sought to educate women and men, and in doing so, to develop their intellect, creativity, faith, and personhood.
Our ceremony this morning also gives us occasion to acknowledge the favor of the Lord on all that Samford and its stewards have accomplished. And can anyone here today discount the marvelous ways the Lord is favoring this place?: Thirteen consecutive years of enrollment growth; rankings that place Samford among the top institutions of higher learning in the country; a strong financial report card and healthy endowment; beautiful facilities and grounds; the best and brightest among our faculty and staff; students who inspire us each day with their talent and hope for tomorrow; 55,000 alumni around the globe who carry the Samford torch; and generous benefactors, past and present, who sustain and strengthen our efforts. Let us pause this morning, if for no other reason, than to give thanks to God for these generous provisions.
And occasions like this one also rightly cause us to reflect upon Samford’s bright future. The names of 18 presidents on this chain of office I now proudly wear, including the names of two Samford presidents I’ve known and loved, Drs. Corts and Westmoreland, don’t just point to a line of presidential succession. No, they also give us confidence that from one season of leadership to the next, God has important plans to accomplish in and through all of us here at Samford. There is no doubt in my mind that President Sherman, and President Davis, and President Wright would be awestruck by what this university has become. Dr. Corts was prescient in his inaugural speech, on November 9, 1983, when he said, “The best has not yet been, it is yet to be.” Friends, we have confidence that Samford’s best days are still ahead – a confidence that is born by the history we acknowledge and for which we give thanks today.
I have chosen the topic of love as the centerpiece of my inauguration. I have even offered that we should perhaps also adopt this theme for our entire academic year. We couldn’t go wrong by focusing our attention and efforts on the Apostle Paul’s admonition to us found in Ephesians 3 to be “rooted and grounded (established) in love.” This morning, I want to go a step farther. I challenge us to make such love the cornerstone of all we do at Samford, to make love the foundation of any vision that we might cast together in the coming months and years.
Why love? Some might think it too abstract, or too emotional, or too self-evident to claim as the foundation of all we do at an academic institution, at a modern university. Where’s academic excellence some might ask, or vocational and professional competence, or the efforts to build the financial and physical infrastructure needed to sustain and host a 21st-century university, or the commitment to welcoming and caring for students on the margins of society? Well, sure, all of those things and much more should be included in the aspirations we have for ourselves and for this place, and they will. But, if our efforts aren’t rooted and grounded in love, in the love of Christ, I contend that we will fail.
Many of us are familiar with Paul’s discourse on love found in 1 Corinthians 13. With apologies to the Apostle Paul, a rough paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13 set for our context today might read something like this: “If we at Samford reach the pinnacle of American higher education and do not have love, we are serving only our selfish interests and ego. If we attract the best and brightest students but do not have love, then our graduates will be ill-prepared to change the world for good. If generous donors pledge to give the university hundreds of millions of dollars, but we don’t have love, then we will place our faith in the wrong things, and it would be better if we were penniless.”
You see, to aspire to significance and relevance as a university, to be the school of choice among our country’s brightest students, and to raise monies for needed program development and campus functionality – these things are worthy activities, activities in the same category as enhancing student-faculty research, increasing partnerships between Samford and the cities and state we call home, and striving for more Southern Conference and national championships (Go Bulldogs!). And these activities will find a place in our shared vision for the future. But friends, if we don’t base our work in the love of Christ and use our work to shine Christ’s light into the world, we will have little eternal impact.
Why love, you ask? Because the world is yearning for it. Because so many of us see and experience so little of it today. Love’s short supply is evident in our nation’s public policy, in our national discourse, on bumper stickers on Highway 280, in the acerbic emails sent by congregants to their pastors, and on our Facebook feeds, just to name a few places. Our collective journey through the uncertainties and stresses of a deadly pandemic (to mask or not to mask, to vax or not to vax) and our warring political culture (one that seems to conjure up not our better angels, as Abraham Lincoln called them, but rather our greater demons) have only fueled what many see as the deterioration of civil discourse and behavior, of Christian charity, helping to create an existential threat to the democracy that higher education is, in part, responsible to sustain. May Samford always be a place courageous in its search for knowledge and truth, and may we also demonstrate Christ’s love, grace, and kindness to all, even and especially to those with whom we might disagree. If truth is what we seek, then exercising the liberties of faithful, discerning, and civil discourse is a necessary bridge to get there.
Samford, in addition to quality education, civic engagement, heavenly voices, and athletic prowess, what if the world knew us also and simply by our love? In John 13, Jesus doesn’t say that we who follow him will be known for our prestige, for a long list of accomplishments, a #1 ranking in the Wall Street Journal, or for any other recognition we will garner. No, Jesus proclaims that the world will know us as his disciples simply by the love we embody and share with the world. The challenges are so many and complex, and yet the solution is so simple.
As a university that commits itself to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to God’s Holy Word, I contend that we should be animated by our Savior’s Great Commandment to us. It should be no surprise to us now that Christ’s commandment to us is rooted and grounded in love – a commandment to love God with all of ourselves (heart, mind, body, soul, spirit) and to love others fiercely, devotedly, sacrificially, even as we love ourselves. I’m not sure that the mission and vision of Samford could be articulated more succinctly or more inspirationally.
Dr. Westmoreland, you have reminded us so well that all of us enjoy the shade of trees we did not plant. No truer words have been spoken. It is a beautiful reminder that we link arms from one generation to the next with people whose lives have been impacted by Samford. I must say that our campus’ understandable love affair with trees is one of the things that inspired me to choose Paul’s words from Ephesians reminding us to be rooted in love. As we press on to complete the work that the Lord has given us, let us remember joyfully that it is now our solemn duty to plant seeds – to plant new seeds of hope, of healing, of justice, and mercy – to plant new seeds of love. We will be confident that the Good Lord will protect our humble offerings, nurturing those tiny seeds – those acts of love we will produce – until great timbers of goodness, and truth and beauty are established and graciously provide their welcome shade to future generations, and generations beyond those, until the Lord comes again. May some future president and Samford congregation gathered on a day like today remember us fondly in posterity for being faithful in this next season of growth. May they remember us for our love.
For God. For Learning. Forever. For Love. Today I pledge my full heart and soul to this work, and I am humbled to call you my friends and colleagues. I love you. Thank you.