EUREKA – With more hugs than handshakes and a lot of laughter amid the pomp and ceremony, Jamel Santa Cruze Wright was installed Friday as the 27th president of Eureka College.
Accepting the challenges facing higher education today, Wright said, “Twenty-first century Eureka must be bold, nimble and forward-looking. We must be futurists.”
Comparing the college to a rowing team, she noted the importance of each person to the team and the need to trust each other and one's leader.
“I'm ready to row with you,” said Wright. “I do not want to row gently down the stream, but to row with intentionality and purpose.”
The 90-minute-plus ceremony at the Christine Bonati Bollwinkle Arena and Convocation Center was a formality for Wright, who has served as interim president since July 2016 and became president on July 1 of ‘17.
“I've kind of been making believe I've been president since last year,” she joked after the chain of office was placed around her neck. The chain includes the EC seal and small medallions listing its core values — including service, integrity, diversity and education.
But, despite her joke about “making believe,” her embrace of the job and drive to advance bold programs, even while in an interim role, were cited by the board of trustees when she was announced as president in July.
She has been involved in updating the school's strategic plan, revamping the general education curriculum and developing its Uniquely Eureka program, which includes a four-year graduation guarantee in which a fifth year of tuition, if needed, is free.
She initially came to EC in ‘14 as special assistant to the president and later served as vice president of strategic and diversity initiatives.
Mike Murtagh, vice president for institutional advancement, opened the ceremony by noting, “This is a historic day in the life of Eureka College. … By her mere presence, she is breaking the mold of the 26 presidents who preceded her.”
Wright is the first woman and first African-American to lead the college, which was founded in 1855.
“At Eureka College, we're used to historic events,” said Murtaugh, pointing to the institution's history. Founded by abolitionists from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the college was the first in the state and third in the nation to admit men and women on an equal basis and is the smallest college to graduate a future U.S. president — Ronald Reagan.
Prabhu Vankataraman, faculty president, talked about the importance of having a leader in whom the campus community can place its trust and one who takes to heart the best interests of the college on a short- and long-term basis. He stated that leader is Wright.
Seth Powers, student body president, noted that when he asked students what they liked most about Wright, they said, “We can tell she really cares about Eureka.”
Wright gave credit to her family and friends and other who had helped her along the way.
She mentioned she was happy people were getting “to meet all the people who made me the president and the person I am today.”
Several people she considers mentors from her time as a student, faculty member and administrator at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Boston College and Saint Louis University were present at the installation ceremony.
Also present were representatives from 16 colleges and universities, local lawmakers and the mayors of Eureka, Peoria and Washington.
She thanked “my mom, the superwoman in my life,” for providing a strong, female role model and pointed to her own daughter, Kaiya, for whom “I live to provide a positive example.”
Wright also thanked her husband, Telly, whom she also called “first dude” of Eureka College, for his support and pointed out he was wearing Reagan socks.
To students in attendance, who gave her a rousing cheer, she said, “Never underestimate what a small college environment can offer. … People take a genuine interest in who you are and what your passions are.”
The Eureka College Chorale opened the ceremony with “Sorida,” a Zimbabwean greeting and call to love one another, and also performed “America the Beautiful” and the school's alma mater.