Chancellor Robert E. Johnson urges students to “fight for their dreams”

The following are the prepared remarks by Dr. Robert E. Johnson for his inauguration as Chancellor of UMass Dartmouth on April 20, 2018

Chancellor Johnson

To my mother, who is by far the toughest and strongest person I know, and to my father, who taught me about leadership, I simply say thank you.

To my best friend and soulmate, my wife Michelle, through the good times and bad our inseparable bond enables us continue this great adventure, and we both know the best is yet to come.

To my daughter Jasmine and son Alex, as I have always told you, it’s possible. Keep dreaming.

Good morning.  It is a great honor – and a humbling experience – to stand here today as the newly-invested 10th chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Last July I barely knew how to find my office. Now that I have been here for 10 months, and have met so many talented UMassD students, faculty and staff throughout my listening tour and elsewhere, I understand much more about this region, our community, and the possibilities of our future.      

My Uncle Bob used to always tell me: chart your own course, and succeed or fail on your own terms. One of his favorite poems was "Invictus." In 1875, William Ernest Henley wrote:

Out of the night that covers me,  

Black as the pit from pole to pole,  

I thank whatever gods may be  

For my unconquerable soul.  


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.  

Under the bludgeoning’s of chance  

My head is bloody, but unbowed.  


Beyond this place of wrath and tears  

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years  

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.  

It matters not how strait the gate,  

How charged with punishments the scroll,  

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

At UMass Dartmouth, we are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. We will not wait and see what is in store for our future.  We will seize this moment and invent our future.

I have entitled my speech this morning Inventing Our Future. 

I will be focusing on three points this morning:

  • First, how UMass Dartmouth provides a private college educational experience and public university value;
  • Second, why we must prepare students for the future of work in a rapidly changing hyper-connected society; and
  • Third — I want to talk about how our students will invent the future and transform the world

If you have heard me give a speech any time in the past 10 months, you will be familiar with one of my favorite phrases: UMass Dartmouth provides a private college educational experience and public university value. I say it a lot, and it has become a refrain; I want to talk for a minute about what I mean by “private college educational experience.”

We have come to associate private colleges with some real positives: students who soak up faculty attention and mentoring, a wide-range of student-centered programs and activities, and outstanding outcomes for graduates including high job and graduate student placement rates. 

At private colleges, these positives are often balanced by the challenge of providing all that student support at an affordable price.  Much as they value higher education, many students and their families express concern about taking on significant student debt to achieve it.

Here at UMass Dartmouth, we offer the best of both worlds: as a Tier 1 national research institution, we have world-class faculty who spend time with students in the classroom, conducting research in their laboratories, and engaging with local communities via service-learning courses. 

We have more than 140 clubs and organizations, a robust and highly successful Division III athletics program (go Corsairs!), and an engaging residential life experience that will only get better with the addition of new first-year housing and a new dining facility in 2020. 

And we have students who go on to graduate school at places like Duke, Tufts, Georgetown and Northeastern, and an 86% job placement rate for our graduates. In 2017, 97% of our nursing graduates passed their national licensure exam, and 73% of our law students passed the bar – a higher rate than regional private law schools.

As a Tier 1 national research university, we provide a private college educational experience and public university value – sitting on 710 acres of land, 15 minutes from the ocean and 30 minutes from the cape in a park-like setting. 

In providing a private college educational experience and public university value our students benefit from an affordable education and incur less debt with no sacrifice in quality.  Our graduates will have the capacity to pay back their student loans and have the economic freedom to choose their career path in the private and public sectors. 

Payscale ranks UMass Dartmouth nationally in the top 11% in best value based on return on investment.  As a campus, we are in the top 3% in the country in community service. This benefits not only our students but also the larger SouthCoast region.

We provide a private college educational experience and public university value. Did I mention we are 15 minutes from the ocean in 30 minutes from the Cape?

We will invent our future as we embark upon a new journey. As a Tier 1 national research university, we will:

  • Build on our strengths in teaching excellence, research and service.
  • Continue to provide a balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools
  • Launch a bold initiative to create an economic hub along the Interstate 195 corridor centered on innovation and the blue economy that will integrate with our research and teaching initiatives.
  • In five years, experiential learning will be one of our cornerstones, and every student will be required to co-op and/or participate in at least one service learning project.
  • And lastly, every graduate will be prepared with an agile mindset and equipped with the tools to transform the world.

Hands on experiential learning will be a catalyst to prepare students for the future of work.  Students go to college for many reasons.  Love of learning and self-development matter enormously, and we take seriously the responsibility to help students identify and pursue their goals, dreams and aspirations. 

Students also go to college and graduate school in order to qualify for the jobs that will ultimately support them and their families; very few college students (and none of their parents) invest in a college education with the hope that the final outcome will be unemployment and economic marginalization. We must not just teach graduates to qualify for jobs, we must teach them to create the jobs of the future.

Those of us who are over 40 – whose college graduation years began with a “19” instead of a “20” – graduated into a different world than our students do now.  Before the internet and smart phones radically changed our communication and consumption patterns, before the trauma of 9/11 and the wars that followed thrust us into decades of war, we thought about work after college as fairly stable and unchanging. 

Many of us had parents and grandparents who went to work for a company right after high school or college and stayed there until retirement.  Families moved less.  Supporting a family on one income (usually the man’s) was more economically feasible.  I would not say that it was a better time – especially for women and people of color – but it was a simpler time.  And though things have improved for women and people of color we are nowhere close to where we need to be – not when people who look like me are arrested simply for waiting for friends in a Starbucks and when millions of women have a “me too” story.

Today’s college graduates will hold at least 17 different jobs in 5 different industries. 65% of the jobs they will hold do not yet exist. 

How do we prepare them for so much change?

How do we give them a sense of control over their future?

We need to develop in them what I call the agile mindset. 

The agile mindset values constant learning and innovation; instead of being afraid of change, agile learners seek it out. 

Their first job will be very different than their fifth job.  They understand that many current jobs will be automated in future years, so they bring uniquely human skills that add value and cannot be supplied by a robot. They expect to create their own jobs and careers, not to have them created for them. 

  • Today, robots, not nurses, are turning patients over in hospitals in japan
  • Companies like amazon are disrupting entire industries
  • Driverless cars are turning the auto dealership network upside down

Individuals with an agile mindset will embrace change and transform the world.  They will inherently always seek ways to add and create new value.

The good news is UMass Dartmouth, through our university studies curriculum, embraces the agile mindset. The curriculum states, and I quote, “to be successful, you will need an education that prepares you not only for your first job but for a lifetime of career changes and personal development.”

At UMass Dartmouth, we are already graduating students with an agile mindset.  The only problem is not enough people know who we are and what we do. 

But that is going to change.

Just like our alums in the past, our students today will build on their legacy and invent our future.

As a Tier 1 national research university sitting on 710 acres of land in a park-like setting that provides a private college educational experience and public university value, how do we invent our future?

We invent our future by giving our students a robust skillset and global mindset that enables them to transform the world.

On this day, I want the world to know we are at the dawn of a new beginning that will silence the doomsayers and naysayers.

I want the history books to be unequivocal that on April 20, 2018, a community of learners at UMass Dartmouth came together and decided we will rise up and show the world how great we are.

On this day let it be said that:

  • We will turn every stumbling block into a stepping stone
  • We are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls.

Our greatest asset is our sense of humanity, in our understanding that on a planet with more than 7 billion people that we represent the top 1% in the world and we must embrace our social responsibility to meet the needs the of the present age.

To our students, I say simply: this is your time! If you will fight for your dreams, we will fight for you!

You are the generation who will solve many of the problems throughout the world.

Your generation will travel to Mars

You will find the cure to cancer

You will stop global warming

You will eliminate hunger and poverty in the world.

This is your time and I call upon you and your generation to invent the future in a way the world has never ever seen.

I call upon you to seek out and build a better world that is grounded in civility, mutual respect and with the greatest sense of humanity. 

Students, please understand you are part of something bigger than yourself.  As is often said, "With great power comes great responsibility." The world is counting on you. We need you and the collective genius of your generation to transform the world. So dig down deep and rise up to meet the needs of our time.

With gratitude to the late poet Maya Angelou, I would like to close with a slightly amended version of her poem, “Still I Rise”:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.


Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

We at UMassD say, still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?


You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But we at UMassD say, still I’ll rise.

Out of the huts of history’s shame

I rise

Up from a past that’s rooted in pain

I rise

I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,

Welling and swelling i bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear

I rise

Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear

I rise

Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,

I am the dream and the hope of the slave.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

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