Inauguration of Dr. Gregg Mast as President of New Brunswick Theological Seminary

Richard L. McCormick’s Keynote Address

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Thank you, Abe, for that introduction and for your thoughtful reflections on the historical connections between Rutgers and the Seminary. In that spirit, let me thank you for all that the Suydam family has meant to the history of both institutions, including your outstanding service on the Rutgers University Board of Trustees.

Dr. Mast, distinguished fellow presidents, members of the clergy, students, faculty, and staff of the Theological Seminary, honored guests: Good morning and thank you for the invitation to be part of this momentous and historic day for The New Brunswick Theological Seminary. It speaks to the commitment and purpose of the Seminary that this day should include panels on three vital issues – the role of seminaries in urban life, the opportunities for strengthening interfaith relationships, and the future of theological education.

I am pleased to represent Rutgers, which has been a neighbor to the Seminary for nearly two centuries. History shows, however, that our common location was not everyone’s first choice. When New Jersey’s royal governor, William Franklin, granted a charter for a college to the Dutch Reformed Church in 1766, there was debate among the sponsors about where it should be located – Hackensack, Tappan, or New Brunswick. Likewise, the Seminary spent its first decades in New York before moving to New Brunswick in 1810.

As Abe Suydam has indicated, our institutions share significant early history and roots in the Dutch Reformed Church. They have common origins and geography and a mutual dependence as they struggled to establish themselves. They even shared space down the street at Old Queen’s for many years. It can be said that without the Seminary – its founders and its supporters – there would not be a Rutgers. And yet the college filled a vital role for the seminary as well. For most of their shared history, until 1934, it was Rutgers that awarded the divinity degrees earned at the Seminary.

Truth be told, the seminary and the college had a somewhat troubled relationship early on, not because of fundamental differences in philosophy but because of a competition for scarce resources both in terms of dollars and professors. Frankly, both institutions had precarious existences at the hands of the General Synod, with the college even passing out of existence for several years at a time in the early days. Those are troubles that we put behind us long ago.

While the various covenants that bound the two institutions in their first century of existence were mutually severed by the 1860s, the bonds of shared missions and location have sustained our connection.

In the 20th century a positive relationship developed between the Seminary and the University. In fact, in one of those years, my own father – then a Rutgers student – lived in the residence halls of the Theological Seminary.

Perhaps the most significant figure in the strengthened relationship during the past century was a man who brought great pride to both institutions. I am speaking of Dr. William Henry Steele Demarest, who served from 1906 to 1924 as one of Rutgers’ most distinguished and successful presidents. Dr. Demarest, was first, however, a student at the Seminary and then a professor at the Seminary. And immediately after his tenure at Rutgers, Dr. Demarest served as Seminary president for a decade, from 1925 to 1934.

Demarest became president of Rutgers a century ago almost to the day. In his long tenure, he oversaw important changes such as the expansion of the agricultural school, the tripling of our undergraduate enrollment, and the establishment of a college for women. He was one of the first to see a dual role for Rutgers – serving the traditional private college function but also serving the needs of the state. My father would later write of Demarest that “No son of Rutgers had ever been privileged to serve his alma mater with such loyalty and devotion.”

Within six months of his resignation from Rutgers, Dr. Demarest became president of the Seminary and again was responsible for great achievements. The Seminary’s Board of Directors praised him for “signal progress” during those years and pointed to improvements such as the expansion of the Library, the renovation of Hertzog Hall, strong leadership of the faculty, and watchful financial stewardship. And what rings true especially to me is this sentence from the Board minutes, as quoted in the Seminary history Two Centuries Plus. It reads, “Students and professors alike will not soon forget the generous hospitality of his home, so frequently renewed.”

When I was a boy of five or six, my father was working on a history of Rutgers. Dr. Demarest, who had written his own history of the college many years earlier, was living out his retirement in the brown stone house on the corner of Seminary Place and George Street. My father used to meet with him there on Saturday mornings, and I would tag along to Dr. Demarest’s house. Naturally, I had no interest in what they were discussing, so instead I would prowl around his library. One object that intrigued me was a small replica of the Liberty Bell. Demarest had obtained it as a schoolboy when he went to Philadelphia for the country’s Centennial in 1876. He saw how much I liked it, and one morning he gave me the bell. I still have that bell. It is on my desk to this day, and I will always treasure that connection to a great president of both our institutions.

The example of Dr. Demarest suggests the impact a leader can have – both in executing the official duties of the position and in the personal commitment that he or she brings. In Dr. Gregg Mast, a leader of vast experience and accomplishment, New Brunswick Theological Seminary has chosen its president with great care. His ties to the seminary, his ecumenical experience, and his personable nature will all serve him and this seminary well.

And so as he begins his tenure, it is my honor and pleasure to welcome Gregg – or more appropriately welcome him back – to New Brunswick and to offer my warmest wishes. More than that, I offer the hope and the possibility of exploring new opportunities for collaboration.

In writing to me about this day, Robin Suydam spoke of what she called the “largely untapped” synergies of our institutions. I think she is right. Today we have common opportunities. We share important commitments as well.

Both institutions are firmly dedicated to quality, innovative education for the 21st century. Both are known for and committed to diversity and opportunity, important not only for the sake of social justice but also for the benefit of education for a global society. And both are committed to the application of our knowledge to the larger communities of which we are a part. We seek to make a difference in those communities, particularly urban areas – in the seminary’s case, here and New York City; for Rutgers, in Newark, Camden, and New Brunswick.

Let me offer an immediate area of mutual interest, and that is the appearance and attractiveness of our New Brunswick campuses. Rutgers is making plans to redevelop our College Avenue Campus and make it a more beautiful and inviting place for students, faculty, alumni, and visitors alike. Knowing that redevelopment will have an impact on the Seminary – we believe a very positive impact – we want the Seminary to be closely involved in our plans. This is just one way in which we can work together for the benefit of all.

Ladies and gentlemen, for two centuries our institutions have shared an inextricable connection. We at Rutgers have seen the progress of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary from a unique vantage point. We know that in this history there have been many difficulties and challenges, but also great leaders who stepped forward to overcome these problems and maintain the central mission of the seminary. We have also seen the Seminary grow to meet the changing social and spiritual needs of our society. There is always more work to be done in meeting those needs – and I know Dr. Mast and the good people of the Seminary are ready to make that commitment. He and they have my admiration and best wishes.

With distinct missions but common areas of concern and focus, Rutgers and NBTS can only strengthen themselves and each other by examining how we can support each other in the years ahead. Dr. Mast, I look forward to our collaboration and know that it will be fruitful.

Thank you, and congratulations!