More than a year and a half after taking the helm of Tulane University, Michael Fitts was formally inaugurated Thursday as the 15th president of the 182-year-old university.
The occasion was marked by heartfelt speeches, symbolic offerings and performances by jazz luminary Michael White and Louisiana poet laureate Peter Cooley.
Both the new president and the institution he oversees were showered with praise, and Fitts called his job “the privilege of my life.”
While the affair had a celebratory tone, Fitts took a moment to remind those present of challenges that still face the city’s most prestigious university and its biggest private employer.
“We have one great hurdle left,” he said after listing Tulane’s many accomplishments. “We have not yet bridged the racial and economic barriers within our own community.”
The nearly two-hour ceremony began on a light note with a jazz performance and ended on another with a second-line. Between those bookends were remarks by U.S. Sen. David Vitter and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, as well a host of Fitts’ longtime friends, higher education leaders and select Tulane students.
Vitter, whose brother, Jeffrey, is chancellor of the University of Mississippi, called Fitts’ presence “a real joy” and said Tulane’s future is “bright” because of his leadership. Landrieu called the ceremony “an auspicious occasion.”
Fitts was praised for his efforts as former dean of the highly ranked law school at the University of Pennsylvania. During 14 years at the Ivy League school, Fitts integrated the law curriculum with studies in other departments.
As pointed out, some of those lessons of “cross-pollination” already have been applied at Tulane, a school that first explored interdisciplinary instruction by connecting medicine and public health.
In the years to come, Fitts promised to build on the school’s inherent strengths with collaborative projects that also expand the school’s physical footprint.
In the pipeline is a 42,000-square-foot structure that will link the business school’s two buildings.
The university also is renovating and expanding its former School of Social Work building and is building a River and Coastal Center for researching coastal protection and water resources.
Fitts boasted of Tulane’s international presence, mentioning that it sends a third of its students to study abroad and saying it has more graduates in the Peace Corps than any other university in the nation.
Tulane students, he said, are committed to changing the world, whether by establishing public health schools in sub-Saharan Africa or investing in a business school that partners with leaders from around the globe.
“Students who choose Tulane tend to be bold, intellectually and culturally adventurous,” Fitts said.
With Tulane’s pedigree comes social responsibility, he said. To that end, he called on school leaders to work harder at becoming inclusive and more open to students of varying backgrounds and incomes.
“We simply cannot fulfill our mission of creating great leaders when there are those missing from the table,” Fitts said. “We must be a deeply rooted environment that lives out the Tulane values of quality, respect and dignity.”
Staff and students echoed those sentiments. As processions were wrapping up, a group called the Concerned Collective of Tulane Students held a protest, urging Fitts to address the “violence of white supremacy” on campus and recognize “unmet demands” of the 1968 African American Congress of Tulane.
“This protest is a reminder that students of color at Tulane are still hurting,” a news release from the group said, calling the campus a “racist and hostile climate.”
During the ceremony, artist and printmaking professor Teresa Cole urged Fitts to address Tulane’s “critical areas of need,” which include racial equality.
Cole said she was optimistic about Fitts’ ability to bridge those gaps, as he has long worked at overcoming racial barriers and other obstacles in university settings and beyond.
In keeping with that hope, she presented him with a first edition of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and relayed how the book’s hero, Atticus Finch, had inspired Fitts in law school, leading him to clerk for a federal judge and civil rights activist.
Johns Hopkins University’s president, Ronald Daniels, compared Finch to Fitts, underscoring his ability to learn by walking in another’s shoes.
“In a world that requires us to grapple with entrenched challenges of racial, social and economic injustice, Mike Fitts has devoted his life to answering, to addressing these concerns,” Daniels said. “He is aware that with an exceptional pedigree, built on a career of justice, justice must serve for all.”
There were lighter moments as well, with several speakers making inside jokes referencing New Orleans’ unique culture, a world new to a Philadelphian with a Quaker background.
Amy Gutmann, a longtime mentor for Fitts and the president of the University of Pennsylvania, said that while her friend comes from a different world, he would fit well into a place of “bricolage,” where diversity has produced such cultural mainstays as gumbo and zydeco.
“The unique genius of New Orleans is to put great things together and come up with something greater still,” Gutmann said. “That is Mike’s genius as well.”
Other speakers encouraged Fitts to relish the culinary and musical treasures surrounding him.
Landrieu took note of Fitts’ recent conversion to local folkways, praising his second-line skills.
“Welcome to the city of New Orleans,” Landrieu said. “You are now official, and you can stay forever.”