President John D. Keenan's Inaugural Address | Salem State University Skip to main content

President John D. Keenan's Inaugural Address

Governor Baker and members of his esteemed cabinet; Speaker Robert DeLeo and former colleagues of the Great and General Court; Senator Joan Lovely and Representative Paul Tucker; Mayor Kimberley Driscoll and elected officials of Salem; Commissioner Carlos Santiago; my fellow state university presidents; and to the representatives from other academic institutions - thank you for being here today.

Thank you Chair Mattera and the Salem State Board of Trustees for supporting my appointment to the presidency. Thank you to the inauguration committee for undertaking the planning of today’s event. Thank you to my inspiring predecessor Patricia Maguire Meservey who gave me the opportunity to come to Salem State in 2014. Thank you to the entire campus community, students, faculty and staff, for giving me a reason to come to work every day. And to the greater community gathered here, thank you for joining us and welcome to Salem State University.

Thank you all for sharing this special moment for our institution and for my family.  Without question, this will rank as one of the top moments in my life – right up there with my wedding day, the days my children were born and my first time being sworn in as state representative.

I stand before you in awe of the incredible responsibility and opportunity I have been offered. Though many have walked this campus, few have had the honor of leading it. 

And as I think about the honor it is to shepherd this university into the next decade and perhaps beyond, I think about what made it possible for me to get to this point. The answer, undoubtedly, is education. My education – and the confidence to obtain it – have made all the difference in my life. I firmly believe the famous words of Horace Mann – education is the great equalizer.

It’s easy for this to get lost in the day-to-day routine on campus, but we must remember that through our work at Salem State, we are fighting for equality. We are promoting democracy. We are advancing social justice. We know that when it comes to education, access alone is often not enough. True success requires a community that believes in you. 

I have been blessed to have mentors, teachers, coaches, friends, classmates, roommates, colleagues, and family who have shaped me into the man standing before you today as the 14th president of Salem State University. The cliché goes: it takes a village to raise a child. My village has been this great community of Salem.

Our students find that village here at Salem State. We are the community that guides them. The support that propels them. And the voice that tells them they can. To those of you who work every day to be that community, thank you.

The only greater honor than being on this stage is working with you to be part of the solution. At Salem State, we not only advance equality by providing an excellent education, but we teach the values that lead to progress. We teach students to think critically and to question the status quo. We foster an environment that encourages activism.

Indeed, it is a unique time to be in America as a student and a university president. Our country is experiencing a time of change, disruption, and division that has not been seen for decades.

In protests and demonstrations that harken back to the sixties, students are challenging campus administrators every day –taking a stand, voicing their opinions, speaking out against racism and sexual assault and for free speech and inclusion.

Divisiveness threatens to, and sometimes succeeds in, tearing apart campuses. We think back to the anti-Semitic chants shouted at Charlottesville, the punches thrown at Middlebury, and to the vandalism that occurred on our very own campus last semester and this week. Although these heinous crimes succeed in putting the worst of society on display, they also open a discussion to begin to heal and tackle racism on campuses across this nation.

While the conversation at Salem State will never be over, I can say we are making progress. We will have this conversation and take action for as long as we must to ensure every student and member of the faculty and staff feels safe and welcome on our campus. We need to ensure that every student at our university, regardless of race, sexual orientation, gender, abilities, beliefs, and socioeconomic status feels at home at Salem State.

We often and rightly boast about being the most diverse of the state universities. It is important to be proud of this distinction and strive towards remaining so, however, we must be as inclusive as we are diverse.

Our students and faculty come from different backgrounds and have a variety of opinions. We want our campus to continue to debate the difficult issues of the day, to vote in local and national elections, and to tell their stories.


Being in Salem, we have a wonderful opportunity to be connected to our community and our history. Our students are extremely fortunate to be studying in a city that is welcoming to all creeds of people. Salem, however, also gave us one of the most significant periods of darkness in our nation’s history.

As a descendent of Rebecca Nurse, one of the women convicted and hanged for witchcraft in 1692, and being trained as a lawyer, I am sensitive to the need to provide adequate due process and to fight for social justice.  I have dedicated my life to public service in many instances fighting for social justice – whether for marriage equality, transgender rights, or in-state tuition for “dreamers”. 

I think of people like Rebecca Nurse and find it is my duty to be the voice of those who cannot speak out for themselves and to advocate for those who need someone in their corner. I brought this commitment with me to Salem State where I promise to do the same for our students.

As I begin my presidency, I wish to share with all of you gathered here today and with the entire campus the vision I have for this institution.

It consists of three primary components – academic excellence, student success, and capital improvements.

The success of our academic programs relies on our faculty to continue to provide exceptional education to our undergraduate and graduate students.

The Bertolon School of Business has been working diligently on achieving accreditation.  We are hopeful that we will prevail during this rigorous process to be amongst only five percent of the world’s business schools to be accredited by AACSB.

And in occupational therapy, it was recently mandated that the entry level degree for an occupational therapist will be a doctorate by 2027, we will pursue a clinical doctorate in occupational therapy to ensure the continuation of our program. This will be the first time a Massachusetts State University has applied for a doctoral program.

Salem State has long had a commitment to the sciences. With the top workforce needs of the North Shore in the biotech and healthcare fields, we will remain a leader in preparing students for careers in these important industries.

Beginning as a Normal School, Salem State has always had a foundation in the education of America’s teachers. We will stay true to these values and continue to build important partnerships with our local community, preparing teachers and academic administrators.  

Over the next decade, we will strive to build upon the student success gained during Dr. Meservey’s tenure: we will increase the six-year graduation rate from 52 to 65 percent while also eliminating all achievement gaps. We will grow enrollment by some 2000 students either on campus or virtually.

As we look at the landscape of the North Shore, we recognize that the Hispanic population is the fastest growing. By the shift in demographics, Salem State will likely soon become a Hispanic Serving Institution, with 25 percent of our students identifying as Hispanic. While Salem State would be proud to become the first state university to receive this designation, we must have the resources in place to ensure the success of all incoming students.

As we have already seen our efforts come to fruition, with the Education Trust recently placing us on the list of top 10 schools nationwide for Latino student success, we know it is our duty to increase our efforts.

We are committed to ensuring the success of our Latino students as well as our entire student body.

And over the next decade, I hope to give the opportunity of a college education to the students who live in our own backyard who come from challenging economic backgrounds. The children of Rainbow Terrace and Salem who grow up next door to Salem State deserve the opportunity to thrive at our institution.

Today, I announce the formation of the Dream Scholarship which will provide funding to children of Salem who lack the means to have access to a college education. Donations for this inauguration will begin that fund. 

At the heart of our institution is a commitment to fighting for social justice, addressing public issues, and connecting to the greater community. It is our commitment to civic engagement.

As we become a regional leader in civic engagement, we will strive towards Carnegie Classification, a national recognition of our commitment and strong bond between campus and community. 

To fulfill the dreams of our students and realize many of the goals I set forth today, we will undertake a comprehensive campaign to rival our recently completed 10,000 Reasons Campaign which raised over 26 million dollars. As state universities must become more self-reliant, I hope to increase our efforts and at least double that total in our next campaign.

We must not only grow our student body and increase student success; we must build the facilities needed to achieve the same in the 21st century.

Many of our past presidents have focused on the physical development of our campus, with some of the most significant changes taking place under the leadership of Presidents Keegan, Meier, Harrington and, most recently, Meservey. They gave us some of our most recognized facilities. We will build on that momentum and legacy.

Because of this growth, Salem State has long been identified as three campuses. It is time to bring us together. During my tenure, I hope to create a centralized, consolidated, single campus. No longer will we be identified or represented by North, South and Central, we will become one Salem State campus.

Without question, our top capital priority is the Science Teaching Laboratory Addition which will meet the work force needs of the region. It is imperative that this facility match the excellence of our faculty and academic programs and enables our planned enrollment growth.

As we work to grow our enrollment by 2,000 students over the next decade, there will be a need for additional housing. We will likely need to build two new residence halls to house the influx of students coming to campus as well as meeting our current demand.

Finally, I will continue our advocacy for a commuter rail station within steps of campus. This will not only continue our mission of environmental sustainability, it will increase access from areas throughout the North Shore and beyond. I very much appreciate Mayor Driscoll’s efforts on this front.

Now that I have shared some of my major goals, please allow me a minute, to take a breath, and appreciate this incredible moment.

I stand before you today on January 19, 2018 and cannot believe I take the stage to be sworn in as Salem State’s 14th president, an honor held by only 13 others in this school’s 164-year history. Moreover, with our early leaders forgoing the inauguration ceremony, the number of presidential inaugurations is even fewer with only eight such ceremonies in our history.

This is quite a feeling – almost surreal. I am humbled, honored, thrilled, but above all, ready.

This is unquestionably the capstone of my career in public service. While I’ve served as prosecutor, solicitor, and legislator, I would not want to spend the remainder of my career doing anything else but helping our students be successful at Salem State and beyond. 

Like a third of our Salem State students, I am a first-generation college student. My mother dropped out of high school to marry my father and raise a family. My father worked at a local leather factory, Flynn Tan, like his father before him. I am a proud product of Salem Public Schools - some of my teachers and coaches join us here today. My parents encouraged my siblings and me to go to college to better ourselves and instilled in us a confidence that we could succeed.

I worked hard in high school and with the relentless advocacy by local dentist Don Sadowski, somehow got into Harvard. I took some time after college working before choosing to attend Suffolk Law with encouragement from my mentor and legal titan of Salem, Judge Sam Zoll.

Though I earned a terminal degree, I did not follow a traditional academic route to the presidency and, for many during my confirmation process, this was a concern. The criticism I faced during my selection process did not dishearten me; it inspired me.

The faculty, staff, and students that spoke out against my selection proved that at Salem State, we are passionate about the education we provide to our students and rightfully hold our leaders to the highest standards.

In many ways, I believe my selection as the 14th president was an acknowledgement of a disruption and shift in higher education leadership in the 21st century. Every university board is looking for a president that brings a unique skill-set to compete in an ever-shifting landscape.

There is a quote from one of our most noted alumna, Charlotte Forten, our first African American graduate, that speaks to why I wanted to become president. It says, “I came not here for friendly sympathy or for anything else but to work and to work hard. Let me do that faithfully and well.”

My children will tell you we have only two rules in our house: “try your hardest” and “be polite”. During my time as president, I will do nothing but that. I will work hard every day to make this university the best it can be.

I also implore my children and our students to get up when they are knocked down. Resilience is critical for success in life.

This applied to me quite literally when I was in high school. As a freshman wrestler, I lost my first match in 19 seconds. I got back up and fought my way through to my senior year when I finished the season undefeated in dual meets. And similarly, while seeking elective office, I lost twice before finally winning.

Life is not easy. It’s about choices, perseverance, and hard work. To my children and our students, I say “do not let criticism or failure hold you from your goals.”

I never would have attained this goal if not for many supporters along the way. Calling this city home for over half a century – I am an extremely proud and grateful son of Salem.

To my mentors, coaches, teachers, college roommates, and law school classmates… this whole community really, I say thank you. I couldn’t have made it here without your challenging me to be my very best.

To my father, who taught me the value of hard work. To my mother who died in 1994, who taught me about commitment. To my older brother and sister, I couldn’t have chosen two more supportive siblings and lifelong friends.  To my children who are growing up way too fast, you awe me every day with your zest for life and individuality.  And to my wife Kara who married me even though I brought nothing to the marriage but my $54,000 in law school debt, and who has been a supportive partner in everything I set out to do, know you taught me the importance of balance in life.

I stand before you a proud husband, father, son, brother, and friend – and today, officially the 14th President of Salem State University.

I’ll end here with a look to the future. As I mentioned earlier, 2018 is a unique, tumultuous time. As we begin the year and I begin the presidency, I reflect on the world our students are experiencing and the world they can shape.

Survival of our democracy requires respect for civic engagement and disagreement. Indeed, the essence of our academic mission – seeking truth through rigorous research – is fueled by disagreement and question.

Seeking truth has been one of the pillars of my career. As a former prosecutor, I always found that there was no better satisfaction than the cross examination of a witness. Seeking the truth fueled my zeal for the work.

Students, I urge you to find something that propels you through life as public service has for me. Find your passion and purpose.

For our faculty, their academic freedom fuels their work. They conduct research and facilitate conversations that allow them to seek similar truths and share those truths with our students and with the world. I am convinced society needs education today more than ever so future generations can debate robustly and civilly the important issues of the day.

One of the greatest leaders of our time, Nelson Mandela, said “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”.

As a university, we have the tremendous opportunity to inspire change by educating our students who will go on to shape and mold the world in ways we cannot imagine. I know we have the will, the talent – and the persistence to succeed in the work ahead.

We are up for the task.

Let us begin.


Kimberly Burnett
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