WATERVILLE— Amid a number of challenges in higher education, Colby College is better positioned than ever to make its mark in the academic world, according to the college’s newly inaugurated president, David A. Greene.

Greene, who comes to the college from the University of Chicago, officially took office Saturday afternoon as the college’s 20th president in a ceremony outside Miller Library. In a speech addressing the faculty, the staff, alumni, students and Waterville area residents, he said institutions of higher learning across the country are facing an increasing number of challenges — including the high cost of education, declining government and financial support for education, the rise of globalization and the increased demands of technology — but in spite of them, Colby is well prepared to carve its own path in the liberal arts.

“It is hard to be anything but optimistic about Colby’s future when surrounded by so many people I admire and respect — the board of trustees, the incredible faculty, the students and alumni of Colby College, and the supportive civic leadership of the people in this region,” said Greene, who added that the college has thrived in the past because of the contributions of numerous people, including past presidents William Adams and William Cotter, both of whom were in attendance Saturday.

Both Greene and Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago and an honorary degree recipient at the ceremony, gave speeches in which they addressed the challenges facing the system of higher education in the U.S.

While a number of private and liberal arts schools such as Colby have benefited from strong financial aid systems that have allowed the quality of education students receive to continue to improve while remaining affordable, the same is not true at many public schools, Zimmer said.

“Public institutions of higher education are in a much more difficult situation,” he said. “The total financial support by state legislators and therefore ultimately, by the American public, has decreased. As a result, many public institutions face decreased resources while they too aspire to increase quality and accessibility. The extraordinary stress to public institutions is, to my mind, the single most troubling and even dangerous development in higher education in the United States.”

Greene also addressed what he described as a growing schism in institutions of higher education, between a small group of colleges that are able to offer accessibility and the highest quality to students and others that will be forced to change their educational models in trying to reduce costs.

In this atmosphere, Greene said, Colby’s commitment to the liberal arts is something that will contribute to the school’s success.

He also encouraged members of the college community to look beyond Mayflower Hill, where the school is located, to the broader Waterville area as a resource of learning and discovery.

It was a message that was echoed by others at the ceremony, including Waterville Mayor Karen Heck, an alumna of the school, and several others who spoke about Colby’s history.

“The city and the college share a long and fruitful symbiotic relationship,” said Heck, who thanked leaders at Colby for their support in cultivating the arts and for investing in downtown businesses and economic development efforts.

She also thanked alumni who have helped strengthen the city as a center of arts and culture at places such as the Quarry Road Recreation Center, Railroad Square Cinema, the Hathaway Creative Center and the Colby Museum of Art.

“On behalf of Waterville’s citizens and all area alums dedicated to strengthening the partnership between the city and the college, I want to say we are delighted with David Greene’s bold vision for our downtown and his enthusiastic commitment to Colby’s continuing efforts to make Waterville the place in Maine to come for academic excellence and a quality of life that can’t be beat,” Heck said.

The ceremony concluded with the awarding of honorary degrees to David Axelrod, director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and a political consultant to Barack Obama and Bill Clinton; U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine; Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a sociologist and professor of education at Harvard University; and Zimmer.

After the ceremony, guests took part in a reception on the lawn outside the library.

“It’s an exciting time of year,” said student Sonia Vargas, 21, a senior. “We have a new president and he has a new energy. It’s an exciting time of change.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]