President Bob Kerrey
Remarks at Convocation
September 4, 2003
Earlier this afternoon I welcomed
you to New School University's Fall Convocation. The root of the word
"convocation" is the verb "to convoke," which means
to call a meeting. At New School University, it is our custom to call
a meeting each fall to celebrate the beginning of the new academic year.
We have called our fall meeting here in Greenwich Village in New York City as, all across the country, colleges and universities are welcoming new and continuing students to campus for the fall semester. However, enrolling in a college in the United States this year has been more difficult for students than in prior years.
It was more difficult for those students who lack the financial means to pay the full cost of tuition -- up several times the rate of inflation at public institutions and also up, somewhat more modestly, at private colleges and universities. It is regrettably, but undoubtedly, the case that some students have simply chosen not to attend college this fall because the price was too high, even with the benefit of scholarships and discounts. Others have chosen to enroll in college, knowing that this means they will shoulder the burden of greater debt as a consequence.
In addition, it was more difficult for our international students, who face lengthier delays and greater scrutiny from federal agencies, in particular the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Some of this enhanced oversight is a necessary consequence of our heightened state of alert against the threat of terrorism. Much of it, however, is unnecessary regulatory friction, which has the effect of making American higher education less attractive to students in an increasingly competitive international market.
I am pleased to report that, in spite of these and other obstacles, we have enrolled a great new class of undergraduate and graduate students, who come to us with boundless promise and enthusiasm. In addition to new students, we also welcome new faculty members, staff, and trustees, who are committed to doing all they can to offer our students an opportunity to acquire life-transforming and world-changing knowledge in one of our eight schools.
We are most deeply indebted to our trustees, our boards of governors, and other friends who have contributed time and money to the work of building the facilities, the faculty, the administrative team, and the systems that are fundamental to giving our students the very best educational experience. The most visible of these investments are the soon-to-be-dedicated Arnhold Hall, Tishman Gallery, and the Theresa Lang Community and Student Center. The quality of these spaces in this multi-purpose building affects the attitude of everyone who enters and uses them. It speaks volumes about who we are. Again, we thank all of you whose contributions have carried us so far, promising to carry us much further in the years ahead.
As you walk through our campus, you will see other tangible investments in building and academic spaces across our campus. Less visible, but just as important, are funds that have been invested in student scholarships and fellowships. In numerous instances, these financial aid funds have made the difference between a student being able to enroll at New School University, rather than elsewhere.
All of these changes are indicative of our progress in becoming a university with over 7,000 students, working towards undergraduate and graduate degrees. New School University is a very different place today than it was when it was founded over 80 years ago, because of our growth in numbers of students, our diverse academic offerings, and our enhanced quality.
Let me hasten to add, however, that some things do not and should not change. Today, we focus our attention on the exemplary performance of our faculty and, in doing so, acknowledge one of those things that does not and should not change. This is the cause and effect relationship between the quality of the educational experience and the talent, enthusiasm, and commitment of those who love to teach. Without the remarkable men and women who have chosen a career as teachers at New School University, few students would ever choose to come to this University.
Among the reasons this is a great university is another characteristic that does not and should not change -- this is the purpose for which we were originally founded. Simply stated our founders were determined to provide an alternative to conservative, higher education orthodoxy. We were and will remain a place where critical thinking, small seminar classes, and interdisciplinary study are a way of life. We were and will remain a place where liberal democracy is enriched with controversial public programming and non-degree education. We were and will remain a refuge for those whose very existence is put at risk by authoritarian rule, religious and ethnic hatred, or physical threats that aim to silence their voices.
Last year, when we notified Egyptian sociologist and activist Saad Ibrahim that he had been selected to receive the University in Exile Award, this is what he said:
It is a great honor you have given me. I was deeply touched by your kind invitation on behalf of the board of trustees to receive the University in Exile award at the May 2003 commencement. The New School has a special place in the lives of intellectuals like myself who came of age in the mid-20th century. I owe a great deal of both my formation and commitments to the inspiration of the faculty pioneers of the early days. It is in their tradition that I am carrying forward our current struggle for democracy in my part of the world.
It is in this same spirit that we offer this years University in Exile awards to five Cuban citizens (four men and one woman) who have risked terrible consequences for peacefully and civilly asking their government for freedoms you and I consider as important as the air we breathe. They are all committed to peaceful transition, and several of them have petitioned the Cuban government to change Cuban law to permit all Cubans:
to associate voluntarily in organizations of their own choosing,
to publish freely opinions and views which are theirs alone,
to own property, and
to contract for their own wages.
They are not calling for regime change. They do not seek outside help -- especially, they do not seek help from the United States. They do not use the language of violent means, which are justified by noble ends.
They simply and peacefully signed a petition, as is permitted under the Cuban constitution, which prescribes a method whereby Cubans can ask for a direct change in Cuban law.
The constitutional procedure followed directs the Cuban Assembly to enact changes in Cuban law if more than 10,000 legal signatures accompany a petition for change. The exciting promise of this provision has been crushed into bitter meaninglessness by one additional requirement: those who sign a petition must include their addresses and their federal identification numbers
This lack of anonymity and privacy has exposed every individual who had the courage to sign this petition to considerable risk, because the government has the power to select a range of options to punish or discourage signatories. The government may simply assign you to perform an undesirable job. They may deny your children the opportunity of going to college. Representatives of the government could ask you to report for questioning, detaining you for an undetermined, sometimes extended, period of time. Or, they could charge you with the crime of sedition and sentence you to jail after a trial, in which you had a most inadequate defense.
All five of today's honorees have put themselves at personal risk in their campaign for peaceful reform. Three of them were arrested and are now in prison serving terms that range from 20 to 25 years. The other two were not arrested -- this time -- but they have been harassed or imprisoned before and know they could suffer this fate again, at the whim of their government.
John Dewey, one of the founders of the New School, believed that creative democracy had the potential to help to harness the best attributes of human nature as no other political system could. He believed that the key to unlocking this potential was for individuals to understand the ideas from which democracy proceeds, the techniques that make success possible, and the commitment needed to allow it to survive our worst attributes.
I believe commitment is the most important of these three. It is most important because commitment, if it is modified and expanded with words like "steadfast," "determined," and "fearless," requires the best from us. Commitment calls upon us to give much more than passive assent. Commitment demands perseverance in the face of unpleasant opposition. Commitment does not yield to the pen of editorial opposition or the gun of dictatorial oppression. Commitment calls us to go where safety can no longer be guaranteed.
The five men and women we honor today have demonstrated that kind of commitment. And they are joined by thousands of others in Cuba who are just as brave and who could, as easily, have been selected by us to receive our University in Exile award. To every man and woman who was brave enough to tolerate the terrifying consequences of signing this petition: we thank you for reminding us what we must do to keep democracy alive here in the United States.
Among the most important strands of our past, woven boldly into the fabric we now call New School University, is our commitment to the kind of critical thinking which permits human beings to examine the status of our existence in an open, honest, and, at times, confrontational way. Knitted tightly to critical thinking is another strand: the belief that each of our students through their art, their music, their design and their ideas will become agents of constructive change in their communities.
It is vital for the bravery of the Cubans, who we honor today, to inspire our own. To understand what kind of personal commitment we need to make to creative democracy, we do not need to reach back through history to the example of the founders of this nation. We need today to look south to see a courageous petition drive in the Caribbean instead of becoming consumed by a trivial one in California.
As many of you know, I had the opportunity to visit Cuba last fall with some of our faculty and trustees. On my return, I wrote the following:
"Cuba is not just another country. It is a nation that provokes political debates that are among the most contentious in the United States today. It is the only country towards which so much of the detail of our foreign policy has been written into law....As I listened to and watched the people of Cuba during this brief trip, I kept wondering how the United States could engage more constructively with this island nation of 11 million."
In response to my question from last November, I assert that we need to engage beyond the harsh and destructive debate of whether or not to maintain an embargo -- an embargo, which, for the record, I believe is counterproductive -- to the constructive effort of remembering Varela, pledging our support for this peaceful civil movement, and offering words of opposition to a government that denies their people these basic human rights.
I end these remarks at the beginning of our school year with another sincere and heartfelt thank you:
To our trustees, boards of governors members, and donors for giving us the time and the money we need to fulfill our mission. I pledge to you I will not allow our university to forget how much of our success is a result of your dedication and generosity
To our faculty five of whom we recognize today. Upon you falls the most important work: to teach our students to develop the passion and the discipline required if they are to become complete and balanced learners.
To our staff. We know that nothing works around here without you: maintaining our buildings, providing our security, operating our computer systems, installing our art work, providing financial, housing, counseling, health, and career advice to our students, answering the phone, scheduling our meetings, and much more besides.
And finally, and most important, to our students. Our mission and our work's purpose are to serve you and to give you a place and a way to learn, so that you acquire knowledge, skills, and wisdom to prepare you for a life beyond this place and time. And when life gets hard, as it always does, we hope that you will find hope in the example set by each of the men and women we honor today.