Remarks at Convocation
September 9, 2004
Once more we gather to celebrate our survival, our success, our pride in the story of our school and most of all the promise of our students futures. This is convocation, the annual gathering of faculty, administrators, students, and friends. With this event we mark the beginning of our new academic year.
New School is the name which unifies the mission of each of the schools that comprise our university. It is a name that stands for critical thinking; creative, disciplined and collaborative self-expression; fearless engagement in the great debates of our day; and a willingness to embrace change that holds fast to the best of our traditions.
Much about who we are is dictated by where we are. New York City is the perfect place for a university which believes in the power of creative democracy. This is a place which is constantly being renewed by recent arrivals, who come from every place on earth because they know the welcome mat is still out even after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
This is a place where the most important political experiment on earth is occurring, where we are out to prove that immigration restrictions and dire predictions about civilizations clashing are wrong. This is a place where the new immigrant is teaching us that assimilation can be a powerful two-way street, because the old and the new have much to learn from each other. All that is needed is to allow our imaginations to conquer our fears and make common cause for good with those who seem at first glance to be too different for collaborative action. These fears limit our potential, inhibit our creative urge, and stifle the spirit of life needed for renewal in a time of loss.
This is the central belief of our university. This is the gene code that instructs us when we write our administrative plans, assemble our curricula, and envision our future. We are a collection of people who believe that our differences make us stronger, better and most of all happier.
This past year I participated in a national commission, which was tasked by law to examine how the terrorists who attacked our city and this nation managed to succeed. We found that those who were responsible for defending us failed to imagine that commercial airplanes could be used as bombs. It was, we concluded, a collective failure of imagination.
Our focus was on the collective failure to imagine the possibility of something terrible being done to us. We told a story of opportunities missed and warnings ignored.
We also made it clear that we need to collectively imagine the good that we can do together at least as much as we do the harm that can be inflicted upon us. And here the work of this university figures prominently.
For not only are we an international university - nearly a third of our students call some other country home - we are also a university that believes in progressive ideas and humanistic creativity. We are a university that forges working alliances between the disciplines of design and the social sciences. We recognize the power of language well composed into stories and poems, which help us to understand who we are. We know that music - classical, jazz and contemporary - is the best of all languages for teaching audiences that we share more in common than we realize. We are a university that prepares young men and women for lives of community service and activism that is grounded in respect, decency, and optimism.
This is one of my very favorite times at The New School. I greatly enjoy meeting with each new group of students -- watching their faces as they listen to orientation speakers; hearing their descriptions of why they are here; and feeling their excitement when they talk about their goals and ambitions and dreams.
I also enjoy meetings with faculty members and administrators - seeing first-hand your commitment to teaching and scholarship and your dedication to guaranteeing that this University serves our students in the most effective way possible. I am reminded as I speak with you that it is your work that ensures that the beginning of school will be an auspicious time - full of the promise of success, prosperity, and happiness.
We are a successful university because we have a strong team of academic and administrative leaders. We are successful because our donors believe in the cause. We are successful because our students are willing to commit themselves to the challenge of using knowledge and skills for good.
Management and administration are frequently maligned terms, uttered often with tones of derision - especially during the budget process -- by those who would suggest that the nuts and bolts of administrative work are dull and unimaginative. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Again and again, I am impressed by the daily work of our academic and administrative leaders, which produce positive outcomes such as these three examples of a much longer list:
- Fall enrollments across the divisions are strong;
- We begin the fall semester with a strong academic team of continuing and new deans, led by our new Provost; and
- We have made a record level of investments in summer improvements in classroom, faculty offices and student spaces. And, we are currently in the design phase of the Johnson Center at Parsons and have begun the planning for new facilities on Fifth Avenue. The quality of our facilities matters: to our students, our faculty and our staff.
That we have been able to make these improvements is fundamentally important to the quality of the educational experience of our students. Having a consistent record of management improvements and a strong team of academic and administrative leaders is also important to our friends, who - when they choose to invest their resources in us and our future - want to know that their funds are managed wisely and that their reputation is enhanced by their association with The New School.
Let me mention one other way that you - our faculty and staff, deans and officers -- ensure that the beginning of the academic year is full of promise.
I was reminded of this on reading a recent op ed piece by Tim Rutten that appeared first in The Los Angeles Times. Rutten justifiably decries the lack of dialogue and its replacement by diatribe in our current election conversation. In his article, he quotes Aristotle:
Debate and social groups dedicated to inquiry and discussion are the enemies of tyranny since they encourage intelligent thought and trust among citizens.
What an important idea for our country at this time!
If you are like me, you are greatly concerned about the lack of honest debate over the critical issues that we face - war and peace; jobs and the economy; personal freedom and the common good. And this idea of Aristotle and the essay by Tim Rutten affirm that our concerns are real and justified. For just as ...inquiry and discussion are the enemies of tyranny since they encourage intelligent thought and trust among citizens, it is also true that dedication to name-calling, half-truths, and exaggeration leave the door open for tyrants since they encourage prejudice and paranoia among people.
Disappointed by the level of political conversation coming out of last weeks convention, I am encouraged by the reminder that we are engaged in an activity that has the capacity to influence and perhaps even change the quality of conversation in our country and in many other countries in the world. For what we strive to do at The New School in our classrooms and public programs is ...dedicated to inquiry and discussion. The ability to think critically, to listen to other ideas, to engage in debate (without calling your opponent a girlie man for having a differing point of view) - this is what we teach our students and this is what we practice ourselves.
I end these remarks at the beginning of our school year with a 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 - four of whom we recognize today. The most important work falls upon you: to teach our students to develop the skills of inquiry and discussion.
- To our staff. We know that your work is critical for the success of faculty and students and we are grateful for your faithful service.
- Finally, and most importantly, to our students. Our mission and the purpose of our work are to serve you and to give you a place and a way to learn, so that you may acquire knowledge, skills, and hopefully wisdom to prepare you for a life beyond this place and time.
May we all accept the vital challenge that lies ahead of us and work to bring to fruition the promise of this university.