Welcome Remarks at
The New School Convocation
September 6, 2007
Across the United States and from all parts of our planet 75 million students are returning to the important work of listening, reading, discussing, and learning. Add to this seasonal migration another 15 million teachers and staff plus 50 million or so parents, and it’s a wonder that anything gets done in this country other than just transporting, supplying, preparing, and supporting those who will shortly gather in classrooms, laboratories, studios, and stages.
Our students are a part of 18 million others who are beginning - or returning to - college. Fortunately for us, our students’ destination is The New School. And here in Tishman Auditorium we gather to celebrate our institutional resilience, our success, our pride in the traditions of our school, and most of all the promise of our students’ futures. This is convocation, the traditional gathering of faculty, staff, students and friends. With this event we mark the beginning of our new academic year.
Although the migration of students, faculty, and staff of other colleges and universities has much in common with ours, there are some important differences. Most important of these differences is that we are gathering in New York City, a place where so many have come before us. The migration of human beings to the island of Manhattan and the United States of America is one of the great stories of our era. This migration built our city and has changed our world for the good.
And – I am proud to say – that even after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the people of New York City have not pulled up the welcome mat to others who seek to migrate temporarily or permanently to this place we call home. It is an amazingly well kept secret that this migration is the political, economic, and social advantage of the city. It is an advantage which creates tremendous opportunities for our students to learn about what is happening in the rest of the world by merely talking to people in our neighborhoods - or to each other for that matter since nearly one-fourth of our students call some other nation their home.
A lot has happened at The New School in the fourteen weeks since our spring commencement. During that time we have been busy preparing ourselves for the beginning of the fall term. Our buildings and grounds crews have been working on a variety of capital projects that expand our campus - from the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center and the Student Welcome Center at the intersection of 13th Street and Fifth Avenue to the addition of new student spaces, classrooms, and faculty offices at 79 Fifth Avenue/Union Square.
For these new academic spaces, the Information Technology staff has designed state-of-the-art educational technology that will serve as the model for upgrading the delivery of services throughout the campus. We also finished a very successful fundraising year on June 30th that brings closer to reality our vision to build a new vertical campus on the site of the List building at 65 Fifth Avenue.
Our Provost Ben Lee, our Deans, and our faculty have advanced the planning for a new academic future with tangible and coherent connections to our past, our city, and our world. This plan will integrate the primary themes of The New School – design, liberal arts, social sciences, urban studies, and performing arts – and will construct an intellectual program that is distinctive and altogether fitting for the 21st century. That is, a program that leverages the great traditions of The New School, along with the resources of New York City, to create academic programs that are urgently needed at a time when critical thinking and analytic skills are in short supply.
These constructive changes have been possible because of the vision and hard work of the men and women of our community here at The New School. We are especially 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. We thank all of you whose contributions have carried us so far and who are committed to helping us achieve our ambitious vision for the future.
The New School is a special place for many reasons. But just saying that is not enough. Our mission is as serious as it is difficult: to make certain we challenge and help our students to learn as much as they can in the highest quality academic environment, whether they are studying at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts; The New School for Social Research; The New School for General Studies; Parsons The New School for Design; Mannes College The New School for Music; The New School for Drama; The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music; or Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy.
Our educational mission must continue to be deeply connected to social justice, the public good, and civic action. It is not accidental - though deserving of attention and praise - that Lang College was recently named by The Princeton Review as the best college in the country for encouraging debate and discussion. We are keenly interested in new ideas and your potential to realize them, and we are deeply committed to solving the problems of our modern society and enriching the human experience by stimulating your intellectual and ethical development and creativity. I believe this commitment is an important reason why many of you - whether you are studying liberal arts, art and design, social sciences, music, drama, or urban policy – chose to come to this university.
The New School must continue to be a place where our faculty is committed to encouraging our students to have conversations and discussions about what it means to be a human being. I believe the best way to do that is through living examples. Today, through the presentation of the Distinguished University Teaching Awards, we recognize four extraordinary human beings who are dedicated to doing all they can to offer our students an opportunity to acquire life-transforming knowledge. This year’s recipients epitomize what has always been and always will be the most valuable asset of any university: teachers who know how and are willing to take the risks associated with helping others to learn. Without the remarkable men and women who have chosen to teach at The New School, few students would ever choose to come to this university. To our entire faculty, we salute you and thank you for the value you have added to our world.
Today we also pay tribute to an alumnus of the university, Dr. Berhanu Nega (Bear-haa-nou Nay-gaa), whose work and achievements are the very model of the social values and public mission with which this university has always identified. We should never forget nor change the purpose for which this institution was originally founded in 1919 - to provide an alternative to conservative, higher education orthodoxy. The New School was founded on strong convictions – unbending intellectual rigor, free and articulate expression and a basic training in the skills that make democracy work. The New School prides itself on being a place where individuals can learn and develop without rigid rules or superfluous conventions that limit human potential. We were and remain a place where critical thinking 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.
It is in this spirit that we are honored today to present the Distinguished Alumnus Award to Berhanu Nega, who has suffered terrible consequences and put his life at risk for peacefully and civilly asking his government for freedoms you and I consider as important as the air we breathe: to speak and publish freely opinions and views without threat of punishment, and the right to demonstrate peacefully and associate voluntarily in organizations of one’s own choosing without threat of punishment.
Let me tell you just a bit about Berhanu’s life. At the age of 17, shortly after his enrollment at Addis Ababa University, he was forced to flee Ethiopia to avoid prosecution by the military authorities because of his participation in a student movement openly advocating for democracy and human rights issues. He lived as a refugee in the Sudan for two years until he was granted political asylum by the United States. While here, he earned a B.A. degree and then completed a Ph.D. in economics from The New School for Social Research. In 1994 he and his family returned to Ethiopia with the hope of contributing to the economic and social developments in the country. During these years, he served as the president of the Ethiopian Economic Association, among other organizations committed to economic development and helped to found the Coalition for Unity and Democracy (CUD) party, an opposition party focused on the promotion of democratic values. His work for democracy and human rights landed him in jail more than once, most recently in November 2005 when he and his colleagues in the CUD and its supporters - from students to taxi drivers to shop owners - peacefully protested against Ethiopia’s first multi-party ballot, which was characterized by widespread fraud, intimidation, violence, and murder. Charged with treason, the punishment for which is the death penalty, Berhanu served nearly two years in Ethiopia’s prisons before being released earlier this summer, partly as a result of the work of various organizations and groups, including students and faculty at The New School, to draw attention to his case and condemn the government.
As we honor Berhanu Nega, I would also ask that we remember Kian Tajbakhsh (K-Yahn Tahj-backsh), a former New School professor of urban planning, a scholar whose writings focus on local democratic reform in Iran, and current consultant to the Open Society Institute. Kian has been detained in Evan Prison in Tehran since May of this year on entirely baseless charges of endangering Iranian national security. We at The New School have joined many organizations around the world in calling for his immediate release.
Berhanu Nega and Kian Tajbakhsh demonstrate the kind of commitment that does not yield to dictatorial oppression and have accepted the call to go where safety can no longer be guaranteed. They teach all of us humility, imagination, and the courage to act when we discover something wrong. They remind us of the values at the core of this institution’s founding. And it is as true today as it was a century ago, that we must still begin each day of our work embracing these traditions of our past: critical thinking that expands the boundaries of the disciplines we choose to study; determination to protect open debate and conversation uninhibited by fear of where our studies might take us; commitment to meet the unmet educational needs of our community; and a willingness to engage in the great, contentious social and political issues of our day. 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 follow Berhanu’s example and become agents of constructive change in their communities. Nor can we let down our larger community. There is no shortage of issues and this university must go where others fear to venture.
So welcome back to school. I end these remarks at the beginning of our school year where I began - with another sincere and heartfelt thank you to our trustees, our boards of governors members, our faculty, our staff, our alumni and our larger community - and finally, and most important - to our students. Our mission and our work’s purpose are to serve you and give you a place 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.