Welcome Remarks at
The New School Convocation Ceremony
Thursday, September 4, 2008
Welcome back. This Convocation marks the beginning of our academic year. This is my seventh convocation. To be accurate I should say “just my seventh” since so many of the men and women who work at the New School and who are just as excited as I am about the start of the Fall term have seen many more beginnings than me.
A lot has happened at the New School these past seven years.
Our full time undergraduate and graduate enrollments have more than doubled without sacrificing our quality.
We have built new spaces, remodeled old and have more than tripled available housing for our students.
We have substantially improved our financial condition and the quality of our administrative services.
We have made undergraduate education our top priority and have doubled the number of full time faculty who are needed to provide the counseling full time undergraduate students need.
We have lowered the nearly impenetrable barriers that stood in the way of students from one division enrolling in classes of another.
We have worked hard to connect our academic efforts to the political, social and economic life of New York City. We have worked hard to connect our future with our traditions. And we have worked hard to honestly assess where we are against the ambition we have to be even better at what we do.
As much as we have changed, the world around us has changed even more. And for a university whose most important tradition is civic engagement these changes are both exciting and disturbing.
We are excited about the increased global opportunities that are available for our students and our faculty. We are disturbed by the economic, social and physical destruction the forces of globalism can have on the health and well being of local communities.
In just one week the seven year-old memory of one terrible act of destruction will come to the surface again especially for those of us who were here that morning. The terrorist group who carried out this attack targeted the United States and other liberal democracies because of the religious, national, ethnic and gender diversity of our economic and public life. The innocents who died that morning exemplified this diversity.
And while our government launched into protective missions that were motivated too often by vengeance, fear, retribution and a willingness to abandon the liberal values of our democracy, we here in New York City and the New School have not. In this city and at this university we have not pulled up the welcome mat to the immigrant community.
Quite the contrary. We welcome them with open arms. We celebrate their diversity. We defend their rights. We protect their freedom of speech, religion and privacy. And, if necessary and where possible, we become their University in Exile.
To all of our students – regardless of where you call home - we are looking forward to this academic year. We are calling 2008-2009 “The Year of the Student: Expanding your Horizons” because we want not only to offer you more learning opportunities, we want to offer you more ways to connect your interests and passions with the global issues of today that are in desperate need of new, disciplined and creative minds to tackle them.
Nelson Mandela sounding very much like our school’s founder John Dewey and our nation’s founder Thomas Jefferson said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” That is our mission: To help you become a peaceful weapon to change the world.
This year we celebrate year the 75th Anniversary of the University in Exile. 75 years ago, recognizing the danger Hitler presented to democracy and the civilized world, The New School created and nurtured the University in Exile to provide a haven for scholars and artists whose very lives were threatened by National Socialism. A whole generation of social scientists, philosophers, historians, and others were brought to the safety of The New School.
We celebrate the action but too often forget the bravery needed by the leaders of the New School to create the University in Exile. There is no better way to observe this fact than through the lives of three of our trustees whose flight from the Nazi threat to the United States was not direct. They could not get Visas to our country. Our State Department never filled the small quota allowed for European Jews. They went to Cuba first and from Cuba came here.
Today we are honored to continue in that tradition of sponsorship of endangered scholars. In July we welcomed from Iraq, our university in exile scholar, Muwafaq Hamid. Mr. Hamid served in Iraq as a translator for the American Army and several American corporations involved in procurement for the American Army. Mr. Hamid and his family faced not only the grave dangers of living in a country at war but by helping the United States in its mission to bring democracy to Iraq, Mr. Hamid received death threats to the point that it was no longer safe for him and his family to remain in Iraq. He now joins us as a research scholar in our Graduate Program of International Affairs. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Hamid and his wife and two daughters. Mr. Hamid, will you and your family please stand. I welcome you and your family and thank you for being so courageous to stand up for what you believe to be right in the face of danger and adversity.
We also welcome another endangered Scholar, Befekadu Degefe, a renowned economist from Ethiopia. Mr. Degefe served as a mentor to Berhanu Nega who, as some of you will remember, was awarded the distinguished alumnus award at last year’s convocation. Mr. Degefe has come to The New School with his wife and daughter and joins us as a research scholar in our Economics Department at The New School for Social Research. Please join me in welcoming Mr. Degefe and his family. Mr. Degefe, will you please stand. I welcome you and thank you for your courage to leave your home land and come here in search of the right to think and speak freely.
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 people like these scholars who embody the very core of The New School by not conforming to majority rule but rather insisting on the right to think freely.
Though the leaders may have different names and their wars may have different beginnings we are still in a position to struggle for democracy and human rights. We can look back into any point in history at any number of difficult times and find issues and problems that seemed insurmountable. H.G. Wells said “history is a race between education and catastrophe.” We need only to look to front page headlines for our most recent struggles. Global warming, the war in Iraq, the looming costs of healthcare and the millions who go without, our nations crumbling infrastructure, increasing energy costs and the rising cost of food coupled with the stagnation of wages, the housing market crisis and the fading away of our middle class, the continual threat of terrorism and the constant struggle on the issue of immigration, to name a few. There are no doubt an abundance of problems, catastrophes as Wells refers to them. So it is crucial for us to offer education that will ignite ideas and open minds of students who will be the ones to bring forth the solutions.
At every moment since humans have been struggling to survive amongst the carnivores there have been moments when large, seemingly insurmountable problems loomed in front of us. Sometimes fear and ignorance conspire to hold us back. But just often enough as education, ethics, courage and collaboration come together to enable us to prevail and to improve our situation.
Education without ethics will not enable you to have a moment when your conscience tells you that a wrong must be set right. Unfortunately, these two alone are not enough. You will need courage to face the power of individuals to inflict pain and the resistance of institutions to change. And you will need the company, comfort and collaboration of others. No great struggle succeeded through the efforts of a single individual.
I hope you will find a way to discover the power of all four of these here at the New School. Among the most difficult challenges we face when we commit ourselves to learn is that education demands that we explore all sides and investigate all possibilities. The most important things you will ever learn occur when you approach the subject with humility. And the most creative and productive you will ever be occurs immediately following the discovery that something you believed for a long time is wrong.
Education in short is not for the faint of heart. A good education should be unsettling, disturbing, and exciting. To expand our horizons we must keep an open mind, we must learn to listen carefully and to think critically. Critical thinking – the gene code of this university – is nowhere near as easy as just being critical. Critical thinking begins with careful and rigorous study. It depends upon open debate on heated, contentious topics. Intellectual and academic freedom feed it. Preconditions suffocate.
We at The New School acknowledge that to not know something is pure opportunity. It is the brightest and most confident student who can raise his hand and say “I don’t know.” To acknowledge you don’t know the solution to a problem is the start of fixing the problem. For in not knowing we open ourselves to learning.
We have always been a place where the new and the unconventional feel at home. We are like a rough neighborhood where only the artists and free thinkers are brave enough to pioneer. And like those neighborhoods--SoHo, Tribeca, Williamsburg, Red Hook--the artist and free thinkers come in and make that neighborhood. They show what it could be. They attempt to live in the day what they experience inside their minds, their hearts, and their souls. They have a distinctive edge which brings other people along, only of course, after a long period of people telling them they are crazy to think and do such things. But it takes only one person to open the door that will allow thousands to walk through.
We are a university that looks to open doors, to pioneer in areas not populated by the masses. We are a university that constantly questions and though we seek answers through design and performance and writing and social science, we know that in all those areas the truth lies more in the questions themselves. If we can present the questions, the world questions that are out there being kicked around, we know that you the students will be the ones to seek the answers, to solve the problems.
We are also a university that engages in the great political, social and economic debates of the day. We have invited people to our campus whose views are well liked by the majority of our community and we have invited those who are not well liked. In spite of a few uncomfortable and contentious moments we will continue to do so. To avoid controversy would be a very un-New School thing to do.
So I welcome each of you back into our university community. I praise you for all the hard work that has been completed and the goals that we’ve achieved. I thank and honor our faculty who through their diverse makeup bring knowledge and lessons to this school that allow for us to continue being a unique academic and social environment where our students are exposed to life-transforming ideas, a place to think and a place to act. I acknowledge the people in the wings, our administrative staff who through their committed efforts to the ideals we represent, work to ensure the university runs on all levels from the lights going on to the world knowing about it. And I thank our volunteer staff whose experience and generosity are crucial to our mission and success. It is their passion for our values and history and potential for the future that enable us to become finer each year. I am excited to be a part of this passionate, distinct community. I look forward to another exciting and productive year.