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Scenes from inauguration: Excerpts from the speech

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Features, Top Stories


PHOTO BY Nafiz R. Ahmed/The Hoot

Mr. Chairman, members of the board of trustees, Justice Gants, members of the family of our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis, delegates from universities and learned societies around the world and your representative, my dear friend President Morty Schapiro, Presidents Reinharz and Thier, faculty, staff, students, alumni, supporters, parents, and all members of the Brandeis family across the globe who are watching and listening over the Internet.

I stand before you today grateful for the opportunity you have given me to serve as the eighth president of Brandeis University. I am humbled by your faith and buoyed by your support.

I make this solemn pledge to you today:

I dedicate myself, with every fiber of my being, to guide, support and nurture this great university.

It is altogether appropriate that I make this pledge not privately or in a small setting but in this grand convocation because this is not a pledge that I can fulfill alone. Brandeis has always been about community—the Brandeis family—and now more than ever we draw together as a family to chart our course in the years ahead.

I must take a moment to thank Jehuda Reinharz for his leadership and grace in passing the baton to me. Jehuda—you have carried Brandeis over the threshold into the 21st century. We are grateful for your selfless dedication and service. You should continue to go from strength to strength.

We inherit the work of dreamers—new Americans who at the time of our founding in 1948 imagined a grand university to be named for a towering figure of law and of justice.

An unlikely group of dreamers—of the eight founders, only three had college degrees. Of the other five pioneering trustees, only one had been born within the United States. None of the remaining four had even graduated from high school

And they, along with the visionary first president, Abram Sachar, knew that dreams are not fairy tales. Dreams are about hard work. And the continuation of that work now falls to us, to build upon their mid-20th century dream—and to dream some dreams of our own.

I remember the day that I was named president, last summer. I had a speech prepared for the reception that day, but when I stood at the podium, I simply began with “all the threads.” Brandeis, in a way that I had only begun to appreciate that July afternoon, draws together all the threads of my life.

And I feel that even more today. Because now I look out at this remarkable sea of over a thousand members of the Brandeis family, and I have been blessed to get to know so many of you already. Colleagues now—colleagues all.

We draw together the threads of each others’ lives, which is what makes the fabric of the Brandeis community so rich and extraordinary.

* * *

My mother was the first in her family to go to a full time college. She went on to become a master teacher—who held the highest standards for her students and for my brothers and me.

My mother gave me the best words of advice I ever received as a teacher, dean and now as a president—“remember, each one of them is somebody’s kid.”

My father was an engineer who as a young man worked on the Manhattan Project. As a chemical engineer, he challenged himself to read widely in history, economics and politics. He instinctively understood the value of a liberal arts education.

My parents raised my brothers Phillip and Ted and me to believe that integrity and honesty are the highest values, but, as Albert Einstein said, “we are on this earth for the benefit of each other,” that the hardest problems must be faced with courage, determination, optimism, and of course, a sense of humor.

These are the values that I have striven to live by—as a student, lawyer, prosecutor, professor, and dean—and as a son, a husband and father and as a friend and colleague.

These are the values that will guide me as president of Brandeis.

The very hill on which Brandeis rests was a rock promontory first surveyed by John Winthrop in 1632. Legend has it that on this spot, Winthrop delivered his famous “city upon a hill” speech for the second time. Winthrop’s sermon tied the puritan experiment to biblical covenantal language, declaiming that the puritans must succeed “for all the eyes of the world would be upon them like a city on a hill.”

It seems, sometimes, as if all the eyes of the world are upon us here at Brandeis. There are important reasons why the world still looks to Brandeis as an inspiring model, as a city on a hill.

In part, the world looks at us because of our uniqueness. Every university in the country claims to be unique—but I say that our claim to uniqueness is itself unique. We are in fact, the only non-sectarian, non-religious institution of higher learning that is deeply rooted in the jewish community. These are roots that do not narrow us, but rather broaden us, and it is from our jewish roots that we draw our core values of scholarship, learning and social justice.

Now together, let’s take as our symbol the very rock on which we literally stand today and on which Brandeis is built—for it is both fact and symbol.

The rock on which Brandeis stands is the dedication to non-discrimination

The rock on which Brandeis stands is commitment to the liberal arts and sciences

The rock on which Brandeis stands is community and social justice.

In other words, as my kids would say, we rock.

First, our commitment to diversity and inclusion.

In 1948, our founders were committed to an institution that in recruiting its faculty and admitting its students would reject all forms of discrimination on the basis of race, creed, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin or gender.

Though this may seem less than revolutionary in 2011, let’s remember that 1948 was nearly twenty years before federal law formally prohibited discrimination in education.

In this way our founders were visionary and their commitment to non-discrimination was breathtaking.

In other words, the American Dream, magnificent in its articulation but flawed in its implementation at the time of our nation’s founding, found a compelling realization in Waltham in 1948. A straight line leads from 1776, to 1948 to us, here, today.

The genius of the founders of 1948 was to peer into the future, past the narrowness and constraints presented by the times they lived in, and to create something new under the sun. They understood that the commitment to non-discrimination produces a faculty and student body of extraordinary distinction and ability, not limited by background or heritage and thus limited only by their imagination.

The principle of non-discrimination is now a principle of diversity, inclusion and global reach. Our campus today has students from 116 different countries. We have a deep and abiding connection with the Jewish community as well as student groups representing seventeen different world religions.

We have students who are third-generation Brandeisians, and we have students who are the first in their family ever to go to college.

To maintain and enhance the diversity of our community, we must strenghthen the resources necessary to allow us to honor the commitment that we have made to need-blind admissions. I am strongly committed to that effort.

Our second bedrock principle is our founders’ magnificent commitment to the creation of a liberal arts university. They built a research university on the base of a small liberal arts college—the liberal arts university was literally born at Brandeis.

How did the founders know? How did they have the genius to envision it?

Harvard didn’t have it; Yale didn’t have it; my own Williams didn’t have it.

This university’s founders had the wisdom to aspire to be both the kind of soaring and broad-based research university that American higher education inherited from Europe and also a small liberal arts college, drawn from the model that has been described as the only uniquely American form of higher education.

With this vision, our university took off at an unmatched pace.

Phi Beta Kappa was conferred in 1961, only 13 years after the founding. No college or university before or since has received a chapter more quickly since the birth of Phi Beta Kappa in 1776.

In 1985, fewer than 40 years after our founding, we were admitted into the American Association of Universities, a distinguished association of the leading public and private research universities in North America, then only 50 in number and today still only 63.

Our growth has never stopped. Our student body has grown; our campus has spread; and the reach and impact of our teaching and scholarship is international. Our faculty, students and alumni are recognized internationally in their fields.

As I stand before you I am mindful of the words of Dr. Sachar, surveying all of the universities represented at his inauguration in 1948. He said that the “first president of such a new institution must pray for strength and wisdom and courage as he is admitted to such a family.”

It is not only the first president who should pray for strength and wisdom. Prayer is good—and strength and wisdom and courage are never in adequate supply. But I am also mindful of what else President Sachar said that evening: “there is so much good will for the success of Brandeis University, so much loyal cooperation, that there are few fears and few misgivings as we go forward.”

But we can’t just rely on where we’ve been, or even rest where we are.

Let us, at every opportunity, reject the false dichotomy between so-called practical or trade-directed education on the one hand and liberal arts on the other. I believe with all my heart that a true liberal arts education is the most practical education there is.

A practical education provides the skills to succeed in the work force and society generally not only the day after graduation, but also 10, and 20 and 30 years later.

We cannot know, we can in fact hardly imagine, the workplace of decades hence. But I can assure you that the following skills will be required then: the ability to turn information into knowledge, the ability to analyze closely, the ability to solve problems, and the ability to communicate. The acquisition of these skills is precisely what a liberal arts education is about. To learn only skills of immediate relevance is to fill one’s hand with moonlight—and the morning will come.

I challenge all of us to translate our proud tradition of liberal arts education here at Brandeis into a commitment to trumpet the case for the life-long, interdisciplinary learning that a broad liberal arts experience can provide.

The wonderful symposia that my colleagues presented in my honor this week so magnificently made the case: our mandate involves not only the transmission of a cultural heritage, but the evocation of intellectual curiosity and the creative impulse.

That brings me to the third bedrock principle of Brandeis: our core commitment to social justice and the very nature of our community.

In other words, you.

Over the past months, I have had the privilege to spend time both on campus and around the country, meeting thousands of members of the Brandeis family, and I have begun to get a sense of what Brandeis is:

* * *

Brandeis is Deborah Bial, a distinguished alum who founded the national posse program which identifies groups of promising underprivileged inner city high school students and connects them with this country’s most selective colleges including Brandeis. Hundreds of students’ lives have been forever changed because Brandeis changed Deborah’s life.

Brandeis is our current Student Union President, Daniel Acheampong. Born in Ghana, raised in New York City, Daniel arrived here as a posse scholar and leaves here, I am quite confident, as a future world leader—Daniel told me that Brandeis changed his life.

Brandeis is Peter Chow, a brilliant alum from the early 1980s, born in China to a family who migrated to rural Mississippi, who could only have come here because of a scholarship. He came to study science and medicine but a distinguished business career was born when he had Barney Schwalberg for economics. Professor Schwalberg, peter told me, was the first white man who ever called him “Mr. Chow”—Brandeis changed his life.

Brandeis is Ann Varghese, who earned her master’s degree in international health policy at the Heller School. Shortly after graduation she traveled to Haiti to assist in international efforts to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. When the massive earthquake struck in January 2010, Ann and three coworkers were buried alive beneath five stories of concrete rubble. After more than 55 hours trapped underground, she was pulled out—alive—by French firefighters. Undaunted, she returned to complete her work in Haiti. Ann’s story inspires me and challenges all of us to take what we learn here and, as the bible says, go forth and repair the world.

And Brandeis is the scores of faculty members who have demonstrated a commitment to and love for this institution, and who have pledged to me the support that we will need as we continue to sail together into uncharted waters—I tell you without hesitation that you have changed my life.

Most importantly, Brandeis is an ideal that challenges each of us. Here is my challenge to you:

If you are a student—find a mentor who inspires you. Be a mentor who inspires others. Take a course outside of your comfort zone. Study hard. Have fun. Care for each other. Savor your time at Brandeis and stay connected. You are a student here for four years—you are an alum for the rest of your life.

If you are an alum, we are relying on you. Our future is very much in your hands. Find a way to connect or re-connect with your school. Mentor our students—hire our graduates. You have rights as a member of this family and you have responsibilities as well. Remember who you were when you were here—connect with that person, and with us.

If you are a trustee, you who know better than anyone that the essence of dreams is hard work, dream with me and work with me, as we build a greater university and inspire a new generation.

If you are a faculty member, hold fast to that intellectual curiosity that first brought you to the academy. Take risks. Inspire your colleagues to take risks. At the end of each term, ask yourself: is there a student who will say that I changed his or her life?

Here is my personal challenge:

In the coming months, I will lay out a strategic vision with concrete plans to secure Brandeis’s place as an elite global liberal arts university.

* * *

In closing let me say that I have spent a great deal of time lately thinking about our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis.

Justice Brandeis was brilliant and courageous.

Justice Brandeis reminds us all—students and faculty alike—that we come here not merely to understand the world but to help repair it; we enter to learn, we leave to serve.

And those of us entrusted with guiding this great institution must ourselves be guided by Justice Brandeis’s spirit.

I promise you: we will listen. We will be open to new ideas. We will encourage open debate. We will lead by example. We will be unafraid to confront the challenges that lie ahead.

Henry David Thoreau, who I like to think of as being very Brandeisian, said, that because we inevitably only hit what we aim for, “[we] had best aim high.” let us pledge to each other to keep our aim high indeed. Together, there is literally no limit to what we can achieve at this wonderful city on this wonderful hill.

Thank you very much.