Members of the Board of Regents, President Schlissel, faculty and staff, students, guests, it is my great pleasure to be here today to celebrate the installation of Domenico Grasso as Chancellor of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. It is a pleasure because Chancellor Grasso is one of the finest men I have met in my long career in higher education. That he should be elevated to a leadership position in higher education is welcome in an age in which more than ever we need highly capable, ethical and empathetic individuals to lead universities through a period of challenge and change.
Chancellor Grasso, from his earliest days in the Academy, has shown himself to be committed not only to excellence in teaching and scholarship but also to the welfare of communities. After all, he is one who sought to contribute to the inclusiveness of society by turning down a tenured professorship at Columbia University to start an engineering program for women at Smith College. The women engineers of Smith are ever grateful to him for his efforts on their behalf. Over his career, he has demonstrated time and time again that he is motivated by what some may perceive as old-fashioned values; he tries, at a deep and genuine level, to do what is good and just.
I am delighted to see both him and President Schlissel working together. Mark, it’s great to see you again and to know that you are also leading a great university with the right values. You have brought to presidential leadership in the Academy a wise and well-informed approach that is especially important in these times. Tough-minded and honest, you are what we need today to save higher education from itself.
Mark and now Domenico stand shoulder to shoulder in work that is at great risk in today’s world when cynicism grows about a perceived tide of corruption in higher education. We know that, at its core, higher education remains the principle hope for maintaining a national commitment to discovery, innovation, inclusive access and an informed citizenry. For where else can we look today for actions and access that guarantee phenomenal advancements in knowledge and steady improvement in bringing groups from the margin into the mainstream of society? The work of universities is to serve society, advance progress, and solve enduring problems that impair our ability to understand fully the factors and phenomena on which our very well-being and that of our environment depend.
This work also entails helping society understand better the lessons of the past, the cost to us of privileging false facts, the threats to bonds of civic cooperation, and the dangers of abridging or curtaining basic rights. Higher education makes known and elevates the importance of research, affording a free society the advantage of insights that provide a ballast against regressive actions. Further, higher education protects the rights of those who are on the advancing edge of knowledge to impart facts and findings without interference. In a world in which multifarious means of communication with few constraints and standards spew out dangerous and unexamined assertions, we are teetering on the edge of a new Dark Age where citizens are not only unable to recognize erroneous information but often confirm and act on such information in a way that dramatically upends forward progress.
Universities stand solidly as an antidote to the misinformation poisoning our brainwaves and airwaves. As the public continues to lose confidence in so many sectors, universities must be doubly attentive to the potential for the public to lose trust in what they have represented so well over centuries: a commitment to truth, ethics in scholarship, and transparency in how new knowledge is uncovered.
I began my scholarly journey on the cusp of desegregation and coeducation. I studied at Dillard University, an HBCU in New Orleans. I have been a student of women’s education –studying at Wellesley and playing leading roles at Spelman and Smith. I have studied and worked at the so-called pinnacle of higher education, earning a PhD from Harvard, spending 10 years at Princeton and 11 years at Brown. Through all of those experiences in the Academy, I have worried consistently about the risk that Universities might undermine their standing by failing to align their righteous missions and estimable values with their ongoing decisions and actions. My concern is even greater today as we see repeated evidence of ethical failings within higher education that point to a significant detour from the high standards that so many once associated with higher education.
What is creating this behavior? Some ascribe it to the insinuation of money into the priorities of university leaders. In a fierce battle for resources, they say, we make compromises that tarnish our reputations. How? Currying favor with donors by admitting students for whom they advocate but who do not merit admission. Rushing flawed research results on experiments and data that do not actually confirm stated findings. Supporting teaching that is de minimus and dumbing down content and requirements. Tolerating illegal or unseemly behavior in the service of competitive advantage. The list is long and growing longer by the day.
My students and others ask me, “What are we to do in the current climate?” First, we can insist on a positive environment in which young people can thrive at the top of their ability. Such an environment will offer students the benefit of being consistently exposed to opposing views and an academic experience replete with challenges that hone students’ ability to withstand personal and intellectual challenges over the course of their lifetimes. We can demonstrate a commitment to access and opportunity for the most economically challenged learners. Thinking of our institutional umbrella as one that generously covers those whom we seek to serve is a promising image that guides us toward the right behavior. In that sense, we can more forcefully assert our commitment to equity and inclusion.
This is a good moment to reflect deeply on the ways in which our institutional actions unwittingly or purposefully provide comfort to purveyors of deceit, abuse, corruption, neglect, exclusion and discrimination. It is a good moment to contemplate our responsibilities as educators to uphold the highest standards in the way we conduct ourselves personally and professionally in the continuing struggle for human dignity. In the struggle to represent the importance of mutual respect, we can utilize our robust and inclusive governance systems to showcase how communities can work together even on the contentious issues.
We can dedicate ourselves to fair treatment on our campuses for the unfair treatment of any individual or group should have no home in institutions that purport to be ethical and high-minded. Importantly, the public must be able to observe our striving to be fair.
We can use our unique vantage point as a venue for truth telling to speak up for those who do not have the same level of safety and autonomy to disclose uncomfortable facts.
Persistence in upholding our commitment to these kinds of actions will, in the end, not only have a positive effect on our campuses but will also build on the reputation of universities for fairness and truth.
While we must have a laser focus on the fundamental scholarly work on which our sector rests, the fact that we have come to represent standards and values in regard to civic life demands that we continue to engage pressing questions of fairness and justice. Our task must be to assist the communities we serve in grappling thoughtfully with significant dilemmas for what is the good of knowledge if it does not model the critical thinking that has so often rescued man from the brink of catastrophe?
Universities have endured for over a millennium. The oldest university was founded in 859 AD in Fez, Morocco. The university of Bologna, in Italy, was founded in 1088. That endurance is born of the hardiness and relevance of uniquely useful attributes. Think of the implementation of Title IX in colleges and universities and the ways in universities have led the redefinition of equal opportunity for women. The ensuing destruction of stereo-types that impaired the ability of women to live full and open lives as athletes, leaders, and achievers is an all-important by-product of that era. The beneficial results, even today, are still being realized.
Think of the role that universities have played in dismantling formal segregation. Kenneth Clark’s doll research was a landmark effort in the application of scholarship to eradicate the willful social constructs that denied basic rights in order to preserve exclusion and advantage. Think, too, of the modern day truth telling sweeping the academy where universities are rewriting their histories to correct lies that became part of their official histories. These are the kinds of noble endeavors that cling to universities and burnish their standings.
As universities, we don’t need to succumb to false and prettified narratives; instead, we must present a picture- pocked though it may be – of integrity, commitment to truth, decency, fairness and dedication to knowledge.
It is only when we embrace the bold and unambiguous work of standing up for the values we espouse that we deepen the public’s belief in our worth and the integrity of our product. In preserving the respect of the public, no matter what the challenges of the time, universities will continue to flourish. And when universities flourish, knowledge and know-how advances, contributing greatly to the well-being of society.
Thank you all for being a part of the magnificent work of preserving the public’s trust. Please take good care of my friend, Domenico. Permit him to be the person that he is and he will serve you well. To him I say, “you have been a bulwark against exclusion and elitism; continue that work here with an understanding that you offer a wonderful example to the rest of the world.” Thank you for all that you have done and for the work that you have come to do at this important institution at this important time.
Congratulations and God speed.