Convocation Welcoming to New Students

August 27, 2017

Good afternoon! What a beautiful afternoon on which to welcome the Class of 2021 and the families and friends who have helped get our students to campus today. I want to thank the student Orientation Leaders and all the staff who helped with the logistics of today’s move-in and convocation.

And this beautiful weather we are experiencing here today brings to all our minds the very different weather and situation our fellow citizens are living through in Texas. I know we have students from the Lone Star state in this entering class—I met some in late spring during a visit to Houston. Our hearts go out to those in Texas, and we are inspired by the work of first responders and neighbors doing what we at Brandeis are committed to: helping each other, building community, and trying to make the world a better place. Especially in times of crisis and need, such as this natural disaster in the Gulf region, Brandeisians always come together in caring and concern for one another. Today, our thoughts are with all our fellow citizens affected by Hurricane Harvey.

Before I share some thoughts with you today, I want to take a moment to thank our staff, across many departments, for their exemplary work in helping to keep our early arriving students, faculty, and staff safe following an early morning bomb threat this past Wednesday. The cooperation and teamwork I witnessed was typical of Brandeis, and is something that I have learned permeates the educational mission of the university. We should never take this dedication and loyalty of our staff and faculty for granted.

Please join me in thanking the staff, some of whom I know are here today, for their work last week and for all they do on behalf of Brandeis.

To all of you new students: I have one full year of Brandeis experience on all of you, having begun here on July 1 of last year. I can only say that I hope your first year is as rewarding and affirming as mine was. Let me tell you a little bit about that first year to give you at least one perspective of this very special community you are joining today.

During the past year, through open office hours, the hosting of 49 small-group lunches with my wife Jessica, and participating in different meetings and events across campus, I have experienced and affirmed two of the most commonly mentioned characteristics about Brandeis that I heard from friends and colleagues who had attended Brandeis or who had worked here.

First: There is great passion for and loyalty towards the institution on the part of the faculty and staff, and for the faculty and staff on the part of Brandeis students and alumni. I saw this right off the bat in what was the first event I attended as president. It was a research symposium in celebration of noted professor of biochemistry, Chris Miller. On the occasion of Dr. Miller’s 70th birthday last August, former undergraduate students, Ph.D. students, post-docs, and co-researchers of Dr. Miller’s came together to honor not only Chris’ significant research contributions, but, more importantly, to highlight the personal connection he makes with those in his lab—undergraduates, Ph.D. students, post-docs, and visiting scholars. Those who came back to celebrate Dr. Miller included 2003 Nobel Prize-winner Rod MacKinnon, a Brandeis alumnus from the class of 1978—himself an outstanding researcher at Rockefeller University in NYC. Speaker after speaker praised Professor Miller’s ability to draw upon the talents of each individual working in his lab, making each person feel that they were an important part of the lab’s research, and, most significantly, that he genuinely cared about each individual as, well, individuals. That is, he taught and mentored each person in science, but also well beyond science…in many of life’s lessons, too.

Professor Miller is exceptional but hardly unusual at Brandeis. In so many conversations this past year, I was inspired as I listened to faculty speak about their students in ways that could only come from a genuine connection and deep concern. I am confident that you will find dedicated faculty across the curriculum who will influence your life well beyond your time on this campus.

What I have also learned very quickly is that Brandeis is, as many of you discovered during your college searches, an institution with excellent research and exceptional research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students, as well as an institution whose attention to undergraduate education in the liberal arts and sciences remains firm and unyielding.

There are many examples of this unusual dual commitment across the disciplines, but it was perhaps best on display earlier this month at this year’s SciFest, a half-day-long symposium in Shapiro Science Center. As I have learned through attending two of these symposia, last August and earlier this month, the research presented at the symposia was, as our Dean of Arts Sciences Susan Birren likes to say, “carried out by undergraduates, but was not undergraduate research;” it was of a remarkable level of depth and sophistication.

And my second observation and affirmation of something I was told often before I came to Brandeis is that there is a special openness among students, faculty, and staff to engage one another, even on difficult topics. I observed this in many discussions about the nature of change at Brandeis, especially with faculty who have been here for 30, 40, and even 50 years. I heard it during meetings with students about making our campus more accessible to those with disabilities. And I heard it in some passionate discussions about how we must create a more inclusive Brandeis through our students’ experiences in the classroom, through our curriculum, and by ensuring civil, unfettered debate.

The passion for inclusion, openness, and debate that I witnessed over the course of my first year even in small lunches should not come as a surprise. Brandeis’ remarkable and unique founding is rooted in openness and came at a time when the norm on college campuses was quite the opposite.

Brandeis was established by the American Jewish community in 1948 specifically to provide access to higher education for academically outstanding Jewish students who had been denied entry to the finest universities simply based on who they were. Importantly, and all too forgotten, this openness extended beyond Jews: Brandeis welcomed qualified students from all backgrounds no matter their gender, religion, race, or ethnicity. It was founded with millennia-old values and a culture steeped in deep study, critical analysis of the written word, and, most importantly, intense argumentation and openness to self-criticism, expressed best in the Mishnah and Talmud, ancient Jewish texts. Those values promote the core components of today’s Brandeis education: openness, critical thinking, and tikkun olam—the using of one’s intellectual and material gifts to help make the world a better place. That is why, after just a short time on this campus, one cannot help but feel a deep commitment to justice, something that our namesake Louis Brandeis believed in strongly and wrote about extensively a century ago. Many universities have recently come to promote social justice as an important part of their institution’s culture, yet, it was an important part of Brandeis from its beginning.

In addition to these two observations from my first year here, I have a few modest suggestions for you as you begin your Brandeis education.

First: jump in…don’t hold back! You are joining an academic and intellectual community that offers an excellent undergraduate education with meaningful research, collaborative learning, and co-curricular opportunities. But! While I say “jump in,” I also warn you of jumping in too much. As you meet more and more fellow students, it will seem as if the typical Brandeisian has two majors, two minors, started three student organizations, writes for The Justice or The Hoot newspaper, is on the debate team, and is either in the final stages of launching a start-up from her dorm or taking public one that she started in high school. This is not accurate…or at least not 100% accurate…though you will meet some fellow students like that. My point is, choose wisely and don’t over-choose. You can only do a limited number of things well, and if you spread yourself too thin, you will fail to take advantage of the many great things Brandeis has to offer, most of which, not surprisingly, require deep dives and a true commitment on your part.

My second suggestion—learn and live the institution’s special history: the reason for its founding and its commitment to open and free debate in the pursuit of understanding what we don’t know, no matter how sensitive or personal the issue. We cannot minimize the reasons for which Brandeis was founded as we strive seven decades later to create a more inclusive and rich learning environment on campus. Being open to all, engaging in critical debate with an openness to self-criticism, and helping to heal the world (tikkun olam) were foundational aspects of Brandeis’ establishment 69 years ago, and they remain central to our being today. In fact, perhaps ironically, they are more relevant and important to amplify today. Engage in debate; do it with civility and respect; and remain open to people and ideas that challenge your worldview. I need to underscore this last point, especially in light of the current climate on many college and university campuses. Only through engaging those with different experiences and opinions in the context of learning through evidence and facts, can one affirm, amend, or reject one’s own view—even and especially views you have strongly held for as long as you can remember.

As we try to make sense of the hate spewed in Charlottesville a little more than two weeks ago, I have to believe that the narrow-mindedness we observed was in large part due to individuals never having the opportunity or taking the risk to engage those with different views and perspectives on the most basic human issues. They chose instead to live their lives in the safety of their protected echo chambers.

A liberal arts education, and especially a Brandeis liberal arts education, will challenge you to confront many long-held views, to see others’ perspectives, and to invite disagreement, debate, and sometimes discomfort. If that is not your experience by the time you graduate, we will have failed you.

And third: help define and build the community you are joining. Yes, you represent only one of four classes of undergraduate students, and the newest one at that. And yes, there is a good number of graduate students around campus, more than 400 faculty, and 1,000 staff. However, you are an important part of a dynamic and evolving institution, and because you are the newest group to join the community, you bring with you fresh ideas, new approaches, and an energy that can help mold and shape this university in significant and meaningful ways. So get involved! The faculty will be considering a new set of general education requirements this year. Share your views on what seems most important for you and your generation in terms of preparation for the world after college.

We will also be holding open meetings to discuss the challenging issue of free expression on our campus, and I encourage you all to participate in those discussions, too. These meetings will focus on a set of principles drafted by a task force this past May following five months of open meetings and conversations with numerous groups on campus. Some of those conversations, as you might imagine, were difficult and contentious. The challenge before us is to create a community that is not only physically safe for our students, faculty, and staff, but is fully inclusive of those groups that have long been excluded from the free exchange of ideas on campus and in American society. At the same time, we must remain true to our founding principle of openness and open-mindedness. Our namesake, Justice Louis Brandeis, a fierce advocate for the underdog and of free speech, would have it no other way.

And finally, look out for one another. Lend a hand to roommates and classmates when you see they need some support; intervene with thoughtfulness and compassion when they appear to be making poor choices for themselves. I mentioned several times today, how compelling, powerful, and significant Brandeis’ founding principles were and remain so today: you have the great opportunity to underscore and exercise those principles as you help to create a stronger Brandeis.

I welcome all of you to this great institution, and look forward to getting to know you over the course of your Brandeis career.

Thank you.