Convocation Welcoming to New Students

August 21, 2016

Welcome Class of 2020, and welcome to the families and friends who have helped get our students to campus today. On behalf of so many, I also want to thank the student Orientation Leaders, Movers, and Staff who helped with all the logistics of today’s convocation.

To all of you new students: we share something in common—we are both “first-years.” I, however, have a 7-week head start, having begun my work at Brandeis on July 1.

Though 7 weeks is a relatively short time, I have learned much that probably affirms what you saw in Brandeis when you decided to become Brandeisians. Since July 1, through my weekly office hours, walking around campus, hosting lunches with my wife Jessica, and participating in different meetings and events, I have witnessed these two defining characteristics of the University:

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 alumni. I saw this first hand during my first week here at a research symposium in celebration of noted professor of biochemistry, Chris Miller. On the occasion of Dr. Miller’s 70th birthday, former undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, and co-researchers of Dr. Miller’s came to campus to honor not only Chris’ significant research contributions, but more importantly to highlight the human connection one finds in the teaching and mentoring in his classroom and lab. This included 2003 Nobel Prize recipient Rod MacKinnon, a Brandeis alumnus from the class of 1978, and himself, quite obviously, an outstanding researcher today at Rockefeller University in NYC. Professor Miller is exceptional, but he is not unusual at Brandeis. You will find dedicated faculty across the curriculum who will influence you 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 world class research and research opportunities for graduate and undergraduate students—something that is quite unique—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 arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences, but it was perhaps best on display earlier this month, during something called SciFest—a ½ daylong poster-session symposium in Shapiro Science Center. As Dean of Arts and Science Susan Birren noted, research conducted by undergraduates was on full display, but it was not undergraduate research. It was of a remarkable level of sophistication. I saw for myself as the students explained their research projects with great poise, enthusiasm, and competence, the benefits of working side-by-side with graduate students, post-doctoral students, and faculty members on a common project. The kind of learning that takes place within these mixed teams allows those with the least experience to see how experimentation moves from stage to stage, and enables one to learn from individuals at various levels of expertise, which is so valuable in understanding the evolution of any research endeavor.

And my second observation is:

There is a special openness among students, faculty, and staff to engage one another, even on difficult topics, and a passion to advocate for the underdog. I observed this in discussions about climate change and what Brandeis could do to acknowledge its impact on our environment; I heard it during meetings about making our campus more accessible to those with disabilities; and I heard it in discussions about creating a more inclusive Brandeis through our students’ experiences in the classroom, through our course offerings, and by ensuring civil, unfettered debate. This passion for inclusion, openness, and debate, something that has become tenuous on many college and university campuses, should not come as a surprise. Brandeis’ remarkable and unique history—a history that all of us need to learn and come to appreciate—is rooted in openness and inclusion and came at a time when the norm on college campuses was quite the opposite.

The University was founded by the American Jewish community in 1948 specifically to provide access to higher education for academically outstanding Jewish students who were denied entry to the finest universities simply on the basis of who they were. This openness extended beyond Jews: Brandeis welcomed qualified students from all backgrounds no matter their religion, race, or ethnicity. And it was founded with millennia-old values and a culture steeped in deep study, engagement, and argumentation, expressed best in the Mishnah and Talmud. Those values promote two core components of a Brandeis education: critical thinking and tikkun olam—the using of one’s intellectual and material gifts to help others. That is why, after just a short time on this campus, one can’t help but feel a deep commitment to social justice, something that our namesake Louis Brandeis believed in strongly more than a century ago, and a value that so many colleges now promote as part of their institution’s student culture. Yet, it was part of Brandeis’ founding spirit and is embedded in our institution’s DNA.

Given these observations that stand out from my first weeks on campus, I have these few modest suggestions as you begin your time here.

First: jump in…don’t hold back. You are joining an academic and intellectual community that is somewhat unique in how it offers an excellent undergraduate education along with meaningful research and collaborative learning opportunities across its curriculum. Liberal arts colleges without graduate programs can’t offer this kind of multi-tiered education, and neither can large research universities, where faculty are often far less accessible and available to undergraduate students. Though perhaps not so evident to you today, working with graduate students, post-docs, and faculty can be transformational. I should also note that unlike faculty at many other institutions who, like Brandeis faculty, are engaged in world-class research, our faculty not only teach undergraduates, but relish the opportunity to do so.

My second bit of advice—learn and live the institution’s special history: its reason for its founding; the values upon which its culture was established; 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 forget or minimize why Brandeis was founded as we strive to create the most inclusive and rich learning environment on campus. And we can’t forget the values that came with its founding. Being open to all, engaging in critical debate and self-criticism, and helping to heal the world (tikkun olam) were foundational aspects of Brandeis’ establishment 68 years ago, and they remain so important today. Engage in debate; do it with civility and respect; and remain open to people and ideas that challenge your worldview.

And third: help define and build the community you are joining. Yes, you represent only one of four classes of the undergraduate program, and the newest one at that. Yes, there are a good number of graduate students around campus, more than 400 faculty, and 1000 staff. But 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. 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 how compelling, powerful, and significant Brandeis’ founding principles and mission are: you have the great opportunity to underscore those values 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 as you take advantage of all Brandeis has to offer.

Thank you.