Convocation 2018 Welcome

August 26, 2018

Good afternoon! What a beautiful day for welcoming our entering students and the relatives and friends who have helped get them 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. I have to say the organization in the parking lot for the drop-offs was the best I have seen in 35 years of helping to welcome families to campus as a faculty member and administrator.

Please join me in thanking the organizers of this morning’s move-in, along with all of our, for their work to get our campus ready for your arrival, and for all they do throughout the year. Thank you Brandeis staff!

To all of you new students: I now have two full years of Brandeis under my belt, and am confident in conveying my sense of the university—far more confident than I was last year. For starters, I can only say that I hope your first two years will be as rewarding and affirming as mine were. Let me share my still relatively fresh perspective of this very special community you are joining today.

During the past two years, through open office hours, the hosting with my wife Jessica of more than 90 weekly small-group lunches, and participating in different meetings and events across campus, I have experienced two of the most commonly mentioned characteristics about Brandeis that I heard from friends and colleagues who attended Brandeis, had children, siblings, parents, or grandparents who had attended Brandeis, or from others associated with the university.

First: There is a deep loyalty and commitment towards the institution on the part of the faculty and staff, and deep admiration and appreciation for the faculty and staff on the part of Brandeis students and alums. I see this in my daily interactions with the respective constituencies, and I saw it from my very first event I attended as president two summers ago.

It was a research symposium in celebration of noted professor of biochemistry, Chris Miller. On the occasion of Dr. Miller’s 70th birthday, former undergraduate students, Ph.D. students, post-docs, and senior researchers from Dr. Miller’s lab 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—the undergraduates, Ph.D. students, post-docs, and seasoned scholars. Those who came back to celebrate Dr. Miller included 2003 Nobel Prize winner Rod MacKinnon, a Brandeis alumnus from the class of 1978.

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 more than a scientist or worker in his lab. That is, he taught and mentored each person in science, but also well beyond science…in many of life’s lessons, too. And when Professor Miller spoke, he was sure to highlight the important role the Brandeis staff has played in his and his laboratory’s success during his tenure at the university.

Professor Miller is exceptional but hardly unusual at Brandeis. In so many conversations these past two years, I was inspired as I listened to faculty speak about their students in ways that could only come from a genuine connection, deep concern, and a love of teaching. To hear a senior humanities faculty member say with great pride during a lunch that what is so special to her about Brandeis is that our students are so clearly eager to learn. They love to learn. She quickly noted that she and her husband, also on our faculty, have taught during their sabbaticals at a number of the most prestigious universities, yet the environment in her Brandeis classrooms is different…it’s special…and it's special because Brandeisians love learning. I should note, too, that when she was finished making this passionate statement, she leaned across the lunch table and said quite forcefully: “and you better not change that.” “I wouldn’t dare to,” I responded, and she leaned back in her chair.

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 a challenging town hall meeting last spring, where students, faculty, and staff argued passionately for a more inclusive, open, and fair Brandeis.

This passion for inclusion, openness, and fairness that I also witnessed in many of our small lunches should not come as a surprise. Brandeis’ unique founding is rooted in openness and came at a time when the norm on college campuses was quite the opposite.

As many of you know, 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: from its start, 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, rooted in ancient Jewish texts.

Those values promote the core components of today’s Brandeis education: a reverence for learning, critical thinking, and tikkun olam—the using of one’s intellectual and material gifts to help heal the world. 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 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—a major reason for its founding.

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

First: jump in…don’t hold back! You are joining an academic and intellectual community that offers an exceptional 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, too soon. 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…as 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 discussion and debate in the pursuit of understanding what we don’t know, no matter how sensitive or personal the issue. We should never 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 a willingness to engage in self-criticism, and helping to repair the world (tikkun olam) were foundational aspects of Brandeis’ establishment 70 years ago, and they remain central to our being today. In fact, I believe they are more relevant and important to exercise 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 and in the nation at-large. Only through engaging individuals 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.

And as you engage in discussion and debate over what I know will include some contentious issues, please give your counterparts the benefit of the doubt. Comments that might offend are often the result of ignorance or inexperience, rather than intentional slights or insults. Yet, in today’s politically charged environment, our fuses are often short—too short to allow us, let alone encourage us, to engage one another and learn from one another. We are, first and foremost, an academic community and if we are to pursue truth and seek knowledge, we must move beyond the comfort of echo chambers and prepare ourselves for less-than-perfect and appropriate exchanges. To do otherwise would, out of a fear of offending, lead to self-censorship, resulting in a far poorer environment for learning and personal growth.

My third bit of advice: 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!

Perhaps the biggest challenge before us this coming year, as it is on many university campuses, is to create a community that is not only physically safe for our students, faculty, and staff, but is fully inclusive of groups that have long been excluded from the free exchange of ideas both on campus and in American society. In our pursuit, which makes this challenge all the more daunting, we must remain true to our founding principle of openness and open-mindedness, and to the connection between free expression and the pursuit of truth. 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 time here. Thank you.