Thank you, all, for the wonderful greetings leading up to this moment. To my mentor, Martha Minow, my enduring gratitude.
Good morning, and welcome.
Two centuries ago, during our first decade, physician-chemist John William Draper established a pioneering photography studio to tackle the challenges — the art and the science — of the nascent medium.
On a rooftop in Washington Square, he captured the earliest surviving photograph of the moon, which is displayed here. It is this image that provides the inspiration for our historic renovation of the first floor of Bobst Library, reminding all of us to aim higher, reach farther.
A century after this “moonshot,” a prospective student learned that another college would not honor her letter of admission because they had already filled their quota of two Black students that year. Rather than wait an additional 12 months, she rushed to NYU, armed with evidence of her academic success. Facing the eager 18-year-old, NYU’s dean of admissions declared: “A girl who makes these kinds of grades doesn’t need an application to enroll.”
On that day in 1929, Dorothy Height became a student in our education school. Later, as a champion of civil rights and women’s advancement, she would work with Martin Luther King Junior and Eleanor Roosevelt, and advise presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton.
At NYU, our tradition is the future.
Unlike other universities steeped in their histories, NYU has always looked forward. What next? What more? Where beyond?
Whether it was our Medical School training some 1200 doctors to treat thousands of destitute New Yorkers in the 1840s and 50s, or our Law School admitting women some sixty years before its peers.
Whether it was establishing the nation’s first school of education in 1890 or enrolling the largest number of GI’s after World War II.
NYU’s history has always been about the future — the leading edge of possibility.
As we look ahead to NYU’s bicentennial in 2031, we draw on our heritage of inclusion, ingenuity, imagination — as well as our intrepid entrepreneurial drive — to envision our future.
What is past is prologue. The momentum of our past propels us forward.
On September 11th, 2001, just a few minutes before 8:46 a.m., an NYU assistant professor, her husband, and five-year-old son entered the PS 234 playground, a few short blocks from the World Trade Center. It was the boy’s first long day of kindergarten, and it felt momentous. Filled with wonder — but also anxiety.
Ronnie looked up at me, and asked, “did you pack fruit roll-ups for lunch?”
He was soon gobbled up by the palpable excitement inside the school.
He traipsed off, holding his friend’s hand.
The parents lingered, chatting on the playground.
Many of you experienced that day.
Peter, Ronnie, I love you.
September 11th, 2001.
Amid that unforgettable moment in history, NYU’s 15th President John Sexton began to think about the months and years ahead. Together, against the destruction of war, we began to imagine a future we could create. A future where we came together to build a new world, filled with possibility and promise. Deeply motivated by my own experience on 9/11 — as well as family history a generation back — I became one of a handful of people responsible for seeing into NYU’s future — for taking action.
This is the foundation on which we are poised to build today.
Universities fight with words and ideas, with a passion for discovery. We live at the frontier, at the edge of the unknown.
In the fog of the present, we find new ways to think and live for the future.
We inculcate. We induce. We inspire.
We debate, dissect, and dismantle, then from the rubble we construct more expansive edifices for our understanding.
That is to say: We educate.
But at NYU, we provide more than an education, because our tradition is the future.
By the time the idea of that future emerged from the fog of 9/11, the Great Recession was in full swing. Many of America’s universities felt paralyzed by the financial impact on their operations. Nonetheless, NYU pushed ahead to create a global network that would build upon our existing international infrastructure. With our government partners in the United Arab Emirates, we envisioned a new university, one that would include promising young minds from around the world who wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn from professors blazing trails into the future.
When NYU Abu Dhabi opened in 2010, 148 students enrolled. They came from 49 countries and spoke 43 languages. Any admitted student in need would receive full support with no debt. That first class alone of NYU Abu Dhabi graduates now boasts 8 doctors, 13 lawyers, 12 MBAs, 18 PhDs in fields ranging from Computational Biology to Politics. And don’t forget the 3 Rhodes Scholars from Austria, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.S., as well as a UAE Minister of State. NYU Abu Dhabi is now 2100 undergraduates strong. You do the math.
Our campus in Shanghai emerged from this success. When NYU Shanghai opened its doors in 2012, 295 brilliant young people arrived — 150 Chinese students from 10 provinces, and 145 international students, representing every continent but Antarctica. Each paired with a roommate from another country.
Those same years of innovations abroad also saw excitement here in New York, as we welcomed the Tandon School of Engineering into our family and celebrated each new addition to the stunning Langone network. Our New York home base continued to soar as, together, NYU became a dream school worldwide.
You might be asking yourself, what does the future hold for us today?
I pondered that same question as I traversed the halls, visiting your classrooms, labs, and rehearsal spaces. I traveled to Abu Dhabi and Shanghai. I listened to your stories. I connected with faculty, staff, and students who shared their needs and desires. And I listened to alums — and trustees — who also have big dreams for NYU.
What I discovered is that the wisdom is in the room — right here, right now. We need to build on this internal and untapped imagination to develop our capacity and do what NYU does best: Seize the future.
What you told me is that we need to work across departments, schools, units, and our global network as we address intractable problems.
We need to build on our formidable science and tech resources; we need to cultivate our immense global capabilities; and we need to support our community’s flourishing.
And we will.
Working across looks like this:
- Art meets environmental crisis — where the Gallatin WetLab encourages experiential learning and creative engagement on the urban coastline of Governors Island.
- Public transit meets accessibility — where Tandon and the Grossman School have developed an app to help people with visual impairments navigate the city’s bustling subway system.
- Robots meet social work — where NYU-KAIST and the Silver School are designing a scalable robot to augment the efforts of social workers in public schools with constrained resources.
In 2022 alone, our faculty raised a mighty $61 million in research funds dedicated to interdisciplinary projects that address inequality.
This is what NYU is capable of when our paths converge.
We will seed these and other unprecedented collaborations with start-up funds, and build stronger bridges to find each other across NYU’s divisions.
Similarly, we will join forces with global partners, including our own NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai, to convene a 21st century science and tech community — one that is symbiotic with New York City’s foundation, industry, and financial ecosystem.
As of this week, the Republic of Korea is pledging $35 million dollars in support of an AI research cluster here at NYU.
All this growth — this aiming higher, reaching farther — does not mean we abandon our core.
We recommit to our humanistic roots, with renewed support to our arts and humanities faculty, and by recruiting more cross-school and cross-department hires who will help us interrogate and articulate what it means to be human in our increasingly alienated and automated world.
Even as we expand our international infrastructure, we deepen our domestic engagement. A partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will open new opportunities for faculty and students to engage with rich local economic and cultural legacies and to participate in their further development for the 21st century.
And never forgetting that education for as many as we can reach is the beating heart of all we do, we are announcing today that:
- Our Prison Education Program is creating a bachelor’s degree option for incarcerated students; and
- Our School of Professional Studies is developing industry-aligned career-advancing accelerated degrees for 2000 working learners; and
- In a major stride for equity, I am thrilled to announce that beginning in Fall 2024, NYU New York undergraduates who begin as full-time first year students and whose households make less than 100,000 dollars will not have to pay tuition.
Flourishing is the heart and soul of our task. Flourishing for faculty, staff, students, and alumni.
“In diversity, there is beauty and there is strength,” as Maya Angelou observed. And in this flawed and fractious world, so painfully evident today, it takes strength to strive for beauty among disparate fragments, to seek both contrasts and connections that compose this vast mosaic of our existence, to be a piece that holds other pieces together.
It takes strength to question, and to listen, and to find the apertures — the openings — for difficult conversations, for discoveries and breakthroughs.
From where will we draw the strength, the determination to charge forth on so many fronts as we approach NYU’s third century?
I know where I draw a great deal of my strength. From the wisdom of a man who thought it was a good idea to recount his life lesson to his 5-year-old granddaughter, so she would never forget.
Grandpa Nate was born in 1899 in Poland. At 12 years old, he left his very poor family to look for new horizons. Selling buttons on the street, he made enough money to travel to Vienna where he met my grandmother Eva. They married and had two children, my mother Anne and aunt Rita. Grandpa Nate started his own business. He was successful enough to have a car. I think you know where this story is going.
The streets of Vienna grew ever more ominous. In early November 1938, on Kristallnacht, the Nazis rounded up my grandfather with thousands of other men and loaded them onto cattle cars heading east.
“Lindy,” he would tell me, “the minute I got onto that train, I began plotting my escape.”
Grandpa noticed that the guards would disembark at each station and march in formation, turning their backs to the train for 90 seconds. He figured he had just enough time to run to a nearby fence and blend into the crowd. He picked at a hole in the floor board until he could wiggle through. He ran at first chance.
My presence before you here today testifies to his daring escape.
My family was luckier than most. They had the resources to flee Austria, and they had family in the US willing to sponsor them. But not without the devastating loss of my great grandmother, Charna Mark, who was killed in Riga in a mobile gas chamber. That tragedy left an enduring scar on each and every one of us.
Grandpa Nate taught me this lesson: Hope is not enough. To act is better than doing nothing.
Thus, my impulse toward action, and thus, my covenant with you to co-create this next chapter.
I want to return to where we began.
Admitted in 1929 without an application, Dorothy Height found herself the only Black woman in many of her classes, and faced myriad forms of discrimination. Nonetheless, she later reflected on her time at NYU: “From the moment they accepted me, I loved every brick of that University.”
Our job is to ensure that we live up to that love.
Dorothy Height’s experience is a part of the legacy from which we must draw inspiration to improve. Even John William Draper — the Chemistry professor from nearly two centuries ago — had the vision to gaze into the night sky but couldn’t see beyond his own racial prejudices.
Humbled, deeply moved, I stand here today, prepared to take up this mantle and this challenge. Not alone, not singularly, but with all of you, confident that our very best days are ahead of us.
I thank the people who came before me.
Former presidents, the generous Andy Hamilton and John Sexton. Former board chairs, the formidable Marty Lipton and Bill Berkley.
And as we build the future, my deep and abiding gratitude already to Evan Chesler, as well as the entire Board of Trustees who have placed their faith in me.
And to the Deans, my colleagues in the President’s and Provost’s offices, our Interim Provost Gigi Dopico, and the senior leadership team, as well as all of you who commit yourselves to NYU’s mission every single day.
Thank you also to our beloved professor Susan Hilferty, the astonishing Tony Award-winning costume designer who researched the development of academic regalia over the centuries and affirmed NYU’s place in that history with this magnificent gown, that I proudly wear as your 17th president.
Thank you to NYU Athletics for welcoming us into your fieldhouse for this occasion.
My family, my friends — I need you now more than ever.
We will walk through the present — together — unafraid of what we don’t entirely know.
We will act.
This capacity, this will, this action — this is the magic, this — I might even dare say in the company of so many scientists — this is the alchemy of NYU.
This earliest surviving photograph of the moon inspires the question: what will be our moonshots?
Everyone among us contributes to the answer.
Because NYU’s tradition is the future.