SEPTEMBER 25, 2016
Ladies and Gentlemen, good morning. I am honored—and humbled—by your presence and by the generous words of the speakers who have preceded me this morning.
I would like to begin with a few thank yous.
You all know it was at Yale where I was first tutored in the dark arts of university administration. I want to say a special thank you not just to Susan Hockfield, but also to former Yale President Rick Levin. They both served as my mentors in that critical stage in my career. It is also wonderful to see the current President of Yale, Peter Salovey, and several of my former colleagues in the Provost’s Office with us today.
I took those American skills to Oxford where I found they translated well, particularly for this wolf in sheep’s clothing, who sounded British but who behaved like an American. I am delighted that several of my colleagues from Oxford could join us today.
Thank you to Board Chair Bill Berkley and to the entire Board of Trustees for your confidence and support. I know how much time and energy over many years that you have devoted to helping NYU advance and succeed, and I am grateful for the trust you have placed in me to carry on that task.
Special thanks and love to my wife Jennie and our children Alastair, Claire and Malcolm and their wonderful partners, Heather, Eric and Katherine. I think many of you know that all three of these young couples are marrying during this exhilarating (...and exhausting) 2016.
I want to offer deep appreciation as well to the man whose extraordinary stewardship of this great university is a constant source of inspiration—NYU’s fifteenth president, John Sexton. And to Martin Lipton, who was the Board chair throughout John’s presidency and whose connections to NYU span some six decades.
I appreciate as well the presence of our honored guests who join us today — colleagues from universities and colleges around the world, representatives of learned societies, civic leaders of this great metropolis and our senior Senator from New York.
Finally, I am deeply grateful for the wonderful students, faculty, staff, and alumni who make up the NYU community. Over the past nine months, you have given Jennie and me the warmest, most New York welcome we could have hoped for. We are so proud to be part of the NYU family.
In preparing for today’s ceremony, I read a little bit about the inaugurations of NYU’s past presidents or chancellors.
I learned that the inauguration of NYU’s very first chancellor, Chancellor Mathews, was a quiet, small gathering, due to the great cholera epidemic of 1832, which caused nearly half of the city’s population to flee to the countryside. Then there was the inauguration speech of Chancellor Brown in 1911, in which he lamented the fact that NYU was often confused with City College or, far worse, with being a department of Columbia.
I also learned that there was a tussle during the inauguration of Chancellor Chase in 1934 over whether to repair the lighting mechanism of the University torch. It had been deliberately broken years earlier to prevent the torchbearer from drinking the alcohol out of it during ceremonies.
All of which makes me relieved that our biggest concern around this year’s inauguration ceremony is the construction around Washington Square Park. At least, I assume that is our biggest concern! – and here I direct a watchful gaze to today’s torchbearer, who at least so far has not offered me a swig, although by the end of this speech I will need one.
Many of you have heard me say that one of the reasons I came to NYU was the University’s remarkable trajectory over the past several decades, transforming itself from a largely regional school to one of the world’s foremost research universities.
Surely some of the University’s success is owed to its genesis. NYU was born from an audacious idea: its founders set out to create a new kind of university. At a time when a college education was rare and available only to a privileged few, NYU intentionally sought to open its doors to ambitious young people from all classes and from wider backgrounds. It would be a school of opportunity, befitting the bustling city of opportunity it called home.
In an era when most law schools did not admit women, NYU’s did. In an era when Jim Crow laws prevented aspiring teachers from being educated in their home states down south, NYU created a special program for them to earn degrees. In an era when young people returned from the Second World War, NYU educated more of them on the GI Bill than any other university. Since January, I have seen many examples to convince me that that ambition and belief in opportunity still prevails. It is seen today in the 22% (or 5,400) of NYU’s undergraduates who are Pell grant recipients. NYU is transforming through education the lives of more young people from this most disadvantaged group than Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Columbia combined!
I would now like to offer my own theory on what connects NYU’s past with its present, what distinguishes it among the world’s other great universities, and what drives it forward.
I have had the privilege of being a faculty member at several of the most venerable universities on two continents - universities of renown and distinction. What distinguishes us at NYU from these universities is not an adherence to academic excellence or to academic freedom or to the importance of ensuring the academic rationale at the heart of every decision. Those are qualities we resolutely share.
No, what truly distinguishes NYU is our focus on the future and our willingness to take risks to shape that future. Other universities have larger endowments or longer histories. But no university matches NYU for its boldness of spirit and ambition.
NYU has been remarkably successful in harnessing that boldness in pursuit of academic excellence. It has used its competitive advantage of allowing – even encouraging – experiment to propel us forward in sometimes unexpected and dramatic ways.
For NYU, these traits are matched by an unerring sense of timing. NYU was founded in 1831, just as the Erie Canal was making New York the most important city in America. It was consolidated in Manhattan just as New York’s fortunes changed for the better. It established degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai just as those cities took their places on the world stage. And now we are connecting ourselves to Brooklyn just as that borough claims its place at the heart of New York’s creative and tech boom.
So we are heirs to an institution that is always forward looking and has achieved much. The matter before us today is how do we lock in and improve all we have built while sustaining that amazing institutional trajectory? The search for the solution must begin with hard questioning and self-knowledge. We do not need to have all the answers today – and indeed I do not – but this is a moment to raise the issues, signal priorities, and initiate the path forward.
So here I pose my first question that we must confront directly and candidly: what are the academic areas that have lagged NYU’s overall trajectory, and what must we do to move them forward?
Maintaining and advancing academic quality must remain our primary focus. It will be mine. For none of what we accomplish together over the coming years – or what I lay out today as critical issues– will matter if we do not lock laser-like onto our core mission: delivering the highest quality education to our students, undergraduate and graduate; supporting our faculty in their pursuit of their scholarship and teaching; and providing the infrastructure to advance research at the highest level.
For observers of NYU – and there are many in higher education – NYU’s excellence and stature in the humanities and in the social sciences are well established. Likewise, its professional programs are widely respected - Law, Business, Social Work, Public Service, Public Health, and Education. Research and teaching at NYU’s School of Medicine have made remarkable progress in recent years, translating into improved healthcare for our patients. As indeed is the case for our Colleges of Nursing and of Dentistry. And NYU’s programs across the whole range of the arts and culture are rightly renowned; a source of pride and prominence.
However, though NYU has built academic strength in many areas, the sciences have not matched NYU’s progress in these other fields. To be sure, there are areas of excellence in the sciences at NYU, with scholars or departments recognized as being at the top of their fields. And to be sure, it is easy to understand why NYU’s reputation in the sciences is not the equal of its stature in the other disciplines since science – bench science in particular – is both costly and space intensive, two areas that are especially challenging for NYU in its urban setting.
So one priority for NYU’s future must be to strengthen the sciences. And not only the sciences but also their academic sibling, engineering. A robust, productive, successful program in science and engineering – not, I repeat not, at the expense of the other disciplines – is one the hallmarks of a great university.
And the reality is, NYU is already making an enormous investment in science and technology. Between the new laboratories for physics on Broadway, the expansion of neuroscience, the renovation of 370 Jay Street in Brooklyn, renovations at the Tandon School of Engineering, the new space for data science and computer science in the Forbes Building, a new research building at NYU Langone and the laboratories we hope to build in Silver after we open the dozens of new classrooms in the building at 181 Mercer Street, we plan to invest well over half a billion dollars in science, engineering, and technology over the next few years.
One can look at NYU’s recent history and see it has been marked by eras. The era in which it left the Heights campus in the Bronx and consolidated itself in Washington Square; the era in which it went from being a regional university to a national research university by growing its faculty and building student housing to be able to recruit nationally; and the era in which it became a global university. Each of these eras was characterized by looking to the future for what NYU needed next. The investment we are making in science should serve as a springboard for the next era: the era in which NYU becomes a prominent force in the science and technology fields as well.
So, my next question is: In what ways can we leverage our existing areas of strength to continue innovating in all we do?
There will be many answers to this question, but one certainly springs immediately to mind: Brooklyn.
Every once in a while in higher education, the stars of planning, opportunity, location, and resources align. So it is with NYU and Brooklyn. NYU has restored engineering as an academic discipline just as New York City in general – and Brooklyn in particular – is roaring forward as a world technology capital. We have a school of engineering that is now propelled by a generous gift from the Tandons. We have a Center for Urban Science and Progress supported by the City’s gift of a long-dormant, 500,000 square foot building, which we shall revive to be a major intersection of technology, engineering, emerging media, and the arts. We have a wide-ranging entrepreneurship program – and multiple incubators – that are poised to turn good ideas into great enterprises. And we have the NYU Langone Medical Center, which – even as it climbs into the very top ranks in research and clinical care nationally – is expanding its reach to Brooklyn, where it is emerging as a major provider of health care.
NYU’s special advantage here is its ability to fuse creative talent with technological prowess, combining computer scientists and animators and engineers and gamers and healthcare professionals and experts in urban informatics, digital media and recorded music – all in the same place, working together.
That same spirit of innovation – of fusing creativity and technology – is infused in our thinking about the future of teaching and learning at NYU. Many have seen digital technology as the answer to driving down the costs of higher education. We see technology as a way of enhancing the education NYU provides, not replacing it. Whether it is the on-line programs at Steinhardt that allow up-and-coming teachers to spend more time in their classrooms preparing to teach, or online continuing legal education courses offered by the Law School, or the online masters degree programs that our School of Professional Studies has established, or the online Masters in Cyber Security at Tandon. Almost every school at NYU is trying something innovative and different that also reflects our high academic standards and is to the benefit of the students.
A discussion of digital learning reminds us nonetheless that human interactions are at the heart of all we do. And that brings to me to the third question we should pose to ourselves: In this environment of intense intellectual and artistic activity, how can we build a culture that respects and embraces diversity and inclusion as an indispensable element of academic excellence?
Equity, diversity, and inclusion are not only important values to be cherished for their own sake; they are also vital to advancing knowledge, sparking innovation, and creating sustainable communities. They should be indispensable elements of an NYU education on all of our campuses. A diverse population encounters and appreciates all perspectives of an issue with a wealth of different approaches to confront it. The result is a higher quality of debate, a more excellent and advanced academic enterprise.
But if we are to live up to NYU’s aspirations as a school of opportunity, we need to do more. Our own past is not without blemish, and while we have made some recent strides in improving diversity among our student body, if we are going to be honest with ourselves, we have fallen short.
The result? Too many of our community members—students, faculty, and staff—have ended up doubting whether they are genuinely welcome and valued in our classrooms, residence halls, and departmental offices, both here in New York and abroad.
Each member of this community is valued by NYU and is welcome at NYU, and we must make the changes necessary to ensure that this is understood by all.
This has led us to examine our programs and policies critically, and to begin taking some key steps to promote inclusion and equity, particularly for those who have historically been marginalized: we have created the position of Chief Diversity officer who will coordinate diversity efforts across the University and report directly to me; we have expanded the staffing, budget, and space of our Center for Multicultural Education and Programming; we are strengthening our approaches to hiring and promoting faculty from historically underrepresented communities; we have created a Bias Response Line to allow all to report incidents of discrimination; and we are conducting a climate survey to better understand our culture and practices.
We are moving forward. Yet, even as I recite this list of steps, I think also on a striking passage from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book entitled “Between the World and Me,” which many of our schools assigned as summer reading to our incoming freshmen.
“We meant well. We tried our best. ‘Good intention’ is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream.”
This quote is a spur to me – as I hope it would be to us all – that our actions as an institution alone are insufficient, and must be matched by something both less tangible and more profound: a change in culture, outlook, understanding, and respect. Each of us must encourage an openness to the perspectives of others, and a personal commitment to create a better, more inclusive, more equitable NYU community.
One route to that openness is offered by the extensive international network that NYU has built. This raises our next question: How can we ensure that the global network remains relevant in a changing world and achieves more than simply the sum of its parts?
NYU is rightly known as a prominent global presence. Two successful, degree-granting campuses in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai with outstanding resident faculty and talented students who have earned the world’s most prestigious honors; 11 other sites on five continents at which NYU undergraduates can study abroad and graduate students and faculty can pursue research; the largest number of students studying abroad AND the largest group of international students attending any US university. Any one of these accomplishments alone would have been reason for pride; that all of this has been achieved is remarkable.
And it is not simply that this record differentiates NYU – it makes us inimitable. Unlike other universities, we are not bound to a single location, but rather benefit from and contribute to the richness of the world. There has never been a time when bold action on global education is more urgently needed than now. In the face of destructive public discourse on immigration, suspicion of entire religions and ethnic groups, and a range of problems – from climate change to ideological extremism – that defies borders, it is essential that we choose not to retreat but to engage.
Nevertheless, let’s begin with the recognition that, as befits a “first mover”, we have not gotten everything right at every turn. So the task at hand is to examine what has worked and what has not. We must make a priority of refining the global network, of ensuring it aligns throughout with our academic standards and principles. In the near term, that means our focus should be less on further expansion and more on reaching the full potential of the exceptional global enterprise NYU has already built, guided always by the goals of enhancing our students’ education and serving our faculty’s scholarly interests. We must continue improving the connections until the links feel like second nature. We must carry on the work we have already begun with the Graduate Research Initiative: expanding the role of the global sites so that in addition to their traditional mission of undergraduate education they become centers of real research excellence involving faculty and graduate students. And we must ensure that these wonderful academic and global opportunities are available to all NYU students, no matter what their financial background.
This last point brings me to my next question, one of the starkest and toughest I will pose: How do we simultaneously make NYU more affordable for more students without compromising the quality of the education our students receive or research excellence?
The plain fact is that tuition at NYU places an unacceptable financial strain on too many students. NYU is not unique in that regard by any means, but we have been among the most conspicuous. There are historical reasons for this: most notably, NYU is a tuition-dependent university with a per-student endowment that is among the smallest of any major private research university.
But despite our constraints, we cannot be content with the status quo.
In my first few months as president, I announced a number of new steps to address the issue of affordability, including freezing room and board and moderating tuition levels to arrive at the lowest increase in undergraduate cost-of-attendance in 20 years. Early next month, the Affordability Steering Committee and Working Group I appointed last semester will lay out a preliminary set of actions that seek to make NYU more affordable for more students. But as the many ideas that have emerged from the extensive process of engagement demonstrates, no one silver bullet will solve affordability at NYU. And on this issue in particular, I urge faculty, administrators, and students to be receptive to new ideas and to continue to think creatively about how to “bend the curve” of affordability.
We will also continue to build on the ongoing “Momentum Campaign” to raise funds targeted for student scholarships. The more money we can raise for our endowment and for financial aid, the more capacity we have to help students who want to be at NYU.
Most of the questions I have posed today have been not only about the future, but also about how we will express our values as an institution. No issue combines those two ideas and presses more urgently for a response than climate change. So, my final question is: How do we shape our University’s operations to be exemplary citizens of the City and the world while doing our part as faithful stewards of our environment?
The issue of sustainability has been on NYU’s agenda for some years. And the University has a laudable record. We have constructed a highly efficient, state-of-the-art co-generation plant; we have installed high-efficiency lighting and climate controls that enabled a substantial lowering of campus electrical consumption even as electronic devices proliferated; we have launched “green grants” to seed and then support sustainability ideas conceived by students and faculty. Together these enabled us to meet our public pledge to reduce our carbon emissions by 30%, and to go on to confidently pledge to meet further reduction targets presented by New York City, New York State, and the federal government.
I am confident we can do more. Building on our assets – the progress we have already made; our dense urban setting; our faculty expertise in this field; and the immense enthusiasm and commitment among our students and staff– now is the time to do more, working harder, on this pressing issue of our time and seeking to make NYU among the greenest urban campuses in the nation. That is my commitment.
I have posed my last question. Let me offer my last observation: NYU, because it is so future-looking, asks more of its students and faculty than many other universities. This is a theme running through this past week’s events of academic conversations, student activities and exhibits that have tried to capture the NYU spirit that challenges all to: make it here, make it big, make it bold. And you all know the song – if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.
And you have made it here. You have challenged us to do better on affordability and diversity, and have started the difficult conversations needed to make progress on those issues. You have signed on to be members of the inaugural classes at NYU Abu Dhabi and NYU Shanghai, and have filled the first, critical years of those schools with astounding successes. You have designed curricula that combine engineering and art and public policy in totally new ways. You have tended to the world’s needs through service—and when an organization does not exist to address a need, you create one.
NYU is not a perfect university, but I believe it is a profoundly important one. And I pledge to do my utmost on its behalf -- in honor of its past, in celebration of the present, and especially in anticipation of its splendid future.
I like NYU’s logo, the torch – symbolizing enlightenment through learning. But I also like NYU’s official seal. You probably know it – a group of runners carrying the torch. I like it because I know where they are running – they are running into the future. I am looking forward to running alongside them, and alongside all of you...we can pace each other and support each other and cover the distance together...all the while keeping our gaze firmly on the horizon.
This is a wonderful gathering today. I know you’re here out of love for NYU. And I know you’re here to wish me well. And I know you’re here because these are the only tickets to see “Hamilton” you’re ever going to get in this city.
Of course, there is one big difference: in this show, Hamilton DOES end up as President! Thank you.