Linda G. Mills marked her history-making inauguration as NYU’s 17th —and first woman—president by recounting key turning points of her life and envisioning the University advancing collaboratively and ingeniously “at the leading edge of possibility.”
Mills, a scholar in social work, public policy, and law whose 24-year career at NYU included faculty and senior administrative roles, was inducted as president in the Field House of the school’s new John A. Paulson Center in Lower Manhattan. The sublevel, multi-court setting was transformed by greenery and theater-in-the-round staging for the occasion, reflecting her belief in working together and innovating.
“Humbled, deeply moved, I stand here today, prepared to take up this mantle and this challenge,” the new president declared with tears in her eyes. “Not alone, not singularly, but with all of you, confident that our very best days are ahead of us.”
Speaking before 1,000 people who enveloped a circular platform, Mills sprinkled her aspirations for the University with specific—and ambitious—announcements, telegraphing her plans to make an NYU education accessible to more students; deepen teaching and research in and with leading-edge technologies; and help solve long-standing urban, domestic, and global problems.
A series of anecdotes served to highlight NYU’s enduring commitment to social progress, with Mills first summoning the spirit of interdisciplinary partnership with the story of physician-chemist John W. Draper’s establishment of the country’s first photographic studio in New York City in 1839, eight years after the University’s founding.
As she described this blending of art and science, the oldest surviving photograph of the moon—a daguerreotype captured by Draper from a Washington Square rooftop—was displayed onstage and presented on a giant screen.
Mills then pivoted to deliver an homage to Dorothy Height, the late president of the National Council of Negro Women, who was admitted in 1929, nearly a century after the photographic “moonshot.” Height had been turned away by another New York City school under a racial quota. Rather than wait to enroll there the following year, Height came to NYU, where she was admitted that day based on her academic record. An outstanding student, she went on to work with Eleanor Roosevelt and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and advised presidents from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton.
Dorothy Height’s story illuminated two points for President Mills: An ardent love for NYU, which Height voiced often, and a responsibility to “live up to that love.”
Unanimously selected as president by the University Board of Trustees, Mills takes the helm of the largest private university in the US as it advances toward its third century. NYU has more than 61,000 students, with degree-granting campuses in New York City, Abu Dhabi, and Shanghai, and a dozen study-away sites around the world.
Befitting the University’s global network, the 90-minute ceremony was livestreamed, with “watch parties” held at NYU Abu Dhabi and other locations.
“And in this flawed and fractious world, so painfully evident today,” Mills said, “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.”
To the NYU president, America’s own reckoning with terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001 holds lessons, both personal and professional, on the necessity of finding new pathways to greater tolerance, understanding, and cooperation.
Mills recalled when she and her husband dropped off their now-adult son, Ronnie, for his first full day of kindergarten at a public school a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and their anxious wait to reunite with him after the unimaginable attack.
She admiringly reflected on how NYU itself responded. Rather than becoming insulated, the university looked to build on its global sense of connection.
“Amid that unforgettable moment in history, (then-NYU President-designate) John Sexton began to think about the months and years ahead,” she recalled. Mills herself was one of a handful of people who helped bring to realization NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010, the Middle East campus now enrolling 2,100 undergraduate students from 120 countries. She has served for the past decade as vice chancellor and senior vice president for global programs and university life. “Together, against the destruction of war, we came together to build a new world, filled with possibility and promise.”
NYU Shanghai in 2012 emerged from the spirit of innovation that pioneered the creation of NYU Abu Dhabi, along with the establishment of the Tandon School of Engineering in Brooklyn in 2015.
“Universities fight with words and ideas, with a passion for discovery,” said Mills. “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 debate, dissect, and dismantle, then from the rubble we construct more expansive edifices for our understanding.” Pausing, she added, “That is to say we educate. But at NYU, we provide more than an education, because our tradition is the future.”
In anticipation of her installation, Mills spoke with close to 2,000 students, faculty, staff, alumni, and trustees in one-to-one discussions and small groups. The listening tour, which she embarked on after being named president-designate, took her to many corners of the Global Network.
“What I discovered,” she told the assembly, “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.”
The president revealed a number of significant new initiatives that help support the university’s path forward:
● Free undergraduate tuition for full-time first-year students from households earning less than $100,000 yearly, thereby expanding access to an NYU education. She called the planned change “a major stride for equity.”
● A new bachelor’s degree option for incarcerated students under the University’s Prison Education Program.
● A recommitment to the arts and humanities through faculty hiring and with other resources “to help us interrogate and articulate what it means to be human in our increasingly alienated and automated world.”
● A partnership with the George Kaiser Family Foundation to be based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which will foster new academic opportunities for faculty and students and deepen the University’s domestic engagement.
Furthermore, joining forces with global partners, NYU will convene a “21st Century Science and Tech community,” symbiotic with New York City’s financial and industrial ecosystem. The Republic of Korea has pledged $35 million to support an AI research cluster at NYU.
During her speech, Mills emphasized that the principle of “working together” has been taking shape at NYU in myriad other ways:
● Experiential learning on the “urban coastline” of New York’s Governors Island, led by NYU Gallatin’s WetLab.
● A new app, developed by the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and NYU Tandon, to help people with visual impairment to navigate the subway system.
● Work by NYU-KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and NYU’s Silver School of Social Work to design a social robot to augment the efforts of social workers in public schools.
“In 2022 alone,” she added, “our faculty raised a mighty $61 million in research funds dedicated to interdisciplinary projects that address inequality.”
To perform this vital work, the president noted how essential it was to draw strength in this “flawed and fractious” world. For her, the crucial wellspring has been her forebears’ courage and resilience during the Holocaust, which she explored in a 2010 documentary film Auf Wiedersehen: 'Til We Meet Again, which centered on her mother’s escape from the Nazis. “Hope is not enough,” she said, recalling with emotion how her grandfather gave her unforgettable advice after recounting his daring escape from a cattle car after being rounded up during Kristallnacht: “To act is better than doing nothing.”
“Thus my impulse toward action,” Mills pronounced, “and thus my covenant with you to co-create this next chapter.”
A commitment to creativity, learning, and new directions filtered through the entire event, starting as soon as audience members filled bleachers to electronic music composed by Joe Esposito, a clinical assistant professor at the NYU Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Mills wore a new academic robe created for her by Tony Award-winning costume designer Susan Hilferty, a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts. And Steinhardt professor and composer Julia Wolfe paid tribute to Mills by introducing an excerpt from her percussive work, Dark Full Ride.
When the formal procession to chairs circling the dais began, it was led by people drawn from Mills’ circle of friends and colleagues. The torchbearer at the front was Nikolai Wolfe (Tandon ’09, ’11), president of the NYU Alumni Association. Also striding to the skirl and rattle of the NYU Pipes and Drums were 39 representatives of colleges, universities, and learned societies; NYU deans; senior NYU administrators; NYU president emeriti John Sexton and Andrew Hamilton; and Evan R. Chesler, the chair of NYU’s Board of Trustees.
Distinguished guests who participated in the procession also included Tarika Barrett, CEO of Girls Who Code; Chelsea Clinton, Vice Chair of the Clinton Foundation; Katherine E. Fleming, President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust, and former Provost of NYU; Jane Rosenthal, Co-founder, CEO, and Executive Chair of Tribeca Enterprises; Ed Mermelstein, New York City Commissioner for International Affairs; Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City; Harvey Epstein, New York State Assembly Member; Lisette Nieves, President of the Fund for the City of New York; and William Morrison, Washington Square Park Administrator.
Under lights dimmed for the ceremony, Interim Provost Georgina Dopico, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese languages and literature, began the opening pronouncement with “a fervent hope for peace” in the Middle East. Joy Harjo, the 23rd US Poet Laureate, then presented with spoken word and wooden flute a land acknowledgement followed by a new poem.
The chain of Mills’ influential research in social science and broad accomplishments at NYU was described by David Irving, chair of the Tenure/Tenure Track Faculty Senators Council and an associate professor in the NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Department of Undergraduate Film and Television, and by Evan Chesler, Esq., recently-named chair of the Board of Trustees—with gestures of goodwill extended by Trustee Rima Al Mokarrab on behalf of NYU Abu Dhabi, and NYU Shanghai’s chancellor Shijun Tong on behalf of the Chinese campus; each had flown to the US for this occasion.
In turn, the personal warmth and sincerity that Mills exudes in her relationships with students was cited by Ron Hall (CAS, ’23), former student government chair, with anecdotes about their work on enhancing wellness and the student experience.
Mills’ dissertation advisor on her doctorate, Martha Minow, Harvard law school professor and former dean, taped a message praising what she called the president’s path breaking research in the field of domestic partner abuse and treatment, which has resulted in restorative justice-based programs in several jurisdictions.
Chesler returned to the podium for the formal installation and—with Aisha Oliver Staley, NYU senior vice president, general counsel, and university secretary—presented Mills with the 1831 founding University Charter. NYU cultural anthropologist Noelle Molé Liston then presented the Chain of Office, a necklace with large medallions symbolizing the responsibilities, authority, and dignity attached to the Office of the President, which, Mills quipped, felt “heavy” to wear.
As students have always been at the heart of the presidents’ efforts, both as a teacher and administrator, the ceremony concluded with another student speaker–Ryan Carney (Liberal Studies ’23, Wagner ’24), chair of the Student Government Assembly. And student members of The Reality Show: NYU—which Mills co-created in 2016 to give artistic voice to complicated personal feelings that students may find themselves experiencing—popped up in scattered places in the audience and belted out a song written to honor her.
Mills’ speech, though, closed, not with a fiat, but with a guiding and open-ended query: She struck the note of working together and reaching for the stars, with the Draper’s photograph of the moon reappearing on the huge screen behind her.
“What will be our moonshots?” she asked.