Chase F. Robinson Convocation Address at the Graduate Center 2014


– Do you think there’s
enough water here for me? (audience laughs) Thank you Provost Lanahan,
Chairperson Schmidt and Chancellor Milliken. It is a double privilege for
me to speak this afternoon. It’s a privilege because
today marks the return of fall convocation. An opportunity to welcome
new members to our community and to signal the promise that ushers in every academic year. And of course it’s a privilege
because the event inaugurates my tenure as president of
the inspiring institution that is the Graduate Center. Now, taking stock will be an
annual theme at convocation. A moment to reflect
upon the Graduate Center and it’s role within, and for the university, the
city, the academy and society. But this year I have a
special debt to discharge. A debt of expectation of
how I envision our future. Part of my answer is this: I could not be more optimistic. I think our future’s
extraordinarily bright. And that’s due to both
our past and our present. We have so much going for us. Not just a reputation within the academy, but a city that thrives, a state that invests in higher education, a board of trustees that
understands the crucial role PhD programs play for the
university as a whole, a supportive foundation board, and a new chancellor’s energy and resolve. Ours is a short but extraordinary history. The achievement of thousands
of faculty members, staff and students, supported by seven chancellors, and guided by four presidents, two of whom, Francis Degen
Horowitz and Bill Kelly, join us today. Our strength is the
university and the city, and our history tracks the
remarkable trajectory of CUNY. Numbers I think can help tell our story. In 1964 we graduated two doctorates, in 1984, 204, and in 2014 we granted 528. In 1964 there were 10 doctoral
programs and 238 faculty, all campus based and all designated as one can read in the archives, for the teaching of doctoral seminars and the supervision of dissertations. We now have 34 programs
and some 1,892 faculty, 140 of whom are based
at the Graduate Center. Another number, and a
mental image to go with it: We’ve awarded 12,818 doctorates, and if you were to stack
all of those dissertations, one on top of the other, they’d reach to within
48 feet of the top of the Empire State building. Really. (audience laughs) The majority of our alumni
live and work in the area teaching hundreds of
thousands of students, in virtually every college
and university in the area. And our current students
teach over 200,000 CUNY undergraduates every single year. Setting the numbers aside,
judge by what matters most. The impact of our ideas,
our students and our alumni. I know of no other institution
of higher education that has achieved so much in so few years. So I’m very optimistic. But optimism scarcely
qualifies as a vision. The Graduate Center is a
wellspring of new ideas, heterodoxies and ambitions grounded in a commitment
to the public good. Far more than our competitors, institutions that are
stultified by tradition and cushioned by reputation as
Stephen Pinker put it recently, “We can innovate because
we’re dedicated to advanced “research and education. “Embedded within a great city
university and located at “the crossroads of the
world’s leading city, “with all of it’s scale and diversity.” Ours I think, is a special
culture of discovery, creativity and critique. It’s a culture not
merely distinctive to us, but one suited to PhD
education in the 21st century, especially as we establish
what I shall call, a diversity of community and
a community of diverse ideas. Allow me to dilate on that thought. The Graduate Center was born as a division of graduate studies in 1961, when CUNY became an integrated
assembly of colleges. Public policy was then driven
by a commitment to invest in infrastructure, including education, rather than by austerity
in response to recession. The political economy of higher education was unmistakably post-war, as we know all too well. Since then the balance between
state funding and tuition has changed dramatically. Disciplinarity was also
grounded in that time. It too was propelled by the
great society in cold war; those emphatically national concerns that, in the case of the
Graduate Center in CUNY, were refracted through
the local imperatives of New York City. This was the hey day of
scientific social science, when it’s positivist claims
were never more bold. And a third characteristic: Although the GI Bill had
subsidized the education of many, higher education remained
the preserve of the few. 40 years ago, about half as many Americans received bachelor’s degrees as do now. In 1980, 26% of 18 to 24 year
olds attended colleges and universities. Today, 41% do. The greatest growth coming among women and African American students. CUNY’s enrollment has increased 40% over the last 15 years. Little wonder then, that
attitudes that we now take for granted, skepticism
about national projects, suspicions about disciplinary truths, the valorizing of
difference and diversity; these were still in the making. What I’m suggesting is that
the Graduate Center was born in a generous age, but not in a golden age. We’ve learned many things since then, but I’ll limit myself to one, just drawing from my own
field, and which illustrates how diversity of community
relates to diversity of ideas. Throughout the 1960s and
1970s, Islamic history was dominated by an Orientalist
tradition that had its origins in 19th Century French,
British and German philology. The disciplinary inertia
in those days is hard to exaggerate now. The questions posed and the answers given were uniformly stale. To be honest, and this thought
came to me just last week, when I had the pleasure of
teaching a typically dynamic group of graduate center students, the field was so errored, that I scarcely understand
why I entered it, way back in 1986. I didn’t sense it at the time, but the field I’d chosen that
I was being disciplined into, as it were, was collapsing. One wrecking ball was
Edward Said’s Orientalism. A book, that I must note,
which owns an idea or two, to the trenching work carried out earlier, by our own Talal Asad. There were several
other critiques as well, and they all made a series
of assaults on method, on hermeneutics and historiography, which redirected my field
in fundamental ways. Studies on gender, sexuality,
textuality and class. What was happening was this: as the community that constituted Middle Eastern history changed, especially as women and South Asian and Middle Eastern Muslims
entered, it became immeasurably more challenging, more
interesting, more contentious, more pressing, more
demanding and more relevant. Academic excellence, we discovered, is fostered by diversity. That’s how I read the Graduate
Center’s history, too. Over the last 20 years or so, we’ve not only become a
much better institution, say as judged by admission
rates and placement data, but we’ve become a much
more diverse institution. This said, we must do more, and that’s why I’ve launched
a range of initiatives that will ensure an inclusive
community that draws upon the widest possible
range of experience, of race and ethnicity, class, nationality, sexual orientation and gender identity. Beyond these fundamentals,
where should we be going? Now, a detailed itinerary
will be written in the course of a planning process that
can begin in the spring. But here are some principles
that should guide us: Four of them. They’re all predicated on my conviction, that by deepening that
diversity of community and community of diverse
ideas, we can complete our transformation into one
of the world’s leading institutions for advanced learning. First, as alert to
opportunity as we must be, and I believe strongly that
we must respond to opportunity such as New York’s emergence as a hub of high-tech innovation, our
position in the university and the academy, imposes
a special obligation. It’s an obligation to serve
the perennial and theoretical, to be leaders and interrogating,
rejecting and revising accepted wisdoms, and to
make fundamental discoveries upon which applied work can be based. We’re justly proud of our
CUNY 2020 plans for a center for digital scholarship
and data visualization. A project that partners us
with other CUNY colleges, with museums, historical
societies archives, and high-tech companies. But all call it a success,
not merely if it creates jobs and trains New Yorkers, but if it delivers new
insights into data science. Fields of fundamental inquiry
such as mathematics and philosophy are glories
of the Graduate Center. They must remain so. Put another way, the quality
of our scholarship matters more than its apparent
or immediate relevance. Take it from someone who
took up the study of the Caliphate, long before the appearance of Abu Bakr al-bBghdadi and ISIS. What’s irrelevant one day
can become pressing the next. Better yet, situated as we
are in arguably this world’s most dynamic city, take it
from our own Morris Dickstein, in his moving elegy of Marshall Berman. They rewrote of Marshall’s
interest in the urban environment that he considered synonymous
with freedom, diversity and authentic self realization. Morris’s own work has
documented a vibrant humanities in another age of austerity. We deserve the same, and
through our academic programs and centers, I believe that
we can champion the humanities for the city. Second, as paradoxical as it may sound, interdisciplinarity must be
built upon disciplinarity. It’s said that we live in the
internet, or the data age. That banality I think obscures the fact, that accessing and
manipulating information is constrained by poverty
and educational attainment. The four billion cell phones
now in use are at best an indirect measure of the
universalizing of information that the internet age
is supposed to deliver. We need to double our
efforts to make our expertise accessible to disadvantaged communities. The banality of the so-called internet age also obscures an imperative; for all that those who do
enjoy access are surrounded, immersed, or even drowning
in information and opinion, the need for genuine knowledge remains greater than ever. This has implications. The disciplines into which
we’ve organized ourselves, have histories and
sociologies of their own. Our knowledge bears the
imprint of those histories and sociologies. To discern the limits of
disciplinary thinking, one needs a discipline. And I also believe, having a
discipline in the 21st century, increasingly means collaborating. The Ebola crisis in West
Africa is instructive. It may be the era of globalization, but months of ignorance,
indifference and complacence cannot be explained without reference to national parochialisms
and narrow thinking. It’s the demographers, the anthropologists and the physicians who
understand that improving mortality projections,
bridging the gap between Western medicine and local knowledge, and supplying health services; all these require collaboration. Here we have a template to follow. What amounts to a
disciplinary/ interdisciplinary compact in the three
Mellon-funded committees, the Center for the Humanities
and the Advanced Research Collaborative, and many
other centers as well. These have become hothouses
of scholarship and opportunities for mentorship. Last year, we offered
nearly 100 course releases to campus-based faculty
to do their research. In other words, we’re reinforcing our role as a hub for research
across the university. In all of this, Jenny Furlong’s
work in our Center for Career Planning and
Professional Development, has a special significance. Our mission is not merely to
produce the next generation of scholars for the academy. It’s also to train the next
generation of researchers, principals, curators, directors
and the like for society. Third, as important as
diversity of community is to our diversity of ideas, and as
mindful as we must be of maintaining our historical
strengths, our community cannot be intellectually
diverse in the absence of scientists doing science. Massive processing power
enables modeling that vitiates neat distinctions between
office and laboratory. Fundamental scientific discovery
now takes place through networks that connect terabytes of data with collaborative teams of scientists. Theory and experiment are not divided but frequently conjoined. Important initiatives are now underway at the Graduate Center, thanks to Maureen O’Connor and Laurel Eckert in neuroscience, and thanks to several
others in the theoretical, computational and data sciences. These and other sciences
at the Graduate Center will be supported. The initiative for the
theoretical sciences bears enormous promise. Promise for the Graduate Center,
for CUNY and for science. Fourth, and last, the more we partner and collaborate, the more we benefit from
the talents and diversity of the city. At commencement I said that
there was no ivory tower to ascend, but bridges to
be built between research, teaching and social change. I meant it. Thanks to the work of Polly
Thistlewaite, Louise Lennihan, Duncan Faherty, Robert Reid
Pharr, and Leah Schwartz, we have burgeoning
student-centered partnerships with the New York Public Library, including The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the New York Historical Society,
and the Hispanic Society. The city’s resources are tapped. Our students are given
the opportunity, early on, to do research in the
city’s rich archives. It’s perfect. Another example is a
project in the Institute for Language Education in
Transcultural Context, which we established three years ago with the central office,
Hunter and Queens. Thanks to Alberta Gatti and
Alex Funk, the institute has recently been named one
of only fifteen national language resource centers,
and as such, will receive funding for work with
student heritage speakers at Hunter, Queens, Lieman,
Staten Island, LaGuardia, Kingsborough and Queensborough. What could be better than
empowering CUNY students through their Spanish,
their Chinese, Arabic, Bengali and Korean? Again, perfect. These are merely two of the
many examples that I could give on how the talents and
energies of CUNY’s faculty and students fuel the Graduate Center. All that you have heard
today is by way of prologue. We find ourselves at a
promising and propitious moment in the history of the Graduate Center. In partnership with Chancellor Milliken, Chairperson Schmidt and
Foundation Board Chair Deferrari, I look forward to working with all of you, to serve the university,
the city and learning. Thank you very much. (audience claps)

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