It is an honor and a delight to welcome you all to a new academic year and, especially, to welcome you who are just joining us as members of our community at the Graduate Center and the vast community that is the City University of New York.
For me, personally, it is a special honor to offer this welcome on behalf of the faculty since it means I’m no longer a “newbie.” After over twenty years on the faculty of Duke University, I moved to the Graduate Center in August of 2014. I’m starting my third year here—a rising junior now. That means I’ve been here long enough to know the ropes and yet I’m still new enough to see with fresh eyes.
What I see is dazzling. And important. I believe in what we are doing here—and know that you will too. The Graduate Center is unique in all of higher education. Because of its position within CUNY, The Graduate Center aspires to a kind of public excellence. Of course we do not always achieve that, but we try for an excellence based on ideals that are equitable and accessible. Equity changes what counts as excellence by raising the bar. Excellence that is equitable exposes the redundancy of what Lani Guinier has called the “tyranny of meritocracy”–where unfair structures of inequality generate standards of excellence that ensure unfair structures of affluence. By contrast, at the Graduate Center, teaching, research, and public service embody a more ambitious mission: the democratization of true merit and the merit of democracy.
Second, innovation. Throughout the Graduate Center, you will find many programs that lead intellectual, social, institutional, and technological change. I know that innovation is a buzzword of business but it’s also a word with a distinguished history, with Latin origins, by way of Middle English, that mean to refresh, restore, and renew. This is not the kind of shiny innovation that happens at corporations in Silicon Valley— and then happens to the rest of us. Rather it is innovation supporting equity, so that, through departments, centers, and programs, we have various benefits including an open online community where we can exchange ideas, or initiatives dedicated to equality and social justice, or programs dedicated to engaged and participatory forms of teaching and learning, or still others programs dedicated to ensuring that the best, most diverse CUNY undergraduates have the opportunity to become graduate students themselves one day and possibly go on to lead the transformation of the intellectual, demographic, and racial inequities in the academic profession.
I’m very honored to be part of The Futures Initiative here and hope you might be interested in participating in two new grants that I’m fortunate to be co-directing this year. One is a Mellon Foundation grant in which the Graduate Center partners with LaGuardia Community College to train graduate students to teach in community college. We also hope some of the undergraduates might go on to graduate school and might even become professors someday. A new Teagle Foundation grant supports student peer-to-peer mentorship at the Graduate Center and throughout the CUNY system. Both of these embody something that, to my mind, is definitional here: While you are doing your research towards a degree with some of the most renowned scholars in your field, you will also be teaching what you are learning to introductory students on CUNY campuses. I am fully aware that is difficult work. It certainly deserves better remuneration. It is also precious. Your impact on those students—and their impact on you—inflects the complexity and character of scholarship here in ways I’ve not seen elsewhere.
These are undergraduates like Estefany Marlen Gonzaga, one of the brilliant mentors in our Teagle program. Currently a senior at Baruch College, Estefany graduated from LaGuardia Community College where she made a powerful seven-minute video entitled “I Am Going to College Because . . .” Sinatra croons “New York, New York” over the opening credits. During her interview with thirty CUNY students, a small flag appears for each person: China, Ecuador, Bangladesh, Mexico, South Korea, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, Puerto Rico, Pakistan, Colombia, Yemen, Myanmar, Peru—and, of course, New York, New York.
“Why do you go to college?” she asks them: “I go to college because . . . I want to do something I love; I want to help others; I seek equality and social justice; I care about people; I am a woman and want to see more women in STEM fields; I am the first person in my family to be able to write my own name and I want to write it proudly.”
You will be the translator, week after week, of the best ideas in your field to those for whom earning a college degree represents the single most important opportunity of a lifetime. I do not think you can do this without having your own work deepened, invigorated, and renewed.
I am humbled by the brilliance and commitment of the students and faculty I’ve worked with at the Graduate Center and throughout CUNY. And I am very happy to be able to welcome you as future members, contributors, and leaders of this very special community.