President Sarah C. Mangelsdorf: Inauguration Remarks as Prepared
October 4, 2019
Distinguished guests, university delegates, colleagues, friends, and family. Thank you all for being here. I am deeply honored by your presence and inspired by the words and music we have heard today.
Before I begin, I would also like to acknowledge two people who are not here today, but who would have loved to have been: my parents, who instilled in me the values of the academy and who encouraged and nurtured my sense of intellectual curiosity. My father was the Marshal of the commencement ceremonies at Swarthmore College for many years. He loved the pomp and circumstance of academic ceremonies and thus he would have loved this ceremony. Both my parents would also have loved the beauty of this historic theater and the wonderful music we have heard today.
Given that this is a presidential inauguration, I thought I might take the time allotted to me to reflect with you on the role of the university president, and, more importantly, the role of the university today and in the future.
To begin, I would like to share with you what the university’s first president, Martin Brewer Anderson, who served this institution with distinction from 1853 to 1888, had to say about the role of university president.
In a letter to a friend in February 1882, when he had been president for almost three decades, Anderson wrote:
“[T]he typical college president…is expected to be a vigorous writer and public speaker. He must be able to address all sorts of audiences upon all sorts of subjects. He must be a financier able to extract money from the hoards of misers, and to hold his own with the trained denizens of Wall Street. He must be attractive in general society, a scholar among scholars; distinguished in some one or two departments of learning; gentle and kindly as a woman in his relations to the students, and still be able to quell a ‘row’ with the pluck and confidence of a New York Chief-of-Police. If a man fails in any one of these elements of character, he is soon set down as unfit for his position…
He goes on:
“…Here we find a reason why so many men break down in health in this field, or give it up after a few years of trial, in unmitigated loathing and disgust. My sympathies are excited for the man who takes the presidency of an American college, much more deeply than they would be for a man on the way to the gallows.”
That cheerful picture of his professional responsibilities makes one wonder why Anderson stuck around for 35 years.
And I’d like to point out that he led this institution before email, the 24/7 news cycle, and social media!
What I find curious about Anderson’s tragic assessment of the role of the university president is that it omits the president’s most important, most critical – and indeed the happiest – responsibility: the stewardship of the university itself.
I stand before you as a university president. But I am also a professor, and the daughter and grand-daughter – as well as the spouse – of professors. So, you may rightly assume that I am just a little biased. But to me, there are few more important and enduring societal institutions than the university, especially those like the University of Rochester, where research, teaching, and engagement – with this city, this region, the nation, and the world – are of primary importance.
And there is no greater privilege or responsibility than to lead such an essential institution.
The central role of the university is the creation, preservation, and advancement of knowledge and of culture. Or more accurately, cultures, because we know that we cannot be monolithic in our views and influences in this increasingly interconnected world.
Great universities create, preserve, and advance knowledge through research, teaching, learning, and practical execution.
The eminent Harvard scholar, Louis Menand, has this to say about knowledge:
“Knowledge is our most important business… but its value is not only economic. The pursuit, production, dissemination, application, and preservation of knowledge are the central activities of a civilization. Knowledge is social memory, a connection to the past; and it is social hope, an investment in the future. The ability to create knowledge and put it to use is the adaptive characteristic of humans. It is… how we keep our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds.”
I like that Professor Menand points out that knowledge is both practical and abstract, both material and metaphysical.
Knowledge is the necessary engine for a mathematical equation, as much as for a Baroque organ recital, or a quantum processor semiconductor chip, or a sonnet, or a data visualization, or a Bhangra dance concert. It is necessary for educational innovation, for entrepreneurship and economic development, and for path-breaking surgical techniques. It is even required for a national-championship-winning Quidditch strategy.
Menand alludes to an important concept: knowledge is valuable for its own sake.
Those of us in the academy would do well to keep this in mind, and to promote and protect this idea whenever possible. What we teach – and what our students learn – may not always result in a product or a prize or some other tangible result. The payoff is in the cultivation of a well-informed critical thinker and citizen of the world.
As I have already noted, one of the central ways knowledge is acquired is through research, the kind of basic, painstaking, creative research conducted in libraries, offices, labs, coffee houses, and numerous other locations across the University of Rochester campus, in our community, and around the world.
Rochester’s focus on research places us among the country’s most elite institutions of higher learning. And our research focuses on virtually every area of human endeavor, from Nobel Prize-winning optics and DNA science, to the catastrophic effects of climate change and the tragedy of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, to the pathways to social justice for the incarcerated or for urban families and children, to a better understanding of the historical roots of globalization.
As president, I will focus on supporting and sustaining research at every level. Because it is through the knowledge derived from research that we fulfill our mission to make the world ever better.
The environment of a great research university creates great opportunity – not just in the learning itself, but how that learning translates into understanding and action.
As Hannah Arendt said, “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to take responsibility for it.”
The role of the university environment in the formation of young minds – and I would argue older minds, as well – cannot be overstated. At its best, the university provides a protected space for the marketplace of ideas to thrive. The university challenges us – and allows us – to think the unthinkable, question the unquestionable, imagine the unimaginable, and create the uncreatable.
To frame problems, and to solve them. To experience difference and embrace it. To think critically. To be curious. To agree to disagree, civilly. To learn to lead, and also to follow.
As I said, when I was announced as President of the University of Rochester in 2018, “Education can, and should, change people’s lives.”
And as much as the university environment forms us, we must also be committed to our responsibility to form our institutional environment.
I believe the University of Rochester is truly blessed with a vast diversity of ideas, backgrounds, and beliefs. I believe those diversities enhance our life experience, sharpen our thinking, and make us better and more empathetic citizens of the world.
But to sustain those diversities, and to maintain an environment of equity, inclusion, and respect, we must be mindful and intentional.
One Rochester figure we have to thank for some of the diversity on our campus is Susan B. Anthony, who, in the late 1800s, along with the wife of the Unitarian Minister and the wife of one of the local Rabbis, lobbied the trustees of the University of Rochester to get them to admit women.
In 1898 the trustees agreed that they would, if the women could raise $100,000. They were able to raise $40,000 in a two-year door-to-door campaign and in the end Susan B. Anthony famously pledged her own life insurance policy (which was later returned) to help achieve the goal. In September 1900, 33 women registered to study at the University of Rochester.
As president I will be particularly attentive to these issues of equity and inclusion and I will do everything I can do to make sure that every student, faculty, and staff member at the University of Rochester feels welcomed and included.
And finally, engagement.
Gone are the days of the Ivory Tower. Today’s university is – and it must be – engaged with its community. Or, again, I should say communities: we have students, faculty, alumni, and scholarly projects and partnerships around the world.
In addition to being an academic and cultural center, today’s university is often an economic force within its community as corporations contract and other businesses and established organizations downsize or disappear.
Think of Yale and New Haven and the University of Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. These are but two examples of peer institutions that have invested heavily in their local communities – and with generally positive results.
Add Rochester to that list.
In fact, put us at the top of the list. The relationship between the University of Rochester and the City of Rochester has always been one of mutual engagement. There’s no better illustration of this than the words inscribed on the building that houses this magnificent theater: “For the enrichment of community life.”
Even when this building was constructed in the early part of the 20th century, our city’s and our university’s greatest benefactor, George Eastman, and the leadership of the University of Rochester were committed to the idea that this was a place not just for the musicians and scholars of the Eastman School of Music, but also for the community.
I have another story to illustrate this point in quite a marvelous way.
When I visited the University archives so that I could learn more about the history of the institution I now lead, among the items that had been set out for me to look at was a large book, many pages long, hand-written with exquisite calligraphy.
The book memorializes the contributors from the Campaign of 1924, spearheaded by then-president Rush Rhees, that raised the funds needed for the construction of the River Campus.
As some of you know, the original University of Rochester campus was in a former cow pasture a few blocks away from here. Part of that campus is now part of the Memorial Art Gallery – another institution that is part of our university and is also dedicated to the community.
The new – and current – River Campus was sited on a golf course. And that famous golf course, Oak Hill, moved out to Pittsford so the university could be built. But that’s another story.
In this memorial book, all of the 13,651 contributors to the campaign (which included 70% of all living graduates – that is the kind of participation rate we expect in our next campaign!) are listed alphabetically. All of the names are listed in two columns for many, many pages, with decorations in red and blue and gold ink.
And there I found, in a left-hand column on one of the “E” pages, among all the other names, George Eastman. Immediately across from Eastman’s name, in the right-hand column, was another donor: “Eddie’s Chop House.”
It turns out that Eddie owned a very popular restaurant that was a mainstay on East Main Street from before the Depression until the Reagan era, described as “a place to meet and a place for meats” for generations of Rochesterians. “Power brokers gathered at the downtown eatery to talk business, and everyday folks came to savor the… dishes.”
In a sense, Eddie and Eastman weren’t very different. They both worked to bring communities together.
But what struck me most about this delightful pairing was the idea that the University of Rochester was not built only by wealthy donors – although George Eastman deserves the lion’s share of the credit. The University of Rochester was built by the people of Rochester.
Think about that for a moment: we are not just a University in this community; we are a University of this community.
Another item from the archives was a 1953 promotional brochure for the University, incidentally, with photos taken by a little-known photographer named Ansel Adams. The brochure includes a section called “The University Serves the Community.”
“In medicine, music, art, adult education and technological research,” it proclaims, “the University of Rochester performs more direct services for its community than any comparable American university. These services are decisive in determining the tone and quality of the community’s life.”
I’m not sure those 1953 copywriters had empirical evidence to back their claims up, but one thing is certain, both then and now:
As much as we are a University in the community and of the community, we must be a University for our community.
If we are being true to the values that George Eastman espoused, we must continue to be mindful of our role in the City of Rochester and the region.
Without a vibrant Rochester, the University cannot thrive. Issues facing our community, and many other communities – poverty, unemployment, and lack of access to education and healthcare – are our shared responsibility.
We must be a committed community partner, working together to achieve success. We must build on our shared past and work together on our shared future.
But I should also note that our connection with the community also means community in a global sense – even though the scale is always growing, and the boundaries are constantly shifting. To be a citizen these days is to be a citizen of the world, and I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the importance of our global partnerships.
This, too, is what a contemporary university – a university of global consequence – must always keep in mind.
As president, I will continue in the footsteps of my predecessors and make community engagement a priority.
A few weeks ago, I participated in the University’s Global Day of Service, where members of the University community around the world take part in service projects.
On the back of my T-shirt, designed for the occasion, was a quote by George Eastman: “A good reputation is measured by how much you can improve the lives of others.”
Throughout my presidency, I will keep this adage in mind.
I will also keep Martin Brewer Anderson’s observations about the necessary attributes of a university president close at hand.
They may not always be a useful guide for how I go about doing my job, but whether I am on Wall Street or Wilson Boulevard, I will keep my feet on the ground, my head in the clouds, and my focus on Meliora.
Thank you again for joining me on this occasion. And thank you for the opportunity to lead this great institution into the future.