Convocation 2017 Address by President Robinson

Chase F. Robinson at Convocation
Thank you John, Tony, and Tamara. I’d also like to thank Xiaming Tian and Nora Bartosik, who will perform for us shortly, and the faculty, and alumni for joining us today. Most of all, however, I welcome you, our new doctoral and master’s students, some 550 or so, all told. We are especially pleased to welcome more master’s students in more programs than at any other time in the history of the Graduate Center.
Convocation gives us an opportunity to celebrate the talents of our students. You will get a taste of that in a few minutes, and I urge you to make a habit of attending the public events that take place in nearly every room of the Graduate Center: seminars, conferences, performances, lectures, discussions — there are far too many to catalogue. But trust me: the speakers and performers embody “The Life of the Mind in the Heart of the City,” as we like to describe who we are and what we do.
Such events make routine the increasingly rare spectacle that is reasoned debate, when facts and evidence shape argument, and arguments change minds. The violence that erupted in Charlottesville last weekend issued not only from racism and hate, but from a deeply cynical view of what the public sphere is, and the role that universities play within it.  We abhor the racism and hate, and we repudiate that cynicism. We here at the Graduate Center take seriously our public mission in many ways. And modeling this — a certain kind of public discourse, responsible, fair-minded, engaged, humane — is especially important.
In this and other projects, you are our partners. A moment ago I greeted you as students, but you’re really colleagues-to-be.
We have things to teach you — ideas, proofs, theorems, models, and the like. You’re sitting here, on a very warm August morning, because accomplished faculty like Tony Ro are so keen to share their deep expertise; because fellow students, like Xiaming and Nora, will bring their talents and perspectives to the classroom; and because alumni, like Tamara, want to support you and your work.
In time, I’ll have the pleasure of conferring degrees upon you at a commencement. Between now and then, we take seriously the responsibility that your choice — to be here, ready to learn — vests in us. We’re mainly responsible for the teaching, and you for the learning, but education is very much a joint venture. If we’re partnering well — in the classroom, seminar, the lab, and the field — we not only benefit individually, but we redeem the promise of public education.
Convocation gives us the opportunity to acknowledge that common purpose.
Because this is both the first and the last time that you’ll gather as a whole, and because all of you are new or fairly new to graduate education, it also gives us a moment to ponder what we’ve gotten ourselves into.
Poised in the relative quiet before the semester begins, we can do worse than to think about the very noisy controversies that engulf higher education. Most of the commentary sorts itself out into either criticism or resistance.
The criticism often comes in the form of a charge of obsolescence or irrelevance. In governance, modes of teaching, and intellectual vision, colleges and universities are considered quaint, backward-looking, and narrow. It is said that we typically fail to equip students with the skills needed to prosper in the new economy or to address national needs. At our worst, we indoctrinate. What can the liberal arts or the humanities teach students about emerging industries like robotics and artificial intelligence, machine learning, cybercrime and cybersecurity, genomics, and big data? Why do professors coddle instead of challenge?
Now, as many people know, these are versions of a long-standing criticism, but recently the entrepreneurs have begun to pile on.
Costs have exploded, they charge, and benefits — always measured as the return in earnings on the investment in tuition — these are modest. Higher education, like other traditionally labor-intensive sectors (say hotels or taxis), is “ripe for disruption.” At its most radical, the critique is existential. The future lies not in traditional institutions bounded by space and time (say campuses, class schedules) or, for that matter, hierarchically organized into teachers and students. Those are fossils of outdated industrial thinking. The future lies in the version of the globalized present and, indeed, the future — increasingly online and asynchronous, for sure, and, to some, even DIY. In 2014, more than 2.8 million students in higher education — that’s one in seven — did all of their instruction at a distance.
Going to college — that is, literally going to a campus — is wasteful and inefficient. And for the genuinely ambitious, going to college — that is, attending — is unnecessary, even counter-productive. Such, in any case, is the lesson taught by the success of some fabulously wealthy dropouts.
Now, the response to these criticisms is correspondingly spirited. The corporatization of higher education has subverted traditions of faculty self-governance — the very traditions upon which high-quality teaching and research are ultimately based. In modeling colleges and universities as nothing more than competitors in a market for consumer-students, “managers” (that’s to say, me and others on the eighth floor) have poured money into branding, extravagant student services, quixotic internationalization, and inevitably our own numbers and salaries. Colleges have too few tenured faculty and too many overpaid managers and bureaucrats.
What the critics of higher education fail to appreciate, it’s argued, are the hard-to-quantify contributions of the humanities and liberal arts to quality of life, both individual and democratic. In their obsession with “skills,” they fail to calculate habits of critical thinking and active learning. And these lend themselves to “reskilling,” the emerging imperative of more-or-less constant professional reinvention, in our so-called “age of creative destruction.” It’s broad, non-vocational education, curated by expert faculty and delivered in forms and settings that maximize creative interaction — that is both the future of education and the future of colleges and universities.
All of this is worth understanding and pondering. It’s an index of the partisan divide that separates attitudes of the right from those of the left. A recent poll has it that 58 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning Independents say that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. Thirty-five percent more Republicans than Democrats say that the main purpose of college is to teach skills for the marketplace.i
For a very recent word on the changes in higher education, I commend The New Education, by our own Cathy Davidson, an architect of one of the initiatives that are underway at the Graduate Center to address these and other challenges.
These, in brief, are the criticisms and countercriticisms that concern present-day higher education, but today, on this occasion, I’d like to peer deeper — much deeper — into the future. As a university president, I’m forced to grapple with these short-term issues as a matter of course. But as a historian of the early medieval period, I’m predisposed to focusing not on what medievalists call “histoire √©v√©nementielle” (history as a succession of events), but on long-term trends.
My concerns lie less in the practical steps that universities should take now than in the responsibilities and opportunities that many of you will face later — much later.
Let’s start by making some assumptions.
At last year’s convocation, we had the pleasure of hearing perform a first-year Ph.D. student who was 18 years old. I’m going to assume that most of you are not 18. Most of you are in your early or mid-20s, and this means that many of you will be in your late 20s or early 30s when you complete your doctoral degrees.
Now let’s give the product of that assumption a name: Helen. With deep, deep respect for all the Helens in the room — who, I’m sure, are all fantastic! — Helen will personify my generalities. Helen will be utterly average.
Helen will complete her Ph.D. in 2023 or 2024, on this or the other side of 30 years old. Now, the average retirement age is currently about 63, but it’s increasing, and that increase will continue. Of course, academics already retire later than non-academics, on average at least five years later.ii A study at the University of Wisconsin showed that from 2010 to 2014 less than half of the faculty retired by 65, and 20 percent retired at 70 or well over that age.iii So on another conservative assumption, Helen will retire after a 40-year career, in about 2065 — that is, almost 50 years after she took her first Ph.D. seminar.
As Helen brings her long and fulfilling career to a close, she will have taught thousands of students. Some are in primary school today, but most have not yet even been born. In the years leading up to her much-deserved retirement, she’ll have students in her classes who were born as late as 2045 or 2048.
And this inevitably leads to one final, age-related assumption. Setting aside the very real possibility that life expectancy will leap forward as a result of bioengineering, gene therapy, and the like, we can be sure that in those final years of her long, fulfilling career, Helen will be teaching students who will be living well into the 2120s or even 2130s.iv
The arc of lives illustrates the scale of change. The point is not that Helen’s students in the 2040s will regard the technological practices of our world — social media such as Facebook and Twitter — as quaint, the way my children regard their father’s tapes and CDs. Education, as we all know, is foundational to opportunity, justice, and prosperity.
What Helen learns now — the research expertise that she acquires and the pedagogy she adopts — will have a century-long bearing on students’ lives.
I do wonder if she knew what she was getting into. What a responsibility Helen bears!
What about her students? A century ago, there were about 500,000 students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities. Now that number is almost 20 million. To estimate numbers a century from now would be folly, but already by 2035 or so — not even halfway through Helen’s career — that number will have jumped to 25 million. More students will be older, as the traditional tie between education and youth continues to fray and eventually breaks. Already a majority, more students will be women. And many more students will be people of color. It is minority groups that are driving the increase in enrollment. Between 2000 and 2014, Hispanic enrollment more than doubled, Black enrollment increased by 57 percent, but white enrollment increased by only 7 percent. By 2050 — 15 years before Helen retires — it is white, non-Hispanics who will constitute the minority of the total population.
For what careers — 20, 30, or even 40 years down the road — will Helen be preparing her students? The question may presume too much. The short term is fairly clear: the age of outsourcing is giving way to the age of artificial intelligence and automation, and this will have a differential impact on sectors of the economy. The least affected will be those professions that are about managing and developing people, or that require high-level expertise in decision-making and creativity: the so-called knowledge economy.
Teachers, Helen will be very pleased to know, will survive the cull. But the days are numbered for those whose expertise comes from repetition — and this even in highly technical fields, such as in health care (say, radiology). Barring some black swan event, the inexorable process of automation will eventually eliminate the work of hundreds of millions of people.
This will force radical adjustments to the nature of society or the nature of the state. An example: In our current age of stubborn poverty, growing inequality, and a very brittle social compact, the idea of the Universal Basic Income has growing appeal on both the left and the right. In an age when work is simply not necessary for many — indeed not possible — it may be inevitable.
What will it mean for Helen to teach when non-employment is increasingly the rule, when her students may or may not have lives of compensated work before them? What, indeed, will it mean in these circumstances to be a student?
As pronounced as those changes will be, so, too, will those taking place in research and knowledge. We tend to take for granted the disciplinary landscape that we currently occupy; it can appear as firm and solid as our physical landscape. In fact it’s in the nature of disciplines that they’re protean, fissiparous, and permeable; some are resilient, but others are transient.
Over the last 50 years or so, some disciplines (such as my own, history, and mathematics) have evolved relatively slowly, others (say, English and anthropology) have changed almost beyond recognition. I’m old enough to have a father whose teachers, having been trained in the 1920s and 1930s, were skeptical of that newfangled discipline called “sociology.” — where Tamara is now making her mark.
On the eve of World War I, Russian was taught at precisely three American universities; by the early 1960s, the field of Soviet Studies was flourishing nationally; by the end of the 1990s, it was more or less dead. Since the end of the Cold War, Area Studies has been born, declared dead, and reborn.
By several measures, Tony’s field of neuroscience now reigns supreme, attracting huge talent and massive funding, and, in the popular imagination at least, promising to explain the perennial mysteries of the mind. As a discrete and interdisciplinary field, it is barely 50 years old.
There are several lessons that we can learn from these examples, but the main one is this: bodies of knowledge are contingent. This contingency is not just a function of evolutionary changes from within the fields. Disciplines are conditioned by any number of exogenous factors, and by this I don’t mean simply fad or political opinion. I mean structural changes. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the Federal Government provided more than 70 percent of the funding for basic research; it fell beneath 50 percent in 2013, and it now stands at 44 percent. Research in many fields, one might say, is being privatized.
The field in which Helen will be credentialed may or may not exist when she retires. It will certainly have changed enormously, in no small part, one hopes, thanks to Helen’s contributions.
So, as she begins her Ph.D. today, what advice can we offer? Given the scale of change, it would be presumptuous to venture beyond some principles. But, even so, let’s not let her start without at least some guidance.
First, what of the relevance of experience? The ways Helen learned and the ways she was taught worked for her: that’s why she’s succeeded. But as students change, along with what it means to be a student, it’s very hard to know if the lessons of Helen’s experience will transfer. Helen will have to be exceptionally attentive to the concerns, anxieties, and aspirations of students living in a radically transforming world, in which, arguably, the main benefit of learning will be the ability to learn itself.
Second, what of expertise? Problems with which we’re all familiar — climate change, the nature of what it means to be human, how we organize ourselves socially — these are intrinsic, or so at least I think, to our existence as a species. But there’s nothing necessary about how we organize ourselves to address them. Helen would be wise to be humble (more humble than we academics are wont to be), not just about knowledge that may be overturned, but about the very methods and tools she uses to acquire it.
Third and finally, what of responsibility?
For all that is unknowable about her career, and for all that she’ll watch her students and her research change, Helen will have the values that she brought to the Graduate Center, and will  add to those the ones she acquires at the Graduate Center. As you make your own way here at the Graduate Center, I trust that you’ll acquire those values, too. These Helen can hold fast: excellence and originality (of course); fairness (always). And, more distinctively: a commitment to the public good, indeed a conviction that serious learning informed by reasoned debate is an immense public good.
Thank you all for placing your trust in us. I do wish you a very, very successful year here at the Graduate Center.

Download the PDF of President Robinson's convocation remarks


i Pew Research Center (2017)

ii A recent study has predicted modest growth — another year or so — over the next three decades:


iv Using no fewer than 21 different models, they calculated the life expectancy of those born in 2030. In some cases (such as South Korea), the gain over current life expectancy will be as much as 5 years. In the US, socio-economic inequalities will dampen the growth, but even so, women will live to be over 83, and men nearly 80.

Submitted on: AUG 22, 2017

Category: General GC News | President's Office - Speeches