Convocation Address by President Robinson

It is a double privilege to speak to you 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 it’s a privilege because the event inaugurates my tenure as president of the inspiring institution that is the Graduate Center.

Taking stock will be an annual theme at Convocation, a moment to reflect upon the Graduate Center and its 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 couldn’t be more optimistic. I think our future is extraordinarily bright. And that’s due both to our past and to our present.

We have so much going for us—not just our 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 Ph.D. 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, staff and students, supported by seven Chancellors, and guided by four presidents, two of whom—Frances 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 can help tell our story.
In 1964, we granted two doctorates; in 1984, some 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 GC.

Another number—and a mental image: we’ve awarded 12,818 doctorates, and if you were to stack all those dissertations, one on top of the other, they’d reach to within 48 feet of the top of the Empire State Building. Really!

The majority of our alumni live and work in the area, teaching hundreds of thousands of students, in virtually every college and university. And our current students teach over 200,000 CUNY undergraduates every single year.

Setting the numbers aside, judged 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 Steven Pinker put it recently, we can innovate because we’re dedicated to advanced education and research, embedded within a great City university, and located at the crossroads of the world’s leading City, with all its scale and diversity.

Ours is a special culture of discovery, creativity and critique. It’s a culture not merely distinctive to us, but one suited to Ph.D. 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 the 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 the time: it, too, was propelled by the Great Society and Cold War, those emphatically national concerns that, in the case of the Graduate Center and CUNY, were refracted through the local imperatives of New York City. This was the heyday of scientific social science when its positivist claims 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. Forty years ago, about half as many Americans received bachelor’s degrees as do now. In 1980, 26 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds attended colleges and universities. Today, 41 percent do, the greatest growth coming among women and African-American students. CUNY’s enrollment has increased 40 percent 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 lesson, drawn from my own field, 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 answers given, were 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 GC students—the field was so arid 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 owes an idea or two to the trenchant 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, 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 admissions and placement data—but we’ve become a more diverse institution.

We must do more, however, and this is 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?

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 is an obligation to serve the perennial and theoretical, to be leaders in interrogating, rejecting and revising accepted wisdoms, and to make fundamental discoveries upon which applied work can be based.
We are justly proud of our CUNY2020 plans for a new Center for Digital Scholarship and Data Visualization, a project that partners us with museums, historical societies, archives and high-tech companies. But I’ll 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-Baghdadi and ISIS: what’s irrelevant one day can become pressing the next.

Better yet, situated as we are in arguably the world’s most dynamic city, take it from our own Morris Dickstein, in his moving elegy of Marshall Berman. There he wrote 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, inter-disciplinarity must be built upon disciplinarity.

It’s said that we live in the “Internet” or “data age.” But that banality obscures the fact that accessing and manipulating information is constrained by poverty and educational attainment. The 4 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 redouble 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 have 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 too. These have become hothouses of scholarship and opportunities for mentorship: last year, we offered nearly 100 course releases to campus-based faculty to do research.

In other words, we’re reinforcing our role as a hub for research across CUNY.

And in all of this, Jenny Furlong’s work in our Center of 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 is 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 underway at the GC—thanks to Maureen O’Connor and Laurel Eckhardt, in neuroscience, and, thanks to several others, in the theoretical, computational and data sciences. These and other sciences at the GC will be supported. The Initiative for the Theoretical Sciences bears enormous 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 Thistlethwaite, Louise Lennihan, Duncan Faherty, Robert Reid-Pharr and Lia 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; and 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 Offices, Hunter, Queens and Staten Island. Thanks to Alberta Gatti and Alex Funk, the Institute has recently been named one of only 15 National Language Resource Centers, and, as such, will receive funding for work with student heritage speakers at Hunter, Queens, Lehman, Staten Island, LaGuardia, Kingsborough and Queensborough.

What could be better than empowering CUNY students through their Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, Bengali and Korean? Again, perfect.

These are merely two of many examples of 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 de Ferrari, I look forward to working with all of you to serve the University, the City and learning.

Thank you very much.

Submitted on: OCT 6, 2014

Category: President's Office - Archive