Chancellor Gordon Gee delivered his 2006 Spring Faculty Assembly address at the Student Life Center on April 6.
Text as delivered by Chancellor Gordon Gee on April 6, 2006.
Ladies and gentlemen, this has been another extraordinary year for Vanderbilt, for the exactness of our alignment with the goals we set for ourselves. This year, Vanderbilt has set a new record for retention of freshmen from the fall to the spring semester – a 99.01 percent retention rate. That is phenomenal, given that the transition from high school to college can be confusing, emotionally rough or isolating.
I attribute that success to all of our efforts to transform and bolster the quality of life for undergraduates on this campus.
Another part of that good fortune we must owe to the discernment of Dean of Admissions Bill Shain, who at the end of this academic year will depart from Vanderbilt to a new post at Bowdoin College.
In the eight years Bill has been with Vanderbilt, our application rate has grown more that 50 percent, and the demographic and geographic diversity of our entering classes has vastly increased.
I am personally grateful for Bill’s service to the university. Vanderbilt bears the signature of his skill as an executive of admissions; his contribution to the constitution of our campus life; and the quality of it is visible and palpable in our everyday experience of life here.
Bill Shain’s service to Vanderbilt emphasizes how important an executive of admissions can be to the vision of a university, and how a skillful and deft handling of that office can create the university as it is known and lived for years to come. John Gaines, associate dean of admissions, will serve as interim dean while the provost-appointed search committee identifies and recruits our next dean of admissions. Vanderbilt has strongly recommitted to improving the texture of residential life on this campus, especially as we become more and more evidently, clearly and obviously a living-and-learning environment. The next step in our evolution will affect all aspects of university life. As we shift gradually toward a system of college halls, the notion of service to the university will also shift.
‘Service to the university’ will cease to be code for committee appointments and will expand to encompass the way we involve ourselves with learning outside of the classroom or the laboratory and a deep participation in campus life that enhances our vocations as scholars. Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to reiterate that point, because it is important – there will be a new model for service at Vanderbilt.
The success of our Commons for first-year students depends upon you, as do all our university initiatives. Our study abroad and service learning programs, our initiative for global health, the continuing renewal and revitalization of our graduate program – all depend on the participation and contribution of Vanderbilt’s faculty.
I wrote earlier this spring that there are times in the life of a university where our actions clearly define our path for the future. We inhabit one of those times, so I have appointed four working groups responsible for creating new goals for this university.
These working groups, under the direction of the provost and of Vice Chancellor for Student Life and University Affairs David Williams, must address issues of culture, honor, values and wellness on our Vanderbilt campus.
I anticipate being able to reveal their findings to you, and seeing how those findings have been transformed into renewed goals, when we assemble again in the coming fall.
I encourage you to involve yourselves with the work of these committees, and most particularly the committee that is studying the process by which first-year students become oriented to the values of our university. The re-conception of Vanderbilt’s orientation can benefit profoundly from faculty support – particularly because the transformation of the residential life of our campus into a system of college halls is at its root a discovery of new interaction between faculty and students.
I anticipate the findings of these working groups, because I am always excited to have new goals. For us to continue to refine our goals and to elaborate them and sophisticate them and bring them up to date, up to this point in our life and what we need now, is vitally important to our long-term well being as a university community.
Due to our extraordinary mechanical agility, due to the great power of involvement and participation and shared ownership of this campus culture, the evolution of our practices is actually conceivable, and actually possible.
Now, in celebration of the spring, I am going to recommend a sight to you on our campus that you may not have seen, or may have seen too many times and never paid attention to, or paid attention to once and then forgot about. And I am going to recommend to you that you look at it again (but please do not take that as an invitation to walk out in the middle of my remarks).
I do not think that you really need an excuse to take a walk on our campus in this effusive spring, but this is a worthy reason for an outing.
One of the best things at Vanderbilt, which, as you all know, is a campus full of “best things,” is a huge Lucite-and-bronze sculpture in a glass case in front of the Stevenson Science Library.
The sculpture depicts, in angles and dimensions of Lucite, the unfurling unfoldment of the universe, and within that unfoldment, the interests of science in all arrays: ganglia and galaxies; a plesiosaur skeleton and a cityscape; ammonites and molecular structures; girders and retorts. It all rests on the backs of twisting primeval dragons, and the sun and the moon.
The whole form and sweep of the thing takes your breath away, because it is charged with the optimism of atomic-age science, the optimism of space-age science – that amazing, exhilarating faith in the human potential to sound not only the reaches of space, but also the depth of our beginnings, and meanwhile continue to make a more livable civilization right here on this earth.
Unfortunately, what one wonders now, gazing at this great jagged glass-and-bronze construction, is whether its dreams and expectations are still current.
I am always interested in visions of the future from the past, and how we have either fallen short of or surpassed those visions.
I am interested in what those visions tell us about the time in which they were envisioned, because surely they tell us more about, say, the mid-1960s – which was when Nancy DuPont Reynolds was etching these planes of Lucite with her dentist drill – than they do about our present moment.
Or do they? We should not let ourselves off the hook too easily.
What do visions of the future – because this sculpture addresses the future, in disappearing perspective, in infinite horizon – what do such visions of the future tell us about ourselves as a present that once was a future? And what is our vision of the future, compared to someone else’s vision of what we were supposed to be?
The inscription on Reynolds’ sculpture says this: “Scientific research forms many paths/ from atom to cosmos/ reaching ever into mystery.” But more and more I am concerned with our current cultural attitudes toward that mystery, and toward our place in respect to it.
This sculpture, telling of the cultural mood during which it was poured and etched, expresses so much faith in the capacity of the human mind, in its elasticity and brazenness and also in the idea that science is for all of us, that it is a cultural endeavor and as such is worthy of the support of the culture.
The solitary human figure in the whole work stands for all of human people in our apprehension of the great universe, in the clutch of its mystery on our heart.
I wish I could just enjoy this sculpture in innocent exaltation. Why should I feel nostalgia, of all feelings to have, in looking at such a thing? But I do, and I feel apprehension, because I am concerned that we as a nation are dangerously close to surrendering what has been our inheritance in the sciences.
And two branches fork out of that concern, both of which are of interest and deepest need to us as researchers and as educators.
The first branch is an issue of grave importance both nationally and internationally. It is a huge national policy issue. It is the peril we are in due to the shortsighted scaling back of federal funding for scientific research and for social science, and for the humanities – for all forms of discovery.
The proposed federal budget for the fiscal year 2006 offered a $132.3 billion research portfolio, which might seem like a great sum, except when one considers that sum is barely a 0.1 percent increase – an $84 million increase – over last year’s level of funding. That represents a cut in real terms.
And although Vanderbilt University currently has the strongest NIH research award growth in the country – a 20.4 percent increase – and continues to exceed projections, my concern is not only about Vanderbilt, but about our colleagues at other institutions, and about a shift in cultural – in national – priorities in general.
In the early part of my tenure at Vanderbilt, I thought a lot and rallied often for the value of the humanities and to save funding of the humanities. I never in my life would have dreamed that I would have to rally for the sciences, that scientific research in this country would ever be in danger. But I rally for them now.
We must use our influence as culture-makers to effect a reprioritization of interest in scientific research as well as in the arts. Our intellectual, social and economic lives as citizens of an international community are at stake.
In my Assembly speech last fall, I emphasized to you the need for our country to remain competitive in the sciences in order for us to remain a leader in the international community.
I spoke of my alarm at seeing a supercollider at CERN in Switzerland, built by international cooperation, which caused me to wonder whether we were at work conceiving of, designing or engineering anything so grand. The image of the global supremacy of the United States as a scientific leader seemed to slip away, and I saw us losing our edge to be overtaken by others. I had recently read Thomas Friedman’s The World Is Flat and was deeply influenced and affected by its outlook.
But now I would like to make a correction, an adjustment, a refinement to what I said in the fall. For I think it is troubling, even damaging, to maintain an idea of global competition, of keeping a leaderly edge in lonely isolation from other countries.
I do not think our motivation to renew our excellence in the sciences should come from such a model, that it should be so shallowly concocted as to be an idea of us-against-the-world.
We have adhered to that model, been addicted to the apparition of our own leadership for so long. I do not think we should want excellence in the sciences simply so that we can have an edge over everyone else, but rather to preserve our own competence, our own excellence for its own sake, and our own ability to participate fully in the international community.
We should seek openings to be able and adept cooperators and collaborators with other countries, as Vanderbilt is doing with our strategy for internationalizing the university, or giving it a planetary reach. For we live on a round world, not a flat one, and dominance over others does not inspire us with higher purpose, is not kin to the far-flung visions drilled in Lucite that are an itinerary for the shared dreams of human people, no matter what nation.
Our citizenship on this planet is a higher purpose: our ability to function fully and to communicate with others and to be of worth and maturity. In a world of competing resources, protecting resources for education and for scientific research is absolutely critical for our security – but in this case, I do not mean security that protects us against threats from without – I mean security in ourselves not to become less than our potential, or less than what has been bequeathed us by the generations preceding our own.
That is why I am so alarmed at the contraction of research and education by ideology, or by political ends and desires and agendae for power that can actually attempt to control what is transmitted as fact, and can attempt to diminish the life’s work of generations of scientists by qualifying or repressing or simply dismissing theories based on empirical evidence.
And I shudder that scientific reports on the Big Bang and on global warming and on reproductive education could be altered or simply excised by political appointees and operatives.
Universities have the capacity to increase human knowledge of the universe, just as the sculpture on the side of Stevenson Center eagerly urges us to do: to bring clarity and light and answers and more questions. Our work is to find our way into the mystery and toward the mystery – certainly never to admit that beyond a certain point things can no longer be known or found, and certainly never to deny that knowledge exists which has been so hard- and dearly won.
Our calling is to show and reveal, never to deceive or confuse or redirect for our own aims and ends. Our calling is to be a beacon on the hill, not a will o’ the wisp.
I will admit that universities have a partiality, and a bias, and it is this: We have a partiality to the capacity of humans to do amazing things when they are given the right tools and information and critical skills.
We do have a bias, and that is toward full public knowledge and full public information and free public discourse.
And this is where the two threads of my thought upon viewing that sculpture come together, for how can we be global citizens – how can we ever participate as a country in international scientific endeavor – on a foundation built on obfuscation or spin, on what I like to call “political science,” or on faith-based pseudoscience?
How can we be mature collaborators if full information is not given to us in the textbooks we encounter as students or in the public discourse we hear as adult citizens?
We should work and study and produce to our fullest capacity so that we can participate in that round world, full citizens in a rich international community, able to converse with others not divided by ideology or worldview but always coming back to demonstrable equations and observations, and communicating in a lingua franca of fact and reason.
If we allow ourselves to live in a fantasy dictated by superstition and fear, how can we have those conversations? That should concern you whether you are a flat-worlder or a round-worlder. For if your world is flat and competition is your interest, you should be concerned that competition at that point will be long past our grasp.
If your world is round and cooperation is your interest, it should concern you that our superstition and fear will disable us from full and mature participation in a world community where what deserves the name of science is based on facts instead of faith, on empiricism instead of dogmatism.
(Although if dogmatism is your interest, I expect you would like such a future just fine.)
I dedicated my life to higher education because I saw it as an essential good, and because I came of age in the idealistic era when Nancy DuPont Reynolds was carving her vision of a past and a future and a mind doing all that it can to reach into them through the present.
My ideas are not political ideas. They are simply the ideas and values of higher education, of freedom of thought and support for human capacity.
To the last I will defend higher education, because we are a beacon, because we live out the dreams of that sculpture and of that optimistic era, because the past few months have seen Vanderbilt participate in the “Scopes for Schools” project, which had minority and other underserved students from area schools assembling telescopes for use in their classrooms;
Have seen Vanderbilt astronomer Bob O’Dell employ the Hubble telescope to map stellar winds in the Orion Nebula;
Have seen Assistant Professor of Astronomy Keivan Stassun study brown dwarfs to find out why they do not become stars;
Have seen Assistant Professor of Mathematics Daphne Manoussaki calculate how the nautilus spiral of the inner ear boosts the strength of the vibration of sound;
Have seen John R. Hall Professor of Chemical Engineering Peter Cummings work with his colleagues at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to determine how safe or dangerous geodesically shaped nanomaterials are for our DNA;
Have seen Derya Unutmaz, associate professor of microbiology and immunology, test a Ceragenin compound that appears to hunt down and kill the HIV virus;
And because we are a present that once was a future, and I conceive of our duty as such to be something like this:
A friend of mine carries in her wallet a photograph taken of her husband when he was in second grade. When I asked her why she would have such a thing, she answered, “So that whenever I see this picture, I remember that I am this boy’s future. I want to be worthy of that role. I don’t want to be a bad future for him.”
I think our responsibility to the generations that preceded ours is similar. We have an immense responsibility to be a good future for them, to be worthy of their dreams of us, and not to abandon or neglect all the progress they have made. We are inheritors of a duty to continue that progress deeper and deeper, ever into mystery.
Where we are going might ultimately prove unplumbable – but just because we have not been the ones to find the answers does not mean that the questions are beyond our asking, or the answers forever beyond our finding. And we owe it to those who come after us to bring them as close to the answers as it is in our power to do. We trust that for the generations to come after, they will do the same.
Universities are the engines for such an approach. So with all of our might, we must protect the ability of universities to do their work, to remain places which are truth-based, fact-based, reality-based, where we can rely on the basic commodities of discernment, experimentation and searching intelligence.
I am proud to be a part of this endeavor, and proud to have you as my colleagues in it, all of you: social scientists, and artists, and those of you who explore the humanities, and those of you who try to understand religion, and those of you who are healers and the teachers of healers, and all of you who guide students toward an insightful and skillful professional life. Thank you for the work that you do, not only for Vanderbilt, but for our culture and our civilization.
I look forward to continuing our conversation at the reception, which today can be found in the Board of Trust Room out the doors to your right. Would those who today received faculty awards please return to the stage for a photographic opportunity?
And to all of you, even if you do not stay for the reception, but instead go to look at that amazing sculpture: I wish you a bright and joyful spring, and a magnificent conclusion to your academic year.