"Magdalena's Lamp: Occidental and the Power of a Liberal Arts Education"
by Jonathan Veitch
Occidental College Presidential Inauguration Address
October 24, 2009
I want to begin by thanking you: distinguished speakers, invited guests, my esteemed predecessors to this office, members of the faculty, students, staff, alumni, the Board of Trustees, colleagues, former teachers, mentors, family and friends. This is a great day. Thank you for sharing it with me.
Let me say at the outset that I am somewhat daunted by the task before me. I concur with Drew Faust, who observed upon her installation as Harvard's 28th president that "Inaugural speeches are a peculiar genre. They are by definition pronouncements by individuals who don't yet know what they are talking about. Or, we might more charitably dub them expressions of hope unchastened by the rod of experience." And then there is the purple prose associated with the occasion: "A past of thrilling interest," to quote one such address, "saturated with a spirit of sacrifice and heroism." (I can assure you that these words were not uttered by any of my distinguished predecessors who are here among us today, but rather by a former president who is in a place where he cannot sue for damages.) I will do my best to avoid that sort of thing, though I'm afraid that a certain amount of purple prose is endemic to the occasion.
It is clear that I have undertaken a mighty responsibility. How then to symbolize the authority of the office? When it was revealed to me that we did not have the traditional scepter used on occasions like this, I was compelled to give some thought to an adequate symbol for the presidency. I was relieved and flattered when professor Linda Lyke suggested we use a sextant for the occasion. As a metaphor for the presidency, it is certainly an attractive idea. The sextant is, first and foremost, a symbol of intellectual mastery - the brainchild of Sir Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution of the 17th century. But more than that it is an essential tool of navigation - the means by which storm-tossed sailors located themselves in the world. I must confess that as president of a liberal arts college I am quite taken with the idea of steering by the stars, with its suggestion of eternal verities above and purposeful movement below.
But let's be frank. We know the "eternal verities" are not quite what they seem. Starlight can be bent or refracted. And as for "purposeful movement," I assure you the president will have many critics who will soon doubt him on that score. In order to poke fun at the pretensions of the office and capture the skepticism of a long-suffering faculty, we have added a quotation which comes from a book entitled Sailing: The Fine Art of Getting Wet and Becoming Ill While Slowly Going Nowhere at Great Expense. It offers this definition: "Sextant: An expensive device, which, together with a good atlas, is of use in introducing a good boatman to many interesting areas of the earth's surface which he and his craft are not within 1,000 miles of." Join me on this expedition if you wish, but forewarned is forearmed.
With our sextant in hand, let us reckon our position and plot our course. We will dwell on those things about which we agree, the things which are obvious, necessary, and right for us to do and which we are well-positioned to do. With your forbearance, I would like to lay out twelve commitments which I believe are essential to Occidental's success. (Be grateful: I started out with twenty-five). I will be more specific than usual in addresses of this kind because Occidental is at a moment in its history when high-minded abstractions are not enough. What we most need now is a grounded sense of vision.
I. The Campus. I will start by pointing out something that should be obvious to all of us: the beauty of this place. That beauty is evident in this magnificent Hillside Theater, conceived by Occidental President Remsen Bird and dedicated to him by President Richard Gilman. And it is evident on the Quad, designed by Myron Hunt and landscaped by Beatrix Farrand. Farrand was the landscape architect for the Rockefellers and it is to her that we owe the live oaks planted there. I will return to these magnificent trees in a moment, but for now let me observe that the beauty of this campus must remain a central part of our concerns: not a precious beauty, but an open, vibrant, sustainable beauty which includes the community that surrounds us.
II. Residential Education. The mention of community prompts us to recall that liberal arts colleges like Occidental are distinguished by the fact that they are residential campuses, committed to educating the whole student. We will honor that principle of college life by taking what happens outside the classroom almost as seriously as what happens inside it. That begins with an articulation of an educational mission for residential life which involves everything from the creation of a robust student culture, to encouraging new themed housing, to helping students negotiate the difficult ethical choices they must make in their personal lives.
III. Athletics. Athletics are part of student culture. And they have been a part of the liberal arts tradition since the Greeks first established the bond between a disciplined body and a disciplined mind. We have had a great deal of success in our athletic program, and there are many dead Sagehens to prove it. What we do not have are adequate facilities in which to train our athletes and showcase their talents. Nor are we able to provide our female athletes with the support they deserve. We must do better on both counts.
IV. Staff and Faculty. Staff and faculty are the heart of this institution. Many of them have given their entire professional lives to Occidental. We must honor that service by rededicating ourselves to the creation of an environment which makes the most of their commitment, intelligence and energy. For faculty in particular, that means addressing the competing demands of teaching, research and service in an equitable manner, as well as a number of related issues like salaries, housing, workload, and retirement. And we need to do so by developing an inclusive, mature and efficient culture of planning and decision-making that will address issues of concern to all of us.
V. The Core Curriculum. Colleges are different from universities. They are, as President Bird so memorably put it, "...small by choice, not by chance." That choice compels us to define ourselves through a finite set of intellectual commitments. The core curriculum is the crucible for this exercise in self-definition. It is the location where we place our own distinctive stamp on our undergraduates and position ourselves in the eyes of the outside world. Occidental's core curriculum must provide our students with a purposeful and thoughtful synthesis of what we most value as an institution. To do less is to abdicate our responsibility.
VI. The Library. As Eugene Tobin noted earlier, there is probably no area of higher education that has changed more dramatically in the last twenty years than the library. Occidental's library needs to be transformed into a dynamic intellectual commons in which the College's primary commitments are made visible to all: bringing together advanced digital resources and the skills needed for using them effectively; supporting both the core curriculum and advanced undergraduate research; and innovative teaching and the critical skills of writing and quantitative analysis.
VII. Science. Occidental has a long and distinguished tradition in the sciences. According to a 2008 NSF report, we are one of the country's top producers of students who go on to receive doctorates in science and engineering, equal on a proportional basis to the University of California Berkeley. In order to maintain our success, we must continue to provide our students and faculty with up-to-date laboratories and the instrumentation they need to do their research. At the same time, we must articulate a vision for science in general education that will engender respect for scientific methodology and an understanding of the basic principles of science among non-majors.
VIII. The Arts. Los Angeles is a city of artistic ferment. Occidental can and should participate in that ferment by bringing extraordinary writers, dancers, choreographers, painters, sculptors, composers, actors and directors here on a regular basis. We should commission bold, new work (both temporary and permanent) from them, making Occidental a hive of avant-garde activity. At the same time it is imperative that our students are exposed to the most acclaimed examples of artistic expression--not just once in awhile, but through sustained and thoughtful collaborations with some of the leading cultural institutions in this city.
IX. The City. For better or worse, Occidental does not exist in "splendid isolation" like so many of its sister institutions. Rather, it is located in a city that is fashioning the future, even as it is plagued by persistent problems of poverty, ethnic strife, sprawl and environmental hazard. It is tempting to shrink back from those problems. But as President Arthur Coons observed at his own inauguration in 1946, "The community of this College, in this apparently secure, pleasant, and altogether lovely setting, cannot be its true self...if [we] should become so self-assured...so smug or complacent, that the feeling of...relatedness to our urban community...is lost." We have a responsibility to engage the city by turning it into an object of study and developing a robust program of civic engagement.
X. Global Literacy. Huge capital flows move across our borders and the borders of others, accompanied by great demographic shifts of immigrants and refugees. The hard power of military might is increasingly displaced by the soft power of cultural domination, while resistance to that power comes in forms we barely recognize. We owe it to our sons and daughters to send them out into the world prepared not just to understand these challenges, but to act on them thoughtfully. That will require rethinking of our curriculum from the ground up; that is to say from the global literacy requirement of the first year, to the overseas opportunities we make available to our students in their junior year and much in between.
XI. The Environment. Sustainability is an essential component of global literacy. If we are truly committed to this important work, we must begin with our own institutional practices. This will involve a prudent program of retrofitting our buildings, seeking alternative sources of power, thinking carefully about water use and the landscaping of our campus, and most importantly, fostering an integrated conversation between the sciences and the social sciences so that our students are prepared to address the complexity of the task before us.
XII. Equity and Excellence. Several years ago, President Slaughter married the mission of the College to what has always been America's highest and truest calling: the promise of upward mobility for those with talent, regardless of their background. Colleges and universities have a crucial role to play in safe-guarding upward mobility. Without it, the privileges and responsibilities of leadership become entrenched in the hands of the few. The very existence of our democracy is undermined when classes solidify along these lines. Occidental must remain committed to this historic mission by enhancing its scholarship support for first-generation students.
Did I say twelve commitments? This sounds more like the "twelve labors of Heracles." Clearly, this is an agenda that requires a great deal of hard work and dedication. It is also an agenda which requires a great degree of longevity. So let me assure you: I plan to be here for a long time.
But I cannot do it alone. None of this will be successful without our collective dedication to Occidental-which is in large part the purpose of this day. If we hope to lift up this great institution, we must do so together - all of us: students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, members of our board, friends of the College. This will involve a great deal of planning, hard work and ultimately, financial support. Let me add this promise: I pledge to do this in an open, consultative manner that includes the best thinking, and yes, criticism, available. This is a shared project from beginning to end and we will not get there without your support.
Even as I recommend these priorities to you, I am mindful of Robert Skotheim's warning in his inaugural address to Whitman College. (How long ago was it, Bob?) Bob observed that "American educational institutions are peculiarly liable to try to be all things to all people, a generosity of ambition particularly dangerous in a time of limited resources." If we are to be successful, we will have some tough decisions to make-decisions about which activities are essential to our mission and which are not. So I return to the oak trees on the Quad-this time for guidance. I am reminded of a haiku by Basho, the famous Japanese poet: "The oak tree," he writes, is "not interested/in cherry blossoms." Like the oak we must remain true to what we are and eschew the cherry blossoms, however attractive they might be. That won't be easy to do. But it is something we must do if we are serious about realizing the aspirations I have just shared with you.
Even as we dedicate ourselves to the future of an institution we love, we must be prepared to admit that much of what we do here is not well understood by the world at large. I am not talking about whether or not Occidental is as widely known as it ought to be. If we do our jobs well, that will come of its own accord. Rather, I am talking about a general indifference to, or even misunderstanding of, the very nature of a liberal arts education. The hard truth is this: we live in a society that does not particularly value the liberal arts even as we depend on them shamelessly to ensure much that is valuable to us. As a professor, a dean, and lately as president, I have been asked many times to define a liberal arts education and more ominously, to justify it. To many, a liberal arts education seems like the long way around the barn - an agonizingly slow detour, the relevance of which is not immediately apparent. After all, there are quicker ways to wealth ... I would like to conclude my remarks today by suggesting an answer to the question of just why the liberal arts matter.
If one wants to understand the value of the liberal arts, one need look no further than the stunning careers of Occidental's two most famous students: Jack Kemp and Barack Obama. Both men dedicated their lives to public service. Both men were profoundly shaped by books and ideas-the taste for which was first acquired at Occidental. We are proud to claim them both and to honor their association with the College. I know that we honor them best by preparing our students to be thoughtful citizens, while making our classrooms open to the full range of political opinion-left, right and center. It is not our job to proselytize; rather, it is up to us to provide students with the necessary skills to make up their own minds about what they think and believe.
Whatever one thinks of the politics of our sitting president, it is hard to deny that he displays the very best qualities of a liberal arts education:
- One finds the traces of that education in his curiosity (a word that jumped out at me during his inaugural speech because it is not a word one is accustomed to hearing on grand public occasions-and certainly not from our public officials, if for no other reason than because it is represents a frank commitment to the life of the mind, along with its restless, private passions.)
- One finds it in his genuine love of books.
- In his respect for the methodology and conclusions of science.
- In his powers of empathy as well as his ability to listen carefully to others.
- In his capacity to digest complex material and summarize his position for a variety of constituencies in a language that does justice to the complexity of the problem yet remains clear and intelligible.
- And finally, one finds it in his love of language, his eloquence; his ability to find just the right words for the occasion.
I'll stop before I embarrass myself...
These are the habits of mind, which John Henry Newman (the conservative 19th century theologian) identified as the hallmark of a liberal education. But liberal arts education is not limited to habits of mind. For an education to become meaningful it must dwell long and hard on particular traditions, questions and values. Here again, the education of the president provides us with some guidance. Where other politicians focus on the latest books on policy, President Obama hardly speaks of these. Instead, when asked about the books and ideas that matter most to him, he cites the works of St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Emerson, Jefferson, Lincoln, Dubois, Baldwin, and Ellison. Many of these books were first introduced to our 44th president by Occidental's own Roger Boesche. They are, with some variation, the very same books that Jack Kemp would have read in his Western Civilization course. It is reassuring to know that they are part of the mental equipment they both brought to their public careers.
These books are filled with ideas that allowed two callow eighteen-year olds to ask important questions about freedom and necessity, justice and inequality, the possibilities and limits of the market, the vanity of human wishes and the nature of tragedy. They allowed them, in short, to ask about the human condition, what they might become, and in Barack Obama's case, what special obstacles he might face. So, I put the question to you: What more can one ask for from an education than this? Are these not the questions that matter most? Surely, they are the questions we want our leaders to reckon with.
The public lives of Barack Obama and Jack Kemp are one way to measure the value of a liberal arts education. Let me offer you a second example from an entirely different arena. Several years ago, I was asked by Julie Kidd, the director of the Endeavor Foundation, to visit three institutions that were just being established in Eastern Europe with the help of her foundation's generosity. Those institutions were the rarest of beasts, at least for that part of the world: they were liberal arts colleges. I say rare because having invented the liberal arts college, Europe has largely abandoned it since, favoring instead early specialization that precludes the kind of general education for which American colleges are best known.
But here they were: three fledgling institutions located in Bratislava, Warsaw, and the former East Berlin (all populated by students from the former Soviet republics). There is something quite moving about the opportunity to witness the inception of a bold educational experiment under what can only be described as challenging circumstances-perhaps not unlike the feeling one might have experienced if one had been privileged to witness Occidental's own modest beginnings on the raw outskirts of downtown Los Angeles in 1887. And make no mistake about it, this is a bold experiment. The Endeavor Foundation and its partners in Eastern Europe are seeking to do nothing less than reform the landscape of higher education in that part of the world and thereby provide students from the former Eastern bloc with an education that prepares them for citizenship in a democratic, civil society.
I had been sent to Eastern Europe in my capacity as the dean of a liberal arts college in New York to see what advice I could offer to the rectors of these newly minted institutions. I'm afraid that I had little advice to give; the education ran entirely in the other direction. At the very moment that the United States was doubting the value of this sort of education, dismissing it as too expensive, an indulgence, not useful enough, here was the spectacle of commitment to a tradition, a practice and a set of ideas that mattered enormously to people only just recently released from the thumb of tyranny. When I asked one of the rectors about this, he said to me, "You forget: under communist dictatorship hope was kept alive by the resources available to us in the liberal tradition. The Velvet Revolutions of Eastern Europe were led by historians, economists, philosophers and playwrights who were deeply immersed in the liberal arts. Without the French Enlightenment, Tocqueville and the Federalist Papers, Proust, Orwell, Beckett and Kafka, where would we be?" Needless to say, I came away from my experience in Eastern Europe both humbled and edified, and with a renewed sense of purpose.
Those are two examples of why the liberal arts matter. Permit me to offer a third and final example. In the late 1980s a young woman named Magdalena Arias applied to Occidental from a poor high school in La Puente, California. She was one of eleven children and the first in her family to go to college. As you can imagine this produced a certain amount of ambivalence in her family. Her father was a conservative, hard-working man. He told his daughter that college wasn't for her. One can imagine the reasons. He expected his daughters to leave the house when they were married--not before. He did not want to lose his daughter to a broader world, the values of which he either did not understand or had little sympathy with. At Occidental, Magdalena would encounter the unfettered discussion of new ideas unsanctioned by the Church, co-ed dormitories, non-traditional roles for women. Besides, she was one of eleven children. How could he possibly contribute to her education and not to that of the others? College, in short, was for other people's children. But Magdalena had already witnessed the limited life-choices available to her siblings because they were unable to pursue higher education themselves. She was determined to go to Occidental and so she did, without her father's blessing and ultimately without his support. The only thing she was allowed to take with her when she moved out on her own was a lamp.
"When I got to Occidental," she recalled, "all the kids in my dorm were busy decorating their rooms; the only thing I had was an old desk lamp. I set it down in front of me, and that was it. That was all I had." She had, as it turned out, much more than a desk lamp. Magdalena Arias had intelligence and determination. She found in Occidental an extended family that rallied around her: Eric Newhall took her under his wing, as did David Morgan, Brigida Knauer and Darlene Tarin. In order to pay her way, Magdalena worked for Brigida in the dean's office, tutored the kids of biology professors and cleaned houses. Overwhelmed with work and isolation, and unable to carve out enough time for her studies, Magdalena turned to President Slaughter for additional help. "Dr. Slaughter had only been in office a few weeks," Magdalena told me, "but he visited my father and told him, ‘If you can be supportive of your daughter at home, we'll take care of the rest.'" Then he arranged for her to get the financial aid she needed to complete her studies. "While I was at Occidental," she went on, "I had all these amazing opportunities. I was taken out to Tejon Pass to see Christo's umbrellas, I met Nobel Prize winners like Desmond Tutu and Oscar Arias, the president of Costa Rica. It was my job to escort them around the campus .... Who gets opportunities like that?" she asked with a voice full of disbelief almost twenty years later.
Magdalena graduated from Occidental and won the prestigious Watson Fellowship. From there she went on to USC Medical School. And when she graduated, her father was there to witness the event. I met Magdalena for the first time the other day. She was referred to me by Teresa Kvisler, a wonderful member of our staff. Magdalena Arias is now Doctor Arenas. She works at the Huntington Hospital in Pasadena. Although Dr. Arenas wasn't taking any new patients, I am happy to say she made an exception for Occidental's new president. So now she is my physician as well. When Dr. Arenas told me her story, I was deeply humbled. Humbled not just by her drive and determination, but by my responsibilities to the myriad of other students like her for whom education is as necessary to their lives as oxygen. I can't think of a more powerful reminder of the importance of our mission than her inspiring example. (Dr. Arenas could not be with us today. She is at a medical conference in Austria. But I would like to ask her family to stand up, along with Eric, Brigida, Darlene and David).
So here we are, having traversed three distinct worlds that could not be further apart from one another: the presidency of the United States of America, the stunning revolutions of Eastern Europe, and this account of a determined young woman from La Puente, California. A liberal arts education is at the heart of each one of them. That's my answer to why the liberal arts matter. That's my answer to why Occidental matters.
Thank you all for coming today to share this very special occasion with me.