GW’s 17th president says that the university will “choose to lead.”
Chair Carbonell, Trustees, President Knapp, President Trachtenberg, the family of President Elliott, delegates of universities, honored guests, friends, students, faculty and family. Good morning and welcome.
Donna, I greatly appreciate those kind words.
I thank you–but my mom really thanks you! I think I have a letter from dean of law school in my jacket.
I’ve learned a lot about leadership from Donna Shalala, more than anyone I’ve ever known. Whenever I’m in doubt, I just ask myself:
What would Donna do?
And the reason is this: Wherever she goes, she makes friends, and she inspires people.
She’s helped millions of people around the world. And I asked her to be here today because of the positive impact she has had on my life.
But there are others.
Bill Green has been my longtime mentor and my colleague. We come to issues from entirely different perspectives. But when we agree on something, we’re almost never wrong.
And of course there’s my mom, Neta, who has joined us here today. I was her third child. She had six of us. In consecutive years. That’s why she is my role model.
And, of course, there’s my wife of nearly 40 years, Anne. When we first met, I had nothing but potential. Some still doubt the potential. But her love and her support throughout my career have been the foundation for whatever success I’ve had. Thank you, Anne.
Now Anne and I do a lot of walking. And we have had a lot of fun exploring this campus and this city.
Washington is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and we are lucky to make our home here.
We’ve especially enjoyed getting to know our neighbors.
Right next to the president’s home on F Street, we’ve got more than 1,000 neighbors in Thurston Hall.
They’re all freshmen.
They’re wonderful! They’ve welcomed us with open arms…at all hours…day and night.
I am honored and humbled to serve as your 17th president.
But beyond honor and humility, comes a sense of pride in the place. I am proud to be a part of this exceptional institution, and you should be, too.
We should be proud because of GW’s heritage and mission.
We should be proud because of what GW has become.
And that pride should animate the future we will build together.
Our Heritage and Mission
This university was founded on the vision of President George Washington.
It was established in our nation’s capital…to prepare students to lead and advance the cause of the young American republic.
President Washington didn’t want American leaders to be educated in Europe. He wanted America to do that work–and to do it here.
That vision has become our mission: To be a community of learning that serves the public good.
The university’s founders did not seek to prepare students for the world they knew–a world in which the District was a swampy and provincial government town.
Rather, they sought to prepare students for the world they saw emerging…a world dominated by science, medicine, law…a world shaped by democratic values that aspired to equality and freedom.
Despite this grand mission, our first decades were marked by constant struggle to meet more basic needs.
For our first 100 years as a university, we lived hand-to-mouth, sustained by the charity of the Baptist church. We struggled merely to survive.
Yet today, here we stand, within walking distance of our halls of government and the unique cultural resources of our nation’s capital. We are just four years from our bicentennial, and we stand proudly among the nation’s oldest and most enduring institutions of higher education.
What we have built here, I believe, has brought great credit and lasting distinction to this neighborhood…this city…this region…and our nation. We have realized George Washington’s hope and now seek the fulfillment of his vision.
What We Have Become
But universities do not achieve distinction overnight…in a single year…or during a university president’s term.
The path to quality and excellence is a persistent, gradual process.
And so as a community, we need to recognize my predecessors for their dedication and significant contributions to this place.
President Elliott, President Trachtenberg and President Knapp each built enduring foundations–one to the next, from strength to strength.
Without these leaders, without the committed trustees who worked with them, and without our wider community of alumni and supporters, we would not be standing here today.
Please join me in thanking these dedicated individuals for all they have done for our university.
Who Am I?
I am honored to join my distinguished predecessors in building on this remarkable history.
So where will we go from here, and how will we get there?
Before turning to those questions, perhaps a word of introduction might be useful.
Since I was five years old, every year of my life has been shaped by the school calendar.
I went to college on a scholarship.
My older brother and I were the first in our family to graduate from college.
And that changed everything for me.
The life and work of the academy have nurtured me, challenged me, and helped me grow, both personally and intellectually.
The campus is my home and I have never wanted to be anywhere else.
That’s especially true today.
I am proud to be here and part of this very special community, and I thank you for the warm welcome that Anne and I have received.
My mother told me I was appropriately named, because I am, truly a “Doubting Thomas.”
That’s a biblical reference. It means that I’m a skeptic. I question everything.
I learned early in my career that debate, disagreement and challenge are healthy.
I also learned that in computer science–as in most fields–facts matter and must shape and inform debates and disagreements.
To quote Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “You’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”
And so, on balance, I tend to be fact-driven. And I’m not the only person on this campus who gets frustrated in a fact-free environment.
However, you can’t test facts–-you can’t evaluate ideas—unless you hear them first.
That’s why this university must always stand firmly for free speech and open inquiry. Without free speech, and the open and unfettered exchange of ideas, there can be no knowledge…no scholarship…no teaching…and no universities.
The great physicist Richard Feynman famously said: “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered…than answers that can’t be questioned.”
In any classroom, in any text, there is no such thing as a final answer…and there is no such thing as an unthinkable thought.
That is true here. That should always be true here.
Open, critical inquiry, vigorous discussion and assessment of divergent ideas must, and will define how we learn, how we teach, how we discover and how we create.
Without constraint, without compromise and without apology.
And now, what about our future, our next steps together?
If the first centennial of this university was about survival, the bicentennial must be about something far bigger.
No one doubts our ability to survive. We have greater ambitions now.
We are part of a great tradition of learning that spans centuries.
And by laying claim to that tradition, we are obligated to strengthen it.
So it will be my goal to work with all of you to ensure there is no doubt, no backsliding and no deviation from our chosen path:
Which is to meet George Washington’s goal that, we teach subjects, “in the fullest extent.”
To make his vision of a distinctly American approach to preparing leaders come alive right here on this campus;
To see that our community not only receives and transmits knowledge, but creates and evaluates it as well.
And finally, to guarantee that in everything we do, we seek excellence.
In short, we will fulfill George Washington’s 18th-century vision for a national university and renew it for the 21st century.
As we pursue this mission, we must recognize that we belong to a class of accomplished and established universities that resemble us in many ways.
Today, I believe we are ready to move beyond simply belonging to this distinguished group.
We must be out front, leading. Taking risks, making investments, choosing the harder path.
It is the difference between membership…and leadership.
At GW, we will have a clear purpose: We will choose to lead.
Now, this idea–choose to lead–can mean lots of things.
Let me explain how our university must define where we will lead, where we must demonstrate distinction!
The leadership to which we aspire has four key dimensions: We must be grounded in active scholarship. We must be comprehensive. We must be global. And we must aim to achieve excellence and preeminence in everything we do.
Each of those terms means something–and each requires choices.
Sometimes difficult choices.
But while we may make difficult choices, we will not make false ones.
Too often, people assume that the only way you can have great ambition is to have boundless resources.
But that’s not really true.
We can do anything we choose. But we can’t do everything we choose.
And so let us choose boldly but also choose wisely.
To commit to scholarship. To be comprehensive. To be global. To aspire to preeminence. These are our goals.
Let us explore the choices involved in pursuing them.
Scholarship and Research
First, we will be an institution devoted to the expansion of knowledge and insight in all its forms.
The drive to discover, to create, to innovate, to clarify, to understand the unfamiliar must—and will—animate everything we do.
We cannot be content to merely impart knowledge. We must create it as well.
So let there be no doubt. We are in the knowledge-creation business.
So we will support scholarship consistently and across the disciplines of our faculty.
We will do our work with integrity and with the goal of transforming fields of knowledge.
Our scholarship must be consequential–and reshape our understanding of the world.
And all this must be readily apparent in our classrooms, laboratories, workshops, studios and even in after-class conversations. Everywhere learning takes place.
We will be true to the maxim that the best teachers are the best scholars–and that these skills are mutually reinforcing.
At GW, our aim will be for scholarship to shape learning, so that our students experience how to learn on their own and think and reason for themselves.
A Comprehensive University
Second, a research university does not fulfill its purpose by setting arbitrary limits on its work.
A comprehensive university must offer a full-range of excellent undergraduate and graduate programs…including arts and humanities…the sciences and the social sciences…business…the law…public policy…engineering…medicine and health.
This is expensive and difficult.
But we will not achieve distinction without that effort. The human mind is stimulated by exposure to the arts as well as the sciences, by applied problem-solving as well as theoretical study.
This university will be enriched by the full spectrum of human knowledge and experience.
GW will aim to be a model of communication and collaboration across fields and schools.
We will share in each other’s work, share in each other’s successes and together, we will address the urgent issues of this nation and this world.
And that brings me to the third dimension of our leadership—we will engage with the world.
We must be a global institution in every sense.
Here, on this campus, we shall speak the languages spoken around the world…read the books produced around the world…and study the problems of the world.
Our curiosity will not be bound by this region or this time zone.
We will recruit our faculty and our students from everywhere. We will send our faculty and our students to study anywhere.
We have a global outlook and a global platform.
Across the world, people know this university and they respect it.
They know us because of the outstanding work we do in such fields as international affairs and global health.
Or perhaps we are known by our graduates, who came to this campus from their native lands, and return there, ready to govern and ready to lead.
Our graduates are a great credit to this university and demonstrate that what we do here has implications far beyond this campus.
That is the power of knowledge. It knows no borders.
The final dimension as we choose to lead is to seek preeminence.
This means that our faculty must be among the best in their field, and our students must come from the best in their class.
As we continue to strengthen the quality of our research and education, we will draw to this campus and this city ever more accomplished faculty and students.
Excellence attracts excellence.
Preeminence also means that we must be diverse–because the advancement of knowledge requires the challenges that difference brings.
No matter where you were born, the color of your skin, which language you spoke as a child, how you live, who you love, how you vote, or how you pray, you are welcome to make your mark here at GW.
We ask only one thing in return: You strive for greatness and to bring distinction to this wonderful university.
This institution depends on people choosing to make an education, a career and a life at George Washington University.
Each of you made a choice to come here.
So did I.
We chose GW precisely because of what this institution does, and what we could do for GW.
It was not our only option.
But it was our best option.
And may it ever be so–that when people choose GW, they choose for all the right reasons.
They choose GW because we are preeminent.
They choose GW, because we choose to lead.
So here are the stakes:
If we stimulate someone to think differently and more creatively, that can change a life.
If we develop an idea that can transform our understanding of a difficult problem, we can endow society with health, industry, beauty and wisdom.
If we open our doors to a first-generation college student, we can change forever their opportunities in life–and who knows what that person might become?
Maybe even a university president!
If we build on this campus a model of how to pursue scholarship with focus, learn with wonder and debate with respect, we can affect the culture…not only in this capital city, but in this nation and beyond.
We can do this. But we all have to be committed.
We all must choose to lead.
And so I say to everyone associated with this great university–every member of the faculty, every member of staff, every student, every alumnus, every stakeholder–we have much to celebrate, but the world has not yet seen everything we can do, and everything we can become.
We can do this.
We will do this.