Inauguration Address

March 17, 2016

We gather here to celebrate this extraordinary institution. And as it’s been pointed out by several other speakers, it is an occasion so special that everyone in the world is celebrating Tulane.

Why else would people all around the world be parading in green today?

I stand here enormously grateful to the women and men who make up Tulane, from the faculty who inspire and lead us, to the staff whose tireless efforts make this amazing university work so well. I am so grateful to every student who has ever chosen to be a lifelong part of our community. I am grateful to my predecessors, on whose shoulders I stand, especially Scott Cowen and Eamon Kelly. And I am deeply moved by all of you in this room joining me to share this very special moment, especially my family, as well as Amy Gutmann and Ron Daniels, who really offered such extraordinary and generous remarks.   

I have had more than a year now to get to know Tulane, its unique strengths and its remarkable culture. And my Tulane education has led me to one conclusion:  we are perfectly poised to lead into the century ahead.  Our time is now!

We often say that Tulane is different. I want to explain to you why. Our difference has deep roots.

Most universities, historically, have been inward-looking. The traditional European model is of a cloistered, ecclesiastical institution – a place of learning and studied introspection.

Tulane, on the other hand, has always looked outward. From its origins, it has focused on solving problems.  

In 1834, a group of young doctors wanted to solve a crisis then ravaging New Orleans. Epidemics of yellow fever and cholera were killing thousands of people. Together, those doctors founded a medical college, the seeds of a university that would grapple with the world’s toughest challenges for the next 182 years.

Generations of faculty and students tackled the mystery of how yellow fever spread. It turns out that it was not by “vapors,” or even human contact, but through a tiny mosquito. These doctors then pioneered the public health responses necessary to transform the lives of everyone who lived in the tropical world.  

That is Tulane. Bold. Creative. Interdisciplinary. Generating knowledge to solve the world’s problems. In the words of our motto, “not for one’s self, but for one’s own.”

Now, Tulane grew over the years with the same visionary approach. It added a uniquely international law school. It founded the country’s first public health school, one that continues to battle infectious diseases from Ebola to Zika. Josephine Louise Newcomb founded the country’s first women’s coordinate college. And now everything that Tulane does reflects those unique beginnings, from those original schools to liberal arts, science and engineering, business, social work, architecture and continuing studies.

In a world with increasingly little use for boundaries, Tulane, from the beginning, has leapt over them. At a moment when society is demanding that higher education demonstrate its relevance and its value, Tulane provides the answers.

This does not represent the latest academic trend for us, but the code of our DNA. We cross boundaries and we transform lives. Let me explain how our history of innovation provides a model for our future.

First, Tulane crosses the boundaries within our own campus, the disciplinary silos that too often separate faculty and students from each other.

Tulane began by connecting medicine and public health. It understood from its inception that the hardest problems require solutions that cross fields. The only way we will solve the mysteries of the human brain, or end cycles of community violence, is by breaking down the traditional academic boundaries that fracture our creativity.

Many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been found only by making connections between different fields. As Walter Isaacson, a great friend of Tulane, has said, “Innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology, and poetry to processors.” This is the future of higher education and research, and, again, it has always been part of Tulane’s DNA.

Tulane now stands as the only university in the country with a medical school, public health school, primate research center and bioengineering program. Add to that the creative ways we link the sciences to engineering generally, and you can understand why we are uniquely suited to make a difference.

We have exciting interdisciplinary centers in the humanities, such as the Stone Center for Latin American Studies, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South and the Murphy Institute for Political Economy. Our computer science department works entirely in conjunction with other fields.  

And we see this spirit embodied in so many of our faculty. For example, English professor Nghana Lewis studies the links among hip-hop culture, HIV/AIDS and the African-American community. By the way, she also has a law degree, a great degree to have. And political science professor Ray Taras studies nationalism, ethnic conflict and international politics, and he links it all to world literature.

Reaching across fields is an exemplary way to educate our students. While we ask them to drill deep in specific disciplines -- which is critical -- we also teach them to work nimbly across fields. Our students will need the skill to find creative solutions, not just with design thinking, but also with historical perspective. They will need to gain profound human understanding from both psychology and literature. They will need to revel in the connections between math and music.

Tulane is perfectly poised to lead the way to a future of higher education in which we cross-pollinate our research and teaching, a future in which we make creative use of the different ways we think. Already, 70 percent of our students pursue a major and a minor, and 35 percent of our students are double majors, pursuing wonderful combinations like neuroscience and dance. Our undergraduates enter Newcomb-Tulane College with a license to explore before they choose a school.  

Let me describe for you how we will build on those strengths.

We are creating wonderful residential colleges in which students engage with each other on issues that cut across disciplines, and a campus master plan that draws people together in dynamic ways all over the University. We will use our new Bernick faculty grants to make interdisciplinary training and research a part of everyday life. We will appoint presidential professors who bridge diverse fields. And we will invest in academic collaborations that reflect our strengths and are the defining issues of our time, from energy and the environment to health and bio-innovation.

We will dig deep into interdisciplinary studies of regions from the Gulf South to Latin America. This is our past -- and it is our future!

The second boundary that Tulane crosses is the one between our campus and the city.  

There’s a simple reason for that. Why would you ever build an ivory tower to isolate yourself from New Orleans? This city is our beating heart. We bask in its reflected glory and we share in its deepest struggles.

Tulane has always embraced New Orleans. And ten years ago, the flood washed away any walls that had crept up between the city and our campus. The binding of our fates became absolute.  

The extraordinary men and women who led Tulane through its greatest crisis – and many of you are here in this room – understood that Tulane could not survive by attempting to isolate itself from the trauma around it. You realized that students would never choose to come here despite Katrina. Instead, they would come here because of Katrina.  

Once again in our history, Tulane would choose to reach out, to answer urgent needs, to teach students through engagement. This was not a course change, but a magnification of who we already were.  

I remain in awe of what Tulane accomplished. Tulane and New Orleans have risen together to become epicenters of entrepreneurship, educational reform, and a siren call to every young person eager to live their passions. We are part of the same zeitgeist. We learn from each other. We draw energy from each other. After Katrina, Tulane sent our students into the community to learn by doing.  Let me describe just one example, an exciting example: the Small Family City Center. It is a “community design center” located near its clients in the central city neighborhood. At most universities, architecture students draft abstract projects in the studio, usually working alone. At Tulane, students get the chance to work in teams and to realize their creative visions. They learn to translate their clients’ desires into physical reality, while making the world a better place.

At Tulane, we teach our students to love knowledge for its own sake, but also to understand how knowledge can change the world. Practice and theory mold each other. They reflect each other.

Our philosophy students use Socrates to coach middle school debate. Our undergraduate neuroscience majors get to work in labs alongside graduate and Medical students, studying the effects of medications on the brain and how infants learn. By the way, that’s the reason the program was recently recognized in the top ten in the country.

We give our students the tools they need to succeed in the world, in ways that you cannot deliver through mere lecture. We teach our students how to lead, but also how to collaborate. We teach self-confidence and also humility. We teach emotional intelligence, teamwork and cultural competence.

And we can accomplish far more.  We will expand and support our faculty. We will be a national model for connecting service learning and doctrinal knowledge. And we will continue to bring the extraordinary concentration of brainpower on this campus to bear on issues facing not only New Orleans, but the whole world.

That leads me to the final set of boundaries that we cross, those around the world.

Now, for a school so rooted in its own city, Tulane has, from the beginning, also been an utterly global institution. Tulane follows problems where they lead, chasing those disease-carrying mosquitos across national boundaries.  

Tulane scholars created the first archeological maps of ancient Maya. They founded public health schools across sub-Saharan Africa. They looked for the origins of humankind in a cave near Johannesburg and shaped disaster response in Haiti.

And Tulane brings the world to our campus. Tulane’s law school focuses on the civil law systems used by 80% of the countries in the world. We have the nation’s most important Latin American academic centers and library collections. We have a thoroughly international public health school. And our business school partners with colleagues around the globe. We must have this focus to support our students as they compete in a truly global economy. Already, a third of our undergraduates study abroad and no other university sends more graduate students to the Peace Corps than Tulane.

We can do even more to encourage our students to venture overseas and to embrace the unfamiliar. We will broaden their horizons by bringing the world to Tulane with more undergraduate international students. And we will partner with more of the finest universities around the globe.

After all, I should say, the students who choose Tulane tend to be bold -- intellectually and culturally adventurous. They travel farther from home to get here than any other student body in the country. They are willing to leave their comfort zones and to seek out the most foreign city in America. When they join together with our local best and brightest, they create a powerful Tulane community that works together to cross boundaries around the world.

Finally, while I have described to you all of the ways that Tulane uniquely crosses boundaries and solves problems, we have one great hurdle left. We have not yet bridged the racial and economic barriers within our own community.  

We must diversify our students, our faculty and our administration to build an institution that mirrors the society around us. We simply cannot fulfill our mission of creating great leaders when there are people missing from our table.  We will not be whole until we have all of our best and brightest. And it is not enough just to open our doors. We must also support every member of our community. We must create a deeply inclusive environment that lives out the Tulane values of equality, respect and dignity.  

As I look around at this great occasion, it reminds me, as President Daniels said, of the importance and grandeur of universities, which rank among the oldest institutions in the world. Steeped in profound traditions and more stable than many, maybe most governments nowadays, universities take the measure of the world. They survey its challenges in long and broad terms, and give us the knowledge and capacity to face those challenges.  

Yet their unrivaled stability and strength is also built on their ability to adapt and change. They must prove relevant to the outside world.

Tulane is the university that the 21st century needs. From its very origins, Tulane has improved and it’s saved lives. It moves forward with unmatched determination, with character forged like steel by the fires of crisis.

Together, we will make Tulane a place known worldwide for instilling creative combinations of knowledge in all of our students. We will create campus spaces that function like bustling open markets, connecting people and ideas more seamlessly than ever before, or anywhere else. We will grow Tulane’s global traditions into a fully international center for intellectual pursuits.

Tulane faces its future with an unparalleled boldness -- a fearless desire to innovate, as our history has shown, to cross boundaries, to shatter barriers, to inspire our community and to change the world.

It is a great and humbling responsibility to lead any university. It is the privilege of my life to lead Tulane.