2010 Opening Meeting

President’s Opening Meeting Speech
September 1, 2010

I had the pleasure this summer of spending some time on the West Coast. Mostly I just slept late and read and ate—which are the things I like to do most when I’m on vacation. But one day, my partner and I were feeling a little restless. We had read in a guidebook about a temperate rainforest nearby. We didn’t really think of ourselves as rainforest people; on the other hand, neither of us had ever been to a rainforest, so how would we know?!

We wandered around this rainforest for an hour or two. I must admit: I was impressed. I was more than impressed; I was awestruck. Here were trees hundreds of years old—in some cases, more than a millennium or two. They’re enormous, of course; they look as if five or six trees have grown exhausted growing old and have collapsed into one another’s arms, becoming one vast, ancient, living thing.

And I thought: wow. What an achievement! What a marvel! Of course, I started drawing parallels with institutions like this one and what they can achieve, what they can become over time. I started to imagine how this rainforest might become the opening image of a keynote address at a gathering like this one.

But then I noticed that an entire swath of the ancient forest was a mere forty years old: according to a sign posted nearby, it had been leveled a few decades before and had already recovered. I suddenly realized that the awful majesty of this rainforest was no achievement; it was inevitable. As long as we—human beings—stayed out of the way, this forest would always become itself, would always assert its form.

That doesn’t mean I was any less impressed by it. But I recognized it could be no metaphor for a great institution. Great institutions are not inevitable. They have no natural form. Storms or fires can weaken or destroy them—and they may or may not recover depending on the strength and commitment and vitality and creativity of the communities that inhabit and constitute them.

On the other hand, institutions can reshape and remake themselves. Because they have no natural form, they are limited only by the communal imagination. Forests can’t become anything but forests, can’t look like anything but forests. And that’s enough when you’re on vacation, wandering through the forest.

But when you get home, you’re reminded of how awesome, how awe-inspiring is the effort of a community like this one to move itself forward, to make change—in the lives of students and in the institution—to struggle against adversity, to remake itself over and over again in small and cumulatively big ways every day.

As look back at the year we’ve just completed, I see so very many examples of such efforts. I think of Sid Sachs’ heroic five-year effort to put together the world’s first comprehensive exhibition of the work of women Pop artists, which culminated in last year’s “Seductive Subversion” exhibited in three venues at the University and on its way this fall to the Brooklyn Museum.

I remember the outstanding work of Greg Murphy, Adrienne Stalek, Karen Rosenberg, our development staff, and countless faculty and students who put together a blockbuster show and sale of student, faculty, and alumni work—an event that raised more than $300,000 for scholarships for our students.

I think of Marc Dicciani, Barry Atticks, Terry Applebaum, and Michael Johnson, who, with the support of Rick Lawn and Krishna Dunston, designed and launched a new program in music business and entrepreneurship. And of Erin Elman, Rob Craig, Pearl Schaeffer, Raye Cohen, and the Continuing Studies team who created the nation’s first certificate for teaching artists.

Daniel Joyce, Blanca Gonzalez, Steve Scaduto, and the Student Affairs group under the leadership of Alan Leffers piloted the first year experience, a program aimed at easing the transition to college of our first year students and improving retention. And our facilities team, led by Phil Van Cleave, Jim Beaumont, and Mike Resavage, made terrific improvements to our residence halls and academic facilities this summer.

And I must mention the long effort led by the Provost in partnership with Jack DeWitt and the Faculty Council to rewrite our Faculty Handbook—the most thoroughgoing revision of that document in decades. And the work of the Administrative Task Force, made up of 20 staff and faculty and ably chaired by Maria de Santis, which offered recommendations to improve administrative efficiency and effectiveness.

Of course I also look back on the accomplishments of individuals, which are equally essential to an institution’s efforts to evolve, to grow, and to remake itself.

Illustrator Tim O'Brien was commissioned to create two covers for Time magazine. Brind School faculty member Forrest McClendon starred in the Broadway-bound premiere of the Kander and Ebb musical “The Scottsboro Boys.” Crafts professor Don Miller won NICHE magazine's Arts Educator of the Year award. CMAC’s Jeremy Beaudry was named curator for Manifesta 8, the European Biennial of Contemporary Art. And Eileen Flanagan who teaches in Liberal Arts won a Silver Nautilus Award for her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference.

The list, of course, is much, much longer; these are only a few of the outstanding accomplishments of our extraordinary faculty and staff last year.

These achievements suggest to me that this institutional community is vital, committed, and creative. It is a community that can weather storms and remake itself. We did so last year: we made sacrifices, managed carefully, made thoughtful decisions about the allocation of scarce resources—and did so as a community. The result was that we survived and even thrived in what was a difficult year.

And even as we picked our way carefully through a financial landscape littered with obstacles and pitted with hidden crevasses, we managed to chart—again as a community—a course across even more complicated terrain: our institutional future. Over the course of last year, we articulated an ambitious vision of what we wanted to become and developed a plan to achieve that vision.

It’s true: we didn’t always agree with one another. And we still haven’t settled on many, many details. But we had the courage not only to embrace the challenge of an uncertain future but also to assert our belief that this community—despite its challenges and its disagreements—could, had the potential to, reinvent arts education.

That same courage will serve us well this year. We face a new year as daunting as the last one. The recession continues; recovery is slow and fitful. Families are still struggling to find the resources to support their children’s college education. The University has responded to their requests for assistance: we have offered more financial aid to families than in any other recent year so their children can pursue or continue their creative education here. Chris Pesotski and his remarkable team in Student Financial Services have been working tirelessly—into the evenings and through the weekends—to help families find the resources to make a University of the Arts education possible.

Because we have provided additional aid to our students, the University will find its own resources more constrained. We will again face difficult decisions, and we will again this year—as we did last year and the year before—husband our resources carefully, seek efficiencies, and plan and manage creatively.

But even as we focus on our role as responsible institutional stewards, we cannot lose sight of the grander challenge we have set for ourselves. Indeed, all our other efforts become meaningless if we do lose sight of this.

Ahead of us this year is a task as important as protecting and preserving our resources: we must begin to define the details of the plan we devised last year, and we must begin to implement the most urgent elements of that plan.

We must this year—finally, definitively—solve the problem of the grid. We must lay the foundation of an integrated film program. We must envision a new, innovative, multidisciplinary design program. We must develop a new approach to the first undergraduate year—not only for art, design, and media students but for all our undergraduates.

And we must define new ways to advise our students while they are enrolled here and to prepare them to seek employment or create their own professional opportunities after they graduate.

Beyond beginning to refine and implement our academic plan, we must also revise and extend our financial plan, our facilities plan, our recruitment plan, and our fundraising plan. That is, we must develop what’s called in bureaucratese “a strategic plan.” The financial, administrative, and physical infrastructure of the institution must be prepared to support and advance the artistic and educational goals we have set for ourselves.

This summer, the deans and the vice-presidents met for a full day retreat to shape the institution’s approach to strategic planning. As a group, we defined what we thought the institution’s most important operational—as opposed to academic—goals and priorities should be. I look forward to sharing the details of that planning process and structure with you in our first University Forum.

The University—this community—we!!—have set ourselves an enormous, daunting—but, for me—inspiring agenda for the year.

It is inspiring—to me at least—because it is ambitious, because it’s objective is the transformation of an institution.

This University is no forest weathering a storm. It’s not our job simply to ensure that water and nutrients are provided and then to stand aside and let nature take its course, let the forest regain its natural, inevitable form.

This is a community and we must decide what its destiny will be. We have to determine what form it will take, what shape it will assume. We have said that we believe we can create something exciting and unprecedented. Now it’s our task to shape it, to make it together.

I’m looking forward to it. And I wouldn’t want to do it with any other community than this one. Thank you.