‘A Model for Society’

An Address to the Northeastern Community

02.04.13

Good afternoon. I want to thank you for being here. I believe that this is an important moment—for me personally and for our community.

You are all familiar with our mission: We seek to educate students for a life of fulfillment and accomplishment; and we seek to create and translate knowledge to meet global and societal needs.

But this mission is meaningless if it does not rest firmly on a community defined by mutual respect, understanding, and inclusion.

In recent months, some have questioned our values as a university.

Some have questioned whether we believe that our diversity is a source of strength or a source of division.

And some have questioned our commitment to core principles such as academic freedom and fairness.

As an educational institution, we welcome questions. Questions are at the heart of the learning process.

But some questions transcend the usual academic give and take. Some questions demand clear answers. To leave them unanswered can lead to destructive tension and division.

Let me be clear: If anyone in this community feels that they are not full members of the Northeastern family, that is unacceptable.

If anyone in this community has ever felt marginalized because of her faith, color, orientation or beliefs, that is unacceptable.

Universities are communities of people: women and men who represent an incredible array of faiths, ethnicities, backgrounds, and belief systems.

 

A Wonderful Abundance

Here at Northeastern, we have this diversity in wonderful abundance.

Members of our community hail from more than 100 countries. Our campus is a symphony of different languages. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, agnostics and atheists. We are Latino, black, white, Asian, and many blended races. We have different sexual orientations and many competing ideologies.

In short, we are a reflection of the world in which we live. And this means we are not immune from the trials and turbulence that we see in the world today—racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hate.

But I believe we need to be more than a mere reflection of society. That is not good enough for me. And I know it’s not good enough for any of us here.

It is not enough to reaffirm what we believe; we need to put it into practice. It is not enough to celebrate our values; we need to live them every single day. It is not enough to be a microcosm of society; we need to be a model for society. We need to lead the way.

Our diversity should be pluralistic, not multidimensional. What do I mean by this? I mean that we do not want our differences to simply co-exist alongside one another. Peaceful coexistence is not good enough. We can do better and we should do better.

 

A Safe Space

Our campus should be a safe space where a healthy spirited debate results in greater understanding. In this safe space, the enormous diversity of the Northeastern community becomes an educational advantage. Our university becomes an oasis of viewpoints where ideas take root and blossom.

It is through the integration of our differences that we truly thrive as a community. It is through plurality that we live up to our highest calling—to be a community dedicated to human advancement.

I realize that these are lofty ideas, and I don’t want us to get lost in abstract or theoretical discussions. Let me share with you some real stories that I hope bring these ideas to life:

Let me start with a story that I heard on Friday. Carmen Sceppa is a faculty colleague. When she first came to this country, she didn’t feel very welcomed. People focused on her accent. And she told them, “I may speak with an accent, but I don’t think with an accent.” This is very well said, Carmen.

Another story from here at Northeastern. Two years ago I was walking on campus and I was intercepted by the father of a student who was Armenian. And as many of you know, the Armenian community and the Turkish community have had a long history of tensions. So he intercepted me and he told me, “I was going to call you because my daughter was assigned to a dorm and her roommate was Turkish. And I wanted to call you to ask you to move her to another dorm, and another roommate.”

But he said his daughter stepped in and refused to let him call me. Instead she asked her father to invite the Turkish student to attend Thanksgiving with them. And later the Turkish family reciprocated by inviting them to Istanbul to spend a break together.

Carmen, like you, they were speaking with an accent but they realized they don’t think with accents.

After our menorah was vandalized last year, our student group ISNU, the Islamic Society of Northeastern University, wrote a heartfelt letter that they shared with our Hillel students. Let me quote directly from the letter: “We stand in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters against all acts of hate, prejudice, and anti-Semitism.”

Some of you know that I was born in Beirut. I was born in a very pluralistic country then. As a matter of fact, my first book I wrote in Beirut and it was co-written with students who I grew up with. One was a Jew, the other was a Christian, and the third was a Muslim.

Unfortunately, my native country was torn apart by a war of religions. I lost friends and families. I lost classmates—all in the name of religion. This was completely unacceptable to me and it remains unacceptable today.

Let me mention one more story. I had the privilege in my previous university, as a dean, to bring the Shoah Foundation to my college. The Shoah Foundation was launched by Steven Spielberg.

He collected the testimony of Holocaust survivors and he had a sense of urgency because he wanted to collect the stories before the survivors passed away. I asked him, “Why do you want to give this collection to us?”

He said, “You are an educational institution. I fulfilled my duty which is to collect the testimonies. But now, my real goal is to prevent another genocide, another Holocaust from occurring anywhere in the world—whether it’s in Bosnia or Rwanda or anywhere else in the world.”

 

A Shared Goal

I know that in our community, my stories are not unique. Many of you also come from places where your communities or neighborhoods were shaken by divisions of race, religion, or ancestry.

I share these stories because I want us to understand what the stakes are. I want to illustrate how important it is for us to get this right. And how destructive it can be when societies get it wrong.

I have every confidence that here, at Northeastern, we will get it right.

To help us in this effort, I have formed a Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity. And I’m going to introduce each member of this council, and ask her to join me at the podium.

Let me start with Dick Daynard, professor of the School of Law and president of the Faculty Senate.

Bill Fowler, distinguished professor of history.

James Hackney, professor, School of Law.

Phil He, associate professor and associate vice-provost, School of Criminal Justice and Criminology.

Rehan Kahn, vice president for Information Services.

Alex Kern, director of the Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service.

Lori Lefkovitz, Ruderman professor and Director of Jewish Studies.

Zach Pardey, the president of our Graduate Student Association.

Peter Petrin, the president of the Student Government Association.

Uta Poiger, the interim dean of the College of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Carmen Sceppa, associate professor of health sciences.

Will Wakeling, dean of the University Libraries.

Suzanna Walters, professor and director of the Department of Women’s Studies.

There are two members who are not with us today because they are on sabbatical. Agnes Chan, professor and associate dean of the College of Computer and Information Science, and Michael Dukakis, distinguished professor of political science.

The Presidential Council on Inclusion and Diversity will be coordinated by the Provost, Steve Director. And Dean Poiger and Professor Hackney are the co-chairs.

 

Three Areas of Focus

Some members of the group—led by Professor Bill Fowler and our librarian Will Wakeling—will undertake a thorough investigation of our past. Like many of our peer institutions, we have reasons to believe that there are chapters in our history that we are not proud of.

We will not hide from these ghosts. We will thoroughly review our archives and we will share what we find. We do this not as a way to look backwards, but as a way to chart our future.

Professor Dukakis and Uta Poiger will lead us in a series of educational conversations. We are an academic institution and we should always find ways to turn what we do into a learning opportunity. Uta will announce the details of this new series tomorrow, and Professor Dukakis will come back from California to be with us for the first meeting.

Finally, Alex Kern, the director of our Center for Spirituality, Dialogue and Service, will take the lead in organizing a separate series of events and conversations focused on interfaith harmony.

 

‘Civic Sustainability’

The members of the council and I met last week and they have some very bold ideas—way ahead of what I expected. They introduced me to the concept of “civic sustainability.” The idea is that we can improve the way we interact with each other in specific and measurable ways.

They suggested the following: in the same way we assess environmental sustainability on campus, they are encouraging us to assess our civic sustainability. And I believe that we can be leaders in this domain in the same way that we have leadership in environmental sustainability.

Before I conclude today—and before we begin our conversations over refreshments—I would like to make one last point:

I enjoy attending events on our campus that celebrate different groups within our community. I am inspired each fall when I attend our annual Veterans Day ceremony. Each spring, I find our Holocaust Remembrance Week to be deeply moving. And two weeks ago, many of us attended the university’s MLK convocation, including what Professor Margaret Burnham has done at the School of Law with the Center for Restorative Justice.

I enjoy those events tremendously, but these individual celebrations cannot and should not stand in isolation. While they are important and have deep meaning for the groups involved, they make up a much larger tapestry. This rich, diverse and complex tapestry is the Northeastern community.

We should aspire to have every day be a day in which we celebrate our diversity. Because only by embracing our diversity can we reveal our true strength, resilience, and vitality as a community.

 

A Social Compact

Earlier I talked about the importance of questions and how they are essential to the search for knowledge. I would like to close today with some questions for all of us to consider going forward:

What does it mean to be a truly pluralistic community?

How do we create a safe space for spirited academic debate, without reducing ourselves to political or ideological attacks? Remember, if someone doesn’t share your point of view, he or she is not evil.

How can we build a community of passion and compassion? If you are injured then I too am hurting. If you are lonely then I am alone. If you feel lost in the crowd then we have all lost our way.

I hope these questions will lead us to build a new social compact on this campus. Let us go forth and build this compact, one that is pluralistic, inclusive and exciting.

Thank you for coming today. I look forward to working with the council, and all of you, in the forthcoming semester and year. Thank you all for being here.