Inaugural address by President Paul Alivisatos

Editor’s note: This is a full transcript of the inaugural address delivered by President Paul Alivisatos on Oct. 29, 2021. Watch the full video and read more about the inauguration ceremony here.

Good morning. Thank you, Joe.

I’m pleased and honored that so many of you have joined us here at Rockefeller Chapel, at one of the watch parties across the campus, our global centers, and many of you from home. Thank you for being a part of today’s ceremony.

I’d like to acknowledge the elected officials and special guests who are with us today, as well as Joe Neubauer and the Board of Trustees.  Thank you for your welcomes, Eve Ewing from the faculty, Vish Venkataraman from the students, Jennifer Kennedy from the staff, Margaret Mueller on behalf of alumni, and Reverend DeShazier representing the community. I want to express my warm appreciation and thanks to my mentors, Chancellor Carol Christ and Professor Steven Chu. I learned so much from you and it means so much to me for you to be here today. I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the past presidents, the University faculty, the delegates representing the various colleges and universities, the deans and officers, our partners, and neighbors from Chicago, and in particular from the South Side, and the students, staff, and alumni who are with us today.

Finally, I want to offer my sincerest thanks to the faculty and staff whose hard work and dedication have made today’s event possible. Events like these don’t simply “happen” – they are the product of countless hours of planning, preparation, and skillful execution. Thank you for the time and energy you have put into today’s ceremony.

An inauguration is about far more than welcoming a new president. It is an occasion that is both solemn and joyous – it’s a moment for our community to reaffirm the foundational values that have shaped this University. It is a time to reflect on the arc of a common journey, and to commit to bringing our collective imaginations, talents, and diversity of experience and perspective to bear in new and innovative ways.  The word “investiture,” when used synonymously with inauguration, has its origin in ceremonies of clothing in the robes of a new office, but also reflects the meaning of invest, as in to clothe or commit our capital.  How should we invest together?

This morning, as I accept the great responsibility of the presidency of the University of Chicago, I want to acknowledge and honor our university’s enduring values, as well as the leaders before me who have brought us to this moment. I would also like to address why now is the right time, in fact it is imperative, that we fully engage with the world around us.

We are living in a period of distinct challenges as well as remarkable opportunities.  As we cautiously re-emerge from the pandemic, and begin to reckon with its consequences, we also must grapple with political division, growing inequality, unnerving changes in the global political order and economy, and a challenge that is unprecedented in human history — that of global climate change.  Yet we also are at a moment when a vaccine for COVID-19 was created in record time and the first steps of immunoengineering, taking place here at this University, are so promising. When we can combine the power of the arts, policy, medicine, and data science to co-create new opportunities with and for those living in an urban environment like ours in Chicago and others around the world.  When the prospect of understanding the workings of the human brain and addressing the diseases that can afflict it seem within reach. When machine learning and quantum information science are emerging and poised to usher in a new era of discovery that will vastly expand the benefits of today’s information technologies. When the poems, writings, visual arts, music, theater, new media and more, produced by the artists in our community, reach across our city, nation, and world to inform and challenge all those who are ready to receive their messages. 

These challenges, and a number of opportunities, are pushing us—in fact, demanding—that we engage with and impact our world in new ways. To do this, we must take the next step in what I’ll call our “journey of reconnection” — with our campus, our community, our city, and the wider world.

It has been such a joy for me, these past two months, to immerse myself once again in the University of Chicago that I know so well from my undergraduate studies of forty years ago. The remarkable energy and vitality that courses through this University is what first drew me here as a student. It has remained with me throughout my life.  It is what drew me back here as president.

I am now immersed in a listening tour that extends throughout the University and to many of our external partners.  It is an extraordinary privilege to share in the full and astonishing scope of our work.  In settings both formal and informal I have borne witness to our familiar intertwined ways of thinking, teaching, and learning, and an inspiring academic culture like no other.

In my recent daylong visit to the College, a colleague started by reading a text he had prepared on the 19th century conceptualization of the research university by Wilhelm von Humboldt – a lot of meetings start like that here.

It was a vision of universities where research and teaching, the arts and the sciences, are recognized as essential partners. This model inspired William Rainey Harper when he and our founders conceptualized the core values of the University of Chicago at its founding in 1890. Left implicit by our colleague was that we must start our discussion today from first principles, or we surely will fail in our efforts to plan our future.

The foundational values of our university, though often tested, have remained steadfast and are our bedrock as we confront these challenges.  Let me take a moment to outline these: Rigorous research and analysis that stand up to the test of scrutiny and argument.  An empowering education that gives our students the habits of mind to approach any problem and learn any new topic. Innovation and discovery that lead to new knowledge and the next breakthrough. The freedom of expression and open discourse that enables these new discoveries to be made.  And, finally, the importance of pushing ourselves harder to embrace and expand the diversity of background, ideology, experience, and perspectives in our community, both as morally grounded and as the practical key to understanding the world around us, and to solving problems to the benefit of our society.  

These core values inform our work, keep us on course in times of pressure or peril, bind our community together, and form the basis of this institution’s culture. We are not known for accepting facile answers, for taking the easy path, or for being complacent. Nor do we seek the safety of agreement for the sake of momentary harmony. It is these core values that tell us we must continue to look at the University through fresh eyes and ensure that it is poised to confront the emerging challenges of our time in original and significant ways.

From the beginning, Harper expanded on Humboldt’s model, designing our university to systematically engage with the world around it, to be a vital collaborator with other institutions in improving it. This can be seen in the first organizational chart of the University in 1891, which had three divisions: the University proper, the University Extension, and the University Press. Two year later, two more of these “divisions” were added, the Libraries, Laboratories, and Museums; and the work of Affiliation.  The latter corresponded to a regional network of high schools, colleges, and universities. The combination of the Extension, the Press, the Libraries, Laboratories, and Museums and the work of Affiliation all together flowed from Harper’s inspiring vision for how the work of the University proper should be tied directly and actively to the betterment of society at large.

The University of Chicago has achieved so much in the 130 years since it opened its doors, likely far more than our founders could have imagined. It is fair to say, however, that this early vision of a connected University in service to the public has not always been ascendant, nor did it remain as central a part of the story we tell ourselves about the journey of the University. Many of Harper’s innovative outward looking programs were scaled back within a decade, and while important features of the original vision endured, the University did in many respects become more inward looking,

In recent decades, the University has increasingly reconnected with this visionary aspect of Harper’s early vision of the University. We have the opportunity now to build upon the 13 decades of the amazing work of this University in the pursuit of knowledge for the benefit of human life, by reconceptualizing the ways in which we can become a more engaged institution, not separated from society, but advisedly interconnected with it.

Before I talk about the work that lies ahead of us, I want to take a moment to acknowledge that every step of this next leg of our journey would not be possible, were it not for those who laid the foundations of the road we will be travelling. Each of our past presidents, including Hanna Gray and Don Randel, had a hand in preparing this University for the challenges of the 21st century. I’d like to acknowledge the many contributions made by Chancellor Bob Zimmer over the last 15 years as president, as he has positioned us so well to take the next step in the evolution of this institution. I especially want to thank him for his impassioned and principled defense of free expression.  Please join me in offering our thanks to our prior leaders.

Looking now to the future, what do I mean when I call for an ‘engaged’ University of Chicago? 

An engaged university begins as a place where the discovery of new knowledge for its own sake is fostered and celebrated. Whether it be a new approach in philosophy, the translation of an ancient text that sheds new light on its meaning; the discovery of a new branch of mathematics; revealing the inner workings of markets; or an exploration of the origins of the universe, of life, of the mind or even of peoples and cultures and the histories of their migrations, all of these are examples of the many gifts that the University brings to humanity and that in their sum enable us to contribute as well through engagement.

When I talk about engagement, I also mean enhancing the connections within our campus community, both here and abroad, to make the University an environment where all feel welcome and included, and that they genuinely belong. Where we both talk and listen to each other. Where we can have candid conversations and vigorous debates. Beyond the campus, engagement means listening and responding to those we serve, locally, nationally, and globally. It means living up to our responsibilities to our neighbors as an anchor institution on the South Side and being a leader in engagement around the world. It means harnessing the power of our institution in collaboration with civic partners, foundations, governments, and corporations, to create and learn new knowledge together, applying it to areas of critical need and impact, and sharing our knowledge broadly.

We as a global community are faced with complex, multifaceted, and often interconnected challenges that detrimentally affect the lives of individuals, communities, and nations around the world, and if left unresolved, will continue to do so for generations to come.

These are problems that no one expert or even institution can solve. They require approaches that span the disciplines, a mindset that embraces collaboration and yes, the funding and philanthropic support to succeed. In short, these are problems that require an unprecedented level of engagement and connection, and which call upon universities to evolve in response. As focal points for the power of ideas and hubs for broad networks of partnerships, resources, and engagement, universities have a special role in addressing these problems from a multitude of angles and perspectives.

At this moment in history, the University of Chicago is especially well poised to play such a role. Our history of discovery and innovation, of scholarship that transcends the disciplines, of free expression and academic freedom, our desire to forge new partnerships, the generations of graduates we have sent into the world and who remain engaged with us, our brilliant faculty, students, and staff who are drawn here from across the globe, our research institutes, our affiliated laboratories, Argonne National Lab, Fermilab, and the Marine Biological Lab, and our enduring values provide the bedrock upon which we can build the foundations of this next stage of our work.

We have already begun our journey of reconnection. To carry this vision of an engaged University further, we will need to continue to find new ways of doing things, while holding fast to the distinctive academic style and core values that make us who we are. As we deepen our engagement with our neighbors, we must examine, acknowledge, and reflect upon our past actions with regards to development and housing on the South Side. These are essential steps in our ongoing efforts to be better listeners and partners with our neighbors, who bring enormous creativity and resilience towards a vision of a vibrant and thriving community.   

A welcoming and inclusive campus is a key foundation to a culture of openness and engagement.  We must continue to increase the diversity of our faculty, staff, and students. It is in the hands of each of us to foster that sense of belonging that is essential for our purpose. We must continue our commitment to access and affordability.  Much progress has been made with respect to first-generation, rural students, and Odyssey scholars, but we have so much more work to do.

An engaged University of Chicago will foster entrepreneurship and innovation in creative ways and will see itself as an active partner with other universities, as well as with the broader ecosystem of the economies and cultures of Chicago, the region, the nation, and the world beyond.

At the University of Chicago, some of the world’s best thinkers, scholars, researchers, educators, analysts, advocates, artists, entrepreneurs, and creators are unified by a distinctive culture and a set of core values.  That is our capital. When we engage it, and connect it to the world at large, we will reconnect with and build upon Harper’s inspiring vision and the beneficial works of my predecessors.  By working to realize the engaged University of Chicago, we will reach higher levels of achievement than ever before, and we will bring entirely new benefits to humanity.

Thank you once again for allowing me to be your President on this next arc.