At inauguration, President Paul Alivisatos invites UChicago to continue ‘journey of reconnection’

University community celebrates new leader, who urges deeper engagement with world, each other

Moments after Paul Alivisatos was officially inducted Friday as the 14th president of the University of Chicago, he began his inaugural address from the podium of Rockefeller Memorial Chapel by asking the audience—those seated before him, and those watching online across the world—to come together.

“An inauguration is about far more than welcoming a new president,” Alivisatos said during the Oct. 29 ceremony. “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.”

Alivisatos began his presidency Sept. 1, but his inauguration ceremony offered him a chance to formally address the UChicago community, and to recognize all the people that made possible the “amazing work” of the past 13 decades. His address discussed the goals of the University and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead, and reaffirmed his hopes for its members to connect and engage with each other and the world.

“We have already begun our journey of reconnection,” Alivisatos said. “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.”

Realizing an ‘engaged’ University

Celebrating Alivisatos’ return to his alma mater, the ceremony began with an original composition by Prof. Augusta Read Thomas, titled “Crescat scientia; vita excolatur,” in honor of the University’s motto. The three-minute fanfare concluded with a historic first: the simultaneous ringing of all 72 bells of the Rockefeller Chapel carillon.

That all-encompassing carillon chord anticipated some of the ceremony’s themes. Before Alivisatos’ address, several speakers delivered welcome remarks on behalf of UChicago faculty, students, staff and alumni, and the local community. In his comments, Vish Venkataraman, a fifth-year doctoral student in integrative biology, described the University as “a symphony—an emergent phenomenon comprised of a thousand tones, voices and players.”

In Alivisatos, he sees someone who is eager to listen to other voices, and “who is going to contribute his own unique voice and insight to the intellectual life of this University through his commitment to teaching.”

The faculty speaker, Asst. Prof. Eve L. Ewing, discussed the matter of “indebtedness”—not monetary debt, but the moral and ethical debts that a University president must assume. A scholar at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice, she asked Alivisatos to remember those whose lives are impacted by the University and to help build “a culture of care” for students.

“I beseech you: Live and work each day in your presidency conscious of our debt to all of the people who have made the life of the mind possible,” said Ewing, AB’08. “And in the spirit of courageous leadership, dream with us so that we may answer the beckoning of history toward a University worthy of their sacrifice.”

The Rev. Julian DeShazier, MDiv’10, senior pastor of the University Church of Chicago, spoke on behalf of the local community. A graduate of UChicago’s Divinity School, he asked Alivisatos to consider the University and its surrounding neighborhoods as interdependent: “The University must be willing to be transformed by the South Side.”

Alivisatos is currently immersed in a listening tour with the UChicago community and its partners to “realize the engaged University of Chicago.” Engagement means enhancing connections within the University community, Alivisatos said, and creating an environment in which all members feel welcomed and included, and able to “have candid conversations and vigorous debates.”

Beyond the campus, he added, engagement will require the University to respond to “those we serve, locally, nationally and globally,” and to live up to “our responsibilities to our neighbors as an anchor institution on the South Side.”

“At the University of Chicago,” Alivisatos said, “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. … 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.”

Although in-person attendance at Rockefeller Chapel was limited due to COVID-19 safety guidelines, many more watched via webcast from across the University, the city and the other parts of the world.

After a campus watch party at Max Palevsky Cinema, Nitika Nautiyal, MBA’14, said she appreciated Alivisatos’ message of engagement and willingness to take advice. As a UChicago alum and parent of a Laboratory Schools student, she felt it was important to hear the new president’s priorities: “You don’t get to complain about things when you don’t engage.”

‘What brings us together’

Alivisatos, AB’81, is also the second UChicago alum to assume the presidency, following Edward H. Levi, LAB’28, PhB’32, JD’35. Two fellow alumni noted this connection in their welcome remarks.

Jennifer Kennedy, AB’02, director of the UChicago Student Centers, highlighted Alivisatos’ “reputation as a collaborator,” and expressed the willingness of staff to help “realize the full potential of this University we love so much.”

“No matter how far we go,” said Margaret Mueller, AM’97, president of the UChicago Alumni Board, “what brings us together is our University of Chicago experience.”

Other speakers included two of Alivisatos’ mentors: Carol Christ, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley; and Prof. Steven Chu of Stanford University, a former U.S. Secretary of Energy.

Over the past four years, Christ collaborated with Alivisatos in his role as Berkeley’s executive vice chancellor and provost. Along the way, she developed “profound admiration” for Alivisatos and his “far-reaching vision” for transformational partnerships.

Chu worked closely with Alivisatos at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and recalled their fruitful exchanges as scientists. “He listens and he learns, and grows from that,” Chu said.

The inauguration ceremony also included a poetry reading by Prof. Srikanth “Chicu” Reddy, who recited an excerpt from his book Underworld Lit; and the playing of “Double Helix,” another composition by Thomas that was selected, in part, to honor Alivisatos’ work as a renowned chemist.

Among those present at Rockefeller Chapel were Chancellor Robert J. Zimmer, whose 15-year tenure as president preceded Alivisatos; and two other former University leaders: Hanna Holborn Gray and Don Michael Randel.

Joseph Neubauer, MBA’65, chair of the Board of Trustees who led the presidential search, thanked the UChicago faculty who contributed to the selection process. In Alivisatos, he said, they found a leader who is “skilled at looking beyond the immediate and obvious, who is dedicated to drawing on the full breadth of expertise available on this campus.”

“Welcoming a new president is an affirmation of all that we have achieved,” Neubauer continued, “but really marks the beginning of the next stage in the University's growth as a place where people, ideas and scholarship are brought together to expand knowledge, debate issues and make the world a better place.”

The Rev. Maurice Charles, MDiv’90, PhD’13, dean of Rockefeller Chapel, helped close the ceremony with a benediction, asking the audience to give thanks and to remain “mindful of the gifts we have yet to share.”

“May our gratitude so inspire our generosity, deepen our engagement, demand our just deeds that everyone we meet along the way finds in us a reason to be grateful,” Charles said. “Let knowledge grow. Let life be enriched.”