Vytautas Magnus University Honorary Degree Acceptance

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
June 20, 2019
Vytautas Magnus University Honorary Degree Ceremony, Kaunas, Lithuania

Good afternoon and greetings!

I would like to thank Professor Vilma Bijeikienė, chair of the Vytautas Magnus University Senate; Rector Professor Juozas Augutis; Council President Valdas Adamkus; and other honorable ministers and guests for welcoming me here today.

It is a tremendous privilege to accept an honorary degree from your esteemed university.

I am humbled by this opportunity to speak to so many scholars and students.

Visiting this part of the world fulfills a longtime dream of mine. This is a place where generations of my family lived, worked, and studied.

We live in such a large world. The more I see of the world, the larger it becomes. At the same time, as I travel and learn, the world also becomes more familiar. I feel connected to new people and places.

So I feel very lucky to be with you here today. As I learn about this city and country, as I meet many of you, my world is becoming larger and more connected. I feel closer to Lithuania and its history—and closer to my own history.

Earlier this afternoon, I had the pleasure of touring an exhibit on the history of the Kaunas Soloveitchik family. This is one part of my family tree. I learned about the first Soloveitchiks in Kaunas, about the first stone synagogue they built here, and about their ties to the region’s culture, politics, and economy.

I have many ties to this part of the world. The earliest family member I know of was my great-grandfather, seven times over, who lived in the Slobodka section of Kaunas in the early 1700s, now called Villiampol. He was the “parnass”—the unofficial mayor of the community—and he fought against the 1758 proclamation that forbid Jews from living in central Kaunas at the time. His grandsons built the great synagogue of Slobodka in 1772. 

My grandfather’s great-grandfather—six generations back—founded the yeshiva of Volozhin, the first modern yeshiva. Built in 1802, it is located in present-day Belarus. I will visit it later in this trip. Many other relatives were rabbis and scholars.

Of course, I did not know these people who lived so many years ago. But I heard stories about them; they were a source of pride for my family. So visiting Kaunas brings me closer to the family I did know. I think of my grandfather, Yitzchak Leib Soloveitchik, and my father, Ronald Salovey, who passed away one year ago.

My Kaunas relatives were different in many ways from me and my brother and sister. We lived in a different time and place. But we also share something in common. The Kaunas Soloveitchiks believed in a life of study. They created communities of learning. They sought meaning and purpose from the pursuit of the greater good.

Vytautas Magnus University is a vibrant community of learning. I join you here today as a fellow scholar—someone who loves learning and values education.

I am honored to serve as the twenty-third president of Yale University. I am also a social psychologist. I have spent my career studying human emotions. I know how strongly negative emotions like anger, fear, and anxiety can shape our lives. Yet I also know that humans demonstrate a remarkable capacity for hope. Time and again, people face obstacles with a sense of optimism and purpose.

That is why I feel lucky to work at a university. The work we do as students and teachers is based on optimism. We believe that knowledge and truth can make people’s lives better. We believe new and creative ideas have the potential to improve the world. We believe that understanding can extend life and make our lives more meaningful.

Yale’s Latin motto is “lux et veritas,” light and truth. Light is a symbol of the truth we seek in a dark and fragmented world. Today I see a world in great need of light and truth.

We face grave challenges: War and poverty, hatred and division, environmental devastation and human suffering. Many in America and around the world are increasingly distrustful of our politicians and institutions. It is tempting to succumb to cynicism and despair.

Our universities have a vital role and responsibility as we face these challenges.

Today more than ever, we need universities like VMU and Yale. Both our institutions embrace the liberal arts model. And I believe the liberal arts are more important than ever because our world so desperately needs the qualities the liberal arts cultivate.

First, the liberal arts ask us to question everything, to challenge orthodoxies rather than subscribe to a single view of the world. They teach our students to be critical thinkers who do not take anything for granted. Such critical thinking is a safeguard against tyranny and intolerance. It is a balm against hatred and prejudice.

Second, the liberal arts foster empathy. Literature, art, science, history, and mathematics—these and other disciplines show us that there is more than one way to interpret information. They open our minds to new perspectives and experiences. By exploring many different fields of thought, we develop a more flexible and agile intellect.

Third, and perhaps most of all, the liberal arts make our world larger, more interesting, and more exciting. Kingman Brewster, who served as president of Yale in the 1960s and 1970s, said, “Perhaps the most fundamental value of a liberal education is that it makes life more interesting…it makes it less likely that you will be bored with life.” I agree, and I appreciate all the ways the liberal arts have enriched my own life.

The beauty of a liberal arts education is that it liberates us from having to pursue a narrow, vocationally-oriented program of study. This approach is the best preparation I can imagine for our rapidly changing world. We cannot predict what jobs will be available to our graduates 10, 20, or 30 years from now. But we can prepare them with habits of mind that will serve them in any field, profession, or economy. We can teach them to be critical thinkers and curious, empathetic human beings. I know that is what you do here at Vytautas Magnus.

Furthermore, we cannot forget that the values that sustain a liberal education also sustain a free society. Freedom of thought and expression are key to human happiness, achievement, and prosperity. Unfortunately, there are powerful forces aligned against this way of understanding the world. There are those who say we should engage less with people who look, act, or think differently from us. They don’t want us to question the status quo or empathize with others. They want us to make our worlds smaller.

In times of fear and uncertainty, it is normal to take comfort in what is familiar. We seek security in what we already know.

Yet our universities must chart a different course. They must remain places where we embrace the unknown. Where we make new discoveries. Where we question the familiar. They must be places where we are not afraid to search for light and truth, even if that search takes us out of our small and familiar worlds.

As educators and scholars, you and I share these responsibilities: to defend intellectual freedom; to nurture experimentation and creativity; to encourage our students to ask questions and pursue new answers.

I do not believe we can fulfill these responsibilities by working alone. Collaboration is essential.

At Yale, we are working very hard to increase collaboration among scholars from different fields. We believe cross-disciplinary work is necessary to solving some of our most pressing problems—climate change, migration, inequality, and disease—among others. We need to bring together experts from many different fields to tackle these challenges. And so we are encouraging our faculty members to work on shared problems with colleagues from different departments and schools. The results of these collaborations are quite promising.

The benefits of collaboration are not limited to a single institution. No one university, no single nation, can succeed alone. We must learn alongside one another and from one another. Ideas must be allowed to travel freely on our campuses and across borders. By championing cooperation, we can help end global conflicts, heal communities, and promote prosperity.  

Yale is proud to be a global research university. Students come to Yale from over 120 countries. We have research and educational partnerships on every continent.

Around the globe, Yale faculty members and students are working with international partners to seek answers and spearhead discoveries that would otherwise be impossible.

I know that at VMU shares this commitment international collaboration. I have learned that your university has hundreds of bilateral agreements that allow your faculty and students to participate in academic exchanges and joint research projects.

There is so much good work coming out of our universities, and we must make sure we are telling others about it. In our classrooms and laboratories, we are developing new medicines and technologies; we are nurturing new art forms and new sources of knowledge; we are preparing great leaders. Our campuses are incubators of ideas and optimism. We do not simply create value for our graduates or for ourselves; we create value for the world. So we must be vigilant about sharing these stories, remembering the essential role of universities in sustaining a free, open and innovative society.

That is the promise and potential of our universities and our work as scholars. In times of doubt and fear, we ask questions and hazard new answers. We make discoveries that benefit our neighbors and our world. We seek light and truth, making our worlds at the same time larger and more connected.

I began my remarks today by speaking about my family’s roots in this part of the world. Family has always been at the heart of what education means to me. And so I think of the journeys that took my family away and brought me back here today.

I think of my great-great-grandfather, Simcha Soloveitchik, who moved from Lithuania to London and then to Jerusalem, where he was known as “the Londoner,” actually. I think of the great chain of migration that began with his small act of bravery, stepping into the unknown.

Next, my father’s parents—my grandparents—moved to the United States by way of Warsaw and Jerusalem. They first met each other on a ship crossing the Atlantic, in the midst of the journey between their old and new worlds. By the time my grandfather arrived in New York, he not only had a new country but a new name. No longer Yitzchak Leib Soloveitchik, in America he became Louis Salovey. He changed his family name in an effort to fit into his new surroundings, but he made sure to retain four letters—l-o-v-e—“love.” I like to think of it as a tribute to the family he left behind.

In each of these journeys, my relatives discovered that the world was large. I am sure they felt its enormity when they crossed oceans and continents. At the same time, they forged connections, creating new communities of learning and family, faith and love, wherever they moved.

My parents, Ron and Elaine, made homes for me, my brother, and my sister all across the United States. We moved from Buffalo, New York, when I was in high school, so my father could take a job as a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Southern California. He was a devoted mentor and educator. Both my father and my mother, a nurse, valued education. They worked hard to make sure my siblings and I had many opportunities to study and learn. They would have enjoyed today’s festivities as much as anyone, and they would have been tremendously honored by this ceremony.

I think of them now and the way they helped open larger worlds to me. I think of how they, along with many wonderful teachers, helped me understand this vast and complex world and my place in it.

And perhaps because I have spent my career studying human emotions, I know what I am feeling right now: gratitude. I am immensely grateful for the joy my career as a scholar has brought me. I am grateful for the many opportunities I have had to learn from brilliant colleagues and gifted students, to find beauty and meaning at my doorstep and around the world. And I am most grateful to you for inviting me here today. Being with you—learning from you—has, once again, made my world larger and more connected. That is indeed a great gift. Thank you very much.