Yale: Past, Present, and Future

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
October 14, 2014
Founders Day Celebration on the Cross Campus
Good afternoon, everybody! Welcome to our first Founders Day celebration.

Today really is a time of celebration and exploration, not long speeches – but I do want to say a couple of words before we continue to party on.

First, thanks to the organizers of today’s events, Martha Highsmith and Heather Calabrese and their committee and volunteers; and thanks to the all the Yale staff involved, including the men and women of Yale Dining who made the food that we’re enjoying this afternoon.

And thanks once again to the Citations, the graduate school’s a cappella group. They exemplify Yale’s strong tradition of singing, but they also exemplify Yale’s strong tradition of collaboration. They come from multiple departments in the graduate school and from the law, medical, and environment schools, as well.

As you know, Yale was the first institution in the Americas to confer doctoral degrees, and it is home of the first university-based schools of nursing, art, and forestry. While I don’t know if we can claim the first graduate singing group, I think we can claim the finest!

Founders Day is new, inspired in part by last year’s presidential inauguration events. Many people suggested that aspects from last year’s special celebration, like the drop-ins and the open houses, be made into an annual event – so the new tradition of Founders Day was created.

Marta and I went earlier to the Sterling Hall of Medicine to visit faculty and staff from across the medical school. We had drop-ins at the Loria Center, at Ingalls Rink, and in Science Park, meeting with people from a variety of academic and administrative departments. The spirit everywhere confirmed my confidence about Yale’s future.

Today’s open houses and tours at the museums and the libraries and other locations are part of an ongoing effort to encourage everyone to get to know Yale better. Yale Human Resources this fall has had a terrific staff campaign called “Explore Yale.”

As part of the campaign, people have been asked for six-word descriptions of Yale. One of the best came from one of our colleagues in the Yale Medical Group. His six-word description of Yale: “World-class community, cutting-edge education.”

He’s right. Yale is a diverse place, with people from many backgrounds drawn from every part of the nation and the world. It is a university where people are dedicated to excellence across the disciplines. Yale is a community fueled by a spirit of creativity, a place where we don’t just want to make new things – we want to make things better.

We have inherited an extraordinary history of one of the nation’s earliest universities and its mission of service to society. Our inheritance means we also have an extraordinary responsibility in the present for the future.

This is a place of tradition, yes, and that is a good thing, as the late Jaroslav Pelikan reminds us. He was a Sterling professor of history and he taught at Yale for thirty-six years, achieving emeritus status in 1996. An eminent scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, his personal motto was adopted from Goethe: “What you have received as an inheritance from your fathers [and, I would add, mothers], you must possess again in order to make it your own.”

Yale has a long history, but it is not a historic artifact. Yale is active and alive. Founders Day is for inspiration, not nostalgia. Over its 313 years, Yale has conferred nearly 269,000 degrees. Here’s an important fact: living persons hold more than sixty-five percent of all the degrees ever conferred in Yale’s history. Sixty-five percent of all the Yale degrees ever conferred were conferred to people still alive today.

Therefore, we, today, are Yale. We are the guardians of its history, but we are also the makers of its tradition. Happily, we living persons of Yale now more fully reflect the beautiful mosaic of our country and our world – and we will continue to make our community an even better reflection in the years ahead.

It’s fitting we gather near the Women’s Table, designed by Maya Lin, a graduate of Yale College and the architecture school. She exemplifies Yale’s tradition of innovation for impact. As a student, she was in conversation with the past through the inscriptions in Memorial Hall and used her learning to forge a new national form of public memorial. The Women’s Table keeps us in a conversation with the past in the present for the future.

It’s also fitting we gather at the heart of Yale, in front of the Sterling Memorial Library, designed by Yale alumnus James Gamble Rogers. He also drew from history to create new structures in his day that have stood the test of time. One of the most magnificent spaces on campus, this library has been made new through its recent restoration. It embodies the best of the past updated for the present in the service of the future. I hope many of you have had the chance to tour the restored nave of the Sterling library these last couple of weeks.

Today and every day, I encourage all of you to explore Yale and engage in its dynamic tradition of innovation for impact. As we live in conversation with the past, let us remember where we are and when we are, and let us work for an ever more open, creative, and interdisciplinary university.

It is a worthy endeavor. It can also be a joyful one, as the Citations prove, so let’s enjoy another song from this open, creative, and interdisciplinary group, while I walk over to the center of you all and we cut the big “Y Cake.”

Thank you for coming, enjoy the Citations, and party on! Happy Founders Day celebration!