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NSSR Graduation Speech 2016

These remarks were given at The New School for Social Research’s graduation ceremony on May 19th 2016. 

Good evening, and welcome to the commencement ceremony of the New School for Social Research. I am Will Milberg, Dean of the New School for Social Research, and I am honored to represent this institution in conferring our highest degrees on this remarkable group of scholars. Let me extend a particularly warm welcome to our graduates’ families and guests. Writing can be a lonely process: whether it’s a graduate exam, a thesis or a dissertation. But no one gets through this alone. So I want to thank those of you who have encouraged and supported our graduates and enabled their success in this arduous endeavor.

I would also like to welcome our distinguished faculty, staff and board of governors who mentored and supported you along the way and are joining us on this special occasion. And Let’s all thank the Mannes Alumni Brass trio for their beautiful contribution today.

Embarking on graduate study is never easy. It is a commitment to forgo the luxury of spare time while working and getting a degree. It is a commitment to live in strapped circumstances for years while your friends and acquaintances all around you seem to have “real” jobs. And it is a challenge to explain to those around you exactly what you’re doing and why, and even to come up with a good one-sentence summary of your work that is meaningful to others.

You arrived at the New School at a particularly difficult moment in time, in the wake of a global financial meltdown that affected all of higher education, and particularly private universities like ours without huge endowments. Your battle to improve the lot of graduate students by demanding better fellowships and funding and work agreements has influenced and will continue to influence the condition of our graduate students. The fruits of your efforts will most significantly benefit the students who come after you. We all appreciate of your commitment, your persistence, your drive and your sacrifice.

Let me talk for a moment about what makes the New School for Social Research unique in the world of academia and in particular what distinguishes this graduating class.

I am an economist, so indulge me as I start by quoting one. The well-known Cambridge University economist Joan Robinson — a colleague of John Maynard Keynes and others at Cambridge University in the 1930s and 1940s, — famously quipped:

“Time is a device which keeps everything from happening at once. Space is a device which keeps everything from happening at Cambridge.”

I often have the same feeling at the New School for Social Research. We are a small graduate school, surrounded to our north and south by large, wealthy universities. Nevertheless, it seems that the rented spaces at 6 E. 16th Street and 80 Fifth Avenue are where everything important is happening, so much so that it sometimes feels like we are at the center of the universe!

This is where our psychology students are breaking new ground on issues of memory, empathy, ethnicity, technology, trauma and gender and working with the most advanced insights on the project of relieving emotional and psychological distress for individuals and communities. This is where deep philosophical discussions of contemporary politics take place. This is where radical rethinking of financial and economic processes are being developed. This is where migration, economic development, phenomenology, and the very notion of crisis are being rethought. This is where leading critical thinkers from around the world — Erik Ohlin Wright, Luc Boltanski, Danielle Allen, Susan Buck-Morris, Janis Varoufakis, to name a few — gave talks here in the last weeks alone.

My predecessor as Dean and now Hunter College anthropology professor Judith Friedlander is about to publish a long book on the history of The New School. (Note to my colleagues: do not let me write a history of The New School when I complete my time as Dean). When I recently asked Judith to tell me the gist of her narrative about The New School, she didn’t hesitate: It is a history of the pursuit of academic freedom and the advocacy of human rights. The University in Exile in the 1930s was driven by the desire by some luminaries in New York City to give voice to those brilliant German Jewish scholars who were silenced, fired (and worse) by Hitler and the Nazis. This role as a beacon of hope for the excluded became the ethos underpinning intellectual life at the NSSR.

I should add that “academic freedom” is too narrow a description. For the German emigrés, freedom to think openly and rigorously — scientifically, they would say — was the centerpiece of human freedom itself. In an essay in Social Research in 1937, Emil Lederer, the first Dean of the University in Exile, would write:

“independence of mind is not only the concern of the scholar who desires to be undisturbed in his work. It is the fundamental basis of society. Intellectual freedom is the basis of personal freedom; dogmatic fixation as enforced under dictatorship leads very quickly to the loss of liberty in general… no guarantee of personal liberty is thinkable without intellectual freedom.”

This view was consistent with that of the founders of the New School in 1919, including John Dewey, who understood that education should be organized around what he called “the richness and freedom of meanings.” It resonates with the projects in Eastern Europe that my NSSR colleagues took up around democracy and human rights in the 1980s.

And what about the present? How does this ethos persist and how does it continue to define our reputation around the world? Here is where I turn to you and your moment. You come to The New School in part because of our legacy regarding freedom of thought, the defense of human rights for the oppressed, the critique of a society rife with inequality and injustice. We offer you our knowledge and expertise. But you have no idea how much you challenge us, inspire us and reinvigorate us in return. And you leave us having interrogated these lofty ideals in the context of the present.

That present is vast: Your dissertation research spans the globe and the human experience. Your dissertation research focused on Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand, Japan and the US.   Your research on the US has covered issues of racial inequality, fertility, multicultural competence, the phenomenology of dance and the ethics of genomic medical research. Consider a few of the dissertation topics that the class of 2016 took up: “Gendered Labor Market Outcomes, International Trade and Economic Development,” “Race, class, and the social production of abortion experiences,” “Transnational Relations and the Thai Modernizing State, 1855-1932,” “The Suppression of the Black Press by Local, State and Federal Governments, the FBI and Black Informants, 1950-1980,” “Cosmopolitan Publics in Isolation: the Japanese Global Sixties and Its Impact on Social Change.”

That present is vast and it is also particular: In the US we face a political moment where substantive argument and evidence have been pushed aside in favor of emotion, fear, racism and xenophobia. The need for argument, for evidence, for historical and philosophical knowledge is stronger now than in the past 50 years in this country.   You have some responsibility, as recipients of the Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy in your fields, to bring your knowledge to society, to serve and to engage public life.

You are the living legacy of the New School and that University in Exile, and we are extremely proud of you as you transition to the next phase of your intellectual and personal journeys.

There has never been a time at the NSSR that hasn’t been complicated and turbulent, and graduate school in NYC is in all times extremely challenging in terms of time, money, family and sheer distraction. Amidst all this, what has been most heartening — in fact, moving for me as Dean — has been the depth of commitment among students and faculty to a set of ideals of what a progressive university — a New School — can and must be.

I would like to thank you, the graduates, for your sacrifice and hard work, and your commitment to the personal and intellectual transformations that graduate education brings. Your presence here, with your astonishing array of backgrounds, nationalities, and domains of expertise, and your breathtaking range of topics and methods of study, has transformed the institution.   You are forever a part of us.

Remember that getting a graduate degree is a collaborative project involving a whole team of classmates and colleagues, family, friends, and supporters. In celebrating you today, we are also honoring those others, those who are with us today and those who can’t be.

William Milberg

  • Vince Carducci

    Well said, Will.

  • Amen.

  • Eduardo Ochoa

    Will, your remarks remind me of why I chose the New School for my doctorate so many years ago and reaffirms the value of that decision. I am glad to have you at the helm.

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