A. Bartlett Giamatti - 1988 MIT Commencement Address

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PRESENTER: I am pleased to welcome to the platform the Honorable Alfred E. Vellucci, mayor of the city of Cambridge, and Dr. A. Bartlett Giamatti, president of the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, and former president of Yale University. Dr. Giamatti will now give the address.


GIAMATTI: Good morning. I know that this occasion is a solemn one. It is meant to celebrate the graduates, meant to affirm us and our commitment to seeking the truth, meant to figure forth the institution's role as conveyor of that common life we call civilization. I've thought much on our institutions for learning, our universities in the last two years, and today I want to share with you, if I may, some of those ruminations.

Specifically, I wish to ruminate on what it means to be a university president, which I once was. What does this have to do with you graduates? Well, aside from enriching this moment and of course, your lives in general, my ruminations will eventually prove to be splendidly relevant. Being president of a university is no way for an adult to make a living, which is why so few adults actually attempt to do it. It is to hold a mid-19th century ecclesiastical position on top of a late-20th century corporation.

But there are those lucid moments, those Joycean epiphanies that occur and lay bare the numinous beyond and give us the essence of it all. I had those moments. They were all moments of profound and brilliant failure, but string those moments of defeat into a strand and you have the pearls of an administrative career.

Six months between being named president of Yale in December of '77 and taking office in July of '78, I had ample opportunity to receive advice. I listened to many people. I learned for instance, for the first time about the corporate world. I learned that because the corporate world is only interested in quarterly results, it talks a great deal about long-range planning. It was very clear to me that Yale needed some of that too. We needed a policy.

I, of course had no policies. I had a mortgage, and I had one suit, but I had absolutely no policy. So I cast about. I solicited data and forecasts and projections and models. I did something called a comparative study. I did longitudinal studies. I made a flowchart, and I fired four management consultants. I went in search of policy.


You got it. I was trying to find what it was Yale needed most, wanted most, and would most contribute to enhancing our quality, and making me what I knew now I was to be, which was a manager. Well, one night in April of '78 I was in my garage, actually. I was trying to memorize the trustees names, particularly the ones I'd met. And I was crouched between the lawnmower and some snow tires, and I wrote a memo. It was the first time I'd ever written.

On July 1, 1978, which my first day in office, I issued the following memo to an absent and indifferent university. And it read as follows-- "To the members of the university community. In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grandparents, I wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of university policy, evil is abolished and paradise is restored." Well, the reaction was fascinating.

Four young members of the faculty in comparative literature wrote an open letter to the New York Review of Books proving the Milton was not talking about evil in Paradise Lost, he was in fact, talking about irony and the patriarchal abuse of power. There was a junior in Yale College, who was doing that summer, a leveraged buyout of a Tastee-Freez in East Hampton. She wrote me a very gracious letter, and said she understood that one had to have a business plan, but she hoped I didn't change things too much before she graduated.

Of course, there was the alumnus in New York on Yale club stationery who wondered why the heck we always had to get so far out in front. In September, an undergraduate extracurricular activity in New Haven called the Yale Daily News wrote the first editorial about my memo. It's opening sentences were these. I remember them. "Giamatti's administration is off to a miserable start. Rather than giving us control over our lives, or at least addressing concerns of students, such as the crying need for a student center so we can make friends, or any of the other myriad of injustices that riddle the fabric of the quality of life here, new administration is insensitive and repressive and the future bodes awful."

And that was one of the best written of the news editorials. But to be fair, of course, it was also the first. Well, since the students were back, and this Daily News is publishing, the major media outlets now had a source for news, because student stringers went to work. In a small article byline special to the New York Times, the country's newspaper of record misspelled my name and said, a Harvard professor had found a letter from Milton to his parents in [INAUDIBLE] library. The Washington Post ran a picture of the memo in the style section, and wrote a sidebar in a box quoting an FDA lawyer, who asserted that evil had been abolished three years earlier. The regulations that, after all have been printed in the Federal Register, and nobody he knew in Washington thought evil was bad for you in any case.

The Wall Street Journal wrote a very pithy editorial, pointing out that fat, liberal, effete, Marxist-oriented eastern universities, and Stanford too, were all in a plot to undermine the republic and free enterprise. Quote, "What we need, they said in the journal, is not more talk about evil, but some decent courses in risk arbitrage. George Will wrote another column citing Montesquieu, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, and Ernie Banks. William Buckley said Milton, quote "is all very well, but it is typical of President Giamatti and his ilk to cite a secular authority on evil as if, of course, those who have passed any time down in the agora, or out on the Rialto needed an authority to know the palpability of evil in all its camaraderie and liberal camouflages."


Well, it goes on. I won't go on. As you know, a university president has a responsibility not only for the internal workings of an institution, but also for external representation and relations as well. And of all the moments I remember speaking to alumni and visiting foundations and corporations and mayors and governors and et cetera, et cetera, the moment I remember best-- and I just reminded President Gray, I think we met in this office that morning in Washington-- was the morning I saw Congressman Phlange from the third district of a state that we will call grace.

Congressman's office-- let me set the scene briefly-- is a series of dark paneled warrens each leading to the other. And as one enters, one sees on the wall a framed poster of the last major arts festival held in the district, which was August 17, 1937. There are some chairs at the table with copies of Collier's, and a telephone that doesn't call anything. There is, of course no ashtray. The first receptionist is reading her high school yearbook and drinking a diet Sprite, so I approach the other one who is less busy and I say, "Mr. Giamatti to see the congressman, please." She looks up and says, well, he's either in the district or on the floor. They're not sure, while I sit in the corner by a phone.

And suddenly, the inner door opens and a middle-aged person with eyeglasses, hung on a green cord around her neck, and carrying up an appointment book, a clipboard, a stack of letters, a cup of coffee, and a Snoopy lunchbox, comes up to me and says, he'll see you right now. Please follow me. And she takes me out the door, down the hall to the right, through the first door we come to, passed the word processor and an empty desk, down a short corridor filled with overflowing waste boxes. She goes sharp right, past the young man methodically shredding what looks like mail, and then into the congressman's office.

Well, the congressman is sitting behind a huge desk, surrounded by plaques and awards, and trophies and pictures and laminated scrolls, and six autographed footballs. There are easy chairs, a chocolate colored wastebasket, an American flag, and a mother of pearl paperweight the size of a basketball with Republic of China written across the bottom. Doctor, he says, how are you? It's a pleasure. Please sit down. Can we get you some coffee? What brings you to Washington? He of course, has not yet looked up.

I'd like to get a picture of us. I'll find a photographer. And suddenly, he's gone, out the door, and then he's back with a photographer. And with a tall, slim woman, about 30, in slacks, blue work shirt, denim vest, boots, her hair pulled back in a bun. Doctor, he says, this is Mrs. incomparable Worth, my legislative assistant for education. She'll sit in. A flash goes off. The photographer leaves. And Ms Worth now speaks. She says, we thank the NIH cuts should go through. We're not impressed with your fatuous argument that we can't change the rules halfway through the game. We think student aid only benefits the rich and poor, and rather than stopping abuse, we would rather do away with everything.

We don't believe in a federal science facilities fund, or in fact, in the non-profit postal subsidy. And given what they teach in comparative literature, we think it would be the height of fraud and abuse to fund the humanities. We intend to uncap retirement, cap technology transfer, cut the NSF, get rid of the Library of Congress, and slash the Health Manpower Act, because we want to get this country moving again. Well, congressman beams, and he says, doctor, let me tell you. It's an honor having you here.

We've got a college in the district. They do a wonderful job. The education is marvelous. Look what it made the country today. We've got a huge deficit on balance trade, a weak dollar, corruption in church and state, although separated, of course. It's great to see you. Anything I can do, just let me know. Well, I go back out. I go past the young man shredding, past the waste baskets, past the silent word processor. I'm finally in the hall. I had not said a word.

But I had done what I came to do, which is I had my picture taken, I'd seen a staffer, I'd met a congressman, and I'd heard all the issues touched definitively. I felt that our system is working, and the visit remains in the mind as a pearl. There's only one other moment that I want to share with you. It's a brief, but glistening session.

Not long before I left in '86, with a university-wide, community-based, self-selected group called the Standing Committee on Special Interests. This committee is the special interest group that convenes to pursue a special interests if there's no preexisting special interest group empowered to pursue that special interest. It monitors public utterances to see who might be offended, and then it takes offense if no one else has the time or inclination. It watches power structures, it petitions for redress, it gathers, rallies, assembles queries, it blockades, occasionally it even sincerely, with a good heart, assaults in a good cause. It is an extraordinarily hard working group. It's never at rest.

Recently, it had taken up the cause of the inequality of income distribution in North America, the preservation of all stained glass window at Yale, and women's volleyball. Well, I was summoned to meet this standing committee. I said I'd meet them in a trustee room near where I had my office. They said they weren't sure they could all fit in the room. I said they could send delegates. They said they didn't trust each other enough to delegate any of their number.

And I said, well, it's up to you. They canceled. Some clergymen in the city immediately petitioned on their behalf. I caved in. And when they finally arrived, there were only seven of them. I said, what could I do? There's a long silence. What's the issue? I was baffled.

And finally the spokesperson said, we're really very sorry to come to you like this, but we are deeply concerned that no one in the administration is paying any attention to the most pressing problem of our time, which is the problem of evil and the restoration of paradise. But I said, we tried to solve that. I sent out a memo years ago. Well, we weren't here years ago, said the spokesperson. We're here now. What can we do to make it better? And in fact, we talked into the night.

I suppose in some ways, this conversation and my versions of the other conversations, are variations on that serious and splendid conversation that is any great university anywhere in the country. University today is very different from the one 25 years ago, or 50, or 100 or 250 years ago, and yet it is not different. Tough as they are, they are still fragile institutions. But at heart, they are still a constant conversation between young and old, between students and among faculty, between faculty and students, a conversation between past and present, a conversation the culture has with itself on behalf of the country.

University lives through all its voices, and the conversation does not stop there, nor does each of our conversations with whatever we took away stop either. It is perhaps, the sound of all those voices over centuries overlapping, giving and taking that is finally the music of civilization, the sound of human beings shaping and sharing mooring ideals to reality and making the world for all its pain work. The university is the place where the mind learns first how to make ideas which is the mind's most durable product.

University is neither a paradise, nor the worst spot we've ever been in. It is a good place, which continues to want to make our children better. But its essence is that give and take, that civil conversation in its innumerable forms. When that conversation, the to and fro of ideas is stymied or foreclosed or frozen, when the questing for truth is told that it must cease because there is only one truth and it is complete, then the institution in its essence, is chilled, and its life threatened. The enemy of the university is finally not dissent, not disagreement, not disagreeableness Gentility, after all is the mark of a great finishing school, not a great university. University doesn't care for the genteel. It cares for the blood and sinews of ideas, and non-coercive combat with other ideas.

I suppose the non-coercive quality is fundamentally the key. It's a combat that doesn't seek to take a life, but seeks to add energy, passion, logic, and commitment to the open life of the mind in the service of a more just society. That's basically the nature and purpose, the norm, the guiding principle for all of us. The deniers of left or right, the diagnostician for whom all illnesses is similar, because all cures are identical, the purveyors of an ism, the dealers and system, the myopic for whom all the world's pain is simply reduced to their cause, the simplifiers who tell you that they're idealistic because they boil life down to a bumper sticker or a T-shirt maxim, the reductionist who pretend to global concerns so as to promote a personal preoccupation.

These are in some ways the enemies of give and take, of debate, disagreement of dissent, the shouters who want it now care of nothing for exchange, for connection, for each of us each to each working it out. What must be fluid so that each of us has the freedom to promote another's freedom of mind and spirit and belief, they would freeze, catching us all in the amber of their dogma. Some ways they are the subtlest enemies of the university, of the life of the mind, not because they win the day, but because they remove themselves from debate. They force us into us and them, fragmenting precisely when they most hunger for solidarity, splintering the very sense of community they ache to form.

You've encountered this impulse here. You would have in any university or college, and you will certainly in the wider world. So all I learned in the university, my graduating friends, it is worth passing on to you is simply this. Do not write off the dogmatists. Do not acquiesce in the apocalyptic style. Insist on conversation, even when it is not proffered. Have the courage to connect, the courage to strive to keep the shouting down and the conversation open, because I think only in that way eventually will equality of sexes and races and opportunity finally come. Only that way will the homeless get housed and the hungry fed and the poor will get work and will the city be rebuilt.

To have the moral courage, to avoid the selfishness of self-righteousness, and to assert positively the need we each of us has for the other, that is the real work of humankind. It has begun here, and it will, I know, be carried out into a life that will remember how inhumane it is to leave another alone. Good luck.