It's January 6th, and across the room from me, C-SPAN is describing the attack on the US Capitol building. So, I'm typing in a moment of profound, unprecedented uncertainty. Without a doubt, the specific conflict in the Capitol Building will be short-lived, even if it has shattered norms that have stood the test of decades. But I'm worried— we should all be worried—by the shattering of the civic bonds that hold our nation together.
I've often thought of City College—and described it—as a foundational institution of democracy. When I say that, I'm usually thinking about social mobility, about the necessity, in a political system where power and voice are disbursed among a population, for economic and social opportunity to also be broadly available. The possibility of social mobility blunts the edge of conflict and makes people more willing to entrust their safekeeping and the resolution of their conflicts to the twin possibilities of making a better future for themselves, and of a government defending their interests. I know that doesn't always happen and we should confront the moments when it does not. But the promise is profoundly important to the fabric holding our society together.
Today, though, I am thinking of our democratic mission in broader terms, in terms that encompass the national mission of public higher education. Over the past three decades, the institutions of our public colleges and universities have been hollowed out, as societies and governments have turned away from the idea that an educated public, even at the substantial expense of provisioning it, is indispensable for our national security and collective prosperity. There are many reasons why the men and women in Washington stormed the Capitol. They were certainly incited to violence and insurrection by national leaders. They were without a doubt allowed by social media to generate elaborate conspiracy theories that never needed to confront the facts.
But surely, beneath and beyond those more proximate antecedents, the fact that higher education has become a more endangered commodity has also rendered our people more skeptical of science, more vulnerable to outrageous conspiracy theories, more unable to sift bald untruths from empirical reality. When a system of public education atrophies, it hollows out a place at the heart of a wise and vibrant society, and within that space, all manner of dismal things may grow. And it is in this respect, at this moment, that I view the mission of our college, and of all public colleges and universities striving to make education of the highest quality available to everyone who qualifies, as profoundly and fundamentally democratic.
We are rounding the corner of a very difficult year into a stretch of time that will, in the challenges it poses to our college, define CCNY for decades to come. There is reason to be hopeful—we are marshaling our strength and pulling together the substantial reserves of character and determination we have on hand, and we will not fail to meet the challenge of our legacy. But we must also be spurred ahead by a clear realization that the deeper and more substantial remedies to the chaos of today must lie in provisioning our society with the capacity for critical thought that is necessary to sustain our democracy.
I urge you all to mark this moment as an opportunity to rededicate yourselves to what is good and strong in our society and to recognize the things we do, every day, to contribute to that strength. May we travel through this new year with wisdom and resolve, and together make the world we desire out of the world that we find.