It is a very great pleasure for me, on behalf of the entire Columbia community, to welcome Debora Spar as the 11th leader and 7th president of Barnard College.
Barnard and Columbia are inseparable separate institutions, which flourish under this distinctive relationship. No one has understood that better than Judith Shapiro, whom I want to thank personally for her extraordinary leadership of Barnard for 14 years and for the pleasure of her company and support during the years I have had the honor of serving as president of Columbia.
Now President Spar has the opportunity to build on what these two institutions have accomplished, and I, and we, stand ready to help in any way we can.
Inaugurations are somewhat puzzling ceremonies. Not many institutions in the world continue this tradition of unusual dress, processions, multiple remarks, and high sentiments. Several theories come to mind.
One is that it's a way of locking in the new president, as if the job were so difficult or dangerous that we need to plant in the mind of the new president that it would be really unfair if she, after all this fuss, decided too soon to call it quits.
If you follow the thought of my law school teacher and former president of Columbia, Mike Sovern, and work from the premise that the ideal term for a college president is "just long enough to be able to blame everything on your predecessor and just short enough to say everything has to wait until your successor" – which I would take to be about two to three years – then you will have to face the natural response of: "How could you step down so soon? We just inaugurated you."
But this also suggests a second theory for inaugurations, which is that these jobs really are dangerous and you may well need the protections of an inauguration. I have had the pleasure of two inaugurations, and at each one it was striking how – if you listened closely to what people were saying – in the midst of all the praise and congratulations and best wishes there were also fairly disturbing warnings about what lay ahead for the new president.
At Columbia, I distinctly remember one speaker, whom I had known for some time, addressed the audience by saying, essentially, “that in all the dark moments and conflicts ahead, just remember (referring to me) he's a good man.” That caught my attention, and I thought: “Wow, what have I gotten myself into?” (Fortunately, that prediction turned out to be false and I've had no controversies at all, to speak of.)
So, President Spar, an inauguration limits your options to leave too soon, but it also helps protect you – for it's always a good argument you have to say: "Now you don't want to have to go through another inauguration, do you?"
But, all this said, the best theory for an inauguration is one of hope and optimism and pride about our academic institutions, individually and collectively.
For, in a world where organizations and institutions come and go, which live for the moment and expire in the moment, universities and colleges live for something that is as sturdy, as long-standing, and as long-lasting, as anything we have in life, which is the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding to add to that deep well, and we have the privilege of doing this in ways that both make us unique in the world and therefore in need of the support and protection of our societies.
In inaugurations, we take the happy occasion of a transition in leadership to celebrate the success of our academic institutions, to re-dedicate ourselves to its fundamental purposes, and to express our gratitude to the society for letting us serve in these ways.
President Spar, I have seen and felt over the past several months since your selection the palpable sense of excitement and promise that you bring to the Barnard and Columbia communities. This is a great occasion and a great moment for all of us to welcome you here and to promise our collective support for a very long and very secure presidency of one of our great academic institutions.