December 12, 2016
The recent election brought into sharp focus a substantial divide in American society. It illuminated very different conceptions of where this country is and should be heading, and challenged assumptions about the relationships between its denizens. It also raises for us, the members of the Caltech community, questions about the role of universities in the fabric of American life.
Caltech throughout its history has been a home for those who strive, as our mission statement declares, to "investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society." Caltech, in Pasadena, at JPL and at our observatories, remains a destination for faculty, students and staff who work every day to expand human knowledge, to integrate research with education, to benefit society.
These ideals are heady and uncontroversial, but their realization requires decisions and actions from us all. Most importantly, we must be attentive to the values that have kept the Institute strong for over a century: reliance on evidence-based inquiry and the free exchange of ideas to create knowledge, the embrace of different perspectives, and a commitment to absolute excellence.
Caltech is home to a diverse community that espouses inclusion and that works every day to create an environment where, to paraphrase the publisher Malcolm Forbes, diversity thrives as the art of thinking independently together. Caltech can only sustain its excellence and remain a destination of choice by continuing to welcome and support individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds. Robust diversity of background, experience, and perspective is required to solve the most complex scientific and technological problems and to tackle the most pressing societal issues.
The fabric of Caltech is richer and stronger because of our faculty and students from other nations. We are a global university that will continue to honor and cultivate talented individuals regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
The classicist and philosopher, Danielle Allen, spoke of how teaching Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 allowed her and her students "...to step outside ourselves, outside the immediacy of pain and confusion, outside the stagnation of our own minds." The power of education is that it can free thought, it "can ward off the paralysis of mind that is the worst danger for democratic citizens." The university, with a lower case u, and Caltech, with a capital C, must be a place where "habits of reflection and argument are cultivated, where frankness in accord with friendship is the guiding norm."
As we approach the end of 2016, many on both sides of the political divide feel that their values are under assault and fear for the future of our country. We have an opportunity and an obligation to contribute to the health of our democracy by consciously realizing our values. These values – dedication to intellectual integrity, arguments substantiated by data, knowledge forged from diverse perspectives, open, honest and respectful discourse – are essential to our continuing health as a community and to our nation's future. May 2017 be a year of clarity, friendship and fulfillment for all.
Thomas F. Rosenbaum
Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics