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2023 Atwell Lecture at the Annual
Meeting of the American Council on Education

Thank you, Ted, for that incredibly generous introduction—and for this wonderfully generous award.

I am humbled by this acknowledgment because it comes from you—my peers in higher education. You know better than anyone else what it takes to persist in leadership roles at colleges and universities. If the assertion that our institutions move at a glacial pace is accurate, it is safe to say that our roles sometimes leave us out in the cold.

ACE does many things for higher education. But, for me, this is among its most important contributions: meetings where we learn, where we grow, and where we connect—and commiserate. This community has meant a lot to me throughout my career. And I thank each of you for supporting ACE, for acknowledging me with this award, and for working together to improve higher education.

When you spend fifty-plus years in rooms like this one, you meet lots of interesting people. I want to begin by remembering one of those people, our friend and colleague Molly Corbett Broad.

For me—and I suspect for some of you and countless others—Molly was the steel hand in a velvet glove. Tough but elegant. She was outspoken, plainspoken, and softspoken—an unlikely combination that is all too rare these days. She led this body and others with distinction, and she was a model of service in North Carolina and elsewhere. She will be missed.

I also want to recognize Bob Atwell for whom this lecture is named. While I never had the privilege of working with Bob, he helped to lead and shape this organization to be what it is today. It is an honor to be the 2023 Atwell Lecturer.

In preparing these remarks, I thought about how much the world has changed since I took office—and how much it has stayed the same.

At my inauguration in 2018, I shared some of the challenges higher education was facing: people questioning the value of sending a child to college, people asking whether colleges and universities are worthy of public support, people expressing doubts about whether colleges and universities are even good for the nation.

Five years later, partisan divides have further intensified these criticisms. Meanwhile, backlash against American higher education has led to efforts to limit what we teach and how we teach it, to politicize our governance processes, and to discredit diversity as an essential component of our educational missions.

We cannot ignore these critiques, but we must not yield to them. Each of us has a role to play—to use whatever bully pulpit we have at our disposal—to stand up for the values that define our institutions, that define all of higher education. This is hard work, work that takes years before it bears fruit, necessary work that ensures the relevance and the persistence of our institutions.

Standing up for our values demands, in part, that we address an insidious set of actions—and a persistent set of inactions—that threaten part of our core mission; namely, creating hope and opportunity through education.

I speak of efforts to restrict immigration, to deny access to international students and scholars, and to deny access to people who come to this country seeking freedom and opportunity, and a better life for themselves and their families. In determining who is worthy, the US increasingly seems to prefer those who speak English, who come with highly valued skills, who already have resources, and in many cases, who look a lot like me.

I suspect if these criteria had been applied to many of us, to our parents or our grandparents, we would not be in this room today. I am certain that I would not be.

Both of my parents were immigrants, refugees in fact. My father was born in Minsk and came to this country as a child with his family to escape the pogroms of Eastern Europe. My mother came from Germany. She was a survivor of Auschwitz, the only member of her family and the only Jew from her town to survive. She came here on the second Liberty Ship that brought refugees from Europe after the war. Neither of my parents spoke English. Neither had any resources. Neither had any demonstrable skills. All they had was a yearning for freedom and opportunity.

I am standing here as living proof of the power of education to transform lives. My father worked an assortment of menial jobs so he could afford to attend Wayne State University—an urban, regional public, at night. Wayne State changed his life and, in the process, mine. So, to any who are here from Wayne State—or from the other “Wayne States” in this country—thank you, thank you, thank you.

I have been extremely fortunate. Where else in the world can one go, in one generation, from off the boat, with literally nothing, to enjoy the kind of life and opportunity that I have enjoyed?

Immigration and education made my life possible—and I have never lost sight of that fact.

Given my personal background, I have found the last ten or so years of paralysis in our Capitol around immigration reform deeply disturbing and depressing. Given my professional background, I have found them detrimental. Efforts to restrict immigration have a profound impact on how each of our institutions is able to fulfill its mission.

We limit immigration at our peril. Why? Because immigration furthers our national interest. And because immigration defines our national identity.

Let me speak to the first issue of national interest.

We live in a world where human capital is the only truly scarce capital. Financial capital moves at the speed of light, worldwide, in search of higher returns. It is no longer necessary for nations to be endowed with valuable natural resources, a different kind of capital, to be wealthy. Just look at Singapore, the Netherlands, or Israel. It is human capital that determines the wealth of nations today, the ability to attract, create, and retain human capital. Our institutions do precisely that. We recruit scholars and students from around the world. We provide them an environment where each can flourish. And our foreign students and scholars enhance the experience of everyone else on our campuses. This ecosystem helps to support the best higher education system in the world. How do we know that? Because we stand the test of the market. The rest of the world keeps sending us their best and their brightest to work and study here—and when they graduate, they do amazing things.

Consider the Fortune 500 companies. More than 40% of them were founded by immigrants or their children, often educated in the United States. And those companies span some 68 industries and employ almost 15 million people around the globe.

Or consider Nobel prizes. Of US Nobel laureates who have received these prizes since 1901, some 15% were not born in America. These individuals have taught generations of students who have become leaders in their fields. They have strengthened their academic communities, and this country and our economy, through their scholarship, and they have collaborated with colleagues near and far. These collaborations, in turn, strengthen connections between countries—connections that can take on outsized importance in times of tension.

Let me take this idea closer to home. This same pattern repeats itself in higher education. In the Boston academic community alone, many of our most prominent institutions are led by immigrants. The new president of Tufts, Sunil Kumar, is from India. The recently retired president of MIT, Rafael Reif, is from Venezuela. The president of Bunker Hill Community College, Pam Eddinger, is from Hong Kong. The president of Northeastern University, Joseph Aoun, is from Lebanon. And the president of UMass Boston, Marcelo Suárez-Orozco, is from Argentina. All of them were educated, at least in part, in this country.

At Harvard, one quarter of our students are international. One third of our faculty were born or educated outside of the US. I suspect this pattern repeats itself at many of your institutions.

America thrives when the world’s best join us to pursue research that fuels discovery and innovation. International students challenge our most talented domestic students in the classroom, and these international students bring another dimension of diversity to our campuses. They often seek to build families and careers in the US after graduation, but—even if they leave this country—some of our values go with them—and their relationships with classmates persist.

Unfortunately, our longstanding preeminence as a top destination is not assured. Our competitors aspire to attract these same students with governments offering more favorable pathways to permanent residency and financial incentives for top faculty, students, and staff.

So, immigration is truly in the national interest. Higher education helps to serve this national interest by attracting and educating students from around the world. And those same students make our campuses more interesting and more lively in countless ways.

Now on to how immigration defines our national identity.

Ours is a country that has always prided itself on being a beacon of freedom and opportunity for others.

It brings me pain knowing that my parents—and I suspect some of your parents or grandparents—would not recognize this country today. We are turning our back on those seeking a better life, a better future for themselves and for their children. I am speaking about people who are unlikely to win a Nobel Prize, start a company, or become a college president. I am speaking about people who come here because they seek to escape bigotry, hatred, violence, or poverty, people who come here with temporary protected status. These people, too, are worthy of our embrace. How we treat the least powerful among us is one measure of the virtue of any society.

We need an immigration system that is smart, compassionate, and fair. Ultimately, creating such a system is the job of Congress. We cannot do it ourselves. However, for those of us who have influence in Congress, we need to use it to advocate for change.

Consider the case of Dreamers or students who do not even qualify for DACA, students who are here without legal status. I suspect every institution represented at this meeting has at least some of these individuals enrolled—students who were brought here by their parents and who have only known life in this country. These students live in a state of suspended animation, never knowing if they will be allowed to contribute their talents to this country. And students ineligible for DACA face additional challenges: no ID means no flying, which means no travel home during breaks unless home is close by. Pursuing paid work or pursuing academic dreams is complex and convoluted in the extreme. This is not speculation on my part. I can tell you that what our country is putting some of our most ambitious young people through is unconscionable.

These students cannot advocate successfully for themselves. They need our help. But what can we do?

We must amplify the stories that exist within our communities, stories of individual students whose prospects are profoundly affected by our politics and our policies. Stories matter. They reveal the true cost of our policies by making them personal and visible.

I think about Jin Park, a DACA student from Harvard. He was the first Dreamer awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, quite a journey for a 7-year-old boy who arrived in the US with “home alone”—the title of the movie he watched on the trip from South Korea—his only English words.

When he received the Rhodes, it was unclear if Jin could accept it. Though our law permitted him to travel to Oxford, he risked not being able to return to this country when his studies concluded. We enlisted our senators and our congressman to gain a special exemption for Jin. Following Oxford, he returned to Cambridge, where he is pursuing his MD in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. He is an outstanding talent. Making life difficult for him—and for others like him—does not advance our national interests; it alienates our national treasures.

But telling stories is not enough. We also must act. In 2019, one of our first-year students, a young Palestinian, was denied entry without explanation when he arrived at the airport in Boston. He was returned to Lebanon on the first available flight without ever getting past Customs. We did everything within our power to get him a new visa so that he could be admitted to the country in time to start the first semester of his college life with his peers. I used his plight to illustrate the disruptions and delays—the scrutiny and suspicion—that were at the time being directed at international students and scholars in the name of national security. This remarkable young man, who traveled a long and difficult path from a refugee camp in Lebanon to Harvard, will graduate in May.

Less than a year after that incident, during the pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sought to require international students to leave the US if their colleges or universities switched to online instruction. It was a cruel and reckless directive that was set to disrupt the lives of more than a million students during a public health crisis. Harvard, together with MIT, led a nationwide effort to see it overturned. We sued and we won. In a little more than a week, the government rescinded the directive, and more than one million international students were spared having to return to their countries in the middle of a pandemic.

And when I say, “we won,” I mean we won—all of us here today. While Harvard and MIT led the charge, we would have failed without the constant and unambiguous support of ACE and many other organizations, and of colleges and universities across the country. To all of you, thank you for being there for us—and for all of our international students.

Most actions are not that conspicuous. I think of the 56 Harvard employees who have become American citizens through our Bridge Program in the past five years. This wonderful program enlists students, staff, and alumni to help individuals learn English, pass the citizenship exam, and raise their sights for their own work and careers.

I suspect many of you have similar programs on your campuses, but if not, this program could be easily replicated and, since most of the work is done by volunteers, it is extraordinarily cost effective.

One of the best speeches given at my inauguration was from a staff member, Calixto Sáenz. Calixto credits the Bridge Program with his successful career at Harvard. He came to the United States from Colombia seeking a better life. Like many hardworking immigrants, he took a low-paying job. He was a cashier at a Harvard Medical School cafe so he could enroll in a UMass Lowell master’s program. The Bridge Program helped him get an internship with the IT help desk. From there, he got a full-time job working in a lab. He moved up the ranks quickly and became the director of our microfluidics core facility, one of the largest labs at Harvard Medical School. We can—and should—implement programs such as this one at our institutions. Together with UMass Lowell, we altered the trajectory of Calixto’s life.

And if you want examples of how to do it best—don’t look to Harvard. Can you believe I said that? I’ll say it again: If you want examples of how to do it best, don’t look to Harvard.

Look to our community colleges and minority serving institutions, and to our colleagues who lead them. Nearly a third of their student populations come from immigrant backgrounds, and many of them are adult learners. What I have just described as noteworthy for Harvard is routine for institutions that are addressing needs that go far beyond the needs of most four-year colleges and universities. In addition to providing a pathway to a degree, they also help clear hurdles to achievement encountered by many adult students. They come in such a variety of forms that enumerating them would take the rest of this lecture.

If there are heroes among us today, they are our colleagues at our community colleges and minority serving institutions who are fulfilling a responsibility to those who have already made it here, to those who want an opportunity to participate in what has always been called the American Dream. These heroes are upholding the values of this country on a day-to-day basis, and they deserve better state and federal support. The rest of us should be advocating on their behalf. We must do more to partner with these institutions and to support their work in ways that they find useful. I believe that is not only possible but also necessary if we hope to meet our collective obligation to this country—and to those who are eager for their chance to contribute to its excellence.

As I like to say, talent is flatly distributed; opportunity is not.

I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from our very own Bob Atwell. “[ACE is] based on persuasion, moral persuasion. But we don’t have authority over anybody. Do we have influence? Yes, I think we do. So we have seen our role to be one of attempting to lead by persuasion, but not anything else.”

Moral persuasion is a very powerful thing. Today, I appeal to your sense of fairness. All of us are in this room because of the generosity and work of those who came before us. We now need to ask ourselves, what are we going to do to ensure that future generations have the same opportunity that we did?

I hope the answer is “everything in our power” because this country needs our help. Our institutions change lives. We need to do everything we can to ensure that the American Dream survives. We should accept nothing less.

Thank you.