Images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath remind us of primeval horrors and bad movies. As we try to digest the human suffering, the destruction, the horrible actions and the horrible inaction in the wake of the flooding, we wade through competing texts and slogans.
We are told that people refused to evacuate because they thwart authority, or because they are lazy; or because they are so poor they can’t leave, or so distrustful of their neighbors that they dare not depart in case their possessions are ravaged. A columnist in the Toronto Globe and Mail blames the chaos on American "individualism." An American journalist says, "The welfare state explains the moral ugliness that has swamped New Orleans."
Some say that relief didn’t arrive in time because of uncaring whites or Republicans; or because the local governments and the state governments are recalcitrant or incompetent; or more prosaically, because relief operations anywhere, on this massive scale, take a week to materialize.
Inundated with these explanations and pseudo-explanations, we ask ourselves, "What does all this mean?"
We also ask, "What can we do?" Many of us are giving to charities. A few people are taking quick Red Cross classes and temporarily leaving their jobs and universities for weeks just to do something.
What can we do as a university? We are extending our hands to other universities, welcoming their students and professors as visitors. Two students have accepted our invitation and are enrolling this week, tuition-free. Michael Kogan, from Tulane University, is taking classes at our Peter Drucker-Masatoshi Ito School of Management. Marla Edinburgh attends the University of New Orleans’ MFA program. She is taking art classes here and staying rent-free in the guest house of a generous Claremont citizen.
On Monday the 19th, we are sponsoring a blood drive. Please roll up your sleeves and give life.
Needed: Intellectual Contributions
We also have our brains to offer. Our minds are inquiring minds, restless minds; as researchers, it is our nature not to be content with recitations of texts and slogans. We are not happy to categorize and then forget.
Across our eight graduate schools and many disciplines we have this in common: we are earnest in our efforts to derive and create meaning from evidence. And in our various ways, we are all eager to put our knowledge to good use.
So, we want to understand why this disaster happened, what can be done now and in the future to deal with disasters, and how to make meaning from these events and their aftermaths.
For this kind of understanding, what kind of skills does one need?
All our disciplines have contributions to make. Mathematicians create models of how to drain the water from New Orleans, and how long it will take. Management experts and political economists study the optimal integration of local, state, and national governments. Psychologists contribute to the understanding and relief of trauma.
Educators ponder the nitty-gritty of so many new and shocked students in already-crowded schools. Specialists in information systems examine how the Internet and GPS systems can help people find each other, locate needed services, and examine the condition of their homes from satellite photos.
Humanists tackle even deeper problems. Art and literature can help us, and perhaps them, capture our feelings, sublimate them or harness them, bring them into focus or combine them in collage.
What do terms like "solidarity" and "respect" and "gratitude" mean, in societies like ours, in communities like these, in disasters and their aftermath? A time of dehumanization is often accompanied by enhanced humanity. In his book Hiroshima, John Hersey let survivors testify how the citizens of Hiroshima pulled together, how social barriers dissolved in the task of recovery. Similar reports are already coming in from Biloxi and Baton Rouge. What should we make of an uplifting of the human spirit just as lives are being broken? Is it as a confirmation of the emptiness of our normal stratifications and materialism and mindlessness? What might be the roles of theology and of churches and temples in the wake of crises?
And so there is room—not only room, but a need—for the contributions of thinkers from many disciplines. Some of the valued contributions will be critiques, if only in deconstructing the shallow slogans and simple texts. But more important contributions will be constructive, in the sense that they help to create new meaning and help to improve action.
And many of the contributions will be transdisciplinary, and these are the ones I want to emphasize here. They will help us, and we hope them, to combine theology and economics, art and relief, education and psychology, management and the search for meaning. This mixing requires a temperament that characterizes our University: a temperament that is civil and respectful, and one that trespasses the usual academic boundaries.
This university has helped coin the term "transdisciplinary." Kozmetsky Professor Wendy Martin leads the transdisciplinary courses required of all Ph.D. students here.
Other terms may be used. I like to talk about intellectual trespassing. Clifford Geertz speaks of "blurred genres." Twenty years ago, in an essay with that title, Geertz described an important trend. Disciplines were blending in new ways. Tools and approaches ranging from game theory to statistics to textual analysis were migrating and finding surprising new disciplinary homes. The trend continues. Within disciplines, one sees exciting contributions made by those willing to trespass and return. Think of neuroeconomics à la Professor Paul Zak, of hybrids of history and literature à la Professors Lori Anne Ferrell and Marc Redfield, of politics and economics à la Dean Yi Feng and his colleagues, of blends of religion and sociology as created by so many of our faculty in the School of Religion, of psychology mixed with almost everything.
For reasons we value inside the academy, in the coin of our disciplinary realms, intellectual trespassing pays dividends.
And when it comes to problems out there—disasters like the hurricane, or the devastation of Sudan, or the war in Iraq, as well as everyday problems of underperforming students, despairing elders, stupefaction through legal or illegal substances, or rashes of suburbia spreading into the horizon—no one discipline can do it alone, whether the "it" be to make meaning of the problems or to devise improvements.
And so our Claremont temperament of disciplinary trespassing is not simply rebellious, not simply intellectually promiscuous, and certainly not amateur. We trespass because many of our disciplinary quandaries demand it and reward it, and because all of the problems out there, outside our academy, do not respect disciplinary boundaries.
Trespassing Across Disciplines
The trespassing across disciplines is sometimes led by our students. For example, Derik Casper and some friends have launched a peer-reviewed journal Rhetorical Topographies.
Professor Anselm Min’s current project is to develop a systematic theology for our age of globalization. "What are the consequences for dignity and solidarity of the great economic changes in our world?" he asks. "I think an economist has to be more than an economist, and a theologian has to be more than a theologian. We desperately need an interdisciplinary approach."
Another example of transdisciplinarity is the work of Professor Vincent Wimbush, also from the School of Religion.
Trespassing Other Academic Boundaries
We trespass other academic boundaries at this University. The Drucker School crosses the categories of public, private, and nonprofit. Dean Kees de Kluyver notes, "Unlike our competitors who focus mainly on the private sector, our School believes management education is enhanced by exposing students to issues in the private sector, non-profit organizations, and the government."
Many CGU professors and students trespass the academic distinction between theory and practice. A notable example is the internationally recognized Engineering and Industrial Applied Mathematics Clinic. Prof. Ellis Cumberbatch of the School of Mathematical Sciences and others mobilize students and faculty to tackle problems ranging from the "Simulation of Population Redistribution" through "Analytic Formulae for Nanoscale Semi-Conductor Devices." And these problems sometimes entail the development of new mathematical tools.
Consider the scholarly and practical works of Professor Gail Thompson of the School of Educational Studies. She speaks to her fellow researchers; and unusually and spectacularly, she also speaks to the victims of the social problems she studies. One of her current writing projects is a book to help African-American parents and children negotiate the often hostile institutions of education and law.
Professor Gondy Leroy of the School of Information Systems and Technology is looking into how different ways of presenting health information on the Internet may lead to benefits both for academic understanding and for the health of disadvantaged communities.
Professor Richard Ellsworth of the Drucker School notes the beneficial feedback to his research from teaching seasoned executives. His prize-winning book Leading with Purpose was tested in his seminars. "The learning in these classes is for instructors as well as participants," he says. Involving practitioners honed his theories.
I’m pleased that so much research at Claremont trespasses the usual academic boundary separating description and action. Too many social scientists feel that it is enough to describe a problem or categorize it. When asked what should be done about the problem, a sad, standard answer is, "That’s not my task as a scholar." But consider Professor William Crano of the School of Behavioral and Organizational Sciences. He is a leading theorist of how a few people can influence the behavior of many. He has put the theory into practice with regard to HIV/AIDS and to drug abuse. Beyond describing, say, why some adolescents do and don’t take drugs—and beyond evaluating federal programs to persuade them not to—Bill has been creating advertisements for sixth and seventh graders. The theme "Parents, the Anti-Drug" came out of work by Bill and his colleagues.
Another example of Claremont trespassing is across artistic genres. In July my wife Elaine and I had the pleasure of witnessing a performance of Professor Peter Boyer’s "Ellis Island" at the Pacific Symphony. This work combines the genres of music, text, and image to convey the experience of arriving at, and departing from, Ellis Island. The immigrants’ suffering and hopes are powerfully portrayed. The audience laughed at some moments, cried at others; and at the end, eight thousand people roared a standing ovation. After the concert, it took Peter an hour to arrive at the reception, as he was out front signing CDs of "Ellis Island" for throngs of new admirers.
Art itself can productively combine the act of artistic creation with the world out there. Listen to critic Doug Harvey describing the paintings of Professor David Amico of the School of Arts and Humanities:
How can an artist hope to affect the world? Where many of his contemporaries have insisted on strict categorization and separation of the objective world and the subjective artist, Amico conjoins this dualism with the unfashionable inverse: the world as the artist’s subject… The result is artwork that is unusually alive, that feeds information to the viewer in a flickering, almost cybernetic light, extending an invitation to the observer to partake in the continuity between the world, the artist, and his art.
Conversations that Cross the Lines
Speaking of immigrants, today our nation is perhaps less than enthusiastic about welcoming "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses." In the remarkable new phenomenon of the Minutemen, citizens are taking up border-patrol tasks they think the government is neglecting. Counter-Minutemen groups have formed, on behalf of the immigrants. In this highly charged context, the new transdisciplinary research led by Prof. Lourdes Arguelles can make a strategic contribution.
Notice that Lourdes points out that research can inspire essential conversations. It is through the sharing of stories and the building of relationships that she and her colleagues might help meaning be made—and help forge improvements in the world. Two of the students helping with this research, Tessa Hicks and JeanMarie Boone, elaborate.
On our DesCombes Gate is a quote from the first president of what is now Claremont Graduate University, James Blaisdell. "The center of a college is in great conversation," he said in 1920, "and out of the talk of college life springs everything else." You are probably familiar with this wonderful, somewhat surprising statement. But later in Blaisdell’s talk he cites another reason: "I covet for you and the college that fruitage from high conversation which is the power of public speech." The great conversation does not end with us. It is to bear fruit in our testimony and our action in public, beyond the academy.
In these conversations, our Claremont custom is to trespass many of the usual academic boundaries. Our temperament is unwilling to be confined to disciplinary quarters.
A question for me, and also for you, is "How can we empower our trespassers?"
One way is educational. CGU offers a unique set of transdisciplinary courses, to meet a new requirement for all Ph.D. students. Together we will be experimenting with these courses, finding better and better ways to connect them with advances in the disciplines and contributions in the outside world.
Another way is financial. We need to galvanize our programs of research, ranging from the humanities to mathematics. We should develop more large, landmark research endeavors that capture the imagination and mobilize the best minds at CGU, at the Claremont Colleges, and around the country.
We also need to enhance support for students. The best Ph.D. programs in America provide tuition relief plus stipends running to $20,000 per year, often in exchange for work as teaching- or research assistants. Currently, we cannot provide such support. Yes, we can attract some of the very best graduate students through our mystique and our wonderful location. But financial support also matters. And so today I’m pleased to announce the creation of the Claremont National Scholarships.
This new program will provide tuition plus a $20,000 annual stipend to new students who have achieved at the summa cum laude level or thereabouts—and who have already trespassed across the disciplines. The Claremont National Scholars may be accomplished mathematicians who have ranged into psychology, or humanists who have examined how organizations should work, or economists who have trespassed into the arts. We will be writing to Deans and department heads around the country, asking them for nominations.
To kick off this program, my wife Elaine and I are donating $10,000. And I will transfer the $90,000 of university funds earmarked for my inauguration into the Claremont National Scholarships. (We’ll combine a modest inauguration ceremony with Commencement exercises.) That gives us $100,000 to get started. Our Trustees are helping us generate additional resources to bring this idea to fruition.
Third, and more prosaically, we need to organize ourselves to enhance what professors and students want to do. We need to provide the best incentives and information across programs and schools, and indeed across the Claremont University Consortium.
All of us here who play supporting roles for our professors and students—supporting roles ranging from building and grounds to the president—are facilitators of the Claremont mystique. We are here not to give orders or set boundaries, but to enable and encourage intellectual trespassing.
Disasters and their aftermaths reveal much. They uncover our social sicknesses of poverty, racism, and stratification. They display our character: the character of victims, of help-givers, of leaders, and of the rest of us as well. Crises make unavoidable our need for meaning, as well as our need to help.
Crises like Hurricane Katrina also remind us why what we do distinctively well at this University is so important. Our world needs more of those Claremont conversations, in here and out there, across disciplines and cultures. Our problems require research that trespasses across the disciplines and across the boundaries of theory and practice—research that expands our knowledge and helps to make our world a better place.
That’s why I am so proud to be your colleague at Claremont Graduate University, and why I’m so excited about the months and years ahead.