Messages from the Dean

Dean Dominic Brewer's 2015 Graduation Address

Distinguished Guests, Faculty of the Steinhardt School, Parents, Family Members, Friends, Alumni, and Graduating Students, as dean of the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, I welcome you all to our 2015 Graduation Ceremony.

Congratulations Class of 2015!

Graduates, we are here to celebrate you!

Today we welcome you today into a community of scholars.  You have earned your place here through your hard work, perseverance, original research, artistic creation, and scholarship.

We offer a special thanks to those long-suffering parents who opened up their hearts and their wallets to support you.  Thank you also to all the spouses, partners, family members, and friends who have supported our graduates.

Finally, let’s acknowledge one other group of amazing people, central to your time here – the Steinhardt faculty.  Let’s give them a round of applause.

* * *

I’m particularly happy to be here today as this graduation ceremony marks the completion of my first academic year as dean of the Steinhardt School.

It's been quite a year for Steinhardt.

Two Music Business Alumni won a Grammy for their song, “Say Something.”

One of our film scoring alums won an Emmy for his work on a Nickelodeon TV series.

Steinhardt Alumna Ruthie Ann Miles was nominated for a Tony Award.

And Julia Wolfe, our Assistant Professor of Music, just won a Pulitzer Prize for her composition, Anthracite Fields.

So, in one year: a Grammy, an Emmy, a Tony nomination, and a Pulitzer Prize!

Next year let’s try for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a People’s Choice… maybe even a Nobel!

Graduates, we’re counting on you to raise the bar higher.

* * *

Graduation is always very touching event for me. Too often we are judged by our appearance and our accent, and in my case, strangers often assume that I grew up in privilege -- probably somewhere like Downton Abbey.

In fact, my father recently traced our heritage back to the 14th Century, and we are family of farm laborers and servants. My grandfather was a milkman. He left school at 13 because he had nine brothers and sisters whom he had to help support. He got up every day at three a.m., worked six days a week, and at the end of that week collected his pay in cash in a little brown envelope. He lived in public housing all of his life. My father was the first in our famiy to ever go to college. 

The critical factor that has improved the standard of living for my family is education.

So earning a degree has a very personal meaning for me and is something I never take for granted. 

* * *

Education is about the gift of opportunity and creating a better world.  That’s what we’ve been offering at Steinhardt for 125 years.

We were founded on March 3, 1890, as the First School of Pedagogy in the nation.  Our goal was to raise the “art of teaching to the same dignified plane as the professions of law and medicine.”

We were born into a New York City that was very different from the city we know today.

It was a world where basketball had not yet been invented and movies didn’t exist. You got around New York City by cable car or elevated train. Public sanitation was in its infancy -- people just threw garbage out their windows.  The Brooklyn Bridge was seven years old; the Statue of Liberty was just four.

The 1890s were a time of great optimism and invention.  People were excited about the typewriter, the light bulb, the telephone, the phonograph, and the bicycle.

In 1890, the book people were talking about was Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives, which documented the poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

On a spring day in 1890, a group of men and women assembled in the chapel at New York University to discuss a newly created School of Pedagogy, to give it a “distinctive character;” a mission.

The New York Times tells us a city principal named O’Brien took to the podium and predicted that the School of Pedagogy -- our Steinhardt School – would be a school that would not be able to “escape from the most important questions of the day.”  He said that it would be a school that “would offer input into the reformation of the present educational system,” and that, “everything which affected the pupil in social, moral, or physical aspects would come within the purview of the school.”

These are words that describe the ambitious work we have done for the past 125 years.

We would become a school that would respond to the issues of the day by broadening our focus. 

In 1890, when women didn’t even have the right to vote, we admitted women to our school as students and recruited women to our faculty.  

When the nation’s World War I veterans needed rehabilitation, we created a degree program in physical therapy.

In 1929, when future civil rights activist Dorothy Height had been rejected by Barnard College because it had exceeded its “two black student per year” quota, we admitted her.

During the second World War, we offered special training programs for our students, even as we lost many of them to the war.

When Jim Crow Laws prevented 140 African-American teachers from being educated in their southern home states, we created a special program for them to earn graduate degrees during summers and weekends at NYU.

During our 125-year history we have been mindful of “how the other half lives,” at home and around the world, and we continue to strive to expand opportunity.

* * *

To our 19th century forbears, the world we live in would probably seem like pure science fiction. 

We are in the midst of a new technological revolution that has influenced every facet of our lives. Technology has transformed the food we eat, the medicine we take; how we spend our leisure time.  It has given us a way to watch TV all the time; connect with each other over land, sea, and air. It has expanded our global-reach, helped build democracies, brought the music we love to our fingertips, and changed communication forever. 

We’ve seen enormous changes in our lifetimes and there is much more innovation on the way. The future will bring you opportunities to do things that you've never dreamed of. 

As a student graduating at one of the most coveted institutions in the world, you have an extraordinary set of tools to work with, and you also have a great responsibility to put those tools to good use.

Cherish the diploma you have earned today; it will open doors and transform your life.

And wherever life takes you, remember, you are a piece of our history.  You are the pride of the men and women who came together in 1890 to create our school.  They broke new ground and you will too.

Congratulations and take on the world.