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:: By President Don M. Randel

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In Every Issue ::

From the President: What’s new and what’s enduring

Departing President Don Michael Randel on the thrill of the new and the will to stay true to Chicago values.

A favorite old tune from my repertory as a cocktail-lounge pianist is “What’s New?” Creating answers to that question seems to motivate a great deal of activity both inside the academy and out. In many disciplines, indeed, novelty would appear to be the essential value. The answer to the question at the University of Chicago on any given day, therefore, is likely to be quite long and to defy any very full account on this page.

The biggest headline the last week in April concerned the opening and dedication of the Ellen and Melvin Gordon Center for Integrative Science. This is the biggest capital project the University has ever undertaken. Like other major capital projects, its importance lies not just in its size and cost but principally in the power of the ideas that motivated it.

This building was conceived from the start for creating the new science of the 21st century—a science that overwhelms the boundaries between the traditional scientific disciplines. This is a science in which biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science draw on one another and merge to become indistinguishable. From this merger will come the most powerful new insights into the physical nature of life, enabling assaults on disease of all kinds. And it will enable an understanding of the nature of materials and their manipulation to form new materials at the atomic level.

The new building is optimized for the new science. But that is because this University, by its nature, is and always has been optimized for the new science. Every university today brags about its interdisciplinarity. At the University of Chicago, the statement is really true and has been for a long time. It is a feature of our research and teaching in every aspect of inquiry. We have always followed good ideas wherever they go.

But not everything is or ought to be new in the conventional sense. The truly big and important news on the campus, day in and day out, ought to be that thousands of people, both young and not so young, had their minds stretched, often by ideas that have been around for a long time. That is why we continue to read certain books that have been around for a long time. That is why we continue to treasure certain works of art that have been around for a long time.

William Carlos Williams writes of this undertaking in the following way:

It is difficult
To get the news from poems
Yet men die miserably every day
For lack
Of what is found there.

His poem should remind us daily that the news is not all there is to life—that some of the things that make life most worth living are in fact not news and that thinking about those things and experiencing them through poetry or music or art makes both life and death a good deal less miserable that they would otherwise be.

Of course we will always pursue “what’s new.” Our passionate curiosity about ev--ery-thing in life compels it. But history also has us in its grip, and remarkably bad news can be made “for lack of what is found there.” Poems, though, really do have the power to examine and engage life, even when there is no news in them at all. We must always make space for poetry and her sisters.

When presidents depart, the word legacy is sometimes used. It is too grand a word by far in most cases. I want this, my last contribution of this kind to the Magazine, to end with the reminder to us all that the University that we know and love is the legacy of many who have come before us and that the heart of that legacy is a set of widely and deeply held values among us. The University of Chicago actually stands for something, unlike the great majority. Each of us has the responsibility to sustain that legacy in whatever way we can. It entails the continuing pursuit of the best ideas that humankind has ever produced or is likely to produce. It will mean creating what’s new while continuing to cultivate the best of what’s not really new at all. There is no greater thrill than to be part of such undertakings alongside others with the same passions. I shall treasure that Chicago thrill always.