Posts Tagged ‘knowledge’


On Saturday I had the privilege of delivering the keynote speech to the 2015 Honors Day Convocation of undergraduates at the University of Texas. The students inspired me to think deeply about how educated young people can improve our society. Here are some of the words I delivered to the audience of 4,000 undergraduates, families and faculty:

We are a society of great power and wealth, but we cannot continue to go on as we are today. We are destroying too much as we overspend, overmilitarize and overconsume. The last 25 years have witnessed a remarkable burst in the creativity of our technology and our science, but our political and social thought has not kept pace. As human beings we have stagnated, even fallen behind. Just look at how old and out-of-date our ideas and our policies are. Just listen to how formulaic, useless and offensive our public rhetoric has become. Our technical ingenuity is not matched by the necessary humanistic creativity to move our society forward, and improve our lives — all of our lives.

As our most talented young citizens enter diverse professions, you have a collective choice: Will you maximize the value you can provide for yourself and your family, or will you find a way to do well but also do good? Will you define your success by your paycheck or by the larger purpose of your pursuits? These are not either-or propositions — you can live comfortably and help others — but they pose real choices about priorities. How will you turn your talents and opportunities into human value for others?

These are fundamentally questions of character. This is a word we do not talk enough about. In the past it was sometimes a code word to exclude people who did not come from the “correct” backgrounds. That misuse of the word should not lead us to forget its deeper and more inclusive meaning.

Character is the quality of seeing beyond the immediate to a deeper meaning in human interactions. It is a historical sensibility about past inheritances, present possibilities and future responsibilities. A person of character does not live for herself or for the present, but for a broader set of human purposes. A person of character derives wisdom and judgment from extensive reflection on what really matters, and what really endures for humans as a whole.

Citizens of character avoid simple solutions and slogans; they take on the more difficult and uncertain challenges that determine larger outcomes. They lead by example, they acknowledge their failures and they always strive to make themselves and others better. Citizens of character succeed for reasons beyond their brains and brawn. They display three fundamental qualities that draw others to them.

First, citizens of character display decency toward others. They do not make less talented and privileged people feel inadequate or inferior. They do not take all they can when they know others have so much less. Decency requires humility — a recognition of self-imposed limits on greed, even if society does not always enforce those limits. Decency stands for fair play, not profit maximization. In promoting justice rather than victory, acts of decency replace competitions for accumulation with cooperation to share the bounty.

Second, to gain character one must accept sacrifice. Nothing comes for free, and anything worth having requires giving something else up. Citizens of character do not market their talents for money alone — that is too easy. Citizens of character use their talents to achieve higher goals — that is the hard road that produces positive changes. Sacrifice builds character because it makes citizens strive for what they really value, not the goodies offered to them instead.

Third, and perhaps most important, character requires hope. It is too easy to look at our troubled world in a learned way and lament that things “cannot change.” Resigned to the present, one can feel free to profit from the problems of our day, as many of us do. Character comes from the courage to imagine a better world and believe in it. Character expresses itself not with easy promises and sound bites but real thought about how the world could be better and how we can start to get there. Great leaders of character inspire people to pursue big, realistic dreams.

I have hope because I see the decency in our talented students every day. I have hope because I know our students are ready to sacrifice for big dreams, if only we will encourage them to do so. Too many older and tired citizens are telling our students to think small, focus on their families and get rich. There is nothing wrong with being rich, but wealth does not create character or human fulfillment.

American society was built by great men and women of character, and it is time we recognized that we need another generation of character to take over the reins from those who have displayed a striking absence of character in recent years. Societies renew themselves when talent is combined with decency, sacrifice and hope. We are ready for that long overdue renewal. I see it coming the eyes of my students and the fears of their elders. Character beats fear every time.

This column originally appeared in the Daily Texan, 21 April 2015.


The greatest American victory of the post-1945 era was the victory of American universities. Before the Second World War American universities were mediocre in comparison to their international peers. Take two representative fields of research – atomic physics and political theory. For scholars and students of these fields in the 1930s, universities in Germany, England, France, and other countries had more to offer than their American counterparts. By the 1950s, however, almost no one in these fields would say the same. The United States became a dominant site for research and teaching in physics, political theory, and almost every other field.

The Second World War rocketed American universities ahead of all peers for two simple reasons. First, the immolation of Europe and Asia forced many of the best minds on these continents to flee to the United States. America offered one of the few sites of partial refuge from the storms of hatred, violence, and deprivation. Second, thanks to the war economy, and its postwar reverberations, the United States had more money – much more – to invest in higher education than anyone else. For the fifty years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Americans devoted more capital – public and private – to their universities than their counterparts in any other country. The global knowledge investment gap exceeded even the military investment gap.

After the Second World War American universities became wealthier, larger, and more numerous than anyone could have imagined before. They easily attracted the best faculty and student talent from around the world. They produced more research, graduated more students, and added more value to their society than their foreign peers because they had more of everything. American universities were not most effecient or most strategic; they were, simply, the most capitalized.

In the last decade things have changed drastically. American universities remain wealthy institutions with growing demand for their research and teaching. They remain the respected sources of accreditation for talent and achievement. That said, they no longer are immune to the slowdown in American economic growth. Regardless of how the United States emerges from the recent recession – the most profound economic decline since the Depression – public and private investments in universities will never return to their post-1945 levels. The United States will not have available resources for that previous level of investment, or anything near it, for the foreseeable future.

University leaders, professors, students, and parents need to stop denying this obvious fact. They need to spend less time focusing on short-term efforts to close budget shortfalls that will not go away, and turn their attention to major structural reforms that preserve quality and value in vastly different economic circumstances. To put it another way, universities need to make the hard choices they could avoid in the recent past, when the economics of growth meant they could try to do everything.

Other parts of American society have adjusted – or tried to adjust – in recent years. Those that continued to rely on growth and avoid reforms failed miserably. The American automotive industry is a case in point. Inefficiencies, excess, uneven quality, and poor management allowed once tiny foreign competitors to eat Detroit’s lunch. Why should American universities be immune from the same dynamic? The Economist Magazine asks this jarring question in its September 4 issue: “Will American universities go the way of its car companies?”

There are no easy answers to what American universities should do next, but everyone should agree that they cannot continue to do more of the same. Here are 3 areas of much-needed reform, areas where universities have stubbornly clung to old models despite all the changes around them. Universities should preserve inherited wisdom, but they must think more creatively about adaptation and adjustment…or they will join the Detroit junk heaps:

1. Teaching: Enter a college lecture hall or seminar room today. With the addition of a little new technology, these spaces look as they did 25 years ago. (In many cases, they are exactly the same places, without much renovation, from 25 years ago!) The fundamental assumption remains that education revolves around a given group of students arriving in the same place at the same time to learn from a professor at the front of the room. Is that really the best model for education today? Aren’t there alternatives that might improve quality, access, and reduce cost? Shouldn’t universities do more to experiment with alternatives?

2. Specialization: Anyone who has spent even a little time at an American university knows that scholars do not talk very much to one another about their research. When scholars on the same campus confer, it is usually about administrative matters, discussed in endless committee meetings designed to make everyone feel special. Each professor is the master of his or her own defined specialization. Departments organize curricula around specializations, guarding their own disciplinary prerogatives. For all the talk of interdisciplinarity, the incentives of the American university are in separation, specialization, and uniqueness. Shouldn’t universities do more to emphasize substantive collaboration in research and teaching? Shouldn’t they re-think the structures of authority and the appropriate roles for departments? Shouldn’t universities contemplate new organizational models for research, teaching, and administration?

3. Public mission: American universities generally rely on a very self-centered justification for their mission. They claim they are great and that, by virtue of their greatness, they make everyone who comes through – student and researcher – great as well. Despite all the economic difficulties of recent years, university leaders ask governments, tuition payers, and donors to give ever greater amounts of money to support this asserted greatness. I find this pathetic. Universities need to define and serve a public mission that is much more tangible. In a time when so many Americans are contemplating the things they must now give up, universities must offer a better defense for their value. They need to jettison the empty rhetoric about unfettered inquiry (an unpersuasive myth), and articulate clear ways in which universities will work to improve the world around them. Citizens, faculty, students, and governments must then hold universities accountable to these claims. In a world of constrained resources, there will be no sacred cows. Academics better get used to that.

The future of American universities, like the future of all legacy institutions, is quite uncertain. Universities have been a very privileged part of America’s recent history, and it is plainful for them to adjust to a more demanding environment. After the Second World War prosperity made American universities great, and they furthered that prosperity. Now, in less prosperous times, the challenge is to be better, not bigger. The future of American universities will turn on how well they adjust, experiment, and reform. Victory will not come from following the tried and true tactics.

This blog post initially appeared on

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About Jeremi Suri
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Jeremi Suri holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He is a professor in the University's Department of History and the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. Professor Suri is the author and editor of nine books on contemporary politics and foreign policy. Professor Suri's research and teaching have received numerous prizes. In 2007 Smithsonian Magazine named him one of America's "Top Young Innovators" in the Arts and Sciences. His writings appear widely in blogs and print media. Professor Suri is also a frequent public lecturer and guest on radio and television programs.