In praise of the research university

Remarks at the Brandeis commencement, May 1996 School of Science ceremonies

I have been an undergraduate, graduate student, postdoctoral fellow, and faculty member at several universities both in the United States and in Europe. During that time, I've sat through more than my share of commencement speeches. Academic addresses can be longwinded, pompous and boring, and when they were, I would fidget in my seat, doodle in programs, read stuff I'd sneaked in under my gown, dream of standing up and yelling vile oaths, and, more often than not, fantasize about giving an equally stultifying address of my own.

But before I do, I would like to congratulate and give my best wishes to the class of 1996. You may not realize it, but you did the most difficult, challenging, and honest work of anyone in the university. Really. You learned new things, and made your brains work in new ways. Not everyone at the university is so nobly and gainfully employed.

You memorized and learned how to use dozens of complex reactions in organic chemistry---I have nostalgic memories of my freshman roommate, now a physics professor at Columbia, composing obscene doggerels to commit these reactions to memory. You learned about programming algorithms using recursively defined procedures---first you curse, and then you recurse. You learned how to do mathematical proofs, and how to multiply matrices and compute cross products.

Or you didn't learn all these things. Well, you students didn't venture out into this risky unknown, fraught with the danger of showing how ignorant you were precisely when everybody was watching, just out of youth and curiosity. You have to---we make you---otherwise you can't graduate.

This brings me to the first serious thing I want to say today. What do undergraduates get out of the research university? Among many things, you get to be taught by faculty who, in principle, are doing the same thing that you are doing. How can a faculty member ask an undergraduate to take the risk in learning new things without doing so himself? And since students sometimes fail to learn, faculty have to be willing to run the risk of their own similar failure.

Unfortunately, there are many reasons why faculty do not do research, even at a research university. It is not easy to find something new to do---saying something new about Shakespeare takes ingenuity and nerve. There are personal demands on time and energy---a spouse, children---that may not have existed earlier in one's career. There is the politics of the job---hustling grant proposals, editorial and committee work, and the like. There are impediments of turf: like gang warfare, research areas are staked out by colleagues whose wrath you risk inciting upon entering their territory, as you challenge their prominence and threaten their grant support. There are tenured faculty who lose interest in the work, but not in the perquisites, and a university job becomes a prestigious backdrop or financial foundation for other ambitions. There is the seduction of teaching. There is burnout: we are not all, to paraphrase Newton, in the prime of our age for invention.

Finally, there is the risk of failure: if you set your sights on something really difficult, you run the risk of screwing up and looking dumb. It is unprofessional, it is shameful, and it hurts: professors are not supposed to look dumb. The anxiety is justifiable. In graduate school, I once cleaned my kitchen floor with a toothbrush rather than face up to my dissertation research. Yet the risk of looking dumb is exactly the risk we ask students to take.

Not that all research is scary, and like a good portfolio manager, you learn to control risk. A balance needs to be struck between barely incremental re-search for things that you, or someone else, already found, and the maddening vertigo of trying something so new that you haven't the foggiest idea what to do. But a research life---and an academic life---without risk is not worth the effort, and our language abounds with sayings to that effect: a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?

As a professor, if you are going to talk the talk, you have got to walk the walk. Research is just like taking classes, except you make up the syllabus yourself, and the answers to even numbered problems aren't in the back of the book. As a teacher, one of my responsibilities is to make students realize that their frustration over not understanding and sometimes failing is our jointly suffered occupational hazard. Furthermore, in confronting this frustration, these students confront the limits of the potential and creativity that define them as educated men and women. This, for me, was the moral of Peter Shaffer's Amadeus: for those of us who bear a greater resemblance to Salieri, what can you do with your life that is worthwhile if you are not Mozart?

Teachers who actively participate in research careers have a responsibility to communicate the real excitement of intellectual creation and the birth of new ideas. Some people at this university think that we would be better off as a college, without a research function. Arguments have been made---in the Brandeis Review, even---that there isn't any interesting or significant research left to be done, but only to throw mud, flowers, or weeds in the crevices of the walls of knowledge. To paraphrase the Sanskritist Richard Gombrich, rarely---mercifully rarely---must I respond to opinions so profoundly orthogonal to my own that truth cannot be reconciled with charity or honesty with politeness. People who don't believe in the research enterprise ought to visit the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where there is an exhibit of early man-made flints. Apparently, the flint makers from 60,000 years ago knew almost everything there was to know about sharpness, because 30,000 years later, the flints were only a little sharper! To live a university life as if, similarly, everything of significance has already been thought of, strikes me as---well, Neanderthal.

The walls of ignorance still dwarf the walls of knowledge: where else but at a university will they get a reasoned assault? Not all aspects of the assault are monumental and fascinating: a rock climber learns to put one hand in front of another, and so should a researcher. Faculty who so retreat from the research enterprise, whether out of the fear of commitment or the fear of rejection that is inherent in failure, make me recall a bachelor friend of my father's, who used to joke that he remained single because the only woman he ever loved married someone else---the woman in question turned out to be Princess Grace of Monaco.

Classroom dissemination of an artificial or virtual conception of research by those who don't do it, rather than the real thing founded on individual experience, reminds me---to speak personally---of the difference between artificial insemination and insemination: one of them is profoundly unsatisfying. Undergraduates too often forget that knowledge is not a bunch of equations and dates and who invaded where when, but rather the consequences of real people and real passions. (Go see the new movie version of Richard III if you want to know what I mean.) As a teacher of theoretical computer science, for example, I want students to realize that the theorems they study are not only interesting, and occasionally fun, but also the results of real people who sweated over the ideas as much as they sweated over their first date.

The romantic and even sexual allusions I have made are deliberate, because I think research is like that. In the complete commitment to solving a research problem, there is a binding of the heart and soul that is not unlike an infatuation. As I have asked myself in these moments, am I five minutes away from the solution, or five weeks, or five years, or never? Is it not unlike the desperate lover on a date who can only think, are we going to kiss tonight? And to find the sublime answer to our desire!---a mental connection, a union with our other creative and spiritual half. An undergraduate I advised said it well in a fellowship essay: ``Money and power are ephemeral, as you can gain them and lose them, but when you prove a theorem, it is yours forever.''

Now if research is indeed the pursuit of true love, why would anyone want to teach? Let me mention one reason that is most relevant to the pursuit of research. In any research enterprise, you want to develop analytic tools and techniques that get to the heart of the matter, and shuck off the irrelevant and the merely technical---even the Neanderthals knew that success depended on having the sharpest tools available. In this spirit, the famous Hungarian mathematican Paul Erdos has spoken of a divine book of knowledge that records the most perfect, revealing, elegant proof of every theorem, and suggested that the challenge to every mathematician is to find out what is in that book. Part of my job is to teach that elegance of thought.

In the introduction to the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics, its editors emphasize the sheer challenge Richard Feynman enjoyed in reformulating complex ideas of physics so that they could be presented to students---the standard by which he measured whether something was really understood. They wrote:

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, ``I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it.'' But a few days later he returned and said, ``You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it.''

Anyone who thinks that excellence in teaching and excellence in research are mutually exclusive is wrong. If the challenge to do both well is indeed a Gordian knot, remember how Alexander the Great resolved the difficulty---sharp tools.

I have tried to describe an ideal synergy between teaching and research, but I haven't described how it impacts the personal relationship between student and teacher. This is the last subject I'd like to comment on today. When I told my Ph.D. advisor that I aspired to be friends with my students, he told me that they would be better off with a dog. At the time, I found his comment to be antisocial and misanthropic. Twelve years later, I think I understand better.

Because we are all people, it is inevitable that a human fraternity can grow between faculty and students. But you cannot be friends with your teachers any more than you can be friends with your parents. I once heard a project presentation by a Brandeis undergraduate who concluded with an acknowledgement to his faculty mentor---we don't say ``faculty patron'' because patronage sounds political and bad, while mentoring sounds nurturing and good. The student said, ``Professor S. was my friend.'' I could barely keep myself from shouting, ``well, then, if he's your friend, why don't you call him Bob, or Chuck, or Dave?'' Since when do we call our friends ``Professor''? Remember that the organization of a modern university is medieval, right down to the academic regalia worn at commencement. It is hierarchical, with its own version of serfs, knights, barons, and kings. Friendship does not transcend that hierarchy easily.

You do not get grades or letters of recommendation from friends, nor do you pay close to $30,000 a year to spend time with them---for that kind of money, you could buy a Mazda Miata, take a wonderful vacation, throw a great party for your friends, and still have a fair pocket of change left over.

Going to college may serve all sorts of social functions that, in my mind, have nothing to do with its real goal. It may be a great socializing experience---some years ago, a colleague tried to convince me that the point of college is, most importantly, to get away from home and have ``relationships.'' (Unsocialized as I am, I responded that I thought it was about problem sets.) In moments of despair, I've worried that college is a modern-day form of papal indulgence or bourgeois nobility for sale, where you pay a small fortune to advance in society and escape its hell. Or that it's a kind of intellectual olestra---that new cooking oil with no calories---which makes you feel like you're learning effortlessly, and only later do you find how it has depleted your opportunity.

But I truly believe that college is none of these things---college isn't summer camp, Disney, or MTV. It's work---how else are we going to make anything of ourselves? That's why the faculty, and teaching assistants, and labs, and libraries---and equally important, the absence of most all other responsibilities---are there. A professor I had in graduate school once told me, in a personal aphorism, how to do research: find a comfortable chair, a nice pen, inviting paper, a quiet room---now, he said, think real hard. The university provided you with that quiet room---metaphorically speaking, so forget about the loud stereo next door---where you could do your own very hard thinking. In years ahead, when your kids are yapping at you, or your boss is breathing down your neck, or your company is ``restructuring,'' or your Ph.D. advisor has you chained to a project that helps build his pyramid, but doesn't do much for your learning experience, that quiet room will be a lot harder to find.

The relationship between professor and student exists, above all, to do the hard work that we celebrate at Commencement. To replace the difficult and often frustrating labor of learning with merely a personal relationship does a great disservice to both parties. A friend of mine, who is a physician, once said that the first responsibility of a doctor is to love your patients. The first responsibility of a professor is to love your students, but that love is not manifested in hugs, or bull sessions, or lunches at the faculty club, or false senses of intellectual success. It's manifested in the clear demonstration of what is known, and in the inspiration to confront the unknown.

Because I love jokes, I will conclude with one that is very appropriate for today's celebration. A young college graduate is filling out a job application. When asked to list his strengths, he writes, ``I am a hard worker, I am mature, I pick up new things easily, I am self-motivated, I like working with others, I am a good listener, I accept criticism, ...'' and so on and so forth. When asked to list his weaknesses, he only writes, ``Well, sometimes I am not all of those things.'' During your undergraduate years at Brandeis, I hope you got to confront those limits to your abilities. I hope you got to find out that you were ``not all of those things.'' It's inevitable, it's part of being human. How you learn to deal with that inevitability will tell what kind of person you become. Thank you, and congratulations again to all of you.