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College of William and Mary Charter Day Celebration

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Dinner to Honor 2004-2005 President's Council
Kingsmill Resort
Williamsburg, Virginia

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Good evening. It is an honor to have been invited to participate in the annual Charter Day Celebration of the College of William and Mary, to have received an Honorary Doctorate, and to share the stage with Virginia Governor Timothy Kaine and Virginia Forwood Pate-Wetter, a distinguished broadcasting pioneer.

Indeed, for an institution to thrive for 313 years, is testament to the strength, the vision, and the commitment to higher learning of this institution, its long lineage of leaders, and its generations of distinguished graduates. Likewise it is a testament to the colonial foresight of King William III and Queen Mary II. Now, at 182 years old, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, by comparison, is but a younger sibling.

Nevertheless, I always am fascinated by an intertwining of heritages. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, located in the upper Hudson Valley of New York State, and founded by the Dutch Patroon Stephen Van Rensselaer, derives from the Dutch heritage of our nation, and is the nation's oldest private technological university. The English heritage which begat William and Mary, and the Dutch heritage which begat Rensselaer became inextricably linked especially in New York City and the state's Capitol Region around Albany. The Dutch, at least in New York State, predated the British. Here in Williamsburg, that English heritage and the college it spawned have had major salutary effect on the Commonwealth of Virginia and its citizens, and — through the leaders it has produced — the very history of our country.

Rensselaer had a major impact on the development of our young nation as its graduates, and their discoveries and innovations, spilled forth from the university. As an educator and as the President of Rensselaer, I have a deep interest in the elements which foster discovery and innovation, and how they derive from the roots of a nation.

Let me explain.

In the early 1500s, England was economically depressed, inward-looking, and outstripped by the great maritime empires of Spain and Portugal. Globalization, intellectual life, and business opportunity was fostering enlightenment on the continent. England lagged behind, unable to find a way into the new global endeavors.

In 1548, a few years before Queen Elizabeth ascended the English throne, a young man named John Dee left his home in England, having finished his education at Cambridge, and spent the summer abroad at the University of Louvain — in what is today Belgium. His teacher was Gemma Frisius, a Flemish mathematician and astronomer who showed his students new maps, astonishing in detail, which he had made of newly discovered lands.

During that summer, Dee and another Flemish scholar named Gerhard Kremer, spent long nights together studying these new maps. Kremer was a genuine Renaissance man, a master cartographer who had begun to make a name for himself by creating a map of Palestine, which rendered the Holy Land more accurately than ever before. For his professional work, Kremer used the academic pen name "Mercator."

When he returned to London, John Dee brought with him Mercator's maps, measuring instruments, and globes. His English colleagues found these objects fascinating because they showed a distinct, open channel cutting across the Arctic to the Orient. The strait was named in Latin — with utter confidence — Fretum Trium Fratrum — the Strait of the Three Brothers. These most likely were the Corte Real brothers, Portuguese mariners who explored Newfoundland at the beginning of the 16th century. Seeing this in print convinced British intellectuals and adventurers of its reality. A direct passage to Asia was a sort of Holy Grail, because an alternate passage would provide England with a market for its wool, and free it from the monopoly which the Spanish and Portuguese held in the Southern Hemisphere.

And, who set forth to find that northwest passage? Among the first was Henry Hudson, a captain, who hoped to add an English name to the list of global adventurers which included Columbus, Verrazzano, Cabot, Cartier. Hudson's first two voyages were failures, in that they did not find the fabled northwest passage, although they certainly found where it was not located.

His proposal for a third voyage was turned down by British investors, but supported, in the end by the Dutch, who invested their money and their people in the new land. . . and the rest, as they say. . . is the Dutch history of New York City and the Hudson Valley. Henry Hudson's third voyage was successful, and thus began the British history of New York State.

This could be said to be the first age of globalization — and not unlike that of our own time. It is not the history which intrigues, so much as the story of innovation and what results from this uniquely human endeavor. The convergence of bright, educated young minds from diverse backgrounds, with new ideas, financed by venture capital, and a willingness to risk, led to the discovery and settlement of new lands and eventually to the rise of new cultures, governments, change, and innovation.

Bertrand Russell once wrote that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of Holland in 16th and 17th centuries. The Dutch Republic's progressive, culturally diverse society, of that time, with policies of tolerance, openness, free trade, and a "freedom of speculation" made it the melting pot of Europe, made it a haven for new ideas, discovery, and, yes, innovation.

So, being the President of the nation's oldest private technological research university, I am particularly attuned to the innovative process, that uniquely human creative endeavor from which flows so much human progress, economic development, and societal wellbeing. I am attuned, as well, to the environments which foster innovation.

It, long, has been clear to me that a truly liberal arts education is essential to the process of discovery and innovation. At the dawn of this new millennium, as we embrace a global economy and a growing global community, we must assure that those who would lead understand the totality of the human condition.

The classic defense of, and case for, the liberal arts was made, I am sure you know, by John Henry Cardinal Newman in his treatise: The Idea of a University. The liberally educated person, he maintained, "possesses the knowledge, not only of things, but also their mutual and true relations; knowledge, not merely considered as acquirement, but as philosophy."

For Newman, the single image that governs The Idea of a University is that "all knowledge forms one whole." Liberal knowledge is the end or "idea" of a university and consists in the awareness of the bearing of each on the others by which alone the "whole" can be perceived. This seems to capture the sentiments expressed by your professor Schwartz this morning.

And in this, the College of William and Mary excels. It IS the Idea of the University — its long historical root in the nation, and its modern-day embodiment. You have my heart-felt admiration for all that you do, and my congratulations on this celebration of Charter Day, yet another in a long line of years devoted to excellence in the education of young people.

Thank you for allowing me to be part of it.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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