From the Dean: Bridging the Divide
December 6, 2022
David M. Van Slyke
A photo in our archives shows Maxwell School building designer Dwight James Baum and one of my predecessors, Dean William Mosher, gazing at the statue of George Washington and the Oath of the Athenian City-State.
The black and white image was taken in the foyer just after the building opened in 1937. Though the pair appear contemplative and proud, it’s impossible to know what they were thinking. I can’t help but wonder if they knew that the statue and oath would serve as a beacon of the Maxwell School for decades to come.
Indeed, through the years, the foyer has served as the backdrop of myriad academic conversations, moments of pensive reflection and study, and celebratory photographs by students after graduation ceremonies and Maxwell milestones.
But in recent years, we’ve come to better understand how this centerpiece of our building evokes a range of sentiment among those who pass through. The Washington statue is intended to honor our first president, who led Patriot forces to victory in the Revolutionary War and played a critical role in crafting and adopting the Constitution. Yet, as is taught in our American history courses, he was also a slave owner who sought to assimilate Native Americans to Anglo-American culture. The original version of citizenship inscribed in the Constitution didn't include many Americans.
Just over two years ago, we endeavored on a three-year strategic plan for diversity, equity and inclusion. On page 6, you’ll read about an exhibition that resulted from the ongoing work—titled “A Conversation with George Washington,” that features a collection of portraits of Americans who have fought for inclusion and demanded access to the rights of citizenship. It is one of several recent initiatives designed to build inclusion and widen perspectives through active listening, reflection and action—all central to our mission of cultivating a community of engaged citizens.
As I look back on the past several months, I’m proud of the ways our community has worked to build mutual understanding and bridge the deep political and social divide.
We’ve sharpened our focus on important research with the launch of five new research centers and institutes just in the past three years that are addressing the most pressing issues of our time, such as threats to American democracy.
We’ve brought together a range of faculty from across disciplines to share diverse viewpoints in events that have drawn hundreds of students, alumni and other community members. The Center for Policy Research’s new “What’s at Stake?” series has offered insights on Supreme Court rulings on abortion rights and U.S. climate goals. Chris Faricy, our inaugural Hicker Family Professor in Renewing Democratic Community, organized a series of events aimed at fostering mutual understanding on issues like disability rights, gender and race; his first guest was Syracuse University Men’s Basketball Coach Jim Boeheim ’66 B.A. (Hist)/’73 M.S.Sc. for a discussion on “Basketball, Leadership and Citizenship.” And, in October, we welcomed Congresswoman Liz Cheney for a discussion about her courageous actions in defense of American democracy.
As I said in my introductory remarks during Congresswoman Cheney’s talk: We live in a polarized environment, in which understanding is no longer a North Star by which we seek to engage one another in respectful ways. On the pages that follow, you will read about the many ways we’re combatting this retreat from ideas that disagree with our own and convening conversations aimed at creating space for discussion and understanding.
I can’t help but think back to that 1937 photo in the Maxwell foyer. The Athenian Oath inscribed on the wall behind the Washington statue is a timeless reflection of our enduring mission: “We will transmit this city not only not less, but greater, better and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.”
David M. Van Slyke
Dean, Maxwell School
Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy
Published in the Fall 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective