Inauguration: Greetings from the Academy

By Maud S. Mandel, President, Williams College

So before beginning my formal remarks, I will say on the many things that Safa has done before coming here, she served on the search committee that brought me to Williams. Good luck!

President Zaki, Bowdoin trustees, faculty, students, administrators and staff, alumni, families and neighbors, and supporters, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today to celebrate Safa Zaki’s installation as your president.

When I became president of Williams, our board chair asked the college not to heavily emphasize the fact of my being a woman. As he put it, “you’re our new president, not our new ‘woman’ president.” And indeed, Safa is your wonderful new president. But, as one first “just-president” to another, I have to say… Yay! We’ve come some way in rethinking who can lead a great college or university.

But, it bears noting, that distance was toward parity. In the two hundred and thirty-year history of our schools—or two hundred and twenty-nine, respectively—two general types of progress are entwined. One involves overcoming barriers, for example, a school choosing its first woman president. By the way, also its first cognitive scientist, and I think the first woman born in Egypt as well, as far as I know. And there are many other ways of being first, and Safa’s covering a lot of them.

And incidentally, speaking of our shared history, I am proud that the "Fanfare for Bowdoin” played at your Bicentennial Convocation in 1993 was written by a Williams faculty member, Robert Suderberg. The bonds of friendship between Williams and Bowdoin run deep. If we could only do something about this hockey thing!

Anyway, if one kind of progress is toward parity, the other looks further ahead. It’s the kind that considers humanity’s rich potential and asks: What’s possible? Where can we go from here? The latter is the kind that I think will make the presidency especially gratifying to someone like Safa. She is an ideal leader for a liberal arts college, an institution which, at its core, is committed to the trans-national—and trans-historical—project of expanding the boundaries of human knowledge.

In preparing to address you today, I read the Bowdoin’s original “Offer of the College” from 1906. In it, President Hyde said the outcomes of a Bowdoin education should include, among other things:

  • “Carrying the keys of the world's library in your pocket.”
  • “Feeling its resources behind you in whatever task you undertake.”
  • “Losing yourself in generous enthusiasms.”


  • “Cooperating with others for common ends.”
What wonderful commitments!

Like you, Safa finds joy—and, for Safa, I do believe this work is joyous—in encouraging students to take their ideas further, and in different directions, than she and they ever imagined. This encouragement of generous enthusiasms distinguishes higher education from almost every other field, except perhaps religion. That’s because education is a spiritual enterprise, as well as an intellectual and developmental one.

Learning pierces the isolation of basic existence. It shows us in our broadest company, as participant in worlds that are social and economic and psychological and aesthetic and physical and ecological—among others. Education is the means by which we reaffirm the existence of the community that we call “humanity.” It’s how we extend our ambition. Our hope and our reach—if not our grasp.

I am an inherent optimist, so I don’t want to dwell on the threats to our project. But they are real: Some come from outside forces that either don’t appreciate education’s power or want to monopolize it. Some come from places very far away from here. Others come from inside. My family and I recently saw a billboard when we were driving that said “don’t believe everything you think.” It was actually advertising a new book’s title, but the phrase really stuck with me and is so apt. Don’t believe everything you think. Education is the work of challenging people to question what they think, as well as what others think. Safa, like her new faculty colleagues here, understands that principle, and will be a great partner to you in your work.

I do want to close with a little bit more of a personal reflection about Safa. I don’t know what it was like to grow up in 1960s Egypt, or what it was like to live as an expat in a new African nation, or to help transform an entire academic discipline, but I do know someone who does. Who is, to quote from "The Offer," “at home in all lands and in all ages.” Her range of life experience and intellectual exploration has helped Safa develop a gift for understanding. It sometimes looks like a lot of empathy. And she is highly empathetic. But it’s actually, truly, the expression of a generous intellect. One that’s not constrained by customary boundaries. Education is about seeking a deeper humanity, and Safa is a humane educator. She will be an equally humane president.

So, as Bowdoin pushes forward in that intergenerational, international, cross-historical, and intercultural project of expanding human knowledge, I know she will set a standard for the appreciation of others’ work. Even while remaining open to the criticism of her own work that just comes with the job! Her sights will never stray from our goal of teaching students the joys of generous enthusiasms, and of cooperation for the common good.

Thank you, and congratulations on your superb choice as president.