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Drexel University Convocation Keynote Address

Academia’s Role: Reveal truth through research and study and disseminate knowledge to benefit society

Posted on September 22, 2017

Given at the Daskalakis Athletic Center on September 20, 2017.

When people ask me what I do, I am often not sure what to answer.

Many years ago, when I was a pediatrician, answering was easy. Everyone knows what a pediatrician does, and the conversation would immediately transition to questions about sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, or grandchildren. Questions like “my nephew is always sick, but his doctor always says it is just a virus, and never prescribes anything why is that? Can you prescribe something for him?” or “it must be so hard seeing sick children all the time, how do you do it? “ 

As a pediatrician, I loved the immediacy of the work we did: many times, we could fix things or at least provide comfort, a sense of security, and containment (even if most of the time we as young pediatricians were very unsure and not so contained ourselves…). But as a pediatrician over time I also became frustrated. It was obvious that on many things, on the real drivers of the health of the children I saw day after day in the barrios of Buenos Aires, medicine had virtually no impact.  We saw it every day: the social world embodied in children affecting how they grew and developed, when and how they sickened, and whether and how they recovered, shaping their lives long into the future.

When I was a pediatric resident, almost by chance through book lent to me by a friend, I discovered public health. Public health opened up for me a world of possibilities. The field brought together medicine, sociology, economics, statistics, and anthropology: it was intellectually exciting and a perfect blend of science and advocacy: I was hooked. I became an epidemiologist. You can imagine how that affected conversations I had about what I did… Now I got questions like: “is public health like public housing?” or “oh epidemiology, what kind of skin diseases do you focus on? “

It was through public health that I discovered academia. It drew me in, first because of the sheer intellectual thrill of it, the debate, the questioning, but also because of the students, because of their enthusiasm and idealism. And imperceptibly I somehow drifted into administration seduced by problem solving and working with people, and excited by “the vision thing”. 

Today I am an administrator, a researcher and a teacher at a University. In our roles as administrators, faculty, staff and graduate students all of us here today are part of the university community. How do we explain what we do to cab drivers, at a cocktail party, and most importantly to people we sit next to on the bus (because that is the real test)? What is it exactly that we do at a university?

We are privileged in so many ways to have the jobs that we do, what do we do in exchange for this? What is our responsibility to society? What is fundamentally our mission as a university? 

These questions are of special relevance today in light of the many challenges we face in the United States and all over the world. Big challenges related to the future of our planet, the health and well-being of future generations, and the pursuit of fairness, justice and fulfilled lives for all today, here in West Philadelphia, but also in the rapidly growing cities of Africa and Asia, in the favelas of Brazil, in suburbs and small towns in the Midwest, in rural villages in India, and all over the world. All different and yet all similar in so many ways, and all interconnected. Big challenges also resulting from the recent questioning of the value of scientific knowledge and of all intellectual endeavors.

What should we as academics focus on in times of big challenges and uncertainty? What is the role of the University in these times? I was recently asked this question in the context of an interview about the future of academic public health.

The first thing that came to my mind is that our main role as a University is to continue our work to reveal the truth, to reveal the truth through precise description and the most rigorous research possible. In the case of public health, it is the truth about what drives population health, ranging from biologic and genetic factors all the way to broad social and economic factors. But it can also be the truth about what causes fabrics to be water repellent, the truth about how genes are turned on and off in cells, or the truth about how and why some birds cooperate when searching for food.

As academics we have the skills, the resources, and the time, indeed we have the luxury, of working on the intellectually fulfilling task of revealing the truth about how things work and why. Of course I mean truth in the mechanical sense (like questions about how A causes B or how Z emerges from the constellation of A, B, C AND -D) but also truth about the dynamics of history and society, and the truth about life and ourselves as is revealed through literature and the arts.

If I had to choose one distinguishing thing that a university can and should do, this would be it, this is the thing for which we are (or at least hopefully we are) uniquely qualified. The thing that is our responsibility to do: reveal the truth to ourselves and to others.

Sometimes this truth is pleasant and convenient, sometimes it is not, sometimes it challenges us and challenges the powers that be, but revealing the truth is necessary (in the broadest possible sense of the word), fulfilling, and ultimately is practically and socially useful.

But of course, our task is about more than revealing the truth. It is about engaging others in finding and in disseminating that truth. It is about communicating that truth clearly and in a meaningful and compelling way to many others, within and especially outside of academia. Sometimes we are not so good at the latter. But it is critical: communicating what we know without oversimplifying, communicating it in a way that is clear, transparent, relevant and practical while also conveying the thrill and excitement of just “knowing”. This is a social good too, as much as the specific facts themselves.

Knowledge is empowering, not only because it often has practical implications for actions (for all the actions we take or fail to take as a society) but also because it provides new and fresh insight into who we are and the meaning of what we do in our lives.

Certainly, as a university we want to generate knowledge that is useful and actionable in a very practical sense. But our goal is not only knowledge that is actionable today. Our goal is also knowledge that may be actionable in the future, or that is not directly actionable at all but has the value of insight that can enrich our lives in other ways. This is why as a university we support research that will help build more secure bridges or reduce air pollution, but also support research that provides insight into how man evolved, analyses about how LGBT populations have been represented in literature over the 20th century, or the history of fashion in the 1930s.

Sometimes we will focus on very specific local issues: how has the Philly bike share program affected physical activity and traffic injury rates in Philadelphia? Should it be expanded? What educational strategies would be most beneficial if implemented in Philadelphia schools?  How should the city deploy sensors to measure air pollution? As we learn about what works in Philadelphia we also learn about the fundamentals, we learn things that can have implications for cities all over the world. We learn about the specific case but we also extract generalizable knowledge that is relevant in other contexts: this is what defines science. 

This brings me to a second critical thing we do as a University: connect our local specific and particular experience to experiences around the globe., Linking our “local” experience to “local” experiences elsewhere allow us to compare and contrast, so that we understand our local situation better and can act to achieve our goals more effectively.  

As part of a project we have at the School of Public Health we are evaluating the health impact of a comprehensive urban intervention in an informal settlement (a poor neighborhood) right in the middle of Buenos Aires. Of course, the setting is quite different, but what are the implications of what we find for what should be done in the Promise Zone?  Our job as a University is to bridge differences and bridge experiences so that we can learn from them, and so that we can broaden the way we, our students and our society think about local problems and local solutions. 

But our global mission is not only about contrasting local experiences it is also about understanding how what happens in one part of the globe affects what happens in another part of the globe. It is about contrasting local to local to obtain universal knowledge useful to all, but it is also about understanding how global processes (like global warming, global trade, and wars among others) affect local conditions and wellbeing right here at home.

As a University, we transcend the false dichotomies of actionable vs. not actionable knowledge and of local vs. global knowledge. We know they are each two sides of the same coin. This ability to hold both things in our mind together, even if they initially appear contradictory or disparate, is what makes us a university.

There is a third big thing we do as a University, and this one is critical. When I was asked about what academic public health can do in times of uncertainty I realized that as important or more important than “revealing the truth” was forcefully advocating for public health values and specifically for health as a human right. As a University, it is also our job to continually question and advocate for core social values. This is a tricky task, because it must be done in a way that is open to new ideas, that allows critical thinking, but that also does not shy away from our social responsibility to use our power and resources to promote fairness and justice.

You may be wondering where students are in all of this. Of course, as a University we teach. Students are woven into everything we do. The way in which we accomplish our mission is in part through education. Students are critical to our task to reveal the truth and promote core values.  Education is how we influence the next generations, and disseminate our work and values. Certainly, we prepare students for adult lives and for jobs, but hopefully we do much more, we expose them to all the core elements of our mission in ways that enrich them personally and in ways that hopefully have a long term and beneficial impact on society.

The work we do at a university is not more valuable or better than other work. The work done by those who built the trolleys so many years ago in Philadelphia and the work done by the conductor this morning was critical to my being able to travel here today. The work done by cleaning personnel in my office every evening is critical to my doing my university job.

As academics, we are necessarily part of our social world, we have biases and defects. We make mistakes; we can be selfish, arrogant and presumptuous. We may unwittingly feed only ambition for material success or unrealistic expectations in our students. The things we focus on and how we interpret the world are necessarily affected by who we are and where we come from. We are people embedded in our social time. This is why our diversity is so critical to accomplishing our mission to reveal the truth and promote core values.

In our lofty work of revealing the truth we should always remember that we are not immune to what happens in the world around us. And also, that we are very fortunate in the work that we do and benefit from the work of so many others. Imagine a world where everyone did a little bit of everything over their lives, where everyone spent some time driving a bus, cleaning the office and working at a university? It would be a fairer world I think… But in the world of today we are fortunate in the role we have. Herein lies our social responsibility to do our job well, to do our piece and the job for which we are uniquely qualified.  

So maybe next time a cab driver asks me what I do I will say: I work at a University: I reveal the truth, I communicate about it in ways that are meaningful and actionable, I link local to global, I transcend false dichotomies, and I promote core values of fairness and justice.  

Well, I have been in enough cabs to know that that won’t work… Perhaps I should just say that I used to be a pediatrician…   

But now that I think about it, as a pediatrician I yearned to do all the lofty yet practical things that we are so fortunate in being able to do at a University like Drexel today.

Welcome back to the university and to a new academic year!