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Presidential Pronouncements

Yale’s first leaders were Protestant clergymen, and the tradition of providing wisdom—from the pulpit, from the lectern, or in the classroom—has endured despite the transformation of the university to a secular institution. Among the more resonant excerpts from the pens of Yale’s leaders:

Timothy Cutler (1719–22)

The deepest Thought and Counsel is necessary to one that hath the Care and management of all things. The whole World lyeth upon His Care, the Vast System of things, Visible and Invisible; He is to provide for it, to preserve everything in its proper order, to curb all irregular notions, to apply proper remedys, to govern all things, Animate and Inanimate, Brutish, Rational, Humane and Angelical.


Thomas Clap (1740–66)

The College at Cambridge, in New England, is much better endowed than ours; … by private Donations a College is building in New Jersey, which will cost much more than both ours … A gentleman from Philadelphia lately said, that there were instances, wherein some one private gentleman gives annually near as much money to their Academy or College, as the whole Colony of Connecticut does to Yale-College.


Naphtali Daggett (1766–77)

It is a very just observation, that the having of clear ideas is very conducive, and highly necessary to speaking clearly and intelligibly upon any subject. And the reason is very obvious; for if the conceptions of the mind are confused, this confusion of thinking will unavoidably run into a person’s discourse, and leave a visible tincture of itself in his Speaking. Language is the picture of the mind’s thoughts; and will therefore naturally have a resemblance thereto, in point of clearness or confusion. How then can he be supported to speak clearly whose mind is always beclouded with the thick fogs of confusedly floating, vague ideas? In order to avoid this mischief, it is highly necessary, that ministers should be much devoted, not only to reading, but also to meditation, close thinking, and writing too.


Ezra Stiles (1778–95)

An hundred and fifty or 180 Young Gentlemen Students is a bundle of Wild Fire not easily controlled and governed—and at best the Diadem of a President is a Crown of Thorns.


Timothy Dwight (1795–1817)

Ask any plain man whom you meet why he believes that there is a God; ask even the poor Indian, whose mind, in the language of the poet, is wholly “untutored,” and he will tell you that ‘he sees Him in the clouds, and hears Him in the wind.’ All men believe the things around them to be effects, or works; and all believe them to be the works of a God; of a being, whose power and understanding transcend all limits. Nor has any man ever doubted the soundness of this conclusion, but under the influence of a wish that it might not be true, nor without a laborious effort to convince himself that it was an error. So true is it, that “the fool,” and the fool only, hath said in his heart, “There is no God.”


Theodore Dwight Woolsey (1846–71)

We rejoice that the motive which led so many to the war was not the love of reputation nor the love of adventure, nor any lower motive; but mingled with and rising above all, a pure, disinterested patriotism. And we rejoice to believe that this patriotism was kindled under the influence and within the walls of their Alma Mater.


Noah Porter (1871–86)

Our first position is, that for the years appropriated to school and college training, there is no study which is so well adapted to mental discipline as the study of language. We argue this from the fact that language is the chief instrument of intelligence. It is thought made visible and clear, not merely to the person to whom thoughts are to be conveyed, but to the person who thinks for and by himself.


Timothy Dwight (1886–99)

The democratic spirit of this institution has never had its vitality dependent on the fact that every individual in the university brotherhood was spending, or could spend, only the same amount of money … or that each student must have the same accommodations, or the same number of books, or the possibility of the same personal privileges in every respect, which were open to the college life of all his fellow students. The democracy of the institution would never have existed; it would never have been possible, if such a condition of things had been essential to its existence. It would have been unworthy of educated and intelligent men … The true and genuine democratic spirit—that which our University has always claimed for itself—is the spirit which estimates a man according to what he is, and not according to what he has.


Arthur Twining Hadley (1899–1921)

We must apparently experiment with a policy which should allow the introduction in larger and larger measure of courses which are really professional within the framework of the undergraduate electives. We should not only encourage a man to experiment as to what he is good for—which is the principle underlying the elective system as administered at present—but we should also permit him, when he has found out what he is good for, to begin seriously the work of professional study.


James Rowland Angell (1921–37)

The university is essentially a living thing. Like other organisms it must grow by casting off that which is no longer of value and by taking on that which is … Meantime, it will always be true that where the great investigators and scholars are gathering, thither will come the intellectual elite from all the world.


Charles Seymour (1937–50)

The world can be saved only by a reawakening of the conscience of mankind. The conscience has been deadened by the events of the past 35 years. We have become so habituated to the ruthless use of force, to barbarous inhumanity, to the destruction of good faith that we have become numb or neutral when we face the issue of right as against wrong, … It is easy for conscience, whether of an individual or a nation, to go to sleep. How pleasantly we can lull it into a coma by deception and rationalization! In this field of morals, more than any other, constant questioning and incessant thrusts of inquiry are necessary if conscience is to be kept active. The danger in this field is not that some one will try to interfere with our opinions. The danger is that we shall not take the trouble to have any opinions at all.


Alfred Whitney Griswold (1950–63)

My moral, then, is plain, and my charge to you is simple: To do good you must first know good; to serve beauty you must first know beauty; to speak the truth you must first know the truth. You must know these things yourselves, be able to recognize them by yourselves, be able to describe, explain, and communicate them by yourselves, and wish to do so, when no one else is present to prompt you or bargain with you. This knowledge has been the purpose of your education. Hold true to the purpose. No Price, no mess of pottage, can equal its value to your country and yourselves.


Kingman Brewster Jr. (1963–77)

Yale will be for you and to you what you make of it. Despite the gloom of the times this is not a gloomy place. It is a place where life can have purpose without being a society of driven men and women. It is also a place where there is no escape from argument, for the next person you meet will not be likely to agree with the last person talked to. This is a community which rewards participation but does not expect conformity. This is primarily a place for learning, but not all learning is in books or laboratories or classrooms. You probably have not been as free before. You may not be as free again. Enjoy the privilege of doubt. Make the most of it.


A. Bartlett Giamatti (1978–86)

It is to the place where the seeds of speech first grew and where we began to find our voices that we have come back, this good place Yale, neither a paradise nor the worst spot we have ever been in, a good place which continues to want to make her children better; we have come back to a very good place, hospitable to one of the most deeply pleasurable experiences people can have, which is to recall times of pleasure with others who also remember. That may be as close to paradise for a moment as any one of us ever comes. In this good place, I have always thought so.


Benno C. Schmidt Jr. (1986–92)

Yale is one of the signal achievements of the experiment that is America; it is a treasure of Western civilization. As a place where knowledge is advanced, where scientific investigation and humanistic inquiry are nourished, where artistic creation is stimulated, Yale stands almost alone in importance in the world. This luster carries a special challenge. Yale is a crucible in American life for the accommodation of intellectual achievement, of wisdom of refinement, with the democratic ideals of openness, of social justice, and of equal opportunity. Yale’s greatness carries an urgent need to guard against the fall of excellence into exclusivity, of refinement into preciousness, of elegance into class and convention


Howard R. Lamar (1992–93)

The specialized barriers between urban and non-urban must fall for a holistic view of the world we live in. As an example of what I mean, environmental concerns, to be properly studied, must embrace research and teaching efforts across the campus, ranging from topics in biology and anthropology and geology and geophysics, to engineering, medicine, architecture, law, and the humanities. I urge you to see Yale and New Haven as having problems and opportunities in common to our national society and to participate in helping resolve them by study, and by volunteering your services to the city of New Haven.


Richard C. Levin (1993–present)

With [the] abundant opportunities to shape your own lives go important responsibilities. The benefits of new technologies will not be shared equally by everyone. We will want to keep in place the … incentives that reward innovation, but we will not want to live with the consequences of an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor, in this country and around the world. As you seize the opportunities created by new technology, you must also assume the heavy burden of citizenship and share in the responsibility to spread those opportunities to others, who are now deprived of them by accident of birth or geography.  the end


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