Saturday, November 11, 2023
Remarks of Donald Landry, MD, PhD, President of the American Academy of Sciences and Letters at the Library of Congress
The following remarks were given by Donald Landry, MD, PhD, of Columbia University, President of the American Academy of Sciences and Letters, at the Academy’s 2023 Investiture held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, November 8, 2023. This was the Academy's launch event. Its inaugural Robert J. Zimmer Medal for Intellectual Freedom was conferred upon Sir Salman Rushdie. In addition, Barry Prizes for Distinguished Intellectual Achievement were conferred upon ten scholars representing a spectrum of academic disciplines: Orlando Patterson of Harvard (sociology and African-American Studies); Josiah Ober of Stanford (classics); Svetlana Jitomaskaya of the University of California (mathematics); Steve Koonin of NYU (engineering); Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California (chemistry); Robert George of Princeton (politics); Ruth Okediji of Harvard (law); Candace Vogler of the University of Chicago (philosophy); Jonathan Haidt of NYU (psychology); and Jon Levenson of Harvard (Jewish Studies).
The modern university, whose origins date back almost a millennium, reflects and indeed embodies the truth-seeking spirit of humanity, when we human beings are at our best. It is in our nature as rational creatures to want to understand our world and ourselves. We are curious and inquisitive. We seek knowledge, and that special kind of knowledge we call wisdom. We desire to move from ignorance to truth. From partial knowledge to greater, deeper, richer understanding.
“E Tenebris ad Lucem” – “from darkness into light.”
Of course, we value what is sometimes called “useful knowledge,” and honor its tenacious pursuit across a wide range of disciplines. Yet, we also value knowledge for its own sake, for its inherent enrichments of ourselves as human beings. And we especially encourage the pursuit of what may legitimately claim to be the highest form of knowledge, namely, the deeper understanding of what it means to be human.
The determined pursuit of truth, especially of the deepest and most consequential truths, is not for the faint-hearted. On the contrary, it requires boldness. It requires independence of mind. And—let us here speak plainly—it requires courage.
Learned academies date to the 15th Century. On this continent they antedate the founding of the United States. Such academies were and are born at particular times in particular places to respond to the circumstances of their times and places. And yet, they are motivated by a perennial ambition: to encourage, to support, to recognize, and to honor courageous truth seeking and bold truth speaking.
The American Academy of Sciences and Letters was founded to honor distinguished scholarly achievement across the disciplines of the university and in that fashion promote scholarship and learning—a common thread among such academies, to be sure. Responding to the circumstances and exigencies of our own time and place, this Academy places a special accent on lifting up for the highest recognition eminent scholars whose exceptional achievements are the fruit of independence of mind and intellectual courage.
Members of the American Academy of Sciences and Letters are scholars who have made extraordinary contributions in the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, mathematics, engineering, the arts, and the learned professions. Later in tonight’s program, we will add new members to the Academy as we award to each a prize that expresses our gratitude for their advancement of knowledge and the example they have set of independence of mind and intellectual courage.
Now, as a prelude to our keynote event, it is a special privilege this evening to confer upon a most worthy recipient, Sir Salman Rushdie, the inaugural Robert J. Zimmer Medal for Intellectual Freedom.
The Medal recognizes the work and profound witness of the late Robert Zimmer, who served from 2006 to 2021 as President of the University of Chicago. President Zimmer was an acclaimed mathematician whose commitment to intellectual excellence and academic freedom became the stuff of legend. It was his inspirational leadership and direction that bequeathed to the academic world the Chicago Principles of academic freedom, principles that he applied courageously and even-handedly, thus further burnishing his institution’s reputation and standing as a beacon of freedom of thought, inquiry, and discussion.
President Zimmer passed away earlier this year, a terrible loss for his family, his university, and the entire academic community. When, on behalf of the board of the Academy, I approached President Zimmer’s widow, Chicago Professor Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer, and related how deeply we revere him for his inspired support of academic freedom and integrity and how we sought through the Zimmer Medal to honor President Zimmer—with her permission—in order that his memory and contributions might endure, she responded: “Bob would have been delighted and I am too. I hope that the Robert J. Zimmer Medal for Intellectual Freedom will be a beacon for many as we go forward, as Bob was himself.”
This is our shared hope. And I am delighted that Professor Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer is here with us tonight.
Thank you, Shadi, for the honor of your presence.
Who could merit such an award for intellectual freedom, intellectual courage? In the last century, perhaps it would have been the great writer and Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who stood in bold relief, risking life and limb, speaking truth to power.
For us today, as the board of the Academy unanimously agreed, it is Sir Salman Rushdie.
Sir Salman’s challenging and transformative novels have been recognized as among the greatest literature of our era. Midnight’s Children not only won the 1981 Booker Prize, the top honor for a novel; it was twice selected as the best novel ever to win the Booker. Sir Salman was knighted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for his services to literature in 2007. His richly deserved prizes and awards are too numerous to list.
For thirty-five years, Sir Salman has served as a global beacon for intellectual freedom. You are all familiar with the decades of death threats and violence he has faced with resolute courage. His refusal to be silenced or deflected has inspired millions around the world, providing a model for us all. His example reminds us that the only thing more costly than standing up for intellectual freedom would be failing to make that stand.