As I write this letter, we have just passed a somber milestone: one full year since the COVID-19 crisis fundamentally altered so many aspects of our lives. We look back in solemn reflection on a year of illness, loss, and upheaval. And yet as we emerge into this spring season, we have reason to look forward with hope. An accelerated vaccination campaign promises a gradual return to normal life in the months ahead. After a period of political upheaval culminating in the disturbing events of January 6th, there is now an opportunity to rebuild our institutions and bring our country together once again. And after a year of heartbreaking incidents of racial injustice, we see a new, broad-based movement to create a more just society.
As the Academy emerges from this difficult year, we have good news to share as well. Despite the challenges we have faced, our Academy community has remained active and vibrant. Following the Academy’s rapid shift to virtual programming last spring, we have gathered for more than 50 virtual events, setting records for attendance–both in terms of unique members attending one event and in terms of total attendance, including non-members. Our virtual programming has also allowed us to reach larger and more dispersed audiences. In fiscal year 2021, members participated in virtual events from 22 countries, 36 states, and 220 different cities. And I personally had the privilege of meeting virtually with hundreds of members through one-on-one meetings, committees, and project groups.
This issue of the Bulletin reflects the lively pace of the Academy’s virtual life during the past year. In particular, we were pleased to host virtual events bestowing two of the Academy’s most revered prizes. In January, we gathered to honor pioneering linguist William Labov with the Talcott Parsons Prize for distinguished and original contributions to the social sciences. And in February, we awarded the Francis Amory Prize in Reproductive Medicine and Reproductive Physiology to scientists Ruth Lehmann and Gertrud M. Schüpbach for their significant contributions to areas including DNA repair, embryonic development, RNA regulation, and stem cell research. These virtual events allowed hundreds of participants from around the world, including friends, family, and former students, to gather to honor the prize recipients.
Our members showed up for the Academy this year not only through their participation but also through their generosity. In February, we celebrated the largest gift in the Academy’s 241-year history, a $10 million donation from investor and patriotic philanthropist David Rubenstein. A portion of this gift will allow us to build a new addition to our building to house the Academy’s archival collections and make them more accessible to members, students, and scholars. This gift will also support our projects in civil justice, economic inequality, and democratic and civic engagement.
The Academy also received a grant of $1 million from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to implement the recommendations in Our Common Purpose, the final report of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, described in more detail in this issue of the Bulletin. We are indebted to Academy member and Rockefeller Brothers Fund President and CEO Stephen Heintz for his energetic commitment to building a more responsive and representative democracy. We also received a gift of $1 million from the William J. and Lia G. Poorvu Foundation to spur innovation and to enable the thoughtful and inclusive planning of new projects.
As we strive in the next year to complete our $100 million Campaign for the Academy and its Future, we are honored by this overwhelming vote of confidence in our work and humbled by the commitment of our members to the Academy’s future vitality.
As we reflect on the generosity of our members and their commitment to the Academy’s work in service of the common good, we also honor the life of Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., who passed away on March 15, 2021, at the age of 95. Stephen served on the Academy’s membership committees and provided major philanthropic support for research projects in the areas of science, engineering, and technology as well as American institutions. Through his generous support, the auditorium that bears his name at the House of the Academy has become a beloved gathering place for our global community of members. By asking the fundamental question “What makes a good citizen?” Stephen also inspired the creation of the Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, for which The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation provided principal support. With Stephen’s passing, the Academy’s commitment to implementing the Commission’s recommendations takes on even deeper meaning.
Thank you for all you do for the Academy, and please feel free to reach out to me personally if there are ways you would like to become involved in our work to advance knowledge in service of the nation and the world.
David W. Oxtoby
A plaque recognizing Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr., hangs in the Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr. Auditorium at the House of the Academy in Cambridge, MA. It reads:
Stephen D. Bechtel, Jr. is Chairman (retired) and a Director of Bechtel Group, Inc. He is also Chairman Emeritus and a Director of Fremont Group, LLC, separate affiliated companies that manage and operate in marketable securities, natural resources. and other selected investments. In addition, Mr. Bechtel is Chairman of the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. His business headquarters are in San Francisco, California.
Mr. Bechtel served as the third-generation head of the worldwide engineering and construction business that began in 1898 as a small Western railroad construction firm. Today Bechtel Group, Inc. provides a broad range of technical, construction, and management services to clients in many industries around the globe. including power, petroleum and chemicals, surface transportation, aviation facilities, water supply and treatment, infrastructure development, pipelines, mining and metals, and telecommunications.
He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from Purdue University and a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He served as a Director on the boards of several major corporations, including General Motors and IBM. Presidents Johnson, Nixon, and Ford each appointed him to Presidential committees and commissions. The recipient of numerous industry, academic, and professional society awards, Mr. Bechtel served several industry and community organizations as Chairman, including The Business Council, The Conference Board, Inc., and the National Academy of Engineering. He was Vice Chairman of the California Council for Science and Technology Task Force in 2006, advising the Governor of California on increasing the state’s technical talent pool by improving K–12 science and mathematics education.
Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1990, he has served on membership committees and provided major support for research projects in Science, Engineering, and Technology as well as capital improvement of the house. The American Academy is grateful for his continuing interest and his extraordinary support for projects and programs.