Winter 2016 Bulletin

From the President

Jonathan F. Fanton
Jonathan F. Fanton

The founders of the American Academy in 1780 aimed to convene leaders in a broad range of fields to give advice to a new nation. As stated in the Academy’s Charter of 1780:

. . . the end and design of the institution of the said Academy is to promote and encourage the knowledge of the antiquities and the natural history of America; to determine the uses to which the various natural productions of the country may be applied; to promote and encourage medical discoveries, mathematical disquisitions, philosophical enquiries and experiments, astronomical, meteorological and geographical observations, and improvements in agriculture, arts, manufactures and commerce; and, in fine, to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.

The Academy has remained faithful to that vision in the 235 years since. Our institution maintains an Archives of meeting proceedings and publications, and all members are invited to visit. It is a moving moment to hold George Washington’s letter of acceptance, as well as the letters written by Alexander Hamilton, John Stuart Mill, and other early members of the Academy. I encourage you to visit the Academy’s website to learn more about the collections in the Archives.

The Academy has addressed many timely and abiding issues over the centuries, such as the changing nature and needs of higher education and research, the well-being of the humanities in the United States, the emerging challenges of scientific and technological advances, arms control and international security, population and the environment, as well as the welfare of children.

In recent years, more and more members have participated in studies and publications through the Academy. Our work falls into three categories: major commissions have recently examined the state of the humanities and social sciences (The Heart of the Matter) and the need for more federal investment in basic research (Restoring the Foundation). Two new commissions are described in the pages that follow: the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, chaired by Michael McPherson (President of The Spencer Foundation) and Roger W. Ferguson, Jr. (President and CEO of TIAA-CREF); and a Commission to study the state of language instruction in the country, chaired by Paul LeClerc (Director of Columbia Global Centers, Europe).

A second category of projects, mainly in the international security area, continues the Academy’s work on nuclear issues (the Global Nuclear Future Initiative), explores the threats to world order posed by the breakdown of state control and civil wars, and looks at new dilemmas in ethics, technology, and war.

And just last year, the Academy added a third type of work when it created an Exploratory Fund. The goal is to enable members who want to work together to look over the horizon for issues and opportunities that are not well understood, to think about problems in a fresh way, and to search for connections between research and policy that advance the common good. By encouraging these smaller-scale initiatives in a variety of venues, the Academy aims to assist members in pursuing the subjects that concern them the most. For a limited number of projects every year, the Fund will provide up to $30,000 that can be used in any way that furthers the proposed work, including covering costs associated with the organization of a meeting, symposium, or conference, which could be held here at the Academy or at a member’s home university. Academy staff will help organize the meeting and follow up on the recommendations for further work.

Our first Exploratory Fund meeting on Access to Justice is described on page 7 in this issue of the Bulletin. Last November, members John Levi (Chair of the Legal Services Corporation), Martha Minow (Dean of the Harvard Law School), and Lance Liebman (former Dean of the Columbia Law School) brought over fifty jurists, scholars, and legal aid providers to the Academy to consider how to improve the state of legal services for low-income Americans.

Another example of an exploratory project is a conference that took place last December that brought together experts on autism and sign language with the goal of finding ways to apply recent advances in communications among the deaf to problems of communication with and among people with autism. That conference was organized by Mark Aronoff of Stony Brook University, Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago, Matthew Lerner of Stony Brook University, and Charles Nelson of Harvard University and Boston Children’s Hospital. This particular collaboration was born at a reception following an Induction Ceremony a couple of years ago; it shows how the social interactions we have before and after our formal events can serve a purpose.

Another project will look at the future of jazz. The organizers – Felton Earls of Harvard University and William Damon of Stanford University – believe, as I think many of us do, that jazz is an important art form in bridging cultures, ethnicity, race, and geography. Yet it is facing an uncertain future, and this will be explored in a meeting at the Academy this spring.

Three other projects have just been approved. Arthur Kleinman of Harvard University is going to organize a conversation about the need to bring area studies and global studies closer together. Shari Diamond of Northwestern University and Richard Lambert of the University of Michigan will facilitate a discussion of how scientific expertise and the legal system connect. A meeting on the preservation of scholarship and intellectual legacy in the digital age is being organized by Paula Samuelson and Carla Hesse of the University of California, Berkeley and Robert Darnton of Harvard University.

When we started the Exploratory Fund, we wondered whether members would come forward. To see the level of interest thus far has been wonderful. And we are not done yet. If you have a topic you want to explore with other members, write me a letter. These projects do not involve elaborate, National Science Foundation – type applications. We want to make this quick, easy, and fun.

Jonathan F. Fanton