American University Fall 2020 Convocation Address by Amitav Acharya, Scholar-Teacher of the Year

A video of the speech and the convocation is available at: https://www.american.edu/ocl/orientation/convocation.cfm

The following is the text of my address to the Fall 2020 Convocation of American University, Washington DC. The speech was live online on Aug 21, 2020 at 1pm. The address is traditionally given by the winner of American University’s highest honor: the Scholar-Teacher Award. The address included images of the Acharya in Robben Island prison (where Mandela was held), President Kennedy’s Conmencement Address to American University in 1963, and images of Mandela’s biography and Indian Prime Minister Nehru’s autobiography.

A write-up on the AU Scholar-Teacher Award at: https://www.american.edu/sis/news/20200813-sis-professor-amitav-acharya-wins-aus-scholar-teacher-of-the-year-award.cfm

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Hello the newest members of the AU community. Greetings.

I am the child of a pandemic. My father was born in a small village in India in 1915. Those days, India, like many other poor parts of the world, was plagued by killer infectious diseases, including small pox.

My father was a small pox survivor who bore its scars on his face for his entire adult life. And he lost not one, not two, but six siblings to small pox.

But my father persevered. He went on to become the first person from our village to earn a university degree. In fact he got two: in Arts and in Education. He built a very successful life as a High School headmaster. It was because of my father that I chose an academic career.

Today, you are embarking on the most important journey of your life in the most challenging of times. 

Never before in history have so many students the world over begun a new academic year entirely on-line.

Yet, these unprecedented times are also a huge opportunity to prove ourselves.

Your success at AU will both reassure and inspire the world’s present and future generations.

Through my life’s experience, I recognize diversity and inclusion when I see it.

You will not be alone. We the faculty and administrators of AU will be there with you every step of your journey with us.

Among AU’s most cherished qualities is our commitment to diversity, excellence  and inclusion. I have no doubt about it.

The first American whom I remember is President John F. Kennedy. Not that I meet him. I was only one year old when Kennedy was assassinated. But I remember him vividly because there was a framed picture of him and the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in our home.

In 1961, a year before I was born, Nehru visited Kennedy in the US.

The two had much in common. Kennedy was the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy. Nehru was the leader of the world’s largest democracy.

Both were staunch liberal internationalists, passionately committed to promoting diversity and cooperation in the world.

My father was a huge fan of both leaders. He clipped and framed a news-magazine cover of Kennedy and Nehru taking a stroll in the White House lawns. You can find that picture on the internet.

That picture was my first impression of what an American looks like.

That picture first inspired me to study and teach international affairs.

And that American, President John F. Kennedy, is a big part of American University. It was on this very campus that President Kennedy gave the Commencement Address to the graduating class of 1963.

There Kennedy said, and I quote:

“If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.”

The outdoor podium from which Kennedy spoke is still there. I urge you to visit it when you are next in campus, I hope very soon.

Three decades after Kennedy’s AU speech, another great leader of the 20th century, another of my personal heroes, invoked Kennedy’s words. His name is Nelson Mandela.

In an article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 1993, Mandela wrote that he would strive, and I quote,  

“To promote institutions and forces that, through democratic means, seek to make the world safe for diversity.”

Thus Mandela wrote the very words that Kennedy had uttered on this very campus. I repeat:

“To make the world safe for diversity”.

In 2011, I had the privilege of being appointed as the Nelson Mandela Visiting Professor of International Relations at Rhodes University, South Africa. Rhodes is located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, where Mandela was born. Visiting Mandela’s birthplace as well as the Robben Island prison where he was imprisoned for 27 years, are among the most moving experiences of my life.

Even though I am no politician, the words and actions of John F. Kennedy, Jawaharlal Nehru and Nelson Mandela have profoundly shaped my own academic leadership.

My best opportunity to do so came in 2014. That year I became the first non-white person to be elected as President of the International Studies Association. This is the world’s largest and most respected association for faculty and students in International Studies. In my Presidential Speech, I put the pictures and quotes of Kennedy and Mandela on a single slide on the screen, along with their immortal words.

And there I urged the academic community to make the study and practice of international affairs “safe for diversity”.

These words apply to every field of study…in the natural sciences, the social sciences, the humanities and beyond.

Today, as we cope with a deadly pandemic, it is equally vital that we strive to respect our diversity and promote inclusion.

And there can be no better place to do so than our very institution, American University.

As scholars and citizens of the world, each of us should persevere, as did Kennedy, Nehru and Mandela – and as did my father in his own time and way – to make our world safer for diversity.

Welcome, to American University.

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