Honorees Froma Benerofe (L) and Dr. Lawrence Summers (R)
Dr. Lawrence Summers, Obama’s Chief Economic Advisor, Trumpets the Importance of Universities in Driving Progress
Dr. Lawrence H. Summers, director of the National Economic Council and chief economic advisor to President Barack Obama, dedicated his keynote address at Yeshiva University’s 85th Annual Hanukkah Dinner and Convocation on Dec. 13 to the important place of the university in generating ideas that develop and sustain American society.
See a photo gallery of the dinner and convocation here.
Summers brought an economist’s perspective to his discussion of higher education, no doubt also informed by his experience as president of Harvard University from 2001-2006. He suffused his speech with a warm tribute to his late uncle, the renowned economist and Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson, who died that morning.
“Colleges and universities are a gateway to opportunity,” Summers told the audience at the Waldorf-Astoria. Nevertheless, he decried that fact that his uncle was snubbed for a professorship by Harvard, despite writing and publishing a thesis that transformed the discipline of economics while a PhD student at that institution. “Perhaps the economics department was singularly inept in judging talent, or perhaps they were not at that time ready for a brash young Jewish economist,” Summers noted.
“As a country, we are a long way from the point when we can claim that merit trumps background in higher education,” he said. “Less than 10 percent of the students at leading colleges and universities come from families in the lower half of the income distribution–an 80 percent underrepresentation, far worse than any other disadvantaged group in our society.”
He noted that increasing assistance for scholarships is high on President Obama’s educational agenda, adding, “Talent, not background, must determine the distribution of rewards in 21st-century America.”
Summers heralded the power of ideas arising in the university context to impact civilization, pointing to the economic ideas of Samuelson, who won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work that changed economics from a principally academic pursuit to one that could be applied to help solve the country’s economic problems. “Universities and colleges—and perhaps this is most elemental—prepare leaders,” he said, adding later, “Every day, places like Yeshiva turn on a light in young people who go on to bring light to the world.”
Read the full text of Summers’ speech here.
President Richard M. Joel conferred honorary degrees on Summers, as well as five other leaders who are models of creativity and community support: prominent clinical social worker Froma Benerofe, a member of the Board of Overseers of YU’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work; investment executive Roger W. Einiger, a member of the Board of Overseers of YU’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine; award-winning actress, singer and playwright Tovah Feldshuh; inventor and entrepreneur Maurice Kanbar; and the renowned Cantor Joseph Malovany, of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Synagogue and Distinguished Professor of Liturgical Music of YU’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music. READ MORE ABOUT OUR HONORARY DEGREE RECIPIENTS HERE.
The Hanukkah dinner marked the incoming leadership of Dr. Henry Kressel, who took over from Morry J. Weiss as chairman of YU’s Board of Trustees earlier this year. “The foundation of my professional life was formed in the labs and classrooms of Yeshiva University,” said Kressel, a 1955 Yeshiva College alumnus who went on to build a highly successful career, first as a world recognized expert in electronic devices and then as a corporate manager overseeing investment in high-tech companies at Warburg Pincus LLC.
Kressel emphasized the importance of building academic excellence at the undergraduate schools. “We must increase participation in research in the undergraduate programs. The sooner students are exposed to research, the better,” he said.
Morry Weiss was awarded honorary alumnus status at the dinner for his five years of service as Board chair. Weiss was the “surprise” eighth Point of Light in the segment of the dinner program that honors eight people who exemplify YU’s mission, one for each candle of the menorah.
The other Points of Light included:
- Matthew Williams, a Yeshiva College senior of Sephardic and Native American background who chairs the honors student council and completed a research fellowship in art history this summer at Yale University
- Alumnus Dr. Robert Grunstein, who offers free dental services to local underprivileged schoolchildren in 60 schools in Northern New Jersey, aboard his fire-truck-turned-dental-office
- Jeremy Stern, an alumnus of YC and Azrieli Graduate School of Jewish Education and Administration and a current student at Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, who runs the Organization for the Resolution of Agunot, which assists agunot (“chained” women whose husbands refuse to give them religious divorces) in securing religious divorces
- Dr. Susan Chinitz, associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Einstein, who serves as the director of the Early Childhood Center at the Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center of the Rose F. Kennedy Center for Mental Retardation, and its newer site, the Center for Babies, Toddlers and Families
- Sheri Rosenberg, director of the Program in Holocaust and Human Rights Studies and director of the Human Rights and Genocide Clinic at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law who has worked in civil rights and international human rights with a specific focus on issues of discrimination, equality and genocide
- The Maccabeats, YU’s own a cappella group of 14 undergraduate young men who have been in popular demand both on and off campus since forming more than two years ago.
The night was also an occasion to celebrate the achievements of Yeshiva University over the past year. “We are thankfully emerging from a great recession, and now must be the time that we bring all the strengths of modern Maccabees to our task of education,” said President Joel. “Yeshiva University has much to celebrate. We are a critical force for advancing civilization; our students are studying and growing and mattering in important ways. Our faculty is committed to research and productive as never before. Our alumni are succeeding in ways wondrous, building successful lives, leading our community and advancing the ideals of our people and all people of good will.”