Start-of-School Message for our 240th Year at Andover

Dear Phillips Academy students:

That school-is-about-to-start feeling is upon us. There are a few summer days left to enjoy, Labor Day weekend still to look forward to, and all the excitement of early fall just around the corner. I write in part just to say that I’m thinking of all of you and excited to see you in person shortly.

In spite of this excitement and the joy I feel in anticipating your return to campus, I’m also mindful of the powerful effect of recent events in Charlottesville. The violence that we witnessed exposes the lingering force of white supremacy in this country, which must be condemned in no uncertain terms. As a school devoted to educating youth from every quarter, we cannot stand idly by in the face of racial hatred and violence. We are committed to equity and inclusion in our community and in the world at large. We renounce – in our teaching, in how we run the school and how we interact with one another – the idea of a racial hierarchy. And we renounce the violence perpetrated in the service of this pernicious hatred.

In the past few weeks, I’ve had a similar conversation over and over again. It’s a conversation about the United States of America, globalization, the media, and this moment in history. It’s also a conversation about education, learning and teaching, and how to be good citizens. As we start our 240th academic year, these issues are at the forefront of my mind and the minds of our faculty and staff at Andover.

In planning for how we will engage with you this year on campus, we re-affirm today our commitment to knowledge with goodness. Our job as adults at Andover is to teach the skills and impart the wisdom that you will need to be able to thrive after Andover – finis origine pendet. We seek to model the kind of goodness that we hope for you to embody as you develop and grow. Goodness calls for respect for one another; a commitment to learn with and from one another; civility in our interactions; support, empathy, and love for our peers in good times and in bad. Goodness means also that we hold ourselves and one another to a high moral standard. In so doing, we stand together in solidarity against hatred, bigotry, and violence.

Long before the summer took hold, we decided that the theme for this coming year at Andover will be about citizenship. As our theme for the year, citizenship strikes me as more apt than ever as we approach this particular fall. With all of you, I look forward to exploring what it means to be a citizen, both in the United States of America and in the countries from which many of you hail. I look forward to pushing hard on questions of civic duty, of moral obligation, of voting and participation. I look forward to asking hard questions about whether there can be such a thing as global citizenship in a world with so many different cultures and countries. As a United States History teacher, I can’t wait to explore with students the narrative of this country, what events and themes inform and connect to today’s events, and our hopes for a brighter future together. In All School Meetings, in advising groups and dormitories, in Paresky, in the Addison and the Peabody and OWH Library, and in all manner of classrooms, we will grapple with what it means to be citizens in a 21st century republic. I have every confidence that knowledge and goodness will emerge in ways large and small from this labor.

Enjoy these sweet last days of summer – and see you soon.

Sincerely,
John Palfrey

July 31 Community Letter

Today, Board President Peter Currie ’74, P’03,  and I wrote to the Andover community with an update regarding an independent investigation into matters of past sexual misconduct. As we’ve sought to understand and learn from these most troubling moments in our school’s history, we remain grateful to all who have shared information with us over the last several months. Each person who has come forward has shown tremendous courage. On behalf of the board, we extend our deepest apologies to these individuals and to all others who have been affected by any form of sexual misconduct at Andover. Our letter to the community includes a link to the full report from Sanghavi Law Office.

Statement regarding past abuse at Andover

Today, we know that many schools, including Andover, have not always lived up to our commitment to protect students in our care. Over the past year, independent investigators from Sanghavi Law Office have been carrying out a review of all reports of sexual misconduct at our school. We have repeatedly asked community members to share concerns or information they may have with these independent investigators. In August 2016, I sent a public letter to the Andover community about what we knew at that time. Since then, we have received further reports and have referred them all for review to the investigators. On campus, we remain focused on ensuring that we do right by the students we have the privilege to teach today.

Matters related to past teacher misconduct are currently appearing in the press. We take these matters extremely seriously. Our hearts go out to all those who were harmed at our school and at all schools in the past. At Andover, we are committed to learning as much as we can about our school’s past, offering support and acknowledgment for survivors of sexual misconduct, and ensuring the safety and security of all students on our campus today. The harms done to students in the past must never be repeated.

On the Executive Orders of January 2017

The President’s Executive Orders on immigration have prompted calls of concern from students, parents, alumni, faculty, and staff at Andover. I’m sure that is true at all schools that are committed to a diverse student body and faculty. Last year, we had applicants from 96 different countries around the world. Every year, we admit students from dozens of countries. We explicitly seek students from a broad range of families, including when it comes to religious and cultural backgrounds, and once they are here, we seek to offer a school environment that values equity and inclusion as a core commitment. During this admissions season, I felt it important to state my personal reflections on these policies and how they relate to the goals I believe are at the heart of my job as a head of school.  I speak here in my personal capacity.

These Executive Orders have given rise to chaos, uncertainty, and fear. They have caused people to wonder whether coming to the United States to study at a school like Andover makes sense these days.  They make our current students wonder if they should travel abroad for college interviews, spring break, and Learning in the World trips we have organized to expose our students to other cultures.  They cause real confusion for adults who seek to give good advice to our students.

No one can predict how long these new rules on immigration and travel will stand, whether the legal challenges from states and individuals might succeed, or what might follow them. In each community, we can and should make very clear our values and how we can be expected to act. We can create, in our own academic homes, a sense of clarity against the backdrop of rapid policy changes. Andover is blessed to have clear and well-expressed values to guide those of us entrusted to run it.

The first and most obvious value that must govern how we act is our commitment to Youth from Every Quarter. Our Constitution is explicit on this front: our Academy is to be ever equally open to youth from every quarter of requisite merit. This 230+ year old commitment is not to youth from some or many quarters, it is to youth from every quarter. Today, we speak also of educating all youth regardless of their religion, not youth of some religions. We proudly have students who are Muslim as well as Jewish students, students who practice many Christian faiths, students who are Hindu, and students who tell us they are agnostic or atheist and more. We welcome them all to Andover and celebrate their presence with us. No action by the government can make us change this policy of inclusion.

The second value that has been much on my mind is the notion of in loco parentis. This idea is not so much a founding value as it is a commitment between our school and the parents who entrust their children to our care for the school year. We promise to care for their children as if we were their parents. We do that in partnership with parents and guardians, near and far. We take this trust to be a sacred one. It keeps me up more nights than I’d care to admit. We worry like parents about the kids in our care. And so: if someone were to come for one of our students, I would act like a parent would act if someone were to come after one of my children. We should stand up to threats to our students.  Of course we must follow the law as an institution, but we also can and should use the law and lawyers to resist any attempts to harm our students and their places at Andover and their right to religious freedom.

There has been much talk of universities and schools committing to be “sanctuaries” for students. There is merit in this idea but there is also a lot of debate as to what it means, in a legal sense. I would simplify how I see it: I aspire for our school to be a home for our students–a home away from home to be sure–one where our youth from every quarter and from every religion know that they will have every protection we can manage, just as we would offer our own children at home.

Our schools should redouble our efforts to be caring, inclusive, loving places where every student is valued.  As I have listened to our students and adults on campus, I have heard an outpouring of this positive spirit–pure and simple compassion for one another regardless of background.  Many of us are finding few silver linings in the chaos of these policies when it comes to running schools, but surely this outpouring is one of them.

And we should teach.  Our commitment to academic excellence must not waver at these times; instead, we should stay laser-focused on our core task.  I resist the idea that any academic community should become distracted from this central endeavor.  These are teaching moments.  There are legitimate discussions that we can and should have about immigration law and policy and their implications.  Our students will jump at this chance to engage in interesting work and to have agency.  Of all the ways to make a difference, a life lived with young people in pursuit of knowledge, the truth, character, justice, and all that is right and good in the world is an awfully good one.  What a chance we have in this way, in this moment, with these kids and these colleagues.  Let’s not squander it.

 

Commencement Address, Phillips Academy 2016

Commencement Address
Phillips Academy, Andover
June 5, 2016
John Palfrey

Welcome, everyone – trustees, faculty, and staff; faculty Emeriti; alumni, families, friends, and – most of all – our beloved students.  Thank you for your presence with us today.

I would like to start with a note of gratitude to the adults in the Andover community.  Our community thrives as a direct result of individual and collective diligence, support, and love.  To all the adults who care for our students, who select our students in the admissions process, and who teach them all the way along: let us all express our thanks to these wonderful people this morning.  Please join me in a great big round of applause for the faculty, staff, and faculty Emeriti of Phillips Academy.

To the parents and grandparents, guardians and friends: thank you, too.  Thank you for the gift of time with the students you have sent to us.  I know, for many of you, that it felt like a great sacrifice to part with your children so early, for so many days out of the year – whether as boarding or day students.  For this gift of time, you have our enduring thanks.  The students you have shared with us have done you very proud.

And to the great Class of 2016: Theo Perez and Annette Bell, thank you for your inspiring words this morning.  Thank you for your exceptional leadership this year and all the years you have been with us.

To every member of the Class of 2016: thank you and congratulations.  You are a spirited group – a brilliant group – worthy of the honor we pay you today as we pronounce you graduates of Andover.  Your talent have been well on display these past few days, in our ceremonies and concerts.

I will always remember you.  You and I arrived at Andover together, four years ago.  You are the first class that I, as head of school, have been with all the way through.  It has been a delight to watch you grow and thrive here.  I remember you as you were when you arrived at Andover, whether that was four years ago – which seems quite a long time now – or this past Fall.  It is safe to say that every one of you has changed as a result of being at Andover – as a result of being with one another, in this very special place.

As we celebrate the great diversity in our community, I am struck by a wonderful combination in the Class of 2016.  Many of you are the first in your family to attend boarding school.  Though perhaps what is more noteworthy is that a significant number of you will be the first in your family to attend college.  We also have graduates whose families have been connected to Andover for literally hundreds of years – including one family with a graduate from the class of 1816, exactly 200 years ago, and a graduate today, in the class of 2016.

Whether your family is here at Andover for the first time, the second time, or the umpteenth time, you have brought much to this community.  You have done well at Andover; you have done Andover well; and we all have high hopes for what you will do with the goodness and knowledge that you have gained while you have been with us.  We are delighted to be connected with you from here on out.

My topic this morning has to do with the world beyond Andover, the world in which you enter, for good, this afternoon.  I hope that today, this Commencement – meaning, of course, a new beginning – is a chance for you to reflect upon where you have been over the past few years as well as how you might act, in the future, to make the world a better place.  How, in short, will you apply the knowledge and goodness that you have learned here when you get out there?

You leave us at a time of enormous transition in society.  The one thing I suspect we could all agree on – regardless of political persuasion – is that the rate of change is unprecedented in human history.  The problems that humanity will need to address together – and which will affect your generation for even longer than my own – make for a very long list.  We face these problems when some of our key political institutions are not in the best of shape.  The American political system, for one, is fractured – the United States Congress has a hard time reaching decisions on just about anything, candidates seem to be rewarded for making the most outrageous statements they can, and the common ground between American political parties appears to be microscopically small.

During your time at Andover, some of you have already focused on addressing the big social issues of our time.  Perhaps you agree with the economist Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote:

“[a]chieving sustainable development on our crowded, unequal, and degraded planet is the most important challenge facing our generation,”

and you were among those engaged with EcoAction in its work on climate change.  Perhaps your concern is global poverty and hunger, and you worked on a Real World Design Challenge to help feed the billions who are hungry.  Perhaps you traveled with a Learning in the World group to help bridge cultural gaps across nations and peoples.  Perhaps you led a Technovation challenge to imagine and start building the next big start-up to create jobs and solve social problems at the same time.

Today, I want to focus your mind on a particular challenge and opportunity that lies before you.  As we rush to solve these huge problems, we often reach to technology to help us do that.  As you know, I am, myself, very excited about what our use of technology can bring.  On this campus, we have used technology in new and exciting ways in our classrooms; and we have been finding ways to use technology to share what we have at Andover with others far from here.

At the same time, I fear that the unfettered use of technology will bring with it bigger problems than it solves.

Your time at Andover has been marked by the rise of many different technologies.  Consider the sharp rise in the use of drones over the past four years.  That Real World Design Challenge team from Andover that won the Massachusetts challenge?  This team proposed the use of a drone to aid farmers in their efforts to grow crops more efficiently and healthfully.  The United States relies increasingly on drones for important combat and intelligence missions.  Less profound, but more likely to affect you directly: Amazon.com announced earlier this year that it is testing the use of drones to deliver your packages – perhaps those who follow you at Andover will get their packages directly at their dorms, instead of at Central Services in GW.   These drones can save lives, improve the economy, and help feed the hungry.

The same goes for self-driving cars.  If Andover were in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, we’d already see Google’s self-driving cars making their way around town.  These autonomous cars are well on track to come into mainstream use before long, with the promise of reducing traffic fatalities, saving tens of thousands of lives in the United States alone each year.

The list of things that are in the process of being transformed is growing with enormous speed.  Artificial intelligence – derived, as you probably know, from the work of Marvin Minsky, Phillips Academy Class of 1945, who visited us this past year and who passed away recently – is behind these many changes.  These changes are coming to our kitchens – through the Internet of Things – and into every workplace.  These innovations are automating language translation, transforming industrial production, and altering our economy in radical ways.

What do these profound changes mean for you, soon-to-be graduates?

One might draw the conclusion that the important thing is for graduates to know how to master this array of automated systems.  To some extent, that is surely true.  There are jobs to be had in programming, security, and marketing of new technologies.  The government, of any nation you come from, needs you to help secure systems and borders – in cyberspace.  The private sector needs you, to grow and to expand our economy, in the United States and around the globe.  That is all true – and I do hope some of you pursue these kinds of occupations.  I know you will be quite successful in these pursuits if so.

The bigger conclusion that I draw, though, is that we also need the humanists.  I hope that all of you, with your newly-minted Andover diplomas, will take full advantage of the liberal arts experience you have had here.

To solve the problems that come along with advanced technology, society will need people with expertise that is deeper than the technical.  Increasingly, companies and governments are finding that the people needed to tackle computing problems have not just technical expertise, but the kind of imagination that comes from a liberal arts background.

Think ahead, beyond the immediate.  Imagine the kinds of thorny issues that we can expect from a world that is more automated than it is today.  With more computers making more decisions, including life-and-death decisions on the roads and in the air, in our waterways and in all imaginable form of transit, we need ethicists who will set sensible rules ahead of time.

Two self-driving cars, for instance, find themselves on a collision course.  What answer?  Perhaps imagine a drone in the mix.  Though tricky, this problem turns out not to be a new one.

There is a long philosophical tradition of the Trolleyologists, who have considered such problems for roughly half a century.  The Trolleyologists were a group of moral philosophers who took up a series of questions that may sound quaint today.  While there are variants on the problem, the classic version goes something like this:

A trolley – in our parlance, a train – goes out of control.  It is speeding toward a crowd of people.  The people in the crowd face certain death if the train hits them.  You are standing nearby.  You realize that you could save them: by flipping a switch, you could send the train in another direction, onto a spur.  In doing so, you would divert the train and surely save their lives.  Here’s the rub: a man is chained to the tracks on the spur.  That man would be surely killed if you divert the trolley away from the other group.

The Trolleyologists spent their time wondering: should you flick the switch to save the group of lives and kill the one man?  Though the language sounds old-fashioned, the topics that the Trolleyologists took up long ago are about to explode with frequency and importance.

It turns out, you have huge advantages when it comes to tackling hard problems like this one, and the others you will face – problems that have eluded those of us who are a bit older than you are.  At Andover, you have learned much along these lines.  You have devoted yourself to the study of a broad and deep set of materials and topics.  You have all engaged in the arts, in the sciences, in the study of languages, in English, in history, and in philosophy and religious studies.

You have learned, in a long and grand tradition, how to make good decisions.  Sound human judgment is an essential element of a strong society.  Especially as we head into a more and more automated world, the decisions that humans make – often up front, or “ex ante,” before the problems occur – will only take on a greater importance.

This liberal arts tradition is not new; nor is it by chance that you are well-prepared for these hard issues.  In his inaugural address as headmaster of Andover, John Mason Kemper took up a similar theme:

“There must be faith that in every human being there is a generosity of spirit which will respond to decent treatment and the stimulus of selfless leadership. Tolerance, sympathy, respect must inevitably result in team work. Team work, in turn, can solve many community problems far beyond the capacity of any individual to solve.”

Kemper also said, that day, that:

“[…] knowledge of many fields, a wide range of interests, will enhance the understanding of the interrelation of events and activities.”

The Andover of today – your Andover – is not far different from the Andover of 1948 in these essential respects – no matter how many drones may swirl overhead.

You have a second essential advantage.  You are bridge-builders.  We have asked you, in many ways and in many contexts, to spend time with other youth from every quarter.

You will bring to these essential, emerging problems your ability to get along with one another and to listen to one another.  I know that we have not been perfect at that these past four years.  (We have not been perfect at that these past four weeks, for that matter.)  But I put great stock in the fact that you’ve had a lot of practice.  You have lived, worked, argued, and played alongside an extraordinarily diverse group of peers and faculty.  You have disagreed with one another, quite vociferously at times.  You have hurt one another’s feelings and you have struggled through hard days and long nights.  But here you all are.  You come together today as a class, the Class of 2016, graduating together.

I can’t possibly say what the biggest problems of tomorrow will be, exactly.  But to solve the problems that face society today and will face society going forward, I am certain that we will need people who can listen to one another; people who can appreciate other points of view; people who cherish diversity in all its forms; and people who can work across difference, turning the other cheek, setting aside hate and anger – choosing, instead, empathy and love.

The founders of Phillips Academy and Abbot Academy were devout Christians.  Though today we do not invoke religion as often as 238 years ago, I am reminded of a passage from Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.”

Those who have gone before us have also urged us to do so in the spirit of making a difference.  In the words of former Abbot Academy principal Phebe McKeen:

“Girls are urged to consider their education incomplete till they have learned to do some one thing that the world will count it worth paying for.”

We seek, at Andover, for our work to be connected to the world at large – just as the Abbot women of the past urged their graduates.  We talk of an Andover Bubble, but we aspire to be more than a place of isolation.  Through our work on campus and in off-campus community engagement, we aspire to make a difference in the world.  Mostly, thought, we aspire to do that through you – our graduates.  What you go on to do is the source of our greatest hope and our greatest pride.

You may have thought your work at Andover has just concluded; I am here today to tell you that your work at Andover is just about to begin.  That work is not about exams or races or concerts or plays or art installations on campus – it’s about how you will act in a world that needs your care, your support, your leadership, and your good human judgment.  As we bid you adieu, we have enormous faith in what you, the class of 2016, will do – in all your humanity, with all your grace.  Congratulations, and Godspeed.  Thank you.

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Head of School Bookshelf, Winter, 2016 Edition

For the cozy Sundays in New England, with snow lying all around (as it is this morning in Andover, MA), here’s the line-up of books I have put out on the Head of School bookshelf for faculty at Phillips Academy:

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time.  I re-read it over the winter holiday break and was glad I did.  Originally published in 1963, The Fire Next Time seemed an apt choice to pair with Coates’ Between the World and Me.  Michelle Alexander linked the two in her elegant August, 2015 piece in the New York Times Book Review.

Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney, Slut: A Play and Guidebook for Combating Sexism and Sexual Violence.  The cast of “Slut” performed on the Phillips Academy campus for our students, faculty, staff, and parents last month.  They were astonishing.  As we educators and parents all grapple with how to contend with sexual violence, ongoing changes in adolescent culture, and the power of both silence and speaking up, this work is powerful.

Ta Nehisi-Coates, Between the World and Me.  So much has been said and written about this book and why it is important that I probably can’t add anything meaningful, other than encouragement to read it.  It’s not easy or optimistic or pleasurable (other than in appreciating the prose itself and the power of the narrative).  Its critical and popular reception speak to its timeliness and resonance.

Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker, Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation to Improve Schools.  I am a believer in a future of education that connects the traditional, offline mode of teaching and learning with the best aspects of the online, often informal modes.  This book is a helpful resource for those interested in what a blend of the disruptive with the tried-and-true could look like.

Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era.  This book is fun: the experience is of listening in on a dinner-party conversation between three of the leading scholars of the digital age.  In an interactive way, they each reflect on the work they’ve done in this fast-changing field and on what they think is most salient about it.  I make it a point to read just about everything they write.  Here, they are all together in a single text.

Janice Y.K. Lee, The Expatriates.  Before my last Head of School Bookshelf, a faculty colleague at Andover challenged me to add fiction to the mix, so I’m planning to include at least one each time.  I chose Janice Lee’s second novel for the expatriate experience it describes.  The themes will sound familiar to those who have lived abroad or whose children are living abroad — say, at a boarding school.  Pair it with Lee’s first novel, The Piano Teacher, for a great education on Hong Kong expat life between the end of the second World War and today.  Maggie Pouncey, writing in The New York Times Book Review, called Lee “a female, funny Henry James in Asia.”