Reflection on the Semester: Why I Came to Loyola
April 20, 2020
Dear Loyola Community,
A few weeks ago, I sent a message to the Loyola University Chicago community conveying my admiration for its resilience in the face of the COVID-19 crisis. Time has passed and we are now beginning the last week of the spring semester. Semester finals are almost upon us. Hence, as we edge near the closing of an academic cycle, maybe the time has arrived for me to communicate with you again.
In the days since my first message, it occurred to me that none of what I communicated was surprising to you. Perhaps you thought, “Look at the new kid on the block commenting on something that we have known forever.” Then I realized that few of you knew this new kid on the block. Even fewer were aware of why I chose to come to Loyola. So, I decided to compose a message explaining my decision to you, hoping that the account would assist you in getting to know me a little better.
When I was a little boy, my grandma Pola always acted the same when she saw me. She would pinch my cheeks, repeat my name three times “Norberto, Norberto, Norberto,” and start crying. I did not understand why she cried until much later in life. I eventually found out that I had inherited the name Norberto from her father and that he, along with much of my grandma’s extended family, had been exterminated in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. I thought she cried because I reminded her of her father and his tragic circumstances.
One of the most indelible marks that her tears left on me was a strong sense of social justice. I abhor bullying and prejudice. I also abhor seeing people treated without dignity, the unchecked consequences of social disparities, and the hopelessness of the marginalized. Although I am a basic scientist, I have devoted much of my career to developing programs that address the most urgent social challenges, hoping to help alleviate human suffering. As a scientist, I worked with many talented experts in an effort to cure blindness. When I was dean at Georgetown University, I created interdisciplinary graduate programs dedicated to solving some of the most vexing and complex problems of our times. These programs addressed, for example, environmental stresses, global infectious diseases, the aging of the population, and addiction. And now, I am here, excited to develop programs like these side-by-side with you.
During my academic career, I have long admired Loyola. Therefore, when I received the call to join Loyola as its provost, my heart exploded with joy and excitement. These are tough times for universities. The trust of the public in institutions of higher learning is eroding because those institutions appear detached from the needs of society or are perceived as untrustworthy. In my mind, institutions of higher learning must respond to these challenges lest they become obsolete, irrelevant, or simply perish.
I believe that Loyola is uniquely positioned to respond to these challenges. I believe that our university can become a model for the higher education of the future and a bright beam of light in the world. I am not saying this gratuitously. I say this because embedded in the core mission of our university is service to society. Furthermore, implanted within our core mission is cura personalis. We strive to help each individual student find a personalized calling. Also noteworthy: We are a university with an increasingly diverse population of students. As just one example among many, almost 30 percent of our undergraduate students are first-generation college students. The inclusion of diverse scholars is essential for social justice, the enrichment of academic ideas, and increased innovative breakthroughs like the ones needed during a pandemic. When people with diverse minds and experiences come together and challenge each other’s assumptions and thinking, new knowledge accelerates, and we all gain.
I am not saying that we are a perfect university. Far from it. Already in my first weeks here, I see opportunities and challenges, which we must lean into and address in the months and years to come. What I am saying is that if we break down old silos and expand innovative collaboration, I am confident that this can be our moment. My excitement stems from the vision that, by working together, students, faculty, and staff can energize each other and build a University of the future, and a model for other universities to follow. From every trial, an opportunity or triumph arises. Even from the disappointment and discouragement of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, I see indications of hope and fortitude for beneficial changes. This is just like the phoenix, which arises to life again from the ashes of its predecessor.
The image of our University as a phoenix rising evokes in me a thought that brings me back to the beginning of this message. Perhaps my grandmother did not cry because I reminded her of her father. Perhaps she cried because a new Norberto arose from the ashes of the former one. I brought her the hope of renewal, exactly as we should dream for our University, which in its renewal, embarks towards the next 150 years. I thus beg you that when you respond to my messages, see me in Zoom meetings, or eventually bump into me around our campuses do not call me Provost or Dr. Grzywacz. Just call me Norberto. I am certain when you do that, my grandma will be smiling at us from heaven.
Together in Loyola,
Norberto Grzywacz, PhD, Provost and Chief Academic Officer