Our Tradition of Scholarly Inquiry

December 11, 2013 | Salute to Scholars, The University

In the fall 2013 issue of CUNY Matters, Nobel prize-winning chemist and CUNY alumnus Jerome Karle, who passed away in June, was celebrated for his contributions to his field and to the University. Karle’s legacy is extended by CUNY scholars, men and women who advance the fundamental mission of the University: preserving, transmitting, and generating new knowledge. That work is embedded in CUNY’s DNA, passed from mentor to student, each identifying critical questions, unpacking data and positing new approaches and answers.

Perseverance is essential. Jonas Salk, another CUNY alumnus and the creator of the polio vaccine, is said to have observed, “Nothing happens quite by chance. It’s a question of accretion of information and experience.” Flashes of inspiration and intuition may come, but only after countless equations have been solved, reams of source material reviewed, dozens of theories discarded.

It’s particularly satisfying to witness our students embrace this tradition of scholarly inquiry. From Salk Scholars – undergraduates awarded scholarships for medical study based on their original research papers – to doctoral fellows pursuing interdisciplinary research through the Advanced Research Collaboration, their work, like that of their mentors, is expanding the boundaries of knowledge.

This is one of the aims of the University’s research agenda, demonstrated most emphatically by the development of CUNY’s Advanced Science Research Center. When it opens in fall 2014, the building, designed as a collaborative, interdisciplinary science park – an “intellectual crossroads,” as Vice Chancellor for Research Gillian Small calls it – will encourage new dialogue and fresh connections.

The scope of CUNY’s research is also reflected in the work of the Research Foundation, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. A scan of its yearly reports (www.rfcuny.org) documents the development of treatments for spinal cord injuries, the creation of programs to support at-risk teenagers, improved understanding of the effects of climate change on urban areas, and much more.

Among the questions posed by Salk was one that serves as a guiding principle for every CUNY scholar: “Are we being good ancestors?” The best scholarship embraces a vibrant intellectual tradition to build a more civil, humane and informed future.

— Interim Chancellor William P. Kelly is a distinguished scholar of American literature.