With Honor and Gratitude

American Academy of Arts and Sciences Acceptance

November 13, 2014

Dear Mr. Randel,

I am deeply honored to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and with gratitude accept membership in this esteemed society.

Such recognition does prompt one to pause and reflect on one’s professional journey, its steady contours and its unexpected twists and turns. Most of all, I have a deep sense of gratitude to a set of people and institutions that have allowed me to pursue my dreams and enabled me to progress, as scholar and as administrator, far beyond what I had any right to expect. I am particularly fortunate for five reasons: 1) a special set of academic guides and mentors, 2) the generous scholarship support of colleges and universities, 3) a set of foundations committed to the life of the mind and to scholarly support, 4) a group of historian-colleagues in whose company I found clarity of purpose and deep friendship, and 5) the two universities that have been my academic home and the talented university trustees whose wisdom and generosity enable them to flourish.

I am thankful, first, for a great set of teachers and mentors. I remember professors such as Art Holmes and John Murrin, whose lectures were so well crafted and artfully delivered that, unknowingly, they shifted my whole framework about what quality work meant. Even if I could not achieve their gold standard, I could work with might and means to that end.

I remember, in my first year of graduate school, a lively debate between J.G.A. Pocock and Quinton Skinner about the nature of 17th century political language. I understood at that time little of the nuance of their discussion, but I did learn something about how to ask fundamental historical questions, such as: what languages were available, and possible, for a given generation to employ? I shall never forget the thoughtfulness of John Murrin in reading and criticizing the first chapter of my dissertation on the same hot summer day that he was in the throes of moving from St. Louis to Princeton.

I was privileged to go to graduate school on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, and to spend post-doctoral years at the Johns Hopkins University and at Harvard University through generous institutional support. I am indebted to Professor Timothy Smith for his friendship and trenchant criticism of my writing and to Professor Bernard Bailyn for giving me ample freedom to explore and develop a second major project – even when it meant ditching the research proposal I had submitted to the Warren Center.

I am grateful to the Lilly Endowment for generously supporting a group of colleagues and friends who worked in American religious history, and to the Pew Charitable Trusts who also invested in my own work, and that of many younger scholars intrigued by the religious dimensions of modern life.

I am grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities, which supported my own scholarly work and which funded major programs in Medieval and Irish studies at Notre Dame, where I served as an administrator. Later, as a member of the National Council on the Humanities, I also had the privilege to collaborate in the funding of many scholars and programs.

As a young historian, I fell in with a remarkable set of colleagues tilling adjacent vineyards. The number expanded over time, but its core included Mark Noll, George Marsden, Harry Stout, Grant Wacker, Joel Carpenter, George Rawlyk, Edith Blumhofer, Randy Balmer, James Bratt and Mike Hamilton. We took on projects together and met in the summer – with our families – to read and criticize each other’s work. This scholarly community was deeply formative – a rare gift for those whose scholarly path could also be a lonely one.

I have been privileged to serve in the administration of two remarkable universities – Notre Dame and Wake Forest. My admiration for Father Theodore Hesburgh knows no bounds. In the 1950s, against all odds, he envisioned a great Catholic University and, more impressively, has been able to see much of that dream realized. I owe a great debt to his successors – Father Edward Malloy and Father John Jenkins. They and other Notre Dame administrators, such as Professors John Affleck-Graces and Carol Mooney, were marvelous colleagues, all appropriately ambitious and shrewd, but also deeply caring and collegial.

At Wake Forest University – what we call a “collegiate university” – I have been privileged to see a university that combines high standards, lively community engagement and a rare commitment to individual students.

This kind of community, rare among universities, is radically traditional. Its magic is that faculty are actually interested in and committed to their students. We know that the most powerful predictor of academic success at any level is when teachers believe that students can achieve. That spark often lights the fire of insight and exploration. Students come to know they matter, and that is a game-changer when it comes to motivation.

I am grateful to so many faculty at Wake Forest – past and present – who, in the august tradition of Professor Ed Wilson, have sustained and renewed this kind of learning community. It is a great gift to students – and to all of us privileged to work in higher education.

As a beneficiary of strong and purposeful universities, I am also grateful for trustees who serve and sustain these institutions. The distinctive of American higher education is that so much of its dynamic spirit has flowed from the third, or voluntary, sector – not just from government, church or even academics themselves.

It is the commitment and generosity of trustees, most of whom are not educators, that allows so much of higher education to thrive. As an administrator, I have been privileged to work with talented and committed trustees from business, finance, law, medicine, real estate, the media and the clergy. Good trustees ask tough questions, demand high performance, sustain institutional ambition, offer insight and advice, and provide financial resources that allow our institutions to thrive. They also enable those of us privileged to lead universities to remain grounded in the concerns and needs of the broader society whom we serve.

I have enjoyed a privileged life. In college and graduate school, I discovered the joy of studying and learning – and that’s a path I never really had to leave. I loved teaching and writing history and collaborating with other historians. I loved working to build a university culture in which teachers and scholars could flourish and fulfill their dreams. Colleges and universities today carry the torch of opportunity, of learning, of civility – of helping the next generation find what it means to lead lives that matter. Investing in that enterprise has been a high calling, indeed.


Nathan O. Hatch

Categories: Letters