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Student Affairs  /  Campus Announcements  /  2023-24 Academic Year-End Letter

2023-24 Academic Year-End Letter

June 3, 2024

To: The Caltech Community
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and Professor of Physics
Date: June 3, 2024

Give me your tired, your poor.
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

—Emma Lazarus

In 1886, the people of France presented a sculpture of the Roman goddess Libertas to the United States, marking the two nations' shared values of freedom and democracy. Erected in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, rising 305 feet from base to torch, has been a beacon to generations of immigrants arriving at our shores. The serene beauty of the Statue stands in contrast to the controlled chaos of the processing center at Ellis Island, just two-thirds of a nautical mile away. 

A few weeks ago, I sat in the Great Hall at Ellis Island. Festooned with flags and filled with banquet tables, it was a far cry from the scenes of immigrants, possessions in hand and children in tow, pleading their cases to start new lives. Nonetheless, it was impossible not to summon those ghosts of the past, sometimes as close as our parents and grandparents, and to be enveloped in memory.

The occasion was a ceremony to mark the contributions of immigrants and their progeny to creating and fortifying a nation unlike any other. In every sphere of American life—government, the military, business, science, technology, the arts, academia—those who have built their lives in America have played pivotal professional, cultural, and civic roles.

On the ferry back to Battery Park, fireworks lit up the sky over New York Harbor. Reds and whites and blues played off the green copper sheath of the Statue of Liberty, amplifying the intensity of the glow from her torch. By the end, smoke from expended fireworks rose from the barge moored near Ellis Island to shroud the Statue. Only the torch remained clearly visible.

I fear that the smoke curling around and partially obscuring Lady Liberty may be a metaphor for our times. Waves of immigrants have come to America over the decades, occasioning welcome, but also fear. Fear of threats to our prosperity and our way of life, of being subsumed by the other or of harboring foreign agents in our midst. The data clearly indicate the repeated net contributions of immigrants to American economic well-being, to American scientific and technological leadership, to American cultural vibrancy. But the cycles of resentment and restriction continue.

Caltech is particularly vulnerable to the loss of foreign talent. We are a destination of choice for the best and brightest from around the globe. At six percent of the world's population, it is unrealistic to expect that all the most creative and original individuals will be born in America.  Approximately 45 percent of our faculty were born abroad. Most are now US residents or citizens. Go to any briefing on a key mission at JPL, and it will feature scientists originally from China, from India, from Iran, from Europe. The free movement of people and ideas undergirds our success as a premier research and educational Institute.

Government policies and rhetoric, however, often do not reflect this reality, especially in an election year. As the Caltech community, one that is particularly collaborative, interdisciplinary, and tight knit, we are called to emphasize our shared devotion to discovery, our welcoming of different perspectives, our commitment to an inclusive environment for all. This is a difficult task in polarized times. But it is an essential task if we hope to keep Liberty's lamp in sight.