Hunter College President Jennifer Raab Speaks Eloquently at the 75th Anniversary of Roosevelt House
(L-R) Doris Kearns Goodwin, Judy Collins, Pres. Jennifer Raab
(L-R) Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin,
Harold Holzer, Geoffrey Ward, Jonathan Alter
Welcome to this very special celebration: the 75th anniversary of Roosevelt House as Hunter’s glittering crown jewel.
Here, history was made, generations educated, and diversity celebrated.
And here, in that very same spirit, today’s Hunter College students again gather to learn, and engage, inspired now as then, by the two extraordinary Americans who once lived here: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.
If these walls could speak—and sometimes we almost imagine that they do—they would echo with the commitments that Franklin and Eleanor personified: to secure and preserve dignity, equality, and opportunity for all people, regardless of race, religion, or circumstance.
Franklin and Eleanor spent a quarter of a century here. FDR summoned the courage and resilience to recover from the crushing disability of polio; here, he rose again so he could lift America from its knees in the wake of the great depression.
Eleanor found her calling, at first in service to the neediest New Yorkers.
That modest effort launched a career that culminated decades later in the UN’s passage of her crowning achievement: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — and her own emergence as first lady of the world.
During that time, FDR asked Frances Perkins to become the first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet.
How perfect for that stubborn glass ceiling to be shattered in a building that would later become the heart of one of the nation’s first colleges for women?
Sara would live here until her death in 1941. The following year, the grieving president decided to put the building up for sale—for all of $60,000—surely the real estate bargain of the 20th century.
Hunter formally acquired the twin townhouses the following year.
In its new incarnation, it would be named for Franklin’s mother and serve as a gathering place for Hunter students as well as a headquarters for its house plans and social clubs.
Above all it was an interfaith house where Jew and Gentile, and women of all races, sat at the same table—not only a Roosevelt family tradition, but a commitment to access and equality that we trace back to our founder Thomas Hunter. The Roosevelts enthusiastically endorsed the new plan.
And so, following some touch-ups for the home’s new life as a campus center, the college planned a gala opening—for November 1943 … exactly 75 years ago.
Not everything went as planned. Something happened between Sara’s death and opening day: a World War II ceremony, FDR could not join us. He had an awfully good excuse: He was steaming across the Atlantic aboard the battleship USS Iowa, en route to Tehran for an allied summit with Churchill and Stalin.
Hillel operated here under the leadership of a woman whose son would later lead the New York Times: Toby Lelyveld. Hunter’s first African-American sorority convened here.
Downstairs rooms were used for dances; upstairs rooms for study groups, discussions, and meetings.
The house echoed with laughter, music, ideas, and plans.
When I arrived as Hunter’s President 17 years ago, the fate and future of this building was by no means certain.
It could have gone either way. The entire city university system was struggling to regain its standing; Hunter recommitted itself to academic excellence as a first priority.
There were many who thought Roosevelt House a discardable relic, not a high priority.
But we truly believed that this building represented Hunter at its best and most ambitious, and was not only worth preserving, but re-conceiving.
So in 2002, with the financial and emotional support of so many of you here tonight, we commissioned the architect James Polshek to re-imagine this building, and successfully secured $24 million to restore it.
Eight years ago, on November 15, 2010, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon cut the ribbon for the new Roosevelt House which reopened as a public policy institute—with curricula and programs chartered and led by the extraordinary Jonathan Fanton. We are so delighted to welcome this founding father of the modern Roosevelt House back for this celebration and I must add a special thank you as well to my longtime partner in crime in this and many other endeavors, and the former Hunter College Provost who now serves the entire city university system as Interim Chancellor—welcome home to Vita Rabinowitz!
What we now teach is what the Roosevelts once articulated and advocated: freedom of speech and religion; freedom from want and fear—and the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to make the American dream come true.
I mentioned a number of outstanding hunter alumnae this evening—and I want to close with one more: her name is Thamara Jean, Hunter class of 2018. Like so many earlier Hunter students, Thamara was the first in her family to go to college. Born to immigrant parents from Haiti — her father is a janitor at a Brooklyn synagogue — Tamara is but the latest in a long line of graduates with similar life stories — but also unique — because this year Thamara Jean became the first in Hunter’s history to win a prestigious Rhodes scholarship.
Today, Thamara is pursuing her education at Oxford University — galvanized by her time at Roosevelt house.
As you can see, this sacred and vibrant place continues to inspire students, 75 years after the dedication whose anniversary we celebrate tonight.
Hunter’s motto is mihi cura futuri, “the care of the future is mine…” we live that motto everyday. #