Last week the newly-elected president of Northwestern University, Dr. Morton O. Schapiro, was on campus for a visit. Morty is a first-rate scholar and, more important, a mensch. I have a good feeling that he will bring some significant new ideas to the university.

When he took the stage, I was struck by the fact that while the audience clapped, they (we) did not stand. Perhaps it’s just the yeshiva student in me, but I have been disciplined such that when the head of your institution walks in the room, you stand up. There’s a great West Wing episode about this. Watch:

This quarter I’m taking a course on ritual theory, and today we were discussing academic gatherings of this sort and analyzing them as rituals. And I found myself asking, Why did no one stand up? There was frankly a lack of ritual in the introduction of the new president. He didn’t give a prepared address (though is impromptu comments were very good). There was no music or ceremony. And Morty is a simple guy–he goes by Morty, for crying out loud–so I’d imagine he’d say he wouldn’t want any ceremony.

But I think we forget something important about the power of ritual, the necessity for ritual, in moments like this. Ritual has been defined all kinds of ways, but one thing we know about it is that in creating ritual space, we create meaningful space. We create space and time in which we can be intentional, when we can act out our aspirations and sense of purpose. In moments of ritual, we bind together community in a sense of common mission.

That sense has been lacking at Northwestern for a long time, as it has at many other universities. (Though it’s only lacking on the official level. All the major events and activities that claim students’ attention outside the classroom at NU–Greek life, Theater, Dance Marathon–are steeped in ritual.) If we are going to rebuild a sense of community, I believe we have to begin by reclaiming ritual. And here’s a simple way to start: When the president of the university walks in the room, stand up.

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