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Stellenbosch University Graduation:
“Towards A Future Based on Innovation”

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Stellenbosch University
Matieland, South Africa

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chancellor Van Zyl Slabbert, Vice-Chancellor and Rector Botman, graduates, faculty, honored guests, family, and friends — good afternoon.

Graduates — I am delighted and honored to be here on this happy day for you. Widespread congratulations are in order, but let me begin first with the families, and friends, who, together, were partners in making this day possible.

Faculty — you have given the greatest of all gifts to the young adults graduating today — the kind of education that will enable them to live lives of meaning.

I offer my heartfelt congratulations to the graduates — not only on your considerable accomplishment in earning a degree from this fine university — but, also, on your exquisite sense of timing. You are moving out into a world that is likely to be more receptive to your ideas than it has been to the ideas of any group of graduates in recent decades. This is a world that needs your energy and your creativity, and knows it.

Of course, some of you may be less than pleased with your own sense of timing, since you are graduating into the worst global economic downturn since World War II. But dealing with adverse conditions is not new to many of you, nor to your country — and especially not to the whole of Africa.

Fortunately, the downturn is not expected to be as severe in South Africa as in the United States, in part because you volunteered yourselves as hosts for next year’s FIFA World Cup. My country, on the other hand, purports to be an advanced society, yet, somehow, never has embraced football — what we call soccer — with the fervor you have. I will not even attempt to defend this cultural blind-spot. I would rather acknowledge this remarkable moment in which you will begin your professional lives.

What about this moment? You know that some historians contend that the 20th century actually began in 1914, with a cataclysmic world war that meant the end of empires, but also the beginning of attempts at international cooperation, and astounding technological advances that vastly bettered daily life.

I believe we stand at a similar point today — at what is, perhaps, the true beginning of the 21st century, with its global connotations, and all of its attendant challenges. Countries ranging from Iceland, to Hungary, to China, to my own — the United States, are experiencing severe economic shocks, including a credit crisis, bank failures, declining trade, imploded and imploding equities, housing, and job markets.

These come hard on the heels of the other shocks of recent years, including volatility in the prices of oil and food, and evidence that climate change may be progressing even more rapidly than previously feared. It is likely to be particularly cruel on this continent, where countries that already are water-stressed — many of which rely on rain-fed agriculture — may become even drier.

The many shocks are not unrelated. Both economically and environmentally, the status quo is untenable. Developed countries and emerging economies, alike, cannot purely base their hopes for the future on fossil fuels and financial engineering. We cannot continue to live off of — nor expect those who are trying to raise their living standards to live off of — obsolete technologies, nor to abide entrenched interests that smother innovation, and are willing to sacrifice the long-term for the short-term, with a blindness to the world’s inequalities. Our global economic security, energy security, food security, and political security all depend on our ability to think and to act in radically new ways.

You who are graduating have an opening, now, to seize the day and to build the world anew. While the word “sustainability” has become commonplace in environmental discussions in recent years, the concept is a useful one, even outside the ecological realm. The great challenge facing today’s Economic and Management Sciences graduates is to create a sustainable economy going forward, one in which financial markets are engines of economic growth — for all societies, while avoiding global economic meltdown due to excesses — excesses of leverage, complexity, and greed.

The current global economic crisis suggests that the healthiest economies of the future will rely far less on financial manipulation — and far, far more on innovation. While finance always must have its position in a sophisticated global marketplace, in recent years, it drew a lot of talent that might have been applied to civil engineering, particle physics — or viticulture. It is still likely that many talented people, going forward, will earn their living in the financial services industry. But more, as well, will be engaged in offering concrete solutions to global challenges. New technologies will be much needed, and much in demand. To exploit them, many of today’s graduates may well find themselves becoming entrepreneurs — or thinking like them.

Fortunately, great universities like Stellenbosch and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute value creativity, discovery, and innovation, and encourage entrepreneurial thinking and action — from its faculty, students, and graduates. Rensselaer alumnus, entrepreneur, film-maker, and MapInfo founder Sean O’Sullivan has challenged us to really change the world, and recently has given us a gift that will allow student teams from both of our institutions to work together to find new answers in the fields of energy, the environment, water resources, transportation, and disease control — all “glocal” — i.e., global in scope, local in impact.

The current economic downturn is proving that the “global economy” is not merely an idea, but a fact. Many believe that the current financial crisis first began in 2007 when homeowners in distressed U.S. cities such as Detroit, having been sold inappropriate mortgages, were unable to pay for them. The roots of the crisis were deeper, however, as banks and hedge funds, and other financial institutions turned these mortgages into complex derivative products, that were bought and sold and re-sold. To do the transactions, these institutions leveraged themselves up, without fully understanding, or pricing in, the risks inherent in these products, and, then, sold them around the world. Global bankers soon discovered something unexpected — that because of the way these financial products were structured and globally traded, the struggles of Detroiters were their struggles, as well.

Yes, this is the new reality of our shrinking world — just as financial markets are globally connected, the challenges of our time, beginning with climate change and the question of how to feed 6.8 billion people, are global. You — the graduates here — may be far ahead of the rest of your peers in other nations in understanding how interconnected we are, given South Africa’s leadership role in Africa, and the Stellenbosch University mission to bring science and technology to the rest of the continent.

Today’s AgriSciences graduates may have chosen their fields of study out of love for the sun and soil, but they inevitably are going to have a significant role in addressing the most important geopolitical issues of our day. The challenge of creating a sustainable agriculture to feed billions, in a changing climate, will require both large scientific advances and very careful observations of nature — such as those that are allowing small farmers in the Sahel to use basic understanding of agriculture, without sophisticated technologies, to turn back desertification. The “greening” of the semi-arid Sahel, by subsistence farmers, is just one of many such farmer-led success stories in Africa. The Sahel farmers’ methods of making the best possible use of limited rainfall include planting crops in manure pits, planting trees whose roots hold water in the soil, and using lines of stones to prevent water runoff. The future clearly is going to reward more creative, and, ultimately, better-educated farmers everywhere.

The factories of a more sustainable energy future may well turn out to be farms, as today’s graduates may grow far more than food. At Rensselaer, we have established a center for biochemical solar research that will study the original solar panels — plants — in hopes of mimicking their efficiency in converting sunlight into energy. Some of you may someday use these advances to generate power, as well as wonderful wine. Others of you may grow advanced materials for construction and industry in your fields and forests. Two recent Rensselaer graduates, for example, have developed insulation and packing materials made from mushroom sources, rice hulls, and recycled paper. Still others of you may produce essential medicines in the milk of bioengineered goats.

Whatever shape your lives take, they are certain to involve ideas and approaches that represent a radical break with the past. I benefited greatly, in my career, by beginning it as the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement broke with our past in the U.S., and opened up new possibilities for African-Americans, while the race to put a man on the moon opened up new possibilities for scientists.

Fortunately, at a moment like this, when it becomes clear that we must rethink, new possibilities open up once again. My own nation, the United States of America, continues to transform itself, with the election of our first African American, multi-cultural President. It is another step along the road to moving beyond our painful history of slavery, toward an equitable future. In electing our first president of African heritage last fall, we set aside a long history of racial divide, in order to choose a leader with the confidence to steer us out of crisis.

President Barack Obama has told our nation that this is not a time for retreat, but rather the opposite. It is a time to resolve problems long unaddressed, and to invest in education, infrastructure, health care, and renewable energy.

You, too, are beginning your adult lives in the midst of great change — not just early in the history of South Africa’s beautiful young democracy, but, also, at a moment when it is clear that the world, as a whole, must blaze a new path towards fairness and sustainability.

In thinking about my ultimate message to you, I harkened back to a little of the history of this university. Stellenbosch University began in 1866. It has grown to become one of the top universities in South Africa — indeed in the whole of Africa. Its roots, obviously, include the apartheid era — having produced many of the Afrikaner thought and political leaders during that time. One hundred years after its founding, in 1966, a curious thing happened at Stellenbosch: Robert F. Kennedy spoke here. Many in the U.S. did not agree with South Africa about apartheid, even as the U.S. was locked in a struggle to free itself from its history of slavery, racial violence, and segregation. Thirty years later, in 1996, President Nelson Mandela spoke here upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Stellenbosch University. Then 10 years further on, in 2006, you elected your first black Vice-Chancellor and Rector, Dr. Russel Botman — a highly respected, world renowned theologian.

Each of these events was seminal in the history of your university, and of your country. Now, as you are about to take your places in the world as graduates, it is perhaps instructive to reflect upon what Kennedy, Mandela, and Botman each had to say during these moments in your history.

I begin with Robert F. Kennedy. In his address, he noted that “It would be simpler to follow the easy and familiar path of personal ambition and private gain” — in part, because “the very education which equips you for service to mankind also prepares you for a place in society far removed from the problems for whose solution you are so desperately needed.” Those who receive such an education have, he said, a “solemn obligation … to work to meet our responsibilities to that greater part of mankind which needs our assistance — to the deprived and the downtrodden, the insulted and injured.” That is certainly true to your mission, and the vision that Rector Botman has laid out for Stellenbosch University.

But Kennedy earlier told his Stellenbosch audience, that day, that, “In the world of 1966, no nation is an island unto itself. Global systems of transportation and communications and economics have transformed our sense of geography, and outmoded all the old concepts of self-sufficiency.” Today, with the advent of ever faster transport and communications, especially the Internet — and with the linked challenges of global health, global energy security, and climate change, Kennedy’s words are more true than ever. To quote Mr. Kennedy’s speech once again, “No longer can any people be oblivious to the fate and future of any other.”

I was particularly struck by the distinction President Nelson Mandela made, in his Stellenbosch University address, that greatness of spirit did not mean acting in a state of humiliation, but rather in a spirit of humility. “It is this kind of meekness and generosity of spirit,” he said, “which makes us receptive to our common humanity.” He spoke of the need for a new multicultural — and even multilingual — context for progress, when he spoke of Afrikaans as a “highly developed scholarly and scientific language,” but that “no single language” should be the basis for furthering “ethnic or narrowly cultural separation.”

These themes were amplified by Professor Botman on the occasion of his installation as rector of Stellenbosch University, when he spoke of promoting “Afrikaans in a multilingual context,” and indicated that he wished “to lead the University to increasingly becoming a multicultural home for all: where everyone will be welcomed and supported and where no one ever again needs to fear.”

With these words and concepts as a backdrop, if there were one idea I would have you take with you today, it is that understanding and combining our common humanity is essential for transformative change, and that transformative, positive change, while often difficult, is fundamental to the human condition, and, as such, is to be embraced. Your own university, and your own nation, have begun a radical, and critically important, transformation. Once, Stellenbosch alumni ruled South Africa in white domination. Stellenbosch was the intellectual cradle of Afrikaner nationalism and Apartheid — as you know — even as other Stellenbosch intellects warned of the dangers of Apartheid. Today, Stellenbosch may be viewed as a symbol of the new South Africa — a beacon of hope for the world — based upon what your Rector repeatedly refers to as “a pedagogy of hope” in its approach to education.

In this regard, change — even global economic change — may be difficult and worrying, but it, also, may become the turning point toward a better order, a more equitable order, a better world. It takes courage to make your way when the old ways are crumbling, but the opportunity to make a difference, also, is that much greater.

I hope that all of you will be willing to trust your best ideas, and to act on them. The world needs you to be bold now, to take intelligent risks, to find new ways to help us all move forward, and — as you do that — to be compassionate and just. The power is in your hands.

Again, congratulations to the graduates.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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