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Diversity in Context: New Perspectives for Science, Discovery, and Innovation

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

University of Miami
School of Business Administration and College of Engineering
Miami, Florida

Friday, May 11, 2007

Good morning.

It is a distinct honor to be here with my friend and colleague, President Donna E. Shalala, who leads this fine institution with the same distinction she has always displayed when ever she has been called to leadership.

And, it is a distinct honor to share this special day with you — the 2007 graduates of the College of Engineering and the School of Business Administration. I offer you my sincere and enthusiastic congratulations.

Nearly forty years ago, I was sitting where you are sitting today. I had a great deal on my mind, as I sat there. I was nervous and excited, as I expect you are. I was thinking about getting across the stage, more or less gracefully, and without mishap. I was looking forward to the conclusion of this exercise, and to celebrating with my family, of course.

But fundamentally, I was nervous about the future — about the great unknown which looms to the fore after one has completed a major undertaking.

Indeed, when I was sitting where you are sitting, worrying about the walk to receive my diploma, the future, indeed, was tremendously uncertain. My generation was deeply impacted by events and circumstances which were playing out across the nation and across the world. We were in the midst of a fundamental societal shift — a shift driven by the Civil Rights movement, and by our involvement in a war on the other side of the globe.

The nation was debating fairness and equality, which ultimately resulted in legislation ending legal racial segregation, and which, in so doing, offered whole segments of the population new opportunity and fresh prospect. I was one whose life and career outlook changed because of this debate and its outcomes — beginning, early on, with the desegregation of public schools in Washington, D.C., where I grew up, after the momentous Brown vs. Board of Education U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1954.

Our nation was at war when I graduated — in Vietnam — a war which seemed to have no near-term conclusion. It was a conflict about which many were unclear as to exactly how and why our nation had become involved. It was a war which had grown increasingly unpopular. People of your age were at the forefront of these shifts — demanding answers and driving change.

You are graduating against a remarkably similar background — a similar societal shift which is playing out, not only in the national theater, but on a global stage — global because ours is a flattening world, interlinked and interconnected such that opportunities and threats have no borders.

You were in high school when terrorists brought down the World Trade Center in New York City and attacked the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 — a catastrophic occurrence which has resounded across our nation, ever since.

The war of your generation is the war in Iraq, an increasingly unpopular conflict, not only at home, but among many nations in the global arena, as well.

Regardless of your feelings about this particular war, the global war on terrorism is a conflict without borders, with no clear-cut front, or enemy. But, it is a war which must be fought, and won, although it may be with us for a generation.

We, as well, are in the midst of a debate about fairness in the context of immigration and immigration policy.

So, the world is flat and integrated, yet it, also, is asymmetrical, and unstable; and the imbalances are as serious and as threatening as any pandemic.

The real opponents, on the global scene, are the asymmetries between and among nations, peoples, and cultures, in circumstances where some nations and some groups have yet to be able to develop to their full potential. These asymmetries, or imbalances, are measured in a variety of ways: relative public health; degree of poverty or comparative GDP; literacy levels; access to affordable energy; access to clean drinking water, and food. Today, the richest ten countries are 50 times richer than the poorest ten countries. By comparison, consider that 250 years ago, at the onset of the industrial revolution, the ratio of the average income per capita between rich and poor nations was a factor of 3.

We are fortunate — we are here. We are literate. We are educated and knowledgeable; and knowledge-based enterprises are driving much of wealth creation and economic development today, and driving differences in life prospects, between countries and within countries.

While global imbalances have existed between peoples, and between nations, for millennia, what makes them so acute, now, is the degree of difference, and the fact that advances in communications, via the Internet and global media, make asymmetries highly visible everywhere, and by more people. The impact can create global instability — with repercussions everywhere.

This, then, is the stage set — the backdrop — for your generation.

When I graduated from college, as now, conflict and societal shifts created uncertainty and challenge. Then, as now, we stepped into a world of greater complexity, yet with greater opportunity.

Since 9-11, we have had an internal focus on protecting ourselves, because the war on terror, while global, clearly has national implications and effect. All the while, the world has continued to interconnect. Globalization brings threats closer, and makes friends and enemies alike competitors, but it also makes them collaborators.

One illustration of this is modern commercial enterprise, which is 24-7, with businesses having operations in multiple places around the world — in order to access markets and talent. This inherently drives collaboration among workers across cultures and geographies — all as part of advancing corporate strategic aims.

Another, quite different, illustration of collaboration led to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Jody Williams in 1997. She used email to bring individuals and organizations together, across the globe, to pressure governments to adopt an international accord against landmines.

And so, how should you react? Today?

Of course, I believe that science and technology help to mitigate challenges. And I believe, as well, that every chosen discipline has a role to play. Meeting the challenges requires, on your part, not only strength in disciplines, but also multicultural sophistication, a global view, and intellectual agility.

But, two elements are truly essential.

One element is diversity. And, by this I mean:

  • Diversity of Outlook — whereby you are able to encompass diverse cultures, with associated differences in thought, perspective, lifestyle, and practice;
  • Diversity of Approach — whereby working across multiple disciplines and sectors is welcomed and appreciated; and
  • Diversity in Fact — whereby all individuals, including those of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, are valued for their contributions and are able to compete on a level playing field — in a flattening world.

The other essential element is leadership, comprising:

  • Vision — the ability to articulate a forward-looking, overarching idea;
  • Courage and Integrity — to aim high but to be grounded in reality, to seek wise counsel, to make, and to stand by, choices;
  • Involvement — to engage all constituencies, enlisting their participation, profiting from their insights, and harnessing their creative energies;
  • Organization — to secure the appropriate approach to support a vision, and to establish an environment in which change can flourish.
  • Inspiration — to engage torchbearers who embrace the mission, generate enthusiasm, and accomplish key tasks;
  • And finally, Action — to transform vision, courage, integrity, involvement, organization, and inspiration into reality.

When the human spirit meets challenge, strengthened by diversity and reinforced by courageous leadership, innovative, creative solutions begin to emerge. And, out of this strengthened coalescence, comes unexpected — and often exhilarating — opportunity.

So, this is how you should think about your commencement. This is how you should look to your futures. This is the premise upon which you should build not only your own individual careers, but, also, your connectivity to each other, to community, to nation, and to the nations and the peoples of the world.

Each generation assumes the mantle of challenge — and of opportunity — bequeathed to it by the times. And, each graduating class engages them with its own inimitable character and spirit. In doing this, you assume the mantle of leadership. This, then, is your collective class "gift" to the world, and to the future.

My advice to you is to optimize who you are and what you are. Optimize your experiences and what you have learned. Optimize your opportunities. Seize them and do meaningful things. Count your blessings — and, then, count them, again — and use them, wisely.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

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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