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The Resolution of Complex Ethical Dilemmas

by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Honorary Degree Recipient

Drew University Commencement
Madison, New Jersey

Saturday, May 14, 2011


President Weisbuch, Chairman Crawford, members of the board of trustees, my fellow honorees, distinguished faculty and staff, families and loved ones of the graduates, and — most especially — members of the Class of 2011 — good morning.

This day was intended from the moment you arrived at Drew — excited, nervous, perhaps, a bit frightened. Whether you have been an undergraduate student or graduate student, for your parents, family, and friends, it seems like yesterday. For you, it also may have gone too quickly. But, you are not the same people who arrived at this place. I am sure there have been some difficult days along the way, and some wonderful personal discoveries and triumphs. Through it all you have persevered, stretched, and grown. And now, here you are, the focus of the most cherished ritual in academia — Commencement — a ceremony marked by curious regalia and solemn traditions that trace their origins back to the 14th century.

Congratulations.

The very essence of this university, rooted in its Methodist tradition, evolved and brought forward to today, expressed in your mission statement, is an overarching commitment to "excellence in liberal education in a changing world environment." At Drew, this commitment is marked by the promotion of "intellectual rigor and responsible citizenship, while preparing individuals — you — for significant contributions to society."

I note, with great admiration, examples of student learning enterprises such as the seminar on the Sudanese refugee crisis that included travel to Egypt to assist relief efforts, and the course on grassroots development in Africa that culminated in writing business plans for Cameroon villagers and raising money to fund the best plans.

And so, I consider it a great privilege to be awarded an honorary degree by Drew University. And I thank you for inviting me to share in this important day in your lives.

You, the Class of 2011, inhabit a world that is much smaller than the one in which your professors grew up. You understand, almost intuitively, how intricately our destiny is linked to others in the farthest corners of the world. And, through your studies here at Drew, you have come to see that you have the power — and the responsibility — to make this a better world.

That is a tall order, for this is a time of unprecedented risks, challenges, and opportunities. We must resist the temptation to think that knowing more automatically will lead to better understanding. We obviously need a grounding in intellectually rigorous studies. At the same time, we must guard against the barriers erected by narrower and narrower disciplines, and mountains of specialized information, that can inhibit true understanding. Rather, we should reach across the boundaries of disciplinary knowledge to discover and share what we need to address the challenges of our day.

The task before you is great — demanding skill, knowledge, fortitude, wisdom, understanding, values, and compassion. Perhaps, amid all the festivities of the day, you are wondering, secretly, if you have what the future will require of you. Such thoughts are good. They will help you to channel your enthusiasm wisely, drive you to learn more, continue to build in you strength of character and self-restraint, and, ultimately, enable you to lead and flourish.

Your diploma says Drew University has confidence in you. You have prepared your minds through rigorous study. You have embraced the enduring spirit of exploration by choosing a liberal arts foundation, and you have adopted an attitude of service by aligning yourselves with a tradition that places the highest value upon intellectual and ethical excellence. Your ability to see the world from more than one perspective will be of great importance, because we are in a time of unprecedented change.

For instance, in Africa, the spread of low-cost mobile phones has brought banking services to millions who never before had a chance to participate in the global economy. Late last year, Facebook and Twitter enabled protestors to organize in Tunisia, and, frankly, to begin a revolution that is sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East.

On a darker side, today, in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places, military personnel are wounded, and sometimes killed, by so-called IEDs — improvised explosive devices. Without making judgments about the rectitude of the conflicts, these devices cause great harm and death — sometimes to unintended targets — civilians. This is not unlike what happened in wars of other times — with intent — but oftentimes with equally unintended consequences. What do I mean?

A world away and decades earlier, Jody Williams, a Vermont teacher, began a landmark campaign against landmines. She went on to become the head of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work. She started by using the technology of fax machines. She then went on to harness the power of the Internet to create an international movement to ban landmines — leading to the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty. Her story and what she achieved provide an inspiring illustration of the transformative “Power of One.” It shows what happens when one person chooses to use the power of technology to re-shape or eliminate the use of technology when it has not been used for the greater good.

Equally importantly, the “Power of One” becomes the “Power of Many” when people who have developed collaboration skills — skills of analysis and delegation and, especially, of listening and persuasion — come together with a common purpose. Over and over again, history has shown how one person, bringing together many, can create epoch change, especially from a strong moral base. The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provides an obvious example. He used the power of voice.

Today, you have at your disposal the tools of your time — new media such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube, which empower your voice, and enable you to do important and unique things, and allow you to demonstrate the “Power of One.” Will you use your power to transform society at the speed of a tweet?

But, such power needs to be treated with care and respect. I know this as a scientist, and as one who leads a university in the business of educating scientists and engineers, but also architects, business leaders, and even media artists. From this, I know and have seen that scientific discoveries, and the technological advances built upon them, hold great promise. They are powerfully transformative in the fight against the scourges of humankind. Yet these very advances can pose new threats and challenge us with ethical dilemmas at every turn.

I fervently believe — and I have built my career on this – I believe that scientific and technological developments — and their just and careful deployment — hold great promise for helping to achieve peace and prosperity for the peoples of the world. Your education places you on the front lines of the debates that ultimately will determine how well we manage and distribute the fruits of these advances.

The greatest challenge you will face — and one I believe you are uniquely prepared to address — will, in fact, be the resolution of the ethical dilemmas arising from the increasing confluence — and sometimes collision — of science, commerce, and public policy.

Our research, and the deployment of our findings, must be guided by conscience, by consensus, and by concerted actions that take into account the complex values of our social and moral worlds. Our decisions must be guided by men and women who are unafraid to think courageously and to stand on their principles — by individuals such as Jody Williams and the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Whether you are raising crops or raising children, reaching out to the very edge of the universe, or probing the minute spaces between atoms, speaking to your friends or writing diplomatic policy or sermons, you will be shaping the future for us all.

But, do not be dismayed. Since the beginning of time, men and women have been facing the unknown, resolving the ambiguous, and pushing back the frontiers. Now it is your turn.

In his history of science and technology, The Discoverers, the late Pulitzer-prize-winning author and Librarian of Congress Emeritus Daniel J. Boorstin wrote:

"My hero is Man the Discoverer. The world we now view…had to be opened for us by countless Columbuses… The story of mankind's need to know — to know what is out there…is a story without end. All the world is still an America. The most promising words ever written on the maps of human knowledge are terra incognita — unknown territory."

Graduates, the world — indeed, the universe — with all its mysteries and dilemmas — awaits you. In the days ahead, let uncertainty be the condition that impels each of you to unfold your own unique powers. Your voyage of exploration — your new education — begins today. That is what Commencement really means.

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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