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A Great New Age of Discovery

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

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, New York

Saturday, May 16, 2009

As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 203rd commencement exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Graduates: We truly are proud of you. We salute you, and we share in your sense of accomplishment. For faculty, staff, and trustees, this is the day when we can take pride in the fruits of our work.

For parents, families, friends, spouses, and partners, this morning marks the fulfillment of years of anticipation. Graduates, join us in thanking them for the sacrifices they have made to help bring you to this moment. The great American writer Mark Twain once offered an excellent piece of economic advice, which I hope you will heed: “To get the full value of a joy,” he posits, “you must have somebody to divide it with.”

There is an important truth here: We need our loved ones not merely to help us celebrate a happy moment, but, also, to offer external evidence that the moment is, indeed, significant and worth celebrating. Ambitious people, as our graduates are by definition, only rarely devote their full attention to the present. Inevitably, they are distracted by the future. 

So, for all your sense that, today, is the delightful culmination of years of well-applied effort, creativity, and intelligence, I am certain that you are aware, equally, that this is a beginning. You are facing, once again, the vertiginous anxiety of the blank page, the bare desk, the strange laboratory, the unfamiliar design studio, perhaps the echoing and unfamiliar classroom — certainly the disquiet of new challenge. Starting tomorrow, you must prove yourselves, once again. I regret to inform you that this will not be the last time, either. If your career paths prove to be in any degree interesting, you may never finish proving yourselves.

However, I hope you will confront even the most daunting of challenges with great confidence in yourselves, because a Rensselaer education is designed to prepare you not merely for a job, a position, but for life — a life filled with creation, discovery, adventure, satisfaction. 

From its very founding, this great university has asked every student to take an active role in his or her own intellectual development. One early pamphlet published by the Board of Trustees describes the Rensselaer method this way: “The most distinctive character in the plan of the school consists in giving the pupil the place of the teacher in all his exercises.”

When students at other universities were expected to learn passively, watching professors conduct experiments, and reciting rote facts, a radically different idea of education was in force here. Rensselaer students learned by conducting their own experiments, and by organizing their own lectures and demonstrations.

Students and professors always have been partners in discovery at Rensselaer, and we continue that tradition today by encouraging all students — graduates and undergraduates — to become involved in cutting-edge research.  While we believe it is important for brilliant young people to master a body of knowledge, it is just as valuable for them to follow their own curiosity in the application of that knowledge, and to learn new things.

In other words, graduates, we have educated you to be intellectual explorers, secure in your ability to convert the unknown into the known.

This is the best possible preparation for the moment into which you are graduating.

This is a moment that is truly new — one that is forcing those who are a generation or two ahead of you — scientists, economists, historians, executives, architects, artists — to struggle for precedents, to reach for a new vocabulary, to stretch for new assumptions. It is a time of economic crisis that, nonetheless, requires us to address global challenges without borders, which range from our energy supply, to climate change, to entrenched poverty at home and in the developing world, to the possibility of a world-wide influenza pandemic.

This is a period of great hope on many fronts, but, it, also, is an undeniably uncertain time to begin a profession. Although the pace of contraction is slowing, the U.S. economy has lost 5.7 million jobs (net) since December of 2007, when the recession began. And, as is often the case, a difficult job market is most difficult for the young and not-yet-established.

Nonetheless, some of you have been able to arrange precisely the next step you were hoping for after graduation, and for that, we congratulate you.  It truly is an achievement.

Many of you have had to make plans which are different from what you had expected. Others of you may still be searching for a plan. 

I have a few things to say about this. First of all, a Rensselaer graduate should never be afraid, because it is well understood that this university enrolls the best of the best, and that it takes a great deal of intellectual vigor and hard work to succeed here. If your abilities have not yet been noticed, they will not go unnoticed for long.

Second, I would urge you to remember that who you are is never defined by your first job, which is likely to reflect the times as much as your own merit.  Concentrate instead on the things you can control. A little bit of well-placed struggle is all it takes to draw out extraordinary courage, discipline, and resourcefulness in talented people.  

We are fortunate to have four such examples with us today: the four people who will be receiving honorary degrees in a few minutes. Although we chose them for their remarkable lifelong accomplishments — and not their interesting experiences in their twenties — their early stories are instructive.  

When futurist Peter Schwartz graduated from Rensselaer in 1968 with a degree in aeronautical engineering, he discovered that there were no jobs to be had in the aerospace industry. Instead, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Ghana, but, ultimately, the volunteers were forced to leave after a disagreement with the government. Then he took a job teaching mathematics at a Philadelphia high school. He felt he was not very successful there.

However, Mr. Schwartz had not only a Rensselaer education, but, also, the extraordinary example of his parents. As Holocaust survivors, who were in a refugee camp when Peter was born, they had been able to put terrible suffering behind them in favor of happiness, and they gave their son the sense that progress is always possible. Eventually, he joined a nonprofit research and development organization, and became an expert in scenario planning, building a career by helping all of us make better choices in the face of an uncertain future. It is entirely possible that the uncertain future he faced upon graduation helped to set him on this path.

Another of today’s honorands, Samuel Josefowitz, had an even more disappointing experience upon entering the job market. He received a degree from Rensselaer in industrial engineering in 1942 — at a moment when engineers were great demand for the war effort. Mr. Josefowitz was at the very top of his class, yet none of the companies that came to our Troy, NY, campus to recruit would even interview him. They were unwilling to hire a Jewish engineer.

Mr. Josefowitz was forced to take a low-paying job running an acetone plant on the night shift. Within a few years, however, a carload of vinyl plastic crossed his path, and Mr. Josefowitz and his brother saw a business there.  They began producing classical records for subscribers, and became pioneering cultural entrepreneurs who created a network of some of the largest music and record clubs in the world. At the same time, Mr. Josefowitz always pursued his interest in art, becoming an expert on Post-Impressionism, in particular, and one of the most influential collectors in the world. Clearly, finding that one conventional route to success was closed to him, but that never kept Mr. Josefowitz from inventing his own routes.

Another of our honorands, Dr. Robert Richardson, only began studying physics as an undergraduate at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute after losing interest in his electrical engineering classes, and upon learning that his color-blindness was a handicap in chemistry. He could not easily determine whether an indicator solution was pink or blue. Even as a master’s degree student in physics, he was so unexceptional that he planned to pursue an MBA, and to join a corporation.

First, however, he had to complete the Army service required of him as a member of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). Dr. Richardson disliked the management training he received in the Army enough to give physics one more chance. He applied to the doctoral program at Duke University, which was especially strong in the low-temperature physics that most interested him. He was rather surprised to be warmly welcomed there by a new assistant professor.  It was the first true expression of confidence which he had ever received in a field in which, in 1996, he would be awarded the Nobel Prize — honored with one of his peers, and his student, for their discovery of superfluidity in helium-3. As you can see, sometimes a slow start indicates nothing more than an independent mind.

These honorands are all successful in part because they were nimble. I hope you, too, will be intellectually agile, not just in solving problems, but in building a career. There are many paths to success. And, while the straight path may be the most reassuring one, in a changing world it may not last, if the ground beneath it undergoes a tectonic shift.

At the same time, when you do know what is right for you, refuse to be dissuaded. 

The fourth of our honorands, Kenneth Chenault, offers an excellent example, of this advice. At Bowdoin College in the early 1970s, Mr. Chenault was one of fewer than two dozen African-American students there. He excelled at Bowdoin, and Mr. Chenault’s friends saw clearly that his intelligence and superb skills as a mediator made him a natural for the corporate world. However, they were not sure that this was the right choice for a potential trailblazer. Mr. Chenault had to endure much debate about whether he would have to “sell out” in such a role, and be unable to do something meaningful for the world.

His friends remember him reasoning, however, that he could do the most good within the system. He proved true to his word, rising at American Express to become one of the first African-American CEOs at a Fortune 500 company, and using his power to further many worthy causes. As an executive, Mr. Chenault is celebrated not only for the clarity of his vision, but, also, as a famously great boss, who has inspired intense loyalty in the many people to whom he has given opportunities over the years.

So, always be skeptical, graduates, of any argument that threatens to rob you of a dream. When I went to graduate school, people discouraged me from studying theoretical physics. There were no jobs in the field, I was told. I pursued my interests anyway, and after several years in post-doctoral positions, I was hired by Bell Labs, a uniquely fruitful place for both basic and applied research that made all the difference in my life.

The most important thing for all of you is to find something meaningful to do, even if the pay is below what you expected, or the job is a volunteer position involving no pay at all. Consider graduate school. Further education will never hurt you. Consider living abroad. As the peoples of history — the Vikings, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Dutch, and many other civilizations — well knew, international experience always has been a great boon to those hoping to succeed in a global economy.

Above all, be willing to take a risk and enjoy the freedom offered even by a moment of upheaval. Times like this one can be liberating. Things may not proceed according to plan, but an unplanned move can help you discover talents you may not yet know that you possess.

Times like this, also, are liberating for the world at large, as we shake loose outmoded ways of thinking, and being, which have caused our current crises. Fortunately, we, also, are in the midst of a great new age of discovery, as thinkers across a broad milieu work to solve the large problems that confront us — thinkers like you. 

So, as you consider the future, today, with the portion of your mind that is not focused on celebration, I hope that a glow of optimism prevails. Yes, the world is facing enormous, even critical challenges, and they lend certain urgency to the idea of progress. However, all of you find yourselves in the fortunate position of having been educated to contribute to that progress — indeed, to direct and to shape it.  

It is, in short, a great moment to be young. I hope that you will make the most of every opportunity that comes your way. I know that you will.

Thank you.


Final Remarks

Before we make our way down the hill to the picnic tents, and the celebrations with loved ones, I want, once again, to thank the families of our graduates for the privilege of educating and guiding these extraordinary people. Rensselaer is proud to call them graduates.

Graduates, you, now, are on the threshold of great adventure. I believe we have given you roots, and we have prepared you well to grow, to flourish, and to succeed in your chosen professions, in your continued education, and in your personal lives. Be proud of what you have achieved. And remember, this is just the beginning of a lifelong journey.

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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