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“The Emergence of the New”

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

Morgan State University Commencement
W.A.C. Hughes Memorial Stadium
Morgan State University, Baltimore, MD

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Good morning. I offer my warm greetings to the president, the Cabinet, the Board of Regents, the faculty and staff of Morgan State University, distinguished guests, family, friends, and, most especially, the class of 2012.

Graduates, it is an honor to speak to you on this day—your day. You have taken on challenging academic programs at a university with a tradition of excellence, and you have achieved your goals. I can see in the audience parents, other family members, faculty, and friends who have supported you along the way, and now share your deep pride of accomplishment. Well done!

The title of my remarks today is “Emergence of the New.” The title comes from a commencement speech, full of wisdom and poetry, delivered here over 50 years ago (in 1958) by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

One might wonder why Dr. King gave that speech – a major speech here at Morgan State, which included inspiration, which he later used in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial, as part of the “March on Washington in 1963.” Given who he was, Dr. King would have known about the African American leaders who studied and worked here. Since Dr. King was a minister, he also may have been drawn by the origins of Morgan State to train students for the ministry.

But I suspect, as well, that he saw the graduates of Morgan as a cohort of thoughtful, industrious, and educated men and women, who were prepared to participate in the struggle for civil rights, indeed, for global human rights in the decades to come.

Before me today is a similar cohort—you. Thoughtful, industrious, educated, and prepared. You are faced with the challenges of your own time. Even though we do not need to look hard to find bad news, I believe we have opportunities in front of us for greater health, prosperity, and understanding for all.

Listen to what Dr. King said in 1958:

“Whenever we confront the emergence of the new, there is the recalcitrance of the old. And so tensions which we witness in the world today are indicative of the fact that a new world is coming into being, and an old world is passing away.”

Today, we live in a world, for all its wonders, that also is full of pain, discontent, and conflict – much like the turbulent world of 1958. And we would do well to remember that new possibilities for freedom and progress may emerge from such a world. But freedom and progress do not just happen.

Two things must be in place: A catalyst for change, and the determination of committed people.

According to Dr. King, the catalysts for change in his era were “the automobile, two world wars, and the Great Depression.” In other words, technological advancement, conflict, and economic insecurity. Dr. King also noted that, “There comes a time people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

These factors, taken together, caused African Americans, then, to take a new look at themselves and the world, and to demand an end to discrimination, and to commit to bringing that about. Out of this came the Civil Rights struggle, and the end of many unfair and unethical laws and practices in America.

Today, we are continually faced with technological advancement, conflict, and economic insecurity; with people worldwide getting tired—tired of oppression, poverty, and indignity.

As a consequence, we are seeing the global equivalent of the Civil Rights struggle, where, for example, the Internet and social networks have catalyzed the Arab Spring—a quest for dignity and freedom across North Africa and the Middle East.

We can expect new and emerging technologies to continue to be catalysts for change. Because they are creating, at an accelerating pace, “that network of inescapable mutuality” of which Dr. King spoke so many years ago, where what affects one, affects all.  Whether we are talking about climate change, natural disasters, energy security, diseases without borders and global health, poverty, or global financial system vulnerabilities.

Given the pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation, such catalysts will disrupt our culture more often in the future than they have in the past. But technology alone will not suffice to bring the changes needed to meet the Grand Challenges of these times. Dr. King said,

“Man, through his scientific genius, has been able to make of this world a neighborhood. If we are to survive, we must make of it a brotherhood. We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all die together as fools.”

This is where you come in.

You are moving into careers and further study that will demand much of you. And you are emerging into an ever more interconnected world that is facing unprecedented challenges -- in energy, environment, social justice, and economics. Our world is in great need of your knowledge, talent, and creativity. Your commitment.  And you have a special role to play as graduates of Maryland’s “public urban university” because today most of the world’s population lives in cities. As you look for solutions, you have knowledge and perspectives that are tied especially closely to needs in both emerging and developed economies.

In the years ahead, science, technology, and other catalysts of change will create significant opportunities for you to use your capabilities to make the world a better place. They will open doors for you, as they open doors for innovative ideas, answers, and progress.

So, step through the door that opens for you—step through your window in time.

I did. My life changed because of the confluence of two events: the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954—that desegregated public schools, and the Soviet launch of the Sputnik I satellite in 1957 (the year before Dr. King spoke here at Morgan State). These events led to the conjoining of two forces that changed my life—

First, a national, almost obsessive, focus on a science-based space and defense race with the Soviets and the development of scientific talent to meet that challenge through strengthened science and mathematics educational programs from primary school through to advanced study, and

Second, the opening of opportunities for people like me—like you—that never had existed before.

So I stepped through my window in time. I ended up in an accelerated academic program in Washington, D.C., which allowed me to finish high school college prep courses by the end of the 11th grade. I then took what are today’s AP, as well as college-level, courses in the 12th grade. I was my high school valedictorian, and I went off to MIT for college. The rest, as they say, is history. But not quite.

The road was not paved for me. There was no red carpet. I had to figure out my path—my trajectory, as it were. There were pitfalls, traps, barriers, naysayers, and temptations (especially temptations to give up) all along the way—especially when told by a professor that “colored girls should learn a trade.”  I did learn a trade—physics.

I quickly realized that one has to have the focus, stamina, vision, courage, and confidence to face and surmount all these things, and to stay focused on excellence even in the face of doubt, including self-doubt.

You will walk through your doors, but you will not and cannot go through them alone. Our world and the challenges we face are complex, and require more than the knowledge and experience of individuals, no matter how capable. Your ability to take determined action will depend on all you have learned and all you can do. But it also will depend on your ability to engage with other people who have the knowledge, perspectives, and judgment you will need to create the best outcomes for yourselves and others.

More and more, the answers we require and surprising opportunities will emerge from combinations and hybrids of knowledge and approaches. Often, this will mean that the people you work with will come from unlikely places and will bring expertise from unexpected arenas.  Respect them.  

Because you came to this university, you have developed the ability to reach across differences in cultures, values, points of view, knowledge, and concerns.

This capability will enable you to create ever larger and more powerful networks of intelligent, concerned, and caring people in the years to come. Long after you may have forgotten historical facts or scientific equations, this personal asset will support and help you to accomplish your goals.

As with every other person of outstanding ability, you will find that your ideals and values will be challenged over the years. You may be tempted, at times, to use your talents in ways that may be more profitable or require less work, but do not meet your standards, your ideals. You may have moments of self-doubt. On occasion, you may stumble. If you do, pick yourselves up, remember what you expect of yourselves, and go back to doing the work you are meant to do.

Those of you who are search engine scholars will know that Dr. King ended his commencement remarks with a message of hope. He encouraged the graduates to “let freedom ring” from every corner of the nation. In 1958, those graduates of Morgan State took his message to heart and took a step into the future before many others.

You have taken many steps, but still have many left to take, and you surely will face “the recalcitrance of the old” as you endeavor to move forward. But comfort does not lead to progress.  Progress happens fastest when men and women are most “ill at ease.” Early 20th century author Elbert Hubbard put a more current twist on the idea of progress when he said that "the world is moving so fast these days that the man who says it can't be done is generally interrupted by someone doing it."

Take all that you are and all that you have and give back to society in ways that will honor Morgan State, and those who have loved and supported you along the way.

Look forward, not back. Look up, not down. Have confidence in yourselves. Take care of yourselves and your families. And, if ever you are feeling tired, discouraged, or just plain disgusted, think of the bridges you already have crossed, the mountains you already have climbed. Do not let others set your aspirations for you. Set them for yourselves. Intend to make a difference in this world—in ways large and small—and you will—and the world will be a better place for it.

I wish you success, joy, prosperity, and peace. Good luck, Congratulations and Godspeed.

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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