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“Interconnectivity, Connection, and Community”

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

207th Rensselaer Commencement
Houston Field House
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Saturday, May 25, 2013


As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 207th Commencement Exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. 

Let me begin by offering my own heartfelt congratulations to our graduates. I congratulate, as well, the faculty who taught our graduates—the mentors who guided them—and the friends who sustained them here at Rensselaer.

I also want to offer special congratulations to the parents, spouses and partners, siblings, and other family members and friends here this morning who supported our graduates. They made this moment possible through their considerable sacrifices in a difficult economy—as well as their generous contributions of love and faith. Graduates, please join me in thanking all of the people who have nurtured you through your educational experience here.

For the faculty and administration, Commencement tends to be slightly bittersweet. Over the course of their years here, we have grown very fond of the young people to whom we are awarding degrees today. Frankly, we are sad to see them go.

Sending an ambitious young person off on an educational or professional pursuit was considerably different in the early 19th century, when Rensselaer was founded. Communication was by post, and it might well take months for a letter to arrive from distant shores. With the advent of photography, the young explorer could leave behind a daguerreotype to comfort those at home—but the face was not animated, and the voice was not heard.

Today, our graduates move on to greater challenges and adventures, some of them across the globe, but they do not leave us behind, even for a full day. This generation of graduates has the ability to stay fully connected to us, utterly and always, thanks to the smartphone in the pocket, the tablet in the messenger bag, or the laptop in the backpack. They Skype, text, email; they “update” us on Facebook or Instagram. They engage in a radically new form of dialogue via digital photographs—yet they may be too charmed by these exchanges to recognize their revolutionary nature.

I have said often that we live in a data-driven, web-enabled, supercomputer-powered, globally interconnected world. We have incredible tools of analysis and communication at our fingertips. These are not merely tools of knowledge, as important as that is. In the right hands, they are instruments of love, that deepen our connection to each other and expand our very humanity.

Technology is a knife’s edge—the knife’s edge on which we live at Rensselaer, and the knife’s edge on which our graduates will continue to live as they build their careers and lives. Technology is what people do with it—for good or ill. Therefore, we, deliberately, must choose to use the astounding new technologies at our disposal with compassion—and with the understanding that they are most valuable when they help us to serve other human beings. Today, I ask you to shoulder the obligation to leverage new technologies to strengthen the connections between people and to build communities.

Some of you already are doing this. We are very proud, for example, of work of Andrew Chung of the Class of 2013, whose efforts with the Rensselaer Engineers for A Sustainable World helped to convert a shipping container into in a medical facility in rural Haiti. We are very proud, also, of the work of Lindsay Poirier of the Class of 2013, who is investigating the ways that technology can improve education in Africa.

At Rensselaer, we long have felt that gaining a sense of community—and learning to convene new communities—is an essential part of one’s education. We formalized this aspect of a Rensselaer education several years ago with a comprehensive approach to student life called Clustered Learning, Advocacy, and Support for Students, better known as CLASS. Your class—the Class of 2013—is the first to experience CLASS fully, which is designed to help our students develop stronger ties with our faculty, the university at large, and each other.

There is a practical aspect to our insistence that the university is a community—and that we have obligations to the larger communities around us.

We expect today’s graduates to take on the grand challenges—intersecting vulnerabilities surrounding energy, food, water and health—as well as national security, climate change, and natural resource allocation.

These challenges are global, they are complex, and the very survival of humanity depends on our finding ways to address them. They cannot be resolved by the independent activities of even the most brilliant men and women working in isolation. Increasingly, creativity is not merely fostered by collaboration; it demands it.

Yes, we have astounding vehicles to help us meet the grand challenges, many of them developed here at Rensselaer: new materials; innovations in our built environment; advances in energy technologies; major discoveries occurring at the intersection of engineering, the physical and computational sciences, and the life sciences; new ideas about philanthropy, commerce, and entrepreneurship; and the advent of Big Data and high-performance computing. 

These tools also include the Semantic Web, a movement to promote common data formats on the World Wide Web. The Semantic Web is going to allow us to take the sea of data generated by unrelated sources and independent streams of work, and channel those data sets to arrive at new insights and new solutions.

Yet, even the most powerful technological tools do not obviate the need for leadership. You—our graduates—will have the opportunity to redefine leadership for an era in which the world generates massive amounts of information from far-flung sources—information that is useful only when given meaning by correlation and human connection. 

So, whatever your careers may prove to be, building bridges—and enabling people with very different beliefs and values to work together—is certain to be among your chief responsibilities. Without a doubt, this is one of the most challenging aspects of any leadership role. So I would like to offer, briefly, a challenge of unification hardly equaled in history: that faced by Nelson Mandela, the first democratically elected President of South Africa, in seeking to reconcile a post-apartheid nation long riven by bitter and deadly racial animosity.

Early in his presidency, he chose an unexpected tool to do this: sports. In 1995, South Africa hosted the Rugby World Cup, the first major sporting event held in the country after apartheid ended, and the first in which the national team, the Springboks, were allowed to play.

The primarily white rugby team long had been a detested symbol of white oppression in South Africa. In advance of the World Cup, however, President Mandela carefully wooed leaders on all sides, persuading them to the truth of the new Springbok slogan, “One Team, One Country.”

The Springboks posted a series of unexpected wins in the World Cup competition, and, increasingly, South Africans of every color were riveted by them.  On the morning of the final game, President Mandela, wearing a green Springbok jersey, stepped onto the pitch to shake hands with the team. After a stunned silence, the crowd at Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium erupted into thunderous cheers. A sense of national pride, just in the process of being born in post-apartheid South Africa, exploded into full flower when the Springboks won the World Cup in overtime. 

President Mandela’s enduring message? “Don’t address their brains. Address their hearts.” That is very profound and useful advice for anyone hoping to lead. However, to speak to other people’s hearts, you must first develop your own.

You are moving into a world that is more about engagement than authority. You may not be able to rely on a spot in a hierarchy for your power. Instead, your success may hinge on your ability to inspire legions of volunteers measuring crop yields, or rainfall in fields all over the globe. To succeed, you constantly will have to stretch your capacity for collegiality and friendship.

Since you will be collaborating across disciplines and national borders, you must be able to translate between sectors and cultures. You will have to develop empathy, tolerance, and a wide-ranging curiosity to be successful in this. You will have to express commitment, a sense of purpose, and compassion to people whose hands you may never shake.

You will have to build trust among people who may never see the goodwill in your eyes. This requires that you hold yourselves to the highest standards in everything you do.

You must develop the courage to say, at some personal cost, when something is not right and must be changed.

Developing community—and being able to articulate your connection to other people—is the key to a rich and fulfilling life, because we cannot find meaning in ourselves alone. We require context even to comprehend our own value, and that is offered by the many remarkable people we meet along the way.

As you leave here today, I urge you take the most expansive possible view of the work you will do in future. I hope you work to improve humanity itself—and help the rest of us find new ways to teach, to heal, to amuse, to protect, and to understand each other.

Remember, the arc of one’s career follows the arc of one’s character. This is a truth that transcends time. Our honorands today are four people, from very different walks of life, who exemplify this—and I urge you to listen closely to the messages they offer.

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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