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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s 205th Commencement:
Architects and Agents of Change

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

East Campus Athletic Village
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

Saturday, May 28, 2011

As President of this university, it is my duty, my honor, my privilege, and my very great pleasure to welcome you to the 205th commencement exercises of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

And I offer a special welcome to our Hartford graduates, who are joining us here in Troy to receive their degrees.

For the faculty, staff, and trustees, this is a day of joy. Graduates: We truly are proud of you. We salute you, and we share in the thrill of your accomplishments.

For your parents, your families and your friends, your spouses and partners, this morning marks the fulfillment of years of anticipation and dreams. Graduates, join us in thanking them for the sacrifices they have made to help bring you to this moment.

We meet at a time when it appears that the economy is on a rebound. Certainly, the statistics show that the class of 2011 is seeing more opportunity than other recent classes in terms of career opportunities.

However, recent events make it clear that our global community faces challenges, as well as opportunities. We have stark examples of the ravages of nature in the form of cataclysmic earthquakes, tsunamis, and destructive tornadoes. On the economic and financial side of the equation, some experts project that foreclosures for 2011 will break the record set last year, and states are cutting jobs to the bone, putting many public sector employees, including thousands of teachers, out of work, as they try to get their fiscal houses in order.  As we look around, we can feel and in fact, see that we face challenges of both National and global dimensions.

We face global challenges that have been with us for many years — challenges that continue to resist the different approaches taken to resolve them.  Those of you who drove here experienced first-hand the sharp rise in the price of gasoline, and know that we have not made enough progress on meeting this nation's energy needs. Many also have deep concerns about climate and sustainability — a number of the students in this graduating class have taken a keen interest in this, and Rensselaer has been doing its own part to become greener. But challenges are opportunities — opportunities not just to mitigate disasters, but to do things in a different way.

We need new solutions to the challenges of our times, and we also need to implement the solutions, often in the face of resistance. In other words, we need people of courage to become architects of change and agents of change. People like you.

The task will not be simple. Many would like for things to stay the way they are, but the challenges we see in the world demand renewal. Fresh options must be explored. Our situation needs to be viewed from new perspectives. And we need to awaken to both threats and possibilities that are on the horizon.

As anyone who has ever explored change knows, change does not come easily. Sometimes that which grounds us can make us afraid.  In particular, culture is difficult to change. People depend on culture to define their roles and their identities. A strong and stable culture helps us all to feel safe and secure.

There are many benefits to a strong culture in terms of giving direction to our lives. As the character Tevye says in the play Fiddler on the Roof, “because of our traditions... Every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do… ”

But, as is demonstrated in that same play, too strong an adherence to tradition in the face of needed change can lead to disaster. But, it is not an either/or proposition however. We must build upon our traditions and cultures, drawing what is best about them, sharing them with others, in order to adapt to a changing world.

It is up to the change agent to help society transform itself, and I hope that many of the class of 2011, given their responsibility as future leaders, will take on the role of change agent.

There are many characteristics of an effective change agent that should be considered. I will mention a few.

       First, a change agent must have keen perception. He or she must be able to interpret events and evidence that indicate change is due, and then go on to uncover the ideas that can help to meet emerging challenges.

Second, change agents must have empathy. Naturally, they need to articulate their ideas effectively. But communication also requires listening. Often, this has more to do with sensing how people feel about their situations, and about their concerns, desires, and dreams - what concerns them most—more than what they may be explicitly articulating. So empathy becomes an essential element of leading change. To be effective, empathy must be complimented by persuasion. Persuasion is very much dependent upon who needs to be persuaded. Some people need a lure; some need a push into the future.

       Third, since mistakes, setbacks, and resistance are inevitable, the change agent must be persistent. The only people who are able to make important transformations are those who are supremely determined.

I am confident that the class of 2011 is well-prepared for the role of change agent. In addition to giving you a rigorous grounding in knowledge and skills, Rensselaer has provided you with opportunities to build leadership and change agent abilities.

Today we will hear from an individual carrying the rank of Vice Admiral.  One hundred years ago, the graduating class at Rensselaer heard from another of admiralty rank — Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary. He, as you know, is credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole.  Before Peary’s successful expedition culminating on April 6, 1911, 756 men had died trying to reach the North Pole. But Peary succeeded — Why? Well, first, he was a very determined man. Second, he was not alone. Among his expeditionary party was a Black man, Matthew Henson who, today, is credited in many circles as a “co-discoverer of the North Pole.” Henson came up with key ideas that made the polar quest successful. He also befriended the Native Intuits, who themselves helped the expedition. Third, he was entrepreneurial.

On a large globe at Admiral Peary’s gravesite are inscribed the words:

“I shall find a way, or make one.”

So, Class of 2011, be confident and bold, be persistent, reach out to others for help.  Be entrepreneurial and kind.

I am pleased that three guests who will be honored here today with doctorates all demonstrate the best characteristics of change agents. Each is recognized for appreciating the need for renewal and transformation, and then working with others to achieve needed change.

Mr. Samuel F. Heffner, Junior, Rensselaer class of 1956, has achievements that are familiar to our students and guests. You have seen how his philanthropy and support have contributed to the transformation of Rensselaer. Some of you also may know that his career as a developer and builder has remade the landscape in many areas of Maryland, especially around Baltimore Washington international Airport. His genius and entrepreneurship has changed the lives of many, and we are grateful for how that spirit has been of benefit to Rensselaer.

Dr. Wayne Clough, the 12th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has had a career filled with rich experiences. He brought growth and renewal to Georgia Tech, building out the campus, increasing the student population, growing the focus on the arts, and resetting the curriculum to meet emerging opportunities. This work has been recognized in many ways, not the least of which is the growth in the prominence and impact of Georgia Tech. He brought the same zest for renewal and realignment to the Smithsonian, where he has put in place the first strategic plan in its history.

Our third honorary degree recipient, Vice Admiral Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, M.D., has shown astounding persistence in the face of disappointments that might have stopped others. This includes building a clinic in Bayou La Batre, and then rebuilding it twice in the face of destruction by Hurricanes Georges and Katrina.

A secret of her success is her ability to engage others and build strong effective relationships. Because of her talent and capability, President Obama has chosen her to help in transforming healthcare in the United States, one of our largest social and economic challenges.

The characteristics of our three honorees provide examples to our graduates of perception, communications, and persistence. Their work shows the immense value that comes from determined action of agents for change.

President Barack Obama has said, “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Graduates, you are the ones we have been waiting for. I wish you long, successful, and prosperous careers.

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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