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Gift to the Future

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

2007 Commencement Remarks
Rensselaer at Hartford
Hartford, Connecticut

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Good morning to all.

I extend my heartfelt congratulations to our esteemed graduates. I am delighted to share this day with you. For this is your day.

It is a privilege to offer words of recognition for work well done, challenges met, and goals accomplished. But, it is a particular privilege to speak to women and men who have stepped outside of their already-established lives to reach for something higher, something beyond.

And it is, as well, a particular privilege for me — and for you — to acknowledge your families and your friends whose support has brought you to this point. This is their day, too. Let us salute them.

Your achievements demonstrate your yearning for, and your capacity to choose, a less traveled road, and to follow that road into the future.

Futures, by definition, are uncertain.

You are commencing to a future when great societal shifts are playing out in the national theater and upon a global stage. Ours is a flattening world — interlinked and interconnected. This mounting interdependence means that contemporary opportunities — markets, trade, industry, research, information flow, partnerships — have no borders.

Although our world is flatter and more interconnected, it is, also, asymmetrical and imbalanced. Contemporary threats — terrorism, energy shortages, climate change, disease — have no borders, either.

The real opponents, on the global scene, are the asymmetries between and among nations, peoples, and cultures, in which some nations and some groups have yet to be able to develop to their full potential. These imbalances are measured in a variety of ways: relative public health; degree of poverty or comparative GDP; literacy levels; access to affordable energy; access to clean drinking water, and food. Today, the richest ten countries are 50 times richer than the poorest ten countries. By comparison, consider that at the onset of the industrial revolution, the ratio of the average income per capita between rich and poor nations was a factor of 3.

It can make for an unstable world and an uncertain future.

But, we are fortunate — we are here. We are literate. We are educated and knowledgeable; and knowledge-based enterprises are driving much of wealth creation and economic development today, and driving differences in life prospects, between countries, and within countries.

While global imbalances have existed between peoples, and between nations, for millennia, they are acute, now, because of the degree of difference, and because advances in communications, via the Internet and global media, make that difference highly visible everywhere, and by many more people. The disparities reverberate around the globe.

This, then, is the backdrop for the future into which you step.

Since 9-11, our nation has focused internally — especially on protecting ourselves, because the war on terror, while global, clearly has national implications and effect. And yet, the world continues to interconnect, bringing threats closer, and making friends and enemies alike competitors and collaborators.

New York Times foreign affairs columnist, Tom Friedman — who spoke two weeks ago at our Rensselaer-Troy commencement — brilliantly describes global interconnectedness in his book, The World Is Flat. He aptly calls this phenomenon Globalization 3.0, in which the exponential growth of the Internet, computer networks, and e-mail empowers individuals in every corner of the globe. The entrepreneur working alone, at a laptop on the kitchen table, may wield as much influence as a corporation.

One illustration of this interconnectedness is modern commercial enterprise, which is 24-7, with operations in multiple places around the world — to access markets and talent. This inherently drives collaboration among workers across cultures and geographies — all as part of advancing corporate strategic aims.

Another, quite different, illustration of interconnectedness and the collaboration it can engender led to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Jody Williams, of Putney, Vermont, in 1997. Her pioneering use — first, of fax technology, and, after that, of the then-fledging email technology — harnessed collective global will, and forged an international campaign to eradicate the use of landmines as weapons of war.

Jody Williams had been working for several years on issues related to the wars in Central America, when she became aware of how landmines differ from conventional weapons — remaining in the ground for decades, continuing to maim and to kill indiscriminately.

Working with a handful of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), she launched the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1992, and began to build its membership by faxing letters to organizations around the world. She instinctively understood that a fax — which arrived immediately — would be regarded as important, and treated accordingly.

In 1995, she realized that the speed, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness of email could reduce her monthly bills — from around $400-$500 for faxes to about $20 for email.

Less than two years later, she and the ICBL were awarded the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize for the 1997 Landmine Ban Treaty.

Jody Williams’ use of technology created a new organizational model — which was recognized by the Nobel Committee — based on the ability to spread knowledge through immediate communication, and to use it to empower individuals all over the world, who, previously, never had a voice in democratic change.

The International Campaign to Ban Landmines continues to spread its vision through the use of such cutting-edge technologies as virtual staff meetings, online shared file structures, staff calendars, and instant messaging across time zones. Although, to a degree, we take all of this for granted today, just a short a decade ago, one person was able to envision how powerful breakthrough communication technologies could be used to effect change.

The achievement and recognition of Jody Williams illustrate the power of one — the power of one, with high intent, resolve, a global outlook, and an innovative approach, to achieve something great by utilizing technologies in new ways, and migrating to new technologies as they evolve.

When you leave here, today, departing to your own unique futures, your powers are equally great and equally vast. Your powers will be multiplied if you recognize that every person and every discipline, have roles to play in finding solutions to global challenges, and in creating opportunity. But, in addition to disciplinary strength, the ability to do great things requires, as well, multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and a global view.

Which means

  • that you are able to embrace diverse cultures and geographies, with associated differences in thought, perspective, lifestyle, and practice;
  • that you can work across multiple disciplines and sectors to tackle big problems;
  • that you value all individuals, of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds, for their contributions,
  • and that you are able to compete and to lead — in a flattening world.

I assume that you know and appreciate all of these things.

Each generation has the chance to assume the mantle of challenge — and of opportunity — bequeathed to it by the times. If you accept your challenges, you assume the mantle of leadership. You become leaders — with vision, courage, and integrity — leaders who can engage all constituencies, profit from their insights, and harness their energies.

This, then, becomes your gift to the future, because it is the gift of you.

When the human spirit meets challenge — empowered by education, reinforced by courageous, inclusive, and principled leadership — creative and innovative solutions emerge. And, out of this strengthened coalescence, comes unexpected — and often exhilarating — opportunity.

I only see opportunity for you because I am short. And, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman likes to say, short people can only see the glass as half full, so, I am an optimist.

Because I believe in the future, and because I believe so strongly in your abilities to create a better future for us all, I charge you to optimize who you are and what you are. Optimize your experiences, and what you have learned. Optimize others. Optimize your opportunities. Seize them, and do meaningful things.

You are wise enough, I know, to count your blessings. I urge you, to count them, again, and again, and use them wisely.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

Source citations are available from 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.

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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