Greetings and Charge to the Graduates
Greetings and Charge to the Graduates at Rensselaer's 211th Commencement Ceremony
Good Commencement morning, 2017 graduates!
I offer my most sincere congratulations to each of you. My special congratulations extend, also, to your parents, guardians, families, and friends. They share in your achievement. And likewise, I congratulate the faculty and staff who gave you knowledge and support, walking beside you on the road to this great moment. It is a proud day for them as well.
Greetings, also, to our esteemed honorands, honored guests, and our trustees.
Graduates, in taking on the rigorous demands of a Rensselaer education, and in succeeding, you have accomplished something difficult, but worthwhile, that will stand you in good stead throughout your lives.
As President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, it is my privilege to offer you a few thoughts as you depart from this wonderful place.
Because we understand, and deeply respect, your abilities, we have kept you focused on great global challenges—challenges such as humanity’s food, water, and energy supplies in the face of a rising population; climate change and our need for sustainable infrastructure; national and global security; and human health and the mitigation of disease. We know that all of you have the power to make important contributions in these areas, and to improve lives on a grand scale.
Today, however, I want to focus on a different kind of challenge: moments of truth, when the stakes are extremely high, when you must rise to the occasion.
Those of you who attended our President’s Commencement Colloquy yesterday afternoon know that the two leaders to whom we are about to award honorary degrees have risen to the occasion magnificently when a great deal hung in the balance. They have exhibited clear thinking and action, incisiveness, and creativity in moments of criticality.
In the case of Dr. Ernest Moniz, the 13th Secretary of Energy of the United States, what was at stake was disruptive and dangerous nuclear proliferation, as the nation of Iran was on the threshold of having the capability of building a nuclear weapon. Secretary Moniz, a nuclear physicist, as well as an energy expert, was asked by President Barack Obama to work alongside Secretary of State John Kerry to forge an accord with Iran that would forestall any nuclear weapons program.
This role required a rare combination of science and diplomacy. The negotiators for Iran sought to retain enough of its nuclear capabilities to be politically acceptable within Iran. So Secretary Moniz and the scientists at the Department of Energy National Laboratories devised creative means for Iran to convert its nuclear infrastructure to peaceful projects, while ensuring that it no longer had the capability of quickly building a bomb. They accomplished this with great precision, under duress, as the negotiations were unfolding.
Key to the agreement, as well, was the clarity, rapport, and understanding that Secretary Moniz developed with his counterpart in the negotiations, Dr. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization. Dr. Salehi has said that, while they each were advancing their respective national interests, an agreement was reachable because Secretary Moniz was “a very rational person, a wise person.”
By bringing many remarkable personal qualities and a lifetime of experience to bear at once, in a moment when failure was unthinkable, Secretary Moniz has helped to make the world a safer place. He also has offered us a powerful example in foreign affairs, proving that with the right leadership, even nations divided by deep distrust, and a difficult history, can find common ground.
While Secretary Moniz knowingly accepted great responsibilities at a moment of truth, another moment of truth was unexpectedly thrust upon our second honorand, Dr. Roger Ferguson, who was Vice Chairman of the Board of Governors of the United States Federal Reserve System on September 11, 2001. Among other roles, the Federal Reserve acts to assure the stability of our financial system, and to contain systemic risks.
On 9/11, Dr. Ferguson was the only Governor in Washington, DC, with Chairman Alan Greenspan out of communication on an airplane that would be grounded in Switzerland. Dr. Ferguson has described watching “in horror,” on the television in his office, the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, the financial capital of the United States—with the resulting terrible loss of life, and of crucial communications and information technology infrastructure. Soon after, he saw smoke in the trees—coming from the Pentagon.
Dr. Ferguson immediately understood how important it was to maintain confidence in the machinery of our economy. Three hours after the attacks began, under his direction, the Federal Reserve issued an extremely straightforward and dignified statement, that also was profoundly reassuring during a moment of chaos. It said that Federal Reserve was “open and operating”…and “available to meet liquidity needs.”
In other words, he ensured that the Federal Reserve flooded our banking system with cash, or what he has termed, “oil lubricating the engine of capitalism, to keep it from burning itself out.”
There was not just great expertise in the intricate gears of the global financial system at work here—there also was deep humanity in ensuring that panicked New Yorkers could get money out of an ATM, and that everyone’s checks would be honored, even though the checks could not be presented to their home banks, because the airplanes that ordinarily delivered them could not fly in the prohibited U.S. airspace. In sum, Dr. Ferguson ensured that the terrors of 9/11 were contained, as much as possible—and did not cascade throughout the nation and the globe.
Dr. Ferguson has said that if he had not done the right thing on 9/11, he would be but a footnote to history. Of course, anyone who has taken the measure of Roger Ferguson knows that he is not a footnote.
However, it is true, graduates, that your legacies may be determined by mere moments in time.
These moments may take the form of a crisis, or of a window of opportunity that opens unexpectedly, inviting you down a new path with greater responsibilities, if you have the courage to choose it. Many years of preparation, hard work, and experience can be tested in an instant.
Some of our students already have experienced such moments of truth. Those of you who are in the military have signed on to risk yourselves—indeed, your very lives—in this particular way.
Richard Abendroth, who is graduating today with a Bachelor of Architecture degree, is just such a person. He enlisted with the U.S. Army Reserve after high school, and began his academic career at Rensselaer eight years ago. After his first year here, he was deployed to Iraq. He returned in the fall of 2011, and deployed to Afghanistan in 2013, where he was promoted to the rank of sergeant. In the spring of 2014, while he was in Afghanistan, his younger brother was hit by a car while riding his bicycle, and suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury. Richard returned home to care for his brother for over a year. Then, he came back to Rensselaer to complete his last two years of his architecture program.
We are so glad that Richard Abendroth never gave up on his education, even while honoring his commitments to his family and country. We are so proud that when tested, he found it within himself to be extraordinary in all three realms.
Ryan Buss, who is graduating today with a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering, is another member of Class of 2017, who summoned great strength in a moment of great urgency. Ryan was Captain of the Rensselaer Football team and a wonderful athlete, as well as a great student—no easy thing at Rensselaer. He was at practice on a Thursday evening—at the beginning of his senior year, when he received a call from his mother’s best friend, who thought she might have had a stroke. His mother spent four months in the hospital before she was correctly diagnosed with cancer.
During this period, Ryan never let his mother down, driving to be at her hospital bedside every evening. He never let his team down, either, taking his responsibilities as Captain to the younger players very seriously, and never missing practice or a game. He never let his professors down, completing his studies with distinction.
Ask Ryan Buss about it, and he will tell you that everyone experiences some kind of adversity in their lives, though the severity varies. But Ryan believes that allowing adversity to affect the way you carry yourself in other parts of your life is just not appropriate.
This is leadership. This is greatness.
In the words of William Shakespeare, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."
It does not matter how you arrive at those moments when superhuman intelligence, courage, and endurance seem to be required—whether you are there by intent, or by chance.
All of us face such moments in our lives—times when we simply cannot disappoint our families, our partners, our employers, our country, or all of humanity.
So, as you leave us for wonderful careers and lives, I hope that you continue to develop the character that will allow you to act with great honor and discipline in a crisis—or, in an instance of opportunity that sweeps down with the abruptness of a crisis.
And if, in such a moment, you worry that you may not be able to live up to what is expected of you, or what you expect of yourself—I hope you remember that you have a Rensselaer education. You know a great deal. You have achieved much. You have grown—in multiple dimensions. You are more than ready for life—to do the impossible, when it is required. Be confident. Be compassionate. Be healthy.
I wish you Godspeed—and good fortune on all your journeys to come.