Address to Graduates at Commencement 2023

Good morning to the remarkable Class of 2023!

And good morning to all the remarkable people who supported our graduates on their journey—family, friends, faculty, and staff. You kept them going when the college experience they’d expected was completely reshaped by COVID-19. So, graduates, let me invite you to stand if you wish and turn to those that helped you reach this milestone, and applaud them in thanks!

As most of you know, this has been my first year as president. During this time, I’ve heard a lot about the rigorous nature of an RPI education.

Alumni all over the world and of all generations confirm my own experience as a member of the RPI Class of 1981: That the RPI curriculum is so challenging that everything after it seems easy—or at least doable. 

So, earning a degree here is hard enough, as is. But I think that the RPI experience has never been more challenging than it was for this group of graduates. 

Clearly, there have been other periods in our 200-year history when great events disrupted our students’ education—World War I, the Spanish flu, World War II. But no graduating class has ever had to endure a threat on our campus for as long as today’s graduates have had to endure COVID-19. 

So, this may very well be the most resilient graduating class in RPI history. 

Lyn and I recently had the privilege of having dinner with a group of women from the Class of 2023, who shared their pandemic experience with us. With thanks to Summer Nolan, Denna Kassem, Caitlin Cronin, Sammantha Detwiler, and Katherine Champaign, we learned about how you…

  • Shifted abruptly to on-line classes and moved home in the middle of the spring of your freshman year; 
  • Experienced challenging weeks in quarantine upon returning to campus your sophomore year—with limited time each day to gather outside;
  • Were served meals prepared in an environment where pandemic-constrained supply chains made choices limited. Those meals delivered to your door included breakfast sometimes of hard-boiled eggs and dry cereal.

 I happen to like hard-boiled eggs—but I can appreciate that it’s not the most inspiring thing to wake up to in the morning. In addition,

  • You lived away from campus while taking online classes, you got to know your peers and professors via WebEx, and then lived on-campus in a socially distanced way.
  • Our architects learned to build models with whatever was on hand; cardboard, scissors and tape.
  • Our graduate students learned to continue their research remotely, and in ‘de-densified’ labs.
  • Finally, you masked in class and labs and tested twice/week in ECAV and the Armory.

But you also developed deep friendships that arose out of pandemic protocols that meant that for a long time, your only real social contact was with your roommates and labmates. 

I think for many of our graduates, this friendship is what made it all doable. 

Over and over, I have been moved and inspired by the ways that our students care for and support each other—and the courtesy and respect they show each other across differences. 

More than one student has said to me, “Yes, we struggle, but we struggle together.” But I like to correct that by saying: You succeed together.

Our graduates learned news ways to leverage on-line tools to enhance their education and research, and to collaborate with people across the country and around the world. And they appreciate the hard work of the staff, faculty, advisors, mentors, and coaches that supported their learning journey.

Speaking of coaches, I am reminded of the remarks which Hannah Price, co-captain of our Women’s Hockey team this year, offered at the Senior Athletic Brunch, a few weeks ago.

If I can quote her, Hannah said ‘It’s easy to feel bitter when you feel like circumstances are unfair or the odds are stacked against you, but even when our class was divided by hundreds of miles, we still found ways to connect, lead, and build community’. And she went on to say; ‘Connected by hardship, RPI feels more like a community now than when we originally arrived.’

Graduates, I wish I could say that you will never again have to wrestle with such difficult conditions on the road to success—but ours is a society with enormous challenges. So, please allow me to share a few thoughts about those challenges.

Obviously, as RPI graduates, you have the capacity to realize our motto: “Why not change the world?”

But if you hope to change the world in a positive way—my advice to you is to continue developing the qualities you have already demonstrated—the compassion, the empathy, the open-mindedness.

You may have to make very difficult decisions in your careers. In just the last few weeks, we have had the incredibly complex example of artificial intelligence pioneer and Turing Award winner Dr. Geoffrey Hinton resigning from Google—in order to not feel conflicted in sharing his concerns about the dangers of the generative artificial intelligence his own research made possible. 

We know that technology can have unintended consequences. Social media—despite opening up wonderful new possibilities for human connection—has also amplified extremism, eroded our privacy, and undermined the mental health of the young. 

The “move fast and break things” attitude of the tech leaders of 10 or 20 years ago, today seems willfully reckless. 

Graduates, I hope you move fast in terms of grasping new possibilities—but move thoughtfully in considering their societal impacts. Try to envision long-term social outcomes and steer your work accordingly. 

I also urge you to use your imagination to try to understand people who disagree with you. On some topics, this can be a very polarized country, in part because so many of our citizens feel marginalized, by their race or ethnicity, by their gender or sexual orientation, by resource gaps, or even by their urban or rural geography.

At the same time, society at large—and universities in particular—are roiled by questions of free speech versus hate speech directed at marginalized groups—versus speech someone simply doesn’t like. 

It has become socially unacceptable even to pose certain questions. 

I believe there is not enough talking and genuine listening in our civic life—and there is way too much posturing. 

So, I urge you to listen to people you disagree with and to explore their ideas. If you really disagree with them, listen more intently. If nothing else, it will add nuance to your own thinking. And it will convey a sense of respect to those that disagree with you that can go a long way towards bridging social, cultural, and political divides.

And finally, never accept that as an individual, you lack the power to make the world more equitable. I think of MIT Professor Emerita Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist who pioneered using zebrafish to study genetics. 

Nancy was frustrated by her inability to get MIT to give her enough lab space, and she decided to put some data behind her sense that she was not being treated fairly. She took a tape measure and late at night, began measuring her male counterparts’ labs. She discovered that even junior faculty who were men had more space than she did.

So, she gathered other tenured MIT women faculty to catalog the ways the institution had discriminated against them. By 1999, they produced a groundbreaking committee report.

The MIT administration acknowledged their findings—and then committed itself to institutional change.

This set off a wave of self-examination at other universities that has made things much better—if still not perfect—for women in science—and helped the world to stop undervaluing brilliant people such as today’s honorary degree recipients.

As you pursue your careers, know that you too have the power to bring about some much-needed social change—and to enlighten all of us. 

Let me close with an observation:
In 1998, the journalist Tom Brokaw wrote a book entitled The Greatest Generation. The Greatest Generation refers to the generation in the United States that came of age during the Great Depression and later fought in World War II. By persevering through those difficult times, they knew how to withstand hardship and working together, they built a better world because of it. 

And let me now remind you of the comment by your fellow graduate Hannah Price; ‘Connected by hardship, RPI feels more like a community now than when we originally arrived.’ 

The Greatest Generation were connected by hardship and built a better world. You were connected by hardship. 

I would like to think that today, I may be staring at RPI’s future Greatest Generation. Your resilience and persistence in the face of enormous odds is a lesson to all of us. So is the kindness you’ve shown your peers.

My request? Make that your super-power. Make that your brand. Make that the badge you’ve earned, and the badge you’ll wear with pride.

As President of RPI, you are my first graduating class; I could not be more proud to know you; I could not be more excited to see a future that you can shape with your new super power. Please come back and see us often. God bless you, and Godspeed!

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