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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

2017 President's Commencement Colloquy

Category: University Events
May, 2017
EMPAC Concert Hall

2017 President's Commencement Colloquy

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

Welcome everyone, to the magnificent Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center for the grand tradition we refer to as the President’s Commencement Colloquy. I welcome, especially, the members of the Class of 2017, and their families and friends.

As we consider the world our students are moving into, very complex challenges predominate—including our need to secure sufficient supplies of food, water, and energy for a global population that is likely to increase by a full billion people in just the next dozen years; the concomitant need to mitigate climate change and to build sustainable infrastructure; the need to intelligently allocate valuable natural resources; and the need to provide for national and global security in an often unstable world.

These challenges are clearly linked. And because of the interconnectedness of our systems and societies, a triggering event anywhere in the world can create intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences. We are subject to “butterfly effects” in which small changes sometimes have large consequences, and “domino effects,” in which one failure causes many more. These effects encompass chaotic natural systems such as the weather, human societies, and our natural environment.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, to prepare our graduates to deal with instability, volatility, and change, we have educated them to have intellectual agility, multicultural sophistication, and a global view. We have re-envisioned ourselves as The New Polytechnic—a great crossroads for collaborations across disciplines, sectors, geographies, and generations—using the most advanced tools and technologies—that address intricate and interwoven global challenges, building resilience into our systems and societies, and staving off crises.

Today, we have invited to this great crossroads two distinguished leaders of very large organizations who will receive honorary degrees tomorrow. Both have successfully defused crises of great magnitude and complexity. Both are similarly optimistic in their sense that solutions to great problems can be found—and both are courageous and outspoken about our need to work together towards such solutions.

Today, we will consider “Criticality, Incisiveness, Creativity”—in other words, the ways that great decision-making, in moments of truth, can change the world.

Please allow me to introduce our guests…

Our first honorand is President and Chief Executive Officer of TIAA, a Fortune 100 financial company. Initially founded by Andrew Carnegie to provide teachers with a dignified retirement, this unique non-profit financial services company is a leading provider of retirement services in the academic, research, medical, and cultural fields.

Under our guest’s leadership, TIAA not only survived the recent global financial crisis, but thrived—never missing a retirement payment and emerging with more capital than before the crisis. Today, TIAA has become one of the largest asset managers in the world, and has dealt very creatively with the challenges of low interest rates and its customers’ need for longer-dated investments.

Our guest also is the former vice chairman of the Board of Governors of the United States Federal Reserve System, our nation’s central bank, which among other functions, develops and promulgates monetary policy, promotes the stability of our financial system, and supervises and regulates financial institutions. As the only Governor in Washington, D.C., during the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he was the architect of the decisive Federal Reserve response—calming fears and staving off a financial panic in New York City and Washington DC, around the nation, and around the globe.

In the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, President Barack Obama appointed him to the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, as well as its predecessor, the Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

Prior to joining TIAA in April of 2008, he was the head of financial services for reinsurer Swiss Re. Earlier in his career, he was a partner at the consultancy McKinsey & Company, and an attorney at the New York City office of the law firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell.

His board service includes Alphabet, General Mills, and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He is chairman of The Conference Board, and recently has been appointed a Regent of the Smithsonian Institution.

He holds a B.A., J.D., and a doctorate in economics, all from Harvard University.

It is a great honor to welcome the Honorable Roger W. Ferguson, Jr…

Our second honorand and Commencement Speaker is the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus and Special Advisor to the President of MIT. He also is co-chairman of the board of directors and CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

A member of the MIT faculty since 1973, our honorand was the 13th United States Secretary of Energy until January 20th of this year. I had the great honor of serving on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board during his tenure.

His balanced approach to energy policy has helped to lead the United States to greatly improved energy security, with energy-related carbon emissions at their lowest levels since 1991.

His accomplishments included negotiating, in 2015, alongside the United States Secretary of State, the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the major powers of the world—an agreement blocking off all pathways to a nuclear weapon for Iran. During his tenure, the 2015 United Nations Climate Conference in Paris produced an historic international accord on greenhouse gas emissions. His leadership was key to the announcement of a “Mission Innovation” initiative at the conference, a joint effort by more than 20 nations to double clean energy research and development by 2020.

From 1997 to 2001, he was Undersecretary in the Department of Energy, and from 1995 to 1997, Associate Director for Science in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. From 2009 to 2013, he was a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and a member of the Defense Threat Reduction Advisory Committee.

At MIT, our honorand performed distinguished research in theoretical nuclear physics, led the Bates Linear Accelerator Center, was head of the Department of Physics, Director of the MIT Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, and founding Director of the MIT Energy Initiative.

He received a bachelor’s degree in physics from Boston College, and a doctorate in theoretical physics from Stanford University. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Please join me in welcoming the Honorable Ernest J. Moniz…

Secretary Moniz, thank you for joining us. You received a great deal of praise for your skills both as a scientist, and as a diplomat, during the highly technical negotiations that led to the historic agreement between Iran and the major powers of the world, designed to block the path of Iran towards a nuclear weapon. Please tell us how that agreement made the world safer, and your thoughts on addressing the advancing nuclear and missile programs in North Korea.

Dr. Ferguson, we are so glad that you could join us. You are much admired for addressing another kind of threat—a possible financial panic following the 9/11 terrorist attacks—with speed, confidence, and great sensitivity. Because Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan was grounded in Switzerland on 9/11, it was up to you and your team to devise the immediate response. Please tell us about the moment you understood that the financial system was under attack—and how you prioritized the response of the Fed.

Research indicates that when faced with threats, both organizations and individuals tend to become more rigid, cautious, and rule-bound in their decision making, often referred to as “threat rigidity. Yet with a great deal at stake, you have been able to remain flexible and creative, while keeping a necessary framework and desired end state in mind. How strong were the pressures to do the conventional, but possibly inappropriate thing, under extraordinary circumstances, and how did you overcome them?

Dr. Moniz, as you know, I was chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission from 1995 to 1999, which regulates the civilian use of nuclear materials, (including nuclear materials control and accounting related to nuclear nonproliferation) while the Department of Energy oversees nuclear security in defense, nonproliferation, and legacy environmental efforts.One of the great successes of the Department of Energy under your tenure was its “all of the above” approach to energy security and lowering carbon emissions. How does nuclear power fit into a clean energy future? And how do we calm public fears about nuclear energy after the Fukushima meltdown?

Department of Energy investments in research into unconventional natural gas and oil extraction technologies have greatly increased both the nation’s energy security and our ability to lower carbon emissions. For the benefit of our students, who may not remember the bad old days, please describe the progress we have made in energy security.

As you know, New York State does not allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. What would you say to those with environmental and health concerns about the way we are accessing our current natural gas and oil windfall?

President Trump has promised to revive the coal industry and to put miners back to work. If we look just at creating jobs, is coal where our focus should be? Please tell us a bit about the economics of clean energy and climate change.

Mr. Ferguson, a number of companies and industries truly have been leaders in pushing the governments of the world towards responsible carbon policies. Prominent among them was Swiss Re, a member of the reinsurance industry—a rather esoteric branch of financial services that insures insurers for outsized risks, including those arising from extreme weather events. Can you tell us how climate risk was viewed at Swiss Re?

Last month, electric car maker Tesla surpassed General Motors in market capitalization. Is this an important milestone? What does it say about mobility and climate change mitigation, within a commercial/market context?

By the time most members of the Class of 2017 are 35 years old, the world population will top 8.5 billion. One of the greatest challenges humanity faces is growing enough food for so many people—on a planet with a limited number of arable acres I think our audience might be surprised to learn that the future of farming will be influenced by you, Mr. Ferguson, as TIAA is the world’s largest investor in farmland—and its vineyard ownership makes it the second largest grower of wine grapes in the United States. These are longer-dated, higher yielding investments that work very well for retirement products—though they are not without controversy.

Because industrial-scale agriculture has many environmental and health costs—ranging from soil erosion to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria—TIAA has helped to develop Principles for Responsible Investment in Farmland, as a guide for institutional investors around the globe. How can we improve the sustainability of agriculture—while increasing food production?

Secretary Moniz, as you know, agriculture is major source of greenhouse gas emissions-9% as I understand it. How can we turn around this sector?

With Mission Innovation, you have helped to put research and development at the fore of the worldwide effort to decarbonize. As you know, the Trump administration’s proposed fiscal year 2018 budget zeroes out ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency in Energy designed to support breakthrough energy research—though Congress in its fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill just increased funding for ARPA-E. Is attempting to eliminate ARPA-E something an “America First” approach should be focused on? Would it set us back as a nation if ARPA-E was eliminated?

In the mid-1960s, at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, over 11% of the federal budget was devoted to research and development, and that investment has helped the United States to be the world’s leader in innovation. Today, just 3.5% of the federal budget goes to R&D. Healthcare expenditures, on the other hand, have risen exponentially as a share of the federal budget—now up to 25%—and given an aging population, there is no end in sight. How, in your view, do we restore some balance, so that we can make crucial investments in science and in infrastructure—in growth down the road?

Jackson to Both:

How could R&D investments help to address healthcare costs?

Jackson to both…

As you know, recent elections in the United States and Europe, as well as the Brexit referendum, suggest that globalization is no longer seen as an unalloyed good—and we seem to be entering a new era of isolationism and protectionism.

Jackson to Moniz:

Your tenure as Secretary of Energy was marked by important international agreements—including the historic Paris agreement, under which we will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% below our 2005 levels by 2025. President Trump recently said he would review the United States’ participation in the Paris agreement, and vowed to end “a broken system of global plunder at American expense.” Please tell us what conditions allowed the world, finally, to come to agreement in Paris, and whether the agreement was made at American expense.

In ironing out the nuclear agreement with Iran, you were directly negotiating technical details with Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, who holds a doctorate in nuclear engineering from MIT. How important was this common ground you shared—MIT—in forging the agreement? Is this an argument for keeping our borders—and certainly our universities—open to the citizens of majority-Muslim nations?

Jackson to Ferguson:

TIAA invests all over the world. What forms of openness to the world are most essential in your view?

Economic growth in the United States is not as broadly shared as it used to be, with an inflection point occurring in the 1980s. The factors most often cited for increasing income inequality are global competition and offshoring, technological change, and government policies. TIAA is a very unusual company, in that it was founded to help those of modest means achieve financial security—as you put it, “financial services for the greater good.” What changes do we need to make to ensure that the benefits of globalization, technology, and our financial system are broadly shared?

Jackson to Moniz:

The national security mission of the U.S. Department of Energy is not widely understood—but extremely important—including maintaining our nation’s nuclear stockpile and blocking the proliferation of nuclear weapons. What is the greatest security threat we face in this regard?

As you know, a week and a half ago, a tunnel collapsed at the deactivated Hanford Site in Washington State,  which for 44 years produced plutonium for atomic weapons, including the bomb dropped on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Are you satisfied that the waste resulting from the production of nuclear weapons during World War II and the Cold War is being stored safely? What technologies do our students to invent to address this challenge, or do we know all we need to know, and just need to deploy known approaches and develop the right policy/political framework to allow this?

Jackson to Ferguson:

If the Fukushima nuclear disaster was one example of intersecting vulnerabilities with cascading consequences, so, too, was the last global financial crisis—which first manifested itself in a cluster of foreclosures in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, yet had domino effects around the globe. How safe are we from future global contagions, and what kind of regulation do we need?  Or not need?

You are an expert as well in another kind of risk—longevity risk. Please tell us about that.

Jackson to Moniz:

The young scientists, engineers, architects, managers, social scientists, and artists we will graduate tomorrow are going to shape the technologies of the future. Please tell them what breakthroughs you dream about.

Jackson to Ferguson:

You serve on the board of Alphabet, which has made enormous strides in machine learning and artificial intelligence. Please talk a bit about fintech and whether human financial advisors will soon be replaced by smart machines.

Jackson to both:

Both of you clearly are gifted managers. Henry Kissinger once wrote about the difficulty, when he was Secretary of State, of imposing a sense of direction on the “machinery” of the U.S. State Department. He found that his employees used the art of procrastination to slow the implementation of leadership decisions they did not agree with—while steering their own “hobbyhorses” past the unwitting Secretary at a gallop. In moments of pressure, when difficult decisions must be implemented, how do you secure cooperation from your employees?

Jackson to both:

Recently, there was widespread outrage when a 69-year-old passenger was violently removed from a United Airlines flight. Initially, the CEO of United praised his employees for “following established procedures.” Large organizations cannot function without such procedures, yet a strict interpretation of the rules is not always wisest. How do you avoid situations like the one I referenced, while maintaining appropriate protocols and an overall framework for dealing with crises?

Jackson to Moniz:

From the time the Department of Energy was formed in 1977 until 2005, it was headed by non-scientists. Only the past three secretaries of energy—you, Dr. Steven Chu, to whom we awarded an honorary degree in 2012, and Dr. Samuel Bodman—brought scientific expertise to the office. Given the Department’s scientific mission, and oversight of 17 national laboratories, is it possible for a non-scientist to do the job well?

Jackson to Moniz:

I have long spoken about something I call “The Quiet Crisis,” the fact that the nation has not drawn women and minorities in sufficient numbers into the STEM fields so crucial to our standing in the world. Almost inconceivably, over the last decade, the already low percentage of bachelor’s degrees awarded to women in physics, economics, engineering, computer sciences, and mathematics and statistics has been falling further, while the number awarded to under-represented minorities has not really grown. How do we encourage more young women and underrepresented minorities to study these subjects?

Jackson to Ferguson:

Your experience and influence encompass both Wall Street and Silicon Valley—two cultures frequently criticized for failing to provide sufficient opportunities to young women and underrepresented minorities. Please tell us how TIAA views diversity. Is it something TIAA considers when making investments?

Jackson to Ferguson:

Dr. Ferguson, you and I have much in common, in terms of our backgrounds. We both grew up in Washington DC, and were children when its public schools were first integrated. Both of our fathers had served in the military, our mothers placed a great emphasis on education, and I believe we both were extremely fortunate in our parents. Please tell us about the influence your childhood had on your future career in finance.

Jackson to Moniz:

Secretary Moniz, you grew up in Fall River, Massachusetts, in a family of Portuguese immigrants, who underscored the importance of education. As I did, you benefitted a great deal from a new emphasis on science and mathematics in the public schools, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial satellite, and launched the Space Race. Please tell us about the moment when you became enchanted with physics.

Jackson to Ferguson:

Dr. Ferguson, we are a polytechnic, which comes from the Greek for “skilled in many arts.” So while we educate for deep knowledge in specific fields, we also educate for leadership, by exposing our students to the concepts and cultures of different areas of endeavor. What are the elements of leadership that were most valuable to you on 9/11?

Jackson to Moniz:

You went to graduate school at Stanford, at a time when the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, or SLAC, was the best place in the world for experiments in high-energy physics. Yet, you choose theoretical over experimental work, because you felt that the experimental culture of working in large groups did not suit you. Nonetheless, at MIT, you were appointed director of the Bates Linear Accelerator Center in 1983 and served for eight years—a very unusual role for someone trained as a theorist. Please tell us how that happened—and, for the benefit of our students, how you had changed from your student days to move into leadership roles.


Honorands, we thank you for being so generous with your time, and for sharing your insights with us.

At tomorrow’s ceremonies, Rensselaer will award an Honorary Doctor of Science degree to Secretary Moniz, and an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree to Dr. Ferguson.

We are delighted that they are here with us, at the very moment that our graduates head off to answer our great challenge to them—to change the world.

Thank you for joining us…. You all are invited to a reception in Evelyn’s Cafe just outside the Concert Hall.