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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks at 2018 President's Commencement Colloquy

Category: University Events
May, 2018
Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center

2018 President's Commencement Colloquy, "Breaking Paradigms and Transcending Borders: Transformative Leadership in the 21st Century"

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 President's Commencement Colloquy. Welcome, especially, to the members of the Class of 2018, and to their families and friends.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, we are highly conscious of the "polytechnic" in our name, which comes from the Greek for "skilled in many arts." Within a paradigm we term The New Polytechnic, we educate our students for deep knowledge in their chosen fields—but also for the breadth to see across fields—something we consider essential to a meaningful life and career in the 21st century.

Several factors demand a broad perspective: First, are the great global challenges humanity faces, such as climate change; the need to secure food, water, and energy supplies sufficient for a global population that will reach 8.6 billion just a dozen years from now—as well as to create sustainable infrastructure for them—and the need to mitigate disease and improve human health. Moreover, there are myriad national and global security challenges we face each day.

Such complex and interconnected challenges cannot be addressed by a single individual working alone—nor by a single discipline, sector, geography, or generation. Major collaborations are required—along with young men and women sophisticated enough to lead those collaborations.

Second are the remarkable advances in areas of artificial intelligence, data analytics, robotics, and genomics. These advances have applications across many disciplines—and are rapidly conveying us towards consequences we cannot foresee. Intellectual agility, then, is demanded of our graduates. By applying a perspective gained in one domain to the challenges of another, they may well change the world.

At our Commencement tomorrow, we will offer honorary degrees to four leaders in very different fields who have something important in common: a bold and original willingness to cross barriers and borders that other people would not cross, to explore the unknown, to open doors, and to shape the future in unique and challenging ways. All four have used ideas, skills, and understanding developed in one arena to transform another. They all are pioneers.

The theme for our discussion today is "Breaking Paradigms and Transcending Borders." I am so pleased that our graduates, their families, the Rensselaer community, and our larger community, have the opportunity to learn from our honorands about truly transformative leadership.

Please allow me to introduce our guests.

Our first honorand was named executive vice president of General Motors Global Manufacturing in June of 2016, overseeing manufacturing, manufacturing engineering, and labor relations for the company—worldwide. In this role, she is responsible for 165,000 workers—more than three times the population of Troy, New York—and for the delivery of over 9.5 million vehicles a year across the glove.

She began her career at General Motors in 1994 as a manufacturing engineer, before becoming the first African American woman to lead a General Motors manufacturing plant.

She moved out of the factory to become Vice President of Global Quality and the U.S. Customer Experience. Under her leadership, GM improved vehicle quality and fundamentally redefined customer care. She became Senior Vice President of the Global Connected Customer Experience in December of 2014, where she led the company's connected customer activities, including the OnStar concierge service, a pioneering technology in the revolution known as the "Internet of Things."

In 2013, Fortune magazine named her as one of the 10 most powerful women in the automotive industry. Automotive News named her its 2017 "All Star in Manufacturing." In February, she was presented with the 2018 “Black Engineer of the Year” award.

Our guest has a bachelor's degree in Chemical Engineering from Northwestern University, a master's degree in Engineering Science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and an MBA from Indiana University.

It is a great honor to welcome Ms. Alicia Boler Davis of the Rensselaer Class of 1998.

Our second honorand is President and founding director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He is Professor of Biology at MIT and Professor of Systems Biology at the Harvard Medical School.

A mathematician by training, he has played a pioneering role in the reading, understanding, and biomedical application of the human genome. He was a principal leader of the Human Genome Project.

With his colleagues, our honorand has developed and applied powerful methods for discovering the molecular basis of rare genetic diseases, common diseases, and cancer. He has done groundbreaking work in areas that include…

  • human genetic variation;
  • human population history;
  • genome evolution;
  • regulatory elements, and
  • genome-wide screens to discover the genes essential for biological processes, using CRISPR-based genome editing.

His honors and awards include the MacArthur Fellowship, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, the Woodrow Wilson Prize for Public Service from Princeton University, the James R. Killian Jr. Faculty Achievement Award from MIT, and the Albany Medical Center Prize in Medicine and Biomedical Research.

He earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics at Princeton University and a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar.

From 2009 to 2017, he served as co-chair of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, or PCAST, for President Barack Obama—where I worked alongside him as a member of PCAST in addressing challenges and defining new opportunities for the nation in science and technology.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Eric Lander.

Our next honorand is a litigation partner and Senior Chair of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, as well as the leader of the firm's Strategic Crisis Response and Solutions Group.

She was the 31st Chair of the United States Securities and Exchange Commission from 2013 to 2017. Under her leadership, the Commission strengthened protections for investors, and the markets, in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008, and instituted changes to enforcement that resulted in greater accountability for wrongdoing, as well as record levels of actions and monetary remedies ordered.

She served as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York from 1993 to 2002—the only woman to hold that position in the 200-plus-year history of that office. Under her tenure, the office successfully prosecuted financial fraud, organized crime, and international terrorism cases—earning convictions against the terrorists responsible for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and the 1998 bombings of American embassies in East Africa.

She previously served as the First Assistant U.S. Attorney and Acting U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York.

Among her honors and awards are the Sandra Day O'Connor Award for Distinction in Public Service and the George W. Bush Award for Excellence in Counterterrorism.

Our honorand is a graduate of the College of William & Mary with B.A. in Psychology, and The New School for Social Research with an M.A. in Psychology.  She earned her Juris Doctor degree at Columbia Law School, where she was an officer of The Law Review.

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the Honorable Mary Jo White…

Our final guest, and our Commencement speaker, is a legendary pianist and composer. His professional career in jazz began when he was still a student at Grinnell College, where he double-majored in Music and Electrical Engineering.

By his early 20s, he was a member of the great Miles Davis Quintet. In the 1970s, he continued to push jazz into new frontiers with his Mwandishi ensemble, which included groundbreaking experiments with synthesizers, and with the influential funk band the Headhunters. His landmark album Future Shock, and the hit single "Rockit," pioneered hip hop.

Many of his compositions, including "Maiden Voyage," "Watermelon Man" and "Chameleon," are modern standards.

He has earned 14 Grammy Awards, including "Album of The Year" for River: The Joni Letters, his 47th studio album, which was a tribute to the work of Joni Mitchell, and only the second jazz album in history to be so honored. In 2016, he was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.  Mr. Hancock also received an Academy Award for his score for the celebrated film Round Midnight.

Our honorand is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He currently serves as Creative Chair for Jazz for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, and as Institute Chairman of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz.  In 2011 he was named a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador. He was the 2014 Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University, where he offered a lecture series on "The Ethics of Jazz."

Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming the great Mr. Herbie Hancock.