Friday, December 21, 2007

Thank you, Provost Lopes, for that wonderful greeting.

I offer my own greetings—not only to our wonderful graduates, but also to all the friends, family, and University faculty and staff who have helped make it possible for these talented men and women to reach their goal today.

One of the very first things I did when I started as President of The University of Iowa a few months ago was to speak at the new graduate student orientation and welcome. Now, I don’t think any of you here at commencement were there at the new student orientation in August—unless you’re even more brilliant than any of us had ever imagined. Nevertheless, I think that being with you today is a wonderful way to round out my first semester at the UI. Our graduate students are at the center of what we are all about as an institution of higher learning. So it is only fitting that I begin and end my first months by welcoming in to the University and then sending off into the world such talented scholars.

Graduate school is a special privilege, and I believe one of the greatest commitments that anyone can make. Receiving a graduate degree, then, is truly one of the great accomplishments of life. Less than 10% of the American population holds graduate degrees, so you are joining an elite group. By “elite” I don’t mean economically or socially privileged. I mean “elite” in the sense that your talents and your commitments are special, and your obligations to use them wisely are strong.

That great predecessor of mine, President Emeritus Sandy Boyd, is fond of quoting UI President Walter Jessup, who said, “Education is Iowa’s never-ending frontier.” You—who will be bringing the most advanced Iowa education out into the world—now become our greater society’s intellectual frontier. You will be the ones to carry us all into a future of new discovery.

One thing I’ve learned in my first months here at Iowa is that our intellectual traditions at this University are unusual. We’re not your typical university. We were the first to offer academic credit for creative work. Some of our greatest innovations—past and present—are the result of breaking, not forming, disciplinary boundaries. I hope that you’ve discovered some of those maverick traditions in your graduate studies here. And I hope when you stamp your Iowa education onto the work you will do, people will sit up and take notice at how truly innovative you are.

Let me share with you a few quotations—some a little noncomformist—about education and knowledge that I hope describe your education here at Iowa. And I hope they will inspire you to make your own innovative mark on the world as a result of your graduate studies with us.

First, twentieth-century educator Jacob Chanowski said, “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” I hope maybe you’ve tipped over at least one or two sacred cows while you’ve been here. We as faculty, and we as an institution, are strengthened only to the extent we are challenged. We may have pushed back a bit at you, but please know that we realize we grow, too, as you question us. Bring that ragamuffin spirit—judiciously and strategically, of course—into your new jobs and responsibilities.

Albert Einstein once said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Knowledge is dead unless it is enlivened by imagination. Be an artist with your knowledge. Create your own kind of beauty no matter what you do.

Helen Keller said, “No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” So marry your imagination to optimism. We don’t discover or do great things by saying “no” and by saying “impossible.” I know graduate school can wear you down, but you came into it because you saw marvelous possibilities. Leave it by seeing even more magnificent ones.

Friedrich Engels said, “An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory.” I’m sure you’ve been inundated with tons of theory in your years here at Iowa. And theory is good—I like theory. But Engels was right in that theory does not move the world. One difference between graduate school and what comes after is the application of your theory to the proverbial “real world” (even if you’re going into a career in higher education). Perhaps I’d modify Engels’ sentiment to say, “An ounce of action is powered by a ton of theory.” So take what you’ve learned here, and be powerful—change the world through your action.

Marian Wright Edelman, founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund, once said, “Education is for improving the lives of others and for leaving your community and world better than you found it.” Make sure your action is not self-serving, but in service to others. Yes, you came to graduate school, in part, to make life better for yourself. But a better life for yourself only comes about when you also make life better for your community and our greater society.

And finally let me quote the great philosopher G. W. F. Hegel: “Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.” You can’t accomplish great things by mere imagination, by mere irreverence, by sheer optimism, or even by sheer action. I know that a certain passion has driven you to pursue your topic of study, and it has driven you to succeed in graduate school. Continue tapping into those wells of passion as you accomplish even greater things outside the walls of The University of Iowa.

So congratulations to you all—on your path hard-traveled, on your achievements well-earned, and on your future brightly lit.

One of my goals as President is to make sure that we remain a university that both educates and inspires. I hope that your adventure with us has been inspiring; that we have fueled your passion, sparked your imagination, and spurred your optimism; that maybe we have encouraged a little irreverence; and that we have prepared you for great action and service.

Go forth, make us proud, and I can’t wait to see the wondrous world you will create for us.