Saturday, December 20, 2008

Good morning, and welcome to the graduates, to my faculty and staff colleagues, to other University of Iowa students, to family and friends, and to honored guests. It is my great pleasure to share with you this remarkable and once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Before going further, please, everyone, join me in offering congratulations to these magnificent graduates!

Many people have made this day possible. Out there in the audience are parents, grandparents, husbands, wives, partners, significant others, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives and friends of the graduates. Now, graduates, please join me in applauding these people who have made this day possible!

This particular gathering of graduates, in this particular location, at this particular time is unique. Normally, we have more numerous winter commencements in other locations. But this year is different. And it’s different because of what happened here over six months ago.

Since June, we at The University of Iowa have had to make many sudden changes and think quickly about new accommodations for thousands of faculty, staff, and students. As you know, that’s because the Iowa River overflowed its banks and flooded much of our campus. Despite the historic challenge of 20 campus buildings and much of our infrastructure being out of commission as of mid-June, we were able to finish the summer term, open the fall semester with every class we promised, and celebrate the largest enrollment at the UI ever.

Since we were able to do that, you are able to be here today—graduating with your degrees from The University of Iowa. And you are very special because you are our first class to finish your education post-flood! Today is a huge milestone for you, your family, and your friends, but it is also a huge milestone for the University. Because you’re here today, we’ve shown that Iowa can provide an excellent education no matter what challenges come our way!

Our foremost obligation is to provide you, our students, with the teaching and learning that you want and need—and our dedication to that goal has never wavered, even as we watched the waters rise in early summer. Certainly the flood has affected the University greatly. But we are also deeply aware that it has affected you, too.

We have all encountered some inconveniences and hardships these past months. However, despite roadblocks, all of you have striven forth with determination and dedication to the finish line. And even as you had that precious prize of a college degree in your sights, many of you here with us today still gave much of yourselves to make sure that the University survived and could come back better than ever. Maybe you stood on the front lines of the sandbag patrol, shoveling sand or heaving bags in the hot sun to build a flood wall. Maybe you helped move precious library materials or valuable technological equipment to safer ground. Maybe you provided meals to exhausted workers or shared your living quarters with displaced flood victims. Maybe you volunteered your time to raise money for flood relief, or maybe you gave yourself. For everyone who has contributed something—whether it be in labor, time, treasure, or even just faith and dedication in your University—we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

Today is a celebration of your graduation, but it also a celebration of the greatness and resilience of this remarkable University community. Resilience is a kind of toughness, but it is not born out of rigidity. In fact, resilience comes from the opposite—flexibility. Former United States Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson once said of one of his colleagues, “He’s a million rubber bands in his resilience.” So during the flood, we all had to find our resilience in our flexibility—we were a strong University community of a million rubber bands.

The flood made it necessary for us to make quick decisions and to adapt to new circumstances swiftly. But we also had to make those decisions with the fullest information at our disposable and with the greatest expertise we could muster. In many ways, that’s exactly the skills we are sending you out into the world with through a university education.

The academic world values the understanding of multiple perspectives, the consideration of myriad sides, the thoughtful deliberation of many possibilities. We also value the deep knowledge that has come before us, the well-stocked stores of understanding that have been built up over time and tradition. We have worked hard to pass on that knowledge and those skills to you as critical thinkers and educated persons.

At the same time, if we had studied every flood in human history and debated over every possible hydraulic scenario in early June, we would have been inundated while we intellectualized. One side of the academic coin is the tradition of knowledge and the luxury of deliberation. But the other side of that coin is the pursuit of the new, the challenge of the unknown, the seizing of unexpected opportunity. Knowledge comes also in the flash of inspiration, the sudden grasp of insight, the openness to innovation. As prominent Columbia University physics professor and string theorist Brian Greene has said, “The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers.”

These are the strengths you will bring to your new lives as graduates of The University of Iowa. You will take the tradition of knowledge and the many hours, days, and years of contemplation and study into your work and community lives. You will apply the best of the past to your professional pursuits and in building a good society. At the same time, you will take the ability to adapt to new situations and new information which has also defined your studies. Through the flexibility of the critically thinking mind, you will help fashion a future of innovation and making lives better for all. As you go out into that new world of work, service, and community before you, remember the resilience forged in flexibility that you all so admirably showed these past months.

You will always be a very special group of graduates from The University of Iowa. Congratulations once again to you all—on your path hard-traveled, on your achievements well-earned, and on your future brightly lit. And thank you, as graduates of this magnificent institution, for being—once and always—the greatest of Iowa Hawkeyes!