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May 10, 2013

Daniels to grads: World may be uncertain but Boilermakers shouldn't be

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A new graduate expresses her excitement after receiving her Purdue University degree on Saturday (May 11). About 6,375 students were candidates for degrees at the West Lafayette campus this spring. Ceremonies were conducted in Elliott Hall of Music. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - In a world of uncertainty with difficult global challenges ahead and no shortage of pessimists, Purdue President Mitch Daniels on Friday (May 10) sent the university's newest alumni out with one certainty: Boilermakers have and will continue to make a difference.

Daniels spoke of the Boilermaker qualities, such as leadership, imagination and ingenuity that will help move the world forward. Purdue's spring commencement, with five ceremonies between Friday and Sunday (May 12) in Elliott Hall of Music on campus, marked Daniels' first as president.

"In a few minutes, you will own for life one of the proudest emblems of achievement anywhere on the planet, a diploma from Purdue University. You will validate its worth as you move through lives of personal success and satisfaction. But you will fully honor it only as you invent, or start up, or build, or teach, or lead others in ways that alter and thereby continue the world's upward path."

While acknowledging today's graduates face realities such as an inherited national debt, personal loans for the education they have received and a tough economy, Daniels expressed optimism that they will succeed. He also pointed out past instances where sages and sophisticated models predicted doom.

"But they were wrong," he said, "because they fell into the oldest of traps, the fallacy of extrapolation. They failed to imagine that human ingenuity, first and foremost scientific and technological ingenuity, creates enormous and often sudden discontinuities that demolish the old forecasts and reset in fundamental ways the path of mankind's progress. The steam engine, the automobile, the Green Revolution, the silicon chip...  No matter how often history repeats, the doomsayers never see the next one coming.

"And they fail to account for one more thing: great leadership, the kind that can bring to bear the power of reason, and the lessons of history, and the skills of persuasion, to change minds and hearts and, therefore, both private action and public policies.

"That's what Boilermakers do. They imagine, conceive, devise and finally engineer the breakthroughs that create the resets and the discontinuities."

To illustrate, Daniels spoke of the countless lives saved from starvation by Purdue's two World Food Prize winners, Philip Nelson and Gebisa Ejita, and of Ward Cunningham's inventions that enabled a new mode of collaboration and gave the world a new word: "wiki."

He noted that Purdue innovations every year create new jobs, wealth and life opportunities for innumerable others.

"There's something else Boilermakers do," Daniels said. "Armed with a rounded education, rich in the liberal arts, they go into the world prepared to lead and to teach in a time of unprecedented complexity. Engineers and scientists who can distill, demystify and communicate complex questions to their fellow citizens; liberal arts graduates who absorbed enough of the transformative science of the day to teach it to our children or help shape the sound choices and tradeoffs that a free society must make together.

"I make no pretense to special foresight, and I don't claim to know with certainty that humankind will again overcome the very real threats it faces. But I know this: In this audience, and in the graduating classes that preceded and will follow you, are people who will make huge differences, quite possibly the kind that reset all the forecasts and send the pessimists back to their gloomy little corners."

A copy of Daniels' full speech is available at:
http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2013/Q2/president-daniels-to-graduates-your-turn-at-the-plate-has-come.html

Writer: Jim Bush, 765-494-2077, jsbush@purdue.edu 

Contact: President Mitch Daniels, president@purdue.edu