President Daniels to graduates: Ingenuity, leadership, innovation — it’s “what Boilermakers do”

May 10, 2013  

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Greetings to all today’s joyful graduates: those who are graduating from one of our remarkable academic colleges, those who are graduating from one of our exceptional professional schools, and especially those parents who are finally graduating from the School of Tuition Check-writing.  We salute and welcome you all.

Purdue is known for the pioneers and adventurers it produces, men and women whose sense of wonder has led them to frontiers of new knowledge, across our planet and beyond it.  But even a Nobel Laureate or an astronaut could not surpass by much the curiosity of a newly-minted college graduate: I wonder what’s next?  Am I good enough?  Were these the best days I’ll ever know?  Most of all, in what kind of world will I live my adult life?

Maybe you saw the following headlines: “Salary Rise for Graduates”; “More Jobs Ahead: Outlook for Graduates is Better Than Usual”; “Thriving Economy Gives Grads Bright Prospects”.

OK, maybe you didn’t.  They were from 1956, 1985, and 2006, respectively.  Most classes have departed this place in years like those, bound for an America of unquestioned economic promise, national confidence, and world leadership. 

The headlines of your graduation year are different: “Class of 2013 Might Earn Less”; “Class of 2013 Faces Grim Job Prospects; “Without Jobs, College Grads Head for ‘Debtors’ Prison”.  About half of you will leave here with debts from a student loan. Averages are often deceiving, but on average those with loans will amount to around $28,000.  As daunting as that burden may feel, the debt you chose to incur is small compared to the debt you are inheriting, through no decision of your own.  Your elders have run up an enormous national tab for you to pay off.  As matters stand, your lifetime share today looks to be some $710,000, and it’s getting bigger all the time.   

We just endured a cold, damp winter here in Indiana, and in a way that seems fitting: you can’t miss the damp chill of pessimism in the national news and national mood these days.  The last two years are the first on record in which more Americans believe today’s youth will have a worse life than their parents.

An old story has the optimist saying, “This is the best of all possible worlds!” to which the pessimist replies “You’re right.”  In a stagnant economy, with national debt weighing down the present and threatening the future, pessimism is hardly surprising.  But then, the pessimists are with us in all eras, good and not so good.  Consider a quick sample:

“The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”  That was Thomas Malthus, whose predictions were so famously gloomy that we attach his name to their modern-day versions and the mentality that produces them.  Or, more recently, this: “(E)ven with the optimistic assumption that all possible land is utilized, there will still be a desperate shortage before the year 2000…Food prices will rise so high that some people will starve; others will be forced to shift to lower quality diets.” That was the erudite consensus of the world’s allegedly wisest people, in 1972, in the so-called Club of Rome report.  Or, to take an extreme case, this gem, from 1968:  “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.  In the 1970’s and ‘80s, hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now….(Nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.”

For the latter forecast and a career of equally comical errors, the author was granted a MacArthur “Genius” Prize as recently as 1990.  After years in Purdue’s laudably rigorous grading system, you’re entitled to ask, “If that’s genius, what would foolishness look like?”

Anything that titillates, that excites, that sends a shiver up the spine, tends to sell, so there’s always a market for doomsaying. Check any best-seller list, or the lines at the latest disaster film.  But something keeps getting in the way of Armageddon.  That something is human ingenuity.

That population “bomb” that was going to detonate and destroy the world?  It was a dud.  Rising incomes and education levels brought birthrates plummeting down, first in the developed world and now even in developing countries like Vietnam, Tunisia, and El Salvador.  Now books with names like “The Birth Dearth” and “What to Expect When No One’s Expecting” bring us data showing that the looming danger comes from aging societies with far too few young people.

Those global starvation scenarios are in the file of pseudo-scientific embarrassments.  Instead of global famine, the proportion living at subsistence income levels is smaller today than ever in human history.  We harvest 2½ times more wheat, corn, and rice on just 1/3 more farmland than in 1960. The proportion of undernourished humans in developing countries has fallen a stunning 36% just during the lifetime of today’s graduates. 

Is world hunger still the largest challenge we face?  Of course, but instead of the worldwide catastrophe we were told to expect, the last few decades have seen sensational improvements. And how proud we are that no place has contributed more to that improvement than our university. 

Most recently, another set of models hit the waste basket.  Through new breakthroughs in energy extraction, we now can see enormously larger supplies of affordable and cleaner energy than was believed even as you were entering Purdue a few short years ago.  Old alarms about “peak oil supply” are being supplanted by new estimates of “peak oil demand”, meaning supplies will outlast our need for them.  A new era of rebuilt manufacturing close to home, lower living costs for homes and transportation, and lower CO2 is unfolding.  Best of all, the world’s emerging peoples have suddenly much greater hopes for the energy supplies on which their ascent from poverty depends.

What happened?  Why were all the sages and their sophisticated models so wildly wrong?  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.  The most noteworthy passing of your senior year occurred just over a month ago, when Margaret Thatcher left us.  If you doubt for a moment that leadership, sometimes that of a single person, can change history, study her life and the difference between the Britain she found and the one that she left when her work was through.  Like the great scientists, and inventors, and business-builders, she was a one-person inflection point, who altered the arc of events and set it on a new and better trajectory.

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

Think of the countless lives saved from starvation by the work of our two World Food Prize winners alone.  Or Ward Cunningham, whose inventions enabled a whole new mode of collaboration and eventually gave the world a new word: “wiki”. 

Year in, year out, Boilermaker innovations create new jobs, wealth, and life opportunities for innumerable others.  Business builders like Allen Chao of Watson Pharmaceuticals, Dick Dauch at American Axle, Brian Lamb at CSPAN, or just this year Akshay Kothari of Pulse News have given birth not only to better lives but in some cases to whole new industries. 

There’s something else Boilermakers do.  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 yet 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.

And I know that bright futures lie ahead for you as individuals.  Armed with the special rigor and quality of a Purdue education, you are highly likely to lead happy and successful lives. The data tell us, and employers tell us all the time, that Purdue grads perform well and prosper accordingly.  But that shouldn’t be good enough for you. 

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.

A friend told me he rushed from work to his son’s Little League game, which had already started by the time he got there.  Spotting his boy in right field, he walked up to the fence, where the scoreboard told him the team was behind 14-0.  Between pitches, he waved to his son, who responded with a huge grin and a “Hi, Dad!”  My friend said, “Billy, I’m glad to see you, too, but how can you be so happy with the score the way it is?”  To which his son replied, “No problem, Dad, we haven’t been to bat yet!”

Neither have you, but your turn at the plate has come.  I know some of the nation’s scoreboards don’t look too good at the moment, but I know something the doubters don’t: another team of Boilermakers is in the on-deck circle.  Batters up.  Or, better said, “Boilers up!”

You won’t remember these last thirteen minutes, but I will.  For an expectant graduate-to-be, these speeches are just a trailer to be endured while waiting for the real show to start, and I get that.  But you’re my first Purdue commencement.  So no matter how many of these I am called on to officiate, I’ll always recall the Class of ’13.  And if I live long enough for my memory to start slipping, I just know that you will supply plenty of reminders, in the form of great achievements of the kind on which human progress depends, and for which Boilermakers have always been known.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.

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