sealPurdue Commencement

Saturday, May 17, 1997 - 9:30 a.m.
Division I
Schools of Engineering

President Steven C. Beering

Ladies and Gentlemen, and members of the Class of 1997 ---
We continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those among us who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

In a book called The Introspective Engineer , author Samuel C. Florman recently pointed out that in many nations around the world, the study of engineering traditionally has been considered to be the most appropriate preparation for governmental and corporate leadership.

For example, when the distinguished École Polytechnic was founded in Paris in 1794, one of its stated aims was to educate the future leaders of France, including those in the highest state positions. Mr. Florman, who himself is a civil engineer, notes that the tradition is somewhat different in the United States where we tend to expect our engineers to do engineering.

Ironically, however, many of the people in high government positions here and abroad have been educated in schools of engineering in this country, and I know that some of today's graduates from various parts of the world will return to their native lands destined someday to assume national policy-making roles; and, indeed, many of our engineering graduates are among the leaders of this nation's most distinguished corporations.

It is indeed a noble calling to be an engineer . . . and a challenging one at that! Each of this morning's graduates will have fulfilled a proud destiny by spending a lifetime in the profession. However, you will also encounter opportunities and challenges that cannot be foreseen today, and you are prepared to grow, to look to new horizons; and, like our honorary degree recipients today, make contributions in many fields. Because of the kind of experience you have had here, you will be ready.

The three men who this morning receive Purdue's highest recognition -- the Honorary Degree -- are powerful examples of the value of an engineering education. They began as excellent engineers, but because of the needs and the opportunities before them and because they were prepared, they excelled in business, in industry, in military, and in academia.

What are the secrets of their success? Without having asked them individually, let me hazard an educated guess. I am willing to bet that they share certain attributes:
First, they developed their communication skills . I mean communication in the broad sense. Not only the ability to write clearly and speak well in public, but the habit of truly listening to other people, grasping what is being said, and understanding the world from other people's viewpoint. Good communication means recognizing and respecting the abilities of the people around you and learning to utilize those abilities to complement your own. If you can do that well enough, you will earn the right to be called a leader.
Second, they have initiative . Never content with hard work alone or just doing enough to get by, they have always looked for more work to do. If you're being graduated as a Purdue engineer, you know how to do that. Successful people, in addition, learn to work smart. You look for better ways to do things. You continue to combine skill with common sense and imagination to eliminate redundancies and find new possibilities.
Third, our honorees are decisive --or -- maybe a better word in today's world is "courageous." It is one thing to analyze the situation and develop a strategy. It is quite another to take action and make your ideas come alive, taking full responsibility for what you have done. Harry Truman once said, "The buck stops here." He was acknowledging that other people might be smarter or have more information or better insights than he, but ultimately it fell to him to make the decision, and he insisted on standing up to that responsibility. At every level in every organization, someone must stand up and be counted.
Fourth, they have vision -- the ability or the will to see beyond the immediate task at hand to larger realities. Winston Churchill expressed it this way: "The destiny of mankind is not decided by material computation. When great causes are on the move in the world, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty." Each of our three honorees is a great success in a professional sense, but they are here today because they have looked beyond their own achievements and committed themselves to building a better future for mankind.
Fifth, they have developed good self-perception . They know themselves well. Recognizing their own strengths and weaknesses, they are afraid of neither. They have learned to maximize the one and compensate for the other.
The list could get considerably longer, of course, but the last one I will mention is their shared desire for knowledge , not only in their careers, but in their lives. A mind that keeps learning will never grow stale, and the wonders of literature, history, music, and art not only enrich our private lives, but enhance our professional skills.

You may have noticed that each of the attributes I have mentioned would apply equally well for a physician, a teacher, a biologist, a cab driver, or any other profession. They are, after all, the qualities that lead not just to a successful career, but to a fulfilled life. When you came to Purdue, you encountered a curriculum that included more than the disciplines you would need to be a good engineer. The professors who developed that curriculum consider it just a good start -- a beginning to a lifetime of continual learning.

The evolution of technology in the late twentieth century is moving at breathtaking speed. But it is sure to move even faster in the twenty-first century. You have learned the requisite skills that you will need to keep up. It will now be up to you to supply the motivation and the creativity that will make you not only excellent engineers, but also, successful men and women, and the kind of leaders that our world needs.

Engineers can build bridges and factories, computers and refineries, space ships and industrial systems, but the most important thing that you will build is the future . That is your challenge!

On behalf of the trustees, administration, and faculty of Purdue, I congratulate you -- the Class of 1997 -- and wish you the very best of continued success.