sealPurdue Commencement

Saturday, May 17, 1997 - 2:30 p.m.
Division II
Schools of Management;
Pharmacy, Nursing, Health Sciences;
and, Science

President Steven C. Beering

Ladies and Gentlemen, 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 a significant milestone on the road to knowledge and high accomplishment. And . . . I get to give you one last lecture. No quizzes, no exams; the rest is "open book" from here on out.

As president of the University, one of the questions I'm often asked is: "What is the most important thing the university does?" There are many possible answers to that question, and all of them would be right, because a university does so many things. No individual really knows what all the institution's jobs are, and even those who are on campus every day, or who work in one of our regional campuses, or in one of our hundred locations abroad, have a limited working knowledge of all the activities that we encounter regularly as an institution as a whole.

Now, some people would approach the question from a philosophical perspective. The poet, John Masefield, -- in lines that I keep posted on my office wall -- argues that the university guarantees that there will always be a place where reasoned thought prevails. I agree with that point, but it doesn't fully answer the question.

In thinking about my remarks for this weekend's four commencement exercises, I tried to address the question of what is our most important task. The best answer I can offer you is that: "Universities build the future."

That statement may seem immodestly encompassing, but I believe it is true -- not just here in West Lafayette, but on this university's other campuses, and in places like Ann Arbor and Champaign, Cambridge and Oxford, Berkeley, South Bend . . . and in Bloomington.

Let's consider what occurs just on this campus. More than 35,000 students study here. In fact on any given day, more than 52,000 people live, and work, and study here. They come from all fifty states, every province in Canada, and over one hundred foreign nations. Most of them arrive as high academic achievers who have been heavily recruited by numerous other academic institutions. Some come from families with the resources to send them to the most expensive private universities. Some barely scrape by financially. They borrow money; they work part-time; they rely on the support of families who make great sacrifices to send a son or daughter to college.

These are great differences. Yet on this campus, the differences won't really matter in the long run. Each of you has had an equal chance to succeed, and miracles have happened. Students blossom intellectually under the guidance of inspired professors. They rise to challenges they never dreamed they could meet. And, by the time they arrive in this building for this culminating event, every one of them has the skills and the potential to succeed as a professional person and as an individual. Most importantly, each of our students will wake up tomorrow morning as a graduate of a great university -- and that will make everything else incidental.

But, the education of a new generation is only part of the University's challenge. The same faculty members who teach in the classroom and laboratory are also committed to extending the frontiers of knowledge in their respective disciplines. The juxtaposition of basic research and undergraduate teaching is a uniquely American concept. Yet, it is the reason that our universities are the envy of the world, and it finds its best expression in a land-grant institution like Purdue.

Our new graduates have learned not just what is in textbooks, but what has been developed in the months and days since those books were published. The men and women who have been teaching you have been evolving new theories of business and economics, reconfiguring the landscape of science, developing new medicines and discovering new treatments for diseases.

The standard of living we enjoy -- from the food we eat to the gadgets that entertain us in our homes -- the rapid progress of technology, and the bright promise of our future are all made possible because universities constantly are creating new knowledge and preparing new generations to be productive citizens.

But that is not all. This university also works closely with business, industry, agriculture, and state, local, and national government -- even foreign lands -- and we find ways to transfer new knowledge and technologies to the workplace and solve problems that are delaying progress.

During the period of European history that sometimes is called the "Dark Ages," the leaders of monasteries made the decision to preserve knowledge. They quickly realized that knowledge is not static. It is a living thing that constantly moves forward, and therefore it must be cultivated, like a garden. This reality led to the development of the university as a place where knowledge and culture are not only transmitted but constantly created. What better place then to build the future?

We also build the future through our children, and this afternoon's ceremony has special significance for all our parents here -- and for Jane and me. Our three sons and their wives -- each of whom has a place as a daughter in my heart, and each of whom is here this afternoon -- have among them, thus far, earned eight Purdue degrees. Today John will receive the ninth -- a Master's degree in Management.

I am deeply proud that the Beering family and the Purdue family are interwoven in this special way. And I am proud of each of you graduates in this room. You have met many challenges. You have overcome many obstacles. And every person who crosses this stage today has achieved something very special. Yet, it is only the beginning. Your greatest achievements lie ahead, because YOU are the future.

On behalf of the trustees, the administration, and our faculty, I congratulate each of you, the Class of 1997, and wish you the best of continued success.