sealPurdue Commencement

Sunday, May 18, 1997 - 2:30 p.m.
Division IV
Schools of Agriculture, Education, and

President Steven C. Beering

Ladies and gentlemen, and especially you members of the Class of 1997 ---

We continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and further high accomplishment. And, so, I get to give you a send-off message.

Earlier this year, Jürgen E. Schremp, chairman of Daimler-Benz -- the company that makes the Mercedes vehicles -- delivered a speech to a group of business executives in Detroit, Michigan. He said, "We have learned in Europe the same lessons you have learned -- that there is no hiding from a global economy. We must go out and meet it, unshackling the creativity of our employees and managers and encouraging them to be the best that they can be."

The fact that the CEO of a leading European car manufacturer was giving a speech about his company to business leaders in America's automobile capital says a lot in itself. It says much about the way our world is changing, and that indeed we are engaged in global competition.

Let's consider some of the things that have happened in recent years. Since World War II, we have lived in a bi-polar world that was divided politically between nations allied with the United States and those under the influence of the Soviet Union. Even neutral countries were powerfully affected by the enmity between these two great power blocs and by the always-present threat of a nuclear conflict.

At that time, South Africa remained under an apartheid government. Many Latin American nations were in a state of political and economic turmoil. China was an enigmatic and suspicious presence in the East. And, Western Europe was flirting uncertainly with the idea of economic unity.

In the United States, despite our great military preeminence, we were facing some very severe economic challenges. American business was being out-maneuvered and out-hustled by competitors from abroad, and our corporate giants were trying out words like "down-sizing" and "out-placement."

Then, in the late 1980s, the world suddenly seemed to realign itself. The Communist nations of eastern Europe began to detach themselves from the influence of Moscow. The Berlin Wall came down. Germany, which had been divided for over forty years, began to reunify. The Soviet Union ceased to exist as a nation, breaking into a collection of geographically or ethnically centered states, with a very contentious and uncertain alliance resulting.

These were changes of historic dimensions, and they occurred both swiftly and relatively peacefully. Never before had a world power collapsed so suddenly without either a war or a revolution. Economists, historians, politicians, and military experts -- none of whom had foreseen these developments -- scrambled to interpret what it all meant.

Today, the full implications still are not understood, but some answers are beginning to emerge. Without the distraction of what was called the "Cold War," the globalization of culture and commerce has accelerated. Vast new markets have opened to free trade. A united Europe has begun to seem possible. The United States and its neighbors to the north and south have signed historic treaties. American business is re-energized, and the economy is humming at a record pace. Some 3,000 international students are studying together on this campus alone.

On the other hand, U. S. Admiral Francis Harness recently pointed out that the end of the Cold War has made the world safe for regional conflicts, as the people in central Europe, Africa, and the Middle East have learned to their sorrow.

We don't know whether the former Iron Curtain nations will adapt to democracy and free-market economics or slide back into dictatorship and isolationism or just exactly what is going to happen. It looks good, but there is no guarantee. The long-term effects of the Western European alliance, NAFTA, the gradual emergence of China, and the other changes occurring around the world leave much to doubt.

Why am I offering this little history lesson? One reason is because I want our new graduates to understand that they are living in an exciting and dynamic, if somewhat uncertain, age. The possibilities for a person beginning a career today are staggering. It is a cliché for commencement speakers to talk about unlimited potential, but there is no denying the fact that your generation faces opportunities and challenges that are unique in history.

The rapid development of technology has removed the obstacles that international travel and communication once represented. Advances in biology and chemistry have opened up entire disciplines in basic research that already are leading to new commercial possibilities. The political changes I mentioned earlier have created new frontiers around the world. If you arm yourselves with knowledge of other languages and cultures, you can live and work almost anywhere; and, as many of you have already discovered who have signed up with international companies, that is exactly what is being offered to you. The vast unknown of space remains the most powerful frontier that will be explored during your future careers.

Will a happy and fulfilling future come easily for you? Of course not. Nothing really satisfying ever does. You will face problems and challenges, just as your parents and grandparents did. Yours will be different, but they will be no less exciting or important.

The four commencement talks I have delivered this weekend have centered around the theme of "building the future." The University in preparing its students for their individual futures and for the work they will do. You will be engaged in a fomenting process at all times. You and the other members of your generation will be facing problems and processes that will have major impacts on those who have to come after you. Right now, the future in which you are interested is your own, but you cannot help but impact all of us around you.

If you can preserve the peace that prevails in most of the world today and focus on progress, rather than mere survival, you have the opportunity to move civilization to a higher level. That is a great opportunity and a significant responsibility, particularly as we finish the decade, the century and the millennium -- and there is much that needs to be done.

We have tried to do our best to prepare you. You have tried to do your best in responding, and becoming, and growing into the individuals you are today. You have met many challenges. The future is next!

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