Wrighton implores Class of 2005 to be “great contributors”

The degrees I have just conferred are symbols of educational achievement. The credential is important, but the enduring value gained is the educational experience inside and outside the classroom. The diploma you receive may be mounted on a wall, filed away, or lost, but your education will always be with you. Your potential to make a significant contribution to the world has been enhanced by your Washington University education. Indeed, you have a responsibility to step up to the challenge of making the world a better place, especially considering the investment of resources associated with your educational achievement. Your success will to be important to generations of people who will follow, and it will be meaningful to those you know and love.

Your academic success is due, in part, to the support extended to you from many. Faculty and staff of the University have worked on your behalf; you have made good friends and developed working relationships with your classmates; and your parents and other family members have made commitments to assist you. I would like to ask the graduates to stand, turn around, and applaud those who are here to celebrate your success. Thank you. You may now be seated.

As new graduates you join more than 100,000 living alumni of Washington University. Our alumni live and contribute all around the world. You join the elite of our society with your great educational achievement, and you are poised to begin the next phase of your lives. A number of alumni from the Class of 1955 are with us today, celebrating a half century of successes. These women and men are representative of alumni who have led lives of meaning and purpose. 1955 was a great year…I am old enough myself to remember my parents’ new 1955 Chevrolet station wagon. In 1955 the Brooklyn Dodgers beat the New York Yankees in the World Series, and Disneyland opened in Anaheim. Popular songs like “Rock Around the Clock”, “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, and “Davy Crockett” still circle around in my head. Challenges of the day were similar to some of those of 2005: Rudolph Flesch published Why Johnny Can’t Read — a stinging criticism of U.S. education, and the civil rights movement saw its first major event with a bus boycott led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Montgomery, Alabama. We still face challenges in education our country, and we have not yet realized all of the aspirations of Dr. King. Even so, in the 50 years since 1955 enormous progress has been made by many individuals and by teams of individuals — advances in science and technology which have transformed our lives; advances in medicine that have added length and quality to life; and advances in the arts that have enriched our lives. Our alumni, old and new, have contributed individually, collectively, and in teams to benefit society.

The future will hold many challenges, some of which we already know. New challenges will emerge as the future unfolds. Who in the Class of 1955 would have realized that within two years after graduation the Soviet Union would be first to place a satellite in earth orbit? The Sputnik surprise unleashed a huge national investment in science and engineering education and research, and marked the beginning of the “space race” culminating in a successful U. S. manned mission to the Moon. For those graduating today, many of whom started in late August of 2001, who could have envisioned the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, resulting in a “War on Terror” and the enormous investment of human and financial resources to win it?

New challenges stimulate many responses and feelings. I am very proud of the community here with respect to how we responded in the early hours after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 — we are a diverse community, but we drew together in a time of crisis, not knowing what the immediate future would bring. We are privileged to have many students and alumni and their families in New York City and in the greater Washington, DC area. In the minutes and hours following the first news of the attacks in New York and Washington, concern was focused on people we know and care about. As the weeks and months unfolded, and now as nearly four years have passed, memories of 9/11 remain vivid. Those memories will endure, but for many, attention has turned to addressing the questions surrounding why the terrorist attacks occurred.

Perhaps everyone who lives will have their own “wake up call”… a Sputnik or 9/11, or, on a more personal level, the report back from a physician’s office that, yes, you do have cancer or that you need a kidney transplant. It might be that call from your supervisor that the merger is taking place and you will be part of the “improved efficiency” by losing your job. The loss of a parent, the loss of a child, or an unanticipated natural disaster such as the tsunami of December 2004 — these are challenges one may face. Unpredictable challenges, large and small, will confront our new graduates. With the education you have, you are well-equipped — intellectually and emotionally — to meet the challenges ahead, both the personal and those that affect us all. The graduates of 2005 have demonstrated that they have earned a place among society’s leaders, and I am confident that among these graduates are individuals who will profoundly improve our world.

A transition in 1955, fifty years ago and near the time of commencement for the Class of 1955, reminds us of the important role that single individuals can play in changing the world. On April 18, 1955 Albert Einstein died — 50 years from the time he published a series of transforming papers in 1905. The papers included Einstein’s theory of special relativity, the particle theory of light, and the famous equation E=mc2. In fifty years of adult life, from 1905 until 1955, Einstein’s work became widely appreciated as a monumental contribution to knowledge. Every scientist has the aspiration to make Einstein-like contributions, every writer the hope to be a Shakespeare, every artist the hope to be a Van Gogh, every composer a Mozart, or every architect a Frank Loyd Wright. We may yet have another Einstein in the Class of 1955; hopefully we have many in the Class of 2005! At graduation we never really know what the future holds. Graduating in 1905 with his doctor’s degree, Einstein was unable to find a teaching post and accepted a position in the Swiss Patent Office. Even Einstein did not know that he would become Einstein! The point is that a single individual did, in fact, make transforming contributions. This is as it has been throughout recorded history — explorers, artists and advocates for the arts like Emily Pulitzer, writers like Bill Gass, scientists like Robert Roeder, social scientists like Lee Robins, political leaders like Richard Gephardt, business leaders and visionaries like Jim Stowers — individuals have made a difference in our lives. I urge every graduate to pursue individual achievement that will improve our world.

While few individuals alone will have the impact of an Einstein, there is a very high probability that vital contributions will be made by many working cooperatively and in teams. To illustrate, the important benefits from the work of an individual who discovers a new pharmaceutical to treat cancer come from a team — from those who evaluate efficacy and assess patient safety, to those who manufacture efficiently, to those who diagnose the disease and then prescribe the new drug. Thus, while there may be stimulating creativity from one, practical achievement depends on the inspired work of many. Indeed, as we look at the most compelling challenges of our day, each is complex. Progress depends on a team approach. Addressing energy needs, preserving the environment, feeding the world’s growing population, achieving international peace, overcoming poverty, providing the needs of an aging population, supporting health care, and sustaining innovation are all require cooperation, while drawing on the best from individual creativity.

In addressing complex problems there is another human factor needed, beyond individual contribution and collaboration. The remaining essential element is leadership. Leadership will be needed to marshal the resources needed to make progress on the most vexing challenges. Here at Washington University our new graduates have had the opportunity to hone their leadership skills, and you are ready for the leadership roles in society so necessary for major advances.

Our School leaders, deans and faculty, have been effective in sheparding student achievement. This year three deans are departing from their posts with strong records of achievement. Dean Stuart Greenbaum of the Olin School of Business concludes his deanship after ten years. During his tenure as Dean he led the development of a highly successful collaboration with Fudan University in Shanghai, China. Dean Joel Seligman leaves this summer to become President of the University of Rochester after serving as Dean of Law and having founded the Whitney Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies and the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. Dean Cynthia Weese leaves the deanship in Architecture after twelve years to resume her practice in Chicago. Dean Weese encouraged the development of a unique set of international studios in Japan, Argentina, and Finland. I would like to ask Deans Greenbaum, Seligman, and Weese to rise and receive our thanks for their exceptional leadership and service during a period of enormous growth in quality and impact of their schools.

In the future I see increased commitment to building programs of importance to the international community. This country has thrived, in part, because we have been an attractive place for advanced study by the world’s most talented people. I am grateful for the commitment of our international students and alumni. We will be expanding our efforts to build international partnerships.

Here at Washington University we have had many examples of great successes in collaborative undertakings that have had profound practical impact. Some examples include the development of PET scanning, sequencing the human genome, and developing the only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center in the state of Missouri. Our School of Medicine will continue its advances in education, research, and patient care through both individual and team efforts. The department heads in Medicine and Dean Larry J. Shapiro aspire to world leadership in medical education, biomedical research, and patient care. This aspiration is being realized by students, faculty, and staff, many of whom are alumni.

Every area of our academic enterprise is poised to contribute more effectively through collaboration. Dean Jeff Pike of Art and his colleagues, incoming Dean of Architecture Jerry Sincoff, Dean Shirley Baker of the University Libraries, Professor William Wallace, chair of Art History in Arts & Sciences, Associate Dean Peter MacKeith from Architecture, and Dr. Sabine Eckmann, incoming Director of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, will be working in the year ahead to bring reality to the new Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts. New facilities and a new academic administration will spawn a new era for Washington University in the important areas of design and visual arts.

In Engineering and Applied Science, the vision and leadership of Dean Chris Byrnes and Professor Frank Yin, with substantial collaboration with the School of Medicine, have led to the development of one of the nation’s strongest academic programs in biomedical engineering. Looking ahead, the School of Engineering and Applied Science will be called upon to be the University’s fountain of technological innovation, from aerospace to computer engineering.

Through the leadership of Dean Edward F. Lawlor of the George Warren Brown School of Social Work, our students and faculty are addressing challenging social problems engaging a broad cross section of professionals, from business to medicine. Dean Lawlor has a leadership role in advancing our academic mission in the greater St. Louis community and in affirming our commitment to this region. Doubtless this important responsibility will engage Dean Lawlor with many of our alumni.

Dean Edward S. Macias and his team of Dean Robert Wiltenberg for University College, Dean Robert Thach for the Graduate School and Dean James E. McLeod for the College, lead Arts & Sciences, the most intellectually diverse of our academic units. With approximately 20 departments and an equal number of programs and the largest student enrollment, Arts & Sciences touches every other segment of the University. Scholarship and education in Arts & Sciences fuels progress in the professions. I am very proud that distinguished Arts & Sciences faculty member Dr. James W. Davis will be the founding director of the Richard A. Gephardt Institute for Public Service. The Institute will involve students, faculty, and community members from all parts of the University. We will build stronger programs to further encourage the public service commitment of our students and community members.

We have an exciting and bright future as a consequence of having great students, faculty, alumni, and staff. Our faculty and deans have contributed to creating an environment that encourages creative achievement and collaboration. As new graduates, your individual contributions may have Einstein-like enduring impact through your creative work in art, music, writing, science or some other area. Each of you will positively affect others as partners, parents, friends, teachers, physicians, lawyers, social workers, architects, business leaders or community members. All of you have earned the opportunity to be great contributors — individually, collectively, and in coordinated teams. Whether you help a child or mobilize a nation, you are all destined to be leaders! On behalf of the entire Washington University faculty and staff, I wish you continued success as our newest alumni. Congratulations and thank you for your important contributions to Washington University and in your life to come.