Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton’s 2011 message to Washington University’s graduates

Congratulations to the Class of 2011! You have accomplished an enormous amount, and you have even greater potential than when you began your studies here. I am proud you are now alumni of Washington University. You have earned a degree, but you have done more than grow intellectually. You have also matured emotionally and socially. Your newly acquired education will serve you well throughout your life, and the Washington University friendships and memories are ones I hope you return to often.

You have been involved in very significant service activities, including Relay for Life, Dance Marathon, and Service First, and these have brought benefits to many. Some of you have been involved in programs through the Campus Y, religious, or Greek organizations. In these and many other public service activities students have been creators and leaders in supporting our community. Many of our students have stepped forward to assist our friends in Japan in the aftermath of the terrible tsunami following the earthquake on March 11.

To the graduating seniors, thank you for Teach Me How to Donate, a catchy tune that stimulated more than 80 percent of the class to make a gift to support scholarships for future generations of students. To all students, thank you for leaving Washington University a stronger university than you found it.

We have had fun and excitement in athletics, with a large number of NCAA Division III teams succeeding at the highest level during these past several years. We have won NCAA championships in Women’s Volleyball, Men’s and Women’s Basketball, and Men’s Tennis! You have performed and supported theatre, music, and dance, and you have enhanced our cultural understanding through Black Anthology, Carnival, Diwali, the PowWow, and the Lunar New Year Festival. Many of you have been involved in research and other creative work that will enhance the quality of life in the future.

I am grateful for the opportunity to serve such talented students and to see your success here. You have worked hard and creatively. But you have not realized success on your own. Graduates have been supported by parents and other family members, by friends, and by Washington University faculty, staff and advisers. And many among you have been supported by generous donors who have provided scholarship gifts to support students. Graduates, would you join me in thanking those who have supported you in realizing your success here?

As I expect for our newest alumni, our Class of 1961 has certainly achieved a great deal in the 50 years since their graduation. We celebrate them and their achievements. Let’s look back to 1961. The hit songs of that year included Moon River, Where the Boys Are, Blue Moon, and The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was published, and the movie version of West Side Story premiered. Our commencement speaker’s book, Dawn, the second in the trilogy of Night, Dawn and Day, was published in 1961. This trilogy describes Professor Wiesel’s thoughts during and after the Holocaust. What a privilege it is to have Professor Wiesel with us today!

In an ominous development, in 1961 East Germany built a wall separating East and West Berlin, a barrier that would not fall for nearly three decades. But like our commencement today, 1961 was a time of new beginnings and one during which idealism was re-kindled. 1961 was the year that began the Presidency of John F. Kennedy. In 1961 President Kennedy established the Peace Corps, a program that has attracted some of today’s graduates. In 1961 he also launched the effort to put a person on the moon within ten years — a goal that was achieved on July 20, 1969, with the mission of Apollo 11. Clearly, much has happened during the 50 years since 1961, including many positive advances but also new challenges. In 1961 there was no Amazon, Google, Facebook, or i-Phone. But in 1961 there was little appreciation of the global challenges that would become evident 50 years later — challenges related to growth in population and consumption of energy.

To our new graduates, the world is facing an overwhelming challenge: how do we provide the energy the world needs, at a price we can afford, without additional adverse consequences to the environment? The scale of the challenge is gargantuan. Just to illustrate scale and cost, assume that all of the world’s additional future energy needs were to be met with nuclear power — I am not advocating this, just let me illustrate the scale and cost to meet future energy needs. It is projected that by 2050 we will move from about 15 terawatts to 30 terawatts to power civilization. An additional 15 trillion watts of power is needed within 40 years! This would require the world to build 15,000 nuclear power plants each with a one gigawatt generating capacity, at the rate of one new plant every day for 40 years. Each plant would require about $10 billion of capital for a total of $150 trillion. Even if we could do this to avoid the additional emission of carbon dioxide from expanded energy use, we would still have 15 terawatts of power being produced using largely fossil fuels as we do today. The growth in population and the development of countries with large populations, like India and China, mean that we will need much more energy than we use today. The challenge is again, how do we provide the energy we need, at an affordable cost, without additional adverse consequences to the environment?

There is no simple answer to this question. Nuclear has been thought to be a part of the solution, but that is now very uncertain following the disaster in Japan. I served as Vice Chair of the National Research Council Committee on “America’s Energy Future,” a group of academicians and industry leaders with expertise in science, technology, economics and policy. Our Committee report was issued two years ago, and called for a transformation of how we produce, distribute, and use energy to increase sustainability, support long-term economic prosperity, promote energy security, and reduce adverse environmental impacts. But the United States will only represent a small part of the world with about 5 percent the projected 9 billion people on earth in 2050. Thus, we need to address energy and environmental challenges as a global community. I am proud that our McDonnell International Scholars Academy, consisting of 28 partners around the world, convened a conference in St. Louis on “The Global Energy Future” this academic year. By working collaboratively, I remain optimistic that we can creatively and effectively address what might be the world’s greatest challenge. Many technologies will assist in meeting future energy needs, but there will also be important policy, economic, and social issues to address. The large scale development of solar energy seems most promising, because solar energy striking the earth is equivalent to more than 100,000 terawatts. This inexhaustible source of energy must be tapped, but the technical hurdles are great, including the need for lower cost, higher efficiency, and storage of solar energy to provide energy at night. No research university or corporate entity alone, indeed no country alone, can solve the problems we face in the energy and environment arena. But by working together we can make faster progress. Thus, it is fitting that we recognize the importance of international partnerships in this historic 150th commencement of Washington University.

There are other daunting problems that accompany the much larger population of 2050, including needs for clean water, nutritious food, and improved health. Further, about half the world’s current population of 6 billion live on less than $2 a day. How do we realize a future with greater economic prosperity for those 3 billion people? Progress is being made on these issues but new problems are also emerging. For example, in developed countries, advances in medicine, nutrition and public health have brought an additional challenge: an aging global population with a new set of health and social issues.

Our University and its graduates will be a part of the solution to the world’s greatest problems. I am pleased that today we have the first graduates of our Master’s of Public Health Degree program, an outgrowth of planning that led to the formation of our Institute for Public Health. This initiative involves all seven schools of the University but with special leadership from the Brown School, with our first Master’s of Public Health degree program, and from the School of Medicine. From its planning, the Fox School of Design & Visual Arts also recently established this region’s only master’s degree program in Landscape Architecture, a vital contribution to sustainable design.

Engineers are educated here to advance the human condition through the application of technology. New technologies and applications also hold the promise of new commercial enterprises that can lead to economic advances. We have had important practical outcomes from our research that have benefited people and also had major financial success. Two new companies headquartered in St. Louis, Announce Media and Exegy, have been spawned by faculty, students and alumni of the University from the School of Engineering, the Olin School of Business and Arts & Sciences. The network of faculty, students and alumni from different schools of the University represents a powerful asset, and it is my hope that our new alumni become actively engaged in our alumni network for both social and professional reasons.

New commercial enterprises come to mind when one mentions research universities, innovation and entrepreneurship in the same sentence. But the outcome from innovation and entrepreneurship is much more than companies, and a research university like ours prepares people in all areas to be innovators and entrepreneurs. In the University itself, new educational programs and teaching methods are the outcome from innovative and entrepreneurial faculty, like our very popular minor in Public Health in Art & Sciences or the collaborative scholarly program between our Department of Political Science and our School of Law. Surely, we see those in the arts as innovators in their field. As 2011 graduates you are prepared with the knowledge and critical thinking ability to be the innovators and entrepreneurs needed to meet society’s needs and to fulfill your dreams and aspirations.

In my welcome address to new undergraduates four years ago, I quoted Louis Pasteur who said that “chance favors the prepared mind.” I would like to underscore that point today. Your success in life will depend on being prepared and having a good plan. That plan may need to change as new opportunities and challenges arise. Many of our new alumni will go to advanced educational experiences, some to employment, others to public service and some are still defining the next step. Whatever your next step, you are well prepared.

In 1961 President Kennedy announced the effort to put a man on the moon and to return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. That effort required a great deal of preparation and planning. The liftoff of Apollo 11 on July 16, 1969, began a magnificent achievement that involved all in our society. Today, I see your potential for great achievements, and you are on the launch pad, fueled and ready to go. Congratulations to the Class of 2011 as you lift off!