Inside Rensselaer
President’s Commencement Colloquy Tackles 'Knife-Edge' Issues
* President’s Commencement Colloquy
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President Jackson led a discussion with the honorary degree recipients
at the President’s Commencement Colloquy.
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Whether technology unites or divides depends, in large measure, on those who harness and apply its potential. That was among the key messages of the 2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute President’s Commencement Colloquy, which featured four individuals whose contributions continue to spur innovation and shape the international discourse on some of today’s most pressing issues.

Moderator and Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson was joined by the Institute’s Commencement honorees — New York Times columnist Thomas L. Freidman, CBS News producer Don Hewitt, and former astronaut Dr. Mae C. Jemison — at the May 18 event, “Balancing on the Knife-Edge: Politics, Technology, and Ethics.” The four attracted a standing-room-only crowd, filling a 500-seat lecture hall and 200 seats in a designated overflow area.

Jackson launched the conversation with pointed questions that drew on each honoree’s insights and expertise to stimulate discussion of issues ranging from technological innovation, globalization, and energy security to ethical leadership, education, and the media’s influence on politics and perspective. Following are some highlights.

On globalization:
Friedman: “Globalization is going to be the greatest engine for cultural diversity that mankind has ever seen... The defining feature, to me, of the ‘flat world’ — the world that we’re in — is that we’ve gone from a globalization that really was first built around countries to globalization driven by companies to, now, a globalization built around individuals. That is the new, new thing: the degree to which the flat world empowers and enables, enjoins and requires individuals to globalize themselves. The world will never be the same.”

On technological innovation:
Jemison: “Technologies don’t come full-formed; they don’t sit in the sky waiting for us to discover them. It’s how we decide to take advantage of our knowledge and our resources that makes a difference... In terms of transforming technology, it all depends on the people — it depends on what we want to do; it depends on our society.”

On ethical responsibility:
Jackson: “The world our students are graduating into is more flat and integrated, yet it is more asymmetrical than ever before, where the economic divides are deeper and many regions of the world are more unstable. New technologies have opened up a universe of equality in which those who have access, ingenuity, and motivation can compete. Yet many do not have access. These global imbalances, if not addressed within an ethical framework, will come back to haunt us.”

Jemison: “We shouldn’t feel comfortable burning that much energy and then telling other people they have to be willing to allow us to use all of their oil—and that we shouldn’t have to give anything back. I think it’s an issue of ethics, an issue of what’s morally responsible... I don’t think it’s just about profits.”

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2007 Colloquy Participants
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Friedman *
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Thomas L. Friedman is a New York Times columnist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He has reported on the Middle East conflict, the end of the cold war, U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy, international economics, and the worldwide impact of the terrorist threat. Friedman’s most recent book, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, received the inaugural Goldman Sachs/Financial Times Business Book of the Year award. A graduate of Brandeis University, Friedman earned a master’s degree in Modern Middle East Studies from Oxford.
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Hewitt *
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Don Hewitt, executive producer of CBS News, is best known as the creator and executive producer of 60 Minutes. During his more than 50-year career with CBS, Hewitt served as producer-director for the first televised presidential debates, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, and the installation of Pope John XXIII. For his contributions to television news, in 2003 the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences presented Hewitt with the Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy.
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Jemison

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Dr. Mae C. Jemison is an astronaut, chemical engineer, scientist, physician, entrepreneur, and educator. On Sept. 12, 1992, aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavour, she became the first African American woman to travel in space. Subsequently, she founded the Jemison Group Inc., a technology consulting firm that considers the socio-cultural impacts when designing technologies. Jemison holds a Doctor of Medicine degree, Bachelor of Science degree in Chemical Engineering, and Bachelor of Arts degree in African American Studies, all from Cornell University.
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Jackson *
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Shirley Ann Jackson, moderator, is Rensselaer’s 18th president and the 2007 recipient of the Vannevar Bush Award. In announcing the award, the National Science Board described Jackson as “a national treasure” and cited her “lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.” Jackson has held senior leadership positions in government, industry, research and academe. She is a former chairman of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
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On the media’s influence:
Hewitt: “I’ve always thought that night [of the first televised presidential debates] was the worst night that ever occurred in American politics. From that day on, in the greatest democracy on Earth, you can’t even begin to think about running for local dogcatcher unless you’ve got money for television time... It doesn’t make any sense in a democracy for television time to be that expensive and to decide how and why we’re going to have our next president.”

Jemison: “The impact of television has been that information is formatted in very, very small sound bites that end up not being able to actually convey any of the conversation... You have people getting information that’s very constricted, that does not help to move public discourse, public debate along, and, yet, that’s what is news.”

On energy and innovation:
Jackson: “We talk about energy independence, which really makes no sense when we have global markets, global trade, weather phenomena, disasters, terrorism, and we have increasing energy demand by rising economies around the globe. This is interdependence as opposed to independence, and the fact that people believe in one and don’t understand the other is an inconvenient truth.”

Friedman: “You cannot make a product greener without making it smarter — smarter software, smarter materials and smarter design. What can we still do here in America, in Troy? We can still do knowledge-based manufacturing. That’s what’s not getting outsourced... To the extent that we shift the whole debate in the world to green, we actually play to the strength of our economy.

On the need for national leadership:
Jemison: “The United States really is a de facto role model for the much of the world. If we don’t change the way we do things, then much of the rest of the world is going to say, ‘Why should we change what we’re doing?’ ”

Hewitt: “What you’re talking about is looking for leadership. The ‘we’ has no power to do anything. Somebody has to shape this thing, and nobody seems to be taking any lead in it. That, I think, is the problem. It’s not the ‘we.’ ‘We’ would all welcome it.”

On education and investment:
Jackson: “We could talk a good game as much as we want about what has to happen — about innovation, about leadership — but if you don’t have educated people who can do all of these things, nothing happens. We need a consistent investment in research and development, but we especially need a consistent investment in human talent.”

The Colloquy will air on WMHT on Aug. 21 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 26 at 6 p.m. An archived Web cast may be viewed at http://mediasite.itops.rpi/edu/mediasite4/catalog/ and click on “Colloquy” in the left menu.

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 1, Number 1, July 2007
©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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