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* President’s Commencement Colloquy Looks at Leadership for a Sustainable Global Society
President’s Commencement Colloquy Looks at Leadership for a Sustainable Global Society
On May 16, Rensselaer held the sixth annual President’s Commencement Colloquy, focused on the leadership challenges to maintain a sustainable global society in the midst of extraordinary growth and change. The colloquy, which was moderated by Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson, included the Institute’s three Commencement honorary degree recipients — David Gergen, political analyst, editor, best-selling author, and Harvard professor; Shirley Tilghman, distinguished molecular biologist and president of Princeton University; and space shuttle pilot Major General Charles Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.).

“We are in an important time of transition in the United States and around the world, facing extraordinary social, economic, and geopolitical challenges and opportunities. How we address a range of issues including energy security, climate change, and food and water supplies will determine the long-term sustainability of the planet,” President Jackson said. “How we — individuals, government, business, academia, and others — respond will shape the future for generations to come. The participants in this 2008 Commencement Colloquy are actively involved in fostering the globally focused leadership essential to meet these challenges.”

“How we address a range of issues including energy security, climate change, and food and water supplies will determine the long-term sustainability of the planet,” President Jackson said.

Shirley Tilghman

Titled “Leadership for a Sustainable Global Society — Discovery, Innovation, and Citizenship,” the colloquy was a lively discussion that covered a broad range of topics and issues. Following are some highlights:

On U.S. support for scientists:
Tilghman: Why am I still in the United States now after 38 years? The answer is really simple — there is no country in the world that supports science and technology with the same degree of generosity and enthusiasm as the United States. That was absolutely true when I first came here to do graduate studies. I worry today that the commitment to continue to support science and technology, which in my view has been responsible for the enormous economic prosperity of this country over the last 50 years, may be diminishing. But for a young scientist, I came to this country and was given tremendous independence, was given all of the resources I could possibly have needed in order to do my experiments, and it was and continues to be a glorious place to be a scientist.

On jobs in alternative energy:
Gergen: There are a lot of young people who may go into technology, who may go into science, who may go into other fields, or may go into business. A lot of the MBAs coming out are really interested in alternative technologies and starting up companies and it’s true given our venture capital system and the freedom of finances to flow into these things, we have some great opportunities here. Just as hospitals, healthcare, provide a lot of the jobs today, it may well be possible that energy and alternative energy may provide the next wave of big jobs and then you could find a wave after that possibly coming out of biotechnology.

President Shirley Ann Jackson
On the environment:
Bolden: You can’t solve the problems of the environment without people working together. You can’t solve the problems of the environment without helping people understand what military people do understand, that war is the last thing you want to do. It is your last alternative and you want to engage and negotiate with people to your last breath and you cannot get the environment straight unless we understand those messages.

On energy security:
Jackson: I think that most people who really think about this in a comprehensive way know that conservation and energy efficiency are the low-hanging fruit. But if one is looking globally and looking at other economies rising, remember, China and India together have about 40 percent of the world’s population. But that really means that there are a lot of economies yet to rise and as they do, there will be great energy demand. Therefore, we’re not going to be able, strictly speaking, to conserve our way to energy security. We are going to have to innovate our way to energy security. With innovation comes new technologies and one would like to have the belief, and I think there is early evidence to support it, that there will be new enterprises because there will be the need to deploy new approaches and new technologies.
Major General Charles Bolden Jr., USMC (Ret.)

On the national debate about science policy:
Tilghman: Scientists must be part of the national debate. I think they have a very specific role and the role is to make sure that the debate is accurate. When those debates enter either the ethical or the religious arena, scientists are no better able to adjudicate those decisions than any other citizen and we shouldn’t claim to have any greater expertise. Our expertise is really to get the debate based on the facts. So as we at colleges and universities in this country think about training generations of scientists and engineers, I hope we are thinking about training them so that they feel some responsibility to participate in these discussions, understand why their voice is very important, and give them the tools, both the writing tools and the speaking tools, that allow them to go into discussions with lay audiences in a way that’s respectful.

On military service:
Bolden: When a young man or a young woman joins the military, I think they do it for a very personal reason. Many of them want to give something back. Whether you recognize it or not, they do recognize that they have been blessed to live in a country like this. A lot of people say 9/11 caused a lot of the young people to want to serve. I think that may be true but young people wanted to serve long before then and I think we are privileged to nurture young people who just have a sense of service to others.
David Gergen,

On challenges for the next president:
Gergen: I happen to believe that we are coming into a very turbulent, demanding time in our national experience. A time that’s going to be great testing for the next president, but I think for the citizenry as well. We can’t simply say, “Let’s elect a president and that person is going to wave a magic wand and everything will be all right.” This is going to be a tough slog that’s going to require the citizenry to be involved and to be prepared, when appropriate, to make sacrifices. I think the younger generation is prepared to sacrifice far more than we have seen in the past. If anything unites all of us here on this stage, it is perhaps our belief in the idealism and the potential for the younger generation that’s coming along.

To watch the entire Colloquy online, go to

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 10, June 6, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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