2012 President's Commencement Colloquy
Commencement Colloquy (excerpt)
The Honorable Bart J. Gordon, J.D.
Commencement Colloquy (excerpt)
Mr. Gordon and Justice Scalia discuss
the Citizens United court case.
Mr. Gordon delivers the Commencement keynote address.
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Former Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology

Bart J. Gordon is a leader in U.S. science, technology, energy, and health policy, and a champion of the America COMPETES Act, which authorizes federal investments in innovation and innovators. Currently a partner at K&L Gates, LLP, Congressman Gordon served for 26 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, representing the state of Tennessee.

As chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology from 2007 to 2010 and a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he built bipartisan support for enactment of the America COMPETES Act, signed into law by President Bush, which authorizes federal investments in innovation in order to make the U.S. more competitive. In 2010, as Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, he engineered the passage of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act. Signed by President Obama, the act renewed the federal commitment to R&D and education.

Mr. Gordon played a key role in developing and passing the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act, which encouraged the federal government to promote the transfer of nanotechnology breakthroughs from laboratories to commercial products. He also promoted legislation that would implement a research program focusing on the environmental, health, and safety aspects of nanotechnology.

Throughout his political career, Mr. Gordon led the debate on a wide range of technology issues and formulated legislative initiatives on a number of other subjects, including health information technology, nuclear power, rare earth minerals, and synthetic biotechnology. Additionally, he led the effort to enact the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which increased mileage standards, improved vehicle technology, promoted alternative energy research, and improved energy efficiency in a variety of ways. Gordon was also a leading proponent of America’s space program, and of improving the nation’s performance in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education.

Mr. Gordon was a senior member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He is a member of the Tennessee bar and has applied for membership in the District of Columbia bar.

Mr. Gordon served as executive director of the Tennessee Democratic Party in 1979 and state party chairman from 1981 to 1983. Prior to his public service, he was a lawyer in private practice. He served in the United States Army Reserve from 1971 to 1972.

He received a J.D. from the University of Tennessee in 1973 and a B.A. from Middle Tennessee State University in 1971.

Commencement Address by Bart J. Gordon, J.D. (as prepared for delivery on May 26, 2012)

Thank you, Dr. Jackson, for that very kind introduction. And thank you for your nationally recognized leadership in innovation and education.

I am honored to be here with this institution’s Trustees, deans, administrators, and renowned faculty as well as fellow honorary degree recipients.

I also want to acknowledge Paul Tonko, your Congressman who served with distinction on the Science and Technology Committee with me; and Mike McNulty, my former colleague and Paul’s predecessor.

Most importantly, I am honored to be here with you, the Class of 2012, and your families and friends. 

It is customary for commencement speakers to pass on some insight or wisdom to help graduates navigate life’s journey from this point forward. 

My first thought was that I would simply pass on to you the good advice I’d been given at my high school, college and law school graduations.

The problem with that plan is that I couldn’t remember what was said at any of my graduations, much less who said it; which will probably be the case with many of you.

So I asked Dr. Jackson for her advice. She thought for a moment and then told me that she has never heard anyone complain that a speech was too short. 

I think that was a hint but nevertheless, good advice.

So with brevity in mind, I want to urge you to do one thing this morning—use this occasion to stop, take a deep breath and truly reflect.

In particular, I urge you to reflect in two ways on this moment in our planet’s history, and how that idea relates to the value of the time you have spent here at Rensselaer.

My guess is that many of you may have been so focused on your own hard work, your projects and papers, your getting across the Rensselaer finish line that—for the last few months or maybe even four years—you may have missed some of both what is happening in the world and what is being accomplished here, all around you.

It is easy, as they say, to miss the forest for the trees when you are very focused on the task at hand.

So, today I ask you to pause and truly reflect because I believe that you are graduating at a momentous, even pivotal, time in the history of this planet and of humanity and that you, the Class of 2012, are especially well-suited to be a part of what comes next— for this country and the world.

As I thought about Rensselaer and the idea of stopping to consider important things and moments, I came across something that happened here at this campus —on the evening of July 20, 1969, over at the Troy Armory.

That night, a band called The Beach Boys was playing the Armory. 

Now, those of you in the Class of 2012 might not be listening to a lot of Beach Boys these days, but I can tell you, in 1969, they were big. Really big.

Billboard Magazine calls the Beach Boys America’s “first great rock band.”

The Beach Boys were on top of the music world in the 1960s. And the show here was going great. Until a little after 10 p.m., when the music suddenly stopped. 

The band left their mikes and instruments and went backstage to view something remarkable on TV. 

At 10:17 Eastern time, Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon. It was arguably the single greatest technological achievement of all time, a human’s first steps on another celestial body.

The importance of that moment was shaped by an event 12 years earlier—the launch of a 184-pound Soviet satellite called Sputnik, the first satellite to be put into Earth’s orbit.

I remember as a little boy going into my family’s back yard and searching the night sky for Sputnik because its launch had shocked me, my family, and Americans everywhere. 

We feared for our national security. 

We feared for our economic security.

The American response came later from President John F. Kennedy, who said the following:

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”

And we met President Kennedy’s goal. We moved from the challenge of Sputnik to the achievement of Apollo.

I tell you that because America and the whole planet are in desperate need of another Sputnik to Apollo kind of step forward.

Think about this: There are 7 billion people in the world—hundreds of millions use smart phones and cutting edge technology for everything in their lives—but 1.5 billion have no access to electricity.

By the time you retire, there will be well over 10 billion people on this planet.

And we can be sure of one thing:  almost all of those 10 billion humans will desire better healthcare and food and shelter than their parents. And they will consume more energy.

That is the Sputnik challenge of today, of your generation. With already diminishing natural resources how will we live on a planet of 10 billion people who want and deserve better lives than those who have come before?

On your graduation day, we are at a point in human history where we need a leap forward in innovation and technology—because the failure to meet the needs and desires of those 10 billion people will put free economies and political systems and the well-being of this planet at risk. 

And that gets me to that second part of what I asked you to consider—the value of your time here at Rensselaer.

The question Rensselaer poses as a driving idea is “Why not change the world?”

To do that we must have disruptive and transformational technological breakthroughs and we need some of those breakthroughs to come from those of you in the Rensselaer Class of 2012.

And the idea that a Rensselaer graduate can personally and directly change our world is not just Commencement Day rhetoric. It’s based on facts and history.

Consider, this one example, that the leader of the NASA Apollo mission on July 20, 1969 was a man whose name should be familiar to you, George Low—a Rensselaer graduate and later the President of this great institution.

So we (and I include in that group, the people you’ve heard from this morning—great inventors, a Supreme Court Justice, the Secretary of Energy, and me —a guy with a funny accent)—we see what is happening at Rensselaer as amazing, and a great reason to be hopeful about the future. 

Fresh water science, terahertz technology, biotechnology, automation, linear acceleration, hypersonic wind tunnels, advanced lighting technology, nanotechnology and supercomputing—the list goes on and on.

You have every reason to take pride in your alma mater. In its 188 years of existence, this university has grown from a small center for technological research to a major university ranked in the top 50 of all U.S. universities, and it is the oldest technological university in the English-speaking world.

Graduating from Rensselaer is a special moment.

And of course, it was a special moment that stopped the Beach Boys show—stopped work, and sleep, and anything else humans were doing—all over the planet on July 20, 1969.

But the challenges we face today as a nation, as a planet, and as humans, I dare say are far greater than what we faced those 40 or 50 years ago. Our need for breakthrough thinking and technology and science has never been greater.

But this morning we can celebrate being at a place well-known for its commitment to breakthroughs that impact the world.

And you, the graduates this institution so thoroughly prepares to go into the world and make it better.

After watching Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon, the Beach Boys came back on stage that night in 1969 wearing Rensselaer T-shirts. And Mike Love, their lead singer, stepped to the microphone and sang words that ring true this morning:

“When some loud braggart tries to put me down and says his school is great, I tell him, ‘Now, what’s the matter, buddy?  Ain’t you heard of my school?  It’s number one in the state.’

So be true to your school, just like you would to your girl or guy.  Be true to your school and let your colors fly.”

Graduates, I think the Beach Boys got it right: be true to your school, and be true to the Rensselaer idea of changing the world.

You have a hard-earned degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities, and you have the knowledge and the Rensselaer credentials to open whatever doors to success you choose.

From this moment on, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will forever be a part of your resume, your career, and a part of your life.

Today a is time to stop—and consider.

To be reflective.

 —about the accomplishments of a remarkable institution, and your accomplishments at this institution, the accomplishments of George Low and other graduates who have so positively impacted all humanity.

And about meeting the challenges in front of you personally, and the challenges we today face as humans.

Now, more than ever, our planet needs Rensselaer and everything happening here.

And we really do need you, the Class of 2012, to be true to the Rensselaer idea—Why not change the world?

Congratulations, graduates. And thank you for letting me share this great day with you.

2012 President’s Commencement Colloquy

Copyright ©2012 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
This event was free and open to the public.