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Dinner for Honorary Degree Recipients

Remarks by
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

President’s Residence
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Friday, May 24, 2013


Thank you for joining us for this lovely occasion.

I will introduce and ask each of our honorands to say a few words shortly. First, however, allow me to introduce some of the other special guests who are here with us this evening.

As I introduce you individually, please stand, and remain standing, so that we may honor you as a group. Please hold your applause until everyone has been introduced.

We are honored to have with us Congressman Paul Tonko, representing the 20th Congressional District of New York. 

We are also delighted to have with us:

  • The Honorable Randolph Treece, United States Magistrate Judge for the Northern District of New York,
  • The Honorable Cathyrn Doyle, Surrogate’s Court Judge for Albany County,
  • The Honorable Lou Rosamilia, Mayor of Troy,
  • Commissioner Anthony Magnetto of the Troy Police;

Fellow higher education leaders:

  • Dr. Robert Jones, President of the University at Albany, SUNY, and
  • Prof. Penelope Andrews, President and Dean of Albany Law School.
  • Rensselaer leaders and dignitaries whom I would like to acknowledge are, (and please stand):
  • Rensselaer Board of Trustees Chairman, the Honorable Arthur J. Gajarsa ‘62, and Members of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees,
  • Dr. Cornelius Barton ’58,
  • Mr. Howard Blitman ’50,
  • Dr. George Campbell, Jr.,
  • Mr. John Carr ’77,
  • Ms. Wanda Denson-Low ’78,
  • Mr. Jeffrey L. Kodosky ’70,
  • Dr. Mark Little ‘82,
  • Mr. William Meaney ‘82,
  • Mr. Sean O’Sullivan ‘85,
  • our newest Trustee, Mr. Richard Rittelmann ‘60
  • Hon. Lou Rosamilia (ex officio),
  • Dr. Janet C. Rutledge ’83,
  • Mr. Paul Severino ‘69,
  • Ms. Paula Loring Simon ’68,
  • G. Robert Tod ’61,
  • and their guests;

Members of the Cabinet:

  • Dr. Prabhat Hajela, Provost,
  • Mr. Charles Carletta, Secretary of the Institute and General Counsel,
  • Dr. Jonathan Dordick, Vice President for Research,
  • Ms. Virginia Gregg, Vice President, Finance and Chief Financial Officer,
  • Mr. John Kolb ‘79, Vice President for Information Services and Technology and Chief Information Officer,
  • Dr. Paul Marthers, Vice President, Enrollment, and Dean, Undergraduate and Graduate Admissions,
  • Ms. Elisha Mozersky, Incoming Chief of Staff to the President and Associate Vice President for Policy and Planning,
  • Mr. Curtis Powell, Vice President, Human Resources,
  • Mr. Claude Rounds, Vice President, Administration
  • Dr. Timothy Sams, Vice President, Student Life, 
  • William Walker, Vice President, Strategic Communications and External Relations,
  • and their guests;

Members of the Dean’s Council:

  • Dr. Tom Begley, Dean, Lally School of Management and Technology,
  • Dr. Evan Douglas, Dean, School of Architecture,
  • Dr. Stan Dunn, Vice Provost & Dean, Graduate Education,
  • Dr. Laurie Leshin, Dean of Science,
  • Dr. David Rainey, Acting Dean, Rensselaer Hartford Campus,
  • Dr. David Rosowsky, Dean, School of Engineering,
  • Dr. Mary Simoni, Dean, School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences,
  • and their guests.

I would also like to recognize our David M. Darrin Counseling Award winner. This award honors a faculty member who has made an unusual contribution in the counseling of students. The selection of the award recipient is made by Phalanx, the student leadership honorary society. May I ask Dr. Chuck Boylen, Professor of Biology and Associate Director of the Darrin Fresh Water Institute, to stand?

I now am delighted to introduce the Honorable Arthur Gajarsa, former Senior Circuit Judge, United States Court of Appeals, the Federal Circuit; and Chairman of the Rensselaer Board of Trustees.

We have a motto at Rensselaer, “Why not change the world?”, which we take very seriously.  We expect our graduates to make discoveries and to develop innovations that will transform the world around us and improve lives on a grand scale.

Today is the 130th anniversary, for example, of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge, whose chief engineer was Washington Roebling of the Rensselaer Class of 1857. This was not only—at the time—the longest suspension bridge in the world, its soaring beauty continues to urge us to reach for the best in ourselves today.

By introducing our graduates to leaders who already have changed the world, we intend to inspire them. Today, our honorands vividly shared a number of lessons with us, and raised a number of provocative questions that cannot be answered in an hour or a day. It is my hope that our graduates will return to the ideas expressed this afternoon many times in the years to come—and will incorporate some of them into the remarkable work they are sure to do.

The theme of this year’s colloquy, “Leading Cultural Shifts: Courage, Creativity, Commitment," was chosen because reshaping a culture is one of the most challenging aspects of any leadership role, in any sector.

The culture of organizations—like the culture of families, geographical regions, and nations—is deep-seated, subtle, and personal. Our histories, and, indeed, our very identities are intertwined with the cultures in which we dwell.

I do not need to remind anyone here that culture and change can clash in dramatic and unexpected ways. When the history, the values, the laws, and the arts of a culture all are aligned against a new, yet vital idea, an individual must have uncanny courage to persist in order to have that idea take hold.

We also spoke today of the role of creativity in cultural change, which is, naturally, about nurturing a new idea and developing it into a full-fledged concept.

Finally, we spoke of commitment—an unflagging dedication to principles, to values, and to other people.

We refer to our special guests as honorands, and this is not a flippant or trivial designation. They are exemplars of courage, creativity, and commitment—for all of us.  It is a very great privilege to be able to introduce them to our students, our graduates, our larger community, and to you now, beginning with Representative John R. Lewis.

Congressman Lewis, representing the Fifth Congressional District of Georgia since 1986, will receive the Honorary Doctor of Laws degree tomorrow. As one of the towering figures of the Civil Rights Movement, he helped the nation to understand what moral and physical courage really are—thereby inspiring the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965—bending the arc of history. He demonstrates inspiring leadership as a member of the Congress, and continues to strive for justice around the globe.

Congressman Lewis, may I ask you to join me at the podium? 

We are proud to have you with us this evening, and thank you for generously meeting with our students earlier today, and sharing your great wisdom with all of us.

Thank you, Congressman Lewis. I would now like to recognize Admiral Michael G. Mullen.

We are delighted that Admiral Mike Mullen will accept the Honorary Doctor of Engineering degree at our Commencement tomorrow.  As the 17th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he helped the nation understand both the uses and limits of force in American foreign policy—and made the military itself both prouder and more tolerant.  Along with his wife Deborah, he has been a tireless advocate for the well-being of the members of the military and their families.

Admiral Mullen, may I ask you to join me at the podium?

We are delighted that you are here with us, deeply grateful that you will participate in our Commencement, and thank you for meeting with our students earlier today.

Thank you, Admiral Mullen.  And now I would like to recognize our next honorand Ms. Ursula M. Burns.

Ursula Burns, the Chairman and CEO of Xerox, will receive the Honorary Doctor of Engineering degree at our Commencement. She is guaranteed to fascinate all of our graduates—particularly our engineers—because she demonstrates how very far a mechanical engineering intern with a great mind and a gift for leadership can go. She also has been a forceful advocate for improving the U.S. educational system in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—one of the most crucial economic issues confronting our nation, and one that is recognized too little.  

Ms. Burns, may I ask you to join me at the podium?

We are very grateful that you have taken the time to be with us and become part of our Commencement ceremony.

Thank you, Ms. Burns. Our final honorand is Ms. Patricia Q. Stonesifer.

Patty Stonesifer, President and CEO of the Washington, DC not-for-profit Martha’s Table—and formerly the founding President of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—is one of the nation’s great leaders in the fields of philanthropy, technology, and interactive media.  She has helped to prove that persistent problems can be addressed on a global scale—and has proven her own ability to see inequities and opportunities through many different lenses—and to improve lives while serving at the helm of very different organizations. Tomorrow, it is our privilege to award her the Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

Ms. Stonesifer, may I ask you to join me at the podium?

It is a joy to have you with us this evening and to honor you at our Commencement.

Thank you, Ms. Stonesifer.

These four remarkable leaders, who will receive honorary degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute tomorrow morning, demonstrate the many ways in which people of integrity, intelligence, determination, and imagination can contribute to the common good.

We are honored that they have chosen to share their time—but, most importantly, to share their insights and experiences—with us today and tomorrow. Whatever paths our 2013 graduates choose, they—and we—can learn a great deal from the accomplishments, lessons, and wisdom represented by the choices, actions, and words of these four leaders.

Thank you. We look forward to seeing you tomorrow morning. Please enjoy the rest of the evening.


Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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