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2013 Honorands Breakfast

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

East Village Athletic Center (EVAC) Practice Gymnasium
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Good morning.

Today, we hold the 207th Commencement exercise at Rensselaer, an occasion that is both ceremony and celebration. In a few moments, we will don our regalia and embody the great academic traditions of this day. Then we will proceed together to the stage, and look out over a stadium filled with thousands of people—our soon-to-be graduates, and their proud families and friends. Each graduate has his or her own story of endeavor and accomplishment, of trial and triumph. However, their shared experience here brings them together as the Rensselaer Class of 2013.

As each one crosses the stage to receive his or her diploma and to shake our hands, we will share the graduate’s pride—and, perhaps, relief—as he or she takes the last steps of this part of the Rensselaer journey.

While our graduates have shaped their education by their own academic efforts and by the choices they have made, they have been guided along the way by the members of our Rensselaer community—the faculty, staff, and administrators who set the standard of excellence for this university, and create the ideal environment for learning, research, and personal growth. Thanks to them, this Class of 2013 is well prepared for all that life has in store for them.

There will be well over a thousand graduates called to cross the stage this morning, but the process will be a simple one, unlike the first Commencement at Rensselaer in 1826. The members of that rather smaller graduating class were asked to deliver demonstration lectures that proved their command of scientific subjects, which may have been the first of their kind in American education.

You will not enjoy that time-consuming tradition today, but we are certain that our graduates have earned an education that has prepared them to confront the challenges that lie ahead in an increasingly interconnected world—and to address those challenges with ingenuity, good judgment, and a willingness to collaborate.

We expect our students to master new skills, to be open to innovation, and to have empathy, so that they can engage with, and develop trust among, people with diverse experiences and backgrounds. We expect them also to draw upon the full range of their experiences, so that they can take the calculated risks, and make the connections they need, in order to achieve their goals.  In other words, leadership is very much a part of the Rensselaer education.

During our colloquy yesterday, entitled “Leading Cultural Shifts: Courage, Creativity, Commitment,” we reflected on the range of qualities that enable leaders not only to make a difference, but truly to initiate positive change in the world.

I am grateful to our honorands for sharing their insights, knowledge, and opinions, and for raising key questions that we will continue to discuss. I would like to reintroduce them to you now, briefly:

We are honored with the presence of a man of abiding courage and profound conviction, the recipient of the nation’s highest civilian award: the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has dedicated his life, and many times risked his personal safety, to promote civil rights and to secure civil liberties, over a storied career. A true American hero, U.S. Representative John R. Lewis, of the Fifth Congressional District in Georgia, has earned widespread respect in the United States Congress and in the world at large. It is a privilege to have you here, Congressman.

In his 43 years of active duty, Retired Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, commanded at every level in the United States Navy, culminating in his appointment in 2007 as the principal military advisor to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He led our military during the end of the combat mission in Iraq, the formation of a new military strategy in Afghanistan, and the operation that targeted Osama bin Laden. He and his wife, Deborah, remain staunch advocates for veterans and their families. Thank you for joining us today.

Also with us this morning is a woman who I know feels right at home on our Troy campus, because her first love was mechanical engineering. Ursula M. Burns is Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Xerox Corporation, where she began her career as a summer engineering intern. Under Ms. Burns’ leadership, Xerox has not merely adapted to changes in its industry, but also seized opportunities to transform itself into the world’s leading enterprise for business process and document management. In addition, as an advocate for STEM education, she provides leadership counsel to a number of the nation’s leading community, educational, and nonprofit organizations. Welcome, Ms. Burns.

Thanks to a recent book, there is much talk about people who “lean in” to their lives and their work, but in reality, those who lead have always done that.

We are pleased to have with us Patricia Q. Stonesifer, who spent two decades working in technology. She was a Senior Vice President at Microsoft Corporation pioneering new media, before applying the same sense of vision to the field of philanthropy, joining the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as founding CEO.  In 2010, she was appointed by President Obama to serve as the Chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions. After completing a term as Chair of the Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents last year, today she is President and CEO of Martha’s Table, which offers sustainable solutions to the immediate effects of poverty. Thank you for joining us, Ms. Stonesifer.

The moment approaches. In a little while, we will gather at the East Village Athletic Center stadium to begin the Commencement ceremony. I look forward to joining you there.

Thank you.


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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