Good afternoon. On behalf of the faculty and staff of Olin College, I would like to welcome the family and friends of the class of 2009 to our fourth commencement. I am honored to have the privilege to speak to all of you today, especially our graduates.
To be honest, I’ve been preparing this speech since I started working here in the fall of 2004. I figured, with only 30-some-odd faculty, minus President Miller and Dean Moody, the odds were pretty good that I’d get the gig some day. And now, class of 2009, you have made the grave error of giving me the podium. Hopefully, that one lapse in judgment will not be your defining moment.
Today we celebrate your achievements as the newest graduates of Olin College. But before we talk about your path to this wonderful day, let’s take a few moments to hear about my path to greatness.
Princeton philosopher Cornel West complains that one of the worst things the older generation does is to tell the younger generation, “Be successful, be successful, be successful, as opposed to Be great, be great, be great. There's a qualitative difference.”
I remember my own graduation like it was yesterday. It was a warm May day, almost summer-like. It was 1997, the same year that Olin received its educational charter from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Franklin W. Olin Foundation had just announced its ambitious plans to reinvent engineering education on a little grassy hill right here in Needham. Olin, as we know it today, was just a twinkle in Larry Milas’ eye.
In graduating, I realized that college, for me, was somewhat like a train. After high school, I boarded it. Then four years later, I got off. My dad and little sister drove me there, dropped me off, and no one even visited for four years. After graduation, I packed my apartment into the back of a Ford Taurus wagon in one morning, and drove 13 hours straight, back to Iowa City, to live in my parent’s basement. While at college, I didn’t bring much, I didn’t take much, and I certainly didn’t create a whole lot. I didn’t go to college thinking that I would build the college.
I went to a good engineering school. It prepared me for success in the workplace, and success in graduate school. It did not prepare me for greatness. But standing before all of you right now, I feel we could be on the path to real greatness. In coming to Olin, for the first time in my life, I wanted to contribute to something bigger than myself. I wanted to be a part of creating something new, something inspiring, something great.
Up until coming to Olin, you’d been successful. Now, as you leave, you have the opportunity to be great. What role do each of you from the class of 2009, play in this institution’s unfolding story?
You are its wonderful, chewy, delicious center. You have been here for every graduation. You have lived and experienced Olin with every Olin student there has ever been. You are the recorders of our living history. You are the only ones that can tell the Candidates about the Partners. You are in the unique position to have experienced all the changes, good and bad, that have swept through Olin. Through its students, through its faculty and staff, through its curriculum, and through its institutional values. You are the inflection point that marks the First Five Years from the Next Five Years.
When you got here, we were almost done making this place. We were spending only a quarter of our energy on truly new things, and the majority on refining things we had already invented. Maybe we didn’t ask you to innovate like we did those that came before you. Maybe you came to Olin and actually wanted courses that were mostly done.
Regardless of why you came here, you are now in a position to be truly critical of Olin. And critical is what we need right now. Because changing is often harder than creating. Keeping the good and throwing out the bad is difficult. And acknowledging that your own creations—courses, clubs, organizations—need fixing requires guts.
Your classmates stepped out of the bubble to find a path independent of Olin and started the leave of absence trend. Why? What can’t you do here? What aren’t we making possible? Should we make you all Go Away for awhile? You staged a sit-in demanding change to the first year curriculum. Maybe you were right, maybe you were wrong, but it certainly got our attention.
We need your perspective. We need you to kick our butts and tell us what sucked. We need you to demand change and then lead the effort to build a better Olin. Push our train off its tracks and point us past mere success, toward greatness.
But don’t stop here. There is a real world waiting for all of you out there, and it doesn’t need just successful engineers. We spend a lot of our energy teaching you to be user-oriented, to think about the person, to understand their values. Beginning today, consider more than just the consumer, the product, the deliverable. Redefine engineering with a consideration for human and societal needs. As Cornel West says, “you can’t lead the people if you don’t love the people. You can’t save the people if you don’t serve the people.”
Don’t just build. Don’t just engineer. Don’t just be successful.
Be great. Be great. Be great.
You make us all very proud.