Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Rocky Hill School Commencement Speech

I was the commencement speaker for Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich last week.  Terrific students, all of whom will be attending college. It was suggested that I post the speech somewhere on the URI website, so here it is.

Speaking to you today is an interesting opportunity for me and I thank you for it. Over the course of my career I have presided or assisted in at least 16 commencements, and heard dozens of commencement speeches. But I have never given a commencement speech until today.  So congratulations – you are the first audience to hear a Dave Dooley commencement speech, and depending upon how this goes, you may well be the last.
I considered talking about a lot of different things – Deflategate, the virtues of Australian shepherds (we have one), my kids, quantum mechanics, group theory, biological inorganic chemistry – to name a few.  I ultimately concluded that there was only one topic relevant to your graduation that I was in any way qualified to talk about: college.  When I left home to attend the University of California, San Diego (where, coincidently my daughter is now a resident in pediatrics at the Rady Children’s Hospital) I had no idea of what I would do afterward.  45 years later, I have had to come to terms with the fact that I never left college.  I’ve spent my entire career, most of my entire life, in higher education.  So, at least from a longevity standpoint, I think I am qualified to say something about the subject.  Whether it will be of any use or interest to you is a fair question; we’ll know in about 10 minutes.
American colleges and universities are the envy of the world. They are also extremely diverse – as reflected in the list of where you will be attending – and come in many sizes and types. It is one of the greatest strengths of our system of higher education. There is truly a good fit for everyone who wants to go.  You just have to find it.  As you - or at least your parents - have noticed, there is also great diversity in the cost of attending.  And colleges and universities award various kinds financial aid, and much of it is like discounting. The list price may not be what you pay. These characteristics of higher education in America have led some to conclude that a college education is a commodity, like a pickup or a TV. 
Although the notion that higher education is a commodity is widespread, it is also completely wrong.  Although we engage in marketing, branding, competition, and are large service-oriented enterprises, the heart of what we do is not transactional at all. Students and families are not our customers. You cannot buy an education like you buy cereal.  Choosing a college is not like walking down the aisle of Stop and Shop or Dave’s or Shaw’s and picking out the box you find most appealing. Cheerios or Captain Crunch?  In fact, no matter what you pay, there is no guarantee that you will receive a good education.  You can get a poor education at an Ivy League university and a very good one at a community college. There aren’t, generally speaking, refunds if you are dissatisfied.  That might not seem fair to you, but it is true.  At URI, and among colleges and universities generally, we will provide you a lot of stuff and many services for your money – a place to live, food, Dunkin’, free wifi, classrooms, laboratories, counseling and health services, entertainment, a robust social life (if you are so inclined), and more.

Most importantly, we will provide you with amazing opportunities to learn.  But how you take advantage of those opportunities, and what and how much you learn, is up to you.  We will provide excellent teachers and mentors.  But, again, your decisions and actions determine how, and how much, you benefit.  An education is the outcome, the product, of an intensely collaborative effort among you, the faculty, and your fellow students.  An education is what you create in partnership with them.  You have to do the work; you have to make the effort.  At URI, and at colleges and universities in general, we will do everything we can to help you succeed, but we cannot guarantee that you will. That’s up to you. If you join us, you become our partners, not our customers.
There’s something else you need to know about your college or university. You are going to feel uncomfortable there sometimes. That is practically inevitable. You will encounter people – mostly faculty and other students – who will challenge your ideas and beliefs.  Things that you accept as true, even obvious, they might not.  You will encounter people who do not share your assumptions, your worldview, your religious convictions, or your politics. Many of them will not look like you, and English may not be their first language. That’s a good thing – such diversity enhances your learning environment.  No one owns or knows all the truth, and sharing your ideas, arguments, and evidence with others – and them sharing with you – is a great pathway to learning.  The most important skills in creating your education are listening carefully and reading critically. 
In the 21st century it is increasingly possible to avoid the real world and create an alternative reality where everyone who is virtuous agrees with what you already believe, and those who don’t agree with you are not just wrong, they are evil.  In such a context colleges and universities must be devoted more than ever to helping you learn to succeed in the real world: a globally hyper-connected world where you must have the skills, the knowledge, and the motivation to work with people who are very different than you.  Therefore you should expect to be challenged, even uncomfortable at times. Don’t avoid that; learn from it.
In order to provide you the kind of environment that is needed for learning, colleges and universities must be places where all kinds of ideas can be presented and debated – especially new, controversial, and unpopular ones.  Particularly at public universities and colleges, the First Amendment is an important factor in our educational community. So be prepared for that.  In order to promote learning, we in higher education work to establish a community where all members are respected, welcomed, and affirmed. Students, faculty, staff, and guests deserve to be heard. However, disagreement, even passionate disagreement, is not equivalent to disrespect.  There will be tense moments, even conflict, and not just on the football field.  Such moments can provide experience and wisdom that will serve you well long after you have graduated.
I am the son of a cotton farmer in the Central Valley of California, who later became a minister. I didn’t know very many people who had gone to college except for my teachers.  My dad did earn a degree later while working full time and parenting three kids.  All that I can remember from conversations with him was that he loved college, and learned to read ancient Greek so that he could read the New Testament in one of its original languages.  Consequently, I really did not know what to expect of college when I left for UCSD. 
My hope for all of you is that you will discover at your college or university what I discovered at University of California, San Diego: that higher education has the power to transform your life, and help you to become a different, and better, person than you otherwise would have been.  I could not have imagined, as a kid growing up in mostly small towns in rural California, that I would become a scientist, a professor, a Vice President and ultimately the President of a research university.  As a first-year student at UCSD, I had no idea of what I would do after graduation. UCSD offered what appeared to me as a universe of opportunities, just as URI does and your college or university will. It was the exhilarating experience of doing research as an undergraduate that set me upon the course to where I am today.
You must, of course, be willing to embrace and engage the opportunities you will discover.  If you do, you can dispense with all the limitations that may have been imposed upon you, and create a better future for yourself and even for the world.  That is both the promise of higher education and a promise you must make to yourself.  You cannot purchase your education, but there are a lot of good, talented people to help you create it.  Creation is a lot of work, and sometimes all consuming, but you need to remember that the work itself is not the goal.  The real goals are to discover what you truly want to do and to become the person you aspire to be.  Do not let yourself be distracted from these goals.  Be patient with yourself – all will not go smoothly. Be patient with your parents; if we in higher education do our job, you will be a different person in many respects than when you entered, and your parents may not like all of the changes. 
Most of all, be thankful for the opportunity that your parents, family members, teachers, and friends have helped you earn. Only a small percentage of people alive today will ever have the opportunity that you have now.  Enjoy it! Congratulations and best wishes, Class of 2015.