Graduate School Commencement address

Author: Gregory Sterling

Gregory Sterling

Thank you, Tom, for the overly generous introduction. In truth, I feel like the chauffer who drove a famous scholar around on a lecture tour. After the chauffer heard the same lecture multiple times, he said to the professor. “This is a scam. You are paid handsomely for giving the same lecture again and again. I could give your lecture.” The professor thought for a moment and replied, “No one knows me at the next university. We will exchange places.” And so they did. The chauffer gave a brilliant lecture with more flair than the more reserved scholar. Then came the question and answer session. The first two questions were the same queries that the chauffer had heard the professor answer many times; he handled them easily. But then an exceptionally bright young woman stood up and asked a particularly perceptive question. The chauffer paused, leaned over the podium, and said, “Young lady. I am appalled at your question. I actually find it insulting. Just to prove my point, I will have my chauffer respond.” I feel like the chauffer except I have not heard our missing Nobel laureate’s address multiple times and will have to fall back on my own devices. My greatest consolation is that the most memorable aspect of many commencement addresses is how quickly forgotten they are.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy said: “Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.” The thirty-fifth President was right: the human mind is our greatest resource. You elected to hone your minds finely, to test them rigorously, and to expand them exponentially. Today we celebrate your achievement by recognizing that while you entered graduate school as a problem solver, you are leaving as an engineer who discovers both the problem and the solution; you entered as a philosophy major and are leaving as a philosopher; you entered as a student of nature and are leaving as a scientist; you entered as an observer of people and are leaving as a psychologist. You need no longer use the third person when referring to authorities in your field; you may now use the first person. With your families, mentors and administrators of the University I salute you for your success: it is a noteworthy and significant achievement.

How will you use your mind now that you have shaped it so that you can exchange sides of the desk from student to professor or positions in the lab from mentee to mentor? I would like to challenge you to cultivate your minds in three ways that reflect the nature of our University.


Research universities in the United States are special institutions. A hybrid of the colonial college model of Cambridge and Oxford and the German research university model, they have evolved into a unique type of institution that has been widely recognized as the best in the world. What has set us apart is not our undergraduate programs–as important and excellent as they may be–it is rather our research and graduate programs. Perhaps this is one reason why international students only comprise three percent of the undergraduate student population but twenty-four percent of the graduate student population both nationally and at Notre Dame. It is also why the percentage is higher at the doctoral level than it is at the masters’ level: thirty-two percent of the incoming doctoral students in 2009 and again in 2010 are international students.

What is so special about a research university? What has the rest of the world recognized about American research universities? I suggest that it is our capacity to discover. What we have done best is to enable scholars and research teams to make striking advances. Many of the path-breaking discoveries that have shaped our world have come from American universities. The field of genetics sprang from Thomas Hunt Morgan’s “fly lab” at Columbia University. The “Google boys,” Larry Page and Sergey Brin were doctoral students at Stanford who developed an algorithm for their internet search engine. Social scientists have taught us how we make the decisions: from Robert Merton’s analysis of “self-fulfilling prophecy” to Leon Festinger’s recognition of “cognitive dissonance.” Nor are the humanities without importance. In the words of Fr. Hesburgh, “The university is the place where the Church does its thinking.“ It would be hard to overstate the importance of research universities for the quality of life that we all enjoy.

This capacity is the result of an enormous effort on the part of the US government, many private benefactors, and the dedication of a large number of people who once sat where you now sit. However, the single most important factor is the human mind. Albert Einstein wrote about his revolutionary discoveries: “There is no logical way to the discovery of these elemental laws. There is only the way of intuition, which is helped by a feeling for the order lying behind the appearance.” By intuition, Einstein meant the moment when everything becomes clear and we see what is visible to all but has never been perceived. As Richard Feynman said about the discovery that led to his Nobel Prize: “I won the prize for shoving a great problem under the carpet, but in this case there was a moment when I knew how nature worked. It had elegance and beauty.”

You are a part of this great enterprise; an enterprise that has shaped and reshaped our world. We hope that you will cultivate your powers of intuitive thought, that you will dedicate yourself to solving the problems that confront us and that you will reshape our perception of the world. This is what a research university does so well: it trains minds to advance the frontiers of our understanding.

An Intellectual

I said that the American research university is a hybrid. Up until this point, I have emphasized the research university half of the model, let me say a word about the contribution of the colonial college half. One of the most famous faculty members at Notre Dame was once asked why–in light of his many and highly regarded publications–he had never received a Ph.D. With characteristic bluntness, he replied: “I’d be ashamed to have a Ph.D.” His response was not so much in the spirit of William James’ famous critique of ”The Ph.D. Octopus” that challenged the practice of valuing credentials over ability, but of the practice of narrowing rather than broadening intellectual interests. More specifically, he was reacting to the compartmentalization of disciplines into hermetically sealed entities that fail to communicate with each other, let alone address the broader issues of society.

While it is of critical importance that you exercise expertise in a specific subdiscipline, it is also of critical importance that you cultivate a sense of unending curiosity and desire to engage ideas and people beyond your own area of specialization. In short, you need to think broadly as intellectuals as well as narrowly as experts. Why? A university must be a place where knowledge is valued for its own sake. When I was preparing to do a graduate degree in classics, my neighbor who worked in industry asked me: “Do you realize how many of me there have to be to have one of you?” He questioned the value of an education in Greek and Latin wanted to hear my justification. My response was: you do not know who you are until you understand the forces that have shaped you. Even if a field does not have an obvious utility, it should still be valued and rigorously worked. In the words of John Henry Newman whose The Idea of a University set out the basis for the modern discussion of a university: “Knowledge has to be considered as a good, these it has in a higher degree when it is viewed not vaguely, not popularly, but precisely and transcendently as a Philosophy.” In engineering and in science we call this basic research. Just as a university values ideas and knowledge for its own sake, I urge you to do the same.

This does not mean that we should live in the splendid isolation of an ivory tower. We also need to be concerned with applications. Valuing knowledge for its own sake, does not mean that we should not also value utilitarian knowledge. Yet even here, we must realize that the great problems that we face will not be solved by a single individual, working alone, reflecting on her thoughts. The days of an Einstein who could sit in a patent office and solve fundamental problems of the cosmos are gone. The searches for cancer cures, for improved health treatment in developing countries, for energy efficiencies, for environmental protection and virtually any other major issue facing us today require teams of experts working collaboratively. Chemical engineers need to be able to talk to economists; biologists need to be able to work with anthropologists. Large problems require interdisciplinary teams to solve them. This requires a sympathetic entrance into the fields of others and a capacity to articulate your own expertise to those with different backgrounds.

In brief, you can not afford to think only in narrow terms. I challenge you to think broadly, to be an intellectual. My hope is that our esteemed colleague would no longer say that he would be ashamed to have a Ph.D. after having met more of you.

Ethical Thought

There is one other dimension to our University that is essential. We are a Catholic university. How should the religious nature of our University have affected your training and your outlook on the use of your degree? We could address this from multiple perspectives, but I will select one. There is a fundamental change that is taking place among research universities. Research universities are increasingly assuming social responsibilities within their communities. Derek Bok, while president of Harvard University, struck one of the first major chords in his 1982 Beyond the Ivory Tower: Social Responsibilities of the Modern University. The responsibilities can have a wide range.

At one level they involve the role of the university in building economies. Our economy is in the transition or has already moved from a manufacturing base to a knowledge base. Future economic growth in the US will not primarily be based on producing things, but ideas that lead to technological developments. Workers will be required to think more than to make. As holders of advanced degrees you are among the thinkers and those who will train the thinkers. One study estimates that from 2008 until 2018 there will be an18% growth in jobs requiring a masters’ degree and a 17% growth in jobs requiring a doctoral degree. You are part of the knowledge-based economy.

This does not, however, exhaust the responsibilities of a university to the community. Research universities are becoming agents of change for their communities in many ways. Our own University has made significant and tangible efforts to improve the local community. Some of these sprang from graduate students, e.g., the Science Café or the creative writing program at the Center for the Homeless to mention only two.

How does the Catholic character of Notre Dame affect this? A university does not need to have a religious base to undertake social responsibilities. The University of Pennsylvania and the University of Southern California are noteworthy examples of institutions that have made significant contributions to their communities without any religious motivation or guidance. What can distinguish Notre Dame is our ability to draw on the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching to inform our efforts. There is an established set of values upon which we can draw, whether we are personally Catholic or not.

Let me conclude with a slightly different challenge, but one that will bring together the three ways of thinking that I have set out. What does it take to trust your intuitive flashes? What does it take to think broadly, to reach beyond the security of your own specialty and to build bridges with others who are unlike you? What does it take to make principled decisions rather than political decisions in social applications? It takes moral courage. Robert Frost captured this eloquently.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black,
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

— Robert Frost

I urge you to be willing to trust your intuitions, to think broadly, to make principled decisions in the support of your community, to risk taking the road less traveled.

Thank you.