Commencement Address - Charles M. Vest

Hear the audio from Vest's address [MP3, 14m40s]

Read Vest's honorary degree citation and biography

May 22, 2011

Photo by Alonso Nichols, Tufts PhotoI recently awoke in the middle of the night realizing that I had been dreaming.

Nothing unusual about that, but …

I was stunned to realize that I was dreaming … in PowerPoint!

I thought to myself … “That’s it! Enough is enough.”

Fortunately, PowerPoint has not yet come to the commencement trail, so I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly to you this morning … the old fashioned way.

More importantly, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend this time with you as graduates of one of America’s and the world’s finest universities … one whose fabric is woven from the key fields of scholarship and practice that are essential to build a viable future for our nation and world.

And it is absolutely thrilling to be part of this final commencement ceremony presided over by perhaps the most respected university president in the country … Larry Bacow.

I know that you all are grateful for the values, excellence, momentum, and humanity that Larry and Adele Bacow have brought to this campus … and to all of your lives.

So, what about your lives?

Well, for one thing, … they’re off to a great start.

Because Tufts has created opportunity for you, and the world has presented you with unprecedented challenges to address.

Last year, the great filmmaker Ken Burns produced a PBS television series called America’s Best Idea.

According to Ken Burns, our national parks are America’s best idea.

But I beg to differ.

Although our national parks are a truly wonderful contribution to our lives, … they aren’t our best idea.

America’s Best Idea is the wondrous system of colleges and universities that dot our landscape, and provide opportunity to young women and men like you.

And these schools have opened America’s doors to bright and inspired students and faculty from other countries who further enrich our culture and accelerate the evolution and achievements of our society.

Research universities like Tufts not only educate the next generation, they also produce the fundamental research, scholarship, and new ideas and technologies that can enable us to have a vibrant economy, good health, and security.

The central role these universities have played in our national life did not come about by happenstance.

Their role was conceived and made possible by one man of profound thought and effective action … Vannevar Bush.

Like you, Vannevar Bush was a Tufts graduate.

He went on to serve as engineering dean and vice president at MIT, as president of the Carnegie Institution for Science, and most importantly as the director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

In 1944, President Roosevelt asked Bush how the country could harness the power of science to advance our health, prosperity and security in peacetime, just as it was clearly propelling the Allies to victory in war.

Vannevar Bush responded with a famous report titled, Science the Endless Frontier.

This report established our universities as the primary American institutions to conduct basic research, and it proposed the creation of the National Science Foundation to fund much of that research.

It also held that America would be strongest if young men and women gained admission to these universities, “on the basis of ability, and not the circumstance of family fortune.”

Every one of you has directly benefited from this visionary man … your fellow Tufts graduate.

That’s what Vannevar Bush did with his Tufts education.

So what are you going to do with your Tufts education?

Now, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but … we badly need you to take on the great challenges of our time.

They are greater than the challenges faced by Vannevar Bush, and certainly greater than those faced by my generation.

Your challenges are greater because they are huge; they are complex; and they are global.

As the planet’s population moves toward 9 billion people, we face immense challenges if we are to have clean water, sustainable energy, a stable climate, a vibrant economy, and health and security for all peoples of the world.

And frankly, your challenges are greater because the powers of rationality, civility, and political will have been losing their currency in the United States.

You must counter these trends, and use your best talents and intentions to build a healthier, more just and equitable world.

Tufts has prepared you to do this.

The future is rushing at us more quickly every year, so you must get on with it.

One advantage that you have is that our world is integrating, tied together by inexpensive, rapid travel, and by the ubiquitous Internet.

This integration should increase your opportunities and ability to meet global challenges.

You have at your disposal entirely new tools.

Your generation … is already leading us into a new domain of global interaction.

I am convinced that your way of communicating and working: Facebook … Wikis …YouTube … social networking … massive multiplayer web games … crowd sourcing … and open innovation … actually do reflect a fundamental transformation.

You can guide this transformation.

You can use these tools to make money.

Or you can use these tools to proliferate images of politicians and movie stars doing stupid things.

But that’s too easy.

Instead, you should apply them to bring what James Surowiecki called “the wisdom of crowds” by working together to solve important problems and to build a more inclusive, engaged, and more egalitarian society.

It’s your choice.

These technologies have played a big role in unleashing a democracy movement in Egypt, Tunesia, and across much of the Middle East.

But you must also note that that was the beginning. The end points of these movements are still unknown.

Information technology, communications, and social networking are powerful new tools, but they do not stand alone in human affairs.

Technology cannot make nine billion lives meaningful or joyful.

And despite all the global integration of communications and commerce, the world is simultaneously fragmenting along the ancient fault lines of religious and cultural intolerance, and indifference to the fate of others.

The civic discourse is increasingly subverted.

The core issues are ignored.

Rational thought is frequently abandoned.

All the technologies and networks we can create will not solve our world problems if we do not establish a base of human and cultural understanding; ethical and moral underpinnings; and sensible rules of law for the 21st century.

Technology and science will be absolutely essential to addressing the large-scale issues of water, energy, climate, health and security.

But without political will, none of these challenges will be met.

And political will must be driven by your vision, your underlying values, your world view, your cultural appreciation of nature and of people, and your ability to envision a future that is different from the past.

Political will to build a better future requires that you be willing to transcend narrow interests and boundaries and to find common cause.

Your success in doing this will depend on your ability to understand the lessons of the past, to communicate effectively, to inspire, and to use critical thought to make difficult choices among disparate and important goals.

You must reignite America’s optimism and its “can do” spirit.

The way to accomplish this is to reconnect what you do . . .with what you dream.
We need a country and a global community with more people dreaming about what’s possible, one where young people are inspired to imagine a better world and empowered to make it a reality.

You are prepared to do this.

The engineers and scientists among you must advance the knowledge base and invent and develop the new technologies we will need to progress and sustain life in this new century.

You who have focused on the arts and sciences must increase our understanding ¬– and appreciation – of our universe – the worlds within us as well as the worlds around and beyond us.

The doctors, dentists, and medical personnel must work in concert with others to build more healthy lives for all people, and to more effectively and efficiently deliver care to the sick and wounded.

You who focus on feeding the burgeoning mass of humanity inhabiting our planet have an especially critical role in this century.

And you in veterinary medicine must help us to value, sustain, and learn from our fellow creatures, large and small.

And you graduates of the Fletcher School must help stem the forces of fragmentation and build a more integrated and open world society.

In short, I would ask all of you to tie what you do…to what you dream.

We will all be the better for it.

* * *

I am grateful for the opportunity to play a role in your commencement.

But of course, I cannot close without providing a bit of personal advice, which I will do by telling you a true story.

Jerome Wiesner was president of MIT from 1971 to 1980.

He also served as President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisor.

One day, many years after his service as president had ended; an alumnus came up to him and said:

“President Wiesner, do you remember me?”

“You shook my hand when I crossed the stage at my graduation two decades ago.”

“And you gave me advice that has profoundly guided me ever since.”

Jerry replied in some diplomatic manner, that – well -- he did not specifically remember him.

“But, tell me,” he said, “exactly what was the profound advice I gave you?”

“Why President Wiesner, you looked at me, waved your arm, and said ‘Keep on moving!’”

So that’s my advice to you.

Keep on moving!

And if you start dreaming in PowerPoint, it’s time to stop and smell the flowers.

Congratulations and Godspeed.