University of Rochester

Office of the President

Office of the President

Commencement Remarks by University President Joel Seligman

May 21, 2006

A popular commentator has characterized the generation that fought World War II as "The Greatest Generation." The men and women of that period deserve our gratitude and praise for their extraordinary courage and fortitude. They did save us from tyranny and made possible the economic and cultural progress that we have enjoyed in the ensuing decades.

But in my view, today's generation faces challenges and has opportunities every bit as significant as any that has lived before. Before our eyes, the combination of global communications, global transportation, and international competition is transforming the world. The United States today is the dominant political and military power in the world. But throughout the 21st century, our country will be increasingly contested in economic and cultural terms.

The 21st century will be one of great global challenges ranging from sufficient nutrition for a planet which today has over six billion inhabitants; energy sustainability; sectarian and regional violence; and serious and often unpredictable health crises such as AIDS and HIV.

I urge you nonetheless to welcome your future with optimism. We build on a century that has transformed our social structure, our sciences and technology; and our health system.

Just a little over 100 years ago, for example, few women attended any school of higher education. Only in 1900 did the first woman matriculate at the University of Rochester. As late as 1955, women were housed in a separate campus at our University. Today women constitute 50 percent of our students and an increasing proportion of our faculty and administrators. This transformation is emblematic of a much broader gravitation towards a meritocratic society. For women, racial and religious minorities, and others long deprived of the chance to be judged on their own merits, it is a world of new and growing opportunities.

In 1900, many sciences were in their infancy. The 20th century witnessed the popularization of the automobile and the airplane; breakthroughs in subatomic physics and optics; the invention of the microchip; and the growth of evidence-based medicine. We have seen striking progress towards a new interdisciplinary world which today is addressing topics as disparate as the human genome, nanosystems, and hydrogen fuel cells.

Our progress has not been limited to hard sciences. During the 20th century, political science embraced new and sophisticated methodologies; economics became a core of social planning; business schools were valued for painstaking methods of valuation and decision making; and historical research has increasingly been recognized as pivotal not just to understanding our past, but to understanding our current condition.

As the 21st century begins, I predict that we shall witness also a dramatic increase in appreciation of the humanities. It is art, music, literature, language, philosophy, and the classics that for many provide enlightenment and for some nourish the soul. In any well-rounded life, the humanities have a vital place.

I have never met individuals better prepared for this new century than the Class of 2006. At the University of Rochester, we practice a broad liberal arts approach, which can be characterized as the Rochester Ideal. This approach emphasizes exposure to a wide array of intellectual disciplines, interdisciplinary collaboration, and above all else, critical thinking. None of us knows with certainty what the future will bring. But based on past experience, we strongly believe that students who have become self-learners, who are intellectually nimble and resourceful, and who persevere, are most likely to succeed.

Be prepared for bumps in the road, challenges, heartaches, and setbacks. These happen in every life. But no matter what occurs, I urge you to always remember the two words of the best graduation speech I ever heard: AIM HIGH!

You arrived here as whole human beings. I wish you success not only in your careers, but in all of your life, as spouse or partner, as parent or friend, as member of your community.

You arrived here with ideals, with aspirations, with dreams. Don't leave them at the door. Keep your vision of where you are going with you throughout your entire life. Each of you will be the master of your future and your destiny if you work hard enough and believe in yourself.

Let me offer one final bit of advice. Beware "the tyranny of the or." When I was completing College, I was constantly implored that life is about tradeoffs, prioritization, tough choices. To be sure, these concepts have their place. But in a well-rounded life, there is room for a satisfying career and wonderful personal relationships. There is room for family, friends, community, and for many of you, your faith as well. You do not have to trade off. Each of you should seek to achieve the right balance. It will be different for each of you. But the key to a happy life is to find the harmony that works best for you. The happiest people I know are those that simultaneously are happy in their personal relationships, happy in their careers, and happy in their communities. They attempt to have it all and they succeed! I wish you the same good fortune in your lives.

Given your talents, your intelligence, and your education you are now prepared for the next great chapters in your life. This is a graduating class that has shown the capacity both to aim high in a challenging world and to practice gentleness with yourself and with others. It is this combination of gifts that suggests to me that this too will be the greatest generation. On behalf of all of us in the University of Rochester community, I congratulate the Class of 2006 on this very special day, your graduation day.