Commencement Address: University of Miami

Commencement Address
University of Miami
Miami, FL
December 18, 2008

President Shalala, university trustees, officers and deans, distinguished faculty, parents and families of the graduates, and my fellow University of Miami degree recipients: you cannot become a university president without listening to a few commencement addresses along the way. So, through the years, I’ve noticed these speeches follow something of a formula. First, the speaker congratulates the graduates and the friends and family who supported them. Then she tells a joke. Then she shares some advice. And then she says “in conclusion,” as the audience breathes a sigh of relief.

Graduates, I am delighted to participate in the pomp and circumstance marking your transition from student at the University of Miami to citizen of the world, and, from personal experience, there is at least one important difference between the two: more parking. Thinking back to my own commencement, I can relate to what you’re going through. I’m sure that many of you are asking the same questions I did. What will tomorrow hold in store? How will I handle the important choices ahead? For just how long will the honorary degree recipient speak? Briefly, I assure you. Or, maybe you’re asking something different. Like, did I remember to un-tag those Facebook photos from last night?

This brings me to the section of my remarks where I share some advice. If the answer is no, make a note to immediately do so when you return home, and then turn to your neighbor and forge a pact: what happened at Miami stays at Miami. Seriously, graduates, look around. Under each other’s mortarboards – outside the plastic frames of your mobile phone screens – you’ll see a quilt sewn from the myriad threads of human difference. A patchwork of faces from diverse families and faiths – from countries and cultures the world over – stitched together through the hard work of individual enterprise and common endeavor. Some of you are first-generation Americans, not to mention first-generation college and professional school graduates. Many worked your way through school. Many benefited from loans, grants, and work-study positions. All of you benefited from the sustenance of the people who love you. All of you earned your arrival at this most significant mile-marker.

Between the bookends of your first seminar or first freshman picnic, a gathering, I understand, that some of you attended more than once, and the final game at the Orange Bowl, or your last final-exam period at Club Richter, you charted and engineered, orchestrated and painted, constructed and composed remarkable undergraduate and professional school careers. In observance of all you achieved, tradition dictates that on this day of joy, pride, gratitude, and – yes – relief, we pause for a moment of reflection — before you commence writing the next great chapters of your lives.

For the next few moments, I will ask you to think about the world A.D., the world after your diploma. What kind of world will you live in? What promises and perils — what risks and rewards — will it unleash before your eyes? What are your obligations as 21st century citizens? The first answer is in some ways the easiest. You graduate during the age of globalization, a force which has galvanized sweeping transformations in finance, industry, and politics. Because of globalization, we’re not just loosely affiliated, but inseparably interdependent — we’re all linked together in an instantaneously interconnected global community.

Think about your iPod. When released in 2001, it represented globalization’s leading-edge. The microdrive and flash memory chips were made in Japan. The controller chip made in South Korea. The battery assembled in China. The software chip designed by programmers in India. The digital-to-analog converter made by a company in Edinburgh, Scotland. And while the elegant white packaging said “designed in California,” it was shipped from Shanghai to the Best Buy or Circuit City in Miami. Thinkers and workers in seven nations had a hand in the final product. As a consequence, people around the world could exchange all tones, tenors, and tempos of music – that most elemental cultural currency.

Today – only seven short years later – globalization means much more than different people in different places contributing different parts of consumer products. It means innovations that work in one place can be transmitted, translated, and transformed to work in another. It means the intellectual processes – the methodologies – that enable innovation are user-driven by people like you and me. This has sparked profound changes in how we learn, store, and share knowledge. Information is no longer a static, objective article, catalogued in an encyclopedia. It’s fluid. Because of technology like wiki, shared, collaborative knowledge development emerges in real time from our diverse experiences and perspectives. The implications are incredibly far-reaching. Crucial, cutting-edge research no longer occurs only in libraries and laboratories. Technology married with interdependence gives birth to open innovation, like “crowd sourcing.”

Consider InnoCentive, an online services company. At the Rockefeller Foundation, we partnered with InnoCentive, which had linked together a network of 150,000 engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and thought-leaders around the world, using a Web-based platform to gather and organize solutions to problems that had confounded people working in just one place. One success story was the invention of the BoGo Light, a solar-powered flashlight which now illuminates previously unrealized possibilities for productivity, education, and safety in remote villages without electricity. Still, the “what” was less important than the “how.” Hundreds of thousands of people, who never met each other and likely never will, collaborated together to solve a common problem: a way of working enabled by technology — a way of working only possible in an interdependent world.

Globalization also builds bridges between your laptop and solutions to poverty and inequality. Take Kiva, for example, the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending Website, which people your age started. It connects lenders with only a little to give, with micro-entrepreneurs for whom that little bit will make such a big difference. In fact, almost 400,000 lenders have contributed more than $50 million – usually $25 at a time. The results are extraordinary: a woman in Uganda, forced to abandon her home during civil war, cares for 13 children, seven of whom are not her own. With a $475 Kiva loan, assembled from seven contributors, she opened a small food processing business, and used her profits to acquire a small piece of land and send the children to school. The contributors are not doling out charity, they are investors, evaluating and financing a business plan. A man in Sierra Leone — left for dead when his hands were cut off by the Revolutionary United Front in 1998 — tried time and again to find funding to open a small retail store. With a $100 Kiva investment, he now runs a growing shop – and is earning enough to care for his family. This is the power of an interconnected global community.

And innovation will keep moving forward, evolving in ways we can’t possibly anticipate. Perhaps, the most important element of your Miami education is not what you learned, but the way you learned: how to ask questions, how to access information, how to shape new ideas. These are the skills that will help you seize innovation’s next generation of opportunities. But make no mistake, the same forces that fuel global integration create as many new burdens as they do benefits. As we’ve seen during these last few months, these energies can drive disintegration and dislocation. Not everyone’s lives are improving fast enough, nor are they improving equitably – nor, in this environment, are they guaranteed to continue improving at all.

The year 2008 was certainly one for the history books. Global food, energy, and economic crises mounted. The impacts of climate change worsened. According to a World Bank report released just last week, worldwide economic growth will plummet by more than half in the coming year, bottoming at less than 1 percent. Each successive 1 percent drop in growth could trap another 20 million people in poverty. This is not someone else’s problem. Globalization ties your fates and fortunes together with the fates and fortunes of people in the world’s most distant corners. The consequences of more hunger and disease, the consequences of more regular conflict over scarce resources, the consequences of more frequent refugee crises and forced migrations, will be felt here, not just there: in Miami, not just Mumbai or Mogadishu. Because of the internet and other global media, everyone bears witness to starvation and genocide. With awareness comes responsibility.

So, your challenge will be to direct the unsurpassed power of your ingenuity towards ensuring that more people in more places can build better lives and futures. Your challenge will be to help more individuals, communities, and institutions tap into growth and opportunity. These are fundamental obligations of global citizenship in the 21st century, and so too are your responsibilities to embrace growing diversity. As a result of globalization, we live together in increasingly dynamic, complex communities. Shared proximity can sometimes result in tension, but we cannot turn back the tide of interdependence, despite the efforts of terrorists and others who may wish we could. Your generation will need to finish the task of making diversity work, and if this last election was a barometer, I’m confident you will.

Let me share a story that’s been on my mind since then. As the presidential campaign concluded, many of us watched NBC’s Meet the Press as former Secretary of State, Colin Powell endorsed then-Senator Barack Obama. General Powell said that one factor influencing his vote was the divisiveness of a whisper campaign that cast now-President Elect Obama as a Muslim. As General Powell pointed out, the rumors were simply not true. The President Elect is a Christian. But the more important question, as General Powell phrased it: “What if he was a Muslim? Is there something wrong with being Muslim in this country? Is there something wrong with a seven year old Muslim kid – somewhere in the United States – believing that he or she could be president?” Not long after, I met an old friend and colleague for lunch. His name is Omar Blaik. He was one of my vice presidents at Penn. He’s also a Palestinian-Muslim. Omar told me that he had watched General Powell’s Meet the Press appearance with his seven year old son, Jad. Jad, his father described, is a quiet kid – a little shy, but after listening to General Powell, this seven year old Muslim child decided to run for president of his first grade class, and only a few days before the United States elected its first African-American president, Jad’s classmates selected a Palestinian-Muslim one.

Our communities may still suffer from the residual poison of an imperfect past, but looking out at you – at this amazing tapestry of faces – I see a tomorrow replete with promise. I see a future that is yours to change, to define, to master. So, build on the foundation you laid at the University of Miami. Carry what you learned here with you into the globalized world, into your careers, into your relationships, and seek — as your greatest aspiration — to become more than brilliant writers, artists, doctors, and business leaders. Become good citizens of the world.

Keith Fletcher at the Butler Center told me that 70 percent of undergraduates engage in some type of service during their time here. This amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 65,000 hours of community service this year alone. You prepared yourselves here for lifetimes of doing good, not just doing well. In this sense and others, you learned that higher education is more than first apartments and first dates. It’s more than the sum of your mornings in class, afternoons in the library, and evenings at the Rat. It’s more than a memory of President Shalala in a smart car or on a Segway or on a camel or on the Colbert Report. Today is both a blessing and a burden to bear. It’s a celebration and a responsibility. This degree is not a gift you keep. It’s a gift you share.

The skeptics and cynics might say that given the world’s current, harsh realities, now is not the best time for taking chances. Perhaps you are entertaining well-intended advice to trim your sails or lower your sights, but it is at precisely this moment when you must defy those who would have you impose a moratorium on making a difference. This is not a time for retreat. This is not a time for disengagement. Play a big role in a world that grows smaller. Open your mind to innovation. Open your heart to people least like you. Fashion an enduring legacy of peace and understanding – a legacy worthy of the degree you receive today. Translate your ideas into business ventures that create jobs and revitalize our economy. Mobilize a green revolution that changes the ways we generate and consume energy. Put your name in nomination, like Jad Blaik, a little boy who found a big voice. Discover a cure for AIDS or cancer. Become a teacher. Mentor a child. Compose masterpieces in prose, poetry, and paint – triumphs of cultural innovation and creative expression. If all else fails, go to law school. I know the dean at the University of Miami, and may be able to help.

Truly, your very presence here is testament to all that is within reach. Do not doubt that anything is possible. Your education prepares you to meet any challenge, however unexpected. It prepares you to follow any dream, however ambitious. You are privileged to discharge the obligations of your University of Miami degree not only at a moment when so many things are changing, but when you have so much opportunity to change things for the better. Find your purpose. Find your passion. I envy you. I envy your chance to live in the better tomorrow that you can build.

Graduates, I commend to you your future. Congratulations.