Georgetown Commencement

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Thank you, my friends:  Professor Donoghue, Dean Celenza, Provost Groves and President DeGioia.  I could not be more honored – or more nostalgic -- to join you today to congratulate the Class of 2018! 

Not so terribly long ago, I sat where you’re now sitting, here on the Georgetown campus, bedecked in cap and gown, eagerly awaiting my Georgetown degree.  

Like you, I listened to the speeches (OK - in truth, only partially listened).  I strained to see my parents and grandparents among the vast sea of well-wishers.  (Have you spotted yours?  Great time to shout a thank you to your families and friends who helped to get you to this campus and to this graduation day!)

And, perhaps like some – or many - of you, I had very little idea of what lay ahead.  I knew my next step.  And I had some distant, though pretty vague idea of where I might be in, let’s just say, 40 years from then.  As vague as that idea might have been as I sat in your places, it has proved to be entirely incorrect.  And, I assure you, that I never imagined that my path would bring me to the honor of sharing this graduation day with all of you.

So I, and now you, set out from this campus on our first steps in the adventure of a life as-yet unknown.  I could not have remotely imagined all of the course corrections, the twists and turns of life that would carry me in unexpected directions between then and now. 

Looking around the campus – even more beautiful today than decades ago -- I’m reminded of how many different and important things I learned here.  Not all of them I learned in the classroom.  Invariably, we take our lessons where they find us. 

To offer just one example, I received perhaps my most important lesson about teaching on the tennis courts.  And, no, I did not study the two-handed backhand as a requirement for my degree.  But early in the fall semester in which I was teaching for the very first time, I ran into the head of the course at the tennis courts.  Professor Vidic was renowned for setting terrifying expectations, and when I took his course the year before, that terror provoked me into my first experience of really, truly “leaning in” to self-motivated study.  Simply put, I studied harder than ever before, and I experienced a new kind of exhilaration in learning.  I learned to learn at an entirely new level.  Sometimes fear will do that to you!

That said, my first teaching experience, in the same course a year later, wasn’t going so well.  When I ran into Professor Vidic, I sheepishly admitted that I felt that I didn’t know anywhere nearly enough to make any difference in the classroom.  He instantly and vehemently agreed at a high enough volume for everyone on the courts to hear, “Of course, you know nothing!”  But even so, he reminded me, I certainly knew more than the students, and he assured me that they would appreciate learning from me what I did know.  You will all have many opportunities to teach and to help others, and you can feel confident that conveying what you do know will be gratefully received!

Of course, I learned many other lessons as a Georgetown student.  I learned how to turn an unexpected lab result into a new insight about how the brain develops.  I learned about the many failures that precede any success, and I learned that adventuring beyond the frontier of knowledge requires not only new tools, but also the courage to question received wisdom.  And that does take courage!  My friend and mentor, the late Amar Bose, the founder of the Bose Corporation, had a quotation engraved on his office wall.  Even someone as farsighted as Dr. Bose liked to be reminded, in the words of Nobel Laureate Maurice Maeterlinck, “At every crossway on the road that leads to the future each progressive spirit is opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.”  

Have courage!  As a student I didn’t yet know that the central purpose of a university is to pave the path to the future – for you, as individuals, and for society.  That path has always required courage.  From its start in the 12th century, universities have gathered together bands of scholars and students seeking to understand the as-yet unexplained, to describe our world as it is, and to imagine how it will be.  The early university’s founders recognized that a community of scholars and searchers would foster their work and give them courage.  The university, at its best, creates conditions for you, and me, its students and its faculty, to change our minds and the minds of others.  That is, to think, to discover, and to integrate ideas and experiences in new ways that change how we see the world and how we approach our lives. 

Make no mistake:  my Georgetown education changed my life.  After some early stumbling around, I followed the advice of one of my undergraduate professors and ventured into a research lab.  There, I found my calling as a scientist.  I came to Georgetown to follow that calling, and Georgetown equipped me well to pursue my passion for scientific discovery.  That path has taken me on great adventures, many of which included battling the “thousand men appointed to guard the past.”   

As you can tell, I love research and teaching.  There is nothing more exciting than seeing a student discover and then master a new idea, or to watch a hazy possibility come into sharp focus through an experiment.  Truth be told, I also enjoyed the exhilaration of “solo performance,” in the lecture hall and as a scientist.  I thrilled at the freedom to explore and study the as-yet unknown.

Beyond lessons in research and teaching, Georgetown taught me another, very different lesson, which guided me to the most important “course correction” of my career, my unexpected turn to leadership. 

But, I must confess a terrible secret:  While deeply engaged with my own lab and my own classes, I never understood the roles of department chairs, deans, provosts, or even presidents.  So, when the president of Yale University asked me to consider taking on the role of the Dean of the Graduate School, I was surprised, I was puzzled, and – let’s just say – I did not immediately leap at the opportunity.

Of course, I turned to my thought partner -- my soul mate and husband – to consider this puzzling proposal.  That conversation threw into stark relief the life-changing experience I had had on this campus.  And, then I realized that here, at Georgetown, all of the experiences that had so dramatically transformed my life were not happy accidents, but were the product of the hard work of others.  Georgetown’s academic leadership over decades and centuries has carefully and deliberately sculpted this university to make it possible for us students – you and me – to study with fantastic teachers and scholars.  They created conditions that allowed us to learn the tools that would change our lives and that would enable us to change the world.

So, while I was late to understand how a place like Georgetown comes to be, I couldn’t be happier to come back here, just in time to ask you to join me in saying thank you to the people who let us learn, let us grow, let us know the exhilaration of the life of the mind.

That’s how I came to embark on the second part of my career:  Having found my calling through the generosity of others, I was now called again, this time to serve the next generation of students.  I agreed to help redefine the Yale graduate school experience, putting my mind and heart to the task for three years, after which I’d return full time to my own laboratory and teaching.  But, like many of my ideas about my own future, I was wrong again.  After three years in the Dean’s office there was work still to be done, and I had discovered something wonderful in this second calling.  Actually, it was the same wonderful thing that fuels scientific discovery:  the intoxicating joy of thinking and working with others to find new answers and new insights.  

I quickly learned that great universities remain great only by constantly reinventing themselves.  In navigating the path to the university’s future, “every crossway on [that] road … is [also] opposed by a thousand men appointed to guard the past.”   But at Yale and then at MIT, bringing people together to determine our best guess where the future lay and the best path to get there required courage and cajoling.  But it provided rich rewards in the joy of the shared purpose of working together in service to others. 

All of this underscores something we speak about too infrequently:  the power and critical importance of our institutions.  We celebrate individuality and the division of our society into infinite separate parts.  Our new communication tools offer untold opportunities to express and emphasize our individuality.  And that serves us well – up to a point.

But if we focus too intently on individuality and individual achievement, we neglect our institutions, the structures that promote community and shared purpose.  And, by doing so, we leave our institutions open to attack.  Indeed, the university is under attack today, with rampant skepticism about the utility of higher education, and along with it, the devaluation of both expertise and the commitment to the search for truth.  This brand of skepticism portends grave dangers, because the very institutions that support individual inquiry also guard democratic principles and foster human advance.  They convene people with shared goals and amplify their impact.

These are certainly not new ideas, and Georgetown has long taken seriously its role in preparing its graduates to guard our principles and our institutions.  However, all of us are tempted to assume that our universities and our community institutions can stand on their own, but they cannot.  It will be your responsibility, as citizens, as members of your communities, to shoulder the responsibility of defending the institutions that secure our principles and guard our society.

That’s an exhortation.  But, a commencement speech would not be complete without an expression of hope.  For each of you, I hope you will find your calling – the path down which you can run with joy and full-hearted commitment.  But my even more fervent hope is for to find along that path the paradox that in doing something you love, you will also serve and support your institutions and your communities.  I’m confident that you’ve learned a great deal here at Georgetown, but I’m equally confident that, down the road a ways, you’ll discover additional fruits of your Georgetown education, which may propel you, too, in new directions to serve the world.