Ursula Burns- MIT Commencement Address (2011)
Ursula Burns delivers MIT's 145th Commencement Address, 3 June 2011.
Ursula M. Burns, chairwoman and CEO of Xerox Corporation, was the first African-American woman ever to lead a Fortune 500 company. She has been a member of the MIT Corporation (the board of trustees that runs the Institute) since 2008. Her son Malcolm Bean '11 (Mathematics and Nuclear Engineering), SM '12 (Nuclear Engineering) was among the undergraduates in the Class of 2011.
President Hockfield … fellow Trustees of MIT … members of the faculty … graduates, families and friends … thank you so much for this honor, for your warm reception and for the privilege of delivering the university’s 145th commencement address.
This is a very special day for our family. Our son Malcolm is among the undergraduates receiving his Bachelor’s degree today.
Malcolm will hate me for this, but I can’t begin to tell you how proud we are of him. Like many of you, Lloyd and I sent one of our two most precious possessions — the other precious possession is Melissa who is also with us today — off to MIT four years ago.
We entrusted this wonderful institution with the education of Malcolm at a pivotal moment in his life. While here, he began to quench his thirst for knowledge … to shape his dreams and begin to turn them into reality … to form relationships that will last a lifetime.
I know that the parents and families who are here today are nodding their heads in agreement. What MIT has done with our children has been spectacular. So before I go any further, will the parents, families and friends join me in sharing our appreciation to President Hockfield and the talented faculty and staff she leads for all they have give to the graduating class of 2011.
When I thought of what I might say, I couldn’t help thinking about what advice I would give my own children so I talked with them. Their advice to me can be boiled down into seven words:
“Keep it real and keep it short!”
So with that in mind, let me give you a little bit of simple advice.
You are about to enter a pretty messy world. The words Charles Dickens used to describe 18th century London are eerily apt:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.”
As the British would say, that strikes me as “spot-on.” We live in a world of both sobering challenges and awesome opportunities.
As you leave this serene campus, our nation is engaged in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. We are mired in debt and recovering at a painfully slow pace from the deepest recession in 80 years. Our political system at times seems incapable of action and our political rhetoric seems largely devoid of civility. There is a gross mismatch between the skills we need to build a 21st century economy and the product our public education system is producing.
And yet, for all our shortcomings:
- Our system of government is still the envy of the world. The “Arab spring” is all about a thirst for freedom and democratic rule.
- Our universities at their best are also the envy of the world. I dare say that the graduates here today are among the best and brightest that have been produced at any time and in any place in the long history of mankind.
- Our economy is sputtering and yet our ability to innovate continues to lead the world and create new industries.
So my first piece of advice to you is to not be discouraged. In the words of an old Johnny Mercer song that your parents will remember:
“You’ve got to accentuate the positive
Eliminate the negative
Latch on to the affirmative
And don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”
Yes, we have problems. But we also have great opportunities. Despite the tremendous challenges you face, I implore you to embrace them. The truth is the world needs you as perhaps never before. We need your passion, creativity and drive. We need the spirit of exploration and the thirst for knowledge that you embraced here. We’re finding that some of our old assumptions and ideas don’t work anymore, and we can use people who are willing to ask “why do we do it that way?” and “how can we do it differently and better?”
Yes, it’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity. That is precisely what is rolled up in your diplomas. It’s all yours. You earned it. You deserve it. And, no one can take it away.
At the same time, I hope none of you will think of your diploma as an end-point. This event is called a commencement, not a curtain call. You’ve been given a wonderful academic foundation — an invitation to begin a journey of lifelong learning. No less an authority than Albert Einstein wrote that “learning is not a product of schooling but the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
Well, for openers, I would encourage all of you to follow the example of MIT and embrace change and learning willingly and with a sense of excitement and wonder. Think about that. The University is celebrating its 150th anniversary. It has survived and excelled for a century and a half because it has evolved and changed.
The only thing I can predict about your lives with any certainty is that change will be a constant in your lives as well. Back in 1980 when I sat where you are sitting today, there were no cell phones. The Internet, let alone the iPad, was not even the stuff of dreams. Chinese capitalism and the fall of the Soviet Union were unimaginable. Kabul and Islamabad conjured up only the vaguest recognition of places in some distant corner of the world. Genetics was in its infancy. Even as recently as a few years ago, the thought of a global economic melt-down was beyond comprehension.
I can't pretend to know how your world will change — but I know it will and at a pace that will continue to increase exponentially. You can’t stop it. In many ways, you are the cause of it. Learn to love it. Make it your ally.
You should also have fun. Enjoy life. Choose a career that gives you pleasure and fulfillment. Surround yourselves with people who make you laugh. People you love and people who are good.
I know that people are more likely to be successful if they have a passion for what they do. Make yourself a promise today. If down the road, you find that your career, your life, is not fun, revert to my first piece of advice — change!
Change, but be true to yourself in the process. Your family … MIT … your church or synagogue or mosque or mountaintop … have given you a set of core values — a moral compass. Hang on to it.
I have a great sign that hangs on the wall of my office:
“Don’t do anything that wouldn’t make your Mom proud!”
Your life's journey will include some turbulent waters. You will face difficult choices. You will be challenged and tested. The values you have developed through family and MIT will hold you in good stead. They are your roots, but you have also been given wings — the ability to dare to dream the impossible and then make that dream a reality.
Set your sights on changing the world — in leaving this planet a little better than you found it. That need not be as grandiose as it sounds. It can take the form of getting involved with one of the big ideas of our time … or working for an organization that creates decent jobs for its workers … or raising a family that will carry good values into the future.
Believe in something larger than yourself. Make a difference. Live your life so that at the end of your journey, you will know that your time here was well spent, that you left behind more than you took away.
The Bible teaches us that “to whom much has been given, much is expected.” You sit here today a privileged few having received a great education from a great university. Now it’s time to begin giving back.
I hope you will take a few moments today to reflect on how fortunate you are and how much support the University has given you. And I hope that in the distant future you will remember how you feel this day:
- Proud that an important phase of your life’s journey is ending and anxious about the one that is just beginning.
- Proud of the friendships you’ve made here and hopeful that some of them will endure far into the future.
- Proud that you’ve earned a degree and cognizant of how much more you still have to learn.
- Proud that you have achieved an important milestone but aware that you have much to do and miles to go before you rest.
Allow yourself to bask in the glory of what you've accomplished. And pledge to yourself that you will cherish what you have learned here — and use it as a foundation to build a wonderful life. Most of the chapters of your life are still to be written. Most of the pages are blank. In that sense, too, these are “the best of times.”
My congratulations to all of you. You’ve worked long and hard to arrive at this weekend. And my congratulations also to all the parents, grandparents, spouses, family members and faculty that helped push you across the finish line. All of you should feel very, very proud.
I wish you all the very best. May all your dreams come true.