Office of the President

Commencement Address 2007

Fall Graduation Speech
December 2007

President David E. Daniel

As we enjoy celebrating this moment marking the achievement you all have worked so hard to reach, I want to share a story about another recent graduation. This story of a UT Dallas alumnus offers us some food for thought on the relationship between education and economic success.

Cassandra Gandara graduated from UT Dallas in 2004. In many ways, she seems like the typical UT Dallas student-admitted to law school before she'd even finished her undergrad work, a cum laude honors holder, with a degree in business administration and a minor in government and politics.

She didn't, however, begin as a typical student. She came to us through Academic Bridge, a program designed to assist students whose academic preparation leaves them short of the requirements to enter our university. We demand that these students invest their summer before freshman year sharpening their academic skills by attending summer school and undergoing “success training.” They are generally from economically challenged families. Most struggle, and frankly, facing the dual burdens of insufficient academic preparation for rigorous college work and economic limitations, must display a dedicated and disciplined spirit to succeed.

Cassie stood out from the very beginning by informing her dean, George Fair, that she planned not only to gain admission, but to be one of the best students at UT Dallas.

With her cum laude designation, it's clear she arrived at that goal. No one in Cassie's family had ever gone to college. Her freshman year was marked by a near-failure in a math class, which she retook and passed with an A. When she determined that she wanted to study law, she needed extra help in preparing for the entrance exams, and sought assistance from Dean Fair. It was an uphill climb for her all the way. Ultimately, she not only succeeded, but excelled.

Cassie's story gives many of us an encouraging message about personal achievement, but it also brings to mind some important points about what education means to the economic vitality of this country.

Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, was queried not long ago about America's shrinking middle class and what Congress could do to reverse the trend.

Greenspan said that the key to expanding the middle class is fixing the declining quality of educational opportunity for American children. The congressman questioning Mr. Greenspan replied skeptically that surely other congressional action, such as laws regulating monetary policy, was equally if not more important than educational reform.

Mr. Greenspan's answer was brief but profound: “If you can solve the education problem, you don't have to solve anything else. And if you don't solve it, nothing else is going to matter all that much.”

Mr. Greenspan's recent book, The Age of Turbulence, describes “the key policy levers” for combating the problem of increasing economic inequality “as ...education and immigration.”

Since the middle of the last century, the U.S. has experienced enormous economic advancement and improvement in our standard of living. This is a result of technological advances - everything from airplanes to satellites to computers to cell phones to service companies such as Google - which have created whole new industries and associated jobs, and significantly influenced productivity and competitiveness.

And in the past decade, Greenspan writes, the United States' top fifth of wage earners increased their percentage of total wages from 41 percent to 46 percent. This is a 5 percent shrinkage of the middle class from 1997 to 2007. Average earnings of the upper 20 percent of wage earners rose nearly twice as fast as those of the lower 80 percent of wage earners. These gains for the richest are seen as a product of the technological advances described a moment ago.

The technological advances are not limited to the U.S. – they have created similar positive change in most developed countries, such as those in Europe. But these other countries are not experiencing the decline of the middle class we see. Why?

The likely explanation, notes Greenspan, appears to be the “dysfunction of elementary and secondary education in the United States.” Statistics consistently show that U.S. fourth-graders are competitive with other fourth-grade students internationally, but by the time our students reach their last year of high school, they fall well below the international average academic achievement for developed nations.

I don't have all the answers to our national educational woes. The issues are complex, and involve family priorities, teacher pay, popular media characterizations (such as “it's not cool to be smart”), complacency, perceptions about opportunities, and distractions such as computer games, with all due respect to our ATEC graduates.

What I am sure of is that education is more important than ever. The inevitable obsolescence that new technology creates means we all face churn in both the marketplace and in employment opportunity. The pace and global extent of that change is unprecedented. Today's young men and women may have to push the educational “reset” button at least once, if not more often, through their careers.

At this point, I want to pause to point out that while most of you are in your 20s or 30s, we have one graduate today, Helen Small, who is 87 years old. Helen has already informed a few people that she's considering returning to college for a master's. She'd be done by the time she was 90!

Helen is a unique and remarkable example of the value of lifelong learning. Much has changed since my time as a college student. Then, one earned a high school or college degree, took a first job, and pursued that job with the same company for decades without significant further education, expecting to be set for life.

As Helen proves, this is no longer true. In short, education has never been more important, not just early in life but throughout life.

Greenspan raises the question of immigration. This can't be considered in isolation from changes in the availability of quality higher education. When I was contemplating college long ago in another geologic epoch, one could find only a few universities in the world (and mainly in Europe) that were comparable to America's best universities.

Today, high-quality universities (and I mean every bit as good as the best U.S. universities) are found in Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, China, India, Australia, and many other countries. Our monopoly on the very best higher education is gone, though our position is still the strongest in the world.

Greenspan writes, “I have voiced concern about the state of our elementary and secondary education while lauding the world-class university system we have built over generations. It should be clear, however, that unless the former can be brought up to world-class, the latter will either have to depend on foreign students or sink to mediocrity.”

This is a deeply disturbing, but I believe correct, observation. Unless we raise the quality of output from our high schools, we can only sustain the current production of college talent by attracting the best and brightest high school graduates from other countries.

When we as a nation discuss immigration, the conversation tends to focus on illegal immigration of unskilled workers. Lost in this dialogue is the legal immigration of top scientific, literary, artistic, and business talent. In my view, the greatness of this country in the post-World-War-II era was due in large part to the incredible talent that immigrants brought to this country. Today, something like one-third of the most successful entrepreneurial companies in the U.S. have non-U.S.-born leaders as CEOs. Thankfully, they stayed in the U.S., started their companies here, and created jobs here.

Our pre-eminent position in attracting the top global talent is not guaranteed in the future. Other countries are developing rapidly. Today, entrepreneurs could just as easily start Google or Microsoft someplace else. We want the best and brightest from throughout the world – as well as down the street – to come to our great universities and to stay in our country, contributing to our prosperity and growth.

I am very proud of the role that this University plays in securing the future of our region, state, and nation. The University of Texas at Dallas is a role model for what quality public higher education can be. For the past three years, our freshman class had the highest SAT score of any public university in Texas. And nearly half of our baccalaureate degrees are awarded to students like Cassie Gandara – first-generation college graduates. This is public higher education at its best – quality plus access.

We don't have a football team, but we do have one of the best merit-based scholarship programs for undergraduate students around. Our chess team is a perennial national champion, and our debate and computer science teams almost always finish near the top in national competition. And our School of Management rankings, such as those from Financial Times, are off the chart, beating out most of the best-known institutions in the region. I like our strengths and our values: They stand for an intellectually stimulating, quality academic experience, competitive with the best anywhere.

When our graduates walk across the stage, you'll see all sorts of people of many nationalities. This diversity is good. The common denominator is that they are all very, very smart. And each is well prepared to contribute. Before I leave you today, I want to finish the story of Cassie Gandara.

Cassie came back to campus last week. She was here to celebrate a second graduation – from law school – and a third sort of graduation – passing the Texas State Bar. Cassie is the first student in the seven-year history of Academic Bridge to graduate from law school. Her way of commemorating this achievement was to bring a gift to her mentor, George Fair: a check, made out to the Academic Bridge program scholarship fund. Her law firm has pledged to match all her gifts to Academic Bridge.

This is the story of Cassie Gandara – at least, as far as it has been written, since I believe a person of her achievements will have many chapters to add.

We celebrate her achievements, as we celebrate yours today.

Graduates, I salute you. You came here highly qualified, and you proved yourselves under rigorous academic challenges. You chose to work hard and to succeed. Like Cassie, each of you had help, but ultimately, it was your determination and effort that brought you here today, to graduate from one of America's most challenging institutions of higher education.

I offer my deepest admiration for your achievement today, and for those achievements to come, and my very best wishes to you.

Thank you, and good luck!

Updated: November 22, 2011