Office of the President

On Education and Global Competitiveness

Commencement Address Fall 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, today’s graduates will soon walk the stage and receive their diplomas and certificates. We applaud their individual achievements and anticipate their collective contributions.

There is no greater public treasure than a highly educated, creative and energized group of college graduates. Individuals such as those with us today give us reason to believe that the future will be better than the past. These graduates are armed with the power of knowledge and with the ability to innovate at the highest levels.

The student experience at UT Dallas is rigorous and demanding — and not for everyone. We recruit talented individuals and help them turn into people who can prosper in a fiercely competitive world — really smart, hard-working, creative people with a will to succeed. To those of you who have stood the test and arrived here today, you have earned a great prize and an ultimate power: an educated, active mind, and a signifier of the work it takes to cultivate such power — your diploma. Congratulations on a job well done!

“Despite the storied American history of progress, innovation is not assured to reside here or any other particular place in the world.”

This fall, work took me to China and South Korea. I was dazzled by the incredible infrastructure development in Shanghai, Beijing, and Seoul. Monumental skyscrapers with eye-popping architecture. Brand new airports and train stations. Factories operating on a mind-boggling scale. I thought about you, our students and soon-to-be graduates, and your role in a world that is changing so rapidly.

The developments I saw abroad reminded me of a book titled: That Used to be Us. Its authors, Tom Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, compare the United States to other countries that are investing in schools, highways, high-speed rail systems, factories and great universities. They are, the authors say, copying the U.S., replicating our formula for success. Thus the title — That Used to be Us.

They write:


“We are nearly complete in our evolution from Lewis and Clark into Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. We used to embrace challenges, endure privation, throttle our fear and strike out into the (unknown) wilderness. In this mode we rallied to span the continent with railroads, construct a national highway system, defeated monstrous dictators, cured polio and landed men on the moon. Now we text and put on makeup as we drive (and) spend more time on video games than books. ... So much for the pioneering spirit that made us (once) the greatest nation on Earth, one that others look up to and called ‘exceptional.’”

Similarly, an article in Forbes magazine by Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, described a lack of American leadership, especially in science and engineering. He noted that:

  • U.S. consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the U.S. government devotes to energy research and development.
  • In 2009, for the first time, more than half of U.S. patents were awarded to non-U.S. companies.
  • China has replaced the U.S. as the world’s number one high-technology exporter.
  • The World Economic Forum ranks the U.S. No. 48 in quality of math and science education.
  • Mr. Augustine stated that innovation is the key to survival in an increasingly global economy. I agree.

    But innovation is not an entitlement. It doesn’t just happen. Despite the storied American history of progress, innovation is not assured to reside here or any other particular place in the world. Too few Americans understand that education of our people is the key to competitiveness.

    The best places for innovation have been, and will continue to be, those places where the smartest, most creative people develop their ideas and where policies and availability of resources support development of ideas into products and services that change our world.

    We must strive as a University, a state and a country to be that kind of place. This work never ceases, and it is a task I urge you to take up or support in whatever way you can. Support your University’s efforts to become a hub of research and innovation. Be entrepreneurial in your own work. Don’t be afraid of risk, and even failure — sometimes mistakes are necessary to progress. Do what you can to bring quality to public education, a critical building block in our American success that is now threatened and must be addressed by all of us who care about this country’s future.

    While in Korea, I visited several universities. Those outside the capital, Seoul, face a major challenge in retaining top faculty talent. Why? Because the best elementary and secondary schools are in Seoul. Outstanding Korean faculty will sacrifice their own work to assure their children’s early educational opportunity. Educational quality is paramount and trumps just about everything else for Korean parents, I was told.

    I couldn’t help but think, “That used to be us.” Education is the pathway to a better life. Innovation, though it can be primed with resources and economic incentives, starts with ideas and education. As quoted in a National Academy of Engineering publication, from Nobel Laureate Sir Ernest Rutherford, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.”

    “Too few Americans understand that education of our people is the key to competitiveness.”

    If those I look out on here today are in charge, I am fully confident we can be a leading innovation center of the world. This group of graduates is among the smartest, most globally aware, energized, innovative, hardworking and creative to be found anywhere.

    Let me highlight the programs from which they have earned degrees:

    • Our graduate program in the Naveen Jindal School of Management, which is ranked No. 40 in the nation among all public and private universities, a truly remarkable feat for a school just 35 years old.
    • Our graduate engineering program, which is ranked No. 4 in Texas, trailing only UT Austin, Texas A&M, and Rice, and ahead of ... well, that would be everyone else.
    • Our School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, whose programs in audiology and speech language pathology rank among the top 5 percent in the nation.
    • Our School of Arts and Humanities, whose Arts and Technology program has become a top 10 program in less than a decade.
    • Our School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, where discoveries from our Alan MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute are making international news, including the recent feat of making objects disappear — which is scientifically described as “thermally modulated transparent carbon nanotube sheets” — I’m sure that inquiring minds wanted to know this factoid!
    • Our School of Interdisciplinary Studies, which continues to excel by producing graduates with the critical thinking skills so essential to the creative process, and educating the next generation of teachers.
    • Our School of Economic, Political, and Policy Sciences, which examines the complexities of how governments and economies work to help advance our state and nation.

    To graduate from any of these programs is a mark of distinction, and a point of pride. To the graduates: Good job. To the parents, families, relatives, and friends: You should be very proud of their extraordinary accomplishments.

    We should all be thankful for what they’re about to contribute. Nothing less than the competitiveness of our nation, and the advancement of our society, are at stake. I feel good about you, and about your ability to make a difference in our world. Take a moment, take a breath, enjoy this day. Then get back to work, because the world needs you, and your ideas, and your energy. Thank you, graduates, and good luck!

    Updated: December 15, 2011