Office of the President

Why the Person in the Classroom Seat Next to You Matters

Commencement Address Spring 2012

Welcome, parents, families, and friends, and thank you for joining us for our spring 2012 graduation ceremonies. Today we celebrate the most important occasion of the University year.

We are honored today by the presence of one of our University of Texas System Regents, Brenda Pejovich of Dallas. We are especially grateful to the Board for its support of many initiatives at UT Dallas.

Students—or should I say soon-to-be-graduates—today I congratulate you on your achievement. You have reached a worthy goal, and you, and the people who supported you along the way—parents, loved ones, faculty mentors, staff who keep this place running, and the administration of this University—all pause to celebrate with you now. This day should be one of thoughtful, joyful appreciation of the effort expended to arrive at this moment.

Graduation always causes me to reflect on my experience as a student, enrolled many eons ago in engineering at The University of Texas at Austin. I'll never forget going to freshman orientation and being told to look to the person sitting on my left and on my right because two of the three of us wouldn't be there at graduation. This reflected the raw statistic that only about one in three freshmen of that era made it to graduation.

In those days it was common at public universities to admit virtually anyone who applied, qualified or not, and to allow academic challenges to weed out the unqualified.

“The best for you lies ahead. Graduation is like a rung on a ladder—it lifts us toward another goal, and we begin work immediately to continue our progress.”

My roommate in my freshman year was a good example. He was someone I had never met, but enjoyed getting to know, from a small East Texas town. He would stay up all night doing his math homework only to sleep through class the next morning and never turn in his assignment. He didn't make it to the sophomore year.

This practice of admitting virtually everyone and then weeding out the ill-prepared or poorly qualified was a grossly inefficient system since taxpayer dollars were spent on so many students who never earned a degree. Today at UT Dallas, we are highly selective, allowing only those who demonstrate superior, and often extraordinary, academic achievement to enter the University.

I mention this to remind us all – and especially parents here today – how deeply personal is the pursuit of a college education. There's a personal choice made when you get up and go to class, whether you study hard or not at all. In fact, what one chooses to focus one's mind on is about as personal as it gets. Those of you assembled here today chose to work hard. You chose to focus mentally on what your soul said was important. Graduates, you are to be congratulated and admired for what you have achieved.

The best for you lies ahead. Graduation is like a rung on a ladder—it lifts us toward another goal, and we begin work immediately to continue our progress. This is a fact of life, and I believe, one of the true pleasures of life. Learning and growth are never really finished.

Having come this far at UT Dallas, you are already intrinsically, if not overtly, aware of another fact of life: There is always someone out there who is smarter than you.

This is one of the first lessons our newest students learn each year. If they look to the left and look to the right in any given class, they are likely to encounter someone with a perfect SAT score, or a valedictorian of his or her high school graduating class, or someone who can speak three languages fluently, or has published a research paper or has already sold a successful start-up company and begun the next chapter of an entrepreneurial career....

The list could go on, but you get the idea, and most of you have lived it right here on campus. This year, we had more National Merit Scholars in our freshman class than the rest of the academic institutions in the University of Texas System combined. Next fall, we'll have even more. We have a 17-year-old student graduating with his first bachelor's degree today. He's planning to attain a second bachelor's, plus a fast-track master's in coming months.

“Here at UT Dallas we think that being around people who are smarter than you raises your game. It makes you better at what you do.”

Here at UT Dallas we think that being around people who are smarter than you raises your game. It makes you better at what you do. It causes you to think harder, and to think in directions you might not have explored if you hadn't been exposed to the challenge of competing and working with other exceptionally bright people.

We've spent a lot of time and energy on crafting a campus that encourages interaction among students. We want it to look and feel like a special place and toward that end, we have created spaces where students bump into one another and are likely to be pushed into conversation—common study areas, seating areas, places where it's hard not to talk with one another. This is because we meant for you to learn not only in class, but also from one another.

As you leave this special place where this was done on your behalf, you need to look for ways to continue to do this for yourselves. Put yourself in challenging situations. If you find out that you truly are the smartest person in the room, leave that room! Go somewhere else. Find an environment in which you have to try harder because everyone around you is more accomplished or faster or more gifted than you are at something you can respect or emulate. The surprising truth of these kinds of situations is that you will often find that those who know more or do something better than you will want to share their gifts and to receive yours—because they'll see you have something to offer, as well.

So, what is the purpose of a university education? It is to teach you how to think, and how to continue to learn, and how to figure out what to do with that learning to benefit yourself and contribute to the public good. The University is not here to perform job training—though a degree may help you find a job. That's not because we turn out perfectly formed human widgets. Rather, we build brains, making them stronger in critical thinking, in intuitive reasoning, in imagination and creative activity. Our goal isn't for you to out-memorize other universities' or countries' graduates. Our goal is for you to out-innovate them, and then partner up for the greater good.

Today, please enjoy and celebrate what you have achieved. Then, as you move to that next rung on your personal ladder, whether it is a job, graduate school or some form of public service, remember to keep challenging yourself. Surround yourself with people who will raise your game, personally and professionally. This is what we have taught you to do and what you are now well-prepared to do for the rest of your lives.

Thank you, graduates of 2012 and good luck!

Updated: May 20, 2012