Office of the President

The Role of Research Universities in Nation-Building

Commencement Address Fall 2010

Parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings, children and friends of today’s graduates: We are together today to celebrate the special accomplishment of your loved ones. We all know how smart and hard-working they are—and after the video presentation we just saw, how many acres of pizza they eat, the miles of sandwiches they consume, and how many of them use the campus bus system.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the lighter side of UT Dallas, because, graduates, I’m going to ask you now, for just a few moments more, to focus on a serious subject: the critical role that you and our institution have to play in nation-building. I’m not talking about going abroad and reforming some other country.  I’m talking about making a commitment today to focusing on building—perhaps, more accurately, rebuilding—our own.

I’m going to make what may sound like a bold claim: I submit that the future of the great American research university may be the single most important factor in determining the future of America.

A few weeks ago, Tom Friedman wrote in The New York Times that a recent poll showed 47 percent of America’s likely voters said that the nation’s best days are past.

Friedman wrote:

“The long-term concern is that people intuitively understand that what we need most now is nation-building in America. They understand it by just looking around at our crumbling infrastructure, our sputtering job-creation engines, and the latest international education test results that show our peers out-educating us, which means they will eventually out-compete us. … We are facing a really serious moment. …  We have got to get this moment right. We don’t get a do-over. If we fail to come together and invest, spend and cut really wisely, we’re heading for a fall.”

Let’s think about nation-building for a moment. My parents are members of what some have called “The Greatest Generation.” Neither finished college – my dad dropped out to join the Army Air Corps and fight in World War II, and my mother dropped out when she met my dad a few years later to marry and raise a family. (And for those of you who are the first in your family to graduate from college, that was me once, too – congratulations!) My dad never spoke of the past or the war, nor did he spend time counseling me on my future. One thing was clear, though: My parents and millions of others would do practically anything to ensure a better life for their children than they had had.

My dad was 13 years old when the Great Depression engulfed this nation in 1929. Perhaps it was the human suffering of that period, as well as the sacrifice and carnage of World War II, that imbued him and millions of other Americans with the raw determination to leave the world a better place for their children. And they did.

And just how did they do that? Well, prior to World War II, America was a strong nation, but it was not the globally pre-eminent power that it would become. Our military weaknesses were exposed by the Japanese. The top scientists of the world were not predominantly in the U.S. prior to World War II – they were primarily in Europe, and particularly in Germany.

Two things profoundly changed America preceding and following World War II. One was the mass exodus of top scientific talent from Europe to the United States as the Nazi influence drove so many top minds out of Germany and Europe. The U.S. welcomed these brilliant immigrants and gave them important responsibilities in building America’s technological prowess and capabilities. America’s receptiveness to talent, regardless of its origin, made this country the place the best and brightest in the world wanted to go to for decades to come.

The second thing that profoundly changed America was the incredible investment in and evolution of our great research universities. Following World War II, the National Science Foundation was born, and great research machinery was put in motion at the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In the 1950s and 1960s, Sputnik and the fear of Soviet technological dominance motivated unwavering support for investment in our research universities. Good research universities such as the University of California at Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan, Illinois, and MIT literally became truly great research universities, like none the world had seen before.  By the end of the 20th century, quite remarkably, America was home not just to a few of the world’s top research universities, but to nearly all of them.

For decades, the most brilliant scientists, engineers, medical researchers, and innovators flocked to these institutions. They were drawn from within our country as well as throughout the world.

And when that happened, great new discoveries were made, from the vaccine that eradicated polio, to the Internet, to the MRI for medical imaging, to the light-emitting diode that will probably replace the incandescent light bulb.

And what societal benefits did this surge of discovery produce? A job creation engine like none the world had seen before. New ideas and brilliant people from throughout the world aggregated around these great American institutions of discovery and creation, ultimately producing employment, prosperity, and a better future for the nation’s children. That’s what nation-building is all about.

As I travel the world, I see other countries exercising impassioned resolve to build their nations—the kind that we once had. I was in China a few weeks ago. They’re nation-building, big time. So is Singapore. So is India. So are others. We should feel honored that they are copying us – after all, imitation is the ultimate flattery. How are they copying us? They’re building great research universities just as we once did. And that means, for example, that the most significant research on renewable energy technologies may well be taking place in China, not America.

I have a prediction: the hundreds of thousands of new jobs that will be created in developing new energy solutions will be highly correlated with the places in the world where innovative solutions are developed and where the ingenious talent that developed those solutions resides. The only question in my mind is where the discovery and jobs will occur. Will it be in America or somewhere else?  The answer is important. What’s at stake is essentially our future prosperity.

I read a few weeks ago that Sony just manufactured its last Walkman. Remember the Sony Walkman portable cassette player? I loved mine. But it’s gone, replaced by iPods, mp3 players, Droids and other devices that employ superior technology, doing many things in addition to playing music. Sony’s shutdown of the Walkman production line is an example of the natural turnover in jobs when technology keeps things changing. Every innovation is inevitably destined to be replaced by something else, something even better. That this has always occurred and will continue to occur is not in doubt. What is in doubt is where the new jobs associated with the new technologies will land.

I say that our nation’s great research universities may be the single most important element in determining America’s future. I say this for several reasons:

  1. Our great research universities are home to a disproportionate fraction of our nation’s most talented scientists, engineers, medical researchers, and human creative talent in general. They are the most important places of discovery in our country;
  2. Our great research universities are by far the best tool that we, as a nation, have to attract the best and brightest individuals from throughout the world. They come here to make discoveries and to start companies. And if they do leave, they leave more inclined to be our potential friends and partners wherever they may eventually settle; and,
  3. Our great research universities are the key to assuring that the inevitable job reinvention—that is, new jobs replacing old ones—happens in the U.S., not somewhere else.

My greatest fear about China is not that China will beat us through lower wages. My greatest fear is that its research universities will surpass ours. And that’s exactly what China and Singapore are trying to achieve, with highest priority. If they succeed, if our research universities are no longer the best in the world, I would have to agree that our best days might, indeed, be behind us.

But I say emphatically that America’s best days can and should be ahead. If we continue to shine the brightest light in the world on discovery, creativity, and talent, our country will somehow figure out the rest of its problems and succeed, just as it always has.

To Texas’ credit, our state understands how important great research universities are. In the last Legislative session, our leaders pumped more than $500 million into creating more top-tier research universities. The University of Texas at Dallas is extremely well-positioned to become the next great research university in Texas. We’re on course and on schedule. Our supporters understand the stakes and how crucial our success is to our region and state, and even to our nation.

Building great research universities is not cheap, easy, or for the faint of heart. It takes years to attract and nurture world-class talent at critical mass, and to build the infrastructure and reputation essential to success. We cannot afford to try to sprout these institutions everywhere. We need to take a few well-qualified universities with all the necessary ingredients to succeed, and to build them, strategically and with absolute determination. UT Dallas is one of those institutions.

Graduates, thank you for giving me a few of your minutes before you leave the University. Today’s ceremony is a reflection of how proud we are of your achievements. Go forward, fully aware that your journey on your own road to personal development and fulfillment is one that will, at its best, also make a contribution to improving our nation and our world. Congratulations, one and all!

Updated: May 28, 2015