Office of the President

Seven Bits of Advice

Convocation Address Fall 2016

Good afternoon. It is a great pleasure to welcome you to the 48th convocation at UT Dallas.

I have given much thought to what I might say to UT Dallas’ newest students. I chose to look a long way back for inspiration. Before becoming a university president, a college dean or a faculty member, I too was a college student, starting in 1969.

Remember that date.

As a college student, I was much like you, except that I …

Before you feel too bad about my technology-deprived youth, I also watched the crew of Apollo 11 walk on the moon on the eve of my freshman year in 1969. 

Remember that date.

The moonwalks were thrilling and inspiring, but I never imagined that the last one, Apollo 17, would occur in December of my senior year. But that is a story for another time.

No matter at what age, the start of college is a time of anticipation and excitement. I can’t help but be a little envious of you in the audience. You are smart and you have your whole lives ahead of you. Here at UT Dallas, you will receive an education that will open doors to infinite possibilities.  

It is very gratifying to be with you at the beginning of your Year-1 with us. As some of you may know, it is also Year-1 for me at UT Dallas, and I have all of the excitement of a freshman, eager to explore this wonderful campus and make the most of the years ahead.

In academic life, a 48-year-old university, like UT Dallas, is remarkably young. I did my undergraduate and graduate studies at universities that were founded in 1746, 1819 and 1868. As you can imagine, those schools had well-established traditions and reputations long before this young man from New Jersey stepped onto campus. Truth be known, they were little changed when I left … and maybe that was a good thing.

UT Dallas is a very different story. The growth of this university in the span of just two generations has been nothing short of spectacular, and I can assure you that UT Dallas will be measurably changed when you graduate a little after our 50th anniversary. More importantly, you will be measurably changed in those same years.[TR1] 

Look around you in this audience. You see one of the more diverse student bodies in the nation. In an earlier era, this precious education would have been closed off to many of you. Not so today. You come from uncountably many walks of life, and …

You earned the right to be here! 

You are as accomplished as any student body at any public university in the state of Texas. 

Today, many of these fellow students are strangers to you, but they won’t be for long. You are about to embark on a wonderful journey of education during which you will learn from your classmates as well as from your teachers.

Let me tell you a story about our origins — a story decidedly about Dallas and the Metroplex. In the 1960s, the young company of Texas Instruments was doing groundbreaking work in electronics and geophysical sensing. 

Unfortunately, TI struggled to attract the talent that they needed in science and engineering to maintain their technological leadership. 

To address this shortfall, three visionary men — Eugene McDermott, Cecil Green and Erik Jonsson — established the Graduate Research Center of the Southwest. 

In time, this center became the Southwest Center for Advanced Studies, and then in 1969 …

“The growth of this university in the span of just two generations has been nothing short of spectacular, and I can assure you that UT Dallas will be measurably changed when you graduate a little after our 50th anniversary. More importantly, you will be measurably changed in those same years.”

Have I mentioned that year to you?

The University of Texas at Dallas was officially launched as a part of The University of Texas System in 1969. You, of course, see the McDermott, Green and Jonsson names everywhere on campus, and our first building, the Founders Building, honors all three. 

It is a rare university that is created out of industry. Far more common is to see a new industry arise from the breakthrough research at a university. We are a near-singular university that has been on both sides of this partnership.

The story of UT Dallas’ founding points to the fact that the best universities are not disconnected from the so-called “real world.”

By the way, I quite dislike that “real world” descriptor as designating a place outside of the university. I assure you that the education you will receive at UT Dallas will be as “real world” as it gets. 

Done at its best, industry, university and government all partner to do three important things:

  1. provide a first-rate education,
  2. conduct groundbreaking research on important problems, and
  3. improve the well-being of the community, state and nation.

Where might we find best exemplars of that tripartite mission? Perhaps Stanford in Silicon Valley comes to mind, or MIT in Boston. I should have at least one public university on this list, so let me also tip my hat to The University of Texas at Austin. 

My friends … new as we are …

UT Dallas is one of those exemplary schools! 

I know that the faculty and staff of this great university know how to make good on this tripartite mission, whether they have been here for 38 years or, like their new president, for only 38 days. Trust me, I did my homework before accepting this job! 

The students who have come before you have also contributed mightily to UT Dallas’ reputation.  But for those of you who are new, or relatively new, to the business of being a college student, let me share seven bits of advice to help you make the most of your years here.

1. Know that you are as smart as your teachers. 

However … you are not as knowledgeable …

And that is because your teachers have all had a huge head start. The good news is that you are at the height of your ability to learn, and your teachers stand ready to help you close the “knowledge gap.” We want to do this.  It is why we became teachers. It is our greatest reward.

2. Show up. 

faculty

Please show up! 

At the risk of stating the obvious … go to class. Go to office hours. Get to know your teachers. Sit in the front of the class. Ask and answer questions. Someone is paying good money for this fine education — very likely yourself — so make sure you get your money’s worth. 

Many of you are, for the first time in your lives, entirely on your own. Establish good work habits now, and extract every ounce of learning that is available to you at this extraordinary university. 

By the way, your parents agree with me!

3. Recognize that there is no waking hour when you cannot be learning. 

I like to ask graduates how much value they would have received from their college experience if we stripped away everything but the in-class experience. They are horrified by the thought. 

To our newest students, please know that every space on this campus is a potential learning space, and every person — that includes your fellow students — is a potential teacher.

I am as much of a fan of online courses as anyone, but nothing can beat the fertile learning environment of a residential campus like UT Dallas.

4. Embrace the diversity of campus.

You are about to make friends with many scholars who have vastly different life experiences than you. Learn from them, and share your story, too. This also applies to the diversity of ideas. Allow yourself to be challenged.   Present your own arguments when you feel strongly about a matter, but always do so in a respectful way. It is OK to hold your ground in a dorm room debate but, as a rule-of-thumb, if you never change your mind on any topic then it is a safe bet that you are not learning and you are not growing intellectually.

5. Prepare for more than a job. 

Mind you, this is a long-serving engineering dean giving you this advice. But, I also stand before you as a one-time engineering student who took two elective courses in music, two in art, one on Shakespeare, and one on the history of China and Japan. There has hardly been a day since then that I have not thought back to something that I learned in those electives.

As a student, I benefited from my love of music as a half-way decent trumpet player. I performed — and sometimes earned a little income — in big bands and pit orchestras. Think of the horn-friendly sound of Chicago or the musical West Side Story

I grew close to those folks sitting behind the music stands, and launched some of the most enduring friendships of my life.

At UTD we have outstanding professional and pre-professional degree programs that will prepare you, if you wish, for careers in business, engineering, law and medicine. Nevertheless, don’t let it become the entire scope of your educational inquiry. 

You are surrounded by brilliant people at UTD who are passionate about their work in the arts, humanities, sciences, and other disciplines. Learn from them and from fellow students very different from yourself. Build the sorts of friendships that will last for the rest of your lives.    

6. Be creative. 

Seek out open-ended research and design projects. You will have no shortage of courses that are largely objective in nature, where the exam questions have clear-cut answers. I had a colleague who once referred to such courses as “vegetables,” in the sense that …

faculty

You have to eat your vegetables before eating “dessert.” 

The creative elements of research and design are indeed “sweet,” and every curriculum at UTD will contain elements of creative synthesis based on your fundamental understanding. 

My advice to you is not to wait until your senior year to get to this fun stuff. Look for opportunities to work on an extracurricular design project or to provide a helping hand in one of our many research labs. I guess what I am saying is that … contrary to my friend’s advice …

It is OK to eat some sweets before you have finished your vegetables. 

7. Prepare for a lifetime of learning. 

My last bit of advice looks well past your time here. One of my favorite questions to ask of alumni groups is:

“How would you like to go about your business based on the skill set that you had when you graduated from college?”

Except from the most recent graduates, this is an alarming thought. It is not that their alma mater did not serve them well. Rather, it is because knowledge itself advances at a furious pace. 

For example, as I noted earlier, I did my undergraduate engineering work using a slide rule. On one of the early days of graduate school, I saw for the first time a TI calculator.

What a game-changer! Then and now, those folks at Texas Instruments knew something about pushing the envelope. 

Later, with an IBM Fellowship, I wrote a well-received doctoral dissertation on an exotic data-storage device of the future. You may have heard of it …

It’s called the “floppy disk.”  

I tell these stories on myself because it drives home the fact that we need to always be students in order to experience a long and enriching life. This isn’t just about core professional pursuits. Think about the writers, musicians, artists, political leaders and business leaders that have come into our lives since I was a college student. 

When I graduated from college with my wonderfully fine education, I hadn’t yet:

Watch for these people in the years ahead. Learn from these people. Best of all, be one of these people.  

So, pulling these seven points together:

Finally, as a special favor to my Space-Race generation, we would be most impressed by, and most indebted to your generation if … someday … one of you would …

Go for a walk on the moon!                       Whoooooosh!