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Commencement Addresses

Perspectives on Change

  • Date: 03/27/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: STARS Conference
  • Thank you, Doctor Goggins, for your kind introduction.

    It is my privilege and pleasure to be speaking to such a wonderful gathering of young scholars and researchers.

    As I consider your research efforts and your activities at this conference, I feel fortunate to be among colleagues (younger colleagues of course, but still colleagues) . . .

    I feel fortunate to be among people who are thoughtful, knowledgeable, and curious . . .

    . . . people who will, I am sure, appreciate a few thoughts on the subject of change.

    An editorial in the Atlantic Journal had this to say about "change":

    I quote,

    "The world is too big for us. Too much going on, too many crimes, too much violence and excitement.

    "Try as you will, you get behind in the race, in spite of yourself. Itâs an incessant strain to keep pace . . . and, still, you lose ground.

    "Science empties its discoveries on you so fast that you stagger beneath them in hopeless bewilderment . . .

    "Everything is high pressure. Human nature can't endure much more." (End of quote.)

    This editorial represents a popular point of view today. But you need to know that the words I just read you were published in 1833, 166 years ago!

    While change is the one constant and central theme in all of human history, change also is seen by many as something to be avoided.

    Somehow, the prospect of change, of innovation, and of going after opportunities always seems to raise a sense of excitement and, simultaneously, a sense of risk.

    For some, risk becomes anxiety. And quite often, even in academic circles, anxiety leads to "analysis paralysis" . . . a condition whereby a problem or opportunity is analyzed without action, or is simply ignored, until it passes you by or becomes intolerable.

    But remember that risk and anxiety are two quite different conditions.

    A simple story will illustrate the point:

    The Surgeon General tells us that cigarettes kill more than 150-thousand Americans each year, and automobiles on our highways kill more than 50-thousand people per year. But, nobody seems to be afraid of cigarettes or automobiles.

    However, according to the Deputy Director of the National Institutes of Health, everyone is afraid of sharks.

    The Navy says that there are about 50 shark attacks worldwide each year. The National Bureau of Health Statistics doesn't even keep a record of shark attacks because there are so few.

    (They know how many people are killed by bee stings, but not shark bites.)

    The best guess is that sharks kill two or three people each year in the United States.

    But, the fact is that if you went to a crowded beach and shouted "shark" - everyone would race out of the water, jump into a car, light up a cigarette, and drive home!

    That's the difference between anxiety and risk.

    Each of us feels this way about various things and some activities in our society.

    Some of you may even feel this way about some aspects of your school or of your community.

    How nice it would be if we could put risk and anxiety into perspective, and move to better distinguish the "sharks" in our lives.

    Indeed, where reason and calm prevail, there is always optimism, and much that can be accomplished for the common good.

    So here we are in 1999, only a few months away from a new century . . . and a new millenium.

    All around us, the marketers and the media talk about the Year 2000 and speak of change as though we had just invented it.

    They speak of change as if something magical, or something distinctly different, is about to happen.

    And perhaps it is.

    Indeed, it is not that we have just "discovered" change, but that the speed of change is today so great that it is literally outpacing our social and organizational mechanisms for assimilating change.

    In his just published book, "Business at the Speed of Thought," Microsoft CEO Bill Gates writes, and I quote,

    "If the 1980s were about quality and the 1990s were about re-engineering, then the 2000s will be about velocity."

    And last Tuesdayâs Wall Street Journal carried an editorial by Andy Kessler, where he says,

    "The knowledge economy insists on speed.

    "As technology and communication speed up the flow of information in every business, instant analysis becomes critical.

    "Just figuring out how to cope is an interesting exercise."

    Thinking about life and change moving at a faster pace is mind-boggling to us (much as it was in 1833!)

    Think about the changes our country has seen just in the past 30 years or so with the advent of computers.

    The rate of progress continues to rise exponentially . . .

    . . . so fast, in fact, that we have to "construct artful analogies" . . . because that is the only way to . . . "comprehend the explosive acceleration of speed and capacity" . . . of our technology.

    Consider this analogy from the Washington Post: "If the airplane had advanced as far and as fast as the computer, todayâs jumbo jet would carry 100-thousand passengers, and it would fly them to the moon and back for $12.50 at 23,400 miles per hour."

    What if the automobile had advanced at the same rate as the computer?

    "We could today buy a Rolls Royce for a dollar and drive around the world on a gallon of gas."

    And, here is my favorite of all! What if education also had advanced as far and as fast as the computer?

    ". . . A high school or college education . . . which still takes 12 and four years respectively to complete at an average cost for either of about $60-thousand . . . could today be completed in less than 10 minutes for about 5 cents!"

    The computer has evolved so far and so fast that one observer has suggested that, in the last 40 years, the computer has evolved as far or further than life itself has in its first 2 billion years!

    (O.B. Hardison, Jr.)

    Imagine what will happen during your lifetime.

    Imagine what will happen if you prepare yourselves with advanced graduate education.

    But, while technological progress is advancing at a staggeringly unprecedented rate, change is actively resisted.

    We humans seem to prefer stability, preservation, conservation, or whatever you may call the antithesis of change.

    The mere mention of "change" brings the sharks to a frenzy.

    In fact entire human organizations, bureaucracies, have been created to prevent change, to uphold the status quo.

    And, so intent are they, that they would preserve the status quo until there is no further status in the quo.

    But, here is where you come in . . . where opportunities lie.

    Because there is much, indeed, that all of us can contribute . . .

    Much that each of you will contribute . . .

    . . . Especially if you become agents of change by pursuing a graduate degree.

    Knowledge will enable you.

    Knowledge will make you unafraid and, indeed, a positive agent of change.

    In this regard, I offer you only one piece of advice:

    Pursue change relentlessly, but pursue change based on what you know, not on popular opinions.

    And you gain that knowledge through education.

    We live in a time when we are bombarded by opinions, rather than facts. We face an information explosion, but we must not confuse information or opinion with knowledge.

    Education enables us to weigh the risks inherent in opportunity and, thereby, to change for the better.

    Indeed, education serves as the infrastructure of our society in the emerging knowledge economy.

    Education is infrastructure, because through research, it creates the ideas and technologies that shape the industries of the future.

    Education is infrastructure, because through the engagement of students, it creates knowledgeable individuals that shape our industries and our societies.

    Education is infrastructure, because it enables both personal and economic progress.

    Education enables us to not only cope with change but to create it.

    And, as young scholars and researchers, as educated people, you can be agents of change.

    You can welcome the new millenium of high-speed change and opportunity.

    You can help shape the trends of the future.

    I thank you for your attention . . .

    . . . and extend to you my best wishes for your future endeavors.

    And, most of all, I encourage you to be cheerful, and plunge ahead!

    Thank you.

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