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Commencement Addresses

Agents of Change

  • Date: 05/17/1999
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement, E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • Ladies and gentlemen, members of the class of 1999, we continue today an ancient tradition of assembling in formal convocation to recognize those who have reached significant milestones on the road to knowledge and accomplishment.

    And so we are gathered for this commencement together with graduates in the arenas of technology, education, and engineering.

    With no small measure of effort and self-discipline, you have learned to apply critical thinking and to use new information and new technologies, and, along the way, you have discovered that learning is a continuous process.

    But, why?

    As we sit here facing the end of the century . . . the end of a millennium . . . there is no shortage of self-appointed prophets of gloom and doom, who would have you believe the worst.

    "The Year 2000 is upon us," they say, as they incite our fears and assert that humankind is on a short road to ruination.

    Perhaps you, too, believe that Y2K will reap disaster...

    So, consider this...

    On Friday evening, during our honors convocation, I shared the following editorial from the Atlantic Journal. It reads as follows:

    "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. It's 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."

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

    Always, gloom and doom have been popular commodities, but never particularly useful ones.

    As Helen Keller said, "No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit."

    And so it is today. You are not facing an end; you are standing on the threshold of destiny.

    Think for a moment, on just how many destinies humankind has created in just this century!

    The last 100 years have seen the emergence of entirely new ways of life.

    It was December 17, 1903, that saw the start of the Aviation Industry, when Orville & Wilbur Wright -- both Ohioans -- went aloft at Kitty Hawk . . .

    . . . and it was 1947 when Bell Laboratories developed the transistor, and thus gave birth to what we now call the Microelectronics Industry . . .

    . . . and, just in your lifetime, the last 20 or 30 years, we have seen the emergence of biotechnology from a single demonstration to a full-fledged industry, an industry with the capacity to transform human medicine and, possibly, even life as we know it.

    And that is because, as the late Howard Schneiderman put it, biotechnology will eventually enable something truly splendid when "Humanity, using nature's own methods, will have learned to persuade nature to be a full partner in humanity's major enterprise -- civilization."

    Yes, in less than one century, little more than a dot on the vast timeline of human history, our world has changed dramatically.

    At the turn of the last millennium, there were no organized industries.

    At the turn of the last century, in 1899, some of our dominant industries were hardware, bicycles, and telegraphy. And more than half of us were still living on farms and involved in production agriculture.

    Today, in 1999, less than 2% of our population is involved in agriculture, and our dominant industries involve robotics, biotechnology, and wireless tele- communications.

    And, as we move into the 21st Century, we can already glimpse new technologies and new industries such as . . . nanotechnology, biomimicry, artificial intelligence,

    and many others.

    Yes, already technology has affected what you do, what you have yet to learn, and how rapidly other things are looming up on your radar screens.

    And the rate of progress continues to rise exponentially.

    So, imagine what will yet happen in your lifetime and think of the role that you can play in shaping your world . . .

    whether it is by teaching and guiding our young people in our educational enterprises;

    by applying technology in business and industry or in service to our community;

    or by designing and building the structures, processes and technologies for the 21st century in the new wave of engineering.

    Simply put, you have acquired the skills to become agents of change.

    Because of your education, you can now separate fact from fiction, knowledge from opinion and have thus been enabled to make sound, rational decisions. You have learned to think critically, to apply the scientific method and to ask questions.

    You have learned to communicate. . . to convey your ideas clearly, concisely, and persuasively.

    And you have learned to persevere in the face of obstacles. . . . and thus to take advantage of opportunity.

    You have learned, also, to use your imagination . . . to look at a problem from various and novel perspectives, to identify multiple solutions and related outcomes, and to imagine what can yet be.

    Just recently I was pleased to be with you at the All-Campus Recognition Dinner, which our student leaders organized to celebrate the many outstanding students at The University of Akron.

    It was an impressive gathering. But nothing so impressed me as the theme the students themselves chose for that evening:

    "Where leadership is your reward, and success is our tradition."

    What splendid words -- and how appropriate.

    I am so proud that they chose that theme to summarize their education at The University of Akron that I want to repeat it for you.

    "Where leadership is your reward, and success is our tradition."

    I am proud . . . because, at its core, education should empower people to lead and to succeed, regardless of the path they choose or the opportunity or challenge they face.

    And so, as you now go forward, may you find that leadership is its own reward, and that your success was enabled by this -- your college education.

    On behalf of the Trustees, the faculty, the staff and administration, your fellow students and The University of Akron family everywhere, I salute you, the Spring 1999 graduates, together with your family and friends who have helped make your success possible.


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