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Commencement Addresses

Assessing Risk and Opportunity

  • Date: 12/15/2001
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: UA Commencement (a.m.), E. J. Thomas Performing Arts Hall
  • As graduates, a world of discoveries lies at your doorstep, a world of opportunities, a world of choices.

    You must understand that every choice involves an element of risk, and that it is education that enables you to weigh the risks inherent in opportunity. Indeed, the rational process of risk-taking is what drives contemporary society.
    (Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk, October 1996)

    There is a whole science of risk, and I hope you will study it and learn from it.

    Playing it safe is not the answer.

    Playing it safe is what John F. Kennedy once called a "comfortable inaction."

    Playing it safe is analysis paralysis.

    Indeed, the safe road is often the road to mediocrity; it means regression towards the mean; and an unwillingness to take a risk can be risky in itself, because if you do not ask, if you do not try, the answer is always NO!

    Political satirist Will Rogers used to say that sometimes you have to go out on a limb, because that's where you'll find the fruit.

    And any seasoned risk-taker will tell you, that while the limbs get thinner the farther out you go, so does the competition!

    As such, you might well ask why so much of our social structure focuses on "reducing risk," or preventing us from taking a risk again in the future.

    Policies, for example, are written to prevent us from doing something that failed once.

    Policies, as a colleague of mine once said, "make cowards of us all."
    (F.C. Davison, former president, University of Georgia)

    Briefly, let me tell you about two risk-takers from unrelated endeavors, from different times, and from different parts of the world - individuals who were willing to step far out on the limb - one in Cape Town, South Africa; the other in Akron, Ohio. Each found that lucky choices were forced upon them, and they took a risk at each step along the way to success.

    First, is the late Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who died just a few months ago.

    As you may know, Dr. Barnard was the first to perform a heart transplant operation in 1967.

    That may seem like ancient history to some of you, but Barnard took a tremendous risk back in 1967. For one thing, prevailing medical ethics of the time opposed the procedure, and, for another, heart transplants contained as many medical, as legal risks.

    Dr. Barnard, in one of those lucky choices, found himself working in Cape Town, South Africa - luckily away from legal restraints in other countries, and the potential charges he could face in places that considered a person to be alive as long as the heart was beating.
    (The Economist, September 8, 2001, p. 93)

    Dr. Barnard's pioneering surgery led to many lively debates in the media; for example, people at the time asked: Did this procedure actually save lives, or "did it debase humans into a mere collection of spare parts for other humans?"
    (Theodore Dalrymple, The Wall Street Journal, September 5, 2001)

    Certainly, the current debate on cloning seems ironically familiar.

    The operation was deemed a success, and Dr. Barnard's risk-taking paved the way for what is considered today to be an almost routine operation.

    Reflecting back on his success, Dr. Barnard said: "The heart transplant wasn't such a big thing surgically. The technique was a basic one. The point is that I was prepared to take the risk. My philosophy is that the biggest risk in life is not to take a risk."
    (Generations Section, Time, September 2001, p. G6)

    Closer to home, let us examine another man, a man who we recognize today with an honorary doctorate degree, Mr. Alex Arshinkoff, Chairman of the Summit County Republican Party and former Chair of The University of Akron's Board of Trustees.

    While not a heart surgeon, he certainly is the heart of the Summit County Republican Party.

    Alex Arshinkoff made his first run for office at age 18, while a student at The University of Akron, seeking election to the City Council's 5th Ward in Akron.

    Alex won the endorsement of the Akron Beacon Journal and competed against an incumbent. He lost the race, but he set another ambitious and risky goal - namely, to become chairman of the Summit County Republican Party.

    And he did! At age 23, he became one of the youngest county Republican chairmen in Ohio and probably the entire country.

    And in an interesting twist of the paradigm of age and experience, at age 23, Alex succeeded Gene Waddell as party chairman; while this year, Mr. Waddell succeeded Alex as chairman of the University's Board of Trustees.

    There were some in the Republican Party who thought Alex was too young to be chairman, and tried to persuade him to take over administrative duties at the party headquarters. However, Alex did not want to be an administrator; he wanted to be chairman. He took the risk and won the vote of the executive committee.

    It was a risk worth taking, because today, 25 years later, Alex Arshinkoff is considered to be the leading county party chairman in Ohio, if not the United States, and that won him an invitation to the White House earlier this week.

    And so, you see, risk is a part of everyday life.

    Through your education, you have learned to assess risk, to evaluate it in your daily endeavors, and to know something of your odds for success or failure, and to proceed calmly with the informed assurance given you by your education.

    Walter J. Hickel, former Governor of Alaska once said to me that if you dream big and little dreams, you will experience big and little successes. But if you dream only little dreams, you will never have big successes and only a few little ones.
    (Walter J. Hickel, in conversation with the author, ca. 1992, when he was Governor of Alaska)

    So, dream big, think big, and do big things.

    Dream, and dare, and do what it takes to change the world.

    Take a risk!

    Because risk comes with a clear guarantee - a guarantee of knowing that, win or lose, you tried.

    Because if you don't ask; If you don't try, the answer is always, NO!

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