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Thomas Friedman Challenges Graduates To Shape the World With Creativity, Innovation

May 19, 2007

Thomas Friedman Challenges Graduates To Shape the World With Creativity, Innovation

Thomas Friedman delivers the 2007 Commencement address

Thomas Friedman delivers the 2007 Commencement address.

Photo by Rensselaer/Kris Qua

Author and columnist addresses more than 1,470 students at Rensselaer’s 201st Commencement

Troy, N.Y. — Emerging scientists, mathematicians, and engineers will play a critical role in the future success of the United States, Thomas Friedman told the graduating Class of 2007 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times and best-selling author of The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century addressed nearly 1,500 graduating students and their families May 19 at Rensselaer’s 201st Commencement on the Harkness Field.

The greatest challenge currently facing the United States, Friedman said, is determining how to maintain a standard of living that can provide good jobs, health care, and basic needs to Americans while setting an example of a free society to the rest of the world. To remain the great nation it is today, the United States needs to remain at the forefront of technology and vigorously pursue solutions to help energize and educate a changing world.

“That will not happen without a new generation of math, science, and engineering students to replace the one that is now coming to retirement age,” Friedman told the Class of 2007. “So what you do with the skills you learned here — the small and big inventions you make, the businesses you start, the scientific or medical breakthroughs you contribute to — really matters.”

The situation is amplified by the rapid advancement of China, India, and the former Soviet Union, he said. As the citizens of these countries pursue their own versions of the American dream and look to purchase cars and furnish their homes with new appliances, Friedman said the global demand for energy will skyrocket at an unprecedented rate.

The challenge and burden of discovering how to power these vehicles and appliances, and how to do so in a way that does not contribute to climate change or further destruction of the environment, falls to Rensselaer’s Class of 2007 and other budding scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs, he said.

Friedman also highlighted the importance of the liberal arts, “because the imagination that gives birth to great ideas, product designs, and intellectual breakthroughs, often happens when people who have mastered two or more quite different fields use the framework of one to think about the other,” he said.

“What you do with what you learned here is also going to determine the quality of our lives, not just our income levels,” Friedman told the graduates. “Quite simply, in a world of rising population, rising energy demands, and rising climate change, we will not be able to remotely enjoy the quality of life we have today if scientists and engineers do not enable us to do more things with less stuff.

“If we cannot find a way to fuel the dreams of developing countries in a cleaner, greener way, we are going to heat up, choke up, smoke up, and burn up this planet to a degree that will make [Hurricane] Katrina look like a spring shower,” he said. “That is why what you do, and what you contribute, how you enable us to do more things with less stuff… less waste, and less energy, really matters.”

Friedman’s call to action echoed many of the ideas he put forward in The World Is Flat, where he devotes a chapter to what Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson has called the “Quiet Crisis” in America — the threat to our nation’s capacity to innovate posed by a looming shortage in the science and technology workforce. Both Jackson and Friedman also have highlighted global energy security as the defining issue of our time — the “space race” of the 21st century.

But today’s graduates are armed with the tools and technology to help overcome this crisis and breathe new life into American ingenuity, Friedman said. The Internet is helping to “flatten the world,” and knowledge that was once only accessible by governments and corporations is now available to any individual with a computer, he said, giving the example of a 15-year-old girl in Romania who will download the entire human genome to her iPod.

“In the future, the most important competition is the one between you and your own imagination,” Friedman told the Class of 2007. And once someone arrives at a new idea, the Internet makes it easier than ever to start a business, raise funds, conduct public outreach, or become an activist.

“When the world is this flat, with this many distributed tools of innovation, what you will imagine is going to matter so much more because you can now act on your imagination, as individuals, so much faster, farther, deeper, and cheaper.

“This kind of activism and entrepreneurship is so easy, so cheap, and so readily available to even the smallest player, that I would throw down this gauntlet to you, the Class of 2007: If it’s not happening, it’s because you’re not doing it,” he said. “There is no one else in the way.”

Friedman’s other books include The Lexus and the Olive Tree and From Beirut to Jerusalem, for which he received the National Book Award for nonfiction in 1989. He joined The New York Times in 1981 and has served in many different capacities including Beirut bureau chief, Israel bureau chief, and chief White House correspondent. He has won three Pulitzer Prizes for his columns.

President Jackson commended Friedman as “one of the wisest observers of the world stage,” and for using his rare eloquence to clarify some of the most complex issues of our time, awaken a new economic and political awareness, and help re-energize America’s culture of innovation.

“Take risks, have courage,” President Jackson urges graduates
In her address to the Class of 2007, President Jackson applauded graduates for taking advantage of resources available to them at Rensselaer in order to meet various academic, scientific, entrepreneurial, personal, and artistic challenges. Looking forward to the future, she stressed the need for graduates to continue this culture of rising to the occasion by seizing and creating opportunity.

“You are literate. You are brilliant. You are knowledgeable, and knowledge-based enterprise is key to helping to build the kind of life you will want to build for your families, to keeping our nation secure and strong, to tackling global challenges,” Jackson said.   

In addition to rich understanding of a specific academic discipline, meeting tomorrow’s challenges will require individuals to foster a multicultural sophistication, a global view, and intellectual agility, she said. Embracing different perspectives and reaching across multiple disciplines will help spur innovative, creative solutions to global issues including literacy levels, public health, affordable energy, and access to food and clean water.

“I am confident that you will lead wisely and boldly, with the knowledge you have gained here, with your spirit of discovery, with your creativity and your imaginations, and with your commitment to build a better world,” Jackson said. “Today, I challenge you to dare, to take risks, to have courage, to work for a better future. Because it now is in your hands.”

Class President Hannah Kim applauds philanthropic spirit
Class President Hannah Kim shared with the crowd fond memories of the Class of 2007’s “1,364-day” journey to Commencement. She spoke of shared experiences such as adjusting to life in residence halls, securing work-study jobs, and joining sports teams.

As juniors, the class came together and sharpened its focus to help combat national issues. Kim recalled the energy of her classmates when welcoming more than 200 students from Tulane University, Xavier University of Louisiana, and Loyola University who were uprooted by Hurricane Katrina and given a temporary academic home at Rensselaer.

Kim also applauded the Class of 2007 for helping to jumpstart Rensselaer’s first-ever Relay for Life, which raised $140,000 to support the medical community’s fight against cancer.

“Take a moment and think about all that you have accomplished at this place,” Kim said. “The class of 2007 will leave a deep-rooted imprint on the campus. We leave behind a legacy of a philanthropic spirit and we should be proud of that as we begin the next chapter of our lives as alumni.”

Honorary degrees bestowed upon distinguished guests
In addition to delivering the Commencement address, Thomas Friedman received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. Rensselaer also conferred honorary degrees on Mae Jemison and Don Hewitt.

Jemison, who received an honorary degree of Doctor of Engineering, was the first African-American woman to travel in space. She also is a medical doctor, professor, and founder of two technology companies that focus on creating advanced technologies for the developing world. Decorated with a wide variety of awards, Jemison is a well-known advocate of science literacy, sustainable development, and employing new technology to benefit all people of all nations.

Hewitt, who received an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, is a pioneering television producer with more than 50 years of experience at CBS News. He is best known as the creator of the groundbreaking weekly news program 60 Minutes, which debuted in 1968. He served as executive producer of the program for 36 years, and he continues his association with the show in an advisory role. Hewitt is the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Emmy, presented by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

Archived Webcast of the Commencement ceremony

Text of Commencement Speech

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About Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Founded in 1824, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is America’s first technological research university. Rensselaer encompasses five schools, 32 research centers, more than 145 academic programs, and a dynamic community made up of more than 7,600 students and more than 100,000 living alumni. Rensselaer faculty and alumni include more than 145 National Academy members, six members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, six National Medal of Technology winners, five National Medal of Science winners, and a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. With nearly 200 years of experience advancing scientific and technological knowledge, Rensselaer remains focused on addressing global challenges with a spirit of ingenuity and collaboration.