"A Legacy of Learning"

Graduate Commencement Ceremony
Indiana University
Assembly Hall
May 7, 2010

Introduction: Intellectual Fires

In 1917, William Faunce, the President of Brown University, described what makes a great teacher. He said that “[w]hile buildings may grow and campus[es] may extend and equipment may increase, it will still always be that vital thing that will make the great teacher, the personality behind the desk that kindles … minds into flame. And then the fire spreads. It … runs through a college as fire through dry forests.”1

That intellectual fire and ambition have brought each of you here today, as we gather for the time-honored ceremony of graduation.

Today, as you join the distinguished ranks of Indiana University alumni, each one of you is extending the outstanding traditions of educational excellence that have been a hallmark of this great university for nearly two centuries.

A Personal Reflection

It has been some time since I was in your seat during my own graduate studies. Back then it was rare for undergraduates to do genuine research; one had a sense of what was involved but from afar. But I remember vividly when I began my years as a graduate student for suddenly I became a partner in the research enterprise for the first time. Like you, I was expected to grapple with problems for which no one knew the solutions, but finding those solutions would mean genuine progress. Whether incremental or fundamental, that progress added to the understanding of a field and to human knowledge.

I was lucky to be mentored by some truly great researchers for whom solving such problems and gaining greater understanding was all-important and all consuming. One of these researchers, incidentally, was Dr. Mike Dunn, IU’s founding Dean of the School of Informatics. The research we pursued dominated the lives of the faculty and my fellow students with whom I worked day and night.

And I still remember the enormous thrill and sense of accomplishment that I felt when I first solved an open problem. It was frankly utterly exhilarating.

Regardless of your discipline, I am sure that all of you have experienced the sense of accomplishment and achievement—that sense of exhilaration—that comes from extending yourselves into new areas and making new contributions to human knowledge. Each of you has been a partner in the enterprise of research and scholarship to which so many of you, I am sure, will make lasting and memorable contributions. And each of you has focused with great intellectual intensity and rigor on mastering the advanced training in your field with an education of the highest quality—one that will enable you to make contributions of lasting value to the prosperity and well-being of society.

Individual Stories

And each of you will recall the professors who have become your mentors and guides: professors who have passed along their own intense and detailed training; professors who responded with enthusiasm and interest to your ideas and provided direction when you needed it.

For example, Rashawn Ray, who is graduating today with his doctorate in Sociology, credits the extraordinary mentorship of his dissertation co-chairs Pamela Braboy Jackson and Brian Powell, who helped train him to be an independent and rigorous researcher and scholar. Rashawn himself received the Graduate Student Mentor of the Year Award from the Sociology Department in 2008.

Ben Flor, a Kelley MBA graduate, describes Dr. Don Kuratko as his academic mentor at the Kelley School of Business, helping create a collaborative student culture and encouraging his students to follow their own entrepreneurial ambitions.

Scott Michael, who completed his doctorate in Astronomy, describes his dissertation director Professor Durisen as “the most understanding, patient and kind mentor [he] could imagine,”—one whose flexibility enabled Scott to pursue his interests in computer science and data management while working on his degree.

Linda Johnson, who only moments ago delivered the invocation for this ceremony, just completed her doctorate in Education.

Linda describes her mentors—Drs. Anya P. Royce, John Bean, Bradley Levinson, Margaret Sutton, Mary McMullen, Donald Hossler, and Moya Andrews—as agents of transformation. As Linda puts it, “They are precious gems of Indiana University because they refract wisdom and scholarship through outstanding research, commitment to civility, the practice of virtue, and service to others.”

And at 9:00 a.m. this morning, Dawn O’Neal defended her dissertation in biology for her doctorate. Dawn studies bird migration in response to climate change with Distinguished Professor Ellen Ketterson, who was recently elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Dawn says that Dr. Ketterson “shaped her into the scientist she is, always pushing her to explore every question from every angle and back up all of her conclusions with solid scientific thinking.” Dawn was selected a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow and recently received an NSF post-graduate fellowship.

IU’s Outstanding Faculty and Their Legacy

Of course, these are just five of the over two thousand graduate students who are joining the ranks of IU alumni today.

And at the heart of each of their stories is a fire of discovery kindled by an outstanding professor—professors like Emilio Moran, who was elected to the National Academy of Sciences just weeks ago, professors like Mike Dunn and Jaime Laredo, who were named members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last month, and professors like Susan Gubar, Distinguished Professor of English who recently retired after a pathbreaking career, which included directing 32 dissertations.

These and many other outstanding faculty members teach and guide, cajole and prod, celebrate and encourage, all with the knowledge that you, their students, are the next generation who will do the same.

As each of you knows, their influence stretches well beyond the classroom, the laboratory, and the stage, into hallways, offices, and conferences the world over. It includes chance encounters at the library, in the gym, and even at the grocery store, encounters that might spark an idea or resolve a problem. And such possibilities extend well into the future when you, our graduates, become professors, doctors, lawyers, business people, scholars, and mentors yourselves, passing along the lessons that you have learned.

You will carry on your professors’ legacy long after they have left the classroom, the laboratory, the stage, and every time you make an argument, teach a class, treat a patient, sign a deal—every time you perform—you will catch a glimpse of your professors in yourselves, hear their voices in yours, and you will remember your years here at Indiana University.

Conclusion: “The Best of What We Know”

Included in the long list of this university’s distinguished faculty is IU’s own Elinor Ostrom, who spoke just moments ago and who, like so many IU faculty members, has touched thousands of student lives.

Dr. Ostrom says, “We teach our students the best of what we know.”2

Today, we need only look around this grand assembly to see the results of that effort.

And tomorrow, may each of you carry the best of what we know—the best of Indiana University—into the future.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes


1. Faunce, William H.P. Speech on the Occasion of the 150th Anniversary of Rutgers College. Rutgers College: The Celebration of the one hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary of Its Founding as Queen’s College, 1766-1916. New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1717. Page 100.

2. Zagorski, Nick. “Profile of Elinor Ostrom.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 103.51 (19 Dec. 2006). <http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0609919103>.