"Let Your Minds Carry You Towards the Future"

The Australian National University
Canberra, Australia
July 16, 2010


Chancellor Evans, Vice-Chancellor Chubb, Pro Vice-Chancellor Stanton, members of the Council, members of the university, distinguished guests, graduates, ladies and gentlemen.

Let me also acknowledge my beloved wife Laurie Burns McRobbie who, I am delighted, is with me here today.

As a graduate of the Australian National University (ANU), I am deeply grateful to the university for bestowing this great honor upon me, and I mark this as one of the moments of greatest distinction in my life. My late wife Andrea and I arrived in Canberra in January of 1975 after completing our first degrees at the University of Queensland, she to commence work in the public service, and I to begin a PhD at ANU. I never imagined I would arrive back in Canberra thirty-five years later in this capacity.

Vice-Chancellor, I know you have announced your retirement from your position. But as an alumnus, I would like to publically acknowledge the great achievements of your vice-chancellorship. You have renewed and reinvigorated ANU’s status as one of the world’s great universities and a university of singular and unique importance in Australia. Your record in establishing new academic directions and structures for ANU, and in creating new facilities is possibly unparalleled since the founding of this great institution.

I also want to acknowledge your vital role in establishing our joint ANU-IU Pan Asia Institute. This institute, which spans two continents, combines some of the very best expertise in the study of Asia at both our universities. Without your far-sighted and enthusiastic support, it would not have been established.

A great era of internationalization of higher education is dawning. And I know we both believe that the Pan Asia Institute is a window into this future—a future of new global academic structures that combine the very best intellectual resources of the finest universities in the world to open remarkable new education and research opportunities for students and scholars.

I would also like to acknowledge one of my oldest friends and colleagues, ANU Pro Vice-Chancellor Robin Stanton. There was no one I worked with more closely in my thirteen years on the faculty at ANU. His loyalty and decency are beyond reproach, and I owe him a great debt. His contributions to the university, especially in information technology and internationally, have been enormous, and he is a truly great university citizen.

Arriving at ANU

I still remember arriving in Canberra and at ANU in that hot Australian summer of 1975. I had come to ANU for a conference the previous year and had been dazzled by the beauty of the campus and the brilliance of the intellectual environment. I resolved then and there to move to ANU for my PhD. In all, I spent 17 years of my life here.

I had a wonderful education at ANU and then a highly productive research and administrative career. I am proud of all that Robin and I, our good friend and colleague John O’Callaghan, then at CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization), who I am delighted is here today, as well as many others achieved during this time. What success I have had in the United States was forged, in part, in the crucible of those years at ANU. I owe a particular debt of gratitude to three great men now all sadly dead. I hope, Chancellor, you will allow me to briefly acknowledge them.

I learned mathematical logic from my PhD supervisor Professor Robert K. Meyer, and he first kindled my interest in computing. He was the heart and soul of the incomparable and renowned ANU logic group. In academic life, one regularly meets numerous highly intelligent people, but one meets few geniuses. Bob was one of those few. His brilliance and extraordinary creativity were of a level of sustained excellence one is lucky to see once in a lifetime.

I also had the privilege to work for two of the finest university administrators I have ever known: Professor Ian Ross, then ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Paul Bourke, Director of the then Research School of Social Sciences. Though different in style, both made vital contributions at critical times in ANU’s history that have a direct bearing on the university’s greatness today. I learned an immense amount from both of them and greatly admired their courage, their skill, their commitment to excellence, and their deep integrity as administrators.

Education and Change

And each of you who graduates today will have your own list of those at ANU who have influenced you over the years: professors who have guided your education, prepared you for a world of change, and instilled in you the crucial intellectual skills to adapt to, benefit from, and lead that change. For if there is likely to be one constant in your lives, it will be change.

Many members of this graduating class were born in 1989. That year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that marked the end of the Cold War, which had dominated the world since the end of the Second World War.

In the ensuing decade, a spirit of optimism swept the world that “perpetual peace,” in Immanuel Kant’s famous phrase, would reign and that globalization would bring world-wide prosperity. This mood of buoyant optimism reached perhaps its zenith in Francis Fukuyama’s claim in his 1992 book that history had “ended,” that global political and social change was over, and that liberal democracy would sweep the world.

The political, economic, and technological advances of that decade were truly astounding. But as the first decade of the new century dawned, the spirit of unconstrained optimism was tempered by the reality of continuing and unexpected change.

The information technology revolution has brought enormous productivity and economic growth to millions. But the year 2000 saw the bursting of the dot com bubble, which turned out to be but a rehearsal for the severe recession of 2008 from which the world is only now beginning to recover.

This decade has seen China and India become global economic powers, but the forces that have led to this have, in part, also led to our current economic difficulties. And we have seen the seemingly inexorable rise of the European Union as a world economic power falter on the Greek debt crisis.

The early part of this decade saw the emergence of terrorism globally. And this threat reminds us that what all of us here today see as progress and the essence of modernity is seen by others as a threat to their beliefs.

The Internet and rapid cheap air travel have been powerful engines of change that are, in part, driving globalization, but the first remains vulnerable to cyber crime, while the second is vulnerable to acts of nature and humankind.

So while on the one hand globalization is bringing unprecedented prosperity and progress to nearly every corner of the world, it will always be accompanied by continuing and unexpected change.

Preparation for a World of Change

As graduates of the Australian National University, you have had an education that has prepared you to contribute in far-reaching and remarkable ways to the prosperity and progress of this nation and the world. That education also provides you with the skills to adapt to, and prosper, in the face of unexpected, rapid, and global change.

As ANU graduates, you have received an education at one of the finest universities in the world, a university upon which Australians can look proudly as one of this nation’s greatest post-War achievements. ANU was established in 1946 to, in then Minister Dedman’s words, “bring credit to Australia, advance the cause of learning and research in general, and take its rightful place amongst the great universities of the world.” 1

With Nobel Laureates, tens of thousands of graduates, dozens of buildings housing some of this nation’s most advanced research facilities, this university has achieved the dreams of its founders in the fullest measure in the space of just sixty-four years. But the great traditions of liberal education upon which this university was founded reach back much further than those sixty-four years.

Your education—in its depth and breadth—has its roots in a tradition most eloquently described and defended by John Henry, Cardinal Newman in his great work The Idea of a University, written over a century ago. This is a university education that plumbs the depth and spans the breadth of human knowledge. It is an education that hones the skills of analysis and discrimination. This is a training, as Newman wrote, that develops “habit[s] of mind which last . . . through life.” 2

Whether you pursue careers in business, the professions, or academia as technologists, researchers, scientists, medical practitioners, or engineers, this education will enable you to remain flexible, open to unexpected directions of thought and action.

It will enable you to work collaboratively with people from diverse backgrounds, responding with speed and knowledge to changing circumstances.

It will enable you to think analytically, synthesizing information from many different areas to generate solutions to unforeseen and challenging problems.

And it is an education that enables the creativity required to create new industries, new science, new art, and new understandings of the very nature of existence.

To Our Alma Mater

And today is not the end of that education, nor should it be the end of your connection to this great university. American theologian Samuel Miller once wrote to his sons in college that “[t]he first duty which every alumnus of a college owes to his Alma Mater is to recognize his obligation to her, and to cherish those sentiments of respect, veneration, and gratitude, to which she is entitled at his hands. This obligation,” Miller continued, “is real and deep, and ought ever to be remembered and acknowledged.” 3

As the world changes around you, what remains steadfast are the bonds you have forged here at ANU. It is my hope that all of you will acknowledge, remember, and reinforce those bonds by staying involved in the life of this great university.

This is not a simple appeal for charity but a recognition of the spirit that resides at the heart of the American system of higher education and makes it the best in the world.

As the leader of one of America’s finest universities, I have been able to observe that spirit closely over many years and have found that at its core are the highly engaged, dedicated alumni who are one of that system’s vital and enduring strengths. Indiana University has 80,000 members in our alumni association, out of over 500,000 living alumni. Our endowment, to which our alumni contribute generously, is approaching $1.5 billion.

This kind of support gives us a measure of independence from external pressures of various kinds and allows innovation to be vigorously pursued in ways difficult for others elsewhere in the world.

Engagement with and support for their alma mater, then, are the key ways in which graduates can strengthen the bonds they have formed over the years. Alumni engagement has proven to be essential to the strength of American higher education, and hence of the American economy.

Such engagement can also, with the support of graduates like you, become an even greater part of the strength of Australian higher education, and hence of the Australian nation.

By giving back you will recognize that education enriches the lives not only of those who receive but also of those who give. It is a gift that reflects a profound sense of hope for our future: the hope that our children will have better lives; the hope that we can make a difference.

Conclusion: The Human Mind Got Us This Far

The great Australian critic Clive James once wrote, “It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition.”4

Consider that.

It was your mind that got you this far, a mind honed by years of study, analysis, and reflection; a mind trained in the skills of argument and discernment; a mind ready for a world of change.

And it is your mind that will carry each of you forward towards frontiers of knowledge and innovation; towards horizons of discovery and possibility; towards constantly evolving landscapes of change.

When I studied here at ANU those many years ago, I never would have imagined the doors my education here would open for me.

Graduates, you now stand before those open doors.

Let your minds carry you towards your futures.

Thank you very much.

Source Notes

  1. Official Hansard. Australian Parliamentary Debates. Volume 187, Session 1945-46. 17th Parliament, Second Session. “Australian National University Bill, 1946.” Mr. J.J. Dedman, Minister for Post-war Reconstruction. Second Reading Speech, 19 June 1946. Page 1567. Special thanks to Jan O’Connor, Head of the Council and Boards Secretariat at the Australian National University for providing a copy of this document.
  2. Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University defined and illustrated. Notre Dame, Indiana: U of Notre Dame P, 1960. Page 76.
  3. Miller, Samuel. Letters from a Father to His Sons in College. Philadelphia: Grigg and Elliot, 1843. Pages 301-2.
  4. James, Clive. Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts. New York and London: Norton, 2007. Page 851.