Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, June 20, 2001
John Hennessy:'I hope that you leave this campus with a strong reservoir of the Stanford spirit'

Following is the text of remarks given by President John Hennessy at Stanford's 110th Commencement on June 17, 2001.

Graduating students, faculty colleagues, former and present trustees, government officials, distinguished guests, family members and friends, I warmly welcome all of you to the 110th Commencement Exercises of Stanford University. I would also like to welcome former President William Jefferson Clinton and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and wish the former president and all of the fathers here today a happy Father's Day.

A special welcome to the seniors and to the graduate students from Stanford's various schools. Today, we shall award 1,768 bachelor's degrees, 2,132 master's degrees and 899 doctoral degrees.

The college Class of 2001 includes 363 seniors graduating with departmental honors and 266 graduating with university distinction; 156 students have satisfied the requirements of more than one major, 65 are graduating with dual bachelor's degrees, and 308 with both a bachelor's and a master's degree; 378 students have completed minors.

You may notice that I have started out this morning with a lot of numbers. Now before you jump to the conclusion that I do this because I am an engineer and computer scientist, let me say that this recitation of statistics is a Stanford tradition at our commencement ceremonies. And as such, it is one that I am proud to carry on.

Of course, every tradition was at one time or another new -- and hence not really a tradition. Some started as political or cultural responses to the stuffy traditions of the day -- but after a while they also become ingrained and sometimes even a bit antiquated. In its own strange way, even the Wacky Walk, which you just observed and which I am sure many of our guests find anything but traditional, has become a storied part of Stanford practice and lore. With the inventiveness of Stanford students, however, I doubt it will ever become "antiquated"!

This balancing of old and new, the innovative and the customary, has particular meaning to me this year, as it is my first commencement ceremony as president of Stanford. In fact, I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about how a university that was founded in the 19th century and attained excellence in the 20th century can continue to grow and be an educational and moral exemplar in the 21st century.

I have been surprised at how often, while trying to make terribly difficult decisions, I have stepped back and asked myself, "What would Jane and Leland Stanford or David Starr Jordan, our first president, have done in this situation? How can the principles and spirit put in place by the university's founders and its first president guide me in this seemingly insoluble dilemma?"

But here is the other interesting thing I have learned this year: Relying on tradition is not enough. No matter how visionary the founders were, they could not have begun to imagine the ways that our world would change in the ensuing years. So, in these trying situations, where every potential solution creates its own new set of problems, I often try to put myself in the position of the future members of the Stanford community, in the same way earlier generations of Stanford's leaders had to look forward and postulate how their decisions might affect us. Their leadership helped make Stanford the great institution it is today. I feel a similar obligation to future students, staff, faculty -- and, of course, future presidents!

These two influences are not as unrelated as they might first seem. Being a "university of high degree," as Jane and Leland Stanford intended, is not something that can be maintained by standing still. It requires us to retain the best of our past while reexamining and reinventing what we are doing. It requires us to be bold in launching new efforts and in seeking out new ways to build on the foundation of our predecessors.

I hope all of our graduating students leave today with a renewed spirit of boldness that is built upon the sound foundation laid by your families, friends and teachers. You may not be able to solve every problem you face, but I know that given the incredible support you've received from the people sitting behind you today, combined with the passion for knowledge you have cultivated at Stanford, you will accomplish much.

It is in this spirit that I invoke a very special Stanford commencement tradition. Graduating students, in the stands are many of those who have made your Stanford years possible: parents and grandparents, spouses and children; siblings, aunts and uncles; mentors and friends -- whoever played a role in helping you get to Stanford or in supporting and encouraging you once you were here. I invite you to please turn to the stands and join me in saying: "Thank you!"


Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you. You also have my deep thanks for the contributions you have made to our community of scholars during your time at Stanford. I also want to give a special thanks to Vice Provost Montoya, who is leaving us this summer after years of dedicated service to the university.

I would like to reflect for a few minutes on a phrase that has been repeated several times since this ceremony began. As each group of graduates was presented to me, I responded by conferring your degrees and admitting you to the "rights, responsibilities and privileges" that are associated with a degree granted by this university.

I think it is natural for most of us to concentrate on the rights and privileges that a Stanford degree confers on us. After all, you have worked extraordinarily hard to earn this degree. Your families and friends have no doubt made tremendous sacrifices to support you in this effort. You certainly deserve this day of celebration.

But what of the responsibilities that are required of you now that you have reached this milestone? You have given much of yourself to get here. But you have received much as well -- from your families, from your classmates and teachers, and from six generations of university supporters. Each of these groups has given you something: personal support when the road was steep, insight that helped you explore a new field, or financial support that helped ensure that Stanford could be here for you.

These gifts, I believe, create two primary obligations. The first is quite straightforward: Make good use of your education.

David Starr Jordan, in his farewell address to the Class of 1905, said some remarkable things in this regard. As I came across the remarks recently, I was amazed at how timely they still are.

"Whatever you have acquired," President Jordan told the graduates, "should be an impulse to action. If you have planned somewhat, then carry out your plans. If you have learned the nature of something, then turn your knowledge into execution. If you have gained higher aspirations and your hearts have been touched by a warmer glow, then your neighbors should feel the warmth. There is no virtue in knowledge, in training, in emotion or in aspiration except as you use them in the conduct of life."

Jordan touches on what I believe is the second obligation: a responsibility to contribute something important to the world and to help ensure that the next generation will benefit from the education you have received.

This was a notion implicit in the very founding of the university. The Stanfords possessed a deep sense of responsibility about contributing to the common good. And they seemed to understand the intergenerational nature of that obligation. In 1904, Jane Stanford told the university's trustees:

"Through all these years I have kept a mental picture before me. I could see a hundred years ahead when all the present trials were forgotten, and all of the present active parties gone, and nothing remaining but the institution. I could see beyond all this the children's children's children coming here from the East, the West, the North and the South."

The Stanfords also believed that, despite their paramount sorrow over losing their only son, they still had much to be thankful for and that it was their duty to share these gifts with other people's children. High motives and noble words, however, are not enough to show one's gratitude; serious commitment and vigorous action are required to achieve positive ends.

I recently received a letter from a Stanford alumnus, Wayne Mehl, that put this in a slightly different way. Mr. Mehl was addressing a somewhat divisive issue being discussed by the campus community. He, too, underscored the notion that words are not enough. If you are genuinely concerned about people who are less fortunate than you, Mr. Mehl advised, "contribute some of your time and brain power to their problems. Don't work in a vacuum, where your moral outrage means nothing."

When I began my presidency at Stanford last year, I had the great privilege to meet a young man from Kenya by the name of Kimeli. Kimeli is a Maasai tribesman whose story illustrates many of the elements I have talked about today. Kimeli never knew his father. When he was 21/2, his family was forced to leave their village and lost their home. Fortunately, although the Maasai are not well off, they do share a communal responsibility for members of their tribe. So Kimeli and his family moved from hut to hut, supported by their fellow villagers. His small village had no school, so as a young boy he began running away every day to attend school in a neighboring village; the trip took three hours each way. A few years later, he began attending the nearest middle school, sometimes making the 12- to 14-hour trip by foot to save the two-cent bus fare. He did well on the national exam and was admitted to a local college. But he could not afford to attend, even with a scholarship. He had no money for clothes, books or food. The people of his village came to his rescue by collecting $200, with each family in the village donating a cow, a few coins or whatever they could afford. Today Kimeli is a student at Stanford, having impressed a number of people both in Kenya and in the United States who have helped support him. But let me continue Kimeli's story with his words:

"I have come a long way and I feel very thankful to have made it to Stanford. I become the first person from my tribe, the Maasai, to attend Stanford. I hope that I will make it to medical school and become the first Maasai doctor and return to my village and build a hospital for my people. This is the dream I have held close to my heart and that has brought me this far."

Of course, this is a wonderful story of personal vision, willingness to be bold and perseverance. But I tell this story because it also exemplifies in my mind how our actions can show our gratitude and repay our obligations. When Kimeli achieves his dream of building the first hospital in Maasai Land, which I firmly believe he will, he will have given all the people who helped him -- teachers, financial supporters, the members of his village -- the greatest possible gift in return.

Kimeli's own words also shine with what I think of as the Stanford spirit. What exactly is that spirit? In the early days of the university, when the faculty, staff and students were not worrying about the university's survival, they began to think about developing a spirit that would define Stanford in a unique way. By the turn of the century, the ingredients of the Stanford spirit were clear: a dedication to the highest purposes, democracy and meritocracy, a spirit of genuineness and sincerity, and a spirit of service rooted in the vision and dedication of the founders.

In 1915 at his 20th reunion, Charles K. Field, a graduate of the Pioneer Class, gave his description of the Stanford spirit, based on a version from the university's earliest years. I have based my description on Mr. Field's version.

"The Stanford Spirit is not limited to one's life on the campus. If it were, it would not be worthy of its traditions. It begins 'where the red roofs rim the blue,' but it spreads far beyond them. It is born of Stanford associations, but it outlives them. It springs from youthful enthusiasm and rises to world ideals. It grows out of a special loyalty to Stanford and broadens into service to humankind. The Stanford Spirit buds and ripens through student years, but its harvest is forever."

I hope that you leave this campus with a strong reservoir of the Stanford spirit, a reservoir that will grow over the years. I hope this spirit inspires you as you make your contributions to the world, and I hope it brings you back often to this special place where the Stanford spirit was born in you.

Thank you and congratulations!