Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, September 26, 2001
For the record
'Students, you represent our best hope'

The following is the text of remarks by President John Hennessy delivered at Opening Convocation on the Main Quad Sept. 21, 2001.

Parents and students of the Class of 2005: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,717 new freshmen and transfer students.

Given the tragic events of 10 days ago, it may seem a little hollow, or even inappropriate, to be celebrating the beginning of a new academic year and a new chapter in your lives. We all mourn the terrible losses of Sept. 11, and many in the Stanford community -- students, staff, faculty and alumni -- have been personally touched by the tragedy.

I have struggled with the format of this Convocation and the content of this speech for the past 10 days. Since the morning of Sept. 11, the campus has been uncommonly quiet. Except for two memorial services, all major events were cancelled. As we considered how to start a new academic year, we decided that Convocation was, in fact, the most fitting way to resume our normal activities.

Students, you represent our best hope for the future and for peace in our world. Americans and good-hearted people of all ages throughout the world will mourn this tragedy and carry the memory of that terrible day in their hearts. But it is your generation -- more so than mine or your parents' -- that will face the challenge of building a world in which such inhuman acts can never again occur.

Given this enormous challenge, the process of education and intellectual exploration that you now begin is highly appropriate. Today, you join a community of scholars, where each member is committed to a search for truth, knowledge and understanding. Everything this university stands for is the antithesis of the terrible events of Sept. 11. In the Founding Grant, Leland and Jane Stanford described the purpose of Stanford University in the following words:

[T]o promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Now, more than ever, it is a time to try to understand the evolution and future of humanity and civilization, the balance of freedom and responsibility, and the cost of liberty.

In your time here, you will get to know people whose background, culture or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values -- and your prejudices -- are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation for the pluralistic society in which we live and find constructive ways to contribute to the world, so that your children's generation will benefit from your time here.

For each of you, this moment is the beginning of a new chapter in your life. Let it also be a moment you remember as the initiation of your journey into the larger world, a time when you consider your role as a citizen and what your future contribution might be.

You will not be expected to undertake this intellectual journey on your own. We have an exceptional faculty and staff, dedicated to the search for knowledge and understanding, who will support and encourage you in your journey. Since you are about to begin your first year at Stanford, I want to introduce you to another new member of the Stanford family who will play a pivotal role in your life here. Dr. Gene Awakuni, a national leader in the area of student services and support, is our new vice provost for student affairs and will start at Stanford in January. He comes to us from Columbia University, where he has earned the deep respect of students and professional colleagues. Please join me in welcoming Vice Provost Awakuni to the Stanford family.

Dr. Awakuni has chosen to pursue a career in higher education, because, like so many of the faculty and staff at Stanford, he finds working with students to be tremendously exciting and deeply rewarding. For all of us, greeting a new freshman class is an event filled with hope and anticipation. This year, we are especially glad that you are here.

I hope you are proud of the accomplishments that have brought you to this important transition in your lives. I know that all of you have worked hard to get here, but let me also acknowledge the contributions of your parents, family members, teachers, mentors and friends who have supported you on your road to Stanford. Without them, the journey here would have been more difficult and less rewarding. In recognition of the tremendous support and encouragement you have received from these important people in your lives, let me invite our new students to show their appreciation with a round of applause.

As [Admissions] Dean Robin Mamlet described in her Convocation remarks, you are an incredibly talented group of students with a wide range of interests both inside the classroom and outside its walls. Although we carefully examined your scholastic achievements and extracurricular accomplishments during the admission process, your intellectual vitality is what sets you apart from so many of your peers. Some of you have shown that intellectual engagement by pursuing a single field of study; others have engaged in a variety of scholarly activities outside of the classroom setting; still others have applied classroom studies to work in your community. However you have shown it, your love of learning -- that passion for new knowledge -- revealed you to us as the kind of student we most treasure at Stanford.

Of course, our choosing you was not the only important decision being made in the last few months. As [senior] Sohini Ramachandran indicated in her wonderful speech, each of you also made a choice: You chose Stanford. We will never know exactly why each of you made that decision, but I truly hope that primary among the many reasons was a belief that this is a university that will provide the intellectual resources and the collegial support for you as you embark on your intellectual journey.

If this was, indeed, a primary reason you chose Stanford, then I believe you have made the right decision, and I am in a particularly good position this year to tell you why your decision was the right one. You see, despite the fact that I came to Stanford 24 years ago, last year was my first year as president -- so I really was a freshman just like you. This year, I'm a sophomore. I really know my way around now, and I can give you much better advice.

In fact, my challenge is that Stanford is a university that embraces and supports intellectual exploration in so many ways it's hard for me to limit myself in telling you about them. But it is getting a little late, and it is a warm day, so I will make an arbitrary decision and limit myself to discussing just a few suggestions for pursuing your intellectual journey here.

To start, I hope that our superb faculty was one of the primary reasons you chose to come to Stanford. In this past year, we hired 74 new faculty -- some senior distinguished colleagues who are leaders in their fields, some young assistant professors involved in the development of new fields, but all committed to the search for, and communication of, knowledge. The best advice I can give you is to get to know this exceptional faculty. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a classroom of students, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about my research, to ask career advice, to talk about a topic that she is interested in or to seek help on some topic he cannot grasp. Remember that all of us on the faculty are here in large part because of the extraordinary students who are our partners in the exploration for knowledge.

No less important are your fellow students, with whom you will work, live and play. They will contribute mightily to your intellectual exploration. The opportunity to learn from others who are traveling companions in this journey is an important part of a Stanford education.

Another reason I believe you made the right choice at the right time is the quality of our undergraduate education. We have made tremendous enhancements to undergraduate education in the past few years. A cornerstone of these enhancements is the freshman and sophomore seminar program. Freshman seminars provide the opportunity for students to meet in small classes with some of our most renowned scholars. Stanford will offer more than 100 different freshman seminars this year. Every freshman will have an opportunity to enroll in one of these seminars. Let me list some seminars that seem especially appropriate this year:

"The Challenge of Nuclear Weapons," taught by Professor David Holloway, director of Stanford's interdisciplinary Institute for International Studies. This course explores the challenge we face to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

"Tolerance and Democracy," taught by political science Professor Paul Sniderman. This course explores the issues of liberty in a modern, pluralistic society.

"Environmental Problems and Solutions," taught by eminent ecologist Professor Paul Ehrlich. Certainly, sustaining our environment is one of the most significant and one of the most international challenges we face.

Freshman seminars span the full range of intellectual exploration. There are seminars on Shakespeare, ancient hieroglyphics, biotechnology, human emotion and psychology, our financial and economic system, information technology, genetics, nanotechnology, race and ethnicity, and art and music. There are interesting opportunities in almost every field of intellectual endeavor. Because each seminar enrolls at most 16 students, these seminars also will provide an avenue for you to get to know faculty -- personally. I encourage every student to take advantage of this opportunity.

While these enhancements are relatively new, they build on a long commitment to a liberal education and I hope that is yet another reason you chose Stanford. In 1997, when I was in my first year as dean of the School of Engineering, I ran into an alumnus of our medical school, whose son was a freshman at Stanford with a strong interest in engineering. We discussed what advice he had given his son about choosing among the universities that had offered him admission. In recommending Stanford to his son, he said: "I wanted my son to know who Thoreau was and what he wrote about." This story, which I have repeated many times to prospective freshmen with interests in science and engineering, embodies much of what is at the core of a Stanford education: a strong and shared foundation in the humanities. As we strive to understand the world we live in, this foundation seems more critical than ever.

Yet another way the university supports your search to know is through undergraduate research projects. Stanford offers abundant opportunities for honors studies, honors theses and undergraduate research. These opportunities will intensely involve you in the exploration for new knowledge. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and it also ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. This passion sustained me through my Ph.D. and continues to excite me after 24 years as a Stanford faculty member.

Given that we chose you and you chose Stanford, what do we ask of you during your next four years?

Your acceptance letter is an invitation -- an invitation to join a community of scholars engaged in the creation and dissemination of knowledge. This community of scholars operates under a fundamental standard, dating back to 1896, that emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community and her contribution to our search for better understanding. In the aftermath of the recent tragedies, it is critical to remember that this is a community where principles like tolerance and respect for individuals are a way of life.

It is an invitation to spend the next four years of your life exploring your intellectual interests, finding what engages and excites you.

It is an invitation to lay claim to the Western pioneering spirit, the entrepreneurial spirit, that inspired Jane and Leland Stanford to leave the East Coast, come to California and start this university. More recently, it is the same spirit that helped give birth to Silicon Valley. This spirit encourages us to be bold in our endeavors, whether those efforts occur in the library, in the classroom, in a laboratory, in a theater or on an athletic field.

I urge you to pursue your journey at Stanford with vigor. I hope that this beautiful campus will provide an ideal space for contemplation and inspiration to aid you in that journey. And I hope that you will find an intellectual pursuit that excites you and engages you so much that it will keep you up at night and get you out of bed early, even on the weekend! I hope that you find a passion that matches your own talents, so that you may discover, as I did, something that you can pursue for the rest of your life with enthusiasm and joy.

Parents, Stanford will provide a variety of possibilities during the next few years, but only your children, as individuals, will be able to choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and what engages their very able minds. It will have to be their choice, and I hope that you will support that choice. As Sohini made clear, that support is critical. You may be hundreds -- or thousands -- of miles away, but you remain close to their hearts and will continue to have a major impact on their lives during their time here.

Students, while I cannot make any predictions about what paths each of you will take in your journey at Stanford, I urge you to begin this process of intellectual discovery, just as Sen. Leland Stanford urged at the opening day ceremonies for the first freshman class in 1891:

Upon the individual efforts of each of you mainly depends his or her future success in life. A university may be founded for you; in it, you may study for many years, with all the advantages of learning, science and ingenuity of these days; you may be gifted with many talents, and yet your labor may be comparatively fruitless and later in life you may be failures, or you may go from here fully equipped to make your way through life with happiness to yourself and benefit to humanity. All that we can do for you is to place the opportunities within your reach; it rests with you to grasp and improve them.

I welcome all our new students and their parents, not just to the campus but to the Stanford family. Students, I hope your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And, finally, I hope your time here will help to provide a foundation on which you will make your contributions to humanity and to a better future for yourselves and the generations that will follow.