Text of President Hennessy's Convocation speech

The following is the prepared text of a speech delivered by President John Hennessy at Opening Convocation on Sept. 20, 2004:

Parents, transfer students, and members of the Class of 2008: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,650 new freshmen and 78 transfer students.

Dean Mamlet spoke about the extraordinary talents of this class and why, after an intensive review process, we selected you, as an individual, to be a Stanford undergraduate.

I hope you found time to rest this summer while also anticipating and preparing for this day.

Like many of you, I catch up on my reading in the summer, finishing books that were started months earlier but sat idle at my bedside during Spring Quarter. Among my summer books this year was the Edmund Morris’ two-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt. As I read the book and contemplated your arrival, I found myself thinking of the many ways in which Theodore Roosevelt exhibited the same characteristics that we look for in Stanford students.

Early in life, Roosevelt developed a love of learning and his ability to overcome adversity. As a youngster, he was often ill and suffered from acute asthma. He overcame his physical limitations with a vigorous program of exercise, and he developed a lifelong love of the outdoors and of physical activity.

Roosevelt came to believe that a healthy body and a healthy mind were synergistic. This process of overcoming his physical infirmities also taught him to be tenacious in pursuing his goals. And Roosevelt displayed that tenacity throughout his life whether it was trekking a hundred miles to catch some thieves, fighting to reform the civil service system against the entrenched interest of the existing patronage system, personally walking a beat to combat corruption in the New York City police department, or orchestrating two frenetic campaigns for president of the United States.

Roosevelt arrived at college with two of the characteristics we value most in students: intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning. Indeed, his entire life was an intellectual journey, just as we hope the next four years of your lives will be.

Roosevelt’s intellectual journey began as a young man and continued throughout his life. When asked by the president of Columbia to list the books he had read during his first two White House years, Roosevelt gave a three-page list including parts of Herodotus and Thucydides, a little of Plutarch, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Bacon, Shakespeare, Carlyle, Macaulay, Scott, Dickens, Stevenson, Tolstoy, and a variety of American novelists!

I hope each of you can produce as impressive a list two years from now! I also hope that as you prepared for this day, you took some time to contemplate what you are searching for in your undergraduate education. Like Roosevelt, you live in a time of great change.

The national conservation movement blossomed under Roosevelt’s leadership when he saw that the great natural treasures of this country might be lost if they were not protected. Today, the changes the environment is experiencing—from global warming to the reduction and extinction of various flora and fauna—force us once again to face the question of how we will sustain our environment for our children.

In Roosevelt’s time, the emergence of modern steam-powered ships made the world a smaller and more interconnected place. In the ensuing century, air travel, the telephone, and now the Internet, have made that truer still. Events around the world remind us that our small planet is shared by peoples with vastly different beliefs and cultures, and that appreciating their hopes, ambitions and history is critical to building a better world for all.

This goal of understanding and engagement with the world is a Stanford tradition. When Leland and Jane Stanford established this university, they boldly stated their goal of producing “cultured and useful citizens.” We still strive for that more than a century later.

Today, you join a community of scholars, organized to pursue truth, knowledge, and understanding. Your acceptance letter was an invitation to join this community. It is a community rooted in principles that were established by the university’s founders and early leaders:

By Jane and Leland Stanford, who—in the aftermath of the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15—founded this university to benefit other people’s children and, as it says in the founding grant, “to exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”

By Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who chose the motto “The Wind of Freedom Blows” to remind us of the importance of free and open inquiry.

And by Stanford’s first faculty and students, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community—a standard still in effect more than 100 years later.

Now that you have accepted the invitation to join this university and to live by these principles, the question I expect you are all asking is, “How should I make the most of my time here?” I can offer a few suggestions based on my 27 years as a member of this community.

My first suggestion is to get to know the faculty, who have chosen to pursue the academic life because of their passion for learning and their desire to share their knowledge with others. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most important components of their Stanford experience, and the university has invested heavily over the past 10 years to create many more such opportunities.

The hallmark of our innovations has been freshman and sophomore seminars. Each seminar is led by a Stanford faculty member and enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be more than 100 Freshman Seminars on topics including biotechnology, jet engines, robotic animals, Shakespeare, Bach, American literature, social protest, aging, and Mexican politics. These classes are a wonderful opportunity to get to know a faculty member and a new subject.

Get to know the faculty outside of the classroom as well. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about my research, to ask career advice, or to talk about a topic that she is interested in. We have an extraordinary faculty—use every opportunity to discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits.

Just as Theodore Roosevelt was a lifelong learner constantly seeking the company of intellectually engaged men and women with different backgrounds and views, I encourage you to take advantage of the wonderful diversity of experiences of your fellow students.

As Sung-Woo so eloquently pointed out, over the next few years, you will get to know students 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.

As you think about how to prepare yourself to be a cultured and useful citizen, remember that much of what you learn will occur outside the classroom—not just with fellow students, but also with the broader community. I urge you to consider the opportunity for service-learning. The Haas Center is one of the oldest and most expansive centers for public service in any college or university. They have hundreds of opportunities for you to learn, and to contribute, through community service.

You have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution but also a great research institution. I encourage you to take advantage of that. Take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created. 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 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 27 years as a Stanford faculty member. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

Experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned. The only people I know that have succeeded at everything they have undertaken are those who have been timid in setting their goals.

Real growth involves risk-taking. Theodore Roosevelt’s life is a case in point. His interest in government and public service began at Harvard and eventually led him to politics. The range and number of roles he undertook throughout his life—both successfully and unsuccessfully—is astonishing!

As a young state assemblyman from New York, he supported a political reformer for president, and subsequently he lost the support of the party machine and his position. He was a less-than-successful rancher in the Dakotas, ran as an unsuccessful candidate for the mayor of New York, and was almost fired as assistant secretary of the Navy. Despite those setbacks, at the age of 40, he became one of the youngest governors in New York history. During President McKinley’s re-election campaign, he became a reluctant vice presidential candidate after the incumbent vice president died. When McKinley was assassinated less then one year into his term, the unlikely candidate Roosevelt became president. Like Roosevelt, you must prepare yourself. Opportunities rarely come in neat packages on your time schedule.

As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your four years here, I would urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is much more than a ticket to your first job. It is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career. It is the foundation for your whole life.

To the parents in the audience, I assure you that Stanford will provide your children a variety of possibilities for growing and learning during the next few years. But it is your children, as individuals, who will choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion, and what engages their very able minds. I hope that you will support their choices.

During the next four years, we will do our best to create opportunities for them to learn and discover, but it will be each individual’s task to embrace opportunities and to pursue them with determination and energy.

Given his great love of the American West, it is not surprising that Theodore Roosevelt was the first American president to visit Stanford. In a speech during his visit, he echoed a favorite theme of Jane and Leland Stanford. He urged students to develop themselves both as scholars and as citizens, concluding with the following lines:

“Work! Of course, you will have to work. I should be sorry for you if you did not have to work. Of course you will have to work, and I envy the fact that before you, before the graduates of this university lies the chance of lives to be spent ... for great and glorious and useful causes ... for the uplifting ... of all mankind.”

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 great and glorious and useful causes that will benefit you and the generations that will follow.

To all our new students and their families: welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.