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Fall Convocation

Fall Convocation Archives: Simon Speech

John Simon, Provost and Executive Vice President
Convocation Address – University of Virginia
October 26, 2012

President Sullivan, thank you for that kind and generous introduction.

Poland            dzień dobry (formal)

Japan              konnichi ha (pronounced kon-nee-chee-wa

China              nǐ hǎo (pronounced, nee how)

India               namaste (nah-mah-STAY)

England          Good day

Italy                 ciào (pronounced chow; informal; also means "goodbye)

Turkey            selam (Informal)

Wales              shwmae (South Wales; pronounced "shoe-my")

President Sullivan, members of the Board of Visitors, distinguished colleagues, students, parents, and guests, I have just greeted you in 8 languages - Polish, Japanese, Chinese, Hindu, English – as in England’s English, not American English; I rarely hear anyone say “Good day” in Charlottesville! -- Italian, Turkish, and Welsh. These languages are not randomly chosen, and their significance will be revealed shortly.

It is humbling and an honor to speak to you this afternoon. As a chief academic officer, one of life’s greatest joys is to address students who distinguish themselves through their academic pursuits.  I congratulate you for aspiring to achieve, and then doing so. Today, you are joined, at your invitation, by faculty members who have contributed to your success. It gives me great pleasure to know that our faculty inspire you through their teaching, scholarship, passion, and mentorship. 

The students who are being honored today come from many different backgrounds, and represent a diverse array of academic disciplines. Let me tell you a little bit about yourself:

There are 344 of you. You are almost exactly 50/50 male/female. You come from 27 states (54% of you are from Virginia); 81% of you are US citizens, the remaining 63 of you come from 22 countries.

47% of you are from the college, 23% from the McIntire School of Commerce, 25% from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, 11% from the School of Architecture, and 2% from the School of Nursing.

12 of you are Chemistry majors, and that is the number 1 major represented by those of you from the College: 3.6% (1 more than Biology). Perhaps it was the chemistry connection that got me invited to talk today. And I know what an easy major Chemistry is!

The number 1 major in engineering: Computer Science 4.5% (1 more than biomedical).

The leading interdisciplinary major, which is pertinent to my message today, is Global Development Studies 1.8%.

As convocation speaker, what could I possibly say that would be relevant to such a diverse group of students representing so many different areas of academic study? I believe the challenge for a convocation speaker is to deliver a “message,” to provide you with sage advice on how to live your life, to convince you that your time and experiences at UVA will make you a better person, that the work you do here will prepare you for the world beyond college.

With that in mind, my message is quite simple. I want all of you to engage the world and to have the tools in your toolbox to be a leader in our globally competitive and changing world.

My passion for this topic got renewed focus recently, when my father told me of his plans to go to Russia this past summer. My dad is 80 years old, and he thought he would never be able to visit Russia. For most of his adult life, the United States was engaged in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and every May he would watch the parade in Red Square on television, observing the Soviet troops march by and the tanks and missiles roll by. It seemed impossible that an American citizen would one day be able to travel freely there. But then … the world changed. Listening to my father’s anticipation of his long-delayed trip to Russia and his emotional recounting, afterward, of walking across Red Square made me realize, once again, that we must all be able to adapt to a rapidly changing world.

What does this story of my father’s fascination with Russia mean for you? I think it means two things: 1) You need to be a life-long learner; and 2) You need to engage the world. Let me take these ideas one at a time.

Life-long Learning and Leadership

For you, our undergraduates, I am convinced that a liberal arts education is more important today than when I experienced it 35 years ago. But your education will not end when you leave these Grounds. You will likely work longer than people in my generation, and the pace of change has increased to a point where you need to be adept at how to learn and how to adapt to rapid changes in the work place and society. I do not believe that we – the faculty – can continue to assume that we know all the details of the world in which you will live, have families and careers, and contribute to your communities; we – the faculty – no longer know what various professions will demand from you, or what the requirements for success will be. You cannot be certain where – what city, what country – you will make your lives, as opportunities are becoming increasingly global. You will likely change careers several times and for some of you, success will be measured more by teamwork than individual accomplishments. Many of these teams will include members from all parts of the globe, and truth be told, you may know some of these team members only through communications enabled by technology. Your successes will likely arise from integrating knowledge across disciplines, and understanding cultures different than your own. Most important, you will need to know how to learn on a permanent, continuous basis – everyone will need to be a lifelong learner.

In his book Future Shock, Allen Toffler quotes Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization as follows: “The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.”

Being a life-long learner creates opportunities for you to change the world in positive ways through leadership. Those who preceded you here have done this. Let me share some information about a few of those who sat in your seats a couple decades ago.

  • Cheryl Mills, College ’87, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of State, currently overseeing building a new port in Haiti
  • Brady Lum, College ’89, President & CEO, Special Olympics, with offices in 121 countries
  • John Griffin, Commerce ’85, Founder of Blue Ridge Capital, actively involved in environmental restoration in New Zealand –“We are showing that commercial farming can exist side-by-side with ecological conservation.”
  • Katherine Clopeck, SEAS ’06, Founder of Community Water Solutions, a not-for-profit organization that catalyzes sustainable water businesses in communities of the developing world
  • Alexandra Arriaga, College ’87, former Director of Government Relations for Amnesty International USA and an advocate for international women’s rights.
  • Eric Gartner SARC ’82 (and ’85), founded SPG Architects, a successful design firm in NYC that has partnered with Architecture for Humanity to build schools in Africa and Latin America.

These individuals charted their own paths, and stepped to the plate to provide leadership that makes a difference in the global context. What’s important to know is their skills were built over many years of learning, with hard work, preparing them to fill their respective roles of purpose. Because they are committed life-long learners, they were ready when the opportunity to lead presented itself.

Engaging the World

When I ponder what it means to “engage the world” or “embrace and pursue leadership opportunities in the world” as a college student, I am unsure of the answer. You can certainly learn about the world here on Grounds. Many of our course offerings have international content. You can get to know fellow students and professors from different countries. But is this enough? And will you be willing to step outside your comfort zone when opportunities present themselves?

To answer these questions, I’ll return to my multi-lingual greeting. Over the last few years, I have written scientific papers with colleagues in the eight countries that are home to the languages in which I greeted you – Poland, Japan, India, China, England, Italy, Turkey, and Wales. If you had asked me when I started as an Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UCSD in 1985, I would have told you that I would never imagine being part of any international collaboration – after all, at that point in time we all thought the best science was done in the United States, and outstanding people around the world wanted to move to the United States to do their science. But in recent years, scientific literature has become truly global. And I have needed to learn and relearn over these 25 years to engage in research, in response to how the world has changed during that time.

I did not leave North America for the first time until 1980; I was 23 years old – older than all of you, I think – and I travelled to England, spending most of my time at Oxford University. It was the first time in my life that I saw a world map where the United State was not in the center. When I pointed it out, my English friends replied that of course, Europe and England in particular, are always in the center of a world map.

My first trip to mainland Europe was the summer of 1991. I was 34. My wife and I flew into Zurich with her parents to drive them to Poland so they could see their ethnic roots and visit relatives they had never met in person. Diane can tell you how nervous I was about the trip – at that time, it was outside my comfort zone.

Over the last two decades, science has taken me many places — some of them outside my comfort zone. As Dr. Suess titled his last book “Oh the places you’ll go”! I have visited many cities and universities in China, made several trips to Japan and Korea, travelled extensively throughout Europe. When I became an administrator, I found myself travelling all over the globe in a different capacity, like conducting business with government officials in the Middle East. My travels exposed me to different cultures, and taught me that I needed to work within local customs; but I always came home to the US. I predict many of you will live and work abroad.

Through these experiences, I became engaged with the world, and this global engagement changed me, changed how I view the world, changed how I do my work, and changed how I interact and relate to other people.

One of my closest scientific collaborators is Shosuke Ito. He is a world renowned chemist in Japan. I first met him in 2002 at a meeting in Egmond aan Zee, a village on the North Sea coast in the Dutch province of North Holland. While I had listened to Sho talk at meetings, we had never spoken or corresponded. By accident, we had breakfast together at that meeting, talked about our lives, began exploring potential areas of mutual interest, and what we could possibly do together. Since 2003, I have co-authored over a dozen papers with Sho, many of which have received significant media attention. We have written multi-country grants together. He became dean; I became vice provost, then provost. We shared administrative challenges and sought advice from one another. We have served on advisory and editorial boards together. But we have never had another face to face meeting since that breakfast in Egmond aan Zee. We have, what I would call, a deep “electronic” relationship. We know a lot about each other; we know all about each other’s families; we have developed a meaningful friendship enabled by technology, one of great trust and mutual admiration. I actually submitted a paper with him this month.

How do we put all of this in perspective? My ending point is your beginning. As I enter the final decades of my career, your careers are about to start. What I have experienced as an emerging global landscape, will become your global training ground as you go forward.

When I started my career at UCSD 25 years ago, a close friend (who was my current age then – my starting point was his ending point) predicted that the rapid advancement of technology that was nascent at that time, would result in the homogenization of global cultures. What he found interesting in the world, he believed, would be lost as the world would migrate to some “average” culture. I think the last two decades have proven him wrong.

Because the world is not homogenous, we, as educators, must help you acquire the skills and knowledge you will need to work in and with different cultures. We must provide experiential opportunities for you to work with those different than yourself, on Grounds and off. You must avail yourselves of these opportunities, move outside your comfort zones, and learn what it means to engage globally.

Some of you are already doing this. In 2011-2012, 1324 undergraduates participated in an educational experience abroad; the top five destination countries were Spain (15%), United Kingdom (11.5%), France (9%), Italy, and Germany. The top five majors participating were (undeclared in the College), Foreign Affairs, Commerce, Spanish, and History. The most popular time to have the experience abroad is in the Summer (about 50%). The number of students who engaged in education abroad has remained constant over the last 6 academic years. This latter fact intrigued me, so I brought it up at a meeting with the elected chairs of the student schools councils. When I asked why more undergraduate students do not engage in study abroad during the academic year, I received a passionate and clearly articulated response: every one of the eight semesters on Grounds is different, and the students could not imagine not being here for all of them. This “love of place” is what makes UVA so special and blesses us with dedicated Alumni. But I am here to challenge you to look beyond Charlottesville. Experiences and engagement beyond UVA will also provide meaning to your lives, and will even serve to enrich the time you spend on these amazing and historically meaningful Grounds.

If you don’t believe me, believe Thomas Jefferson — he provided a good model for global engagement. As much as he loved his home at Monticello and the pastoral environs of Albemarle County, Jefferson frequently traveled to other countries. He soaked up everything he saw overseas. His ideas were shaped by his experiences abroad and his comparative study of the politics, economics, and architecture of other nations. When he founded this University, he said it would be “based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind,” and he knew that the human mind could not be constrained by national borders or other traditional limitations of geography.

Like our University’s founder, we need to step out of our comfort zones to become fully engaged global citizens.

Advice from Others

To close, I want to share some perspectives on global engagement beyond my own. To gather these insights, I pursued what I believe to be two of the most important actions of a leader - asking the right question of the community you lead, and listening. The opportunity to deliver this speech today turned me into a student for the last couple weeks. I asked many of our colleagues, some of whom are here today, the following question: “What must students experience as part of their College education to be prepared for success as global leaders?” What I learned caused me to reflect on my own administrative priorities as well as my career aspirations to be recognized for scientific accomplishments by a global community.

What do my colleagues think you need to experience to be poised for success as the next generation of global leaders? To gain a wide set of optics, I asked many people, and I want to acknowledge several in particular who took the time to provide thoughtful responses: Harry Harding (Dean of the Batten School), David Toscano (one of our local delegates to the Virginia General Assembly), Richard Handler (the founder of UVAs Global Development Studies program), Richard Guerrant and Becca Dillingham (the past and current Directors of UVAs Center for Global Health), Brantly Womack (Politics), David Breneman (Univ Prof), Philip Zelikow (History) Lynn Isabella (Darden) and Marie-Louise Hammarskjold (Microbiology, Immunology, and Cancer Biology).

In the spirit of David Letterman, I assembled my colleagues’ advice into a Top Ten List for how you should prepare yourself for leadership on a global scale.

10.  Get a strong liberal arts education first, and specialize later.   Take lots of different types of courses and classes that encourage you to meet different kinds of people and learn about the world in unexpected ways. Many skills can be taught, but critical thinking, which comes from that liberal arts exposure, is not easily acquired but is valuable globally and locally. See everything as a learning opportunity.  (Lynn Isabella)

9.  Understand where you are -- 'global' also means understanding your own country, community, or enterprise.  It doesn't just mean understanding what is foreign. (P. Zelikow)

8.  Take a semester abroad - Immerse yourself in an unfamiliar environment and learn their issues from their eyes. “There is nothing like leaving the Lawn to spark the curiosity necessary for discovery, to foster the empathy required for human connection, and to develop the respect for others’ experiences essential for collaboration. A longer stay, or repeated stay, will allow you to begin to identify the problems and questions with local relevance, or perhaps, to build interest in previously unrecognized issues. Short, superficial engagements will not identify the questions nor lead to answers or solutions.” (B. Dillingham) Experience creative disruption in your life. (Toscano)

7.  Have friends from different backgrounds and walks of life. Strong leaders, domestic or international, know how to connect with many different kinds of people. (Lynn Isabella)

6.  Develop a sense of cultural humility (some responded with cultural literacy). Be respectful of the reasons for difference. There are many different value systems, beliefs and religions around the world. There is no right one or right way, necessarily. (Lynn Isabella)

5. Learn to bring out the best in yourself and others. Know your values and be courageous enough to lead, collaborate, and make decisions based upon them.

4.  Think locally, act globally. In the 21st century, the old line between what is 'foreign' and what is 'domestic' is blurring away.  Domestic or local problems are frequently just the local face of global phenomena, and solutions will be mediated by global conditions and institutions. (P. Zelikow)

3.  Learn to communicate – the first ten words are the most important, and studying languages is the best form of respect.  Learn languages. (Brantly Womack)

2.  Develop the ability to deal with complex problems at a systemic level. – The larger and more diverse the community, the more numerous the problems, and thus the greater the difficulty in securing consensus about which ones are more important, and there will be divergent values that different elements of the community will want to see honored in the design of solutions.  (Harry Harding) You will need to be insightful, to be able to see patterns.

1.  Be a “traditioned innovator”; I first heard this phrase from my friend Greg Jones when he was Dean of Divinity at Duke. Understand history and culture so that you can see ways of bringing the past into the present in an innovative way.

I encourage you to keep this list in mind as you innovate especially as college students, as you learn to lean, and as you engage global opportunities and challenges. Those activities, we hope, will define a UVA education and they are necessary steps to effective leadership in the world that awaits you.

Finally, I leave you with one more essential step offered in the conclusion of a recent op-ed piece published in the New York Times on September 29, 2102, entitled “Follow a career passion? Let it follow you.”

“To young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow. It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

Dream big, work hard, and passion will follow you.