University of Vermont

Ceremonial Events - Convocation

Convocation 2006 Address John M Hughes

Convocation 2006 Address: August 30, 2006
John M. Hughes, Professor of Geology
Provost and Senior Vice President

I am delighted and privileged to welcome you to the opening of the University of Vermont’s 216th year. Governor Douglas and distinguished guests, it is my privilege to welcome you to our distinguished university. I wish to warmly welcome all staff, administrators, trustees and friends of the University to this ceremony; you are my new and valued colleagues. Finally, I offer a particularly heartfelt welcome to the students and faculty of the University of Vermont; those who teach and those who are taught form the core of any institution of higher education, and the rest of us work for them. I am also pleased to recognize and thank Acting President A. John Bramley, who has so ably and selflessly stepped in to fill the void created when President Daniel Mark Fogel became ill. Dan sends warm words of welcome and good wishes, and has received a clean bill of health and plans to be back here in just a few weeks. I provide a warning for all of us; Dan will have had two months to rest, so we all better be ready. I also take this opportunity to offer a special, and personal, recognition and thanks to my wife Susan, with whom I have traveled for the past 33 years; thank you in so many ways. I won’t embarrass Susan by asking her to stand, as I know I would pay for that dearly, but I can attest that our lives have been a wonderful and interesting partnership, and we are delighted to complete the cycle by moving back to Vermont 25 years to the day from when we left.

I would like to address my remarks personally to all new members of the UVM community; first year undergraduate and graduate students, newly appointed faculty, and recently hired staff. I have seen many new students wandering around campus, map in hand, trying to find their way to their class. Two months ago I too was wandering around campus, map in hand, trying to find my way to meetings in my new University; indeed, there were times that Jan was not sure I would ever find my way back to the office. I have had a brief head start, but we indeed begin this adventure together.

Thirty-six years ago I listened to the first of many, many convocation speeches I have heard in my lifetime. I began my first year in college in 1970 (let me save you the trouble, I am 54 years old, far older than I thought any human being could ever live when I was 18...). In many ways it was a very different time from today. In that year the Beatles held their last recording session and subsequently split (much to President Fogel’s chagrin…), Midnight Cowboy was the year’s Best Picture, and Apollo 13 radioed “Houston, we have a problem”. In 1970 the first Earth Day was celebrated, four students were killed at Kent State University, Bob Dylan received an honorary degree at Princeton, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Monday Night Football premiered, President Nixon requested 1,000 new FBI agents for College campuses, PBS became a network, Doonesbury debuted, race riots flared in many US cities, the Environmental Protection Agency started, "The Epoch", or Time 0 for all UNIX systems began, Charles DeGaulle, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died, and Andre Agassi, Ani Defranco, Beck and J-Lo were born. In many ways times were different in 1970. But there are many similarities. In 1970 we were involved in an increasingly controversial war, concern for the environment was growing, gas prices were rising, and the nation was increasingly concerned with racial equality. Thirty-six years later the issues facing you are not dissimilar from those we faced in 1970.

I now address my remarks to our students… I am both proud and privileged to be at the University of Vermont. I am proud because I have met and spoken with many of the remarkable people with whom you will learn in the next four years. UVM possesses a gifted, caring, and talented faculty, and I hope that you partner with those faculty members in effecting your education. I am honored to join that faculty, and also privileged to work at one of the finest institutions of higher education in the United States, a distinction recognized here in Vermont and around the nation.

Being a college student is a great privilege – do not take it for granted. In our nation levels of education have risen on an astonishingly-consistent 40-year time scale, as have levels of inclusion in education. Until relatively recently large segments of our population were prohibited, by law, from receiving public education. In 1880, a well-educated white man earned an 8th grade education; at that time, women and People of Color were often legally excluded from public education. Forty years later, by 1920, well-educated white men and women earned a high school degree. By 1960, another forty years hence, well-educated men and women earned a baccalaureate degree, and legislation enacted a few years later began to allow men and women of color to enter into desegregated public education. Another forty years later, in the year 2000, a well-educated person, more and more regardless of color, holds a master’s degree. Finally, it is not difficult to predict that 40 years hence, in 2040, a well-educated person will have a doctoral degree or even postdoctoral experience; indeed, today in emerging disciplines such as nanotechnology, a doctoral degree is now the entry level degree as education responds to the increasing complexity of the world.

We are privileged to live in a nation where education has evolved so rapidly. Many nations in the world, perhaps the majority of them, struggle to address basic human needs, where education is a luxury that simply cannot be afforded. I recall a remarkable convocation address at which I heard noted author and Indian activist Sherman Alexi declare that everyone in our nation was remarkably privileged compared to the rest of the world. A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, Dr. Alexi grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in deepest poverty, of which you may have read in his award-winning book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven or seen in his movie Smoke Signals. Despite a childhood few here could imagine, Dr. Alexi was given the opportunity for education, and thus considers himself remarkably privileged. In another convocation address, delivered this year at Southern Methodist University by my friend and former colleague Jose Antonio Bowen, Dean Bowen pointed out that only 1/100 of 1% of the world’s population is privileged to attend an institution of higher education in the United States, the leading nation in the world in higher education.

So what will you do with this remarkable privilege that puts you in the 99.99th percentile in the world? Regrettably, my generation leaves you many profound problems to address; we tried, oh how we tried, and hopefully we made progress, but ultimately we were not successful. As you begin your time at the University of Vermont I here charge you to use your privilege to solve those problems.

The problems to be solved today are certainly no less daunting than landing on the moon was to my generation; 40 million people now have AIDS, and 70 million people will die of the disease in the next 20 years; for perspective, that is approximately the number of people in this room 350,000 times over. The challenges to you who choose careers in the health care profession are daunting.

Oil supplies continue to be consumed at ever-increasing rates, and the alternate source of energy has not been discovered; as a geologist, I know that clock is ticking rapidly, indeed very rapidly, and the deleterious implications of the continued use of fossil fuels are immense. It is now the charge to the educators of your generation to educate the scientists of the future, and the charge of the scientists of your generation to address the acute problems facing society today; we desperately need your talent that will emerge from the privilege that you are afforded here at UVM.

Some of you will become political scientists, and your charge is among the most daunting. During my undergraduate years our nation saw the end of a divisive war in a small Asian country. Today, people of your generation are fighting a divisive war in another small Asian country; sadly, in my time at Miami University I attended the funeral of a student in my school who bravely gave his life in that war. It is now the charge of your generation to ensure that the next generation will not see another such war.

To those who will enter the business arena your charge is also large. In 1970 the national debt was $300B; today, it is approximately $8T and growing rapidly. A global economy is emerging, and the position of the United States in that economy has not yet been established. New players in the global economy are now awakening. We desperately need the talent that will result from the privilege that you are here afforded.

To those of you who will enter professions as engineers I can attest that the differences between our generations are profound. The late President John G. Kemeny of Dartmouth College, the inventor of the BASIC computer language, had a vision that one day everyone would have a personal computer on her or his desk; few people shared his heretical vision in the 1970s. President Kemeny once remarked that the average undergraduate in 1975 with a pocket calculator had more computing power than existed in the entire world just 15 years earlier. Today we desperately need the talent of your minds to harness the remarkable power of technology, talent born from the privilege that you are afforded here at UVM.

To those of you who enter careers in agriculture, you too will face profound challenges. As we continually devote less and less of the world to agriculture and have more and more people to feed, greater efficiencies in agriculture and food production will become essential as we attempt to feed the world’s population.

Finally, to those of you who will pursue degrees in the arts and humanities I issue a profound challenge. The art, music, theater, literature, architecture and thought of my generation certainly lend inspiration to yours and deepen the value of life in our world. The genius of Stephen King, Barbra Streisand, Rita Dove, Bob Dylan, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder, Dustin Hoffman, John Lennon and Meryl Streep exhort your generation to match the accomplishments of mine. I am confident that the privilege afforded you will allow you to exceed the accomplishments of those geniuses and further enrich society.

As I noted in the first sentence of this address, I am delighted and privileged to be at the University of Vermont. To those of you who share my “first-year” status, I ask that as you see me walking around campus you take the time to introduce yourself, share with me some of your aspirations, and tell me what you hope to accomplish in the world as a member of the 99.99th percentile. We will have to keep walking as we talk, as we all are privileged to have important places to go…

I wish for you a wonderful and productive year; I ask that you reflect upon, and make good use of, your privilege, each and every day. Be wise and be safe, and thank you.

Last modified September 17 2006 07:58 AM

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