CEMS Commencement 2009
Dean's Welcome

Dean Domenico Grasso
May 17, 2009

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Distinguished faculty, staff, alumni, parents and friends, and above all, graduates of the College of Engineering and Mathematical Science, welcome to the 205th Commencement Ceremony of the University of Vermont.

It is truly a day filled with both joy and a sense of accomplishment — and, for some perhaps, a sense of relief. In all cases, I am certain our graduates are deeply mindful of the gratitude they owe loved ones who have supported and encouraged them and have made this day a reality.

To the parents, I can only say, as the father of four, I think I know how you feel. The much-awaited day has finally come. You cannot help reflecting on how quickly your children have gone from cribs to commencement. You are a little sad, a little relieved, a little wonderstruck, a little poorer, and very, very proud.

To the graduates, I say "well done!" Today is a time for celebration, for looking back and for looking forward and admitting, albeit in some cases begrudgingly, that all the reading and problem sets, design project and term papers were worth it. In future years, you will recall this day, Sunday May 17, 2009, as the day you first began to forget everything you learned in college. Some of you overachievers have even gotten a jump start on this.

But as you ponder this thought years from now, try to remember Mark Twain's characterization of education, as "what's left over, when you forget all the things the teachers made you memorize in school." This sentiment seems to be ubiquitous through time and space. Indeed, former Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell noted that the reason that there is a lot of knowledge in universities is that "the freshmen bring a little in; the seniors don't take much away, so knowledge sort of accumulates."

But as the specifics of the Navier-Stokes Equation or integration-by-parts begin to fade, the true value of your days here at UVM will become more and more apparent. Because although you have learned a great deal about the world around you, more importantly you have learned even more about the world inside you — you have learned how to think; how to think broadly, across different fields of knowledge.

The hallmark of a UVM education is its breadth. You are not constrained by the narrow perspectives of a single discipline or methodology but are able to unify and integrate different intellectual capabilities. Please do not accept simplistic understandings of complex phenomena or fall prey to algorithm paralysis where your thinking is unduly limited by formulaic prescriptions. Your UVM education is the key to the well-informed, creative and holistic thinking that the world so desperately needs.

You are about to join the ranks of UVM distinguished alumni and mark your place in our history, a history that includes our fifth president, James Marsh, who laid out with the faculty the modern system of academic majors and electives, which spread from Vermont to colleges and universities across the nation and around the world.

It was Henry Jarvis Raymond, UVM class of '40 — that's 1840 — who founded The New York Times 150 years ago with a new vision for journalism. Just outside of Ira Allen Chapel, lies the last resting spot of John Dewey, one of the world's greatest philosophers and educators, an 1879 graduate of UVM. Harvard professor Louis Menand memorialized UVM's significant contribution to American intellectual history in his Pulitzer-Prize-winning book The Metaphysical Club, in which he devoted and entire chapter, titled "Burlington," to James Marsh and, even more so, to John Dewey and his role as one of four thinkers who decisively moved American thought into the modern era.

But the glory days of UVM have by no means past us by in the wink of a young student's eye. In recent times, The University of Vermont has sent forth as its alumni Pulitzer-prize winning novelists, well-known Hollywood actors, academy-award winning writers and producers, and two individuals who went, just two years apart, to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Perhaps of more interest to you, are the graduates of this renowned College of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences who have gone on to become the Lt. Governor of the great state of Vermont; the founder and CEO of VMWare, the fourth-largest software company in the world; president of a division of Chase Card Service; chief engineer for NASA; president of PC Construction company; and the director of IPod and IPhone divisions for Apple computer.

These accomplishments are all the result of a great UVM education, hard work and vision — but no one starts at the top, unless of course you are digging a hole. In the words of Bill Cosby, professor of the school of hard knocks, "You are now a person being forced out of the best job you'll ever have. There's no spring break out there. Christmas break is only one day. On top of that, you'll be starting at the bottom. Some of you will be interns — that's a French word for slave."

Although I am typically loath to provide advice at Commencement — my guess is that you have been receiving it all your life and no doubt will continue to receive plenty from loved ones. However, I do want to leave you with one word — and it is not "plastic."

The word is "empathy."

I am sure that you all know what it means to be "dissed." The greatest form of disrespect is to disregard or ignore. This is only acceptable if you are talking to Yankees fans. Otherwise, my advice to you is to walk through life with you head up and your eyes open and a kind and engaging word on the tip of your tongue. Learn something about the people around you — colleagues, subordinates, and superiors — those who sign your checks and who clean your buildings. It is easy to walk corridors and sidewalks blinkered by the complexity of seemingly preoccupying thoughts. But without a sincere desire to understand and connect with those around us, misunderstanding both implicit and explicit is certain to abound. This is especially important for those of you who will become design professionals — you must understand for whom you are designing. For all of you, design professionals or not, whether you become president of a corporation or president of the PTO, whether your become a parent or a partner, being empathic will make you proud of the life you have lived.

As I conclude my remarks, I must tell you that today's ceremony is bittersweet for me. As some of you may know, two days ago I was appointed Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate College here at UVM. I am so proud of what we have accomplished in this College over the last four and half years. I am grateful to the marvelous efforts of the faculty and staff and our outstanding student body. And to those students — those bright-eyed young men and women right in front of me — I wish you the best of luck in whatever path you choose.

Thank you.