Gov. Deval Patrick - 2009 MIT Commencement Speech

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PRESENTER: I'm pleased to welcome to the stage the Honorable Deval Patrick, governor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Welcome, Governor. I'm also delighted to welcome to these exercises the distinguished members of our 50th reunion class, the great class of 1959.


It's now my honor to introduce our commencement speaker, Governor Patrick. From modest beginnings on Chicago's South Side, Deval Patrick went on to graduate from Milton Academy, Harvard College, and Harvard Law School. He has worked to the top of his profession in a variety of realms, from his appointment as assistant attorney general for civil rights, the nation's top civil rights post, to his role as general counsel at both Texaco and Coca-Cola.

Since winning the governor's office in 2006, he shepherded important advances for the Commonwealth in education, transportation, health care, and the environment. By virtue of his office, Governor Patrick serves as a member of the MIT Corporation, and his affinity with our values runs deep. From the start, he has recognized the vital role of research universities in fueling the Massachusetts economy, and he has work to build on the state's historic strength as a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship in everything from biotechnology to green computing to alternative energy.

At MIT, we are proud to consider him our partner in inventing the future of Massachusetts. Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, graduates, and graduates to be, Governor Deval Patrick.


PATRICK: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thank you very much. Mr. Chairman and members of the Board of Trustees, President Hockfield, and members of the faculty and staff, distinguished guests, proud family members, and friends, and especially deserving graduates of the class of 2009. Thank you so much for the warm welcome to your special occasion.

I am indeed honored to be here. And I say that sincerely, even though I have few illusions that any of you graduates will remember much of what I say today. This is the fifth commencement address I have given this spring. It is daunting, facing gatherings of such smart and well prepared graduates as you, eager to get your degrees and get out of here, knowing you are paying hardly any attention at all to what any of us will say from this podium. I know. I once sat where you are sitting.

I know your mind has already wandered off from this place and time to what's ahead. And that is exactly as it should be, for there is a lot to think about. It's an extraordinary time. A few months ago, Americans went to the polls and elected a young, gifted, and black lawyer and community organizer to be president of the United States.


It gives me, like you, such pride to see the enthusiasm people have around the country and around the world for our new leadership. I don't know how many of you were there in Washington on inauguration day, but the view from the platform out over the mall was a thing I will not soon forget. 2 million people visited Washington for the occasion, and yet there was not one single untoward incident, only joy and solemnity and hope.

I think we will all look back on this time and recall, in very personal terms, where we were and what we were doing when it hit us that profound change was afoot. One moment of my own I especially enjoyed was at a dinner for governors at the White House in February. Now, I should tell you that governors get invited to the White House every February for a very elegant evening, and each of these occasions follows a certain pattern. First, there is a receiving line, or a reception first in the foyer. And then a receiving line, where we all go through to the blue room and have our pictures made with the president and first lady.

Then a multi-course dinner in the State Dining Room, and then entertainment in the East Room. The previous occasions with President and Mrs. Bush were no less elegant, though we did tend to be through all that and back in our cars by about 9:15. This year, there was an electricity about the occasion. This year after dinner, when we moved into the East Room, there was Earth, Wind, and Fire.

And when the slow dance began, which we all know is the international symbol that the evening is winding down, the president leaned over to me, his arms around his wife, and he said, Deval, he said, this is when we make our move. That's when I knew that change had come. And yet, the real work is just beginning.

Because in truth, the people on that mall in January knew that America did not change just because Barack Obama was elected president, any more than Massachusetts changed just because I was elected governor. You know that, too. And so, by the way, does the president.

The sweat and toil and setbacks and heartbreak of making lasting change are just starting. The scope of the change we voted for, and the nature of change itself, guarantees that an uneven and sometimes bumpy road lies ahead. So we had better be clear about where we are going. I see that journey in very personal terms.

Our youngest daughter, Catherine, graduated from high school a couple of years ago. And sitting at her graduation, I couldn't help but reflect on the difference between her journey to that milestone and my own, nearly 35 years before. I grew up, as the chairman said, on the south side of Chicago, most of that time on welfare in my grandparents two bedroom tenement.

I shared a room and a set of bunk beds with my mother and my sisters, so we would rotate every third night, top bunk, bottom bunk, floor. I went to overcrowded, sometimes violent public schools. I can't think of a time when I didn't love to read, but I don't remember actually owning a book until I got my break in 1970 when I came to Massachusetts on scholarship to a boarding school. For me that was like landing on a different planet.

Now, our Catherine by contrast, has always had her own room. Most of that time in a house, in a leafy neighborhood outside of Boston where I used to deliver newspapers when I was in boarding school. By the time she got to high school, she had already traveled on four continents. She knew how to use and pronounce a concierge, and she had shaken hands in the White House with the President of the United States.

When Catherine was in kindergarten, her class was studying the changes in the seasons. And her homework assignment was to describe to mom and dad the four seasons. So she proceeded to describe to us, in accurate detail, her several visits to the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington DC. She said first you drive up and the doorman takes your car. Five years old. One generation.

One generation and the circumstances of my life and family were profoundly transformed. Now, that story doesn't get told as often as we'd like in this country, but it gets told more often in this country than any other place on Earth. That is an American story.


That is who we are. We are that simple idea that through hard work and tenacity, preparation and faith, innovation and creativity, each of us has a chance at the American story. Well, that American story is at risk today. More and more families are working harder and still losing ground. Homeowners are losing their homes. Workers, some 5.7 million in the last two years are losing their jobs. Many people are losing their way and their hope.

Every individual, family, business, and not-for-profit in nearly every corner of this country is hurting, or worried that soon they will be. From mighty firms like General Motors and Lehman Brothers, to small companies, plans are disrupted, dreams are deferred, the poor are in terrible shape, and have been for a long time now. But now the middle class are one paycheck away, one serious illness away from being poor, and deeply anxious about it. That is the world you are about to inhabit, a society in many ways in anguish, and an economy in crisis. And I want you to embrace it all, because crisis is a platform for change.

Here at MIT you have been prepared to embrace this crisis. In fact, you have been given the skills to write the next chapter in the American story, because you have been taught to value ingenuity and innovation. You will make computers that run faster, bulbs that light the world more efficiently, batteries that run longer, robots that are smarter, and most especially, things and processes that your teachers and mentors can't even dream of today. Your ideas and contributions will defy prediction.

40 years ago, the great Buckminster Fuller, who invented the geodesic dome and wrote with great foresight about the dangers of depleting Earth's fossil fuels, predicted that by this time we would travel by space ring, circling the earth at the equator, you'd go up to the ring, take a seat, and wait while the earth roll rotated beneath you. You descend to Earth when your destination came into view. Other scholars of the mid-twentieth century predicted we'd have flying houses and self-cleaning clothes by now.

A "Popular Mechanics" article from 1950 predicted that a housewife named James Dobson would clean today's house by turning a hose on her waterproof furniture. She wouldn't need to clean dishes, because they would simply dissolve in hot water, and be rinsed down the drain. At the New York World's Fair in 1939 and 1964, General Motors sponsored Futurama exhibits. Futurama 2 was the most popular exhibit at the 1964 fair. I know, I was there. It predicted that by now we would have underwater cities, lunar colonies, and automated highways with cars that drove themselves.

What Fuller could not predict was the notion that the vitality of communication over the internet would overtake transportation as the primary way to connect people. What futurists could not predict is the social change that would take Jane Dobson out of the kitchen and put Susan Hockfield at the helm of one of the greatest universities in the world. What Futurama--


What Futurama could not predict is the idea that General Motors, itself, would today be struggling to survive. You graduates of MIT, like those who came before you, are unlikely to spend your energy predicting the future. You're more likely to focus on shaping it . You have been schooled to be suspicious of oversimplified predictions, and instead to nurture your originality, to be open to new ideas and new ways of looking at old ones. You have learned from wise, and maybe sometimes odd professors and classmates alike, whose wisdom and oddities you may only have come to appreciate on the eve of this graduation.

You have been trained to value originality in the service of the common good, and to see advancements in science and technology as vital forces in the world. You have been encouraged to imagine a better tomorrow, and then to work for it, to be both pragmatic and idealistic innovators. And we have never needed you more, because the whole world needs a resurgence of old-fashioned American ingenuity. And you will be in the vanguard of it.

I am proud to say that here, in Massachusetts, we have used American ingenuity to reinvent our own economy over the last few years. We are now making medical devices capable of being implanted in the human body, medicines to cure once untreatable illnesses and diseases, and robots that can detect roadside bombs, conduct search and rescue operations, or vacuum your home for you. We are making batteries to power cars, cultivating microbes that can produce cellulosic ethanol for fuel, and generating power from solar membranes barely thicker than old-fashioned camera film.

What we are making today in Massachusetts is as revolutionary as the airplane was in an earlier age, but will someday be just as commonplace. We need pragmatic and idealistic innovators today, in spite of the crisis around us, and maybe especially because of it. Because the world you will soon inhabit is filled in the same instant with both breathtaking beauty and utter devastation, with both glamorous comforts and abject suffering. With your training and credentials you could, if you wanted, spend your whole lives averting your eyes from the daily calamity of less fortunate souls and circumstances, focused exclusively on your own achievement or survival or just locked, like so many impractical idealists I have known in existential turmoil over why bad things happen to good people.

Or you could look clearly at what needs to be improved. And as a pragmatic idealist, set yourselves to invent it. And we've done it before. History tells us that American ingenuity has experienced its finest hours when addressing the world's greatest needs, and the world's greatest hopes. An earlier generation, facing dangers abroad and widespread suffering at home, summoned American ingenuity and answered a call to serve and to sacrifice. And that generation, what we now call the greatest generation, fought and won the war, rebuilt Europe and Japan, built the federal highway system, sent men to the moon, revivified great public universities and other institutions, expanded the middle class, and ignited the modern civil rights revolution. That generation, through their ingenuity, their service, and their sacrifice, made it possible for many of the rest of us to live the American story.

Well, we need to answer that call again, and renew our commitment to American ingenuity and innovation as the hallmark of the new economy, just as it was the hallmark of the old economy. And don't forget about beauty. Buckminster Fuller was wrong about the space ring, but he had an approach to problem solving that was, to my mind, on target, because it took beauty into account.

He said, "when I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong." In other words, I ask you from out of this crisis, to use all your creativity in the service of change. And when you innovate, remember that the innovations you will value the most will be the ones that improve the quality of life and the beauty of life for everyone.

In another time, Mahatma Gandhi challenged us to be the change that you want to see in the world. He called on those who yearn for change to dedicate ourselves to an authentic ideal, achieving any given ideal may demand more than any one individual's contribution. But it surely demands no less. No challenge, not one, is beyond our capacity to care about or to solve, so long as you, our pragmatic idealists, can imagine a better tomorrow. And then reach for it.

What I am asking for you, what I am hoping for and counting on from you is not easy, but it is simpler than you might think, because I believe that Americans are ready, even in the unexpected corners of our country, to serve and to sacrifice, and to be the creative innovators and problem solvers that the times require. The high school in Brockton, Massachusetts is the largest in the Commonwealth. 4,100 young people attend that school. 64% are on the free lunch program. For nearly half, English is a foreign language.

I visited the school a few weeks ago to announce some of the federal funding for education, and I arranged to meet beforehand with parents of special needs students. I sat with about a dozen of them in the school library, surrounded by members of the student council, who sat against the periphery of the room. They had come to observe.

And at first, we talked about programs and policies and information, but the conversation turned very personal when one of the parents said, governor, I wonder if you can imagine what it's like to have a child in this school with no friends. Her son had such profound learning issues that he was shunned by other children in the school. And as a parent, that kind of thing just slices right through you.

And then one of the students from the student council sitting around the edge of the room raised her hand and said, I'd like to be a buddy to your child. Another parent then said, well, that's a nice idea, but my child is in the grammar school, not here in the high school. To which another student replied by raising her hand and saying, well, why don't we create a program were high school students here in Brockton can be buddies to special needs kids in whatever school they are in Brockton. Beautiful idea. And they invented it right there in front of us.

And the school superintendent then, of course, had a natural school superintendent response, which was to wring his hands and wonder aloud how he would pay for this program. And at a time like this, when finances are stressed, you can perfectly understand why he would. Then a young man raised his hand and said, wait, we don't need to be paid. This is our community.

His message was very simple. If there is a need, send me. My point is that even in the bleakest places, young people are still hungry for a reason to hope. You must offer that reason. Humankind has profound challenges ahead. Help us meet them.

There is a new generation. Even we here, who are ready to answer the call for service and sacrifice, that is the opportunity today's crisis presents us. Seize it. For if we do, I am certain that our best days lie ahead.

Good luck to you all. God bless you. And thank you again for having me.