Matriculation Address

by Robert A. Brown | September 3, 2007

Your Choices

Good morning Boston University class of 2011. Welcome to your University and to the beginning of your college experience. Actually you have already overcome two of the most daunting hurdles. You moved into your residence and you got up on time this morning for your first University event. Congratulations!

This morning you are participating in several important Boston University traditions. First, you have marched with our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, down Commonwealth Avenue and have felt the exhilaration of stopping traffic at the BU Bridge. You also sit together for the first time as the Boston University class of 2011. You are one Boston University class representing eleven schools and colleges: in a few minutes we will acknowledge each of these academic units and talk about your plans to pursue particular disciplines in your college education. Also, my colleagues and I have dressed in our finest academic regalia to welcome you into the Boston University academic community.

You will come together as one class at another important event: this will occur in four years at graduation on Nickerson field, where you too will wear the traditional academic regalia as a symbol of your membership and achievements at this University. Each of you will personally answer the question - what should one wear under a red robe?

After this ceremony, and throughout your years at Boston University, you will branch off according to your academic interests and you will self-identify with a School or College. You will also decide which clubs and societies to join, what lectures, sporting events, and theatrical and musical performances to attend, and you will compose your circle of friends and roommates. These CHOICES will shape your college experience, and you, for years to come.

You have heard all this before. The same statements were probably made as you entered high school, although the choices were more constrained. You might imagine that the same statement has been made to each entering college class for the last thousand years. At some level this is probably right. But, I would contend that for you, the choices are more diverse and the stakes are higher today than for previous generations. You are entering a more complex, more integrated world than was imaginable even a few decades ago. All you need to do is read Tom Freidman's book, The World Is Flat, or Don Tapscott's Wikinomics to understand what I mean.

Your generation will have to deal with the flattening of the world's economy and the truly global competition for knowledge and knowledge workers as the primary currency for economic development. It is our hope that you will emerge from Boston University with the fundamental education and skills to compete in and eventually lead in this global economy.

It is a competition. I spend considerable time talking to others around the world about higher education and it is clear that global higher education will change the landscape in the coming decades. You will be competing for jobs against an increasingly better-educated global work force and you will be competing for a share of the accompanying economic prosperity.

At least equally important, your generation of Americans will have to find a way to shape our country's policies that can lead to long-term prosperity for us and others around the world. Indeed, it is incumbent on citizens of all countries to call on governments and corporations to pursue responsible energy and environmental policies. Also, the same world that is being brought together by transportation, communications and open markets, is being torn apart by cultural and economic differences, war and terrorism, by the growing demand for natural resources, by disease, poverty and illiteracy. Think about what you can do to address these problems.

The shared goal of our faculty and you should be to prepare you to seize these opportunities and to be prepared for these challenges. Today, you are joining the academic community of one of the great private research universities in America. You have the opportunity to study in, and be a member of, a vibrant educational and cultural community. Boston University has the faculty, staff, programs, services and facilities to help you succeed. We are partners with you in this endeavor and our ultimate success as a university hinges on your accomplishments here and throughout your life as you join the almost 260,000 alumni of this great institution.

Today, I have special opportunity to talk to you about the choices that you will have for the next four years and to offer my advice about how you might best use your time at Boston University. I would like to frame my suggestions in the context of Boston University today, intermingled with a bit of the history of this place. Let me talk about our

  • faculty,
  • the physical and societal legacy of the University, and
  • undergraduate education.

The University's Charles River Campus spreads almost two miles along Commonwealth Avenue and when taken together with our Medical Campus in the South End of Boston, includes 17 Schools and Colleges and involves over 3,850 faculty, 5,350 staff and 32,000 undergraduate and graduate students. You have joined a world-class research university led by some of the finest faculty members in the country. Our faculty includes world-renowned scholars and researchers in fields running the gamut of academic and professional disciplines, from the leading scholars in our Department of Archaeology to our faculty members in science, medicine and engineering, who are at the frontiers of neuroscience in cognitive and behavioral science. These faculty members lead the undergraduate programs that you will join, as well as nationally recognized graduate programs in their disciplines and interdisciplinary programs as wide-ranging as Bioinformatics, Language Acquisition and Cognition, and Mathematical Finance.

There is a large gathering of the faculty at today's ceremony. I'd like our entering students to recognize your future teachers and mentors with a warm round of applause.

There is no more fulfilling profession than being a faculty member in a major research university where one has opportunities to teach, to work with talented undergraduates, graduate students and colleagues, and to pursue self-led goals in research and scholarship. There also is no more demanding a position, as each of our faculty members works to balance his or her time between undergraduate teaching and advising, scholarship and research, and graduate student mentoring and teaching. The faculty and teaching staff is a resource for you, but you will need to take the initiative to make connections. My advice is that you take every opportunity that you are offered to work closely with them. Make it your goal that when you leave Boston University you will have several faculty members who know you well. It will make your experience here more meaningful and it is also a good idea for when you need a reference for a job or grad school application!

One exciting way to get to know faculty members is to become involved in their scholarly and research activities. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, or UROP, is organized to give you opportunities to participate in faculty-mentored research and scholarship all across campus. Find out more about UROP and take advantage of the program.

Now I would like to give you a bit of the history of Boston University. Like many of the great private universities in this country, Boston University began as a Methodist seminary. It was founded by three Bostonians in Newbury, Vermont in 1839 and relocated to Boston in 1867. Built on that small seminary, Boston University was chartered in 1869 by its Founders, Lee Claflin, Jacob Sleeper, and Isaac Rich, who were successful Methodist businessmen. (You will recognize the names!) Chartered just after the end of the American Civil War, Boston University was envisioned as a very novel institution that combined the quality of the antebellum liberal arts education that was being honed at many independent New England colleges, with the model of professional and graduate education that was emerging in German universities. Our Founding President, William Fairfield Warren (another name you should recognize), saw Boston University as an institution where students would have the best of both academic worlds: we have stayed true to this vision of the University.

Our Founders also saw Boston University as a community that was open to all, irrespective of their sex, race or religion. Boston University opened its doors to all from its very beginning. This University claims many firsts, including the first Ph.D. awarded to a woman, in 1877, and the first coeducational medical school, in 1873. Diversity runs deep in the fabric of Boston University. Perhaps our most famous alumnus, Martin Luther King, Jr., studied here in the early 1950s, during a period when nearly half of this country's doctoral degrees earned by African-American students in religion and philosophy were awarded by Boston University.

Boston University is a uniquely urban university. What other university has a trolley line running through the center of its campus! As the third President of Boston University, Lemuel Murlin, put it, Boston University was founded "in the heart of the city, in the service of the city." Today, we are composed of two sprawling campuses. You are getting to know the Charles River Campus that was established in the 1930s when the University began to consolidate from locations all around downtown Boston to its home on Commonwealth Avenue. Like many urban campuses, our classrooms, offices and laboratories are housed in buildings designed for a mixture of purposes. We have iconic architecture, such as the original buildings surrounding Marsh Chapel that were designed by two teams of architects, Cram and Ferguson along with Cooley, Shepley, Bulfinch and Abbott, the successor firm to the great 19th century architect, H.H. Richardson. These buildings were constructed between 1938 and 1948. The three buildings designed by the famous Spanish architect Josep Lluis Sert, the George Sherman Union, Mugar Memorial Library and the Law Tower, are examples of a new sense of integration in urban design and architecture that was created in the 1960s. To be sure, we also have academic facilities that are housed in transformed automobile showrooms, vestiges of a different era on Commonwealth Avenue. The buildings that are the homes of the College of Fine Arts, College of Communication, and 808 Commonwealth Avenue, all fit this description. These buildings are also a legacy of our history as an urban university.

Today, Boston University is a sprawling residential campus, blending into the city and housing more than 11,000 students. Our residences vary from traditional dormitories like Warren Towers and Claflin, Rich and Sleeper Halls, to brownstones on Bay State Road, from apartment buildings on South Campus to modern high-rises like 10 Buick Street and its new neighbor with the rising steel skeleton. You will be among the first to have the opportunity to live in this facility, which will open in the fall of 2009.

This combination of a residential campus community embedded in a great city potentially gives you the best of both environments. You can and should participate in campus events, such as the many public lectures and debates that occur on campus, concerts and plays performed by our students here and at Boston University's Huntington Theater, and at Boston Symphony Hall. Please don't graduate from BU and have someone ask you the location of the Boston University Huntington Theater (which happens to be on Huntington Avenue) and have to say "I don't know."

Also, take advantage of sporting events at Boston University. The success of our hockey team is legendary, as is our domination of the annual Beanpot Hockey Tournament in February featuring Boston University, Harvard, Boston College and Northeastern. But you should also go to watch our other teams, including soccer, basketball, crew, and so many more. Boston University athletes won the Commissioner's Cup from the America East Conference for the last two years, and five out of the past six years, awarded for best overall performance in all sports. You will not be disappointed.

The many opportunities at Boston University, combined with the atmosphere created by the concentration of universities, the culture, professional sports and other entertainment venues in the city, give you the very best environment in the country for going to college. Your challenge is to balance these opportunities with your studies!

Most of you have become acquainted only with the Charles River Campus. Our Medical Campus is located on its original site in the South End, adjacent to the Boston Medical Center, the primary hospital affiliated with our teaching and research in health science, and the primary community-based hospital for residents of Boston. In fact, the Boston Medical Center and the Boston University Medical Campus are so intertwined that you are hard-pressed to know when you move from one institution to the other on that campus. There is an important lesson about Boston University in this observation. In more ways than you can imagine, Boston University has historically been, and is very much today, engaged in the city.

Whether it's through treatment of patients by the faculties of the medical and dental schools and Boston Medical Center, through the involvement of the School of Education in the public schools in Boston and the neighboring city of Chelsea, or working with the city to landscape Commonwealth Avenue and Kenmore Square, Boston University is part of the fabric of this city in uncommon ways. (I have to point out that the goal of all the construction you see along Commonwealth Avenue and in Kenmore Square is beautification and safety, because that is not at all apparent from the current mess and disruption!)

You are now a member of this urban community and I hope you will actively participate in it. Some of you already have begun to do this by attending FYSOP - the First-Year Student Outreach Project. There are many more opportunities to become engaged in the city and I urge you to stop by the Community Service Center, which is the home of 13 student-run service programs that involves some 1,500 students annually in their activities.

Our historical engagement with the City of Boston has grown into connectivity to the world. This year's freshman class is composed of students from 49 states (we're still hoping to hear from South Dakota) and from 56 countries. In addition, the international diversity of our faculty and our graduate students is extraordinary, giving us as cosmopolitan an academic community as exists in America, with more than 130 countries represented on this campus. By no means is our Boston campus the limit of your horizons.

Boston University's study abroad programs are some of the very best available. Last year 2,214 students took advantage of our 60 programs in 34 cities in 22 countries. We expect, by the time the class of 2011 graduates, that over 40 percent of you will have participated in one of our programs in either another country, or in Washington, DC or Los Angeles. (I should point out that administering our Washington and LA programs through the Study Abroad office is merely a convenience, and does not reflect our opinion of either city.)

These are marvelous opportunities to live, study, and work in other cultures and to both enrich and broaden your experiences. These experiences may be some of the most important you can gain while in college. For professional advancement, many of you will work and live abroad. You may work for a company with an international home-base, one acquired by an international parent, or simply work for a U.S. company that sees the preponderance of its growth in globally emerging world markets. In either case, you will have to excel at this opportunity to succeed professionally. Begin preparing yourself for this world by studying world history and foreign languages, by participating in internationally focused events, and by studying abroad.

Finally, I would like to spend a few minutes reflecting on a Boston University undergraduate education and our blend of liberal and professional education. Whether you are joining the College of Arts and Sciences, starting in the College of General Studies, or already focusing on becoming a professional musician, painter, engineer or financial analyst, you have the opportunity over the next four years to acquire an education that is rich in the liberal arts and sciences. You owe it to yourself to seize this opportunity.

Why? If for no other reason, you cannot predict the future! There are countless examples of distinguished people who sat at matriculation events with a focus on a specific career and for whom life has turned out richly different. I am thinking of Boston University alumni such as Fred Bronstein, who attended the College of Fine Arts with the intent to be a concert pianist and who is now President and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra; like Nina Tassler, who came here to be an actress and is now President of CBS Entertainment; and finally there's the example of my wife's best friend who started out to be a chemical engineer and now is a university president. Your ability to make these kinds of transformations will hinge on the quality of your education.

At the same time that you are preparing yourself for the unpredictable future, you can prepare yourself to be an educated member of our society. You can understand the traditions of thought that have informed the actions of those who came before and that are the foundation of western society and other cultures around the world. You can learn to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments, to struggle with the balance between individual freedom and collective responsibility, and between self-interest and community-interest. You can become scientifically literate in a world that is increasingly impacted by science and technology, and where the advantages and limitations of science and technology will be critical topics of public debate throughout your life.

I also hope that through your studies and your participation in all facets of Boston University, you will find for yourselves the distinction between learning and imagination. In many ways, this is my greatest hope for each of you. Through your studies and your involvement, you will imagine new ideas that will shape your dreams and aspirations. Without the ability to imagine, without taking the time to dream, your education will be less than it ought to be. Finding the time and opening your mind to imagination is your choice. I hope you will choose to pursue your dreams to the fullest at Boston University and throughout your life. My colleagues and I look forward to helping you succeed.

It is time to begin.

Good luck!