Matriculation Address to the Entering Class: Fall 2012

by Robert A. Brown | September 2, 2012

Welcome to Boston University! I hope your move-in went well. Your belongings are in your rooms, your parents will soon be saying their good-byes, and you are in the final stages of preparing for your first classes and the beginning of your first year at Boston University.

Your university experience starts today as you sit here with the other members of the Boston University Class of 2016. Let me begin by congratulating you on your achievements that have led you to being here. During the next four years you will be a part of one of the most prestigious academic communities in the world, surrounded by teachers, scholars, and researchers—faculty and fellow students—all of whom have come to Boston University to learn and to create new knowledge. In this environment, you will have enormous opportunities to deepen your education, expand your understanding of society and the natural world, and, perhaps, begin a professional education that will launch your career.

I also know this is a time of tremendous anticipation and that you have given much thought to your goals for the next four years. However, I do want to use my few minutes with you this afternoon to give you some perspective on your education and on Boston University. Hopefully, my thoughts will help you as you navigate the University and your educational path over the months and years ahead.

First, I will start with a bit of history of Boston University. Like many of the great private universities in this country, Boston University began as a Methodist seminary. It was founded in Newbury, Vermont, in 1839 and relocated to Boston in 1867. Building 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 their names soon, if you don’t already, especially those of you living on West Campus!) Chartered just after the end of the American Civil War, Boston University was envisioned as a very novel institution for the time, one that combined the qualities of the antebellum liberal arts education, which was common at many independent New England colleges, along 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. Today’s Boston University is a major research university with a broad array of programs in professional education, research, and scholarship, but simultaneously we are dedicated to providing a liberal arts and sciences foundation for all our undergraduate students.

Our Founders also saw Boston University as an academic community that was open to all, irrespective of their sex, race, or religion. Boston University opened its doors to all from its beginning. This University claims many firsts, including the first PhD awarded to a woman, in 1877, and the first coeducational medical school, in 1873. Diversity is woven throughout the fabric of Boston University. Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps our most famous alumnus, 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. Dr. King’s dream—that people be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, their actions, and their accomplishments—has long been the reality here.

Boston University also is a uniquely urban university. What other university has a trolley line running along the spine of its campus? As the third President of Boston University, Lemuel Merlin, put it, Boston University exists “in the heart of the city, in the service of the city,” and we do so by deliberate choice. Today we are composed of two sprawling campuses, with more than 320 buildings on 133 acres. You are getting to know the Charles River Campus, which was established in the 1930s when the University began to consolidate from locations all around downtown Boston to its home on Commonwealth Avenue. 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.

Today, our Charles River Campus features many academic buildings with iconic architecture, and other facilities with a very urban, utilitarian look and history. The original buildings on either side of Marsh Chapel, constructed between 1938 and 1948, were designed by two teams of architects, Cram & Ferguson along with Coolidge Shepley Bulfinch and Abbott. The three buildings designed by the famous Spanish architect Josep Lluís Sert, the George Sherman Union, Mugar Memorial Library, and the Law Tower, are examples of the integration in urban design and architecture, and the application of the technology of cast-in-place concrete, that were developed in the 1960s.

Around these academic buildings, the vestiges of an earlier commercial era of Commonwealth Avenue are also visible, from the refurbished automobile showrooms and facilities that are now the homes of the College of Fine Arts and the College of Communication, to the student residences in converted hotels, including Shelton Hall, Myles Standish Hall, and 575 Commonwealth Avenue (more affectionately known as HoJo’s).

The campus continues to evolve and grow. Our latest addition is the new Center for Student Services on Bay State Road. I’m sure each of you will spend considerable time there over the next few years, using student services or finding food. During the next few years you will be able to watch the total renovation of the Law Tower and the construction of a new classroom facility adjacent to it. There will be more changes.

Today, Boston University spreads almost two miles along Commonwealth Avenue and, when taken together with our Medical Campus in South Boston, includes 16 schools and colleges and an academic community composed of more than 4,000 faculty, 6,012 staff, and more than 33,000 students, approximately equally split between undergraduates and graduate students. We are a small city with an annual operating budget of just over two billion dollars.

Boston University has grown from a private university founded to serve principally the people of Boston and New England into a world-renowned research university that serves the nation and the world. Today, Boston University’s faculty includes leading scholars and researchers in each of the fields of inquiry that are represented across our campuses. When you are next in Barnes & Noble, stop by the shelves with Boston University authors and look firsthand at some of the works that are being published by members of your faculty.

There are other ways to measure research productivity that are routinely used to parse universities. Last year, Boston University received nearly $376 million in research funding sponsored by government, industry, and foundations. Last year we were ranked in the top 25 of all private universities nationally in terms of research support.

I just used a concept that you probably have struggled with a lot over the last year: university rankings. I am certain that most of you looked at rankings as you considered where you wanted to go to college. Whether it was the U.S. News & World Report rankings, where Boston University is 53rd among major U.S. institutions, or the QS world ranking of Higher Education institutions, where we are 70th among the set of worldwide institutions considered and 24th among the ranked U.S. institutions, you looked at these numbers and tried to decide how they would influence your decision and how they might, in some way, actually affect your education. We all crave high rankings, whether it is the university we attend, the ranking of our favorite athletic teams, or the current standings of our favorite singers on American Idol. (Incidentally, 27 of the American schools that rank higher than BU in U.S. News are ranked below us in the QS world rankings! Go figure.)

I know that you understand that universities are not athletic teams and are not simply rated on the kind of scores used for contestants on reality television shows or in sports. Each of these academic rankings uses different criteria, each biased in its own way, some toward endowment size, some to smaller student bodies, and some to faculties with greater international representation. None of these systems truly captures the quality, diversity, and opportunities of a large comprehensive, multi-college, research university.

Even so, rankings play a role in the college selection process. I know that some of you began your search for a college or university with these rankings in mind. A serious problem with this approach is that it sometimes translates into anxiety. How? If you begin the process of selecting which schools to consider solely on the basis of rankings, you will inevitably worry too much about how your ultimate pick stacks up. For those of you who knew early on that Boston University was the school for you, this isn’t an issue. But if you do have this anxiety, I challenge you this afternoon to put it behind you—get over it. Make Boston University your university. Commit yourselves to the University and take full advantage of all that it has to offer. If you do this you will take the first important step toward the University living up to your expectations for a college education, and to you seizing the many great opportunities that Boston University can offer you.

You will judge your success in meeting this challenge over the next four years. And you will participate in the rankings through your performance; your graduation rate is a measure used in the U.S. News & World Report survey, as is your participation with the University after graduation. Moreover, you have a lot to do with the future ranking of Boston University. Our reputation is built on the foundation of the quality of your education, your accomplishments, and your pride in us.

You have joined one of the most diverse, well-respected, highly selective private research universities in the world. The question for you now is, how can you take full advantage of Boston University in order to make the most of your education and your college experience? One of the most important aspects of this process will happen naturally, through the efforts of your teachers. Our faculty members form an academic community where the creation of new knowledge, scholarship, and professional accomplishments, at national and international levels of distinction, go hand-in-hand with conveying this knowledge and expertise to you. Whether they are high-energy physicists working on large-scale international experiments like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, public health specialists trying to save the lives of newborns in Zambia, neuroscientists and doctors working to understand autism, economists and management faculty working to understand global capital markets, or professional musicians and artists, all of our faculty members are expected to be both leaders in their fields of study and practice, and excellent teachers and mentors for you and our graduate students.

By accepting this dual mission, members of our community accept the balancing act needed to be successful at these roles. We all benefit from the intellectual energy that is created by our faculty, but we also need to understand that there is no more demanding position than being a faculty member in a leading research university: all professors juggle to balance their time among the demands of undergraduate teaching and advising, scholarship and research, graduate student mentoring and teaching, and their personal lives.

As a member of the community, you might feel at times as if you are vying for attention from a particular faculty member. Faculty members are busy, but they do hold undergraduate education as the essential core mission of this University. They also all hold office hours; take advantage of this and get to know this wonderful group of women and men.

Make it your goal that when you leave Boston University you will have several faculty members who know you well. Let me repeat that for emphasis: by the time you graduate, make sure that several members of the faculty know you well, as an individual. Developing such relationships will make your educational experience much more meaningful, and it is a good idea for when you need a reference for a job or graduate school application!

We are joined by a large group of faculty at today’s ceremony. Will the faculty please rise? I’d like our entering students to recognize your future teachers and mentors with a warm round of applause.

I want to ask you this afternoon to begin to think about the most important opportunity that you have within your grasp: the opportunity to shape your education at Boston University. Others will offer their assistance; faculty advisors and mentors, parents and friends, and of course fellow students, will offer their advice, especially if you seek it, but ultimately the decisions of what major to pursue, what classes to take, and which extracurricular activities to attend, are yours alone.

What do I mean by the opportunity to shape your education? Many of you feel you have already selected a career path and have a vision of your entry point into the professional workforce, either directly through a major in the College of Arts & Sciences, or through professional programs such as Management, Engineering, Fine Arts, Education, or Communication. Many of you already are thinking about graduate education in fields like law, medicine, and management. I am not suggesting that you rethink these decisions. In fact, I very much hope that the passion you now have for your selected career path grows dramatically over the next four years. What I am speaking of is the rest of your college education, the classes you take that are not related to your major, and the other activities that round out your education and enrich your years at BU.

I don’t have a prescription for what is the best education for you, nor does Boston University ascribe to a single path for a well-educated person, but there are some overarching goals that I feel you should strive to attain along the way. I would like to offer you five suggestions:

  1. First, you should study the great traditions of thought that have informed the actions of those who came before and that are the foundation of societies and cultures around the world.
  2. Second, learn to distinguish between logical and illogical arguments, to struggle with the balances between individual freedom and collective responsibility, and between self-interest and community-interest.
  3. Also, you need to become scientifically literate to participate in a world where the advantages and limitations of science and technology will be critical topics of public debate throughout your lives. These debates are all around us, from the debate over the cost and efficacy of health care, to the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research and therapies, to the evidence of global warming, and, finally, in the demands around the world for energy from oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power, and the impact of limited energy resources on us and on all citizens of our planet.
  4. Learn to write clearly and easily, as our ability to communicate with others is critical to our role in society. You might have great ideas and brilliant insights, but you'll never get them across effectively in “text-message English”. “IMHO” (which stands for In My Humble Opinion when texting) will never be as effective as “I think,” as strong as “I believe,” or as powerful as “I know.”
  5. Finally, don’t be mathematically illiterate. Numbers can be either as persuasive or as mystifying as words. You need to hone your quantitative reasoning skills to be successful in today’s world. Remember the phrase popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

How you might achieve these goals can be customized for each of you. My appeal to all of you is to use your undergraduate years as a time to pursue this balanced education vigorously; an education that becomes your intellectual, moral, ethical, and professional foundation for the very long life that lies ahead.

I am sure that most of you accept the notion that a balanced education is important in principle, but when it comes to practice, some of you might need some more persuasion. I cannot promise that diversifying your course of study will help bring you instant fame and fortune, so let me try another motivation for you: Simply put, you cannot predict your future! There are countless examples of distinguished people who sat at matriculation events such as this one with a focus on a specific career and for whom life has turned out richly different. I am thinking of Boston University alumnus and Trustee Andy Lack, for example, who attended the College of Fine Arts intending to become a musician and who is now CEO of Bloomberg News; or our Trustee Nina Tassler, who came to BU to be an actress and is now President of CBS Entertainment; and Ben Fischman, a graduate of the College of Communication who co-founded the store LIDS and then the internet-based shopping site Rue La La. Each of these alumni has been able to make the most of the unexpected paths their lives have followed. Your ability to seize opportunities and make transformations in your life will be built on the quality of your education, the foundation of which you will lay, stone-by-stone, over the next four years.

Your education is not limited to the classroom or our campus. Boston University has a rich history of engagement with the city and world. I am referring to more than just visiting the establishments on Lansdowne Street. If you don’t know yet where that is, I am confident you will figure it out soon enough.

This brings me to emphasize a topic that I wish I did not need to discuss, but I must: the potential for engaging in risky behavior, especially as it relates to binge drinking and underage drinking in general. Yes, I am addressing you. You all know what I mean: consuming multiple drinks in a short time span either before a game or a night out, to show off for your friends, or just to do what you think is the norm. Having two drinks for an average women or three drinks for a man in one hour will leave you impaired in judgment and coordination. If you keep drinking at that rate, you will raise your blood alcohol to a dangerously high level, leaving yourself incapacitated where others might take advantage of you, or simply result in you waking up in a pool of your own stomach contents, either in your bed, some other unfamiliar place, or at the emergency room. This could leave you evicted from student housing. For some, the consequences can be much, much worse.

And many of you might believe your actions on Friday and Saturday night don’t have an impact on your academic performance. Let me give you some numbers that just might be sobering. In a recent year, the median freshman GPA for students for whom medical treatment was sought because of a single binge drinking episode was almost a 0.3 grade point BELOW that of the entire freshman class that year. The GPA of this very distinguished group of students—those needing medical attention because of binge drinking—was in the lowest quartile of our freshman class.

Is this what you want to achieve? I am betting that it isn’t, nor is it your parents’ expectation. I wrote to your parents last month specifically about this issue, and I hope that they have talked to you about the risks you take if you binge drink.

All of this is not necessary. I ask you today to act responsibly. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Through your behavior, represent yourselves, your families, and your University well.

And if you believe you need help to deal with issues that arise, we are here for you, from the resident assistant on your floor in your residence to the staffs in the Office of the Dean of Students, in Behavioral Medicine in the Student Health Center, and the Sexual Assault Response & Prevention Center. These resources are here to help you.

It is important that you acknowledge the support and love that got you to this moment in your life. Besides your own ambition and hard work, your parents gave you a strong foundation, morally, emotionally, and financially. May I ask the members of the Class of 2016 to rise, turn around, and applaud the parents, family, and friends who are with us today.

May I ask the parents, family, and friends who are with us today to rise and applaud the wonderful young adults—your children—who make up the Class of 2016.

Thank you!

(I knew I could engineer a standing ovation from this group!) Please be seated.

All of you in this arena are now members of the Boston University community: one community dedicated to the education of young people and to the creation of knowledge for the betterment of mankind. I hope all of us will represent our community well both through our academic accomplishments and our actions outside the classroom.

There are many ways for you to engage in the community at large that go well beyond the clubs on Lansdowne Street. Boston University is part of the fabric of Boston in uncommon ways. Whether it’s through the treatment of patients by the faculties of the medical and dental schools and Boston Medical Center, involvement of the School of Education in the public schools in Boston, or working with the city to revitalize Commonwealth Avenue and Kenmore Square, we are actively engaged in the life of the city. 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. One thousand of you spent four days last week at 125 sites performing more than 25,000 hours of community service. May I ask our FYSOP volunteers to stand? Thank you for your efforts on behalf of our community and Boston University.

There are many more opportunities to become engaged in the city and I urge you to stop by the Community Service Center in the GSU, which is the home of 13 student-run service programs that involve some 4,500 students annually in their activities, completing 130,000 hours of community service this past year.

Your opportunities are not limited to Boston as you can engage in the world as part of your education. Last year some 2,500 students took advantage of our 98 study abroad programs in 38 cities in 25 countries. We expect that by the time the Class of 2016 graduates, more than 40 percent of you will have participated in one of our programs in either another country, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles.

And you can experience the world here at Boston University. I am confident that four years from now each of you will have close friends from around the world. In addition to students from the United States, our freshman class represents students from 86 countries. Let me give a special welcome to our students from around the world.

Finally, you do not have to venture off our campus to find a large, complex vibrant community. You will find one here, up and down Commonwealth Avenue. You will also find here almost all the issues that are being debated in our society. Environmental sustainability is an example. All through the year you will hear of specific ways in which we can continue to make progress, but we will need your help. Whether it is powering down your computers to conserve energy, recycling and reusing a variety of materials, or simply questioning which documents you really need to print, you and the rest of our community will play a major role in making our initiative a success. Why? Boston University is a large community, so seemingly small changes in our individual behavior can greatly impact our collective energy consumption and waste.

Universities are ancient institutions, dating at least to medieval times, and are full of purpose, promise, and tradition. As the Class of 2016, you are participating this afternoon in several important Boston University traditions. You have marched with our Dean of Students, Kenn Elmore, down Commonwealth Avenue, and felt the exhilaration of stopping traffic at the BU Bridge. You sit together as the matriculating Boston University freshman class, one Boston University student body, representing ten schools and colleges. Finally, in a few minutes we will go through our last ritual of this Matriculation day when we acknowledge each academic unit and officially induct you into the student body of Boston University.

After this ceremony, and throughout your years at Boston University, you will branch off to pursue your academic and social interests and to develop your circle of friends. For much of the next four years you will self-identify with a school or college. In four years, you will come together again as one class at another important event: this will occur at your graduation ceremony on Nickerson Field, where, like our faculty this morning, you too will wear traditional academic regalia.

I hope that as you go through your years here you become connected with the larger University. That through your participation in activities, whether they be sporting events, lectures, or concerts, or simply reading BU Today online, you develop an appreciation for the larger University. The shape of Boston University in all its facets of education, scholarship, research, and service affects your education in ways that you will only understand by developing this connectivity. I hope you will develop these connections and make Boston University your University, in the fullest sense.

I hope that through your studies and other activities you will find for yourselves the educational balance that I have spoken about and that through this balance you will find resonance between the joy of learning and your imagination. In many ways this is my greatest hope for each of you. Develop the ability to imagine, take the time to dream, and pursue your loftiest aspirations, so that your education is all that it ought to be.

Finally, when you go to a hockey or basketball game and the chant begins, “GO BU” I want you to feel like this chant is for you. To feel that it describes your approach and drive to get the most out of your precious time here. I hope you will fulfill your dreams at Boston University.

Good luck!