2024 Convocation Message from Azer Bestavros

Hello Class of 2024. What an incredible day. The weather is (well) ok; beautiful campus; accomplished graduates; proud parents, family, and friends; cheerful faculty…What more could one ask for?

On behalf of the Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences, I would like to extend a warm welcome to all those in attendance – to our esteemed guest of honor, Brahm Rhodes, to the CDS Faculty and Staff, to the parents, relatives, friends, and other well-wishers in attendance; and last but not least to our graduates – the CDS Class of 2024.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Azer Bestavros, and I am the Associate Provost for Computing & Data Sciences, and it is my honor to open today’s ceremony by congratulating all members of our Class of 2024 for a job well done. We look forward to many more accomplishments from each and every one of you as you embark on new and exciting journeys, propelled by the education you had at BU.

The class of 2024 will always hold a special place in our collective memory in CDS and indeed for all of us at BU. To our undergraduates, you will be remembered as a class in which every member is a crossover into the DS major, having started your BU journey in a different college at BU, and choosing to join the data science program as soon as it was born.

You are the first post-pandemic graduates, having matriculated to a university in the process of adapting its offerings to deal with the COVID realities of “learning from anywhere” and regular PCR testing, and going through your undergraduate studies at a time when the society and economy are adjusting to the new norms of remote and hybrid work, etc. etc.

To our Data Science Masters students, you will be remembered as the trailblazing inaugural class for CDS!

And, to our Bioinformatics Masters and PhD students, you are the first to have your degrees conferred by CDS.

Today, as you begin a new journey, remember that you are carrying the hopes and dreams of many people – friends, family, and yes all of us faculty and staff in CDS. We are proud of you and we hope that in the many years to come, you will always remember with pride BU, your Alma Mater and CDS your adopted home.

In fact, you are not only carrying the hopes and dreams of all of us in CDS today, but let me say that you are doing so also for a much larger community of Terriers who have been part of the ethos of computing and data science long before CDS was a thing!

Here is what one of those Terriers – Barry Levine – wrote as a comment on a BU Today story celebrating the trailblazing graduates of CDS – a comment that I promised him I would relay to you this morning:

“Congrats to my fellow BU pioneers. I too was a pioneering undergrad, starting in the newly created CS department in 1982-1983.”

That’s 41 years ago. He then adds:

“It can be both challenging and exciting to be part of something new and evolving. Best of luck post-graduation! Be sure to give real world feedback to [CDS] to help improve it for others that follow you.”

Graduation speeches are a terrible genre. All I remember from my own is that I listened patiently to what sounded like a sermon about how “momentous” a graduation event is and how it underscores the manner in which a graduating class will “change the world” and how it will “leave its mark” on society and technology, and how it will serve its Alma Mater for years to come.

Back then, it all sounded hyped up, or somehow hollow. I did not mind it, but I really had my doubts as to whether a few students could really “change the world” or “leave their mark”, etc. etc.

Well, I am here today to tell you that this is exactly what all of us in CDS expect of you. CDS was created with a singular vision to “improve the human condition by bringing computational and data-driven technologies, systems, and processes to bear on the greatest challenges facing our world.”

Let me talk a little about these challenges…We live in a world that is defined by data and shaped by how computers gather, manipulate, interpret, and use that data. Our media feeds are inundated by content from marketers and advertisers based on our explicit likes and dislikes. Our creative works and even our informal online chatter have been captured in Large Language Models used by generative AI to increasingly blur the lines between humans and machines. Our online public exchanges have become fodder for special interest groups to infer if not influence our political leanings, engineer how we vote, and even rewrite history and justify the unjustifiable.

And then there are the bad actors who steal our data, hijack our identities, fake our news, and use all of these new technologies to wreak havoc in our worlds.

One can look at this brave new world with anxiety and even fear as the gap between the haves and have-nots (programmers and programmed) continues to widen.

What’s to become of our society when our decision-making processes are increasingly reliant on the use of obscure machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies?

What’s to become of our democracy when reasoned civic discourse and even freedom of expression become casualties of targeted misinformation and disinformation campaigns?

What’s to become of our humanity when data becomes our only window to the world and computer algorithms govern our interactions?

Those are all fair and reasonable concerns that we all have a duty to address.

But there is another, more optimistic, view. One can also look at this new data-driven world as an empowering one, a world where data and computation over data are merely tools that we can (and should) domesticate for a better society.

This can be a world where data and algorithms are inclusive of the viewpoints and values of the communities most impacted by their usage – a world where “data speaks louder than money”!

This can be a world that is made more resilient, efficient, and equitable through the use of evidence-based policymaking.

This more optimistic viewpoint is the world that CDS envisions and strives to make a reality.

It is a world in which leveraging data and computation is an equal opportunity, a world in which mastering the tools of the trade is not a barrier to entry, but rather the lingua franca for collaboration that breaks down boundaries.

It is a world in which technology enhances society, drives economic prosperity, and improves the human condition.

This is the world that we hope you – our 2024 graduates – will help us build.

So here is my message to you: Be a force for all that is good.

As you step into the ever-evolving world of technology, armed with your knowledge and skills, I want to remind you of some timeless values that can guide you on your path.

First and foremost, remember the importance of integrity. In a field driven by innovation, it's crucial to hold onto your moral compass and make ethical decisions. Let honesty, fairness, and respect for others be the guiding light that steers your professional choices.

As you navigate the ever more complex landscape of computing and AI technologies, embrace the virtue of humility. Recognize that no matter how skilled or knowledgeable you become, there is always more to learn.

Stay open-minded, eager to collaborate, willing to learn from others, and acknowledging that your abilities are a gift and that true success comes from serving others.

Embrace the power of empathy in all your endeavors. Apply this principle to your work, considering the needs, concerns, and aspirations of the people who will use the technologies you create.

Be resilient! The world of technology is dynamic and often presents unexpected hurdles. When you encounter these hurdles, embrace them with a positive mindset. Put faith in your education, knowing that every obstacle can become an opportunity for growth and improvement.

Last but not least, remember to enjoy the journey and to share that enjoyment with your loved ones! Celebrate your successes and those of your peers and collaborators who are vested in your professional growth and success as much as you are vested in theirs! We would love to hear of your successes and celebrate those with you!

Graduates, as you step into the world, be a force for all that is good and carry our CDS values with you. Go! Make us proud!

- Azer Bestavros, Associate Provost, BU Faculty of Computing & Data Sciences