I had the pleasure of visiting Universidad de Los Andes in Bogotá this past weekend. I had several discussions with the President and board, the Dean of the school of government (my host), faculty and administration. I was impressed by the caliber of faculty, the modern infrastructure and the evolving mission. I include below a video of the presentation I gave (in Spanish) to a group of alumni on innovation in American higher education. Innovation will by no means be dominated by American universities or even universities from developed countries: it will emerge in institutions around the world. We will be well advised to keep an eye on what’s happening beyond the United Sates as much, if not more, as we do on what’s happening around the corner.
Northern Virginia Community College Commencement Address
Fairfax, VA, May 19, 2013
Good afternoon. It is a true pleasure to welcome the Northern Virginia Community College family to the Mason campus!
You know what NoVa stands for, right? A cataclysmic explosion on the surface of a star that makes the star to suddenly brighten up. This concentration of talent and energy is making the Patriot Center brighten up. I’m sure it’s visible from outer space: we’ll call it the NoVa power!
Y para quienes hablan español, muy buenas tardes a todos y muchísimas felicidades por su logro o el logro de su familiar. Bienvenidos al campus de la universidad George Mason.
President Templin, thank you so much for inviting me to share in this very special moment.
I hope you all know that president Bob Templin is a relentless advocate for you and for our community. He, his staff and faculty, will leave no rock unturned to ensure that every person in our community with talent and motivation has access to education. They work tirelessly to bring business and community leaders together to make sure Northern Virginia remains one the most-educated areas in the Nation.
George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College have parallel and intimately connected histories. The question of which of the two was started first is still somehow contentious. Technically Mason was started a few years earlier, but NoVa graduated its first class in 1967, one year before Mason did!
In the last 20 years alone, almost 40,000 people have gone through both NoVa and Mason. Last year alone, about 1,500 NoVa graduates took advantage of the guaranteed acceptance system and transferred to Mason. I expect even more people will do so this year, so I will pay close attention as I expect to see you next year around campus!
Our partnership continues to evolve. In 2005 we established the Pathway to the Baccalaureate program that works with high school students to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks and get to graduate from both NoVa and Mason.
And this is only the beginning, as NoVa and Mason continue to explore new ways to provide better education to more people.
America doesn’t have great universities because it is a prosperous Nation. It is a prosperous Nation because it built great universities. Northern Virginia would not be what it is today, one of the most prosperous and most educated regions in the world, if it had not built these two unique public education institutions, Nova and George Mason University. Now that you’re about to receive your first degree, we count on you to help us build an even stronger Community College!
But let me do what you probably had hoped I would do and that is to congratulate you.
For your dedication, your hard work, your determination, your openness to learn, your desire to grow and do better, you have my profound admiration. You decided to go to school when I’m sure you had plenty of other things to do. You invested precious time and money, you persevered, you worked hard, you went to class, you studied, you dug in, you pressed on, and you made it. You are here. You have proven to yourself that you could do it. And you got your first college degree to prove it. Yes you heard right, your first college degree. Because there will be others. But this will be the first and most important of all. Ladies and gentlemen, my most heartfelt congratulations!!!
Over the last few years, it has become fashionable to question whether it is worth to go to college. Newspaper articles cite Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as examples of individuals who didn’t need a college degree to be successful, and a very rich man, Peter Thiel, has created a fellowship to convince very talented students not to go to college.
A most heartfelt thank you to all students, staff and faculty for putting together a memorable and uniquely Mason inauguration event. Thank you also to our community and our fellow academics who joined in the moment. It was a moving celebration of higher education and George Mason University’s unique approach.
Photos are available here. The video of the entire event is available here. The transcript follows.
Thank you so much to everyone here today. It’s wonderful to see a community come together to celebrate their university. It’s inspiring to see how much this community cares about what we do here at George Mason. Thank you!
A good society not only builds road and bridges to connect us, hospitals to heal us, and armies to protect us. It also invests in educating our youth, cultivating the arts, advancing the sciences, and expanding our understanding of what it means to be human. This is the hallowed purpose of the university: to help us be a freer, fairer, happier society.
It’s no coincidence that a nation that was founded on the principles of individual rights and liberty, and that has championed those principles around the world, would build the world’s best universities.
Our namesake, George Mason, argued that a good society must guarantee individual rights and liberties. He, like other Virginians of his time, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington, knew that freedom and self-government was the key to a prosperous society, and that freedom and self-government could only be achieved through education.
George Washington argued for the creation of a national university, and Thomas Jefferson went on to create one, our mother institution, the University of Virginia.
The very motto of this university, Freedom and Learning, is a reminder of that fundamental idea: that one not only needs to be free in order to learn, but that one can only be free through learning.
American universities didn’t become strong because America prospered. America prospered because it built strong universities.
Universities don’t just happen. They are created and nurtured by a community and therefore can only be as strong as their community wants them to be.
When I look around this morning, I see a bright future for this beloved university of ours. And I see a bright future for our community because of it!
I have seen firsthand how universities change lives. I came to this country, like many young people dream of doing, because it offered the best education in the world. It was 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed and the Internet was made commercially available.
It’s taken me a while to come to terms with this tradition in American higher education to inaugurate new college presidents with great pomp and circumstance, and to do so several months after the official appointment.
As per the peculiar timing, Virginia Governor McDonnell explained it best during the inauguration of fellow president Jonathan Alger at James Madison University last month. In politics, he said, we are elected first, then inaugurated, then we get to do our job. In academia, you first get to do your job for a few months and then you are inaugurated. It actually makes sense to test-drive a new president before you tell the world you’re ready to keep him or her (for at least a bit longer)!
When I first arrived last July, I told my staff I didn’t want to go through this rite of passage. The focus, I said, ought to be on the university, not on any one individual, not even the president. We each play an important role in the life of the university, and I’m not comfortable drawing so much attention on my particular role. After repeated discussions, I conceded to the majority opinion among my colleagues. And the festivities are ready for this coming Friday.
Even though I agreed to move forward, I admit I continued to dread the moment until recently. Then, last week, as I was reviewing the plans for the event with my colleagues, I realized I had been looking at it the wrong way all along. My colleagues were right and I was wrong. It’s somewhat embarrassing that it took me almost 13 years of leading academic institutions to understand this, but at last, I think I did!
The inauguration of a new president is not a celebration of an individual, but of an institution. Universities play a central role in our democratic society. They empower citizens for the responsibility of self-government, they advance the sciences and the arts, they educate our youth, they deepen our understanding of what it means to be human. It is no coincidence that a nation that was built on the principles of individual rights and liberties would build the world’s finest universities. The centrality of the university in American society is one of the reasons why America has prospered the way it has.
The fact that a community takes its universities so seriously, that it pays so much attention to its governance and administration, is a sign that the community understands and appreciates the critical importance of education. I should not dread the inauguration, but embrace it and celebrate it. And so I will.
I look forward to joining our community in celebrating what George Mason University has accomplished, in recognizing what others have done to build this institution and in renewing our commitment to keep working to make of our university another example of what has made American higher education the best in the world.
Our central argument is that global leaders are made, not born, and that anyone can work to become one. Global leaders are people who engage effectively with individuals and organizations from various cultural settings and who succeed at bringing together people and resources from different cultural settings to craft solutions and create value that could not be created separately.
These individuals tend to share a number of characteristics, most of which are acquired. In short, they exhibit an extraordinary global mindset, entrepreneurial skills and citizenship values. These skills allow them to connect with others, create solutions and contribute to others.
I’ve been spending some time reading about how the Founding Fathers of the United States thought about higher education (one interesting perspective on this matter is Susan Dunn’s “Dominion of Memories”). As it turns out, Washington, who didn’t go to college, dreamed of a national university that would bring Americans together and contribute to a shared sense of national unity. The following excerpt is by Washington himself. And it’s priceless.
I mean education generally, as one of the surest means of enlightening and giving just ways of thinking to our citizens, but particularly the establishment of a university; where the youth from all parts of the United States might receive the polish of erudition in the arts, sciences, and belles-lettres; and where those who were disposed to run a political course might not only be instructed in the theory and principles, but (this seminary being at the seat of the general government) where the legislature would be in session half the year, and the interests and politics of the nation of course would be discussed, they would lay the surest foundation for the practical part also.
But that which would render it of the highest importance, in my opinion, is, that the juvenal period of life, when friendships are formed, and habits established, that will stick by one; the youth or young men from different parts of the United States would be assembled together, and would by degrees discover that there was not that cause for those jealousies and prejudices which one part of the Union had imbibed against another part:—of course, sentiments of more liberality in the general policy of the country would result from it. What but the mixing of people from different parts of the United States during the war rubbed off these impressions? A century, in the ordinary intercourse, would not have accomplished what the seven years’ association in arms did; but that ceasing, prejudices are beginning to revive again, and never will be eradicated so effectually by any other means as the intimate intercourse of characters in early life,—who, in all probability, will be at the head of the counsels of this country in a more advanced stage of it.
It’s fair to say that Washington’s dream was for the most part accomplished, not by means of one national institution, but many. Some of the ideas could be used today in thinking about a “global” university .
More than 400 volunteer curators— including students, faculty, journalists, politicians and entrepreneurs from around the world—select news for me in real time, at no cost, 24 hours a day, every day. Thanks to them, I am intimately connected to trends on campus, revolutions in the Middle East (and in higher education) and Spanish soccer dramas as they unfold. If any of my curators don’t perform to my taste, I simply “unfollow” them and find smarter, better informed ones.
I, in turn, volunteer my own ideas and news to anyone—about 7,500 followers to date—who cares to read them. I usually cover trends in higher education, entrepreneurship or global affairs. I discuss my views about George Mason University, cancel classes during hurricanes, or report on the sometimes absurd circumstances of life. Anyone associated with Mason who is curious about the new president now has access to an unplugged, unfiltered version of me, just as I have with many others.
If you are considering taking the plunge, here are my answers to some of the questions and comments I hear most frequently.
At its core, a business is about bringing people and resources together to create value that no single individual can create alone. A good business creates value by making everyone it touches, better off. A good business provides returns to investors, it creates opportunities for people to lead productive lives, and it delivers products that improve customers’ lives, while not creating unfair costs for bystanders. A business that doesn’t reward investors adequately, that treats employees unfairly, that cheats its customers or harms its community is a failure. Empathy is an essential element of business because, without understanding the needs and desires of others, it is impossible to satisfy them.
Unfortunately, much of business education continues to emphasize a different view of business, one where economic actors try to outsmart one another to enrich themselves where boards treat managers as if they were self-serving and opportunistic, where companies leverage their power to extract value from customers and suppliers, erect barriers to competition, or transfer costs (externalities) to others as long as they don’t break the law (or don’t get caught). While many of the tools we teach are useful elements in a manager’s toolkit, the overarching framework that dominates the discourse in many business classes today is not only misguided, it can be harmful.
I look forward to the day when “empathy” is no longer seen as a soft concept but as a core skill for business leadership. Initiatives like George Mason University’s New Century College may help bring “empathy” to the core of a college education.