- University Life
American University College of Arts and Sciences
May 13, 2012
The Honorable G. Wayne Clough
Secretary, Smithsonian Institution
Well, thank you very much, President Kerwin, Provost Bass, Dean Starr, and members of the faculty. My profound thanks for this honorary degree, doctor of public services, from this very distinguished university.
Greetings to the graduates and their families and friends. Congratulations to the faculty, whose efforts led the students to this wonderful day. It's wonderful to be back on a campus on such a beautiful day, and a remarkable campus in the middle of our nation's capital.
Graduates, this is your special day. Congratulations to you all. You have every reason to be proud of your accomplishments, with the hard work you put in to get your degree. It's also a special day for all the moms here. I want to say thanks to all the moms one more time for all they've done to make sure the graduates got here today. All of us dads get a day later.
It is an honor for me to be able to participate in your graduation. As a former university dean, provost, and president, I have led more than 60 commencement ceremonies, and it is a pleasure to participate in one where I am not the one who has to worry about how long the graduation speaker will run on.
Of course, I know a well run graduation when I see one, so I would like to compliment President Kerwin and all the staff for what they've done. Let's give them a hand for setting up this beautiful ceremony.
Neil and I are in an exclusive club: Alums who have become presidents of their alma maters. I'm sure, given his accomplished academic career and leadership skills, it was no surprise when Neil, AU class of 1971, was appointed president. For me, well, let's just say when I returned to my alma mater, Georgia Tech, as president, more than a few faculty who knew me as a student were, shall we say, surprised.
But I must say, there is nothing more fun in life than exceeding expectations. If I inspire you to do anything today, I hope some of you are already planning to come back as president of American University. Of course, I am sure Neil would prefer you wait until he has finished his tenure.
To do so, you will have to continue your education, commit to a lifetime of learning, and wear the "wonk" label with pride. You will have to remain as the AU definition of wonk states, "smart, passionate, focused, and engaged." Here, today, I am proud to say, with apologies to President John F. Kennedy, and all the AU language professors,”Ich bin ein wonk.”
In fact I think I was one before Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg made it profitable and cool. Back in the 1960s, I studied earthquake engineering while working on my Ph.D. at Cal-Berkeley. Back in the 1960s at Berkeley, a lot more was going on than business as usual as we had pretty regular diet of demonstrations. While Timothy Leary was urging my generation to turn on, tune in, and drop out, I was plotting my way around police barricades and learning the nuances of dealing with different types of tear gas so I could get to my lab and finish my thesis.
Having no money and a family to support is a way to focus the mind of a wonk-ish young man. It was tough back then being a wonk. Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than we did, but getting a job on graduation was a pretty good consolation prize.
After Berkeley I ended up on the faculty of Stanford University for about a decade and worked on earthquake problems around the world. I saw the difficulties caused by earthquakes. I love to experience earthquakes, and with experience when one occurs that you can feel, you can get pretty good at telling the magnitude and the distance of the earthquake from where you are.
Back then, we earthquake engineers had a steady pool of money in place and whoever guessed the distance and magnitude before the official word came in won the pool. The way you do this, a little advice in case you want to try it, is to remain entirely calm and count the time between the arrival of the different forms of earthquake waves. From this information you can actually calculate what's going on.
Fast forward to last summer when the earthquake hit the D.C. region. I was in a meeting with some of our staff and regents in the Smithsonian Castle. Sure enough, the good old castle building, built in 1855, really was shaking, with dust falling over our heads. I knew what we were experiencing. I said get under the table and out of force of habit stayed in my chair and started counting. Some questioned my sanity, but when the shaking stopped, they were safe, and I was very close on my guess of the distance and magnitude of the quake. Unfortunately, we didn't have a pool of money that I could win this time, but I did have fun. It turned out that I didn't have a full closure on this or a monopoly on this. It turned out that the orangutans at the zoo did a better job predicting the earthquake than we did.
I like to think my experience helped ensure my colleagues were safe. I know what to do in an earthquake. And as you all know "wonk" spelled backwards is "know." It pays to know. Knowledge is power. And when you leave here, whatever your avocation, the farther up the ladder you ascend, and make no mistake, you will, as AU graduates ascend, you will be called upon to use power wisely.
This city, this country, need you and what you can do. This world needs what you do as well. We face major challenges. My generation has left you with plenty of them. We always will have challenges. Working together, we can confront and overcome those challenges.
What will it take? As diplomat Jean Monnet, said, "Nothing is possible without individuals; nothing is lasting without institutions." You put great individuals together with great institutions and anything is possible. You have two great institutions behind you, both established in the 19th century: American University and the Smithsonian Institution. As you leave here, take them with you. With today's technology, you can have both in the palm of your hand, literally. Steve Jobs famously said, "I want to make a dent in the universe." And he did. You can too.
You know what your university has done and will do for you. I hope you also appreciate what the Smithsonian can do for you. The Smithsonian is not the nation's attic; it is the nation's asset, your asset. You own it. Every day, in person and online, all across our country, we are creating exciting learning experiences. For you, your colleagues, and your children, when you have children.
Last year, we had nearly 30 million visitors to our nearly 100 new exhibitions at our D.C. museums and galleries and the National Zoo. Another five million visited our traveling exhibitions available in communities around the country. Millions watched Smithsonian Networks' Emmy Award winning HD channel, and Smithsonian magazine has subscribers in every state. We're now reaching a hundred million people using digital technology, and we've just gotten started.
My goal is to provide every American with access to our iconic objects, scientific specimens, works of art, library volumes, archival material, and yes, our 2,000 living specimens at the zoo. Whether it is a tiny fossil, a giant squid, the Star Spangled Banner, the Lansdowne portrait of George Washington, the Wright Flyer or the recently arrived space shuttle Discovery, we want you to own it and have it at your fingertips. And at our National Portrait Gallery, we have portraits of all the presidents, many of whom have spoken at American University, including AU's first wonk of the year award winner, Bill Clinton.
And wonks? We've got them in abundance at the Smithsonian. Our 6,000 employees and 6,500 volunteers are "smart, passionate, focused and engaged." Our wonks use our collections to ask and answer questions that matter to all of us. We offer a universal lens for learning to all no matter where you live, for free. So take advantage. Many of you have already. Many of you already know about much of what we offer, and you know what a long term productive partnership we have with this great university.
We share in common the legacy of one of Washington's most generous philanthropists, Bob Kogod, who endowed your business school and who serves as one of our regents and helped us build the remarkable Kogod Courtyard in our Reynolds Center, which serves the entire Washington, D.C., community.
Dozens of AU students, fellows, and faculty have been so helpful to the Smithsonian and worked in partnerships with us on research, education and outreach. At our Anacostia Community Museum, our American History Museum, and elsewhere across our campus, AU is helping us spark discovery and learning, and we are committed to doing more as partners in the future.
I hope many of you saw the inspiring flyover of the space shuttle Discovery a couple of weeks ago. I invite you to see it at our National Air and Space Museum's Hazy Center out near Dulles Airport. When it arrived, I was honored to share the stage with many heroes. Senator John Glenn was there as were 15 Discovery commanders, including NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and the first female shuttle commander, Colonel Eileen Collins.
When she was first named to command a shuttle mission, Colonel Collins shared the story of her own inspiration. She remarked, "Since I was a child I've dreamed about space. I've admired pilots, astronauts, explorers of all kinds. It's my hope that all children, boys and girls, will see this mission and be inspired to reach for their dreams, too, because dreams do come true." Discovery is now undertaking a second mission: to inspire the next generation of Eileen Collins.
Nearly 40 years ago, Lonnie Bunch sat where you're sitting now to receive his degree from American University. Today, he is the director or our National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has an honored place on the National Mall, across from the Washington Monument, and will open in 2015. Three months ago, Lonnie was sitting next to President Obama, first lady Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Congressman and civil rights hero John Lewis, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback and a host of other dignitaries for the ground-breaking of our new museum. It tells an essential, ongoing part of the American story, one relevant to all Americans: the story of struggle and redemption. It would not have happened without the leadership and vision of Lonnie Bunch, AU class of 1974, and commencement speaker here in 2010.
So please stay a wonk, stay passionate, focused, and engaged. If you do, you'll make a difference. You'll make your professors and parents proud. You'll make a dent in the universe.
In February, the Smithsonian was proud to host the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities awards dinner. I was honored to sit next to poet, one of my heroes, Rita Dove. There's a line in a poem of hers, "This Life." It's advice from a grandmother, who says, "Try as hard as you can every minute you're given or else sit down and shut up." I have tried as hard as I can to give you words of inspiration, and now it's time for me to sit down and shut up.