When Ginni Rometty, IBM’s chief executive officer, chairman and president, takes the stage at the 2014 Rensselaer Commencement tomorrow, she will be following in the footsteps of more than 100 Commencement speakers who have gone before her.
Whether her remarks touch on IBM’s strong relationship with Rensselaer or offer a peek into the future of her industry, whether she offers graduates career advice or shares lessons she’s learned so far in her journey, Rometty’s remarks will go down in the annals of Rensselaer history and will be held in the memories of the Class of 2014.
The first Commencement speaker noted in the Rensselaer archives was Nathan S.S. Beman, the Institute’s president, who gave the first official Commencement address in 1862. Rensselaer had of course been graduating students for more than a quarter-century prior to Beman’s 1862 address, but there is no record of formal Commencement addresses.
It matters not what particular career choice you have made. You are now a part of the future, with a specific contribution to make, and what a dramatic prospect it is: the chance to use the knowledge gained here to literally build with your own hands a whole new nation, a whole new world, a whole new society.”—Walter Cronkite
An excerpt of the oldest Commencement addresses available in the Institute Archives comes from Institute President James Forsyth’s 1873 address. In that address, Forsyth, the seventh president of Rensselaer, extolled the virtues of the Institute.
“Whatever shall be the future of technical education in this country, whether or not great universities shall eat up or disperse the technical schools in the country—it will always be remembered to the honor of the founder of this school, and to the fame of this institution, that Stephen Van Rensselaer had the wisdom and forecast to anticipate the demands of the country for the scientific and practical training of our young men, and the liberality and munificence to establish the ‘Rensselaer School,’ ” he told graduates.
More than 100 years later, in 1975, astronomer, astrophysicist, and science communicator
Carl Sagan warned the newly minted scientists and engineers that “the time was now” and the onus was on the Class of 1975 to act to solve the great problems of the world (climate change, wealth inequality, disease, and nuclear war, to name a few of the many he mentioned).
“Whether we perish and our civilization crumbles, or whether we survive, flourish, and make contact with the stars, depends on how wisely and how elegantly we use the enormous tools of science and technology which are at our disposal. I think for this reason, precisely because of the criticality of the times, there is no more exciting and no more significant moment in the whole history of mankind to be engaged in the enterprise of science and engineering,” Sagan said.
The next year, venerable newsman Walter Cronkite told the gathered graduates, who were graduating on the bicentennial of our nation’s founding, that they were part of a new American revolution. “It matters not what particular career choice you have made. You are now a part of the future, with a specific contribution to make, and what a dramatic prospect it is: the chance to use the knowledge gained here to literally build with your own hands a whole new nation, a whole new world, a whole new society.”
Lest the graduates suffer from too large an ego in light of their academic accomplishments, Bill Nye, the popular host of the educational children’s program Bill Nye the Science Guy, offered the Class of 1999 some perspective on their place in the universe: “We’re humans—a humble, pitiful species on a remote, medium-sized, water-soaked planet in the middle of galactic nowhere. A speck, almost inconceivable in a vast, astonishing, empty space—and yet we can figure things out. We can come to know a little of the secrets of the universe. “That’s exciting. It’s incredible. It’s worthy of respect. It’s up to you to take us the next step,” Nye said.
This year, Rometty will address graduates on May 24 at Rensselaer’s 208th Commencement ceremony. Rometty will receive an honorary degree at the ceremony, along with World Wide Web inventor Sir Timothy Berners-Lee and pioneering geneticist Mary-Claire King. All three will join President Shirley Ann Jackson for the 2014 President’s Commencement Colloquy on the eve of Commencement. The discussion, titled “Creating Clarity in Complexity to Enable Transformational Change,” will be held at 3:30 p.m. Friday, May 23, in the concert hall of the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center.
Special thanks to the staff of the Rensselaer Archives for their assistance with research for this article.