Academic Excellence at the Doctoral Hooding

Due to a happy change in the schedule of WashU commencement activities, I was able to attend my first doctoral hooding ceremony since moving to St. Louis.  The doctoral hooding is my favorite part of commencement, and it was an honor to be there and be part of the WashU faculty at our most treasured time.

Dean Tate asked me to give the address, which will now appropriately be always given by a WashU faculty member.  It was an honor to be the first one, and I look forward to hearing my colleagues’ remarks in the future.

Yes, I invoked Hamilton as so many did this season.  Who can blame us?  It is the most academic broadway smash ever.

Here’s my talk:

Thank you, Dean Tate and CONGRATULATIONS to the new PhDs of Washington University!

The hooding ceremony is the best part of commencement. It is a celebration of all the things we hold most dear: the centrality of research to our mission, the significance of the mentor-student relationship, the status of the PhD as our most cherished and treasured endeavor, and most of all, the gratitude that we have for all you have contributed to Washington University.

Some of you may know that Chancellor Wrighton and I both had the same PhD mentor. So, you never know where all this might lead. The relationships you have formed with each other will be lasting ones that will shape your careers in ways you cannot imagine today.

It is an absolute honor and privilege to be in St. Louis and to serve as your provost. And it is especially a thrill to be the Rita Levi-Montalcini Professor and thank you Bill for mentioning that. Every time I hear someone refer to me in the same sentence with her, I get chills because she was such an extraordinary scholar and citizen who not only revolutionized our understanding of brain development and biology but also skillfully aided her country and fought anti-Semitism. She is from an extraordinary line of Washington University faculty members who were great scholars and teachers, and also served their country selflessly and with distinction.

And because I live one block off of Forsyth on Ellenwood Avenue, I have a great commute. Every morning I cross Forsyth and go through the archway and up the stairs to Olin Library where George Washington’s statue is. Now I know that many of you are probably familiar with the new musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda, but for those of you who aren’t, there is a section in the show where George Washington leaves the presidency, and everyone sings, “George Washington’s going home, George Washington’s going home.”

I think about that every morning when I walk to work.

I’m particularly fond of the musical “Hamilton,” because since Alexander Hamilton was the budget guy, he was the closest thing the Founding Fathers had to a provost. For a while, I thought that instead of calling it “Hamilton: An American Musical,” it should have been called “Hamilton: An American Provost.”

I changed my mind when I remembered that Hamilton gets shot.

All universities have compelling sagas. The story of Washington University, like almost every great institution, is almost always told through the narrative of great leaders. Here we have a complete Mount Rushmore of great chief executives – William Greenleaf Eliot, Robert Brookings, Bill Danforth, and Mark Wrighton. Each of these leaders has served long terms and propelled WashU to greater and greater heights with much more to come.

And we have many other Mount Rushmores. The Mount Rushmore of great science: Gerty Cori, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Mary-Dell Chilton, and Barbara Schaal. The Mount Rushmore of letters: Tennessee Williams, H. W. Janson, Gerald Early, and Bill Gass. And the Mount Rushmore of justice: Jim McLeod, John Ervin, Shanti Khinduka, and Helen Power.

Many of you will leave here to join universities with their own sagas and their own Mount Rushmores.

Today, I want to talk to you about Washington University and America. You decided to get a PhD at an American research university. Those of you who stayed in this country to get a PhD probably didn’t think much about going outside the US.   Those of you who traveled here from your home country came because of the high regard for American research universities around the world.

It is said often that American research universities are the best in the world. In fact, Congressman Richard Gephardt, a St. Louisan who served the US as Majority Leader in the US House of Representatives and whose name is on our Institute for Civic and Community Engagement – said recently at one of our events that the greatest asset of the United States is not our rule of law and system of governance but our system of colleges and universities.

Today I want to talk to you about how it got this way and what we need to do to keep it. But first I want to THANK YOU, because without your efforts, Washington University and the American system of higher education would not be what it is today. The work of PhD students in our laboratories, libraries, and graduate seminars defines the intellectual course of American research.

We live in a time when there is a lot of commentary about higher education in the press and in casual conversation. Certainly the most in my lifetime. Last month, higher education pundit Frank Bruni wrote a satirical column in the NY Times saying that Stanford didn’t admit anyone at all this year, and a lot of people believed it was sincere. So, why is this happening and what will we do about it?

The main reason it’s happening is that we haven’t told our story as often and passionately as we – and here I mean all of higher education – can tell it. We need your help, because the philosophy of undergraduate education that we have in this country is a big reason why we’re the best in the world.

When undergraduates enroll in American colleges, they have the opportunity to push restart on their passions and interests. Many of us had no idea that we wanted to study our fields until after we took undergraduate classes. It’s a reminder that the health of our disciplines requires us to inspire undergraduates in their first few years in college.

For those of you who will go into the academic world, please don’t ever forget that it is a privilege to teach undergraduates. They are the scholars of the future, and in most of the world’s universities, their paths have already been set. Only in America do we have the chance to go into an undergraduate classroom and recruit new philosophers and geneticists while at the same time inspiring them all to adopt the habits of mind that make for engaged citizens and leaders.

Although I have been an administrator for more than ten years, I still think of myself as a faculty member first. As a professor, I worry that undergraduate education is getting away from us on multiple fronts.

We need to take it back and we need your help.

The second facet of American higher education that is critical to our distinction is the nature of graduate education. The autonomy that American PhD students have to explore their fields and define their scholarly identity is paramount.

Now, I know there might be times when you were waiting on your advisor for comments on a manuscript or thesis chapter that you might have felt that you had too much autonomy, but the independence that you all had in your studies is a big reason why the American PhD you walk out of here with has so much weight.

The autonomy has a danger, though, and that is that graduate students can become isolated in their departments and from their university. I’m sure many of you experienced this the last few years. It’s a reminder that we all need to do everything we can to include graduate students in the full life of the university.

For those of you who have pushed us to do that here, thank you. We and the other great research universities still have a long way to go on this. And for those of you who will go into academia, please go the extra mile to keep your graduate students connected to your university.

The last facet I want to discuss has to do with translating all of this knowledge. As Bill said in the introduction, I have worked a lot on this in my career founding companies and helping colleagues commercialize their discoveries, and you often hear this area referred to as translational science. The reason this is important is that, as we have discussed today, we have built an amazing system for research at WashU and in the United States.

When people say that American higher education is the best in the world, this is truly what they are talking about.

Like most things, all this happened because of two visionary leaders, Vannevar Bush and Franklin Roosevelt. In response to the flood of talent that came to the US after World War II, the clear importance of science in the national interest, and the worry that a lot of scientific talent had been lost because of our citizens being off in the war, Vannevar Bush wrote a document called Science: The Endless Frontier that established the federally funded research enterprise. The ethics laid out in that document also set the tone for research in other fields such as the humanities.

Bush was scrupulous to ensure that he protected the idea that individual professors or teams of professors would be responsible for setting the research agenda, and he resisted the idea of establishing a formal policy arm that would somehow evaluate the results and decide what to do with them. He did this because he was worried that the policy function would make it too easy for politicians to influence the research. When you compare our system to those of other countries, you see he was right, and this magnificent idea is what sets American academic research apart to this day.

But the fact that there is no formal policy arm means that not all of our research is leveraged to its maximum benefit, it means that we don’t always know when there are people who should be collaborating, and it means that we don’t have a ready-made way to explain it all to an outside observer.

This was by design, and America wouldn’t be the country it is today if it weren’t for Vannevar Bush’s resolve. But higher education has to fill the void by stepping up and helping people understand the benefits of our research. The easiest way to engage people in the conversation is to be able to tell them some of the direct benefits. Then we can draw them into a deep conversation about how it all works and why it needs to be set up this way.

That’s why applied research is called translation.

And two things are very important: the first is that this doesn’t mean that we can let up on basic research. Backing away from basic research will shortchange the future. Translational research is what will allow us to continue to make the case for basic research.

And the second thing is that translation is not just for science. Translating the humanities and social sciences has never been more important for our democracy.

So when you leave here, please help us continue to make the case for investigator-driven research. It is what brought you here. You can do that by applying your research and by teaching folks about the nature of curiosity and discovery.

You know these things better than anyone.

Graduation speeches almost always have three points. Here’s my three: inspire undergraduates, include graduate students in the life of the university, translate research.

I’ve talked about academia today, because that’s where you’ve devoted these last years.   And we know that about 60% of all PhDs will stay in universities. But all of you carry out of here your role in the history of knowledge. And you can use that in all you do.

If you don’t know exactly how yet, you’re right on schedule.

And there is no doubt that your experiences here will serve you well. Because you know something that most folks never get to understand in the same way.

You know why.

You know why we must search out and invent clean energy. You know why we must do more to nurture and inspire children in our public schools. You know why we must focus on diseases that strike those with fewer resources. You know why the arts and literature are the gateways to the empathy and understanding we need to resolve our differences. You know why we must remind folks that Black Lives Matter.

And you know why Dick Gephardt says that the ideas and people generated in America’s universities are our country’s greatest assets.

Which brings me back to the musical Hamilton. When it comes to the statue that I walk past every morning, Lin-Manuel Miranda is wrong. George Washington isn’t going home. George Washington is home. There is no more American university than Washington University. It’s not just because of the name. It’s because of the liberal arts tradition that won’t let us forget Alexander Hamilton and Miles Davis and Mary Shelley. It’s because of the ethic of great basic scholarship – just as Vannevar Bush and Franklin Roosevelt drew it up. It’s because of our Mount Rushmores of leadership, science, letters, and justice. But most of all, it’s because America cannot succeed without us. America must have Washington University in St. Louis.

And Washington University in St. Louis must have you. Because you have the tools and experience to understand the nature of knowledge and where it comes from. Because you have the passion for your discipline that will inspire a new generation of engaged citizens.

And because you understand that knowledge is the most indispensable element of democracy.

Thank you for all you have done and will do for Washington University and the world.

Congratulations, doctors!


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