Text of President Stephen C. Ainlay's baccalaureate remarks

Publication Date

First, let me thank Audrey Hunt, Student Forum President. I’d also like to thank Diane McMullen and the many students who have shared or are about to share their musical gifts with us. Let me also thank the wonderful student speakers, our faculty speaker Professor Nadiaye. Thanks is also in order for Emily Tong, Mary D’Amelia, Diane Meyers, and the members of the Commencement Committee who are listed in the program.

We gather together every year for this Baccalaureate Ceremony in Memorial Chapel, one of the special spaces at Union College. The building was a project of President Richmond who wished to honor Union alumni who had been killed in wars leading up to what was then the most recent – World War I. It is architecturally significant, being a project of the renowned firm McKim, Mead, and White. Its acoustics are world-known according to Derek Delaney who organizes the annual chamber music concert series. He reports that when encountering fellow musicians in Europe and other parts of the world, performers from that series often ask one another: Have you played Union? And, Memorial Chapel is the ceremonial center of Union. Notably it’s the place where you sat with your families, were welcomed when you started your Union education. It’s appropriate that we gather here again for your Baccalaureate.

The “memorial” function of the Chapel has expanded over the years such that we now remember here the passing of all graduates of the College – not just those killed in wars – as well as other members of the Union family. We do so again today. The names of Union alumni and former faculty and staff who died over the past year are listed toward the end of the program. They are not just names; each has a story. I would ask that you join me in remembering them, their love of Union, and their many contributions with a brief moment of silence. Thank you.

Like our other speakers today, I would like to share some thoughts about your Union experience and the road that lies ahead. It is, after all, my next-to-the-last opportunity to speak with you before you graduate from the College.

This past spring, Union co-sponsored a talk by Tom Friedman at the Proctors Theatre in downtown Schenectady. Hopefully, some of you were able to be there to hear him in person. He delivered a compelling talk based on his most recent book, Thank You for Being Late, subtitled An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. Friedman’s book updates and goes beyond his earlier best seller, The World is Flat, which argued that widely available technologies have leveled opportunities for innovation. Thank you for Being Late shifts the focus to the rapid acceleration in the development of that technology. His argument is based on “Moore’s Law,” authored by Gordon Moore in the 1960s, which claims that our technological capacity doubles every two years. Friedman provides ample evidence that Moore’s Law has indeed held true for the past 50 years, bringing about remarkable advances in technology, advances that have changed the world and the way we live. What concerns Friedman is that humans have not been able to keep up with this rapid technological change; we’ve not kept up as individuals (to which I can readily attest) nor have our institutions been able to change in ways that meet the new social needs that have come in the wake of all these technological advances.

Friedman’s descriptions of artificial intelligence, robotics, 3-D printing, autonomous cars, and a host of other technological developments will cause most readers to be simultaneously excited and apprehensive. If he’s right, you members of the Class of 2017 will soon live in a world where manufacturing is dramatically different because parts will printed to order rather than stockpiled for assembly. You will live in a world where knees, hips, and even organs will be similarly printed and used to replace your own as they wear out. You will live in a world where you’ll ride from your home to your workplace in a self-driving car – free to pursue activity without fear of distraction. You will live in a world where many jobs traditionally performed by humans will be done by intelligent machines, forcing even highly educated workers to re-tool. This world, according to Freidman, is far closer than most know. It will bring remarkable opportunities and unprecedented challenges.

There’s good news in Friedman’s vision of the future for you, members of Union’s Class of 2017. Friedman insists that the people who will thrive and lead in this century, your century, are those who can adapt, those who have the wherewithal to change in order to keep pace, and those who are intellectually agile. Those who thrive and lead will be, according to Friedman, liberally educated, intellectually agile, and able to adapt to change. They will be able to integrate seemingly disparate ways of understanding the world in ways that produce entirely new ways of knowing, transcending traditional boundaries of knowledge. IQ, Friedman insists, will not be a mere number in the world you will live in; IQ will be measured by one’s capacity to ask the right questions.

This has been what you’ve been developing and we’ve been cultivating during your years at Union: that is, the ability to ask the right questions. You must have sensed this when you chose Union. It’s what we saw in you when we decided to offer you entry into this remarkable institution. And you’ve made choices during your time here that has honed your intellectual agility. As physics majors, you’ve also danced; as engineers, you’ve also played music; as visual arts majors, you’ve designed in 3-D labs; as humanists, you’ve given physical form to fictional manor houses; as social scientists, you’ve examined the ways in which new technologies are changing social institutions. All this has equipped you for the challenges ahead; all of this has equipped you to ask the right questions; all this has equipped you to make a difference. This is what Union hopes for its students. This is what Union expects of its students.

I also hope that your Union experience has reinforced your commitment to care about and for others. You’ve demonstrated this commitment throughout your four years through your care for each other and your care for the community that surrounds us. Part of the difference you can now make is to take this caring into the world beyond Union, caring about and for those who have not had the same educational opportunities that you have had or who are not similarly equipped to be agile in the face of rapid change. To turn Friedman’s earlier argument on itself, the world is not “flat” when it comes to access to the kind of intellectual preparation you’ve had, the kind of intellectual preparation that allows one to keep up with or pivot one’s life if necessary in response to rapid change. Those who did not have this kind of preparation will need you to care. As you take your place in educational institutions, in financial institutions, in law and medicine, in government, in the world of non-profits, don’t forget to care. Hold on to your humanity.

You can and should take pride in having completed the rigors of a Union education. You’ve done well, you’ve accomplished a great deal, you’ve given much, you’ve learned much, and we are grateful to have had you here. You are ready to go forward and make a difference as Union alumni have done for over two centuries. And, I’ll be honored to give you your “dip” from alma mater tomorrow.

See you in the morning!