Convocation Remarks by President Phil Hanlon ’77


Dartmouth College Convocation, September 15, 2014 President Phil Hanlon ’77

Good afternoon, and welcome everyone. I have to say to Walt and our fantastic gospel choir that that rendition of “America the Beautiful” was as stirring today as when I first heard it just about a year ago on the Green. So, thank you for that.

Welcome especially to the Class of 2018, at the beginning of a journey that will change your life in ways unimaginable at this moment. And to our upperclassmen and graduate students, our faculty, staff, and alumni, we are pleased to join with you in this quintessential moment in the life of the College.

For all of us, Convocation is a special moment, a time when we gather to look forward with great excitement and imagine the future together.

Speaking both as a member of the Class of ’77, who once sat where the ’18s are today, and as president, I would like to talk today, however, about another kind of moment that I hope will come to each of your during your student time at Dartmouth.

It’s that magical moment when your passions will collide with your intellectual curiosity, the moment that unleashes your energies. Now, I’m not talking about the energy required to get out of bed and face Calculus at 8 a.m. on a Monday morning; that’s fueled easily enough by large amounts of caffeine.

I’m talking about the moment when the switch goes on and you decide where you dare to make a mark, not in your classes, not here on campus, but with one of the great issues of the day—issues that elude your professors and the great thinkers and policy makers of our time. Let me give you an example.

Many years ago, on a day much like today—a warm afternoon in September … in fact, right around this very time in the mid-afternoon—a different kind of switch was being thrown in Manhattan. And with this small act, the world was changed forever.

At that instant, on September 4, 1882, Pearl Street Station came to life—the world’s first ever electric power plant. It served only 85 customers in one square mile, lighting about 400 lamps, including, notably, in the newsroom of the New York Times.

The man who threw the switch is familiar to all of us—Thomas Edison. And I don’t need to describe what followed. Soon enough, everything was being “electrified,” from street lamps to railcars to hand tools. Eventually, even the rudimentary analog computers became electromechanical and poised us for another enormous leap forward. And so with that flip of the switch, a new age dawned—an era of technological and industrial wonder.

But for each breakthrough, there is often a new set of challenges. And so it was in this case.

For his first 85 customers, when Edison threw that switch he directed about 600 kilowatts of electricity. Today, 7 billion citizens of this world demand more than 20 trillion kilowatts. From 600 to 20 trillion. By 2050, demand is expected to double. By that point, it’s thought that we could face a gap between supply and demand that’s almost equal to the entire energy output of the world a decade ago.

And the realities of climate change call the question: At what cost? How do we strike a balance between supply versus demand versus stewardship of our planet? How do we sustainably provision energy to our world on into the future? To say these questions are complex is an understatement.

And this is just but one of a host of urgent issues facing the world. I could cite dozens more: How do we deliver high-quality, cost-effective health care? How can we transform K-12 education in this nation? How can we use the arts as a vehicle of social change?

But despite the breadth of these vexing problems and compelling opportunities, they do have one thing in common: Great universities, like Dartmouth, dare to take them on.

So let’s talk about that. What is required for a place like Dartmouth to tackle issues such as these?

First is courage. The willingness to be bold. These issues are way too difficult to be wrestled to the ground with incremental advances. Truly innovative, game-changing ideas are necessary. College campuses are crucibles of innovation, and throughout your Dartmouth career we will stretch and develop your creative mind—in classes such as Acting 1 and ENGS 20, and outside the classroom in places like the DEN Innovation Center.

Second, these issues need many perspectives coming together. Problems such as these span all modes of thought and all academic ages.

Coming back to energy for the moment—if that’s what turns your crank—teams of undergraduates, graduate students, faculty work together at the Thayer School devising energy‑efficient technologies; faculty at Tuck study the energy industry; in Arts and Sciences scholars and students look at energy policy, develop new energy storage technologies, and understand the environmental and human impacts of energy extraction and climate change.

This work takes place on campus here in Hanover but also across the globe—students and faculty out on an ice cap in Peru, or in remote Greenland assessing the impact of glacial retreat.

And we must not forget Dartmouth alumni who work in energy issues as leaders in the business, government, and nonprofit sectors.

So Dartmouth, as one of the great universities in this country, uniquely has the power to convene these many groups to bring together their diverse perspectives and expertise around these daunting energy challenges.

In his book The Difference, the eminent social scientist Scott Page delivers the case for why diverse groups working together perform better at prediction, problem-solving, and innovation than do groups with homogeneous perspectives and experiences. And he details the decades of research studies that back up his positions.

Which leads me back to a point I made last Tuesday—and has been made earlier today at this event—when I spoke to the Class of ’18 at their first class meeting. I urged them, I urged you, to look for the talents that lie in every member of the community. Embrace the diverse experiences that they bring; invite in, include all persons in all things.

Welcome each other into all you do, without regard to things like gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political persuasion. Recognize and value the rich perspectives that others bring from their experiences—undocumented students, veterans, international students, as well as students who grew up right here in New Hampshire.

As Scott Page reminds you: To include a diversity of talents, experiences, and perspectives is to enhance your ability to make a mark on the world.

So it is my hope that at some point unique to your own Dartmouth journey, one of the great questions of the world—whether it’s energy or whether it’s health care—one of these will throw a switch that literally turns you on and directs your untold intellectual energy.

When that time comes, be bold, think big, and remember my favorite proverb: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.

This is a great moment at Dartmouth. The campus is alive with energy on the first day of classes. And for the Class of 2018, we anxiously await those moments that will determine how you decide to apply the great tools at your disposal against work that demands the very best of you and is of enormous import to the world.

When that switch is thrown, your intellectual energy has the power to change the world. Let us dare to make the world a better place. Let us do it together. And when we do, we’ll be amazed at how far we can go.

Thank you very much.

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