Remarks to the WPI Class of 2012

Dennis D. Berkey, President

“A Mighty Heart (IV)”

I am delighted to add my welcome to the many you have no doubt received today. The members of this Class of 2012 are joining one of America’s finest universities. You have made an excellent choice, and so have we.

Normally it is my practice to speak with students extemporaneously, inviting discussion, and without prepared remarks. As we teach in our courses and project work, however, when one has something really important to say, preparing a thoughtful set of remarks in advance is worth the preparation time and a more formal delivery. Since this is the only occasion we will all have to meet together prior to your graduation in 2012, I wanted to take the opportunity to address you somewhat formally, in the presence of your parents and family members, and so I hope you will indulge me by considering these remarks.

I want to extend a special welcome to the parents and other members of the students’ families. We appreciate the confidence you have expressed in WPI by entrusting us with the education of your sons and daughters. We hope that all of you will feel a membership in our community, that you will return to the campus often to visit your students, celebrate their achievements, get to know their friends and professors, and share in the rich menu of academic, cultural, and social opportunities available at WPI.

Here is a little information about the Class of 2012:

As of today, there are 915 of you, including:

  • 29% (268) women and 71% men, a significant increase in women;
  • 12% (108) domestic students of color, another significant increase; and
  • 12% (105) international students, yet another significant increase.
  • Your average SAT composite score is 1275.
  • Your average high school GPA is 3.7.
  • 300 of you had perfect 4.0 averages in high school!
  • You include 24 class valedictorians and 36 class salutatorians.
  • 10 percent of you have a legacy connection to WPI.
  • You represent 38 states and 40 foreign countries.

You are fabulous! Parents, please join me in a round of applause for these impressive young people. (Applause)

The Class of 2012 also has the distinction of being the first class to go through our SATOptional admissions program.

(Fair warning, you may hear a grumble or two on that score from the Class of 2011!) WPI is the first technological university to implement such a program, and we did so because over the years, we found that the SAT was not a strong predictor of success at WPI. Like all top universities, WPI is brimming with students who are good at taking tests and whose heads are filled with knowledge—what matters most to us, however, is not just what you know, but what you can do with that knowledge.

So, how did you respond? The vast majority of you chose to submit your scores anyway! Out of 5,404 applicants to the Class of 2012, only 150 requested that we not consider their scores. What truly surprised and delighted us was how many of you chose to submit alternative materials in addition to your test scores, including photo journals, research papers, and robotic designs, illustrating your creativity, work ethic, leadership, and academic achievement. You have left us full of anticipation for the contributions you will make to our community.

You have chosen a very distinctive university, and I want to say just a few words about some of WPI’s essential qualities. Since its founding in 1865, WPI has emphasized both theory and practice. Indeed, that is our motto, a very literal translation of the German Lehr und Kunst. Originally, WPI students made things in the Washburn shops as well as learning things in their Boynton Hall classrooms. Today’s form of this blending of theory and practice is expressed most directly in the two major projects that are required for a WPI degree—the interactive qualifying project which is rooted in the intersection of technology and society, and the major qualifying project that occurs within the field of concentration, or major. But you will find a high degree of collaborative work, work that crosses boundaries of disciplines and that engages issues of vital importance, throughout our programs.

This novel structure to our curriculum provides much more than just a direct application of the subject matter from one course or another. It challenges students—it will challenge you—to deal with ambiguity, to properly identify and formulate problems, to marshal relevant resources and knowledge, to conceive and organize solutions, to work cooperatively in ways that complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses, to accommodate differences in style and philosophy, to integrate knowledge, and to communicate what has been accomplished, both in writing and in oral presentation. In this regard WPI students graduate very well prepared to apply their knowledge and their abilities, whether in professional practice, the world of work generally, or advanced study in graduate and professional programs. Perhaps this is why Forbes Magazine, in a recent ranking of colleges by average annual earnings of their graduates, ranked WPI ninth in the nation and third in New England.

These unique elements of “practice” do not detract from our commitment to excellence in academic work. The “theory” part of our motto means that WPI students complete a fully rigorous program of academic courses, tutorials, and independent studies in addition to their major projects. Our seven-week terms are fully supportive of this approach, allowing students to concentrate on only three courses each term, and providing just the right periods of time for the major projects. Many of our students elect to pursue one or more of these projects, especially the Interactive Project, at one of our more than twentyfive international project sites, located literally around the world, from London and Copenhagen to Bangkok and Namibia. Last year, we launched two new centers, one in South Africa and the other in Morocco. I hope you will seriously consider the possibility of extending the reach of your education, and your appreciation of our increasingly interconnected world, by an experience abroad in our Global Perspective Program.

The latest enhancements to our curriculum also include the nation’s first undergraduate degree program in robotics engineering. WPI pioneered this new major in response to the great enthusiasm of our students and the increasing demand for robotics systems in areas such as defense and security, elder care, automation of household tasks, and interactive entertainment. Last year, one of our first teams of robotics majors designed and built a robot prototype of a first response unit for fire emergencies.

We are also offering a new interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in environmental studies, which is just one part of a university-wide commitment to addressing issues of sustainability in both our educational mission and our university operations; and students are tackling sustainability issues with characteristic WPI gusto. One project team recently helped a local high school significantly reduce energy costs by constructing a wind turbine on the school’s property. Others will be working on research projects based on the green roof on our new residence hall. This is the kind of real world problem solving that you will be doing, too.

And to help you get started on solving the world’s problems as early as possible, we have launched our new Great Problems Seminars for first-year students. Led by stellar faculty, there are currently four seminars on such compelling topics as Feed the World, Power the World, Making Our World, and Heal the World.

All of these developments leave me convinced that a WPI education has never been more important than it is today. The strength of the global economy, and our progress toward solving the major problems in health and disease, the environment, energy, food, and poverty, both in this country and worldwide, depend to a very great degree on the creativity and innovation that have been characteristic of American enterprise. Students who are well informed about science and technology, even if they do not major specifically in one of these fields, who know how to put their knowledge to work, and who understand the imperatives of achievement and leadership, will be well prepared to make a profound impact in the world, as I know all of you will do.

Just as importantly, we believe that your achievements and the contributions that you make in your life, and the very quality of your life, will be greatly enriched by your engagement with the fine and liberal arts. We offer an outstanding theatre program, with its own, dedicated facility; a wonderful orchestra and concert choir, and many vocal and instrumental groups of all varieties. And our academic coursework in history, philosophy, literature, and economics will illuminate the world as you perceive it and hopefully ignite some of your own passions. These are the aspirations we hold for you, and they are the marks of distinction that we see in so many of our alumni.

Now let me offer some more practical advice, because I very much want each one of you to succeed at WPI. Indeed, I want to challenge the Class of 2012 to set a school record for the highest graduation rate. We can do that if you will do your part. I pledge to you that the faculty and the administration will do ours.

You will find your faculty eager to get to know you, to assist you with both your academic and personal challenges, and to be fully supportive of your efforts. Similarly, the professional staff will provide advising, personal and career counseling, social opportunities of all sorts, and general assistance of all kinds. But these extensive resources can only be helpful to you if you do your part to connect with and engage the persons and programs that are here to assist you. How to do this is relatively simple, and I can put it in nine words:

Come to class.
Do the work.
Ask for help.

I do not mean to be facetious. Each of you is fully capable of succeeding here or we would not have admitted you. Students who fail to succeed at WPI for the most part do so simply because they do not come to class, keep up with the assignments, or ask for help when they need it.

This last tip, about asking for help when you need it, is especially important. You are high achievers, often the highest in your class (remember—one third of you were straight A students!). You are not accustomed to needing help, and some of you have highly developed abilities to meet your deadlines with heroic but last minute effort. But now you are about to find yourself among classmates just as smart as you (well, almost as smart!); in courses that are completed, beginning to end, in a brief seven weeks; and with teachers who expect you not only to “learn” the material, but to master it and put it work. At WPI it is not uncommon for even the strongest students to need help from time to time. Ask for it whenever you need it. All faculty post office hours, and I can assure you that they really do like it when students visit them at these times, whether it is to ask a particular question or simply to introduce themselves and chat about the course or the project generally. Similarly, our staff members, including those in the provost’s and president’s offices, are eager to help you. I have already posted my own office hours on the president’s web page, and I hope many of you will stop by to see me.

So, developing good study habits (at least two to three hours of study for each hour in class), attending all classes and auxiliary course meetings, and developing good relations and communication links with your teachers and support staff (and virtually everyone at WPI is easily accessible by e-mail if not in person) will carry you a very long way toward success.

One corollary of the advice on attending classes and other events is to be aware of the hazard of spending too much time cloistered in your room, and especially on the internet. The attraction of complex computer games, Texas Hold’em poker, and other internet offerings can lead to isolation that spawns both social frustration and academic failure. Do not let your face time with classmates, teachers, and friends take a back seat to that with your computer screen!

The success of our teaching, and your learning, depends to a very large extent on the degree to which you do your part. If you come to class prepared, having done the assigned reading and homework, challenging as it may be, you will gain enormously from the insights your professor and your fellow students provide on already familiar material. It’s the power of “soak time” -- the magic that transforms information into knowledge, the ideas you struggled with by yourself now being illuminated by another perspective, or just a succinct retelling. You have joined incredibly talented classmates and a truly excellent teaching faculty. I hope you will take full advantage of this opportunity.

Beyond the interactions in your assigned courses, I encourage you to get to know several of your faculty members personally. Visit them during their office hours, invite them to your social and athletic events, and accept their invitations to assist in their labs or with their research projects. I assure you they will welcome your interest. I further assure you that these relationships will be of great value to you, not just in the courses you are taking from these special faculty, but in their capacity to guide you more generally as academic advisors, as mentors, and as individuals you can turn to in times of despair as well as in moments of joy. These individuals will also be invaluable in their ability to provide letters of recommendation for graduate school or employment from those who know you well.

Now, let me share a few words of caution.

First, know that we expect a degree of civility and respect toward other students worthy of mature young adults. Our residence halls are places where you can reasonably expect to study and to sleep as well as to have fun. The norms and expectations that will be shared with you by your RA’s and other residence life staff have been thoughtfully developed to ensure the most fully satisfactory living environment for all residents, including proper respect for all individuals, and we expect everyone to comply. (And I want to say a special word of recognition and thanks to our RA’s and orientation leaders, a great group of dedicated upperclassmen who will be making your residential experience not just satisfying but a real learning experience and lots of fun.)

Second, always keep in mind that WPI is located in an urban setting, and even though Worcester is not one of the country’s larger cities, it is a city nonetheless, and it presents many of the challenges and dangers of urban life:

Traffic on the streets adjacent to the campus, especially on Park Avenue, is fast-moving and often unpredictable. Please use extreme caution near city streets, especially when crossing them or when jogging or riding a bicycle. Make every effort to use the marked cross-walks.

Crime of the usual types, mostly theft, does happen, although WPI has an excellent safety record and a visible, pro-active, and highly professional campus police force. Be smart. Protect your belongings, especially purses and laptop computers, and exercise due caution when moving around the campus and the city after dark. Be aware of those around you, and do not place yourself in situations of dubious personal safety. Use our Campus Escort Service if you find yourself in need of secure transportation, according to the posted guidelines for that service.

Illegal drugs are as available in Worcester as they are in any city, village, or hamlet in this country. The use of illegal drugs is a pathway to personal destruction along which I hope none of you will move during your time here. Please understand that WPI provides no sanctuary for those who use or sell illegal drugs; we expect members of this community to obey the law, and we cooperate fully with city, state, and federal authorities in these matters

Similarly, underage drinking, and especially the danger of binge drinking, is one of the biggest threats to student achievement, and simply to student health and safety, on campuses all across this country. Thoughtful researchers and policy makers have examined the record of years of experience with various legal drinking ages and have crafted our current laws to reflect the accumulated knowledge of the relationship between alcohol consumption and deaths due to alcohol poisoning, ill health, drunk driving, and tragic accidents. Please resist the temptation to allow your newfound freedom to jeopardize your status here, or even your life, by the abuse of alcohol.

I want to say just a few more words about alcohol abuse. This past week more than 100 college presidents made a public call for reconsideration of the drinking age. I do not support this movement, and I have expressed my opposition to a number of presidents who signed the Amethyst Initiative pledge. The extensive research that has been done on this question does not reveal a strong correlation between the legal drinking age and alcohol abuse. Young people in the 18 to 21 age range are experiencing rapid development, both physiologically and socially, on which the effects of alcohol abuse can have serious effects.

This is fundamentally about the student’s development and maturation, and there is no day in your life when the distinction between the person you have been up to this point and the person you will be for the rest of your life is greater than today, the day on which you leave home to enter college. In shaping this person you are to become, be mindful that some behaviors become habits, and some habits will serve you well throughout your life while others will not, and can even bring you down. Alcohol abuse is a clear threat to your future success as well as to your present safety and the safety of those around you. We are activists on this front, not only through an extensive program of alcohol 7 awareness and education, but also by confronting and engaging those who appear to be at risk, working with them and their parents through counseling and education to overcome this threat. We do so not out of a Puritanical ethic, but because of the great potential we see in you, and because of how much we are depending on your generation to provide the moral, civic, and personal leadership that this nation and those around the world so badly need. We are confident in you, and counting on your personal commitment and campus leadership on this important problem.

Finally, I would like to add a few words about the important role you have to play during this presidential election year. As thoughtful and educated men and women, it is your civic responsibility to understand the major issues that our world is facing today—to marshal all of your intellectual resources when considering these issues and to make a decision informed by your own mind and heart. What’s more, it is your responsibility to vote and to make your voice heard. I know you have something to say and we need to hear it!

All of this advice-giving is really just about personal responsibility: for your safety; for your obligations in citizenship to the community; for your personal development, and for your education. As wonderful as the faculty and programs are, as stimulating and rewarding as your relationships with your classmates will be, as fine as the facilities and programs that are available to you here are--the degree to which you find success and fulfillment in your experience at WPI will be very much up to you, and we have great confidence in your ability to take full advantage of the opportunity.

On this concern for fulfillment, I want to share with you a note and its attachment that I keep on my desk. Recently, a new professorship has been endowed in our Chemistry Department through the generosity of our alumnus John Metzger, now deceased. In a note to me his widow Jean wrote, “In going over John’s papers, I found a church bulletin from over a decade ago, which he had saved and highlighted in yellow. When I read it over, I couldn’t help but think that John’s life reflected these thoughts. I wanted to share them with you.” This is what the passage, written the famous New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson, said:

“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and to endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a little bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”

I don’t know of another passage that so beautifully connects success with fulfillment in just the way we wish for all of you.

Let me end with a charge to the Class of 2012 based on the eloquent words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Speaking at a Memorial Day ceremony in 1884, reflecting on the generations of Americans that had waged our great Civil War, Justice Holmes said the following:

“Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire.

It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the golden fields, the snowy heights of honor; and it is for us to bear the report for those who come after us.

But above all, we have learned that whether [one] accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig; or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice[y heights]; the one and only success which is [ours] to command is to bring to [our] work a mighty heart.”

Members of the class of 2012, I hope as in the words of Justice Holmes you will bring to your work at WPI a mighty heart, that you will scorn nothing but indifference, and that in your study, your work in our community, and throughout your lives, your hearts will be touched with fire.

My very best wishes to all of you.

August 27, 2008