Commencement 2013: Sunil Gulati address
Posted: May 21, 2013
President Bravman, Bucknell Trustees, faculty members and staff, friends, families and of course members of this graduating class, I am honored and humbled to be here today with you. Honored because it is, of course, a great honor to be asked to speak to this class 32 years after I sat in your seats. Humbled because I follow a list of extraordinary speakers: Pennsylvania Governors Rendell and Ridge; Bob Woodward; Anna Quindlan; Erik Weihenmayer and, of course, Elie Wiesel, who I first heard speak at Bucknell in 1978, six months after reading his extraordinary book Night.
When I told a friend that I was more than a little bit concerned about following this group, he said, "Listen, you're not going to do what most of these people have done, but you could climb Everest or Kilimanjaro if you really put your mind and body into it." I then told him that Eric Weihenmayer had done it blind. He said, "Oh, you're screwed."
It does, however, seem a little late to decline the invitation to join you. And frankly, I have one thing that none of those people have, and something you will have within the next two hours — I have a Bucknell degree.
It's always a little nervy for people on the dais on these occasions. For me, the speaker, it's obvious why that's the case. But it's also possible the President Bravman is sweating just a little bit. He doesn't know what I'm going to say. He has to sit here quietly and listen, like the current U.S. President did while a recent Bucknell Commencement speaker, and possible presidential candidate, lectured him about health care. No worries, President Bravman, I'm not going to pull a Dr. Carson on you.
While we are on the subject of President Obama, these words from about a year ago might sound familiar to you: He said, "Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own." I'm always struck by people who think, "Well, it must be because I was just so smart." We know what he meant. Those words were controversial in another setting.
But from where I'm standing, facing all of you that are not wearing caps and gowns, I can say to those of you that are, and today I am, none of us got here on our own. President Bravman has already asked you to give appropriate due thanks to your families. I want to take a minute to do what I didn't probably do enough of 32 years ago, and thank my Mom and Dad. We can't do that enough. So I ask you again to give an ovation to your families here today, because I'm certainly going to do that.
About six months ago, I received an email from the President's office here at Bucknell. And the email only asked me one thing: whether I would confirm my mailing address. Now why would I be asked to confirm my mailing address? What was so important that I could be asked to confirm my mailing address?
I thought it could be only one of two things. One, that Bucknell had finally discovered that I had never taken the swim test, which was required back when I was here and that having played junior soccer varsity no longer exempted me from the test. That was one possibility. The other, of course, was that in its efforts to start KDR anew on campus, they were wiping out all of the credentials of previous KDRs over the last 35 years. It turned out to be neither. They asked me to speak today.
But in fact, a little part of my start at Bucknell did involve some dishonesty. I applied early decision to Bucknell. I applied because I wanted to study social sciences. A month or so after getting in early decision, my parents, typically and somewhat stereotypically said, 'Listen, if you're not going to be a doctor, can you at least be an engineer?" The Asian students understand what I'm saying.
A month later I wrote to Bucknell and switched into engineering. No doubt there was a conversation, "We've got another guy trying to switch from arts and sciences to engineering," which at the time was a little bit harder to get in than the school of arts and sciences. My parents were ecstatic. Three weeks after starting at Bucknell, one physics midterm, and it was back to arts and sciences. I'm glad that Bucknell had the courtesy today to seat me next to a world-class physicist. Thank you very much, President.
The plan at that time had been to go to law school, but on two consecutive Saturdays in junior year, I missed the LSATS. That seemed like an indication that maybe law school wasn't in my future. But political science and economics intrigued me, and I wanted to work at the World Bank down the road.
Finished here, went off to Columbia, did graduate work in economics, traveled quite a bit to prepare myself for the World Bank, with the goal of joining there eventually, and I did that down the road. The problem was, that didn't stay the plan. It didn't stay as part of my plan.
After grad school in Columbia, I fell in love. My wife is here, no not that sort of love, honey. I fell in love with teaching. That changed it all. I still joined the Young Professionals Program at the World Bank, but not with the same passion that I'd had previously.
For me, Mondays are joyous. The start of classes. Septembers are not when my kids go off to school, it's when I return to school. Fridays aren't the end of a work week, they're the end of a joyous period.
That's how much joy I get from teaching. Weekends aren't something to look forward to, unless there's a soccer game, and we'll talk about that in a minute.
If you find over the next five, 10, 20 years that Fridays are joyous because the work week is over, and that's the case every week, it might not be the right job, regardless of the paycheck that comes every other week, or the bonus that comes at the end of the year. I love walking into a classroom with undergraduates. Nothing gives me greater pleasure.
Before I move on to that other passion of mine, let me take you back a few years — 31 and a half years. It was March of 1981, I had been accepted to a few graduate schools, and I went to visit Columbia. Having grown up in the suburbs in Connecticut, and gone to school here, New York was more than a daunting place. Scary. I drove into New York, parked about 50 meters from where I now live, and immediately proceeded to lock the keys of my car in the car. At that time, and the parents know what I'm talking about, you could actually break into your own car with a coat hanger. So I borrowed a coat hanger from a laundromat that was there, it's still there, and broke into my own car. People walked by as if it was nothing new, perfectly normal in New York. Managed to retrieve the keys and go and meet the people in the economics department.
A couple of days ago when I drove on Route 45 crossing that bridge, it brought back a lot of memories — it's a different bridge now than it was 32 years ago — a lot of memories. A friend of mine who graduated with me, we also went to high school together, we went and walked on the fourth floor of Trax — some of you remember what that was like — or Kress, or Roberts. Three years ago, my sister told my family and I, she was single, that she was sick, very sick, seven months from start to finish sick. And at the end of that process you're having conversations with the doctor, with an oncologist, about pain management. It's not really about pain management, but no one wants to talk about what it's really about for legal reasons.
Why do I mention those stories? It goes really quickly. It goes really quickly. All those that are behind you, to the sides of you, understand that a little better. Some of you will understand that sooner rather than others, but it goes very quickly. And there's no way to prevent that, regardless of what's happened to the clock tower. We can't stop time. And so it's important, important to do something along the way. Your families know this and they're going to be part of your passion, but that job is another part of it.
In my other occupation or preoccupation, well actually, this gives me the only disappointment of the weekend, frankly. I wanted to talk about soccer. I thought it would be my weekend. And then David Beckham chose to retire on Thursday.
And then I came here, and yesterday I spent a little bit of time walking the campus with Pat Flannery, one of the legends of Bucknell sports. We walked through the gym and all of the plaques and so on. No recognition whatsoever, none, of my junior varsity days here. There is nothing wrong with leading the University in games played at the junior varsity level, possibly the nation that year.
In addition to that, for two consecutive seasons, I led the Bucknell junior varsity in throw-ins. For those that don't understand that, the non-soccer fans, it's the guy who gives the ball to the guy who's shooting a free throw in basketball. David Beckham would be nowhere without another guy. That's not me, I'm coming to me. This is a little bit about me. David Beckham, as you probably know, other than being extraordinarily, well, shall we say good looking, is known for playing soccer and bending a soccer ball, quite often when it's moving. But sometimes you're not allowed to kick it into the goal directly, it's called an indirect kick. So someone has to kick the ball about 12 inches before he can touch it. I was that guy here.
No recognition, Mr. President; none. Nothing in his comments about my soccer playing career. Okay, I'm over it.
At the end of every semester at Columbia, I asked my students to think about passion's twin, compassion. Having learned all about market forces, I asked them to think about a question that John Rawls asked in A Theory of Justice, which is what kind of society we want. What kind of rules would you set up for society if you didn't know your place in society, if you were operating behind a veil of ignorance?
And I talked to them about some people and places that I've been over the years, about a medical clinic in the Gambia, in a very poor country surrounded on all sides by Senegal. Or a school for the blind, not in New York City but in a poor country halfway around the world. Or a guy who's 25 meters outside of my home on the way to my office which is 100 meters away from home — a pretty short walk — who's always asking for money. A guy who my daughter, my 8-year-old daughter, knows by name, who asks, "Dad? Why? What? Where?"
Those are pretty tough questions for an 8-year-old — harder questions for a 52-year-old to answer.
In sports, we have this way we judge athletes — tolerance for pain. Do they have a high tolerance for pain? Think about a marathon runner, think about a football player. That's a pretty important quality.
But it seems to me in life outside of sports, an even more important quality is intolerance of pain — intolerance for pain in others. Be intolerant of pain in others; that seems to be a good motto to live one's life by.
Someone once said, in a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less. Because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.
That wasn't me; I'm not that eloquent. It was Lee Iacocca, who as chairman of Chrysler saved it from bankruptcy. But it's true: You leave here today with the burden of civilization on your shoulders — no pressure there. But the truth is, you've been given four years to experiment with interests, confront the subjects you weren't very good at and devise ways to get up in time for that early 11 a.m. class.
Those of you that are interested in teaching, think about teaching. There's enough in the media about the unhappy state of education in America. But there's enough of you in the audience today to start making a difference, to influence that.
It's still the case that education is an extraordinary important factor in outcomes. That's good news — all of you have a good education.
The bad news is that the zip code that you're born into is still a very important determinant in the education you get. That's bad news. John Rawls wouldn't like that answer. That's not being intolerant to the pain of others.
The zip code in which you're born is the biggest determinant of life outcomes. That's not good news for any of us.
You've got extraordinary ability, you got into Bucknell, most of you were born into a terrific zip code, followed by four years in an even better zip code. Some of you are going to go and live in even better zip codes. Rawls would be happy for you. Be intolerant of that pain.
Find your passion. Don't look forward to Fridays. Find your passion. Be intolerant of the pain of others. And on behalf of teachers everywhere, come back and visit us.
And oh yeah, I've got free World Cup tickets for everyone. President Bravman's got the forms; see him after the ceremony.
Congratulations and best of luck with what lies beyond. It will be a great run. Thank you very much.
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