Hennessy to new students: ‘Experiment and take intellectual risks’

Following is the prepared text of President John Hennessy’s speech at Convocation on Sept. 18, 2007.

Parents, transfer students and members of the Class of 2011: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today we celebrate the arrival of 1,724 new freshmen and 20 transfer students, which—due to your extraordinary response to our offer of admission—represents a record class for Stanford. We welcome 129 international students from 47 countries, as well as students from all 50 states.

Each fall as I prepare for convocation and the arrival of a new class of Stanford students, I contemplate the message I want to deliver and look for inspiration, often among my recent reading. My spring and summer reading included two books on Abraham Lincoln: Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln and Richard Carwardine’s Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. I have drawn some thoughts from them, as well as other books on Lincoln, which I have read over the years.* Indeed, my biggest struggle in preparing for today was not to let a short speech become a long sermon.

Lincoln’s early life and lack of a formal education is well documented. He was self-educated, but he had a thirst for knowledge, a desire to learn—a characteristic I hope runs deep among all of you. He struggled to obtain books and had little access to teachers.

You, our newest students, will have access to a huge library, dedicated teachers and distinguished scholars. It is an opportunity I urge you to use to the maximum. Get to know our faculty; they have a passion for learning and a desire to share their knowledge with others. Alumni have told us that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most rewarding aspects of their Stanford experience, and the university has invested heavily over the past 15 years to create many more such opportunities.

A hallmark of our innovations in undergraduate education has been the Freshman Seminars program. Each seminar is led by a Stanford faculty member and enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be Freshman Seminars on topics from biotechnology to the welfare system, from Mozart’s operas to horse medicine. These classes are a wonderful opportunity to get to know a faculty member and a new subject.

Get to know the faculty outside of the classroom as well—use every opportunity to discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about research, ask career advice or seek help on a difficult topic.

Lincoln did not have these kinds of opportunities, but as Doris Kearns Goodwin describes so well, Lincoln was a master of personal interaction and grew from the experiences available to him—whether he was engaged with farmers or with statesmen. It certainly was not his looks or stylish clothes that made him a great leader! Lincoln, in fact, used his wit to put people at ease and overcome concerns about his physical appearance, with lines such as: “Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”

Several members of Lincoln’s Cabinet initially believed that they were far more qualified than he was—both in experience and education—to be president. But over time those same members of the Cabinet became his loyal supporters and, in the case of Edwin Stanton and William Seward, his closest friends and admirers.

As Jonathan [Jourdane, senior student and an orientation coordinator] noted, over the next few years you will get to know students whose background, culture or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values and beliefs are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation of a pluralistic society and develop your skills in interacting with people quite different from you.

Lincoln believed in the importance of community and public service in a democratic nation. As you think about the road ahead, realize that much of what you learn will occur outside the classroom—not just with fellow students, but also with the broader community. I encourage you to consider service learning as one vehicle for broadening your experience. Stanford’s Haas Center is one of the oldest centers for public service in any college or university. It offers hundreds of opportunities for you to learn and contribute through community service.

Nowadays, we often talk about the need to prepare students to be members of a global community, but this need is not entirely new. Even at the beginning of the American Civil War, the old and new worlds had become tightly interconnected. The United States depended on Europe for certain manufactured goods, and Europe depended on American cotton. Almost 150 years later, technologies such as jet travel and the Internet have vastly increased such global interaction. Isolation is not possible for any nation—physically, economically, environmentally or intellectually. Stanford has been a leader in overseas studies for more than 40 years, and incorporating an overseas studies experience in your education will help prepare you to be a better global citizen.

Lincoln was ambitious, as I hope you are. From his early days, he saw hard work as the route to self-improvement. I urge you to be similarly ambitious: Make the most of your time at Stanford, embrace the pursuit of knowledge.

You have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution but also a great research institution. At Stanford, you can take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created, and you can contribute to that process. For me, participating in research as an undergraduate led me from my major in electrical engineering to my graduate major in computer science, and it ignited a passion for being on the leading edge of discovery. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

I encourage you to experiment and take intellectual risks. Challenge yourself with courses in disciplines that are new to you. And should you occasionally not succeed, do not become disillusioned. The only people I know who succeed at everything they undertake are those who have been timid in setting their goals.

Real growth involves not only risking failure, but also overcoming adversity. In one of the most hotly contested Senate elections in this country’s history, Lincoln failed to unseat Stephen Douglas, the “Little Giant” known for his debating skills. It was not, however, a wasted effort. Through those debates, Lincoln honed his rhetorical skills and strengthened his arguments against slavery and his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision that permitted slavery to expand into the territories and thus perpetuate itself. This experience set the stage for his later presidential campaign.

Lincoln was a man of high ethical principles. One of his biographers, William Lee Miller, noted that his opposition to slavery was deeply rooted. As Lincoln explained to Albert Hodges, a Kentucky newspaperman:

“I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.”

While some of his views were dictated by the times in which he lived and would be unacceptable today, Lincoln continued to grow and overcome prejudice as he was exposed to different points of view.

Lincoln’s lofty ideals are wonderfully expressed in his Second Inaugural address when he urges reconciliation and extols the virtues of peace with the words:

“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

Today, you join a university community created and bound by a commitment to similar lofty ideals, a community of scholars dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding. It is a community rooted in principles established by the university’s founders and early leaders:

By Jane and Leland Stanford, who—after the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15—founded this university to benefit other people’s children and, as it says in the founding grant, “to exercise an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization.”

By Stanford’s first president, David Starr Jordan, who chose the motto “The Wind of Freedom Blows” to remind us of the importance and privilege of free and open inquiry.

And by Stanford’s first faculty and students, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community—a standard still in effect more than 100 years later.

As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your years here, I urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is much more than a ticket to your first job. Lincoln’s studies in law eventually prepared him for tasks far more demanding than those of a frontier lawyer. Likewise, your undergraduate education is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career. It is the foundation not just for your first job but also for your whole life.

To the parents in the audience, I assure you that Stanford will provide your children a variety of possibilities for growing and learning during the next few years. But it is your children, as individuals, who will choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and what engages their very able minds. I hope that you will support their choices.

Besides my belief that Lincoln was one of the great leaders in history, I chose to speak about aspects of his life because he had a very special connection to this university. Lincoln, as a member of the Whig and later the Republican parties, ran on a platform that included initiatives to promote economic development, believing that they provided the way for families to improve their lives. One of these initiatives was the transcontinental railroad, a project that had been delayed for years by congressional debates over a northern versus a southern route. Once the war began, Congress passed and Lincoln signed a bill designating the northern route.

Leland Stanford became one of four entrepreneurs who built the western portion of that railroad. After the death of their only son, Leland and Jane Stanford took the family fortune largely acquired from the construction and operation of the railroad and used it to build this university—to benefit other people’s children.

As the beneficiaries of that legacy, I hope that you will make the Stanfords, and all those who have and will contribute to this university, proud both of how you pursue your education and how you use the foundation you acquire here throughout your lives.

To all our new students and their families: Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.

* These include Lincoln by Herbert David Donald; Lincoln’s Virtues: An Ethical Biography by William Lee Miller; Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills; Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural by Ronald C. White Jr.; and portions of Carl Sandberg’s six-volume biography of Lincoln.