Text of President Hennessy’s prepared remarks for Commencement 2014

Following is the text of the address by University President John Hennessy, as prepared for delivery at Stanford University’s 123rd Commencement on June 15, 2014.


Graduating Students, Faculty Colleagues, Former and Current Trustees, Government Officials, Distinguished Guests, Family Members, and Friends:

I warmly welcome all of you to the 123rd Commencement Exercises of Stanford University. I would like to start this morning by wishing all of the fathers here today a happy Father’s Day. A special welcome to the seniors and to the graduate students from Stanford’s various schools. Today, we shall award 1,687 bachelor’s degrees; 2,313 master’s degrees; and 1,006 doctoral degrees.

The undergraduate Class of 2014 includes 288 seniors graduating with departmental honors, and 275 graduating with university distinction; 91 students have satisfied the requirements of more than one major and 32 are graduating with dual bachelor’s degrees; 142 are graduating with both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree; and 302 students have completed minors.

Throughout its history, Stanford has attracted students from around the world. This year, 135 members of the undergraduate Class of 2014 are from 51 countries other than the United States; 83 countries, in addition to the United States, are represented by 1,113 awardees of master’s, doctoral and professional degrees. Today, Stanford’s global reach is reflected in one other statistic: Two students who have earned their undergraduate degrees are not with us – they are on the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy in the Arctic conducting research on the global carbon cycle. The research team is hoping to stream today’s ceremony live on the Healy.

You may notice that I have started out this morning with a lot of statistics. Now before you jump to the conclusion that I do this because I am a computer scientist, let me say that reciting these statistics is a historical tradition at our Commencement ceremonies. And as such, it is one that I am proud to carry on.

Universities are prized for their traditions and are often the primary home for discussions and debates about the ancient and timeless questions facing humanity. At the same time, universities must look forward. They must be bold as they contemplate the future and their opportunities. This balancing of old and new, the innovative and the traditional, is a challenge that universities have faced for hundreds of years, and it has been a theme in the speeches of many of my predecessors. Our first president, David Starr Jordan, in his inaugural address in 1891, reflected on this balance when he said:

“It is for us as teachers and students in the university’s first year to lay the foundations of a school which may last as long as human civilization. … It is hallowed by no traditions; it is hampered by none. Its finger posts all point forward.”

Today, 123 years later, we have established some traditions, but we have not forgotten President Jordan’s exhortation. We remain mindful of the need to reinvent and move forward. As you leave Stanford, I hope you carry a deep appreciation of the values and traditions that are everlasting as well as a willingness to be bold and to approach challenges with a fresh perspective.

It is with the recognition that traditions remain vibrant when they are enthusiastically embraced by succeeding generations that I now invoke a very special Stanford Commencement tradition. Graduating students, in the stands are many of those who have made your Stanford years possible: parents and grandparents, spouses and children; siblings, aunts, and uncles; mentors and friends – whoever played a role in helping you get to Stanford or in supporting and encouraging you once you were here. I invite you to please turn to the stands and join me in saying: “Thank you!”

Introduction of Melinda and Bill Gates

It gives me great pleasure to introduce this year’s Commencement speakers: Melinda and Bill Gates, philanthropists, founders, and co-chairs of the Gates Foundation.

Stanford University is known for its creative and entrepreneurial spirit, and from its founding, we have encouraged our students to use their education to “promote the public good.” Today’s speakers exemplify both of these characteristics.

Optimistic. Bold. Collaborative. Focused. Bill and Melinda Gates believe that every life has value, and over the past 14 years, through their foundation they have been tackling society’s most complex problems – extreme poverty, global health, and the U.S. public education system.

Both credit their families for passing on their values for giving, service, and engagement. Bill grew up in Seattle, the son of a lawyer and a schoolteacher, and developed an early interest in computers and programming. After stopping out of Harvard, he co-founded Microsoft with high school friend Paul Allen and developed it into the world’s most successful software company. From the beginning, Bill realized that the microprocessor and personal computer would dramatically increase the demand for software. Over the years I have known Bill, he has impressed me with the combination of his ability to see new applications of computing and his ability to see what those applications would do for people.

Melinda French was born and raised in Texas, the daughter of an engineer. Her mother was a strong proponent of education, and her father’s rental business generated the children’s college fund. After earning her computer science degree at Duke University, she joined Microsoft, where she met Bill at a conference dinner. As she described it, she was late and “there were only two chairs left. I took one, and 20 minutes later, someone else who was even later took the last one next to me. That was Bill.”

Their mutual commitment to help people improve their lives had its origins in a 1993 trip to Africa they took to celebrate their engagement. They were struck by the immense poverty and determined to do something about it. That shared vision led to the creation of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000. One of the most influential philanthropic organizations in the world, it has provided more than $28 billion since its inception. The foundation has an entrepreneurial mindset, taking risks, supporting innovative ideas from polio eradication to saving newborns, to partnering with innovative school systems throughout the United States.

Bill and Melinda understand the transformative power of education. Every year, 1,000 promising high school students are selected as Gates Millennium Scholars; over the years, 130 of those Gates Scholars have chosen to attend Stanford. The Gates Cambridge Scholars program supports post-graduate scholars pursuing advanced study at Cambridge University.

The Gateses are also champions for philanthropy, inspiring and serving as models for others. Committed to donating most of their wealth in their lifetimes, in 2010 they – along with good friend Warren Buffett – launched the Giving Pledge, calling upon the world’s wealthiest to join them in making giving a priority by donating at least half their wealth. It was an audacious challenge in support of an ambitious vision to improve the lives of people worldwide.

When asked what motivates her deep engagement, Melinda Gates said, “We’re not giving out aid, we’re providing people with the tools they need to improve their lives.”

Many years ago when Bill was still heavily engaged in Microsoft, I asked him about his personal philanthropy. He told me that he would focus on philanthropy when he could find the time to really do it well. Anybody who knows Bill will attest to the intensity he brings to all his endeavors, and anyone who has seen him operate as a philanthropist will see the same intensity, attention to detail, and drive for excellence that characterized his time leading Microsoft.

This boldness and passion for excellence is an ethos that we seek to instill in our graduates. Bill and Melinda Gates have transcended business success and are now dedicated to improving the human condition. We are very pleased to have them here today giving Stanford’s first joint Commencement speech.

Please join me in warmly welcoming Melinda and Bill Gates.

Concluding remarks

Graduates of Stanford University, on behalf of all members of the Stanford family, I congratulate and commend you.

I would like to reflect for a few minutes on a phrase you have heard several times this morning. As each group of students was presented to me for the conferral of degrees, I responded by admitting you to the “rights, responsibilities, and privileges” associated with a degree from Stanford University.

We believe the rights and privileges of an education bring a responsibility to make good use of your knowledge. Today you join a long line of distinguished alumni who have worked to make the world a better place for future generations.

I have made it a Commencement tradition to talk about a member of the Stanford family who took his or her responsibilities seriously. This year, I want to talk about someone who, like our Commencement speakers, began with a successful career in business but became a great humanitarian, who sought to help people help themselves.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Herbert Clark Hoover – alumnus, mining engineer, entrepreneur, humanitarian, and the 31st president of the United States.

Hoover spent his early years in Iowa. Orphaned at the age of 9, he was raised in the Quaker tradition and his uncle wanted him to attend a Quaker college. But Hoover wanted to be an engineer, and neither of the schools his uncle favored offered engineering. After learning about a new tuition-free university, at that time anyway, in California, he enrolled at Stanford, where he became a student in the Pioneer Class.

In his senior year, he met another geology student – Lou Henry – a fellow Iowan who became the first woman to earn a degree in geology from Stanford. After graduating, Hoover worked in mining in California and then took a job in Australia. When offered an opportunity to work in China, he proposed to Lou by cable, returned long enough for them to marry, and together they sailed for China.

As a result of Hoover’s mining expertise, the couple traveled widely. At the start of World War I, Hoover volunteered to chair a committee that helped over 120,000 Americans find their way home.

Soon after, he took up the cause of Belgian food relief. The Belgian people were starving; much of the country was destroyed and armies from both sides occupied much of the territory. In the midst of war, many considered the problem insurmountable, but Hoover took it on, leveraging his experience and a belief that it was the right thing to do.

He organized volunteers, raised funds, and persuaded both the Allies and Germany to let the Committee for Relief of Belgium do its work. Under his leadership, in four years the committee raised more than $1 billion for Belgian relief and fed 11 million people.

After the war the Hoovers returned to Stanford and built the house that now serves as the home for Stanford’s president and family.

After the war, he continued his efforts, leading the American Relief Administration, which provided food to 300 million people in 21 countries. When some complained about providing assistance to Russia, Hoover’s response was unequivocal: “Twenty million people are starving; whatever their politics, they should be fed.” The relief effort he led against the 1921 Russian famine remains one of the largest food relief efforts of all time.

No longer just the “great engineer,” Herbert Hoover became known worldwide as the “great humanitarian” and a man who could solve big problems. He was appointed U.S. Secretary of Commerce and worked on safety standards, regulating radio and the emerging air industry, and on disaster relief efforts in the U.S.

In 1928, Herbert Hoover was elected the 31st president of the United States; he celebrated the election victory from the roof of the house I now live in. But, less than a year later, the stock market crashed. Hoover worked to rebuild the American economy but the scale of the Depression overwhelmed his efforts.

Hoover never regained his stature in many people’s eyes, and after losing his bid for re-election, the Hoovers returned to Stanford, living here until Lou Henry’s early death, when he moved out and subsequently donated the house to the university.

At the end of the Second World War, President Truman selected Hoover to organize the food relief in Germany, where more than 3 million children, including my predecessor as Stanford President, Gerhard Casper, were fed through his efforts.

Herbert Hoover’s life exemplified the Stanford spirit. Driven by a deep desire to make a difference, he gave over 50 years of service to his country and to humankind. A compassionate man, he never sought recognition for his many acts of generosity. Few know, for example, that he donated all his presidential salary to charity, and in every relief role, he served as a volunteer without compensation.

Today I hope that you leave here with a strong reservoir of the Stanford spirit. And I hope that you put your knowledge and energy to good use in making your own contributions to a better world.

Thank you and congratulations!