President John Hennessy urges new students to follow the example set by Benjamin Franklin, whose entire life was an intellectual journey
Hennessy was one of several speakers who addressed incoming freshmen and transfer students Tuesday at the 121st Opening Convocation Ceremony in the Main Quad. The other featured speakers were Michael Tubbs, '12; Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; and Harry Elam, vice provost for undergraduate education.
Drawing inspiration from the life of a printer's apprentice who became one of the nation's Founding Fathers, President John Hennessy urged new students Tuesday to emulate two of Benjamin Franklin's most important characteristics – intellectual curiosity and passion for learning.
Speaking at the 121st Opening Convocation Ceremony, Hennessy said he has always been amazed by Franklin's broad range of accomplishments – as author, entrepreneur, statesman, scientist, inventor, diplomat and political theorist.
"Indeed, Franklin's entire life was an intellectual journey, just as we hope the next few years of your lives will be," Hennessy said during the one-hour ceremony, which was held in the inner courtyard of the Main Quad.
"I trust that as you prepared for this day, you also took some time to contemplate what you are searching for in your undergraduate education," Hennessy said.
"Like Franklin, you live in a time of great change. New discoveries in science are revolutionizing the way we treat human disease as well as challenging us with deep and complex ethical questions. The changes we have wrought in our environment – from climate change to the reduction and extinction of various flora and fauna – force us to face the question of how we will build a world that will be sustainable for future generations.
"Events around the world remind us that we share a small planet among peoples with different beliefs, cultures and experiences, and that understanding and appreciating their ambitions and their history will be critical to building a better world for all."
Inaugurating the new academic year
Hennessy was one of several speakers who addressed the audience of freshmen and transfer students and their families and friends, and members of the Stanford community. The other featured speakers were Michael Tubbs, Class of 2012; Richard Shaw, dean of admission and financial aid; and Harry J. Elam Jr., vice provost for undergraduate education.
President Hennessy told the incoming students, 'you will have many opportunities here, but it is incumbent on each of our students to catch them.'
Hennessy urged the new students to experiment, take intellectual risks and challenge themselves by taking courses in disciplines that are new to them. He told them not to be discouraged if they occasionally fail – just to be sure to learn from their mistakes.
"Everyone knows of Franklin's famous experiments with lightning, but he had done many experiments with electricity before the famous kite experiment," said Hennessy, who earlier this year read Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, by Walter Isaacson, as well as The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.
"His most memorable early experiment was trying to cook a turkey using the electricity from a homemade battery. Unfortunately, during this process, he inadvertently made contact with the electrodes and received a shock that knocked him unconscious. As he said in a letter written to a friend at that time: 'I meant to kill a turkey, and instead, I nearly killed a goose.'
Chastened by that experiment, Franklin took measures that probably prevented a much more dangerous encounter, Hennessy said.
"So by all means experiment, but be safe, and do not hesitate to ask for a little guidance and advice along the way," Hennessy said.
Speaking to parents, Hennessy said he hoped they would support the choices their children make when they "choose what excites them, what generates intellectual passion and what engages their very able minds" at Stanford.
While Benjamin Franklin, as child, imagined a career at sea, Franklin's father hoped young Benjamin would follow in his footsteps and become a candlemaker. Instead, Franklin quit school at 12 to become apprenticed to his brother James, a printer.
"There he discovered the love of reading and the pursuit of knowledge that changed his life – our country – forever," Hennessy said. "He also used what he learned to become an entrepreneur, eventually setting up his own printing company, after he left his brother's employment. His writing skills, which would prove so valuable in his roles as legislator and diplomat, also had their beginnings in that early apprenticeship."
Hennessy ended his address with an apocryphal story about Franklin – a story he said offered a valuable lesson for today.
"This story claims that Franklin was conversing with some friends at a local Philadelphia tavern, shortly after the publication of the Declaration of Independence," Hennessy said.
"One young man who overheard him discussing the declaration shouted at Franklin: 'Aw, them words don't mean nothing at all. Where's all the happiness the document says it guarantees us.' Franklin replied sympathetically, 'My friend, the Declaration of Independence only guarantees the American people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.'"
"And so it is with your time here at Stanford," Hennessy said. "You will have many opportunities here, but it is incumbent on each of our students to catch them."
'Everywhere your feet tread at Stanford is yours'
Michael Tubbs, a Stanford senior, said he purposely missed Opening Convocation Ceremony three years ago, because he was scared. Tubbs said he was excited about college, but it was an excitement tempered by a sense of fear and foreboding.
"Before I graduated from high school, teachers were already predicting that I would fail at Stanford, and the long summer gave me too much time to think about every single way in which I was not 'Stanford,'" said Tubbs, who is from Stockton, a city in California's Central Valley.
"I was not Stanford because I was born to a teenaged mother and an incarcerated father. I was not Stanford because I went to a large, failing urban high school. I was not Stanford because I did not score a perfect 2400 on my SAT. I was not Stanford because I came from a city in a community that most would consider 'the hood.' In short, I missed my freshman convocation because I was certain that Michael Tubbs would not belong at Stanford."
Those feelings intensified during the week of New Student Orientation as Tubbs thought about the brilliant peers and faculty that were sure to soon surround him.
"Before I walked into the classroom, however, I was hit with another thought," he said. "I was reminded of the biblical story I had been taught growing up, that as Joshua prepared to lead the children of Israel into the Promise Land against giants, God told him that 'everywhere your feet trod I have given to you.'
"I took solace in that thought, that everywhere that I walked on this campus was mine, that it had been given to me to use, to grow and utilize by virtue of my admission into Stanford."
Tubbs said it was a thought that led him to apply to the Stanford in Washington program. It was a thought that led him to strike up a conversation with Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama and a Stanford alumna, that led to an internship with her in the White House.
Looking back, Tubbs said he almost laughs at the idea that he didn't belong.
"My story is not singular, but is one in a chorus of stories of students here that echo the truth: Everywhere you walk – to the Dish, to your dorm, to your classroom, to the library or to your student group meetings – has been given to you to do what you will with it," Tubbs said.
"Everywhere you walk on this campus is yours. Own it. You belong here. The institution needs you, your knowledge, your passions and your skills. The opportunities and resources the university provides are for no one else but you – there's a world out there that needs you to use them."
The Class of 2015
Richard Shaw, dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid, described the potential and promise of the incoming students – 1,709 freshmen and 47 transfer students – as "breathtaking."
He said the Class of 2015 is 52.5 percent men and 47.5 percent women. Sixteen percent of the freshmen are first-generation students – the first in their families to attend a four-year college. More than 8 percent of the Class of 2015 are international students, representing 52 countries. Every state in the union is represented in the freshman class.
Among the transfer students are nine veterans of the Army, Navy and Marine Corps.
Nearly half of the new students are receiving financial support from Stanford.
Shaw said Stanford "spent time beyond measure" selecting the incoming students.
"We search for young scholars willing to step outside boundaries to pursue their intellectual interests," he said. "We are further moved by qualities of compassion and an openness and commitment to those around you. We search for leadership beyond titles. Most importantly, you told us in your own words of your passion and intention to contribute in significant ways. We see your academic motivation and your personal experiences reflecting a world of possibilities as your lives unfold at Stanford and beyond."
Shaw said some incoming students may secretly wonder if they were mistakenly admitted to Stanford by the admissions staff.
"Let me be emphatic – we have not made any mistakes in selecting this superlative class," Shaw said. "A good and wise friend sees more in you than you see in yourself. This is what we do. This is our profession: to identify in you the intellectual strength and leadership potential to impact the world. We have chosen you. And we have not made a single mistake."
Learning is a collaborative enterprise at Stanford
Harry J. Elam Jr., the Freeman-Thornton Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education, also welcomed the new students to Stanford.
"In the immediate days ahead, you can expect that Stanford's world-class faculty members, devoted to undergraduate education and research, will introduce you to new and different ways of articulating problems, will engage you in philosophical principles and artistic paradigms, will provide you with insightful methodologies for confronting the meanings of life and approaching the world," Elam said.
"But what you may not yet realize is that they are also optimistically anticipating the ways in which you will challenge them and promote new thinking. The questions you will ask, the vitality and energy that you will bring into the classroom will energize their own research and make us better teachers and scholars."
Elam said Stanford cultivates and savors new ways of thinking.
"Learning and the process of knowledge production are collaborative enterprises, and Stanford values and takes very seriously the input of every participant in the project, no matter the size of their assignment or whether they are freshmen or graduate students," he said. "And that is why, virtually from the first days of your classes, you will be able to engage in cutting-edge research and share in this process of creating new knowledge."
Elam said that Stanford was ready to make their academic dreams come true.
"You will be presented with marvelous opportunities, and you will face significant intellectual challenges – some, I might add, of your own exhilarating design," he said.
Elam said Jane and Leland Stanford, who established the university in the aftermath of the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15, asked that the institution educate "cultured and useful citizens."
"'Cultured' in the 19th century did not just mean moneyed or with elegant manners: It meant an appreciation of not just the finer things, but a finer service," Elam said.
"The Stanfords saw learning put in direct relationship with meaningful practice and toward a greater social good. It was, and indeed remains, a noble goal. And so with buoyant anticipation and great pride, let us all embark together on this most profound adventure. Welcome to Stanford."