Prepared remarks of President John Hennessy at Opening Convocation Ceremony on Sept. 20, 2011

Parents, transfer students and members of the Class of 2015: Good afternoon and welcome to Stanford University. Today, we celebrate the arrival of 1,709 new freshmen and 47 transfer students. 

Dean Shaw spoke about the extraordinary talents of this class and why, after an intensive review process, we selected you, as an individual, to be a Stanford undergraduate.

In thinking about the start of a new school year, I have often turned to biographies that I have read over the past year for inspiration. This year, I managed to finish two works on Benjamin Franklin, an individual whose broad range of accomplishments as author, entrepreneur, statesman, scientist, inventor, diplomat and political theorist has always amazed me. In addition to H.W. Brands' biography of Benjamin Franklin entitled The First American, which I read nearly 10 years ago, this past year I completed Walter Isaacson's Benjamin Franklin: An American Life as well as Franklin's autobiography.

As I read these books and contemplated the arrival of a new class of Stanford undergraduates, I found myself thinking of the many ways in which Benjamin Franklin exhibited the same characteristics that we look for in selecting Stanford students.

It is true that Franklin would have had a few problems with the modern admissions process. His SAT scores were missing, of course, since he was a teenager about 200 years before the SAT appeared. More importantly, his high school record was — well — it was nonexistent, since he quit school to became a printer's apprentice at the age of 12.

But Franklin not only had a keen mind, he was a citizen of the world, and he had two of the most important characteristics we value at the university: intellectual curiosity and a passion for learning. Indeed, Franklin's entire life was an intellectual journey, just as we hope the next four years of your lives will be.

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. 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 global warming to the reduction and extinction of various flora and fauna — force us to face the question of how we will build a model for sustainable existence. Events around the world remind us that we share a small planet among peoples with different beliefs, hopes and cultures, and that understanding and appreciating their ambitions and their history will be critical to building a better world for all.

The goal of educating young people on their journey toward becoming thoughtful and active participants in our society was in the minds of Leland and Jane Stanford when they founded this university. The Stanfords boldly stated their goal of producing "cultured and useful citizens." We still strive for that more than a century later.

Today, you join a community of scholars, organized to pursue truth, knowledge and understanding. In Franklin's day such scholarly communities were rare, so when he was 17 he organized a group of colleagues into what he called "Junto," a club of inquirers into matters moral, political and scientific. Potential members were asked four questions to see if they were ready to join. Although 280 years have passed, those four questions are the same four I might ask of you today:

  1. Do you have any disrespect for any current members?
  2. Do you love mankind in general, regardless of religion or profession?
  3. Should anyone be harmed in his person, property or reputation merely on account of her opinions or way of worship?
  4. Do you love and pursue truth for the sake of truth and will you share the knowledge you discover impartially?

Your acceptance letter was an invitation to join a community of scholars founded on principles virtually identical to those of Franklin's Junto.

Those principles were established by the university's founders and early leaders.

  • By Jane and Leland Stanford, who – in the aftermath of the tragic death of their only son at the age of 15 – established 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 Winds of Freedom Blow" to remind us of the importance of free and open inquiry.
  • And by the first faculty and students of this university, who in 1896 created the Fundamental Standard, which emphasizes personal integrity and respect for each and every member of the scholarly community. It is the standard under which we still operate more than 100 years later.

Now that you have accepted the invitation to join this university and to live by these principles, the question I expect you are all asking is, "How should I make the most of my time here?" I can offer a few suggestions based on my 34 years as a member. 

My first suggestion is to get to know the faculty, who have chosen to pursue the academic life because of their passion for learning and their desire to share their knowledge with others. We realized that getting to know a faculty member personally was one of the most important components of the Stanford experience, and we have invested heavily over the past 10 years to create many more such opportunities.

The hallmark of our innovations has been Freshman and Sophomore Seminars, which are all taught by Stanford faculty and each of which enrolls no more than 16 students. This year there will be over 100 Freshman Seminars on topics including biotechnology, renewable energy, globalization, slavery in ancient Rome, Mark Twain, the Middle East, French intellectual culture, social protest, aging and Latin American politics. These seminars 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. While I love giving an exciting lecture to a packed classroom, my greatest enjoyment comes when a student visits my office to talk about my research, to ask career advice, to talk about a topic that she is interested in or to seek help on some topic he cannot grasp. We have an extraordinary faculty – get to know them and discover why they are passionate about their scholarly pursuits.

Just as Franklin appreciated the opportunity to engage with, and learn from, his peers throughout his life, I encourage you to take advantage of the wonderful diversity of experiences and backgrounds of your fellow students.

Over the next few years, you will get to know students whose backgrounds, cultures or beliefs are different from yours. You may find that your values – and your prejudices – are challenged. I hope that you will discover a new understanding and appreciation for the pluralistic society in which we live and find constructive ways to contribute to the world. The opportunity to learn from your fellow students is an important part of a Stanford education.

You have chosen to attend a university that is not only a great educational institution; it is also a great research institution. I encourage you to take advantage of that. Take courses and attend seminars that explore the frontiers of fields where new knowledge and understanding are being created. 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. This passion sustained me through my PhD and continues to excite me after more than 30 years as a Stanford faculty member. Being at the forefront of discovery and taking part in the creation of new knowledge is an immensely rewarding and life-altering experience.

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 — just be sure to learn from your mistakes. Everyone knows of Franklin's famous experiments with lightning, but he had done many experiments with electricity before the famous kite experiment. His most memorable early experiment, to my mind, was trying to cook a turkey using the electricity from a homemade battery. Unfortunately, during the process, he inadvertently made contact with the electrodes and received a shock that knocked him unconscious. As he said in a letter written at that time: "I meant to kill a turkey, and instead, I nearly killed a goose." When he began his experiments with lightning he was chastened by his earlier encounter with electrified poultry and took measures that probably prevented a much more dangerous encounter. So by all means experiment, but be safe, and do not hesitate to ask for a little guidance and advice along the way.

As you begin your time at Stanford and plan your four years here, I would urge you to remember that your undergraduate education is a foundation for life. It is a once-in-a-lifetime journey. It is much more than your ticket to your first job. It is an opportunity to develop the skills and passion for being a lifelong learner in areas related to and outside of your future career.

Now that you have arrived at Stanford, our request is simple: We ask that you become an enthusiastic member of this academic community. We ask you to take advantage of this opportunity – an opportunity that Benjamin Franklin never had.

To the parents in the audience, I assure you that Stanford will provide 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 that choice.

Benjamin Franklin's father, Josiah, was a candle maker, and he hoped that young Ben might follow in his steps. But Ben was not interested and contemplated a career at sea – a profession often considered by young unhappy boys in seaside communities. In the end, Ben was apprenticed to his brother James, a printer. There he discovered the love of reading and the pursuit of knowledge which changed his life forever. He also used what he learned to become an entrepreneur, eventually setting up his own printing company, after he left his brother's employ. His writing skills, which would prove so valuable in his roles as legislator and diplomat, also had their beginnings in his apprenticeship.

During your sons' and daughters' time at Stanford, we will do our best to create opportunities for them to learn and discover, but it will be each student's task to look for those opportunities and to pursue them with determination and energy.

I would like to conclude with an apocryphal story about Franklin, which, like many of his aphorisms, has valuable lessons for us 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. One young man who had overheard him discussing the declaration accosted him, shouting 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. You will have many opportunities here, but — just as Michael learned — it is incumbent on each of you to catch them!

I welcome all our new students and their parents to the Stanford family. Students, I hope your time here transforms your lives, just as it has transformed the lives of so many alumni. And, finally, I hope your time here will help to provide a foundation on which you will make your contributions to a better future for yourselves and the generations that will follow.

Welcome to the Farm and welcome to the Stanford community.