President Richard Saller’s remarks at the 133rd Opening Convocation
Stanford President Richard Saller delivered these remarks at the 133rd Opening Convocation ceremony on Sept. 19, 2023.
Thank you, Johan. Let me begin with a warm welcome to the Class of 2027 and transfer students – you and I, in my first month as president, are setting off together on a new venture this fall.
You are a class of far-ranging talents and varied experiences, entering a university that is second to none in its offerings and creativity. My main advice for you this afternoon is to have the self-confidence to seek out the opportunities offered by Stanford that will contribute to your own personal fulfillment. That fulfillment will take many different paths. Let me explain, based on my own experience as a student and then as a teacher.
During the Vietnam War era I entered the University of Illinois as an engineering major. In the spring of my first year I took a Roman history course to fulfill an engineering requirement – it was captivating and prompted me to switch majors to classics and history. That was an impulsive and naive move that turned out, surprisingly, to be extraordinarily fortunate. I will be forever grateful to my parents and my teachers for the support they gave me through this unconventional move.
My suggestion for you is that, whatever major you choose, use your four years at Stanford to explore new fields of knowledge and diverse experiences; you may not again have the unsurpassed intellectual resources and the community that this university will offer you.
Stanford is rightly renowned for its computer science and other fields of engineering – and many of you will find your major there. But what you may not know is that it was also ranked #1 in the world in the Humanities & Arts by the London Times with mind-expanding courses like How to Look at Art, and Why or Literature and the Brain. Introductory Seminars are an excellent way to venture into a new subject, perhaps in our new School of Sustainability or the social sciences, and meet a professor in a small, interactive setting. Take advantage of the unparalleled range of outstanding resources available here, whether it be in literature or in physics or an initiative in artificial intelligence.
My second piece of advice is to urge you to have confidence in your own agency and potential. What you shared in your admissions materials about yourselves and how you’ve risen to challenges gives us confidence that you belong here and can succeed, but it is essential that you take the initiative on your own behalf in seeking out the resources and support to make optimal use of what Stanford has to offer.
Here is what I mean. Surveys of graduating students indicate that they find Stanford faculty to be among the most accessible among peer universities, but I know from my own experience that too often I sit in my office alone during office hours. The university also provides a wide variety of support services. Don’t be shy about approaching the faculty and staff about your interests and concerns. They will be happy to help.
The importance of your own personal energy and focus was brought home to me by the most rewarding teaching experience in my career. Twelve years ago I worked with Janet Montag – a community leader, Stanford volunteer, and board member of the Asia Foundation – to organize a one-month summer seminar on campus for 25 students from the brand new Asian University for Women in Bangladesh.
These students came from modest families in various countries across South Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and Vietnam. One of the principal goals of AUW was to instill confidence and a powerful sense of agency in these students, who came from societies that limited opportunities for women – sometimes severely.
The topic of the seminar was one of my own research interests: the history of women and family in Europe. On the first day of class as I was explaining the syllabus, one of the students raised her hand and asked in a challenging but polite way, “Professor, why should we be interested in this subject?” I was taken aback by this unexpectedly direct question and tried to offer a rationale – it was probably unconvincing.
But in the second week we read Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone. The play put to rest their doubts about relevance, because they had experienced the intensely painful dilemmas of duty to family and personal goals. My takeaway was that great works of literature can resonate in profoundly meaningful ways across cultures and millennia.
But the reason I am telling you about this experience is because four of those students transferred to Stanford the following year and then used the opportunity to launch truly amazing careers. One went on to a PhD here in environmental science, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton, and next year she’ll have a faculty position at the University of Chicago. Another has completed a PhD in clinical psychology and has been appointed to a postdoc in the Harvard Medical School. The third is a prize-winning poet with a doctorate in Persian literature from the University of Cambridge. And the fourth is a high-level analyst for the Australian government.
It has been a joy to follow their careers. Their success is all the more amazing because some of the students came from societies where women are so controlled by men that they are not allowed out of their house unless accompanied by a male guardian. The lesson from their stories is the critical importance of their personal motivation in the pursuit of their own meaningful goals. The Asian University for Women instilled in them confidence in their own agency, and Stanford provided the resources to use their extraordinary talents in pursuit of their passions.
I offer their stories as models for what you can do in your years here. You should pursue your own personal path to goals that you find rewarding. Don’t let others define your hopes and dreams, and do expect setbacks along the way. I will confess that after I changed my own major to classics, my first essay came back with a grade of “D” – which made me wonder whether I had made a stupid mistake. Luckily, I didn’t let it stop me.
Up to this point I have given a couple of suggestions about how you might approach your time on campus. Now I want to make a few points about the ethos of the community that I want you to help nurture.
Over the past century the pursuit of knowledge and its dissemination has become an increasingly collaborative effort as the body of knowledge has grown at a stunning rate. Not only in the natural sciences, but also in the social sciences and even the humanities, research has become a team effort in which interdisciplinary projects require different types of expertise and skills. Stanford will give you the opportunity to participate in these collaborations. Most students do.
The success of these team efforts to advance knowledge absolutely requires integrity in the research and the academic freedom to debate different views.
Stanford is of course situated in Silicon Valley and is strongly associated in the public’s mind with Silicon Valley for better and sometimes for worse. On the positive side, the ethos of innovation pervades the university. On the other side, a well-known cliche that caricatures Silicon Valley is “fake it till you make it.” That is NOT the standard of a great university.
You will be part of a collective effort to advance authentic knowledge that will stand the test of time. Whether working in a faculty laboratory or participating in a seminar or taking an exam, the integrity of every one of us is foundational to the university’s academic mission.
And yet in all honesty, through the pursuit of authentic knowledge our community will have deeply held disagreements, disagreements that are likely to be intensely debated in the coming electoral year. The university as an institution will not take political positions, but individuals within the community can and should express their divergent views, articulated with reference to their own experiences and to the evidence.
The value of having a diverse campus – and we are a very diverse campus – is the possibility of interacting with, and learning from, others from different backgrounds. The intensity of feelings that divergent viewpoints can elicit will make it all the more important that our interactions be respectful and constructive. One upcoming opportunity to reinforce our commitment to civil discourse will be Democracy Day on Nov. 7. I urge you to participate.
Your Stanford experience will take you beyond the classroom and lab as part of a community that aims to make the world a better place for all to live. I need hardly tell you that Stanford is a privileged institution, which makes it all the more imperative that we use that privilege to be of service beyond the campus. Stanford students are extraordinarily generous in offering their time and talents, and you will have many opportunities to join in.
One avenue to do so is the Haas Center for Public Service with its hundreds of opportunities to suit your interests. Its Cardinal Quarter offers you the chance to participate in a full-time, quarter-long, funded public service experience designed to integrate your academic learning with field-based experience in diverse subjects such as environmental justice or education nonprofits or the arts for social justice. These are opportunities to engage and learn beyond the campus with support from the university. Be on the lookout for opportunities that you find personally rewarding.
And one final suggestion. Stanford students are energetic high-achievers. Develop routines and habits to take care of yourselves. Find time to expand your horizons, have some fun, get in regular workouts, and get enough sleep.
As a way to expand your horizons I highly recommend one of the Bing Overseas Studies Programs. I have taught history courses in Florence four times: The setting is Stanford’s Breyer Center, which is housed in the spectacular Palazzo Capponi, finished in 1411, on the Arno River with a view of the famous Duomo and belltower. As a historian, I keep going back to Florence, but you could also study environmental science on the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia, or post-apartheid South Africa in Cape Town, or other topics in eight other countries.
With all that the campus has to offer it is important that you show agency in attending to your own physical health and mental well-being. The university also provides support, including through Vaden Health Services, the Student Affairs office, residence hall staff, and more. But try to plan your days so that you don’t overextend yourselves and are able to sleep. It’s important to your mental acuity and emotional well-being.
And my final bit of personal advice is to wear a bicycle helmet as you speed around campus on a bicycle or motorized scooter. I offer this as an avid cyclist who once ended up in the emergency room needing six stitches for not wearing a helmet. We have too many students each year taken to the ER with head trauma after accidents. Your talents are too valuable to take such risks.
So let me end by repeating my warm welcome. Provost Martinez and I look forward to meeting as many of you as possible in the coming year. You have an extraordinary opportunity in front of you.