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News Service

News Service:

Annette Hacker, director,
(515) 294-3720

Office: (515) 294-4777

08-05-06

Remarks by Graham B. Spanier

Commencement Address at Iowa State University

August 5, 2006

9:30 a.m.


President Geoffroy, regents, faculty, family, friends, and of course graduates... I am honored to be here today, and I particularly cherish the recognition of the honorary doctorate that you have bestowed upon me. I owe much to Iowa State. So many of my fondest memories are rooted here. I know most of you will have similar lifelong connections and an evolving gratitude for what unfolded in your lives here.

Cyclones and other people

It's a pleasure to return to Iowa -- a place where we shouldn't -- but do -- joke about corn and beans, the weather, and Jell-o "salad." A place where there are only two kinds of people -- Cyclones and those other people.

I'd like to begin by saying congratulations to the graduates and noting that you are joining an elite group of individuals; only 28 percent of Americans hold a college degree. So this is quite a milestone for you -- and not just because your parents weren't sure you were ever leaving this place. Little did they know a few of you were slowed down by Texas Hold-Em poker, reruns of Sex and the City, and studying FaceBook.

But now you are ready to face the real world -- which incidentally is not as cushy as the college world. Your parents may have told you that you will be paying your own credit card bill; and you will probably need to stop wearing a baseball cap as a replacement for washing your hair.

Some of you feel sad leaving Iowa State behind. Trust me... the alumni and fundraising people will write and call you often. By the way, please do give something back, even if it's only a few dollars a year at first.

Since I'm a savvy university president, I know that some of you are wondering right now how you can phone your friends in the stands without being too obvious while others are being entertained by the methodic sway of their tassels. But for the rest of you alert and serious types, listen up.

I have a few questions for our graduates today. First, let me see by a show of hands if your time at Iowa State went by FAST...

Okay... good.

Now, I bet you all can remember the day you first arrived at Iowa State...

Without risking embarrassment here... let me see a show of hands of all of you who had a mother make up your dorm room bed when you arrived that first day.

Now... of those of you who just raised your hand... how many of you ever washed those same sheets the first month AFTER your Mom left?

All I can say is we hope that in the ensuing years, your personal hygiene has become more of a priority.

By the way, your parents have been your biggest supporters and they want you to succeed, because they do NOT want you back in their houses! They have already converted your room to a spa and fitness center and if you have not yet found a job, you will soon begin finding want ads circled in red and strategically placed around the house.

What your parents taught

Your parents taught you about logic, with phrases like, "Because I said so, that's why."

They taught you about religion: "You better pray that stain comes out of the carpet."

You learned about flexibility when they said: "Will you look at the dirt on the back of your neck!"

They even knew a bit about medical science: "If you don't stop crossing your eyes, they're going to freeze that way!"

But most importantly, your parents taught you about justice: "One day you'll have children, and I hope they turn out just like you!"

I wish my commencement speaker had said something really useful like "invest in Microsoft" or "don't send your children for any overnights at Michael Jackson's," which is why I thought a lot about what I would say to you today. I'd hate for you to walk away from this day thinking, "Why couldn't we get Jay Leno or Chris Rock?" Turns out they were booked. But bear with me because I will reveal something important to you.

People first

I want to give you one simple message today: Put people first.

That's it.

I know you're thinking there must be more -- we just gave this guy an honorary degree and that's all he's got? Well, just to make you feel better, I'll expand a little on this notion.

When I was here in the late 1960s and early '70s, it was a time of tremendous change and turmoil in our nation. The U.S. was fighting a war in Vietnam, Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, racial tensions were high, Nixon was an unpopular president to many college students, and at Iowa State, it was a time of great change in student life.

But the most important thing I learned here was about putting people first. This principle has guided my life and career. It is my deep belief that humanizing society is our best shot for moving forward as a nation and as human beings.

Even the great philosopher Plato knew that putting people first was the key when he said, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Small gestures matter

Every action in our lives touches someone else in some way and we are accountable not only for what we do in life, but also for what we do not do. Remember that small gestures matter and grand gestures often have small beginnings.

Think of the hundreds of acts of everyday heroism in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Strangers risked their lives to save others; people in rowboats distributed donated food; convoys of supplies came in from other states; homes were opened; and donations poured in to the Gulf Coast.

To this day I remember the gesture, in 1969, of then-ISU President W. Robert Parks welcoming me into his office to hear my sorrow of learning that my favorite young professor had been drafted and was being sent to Vietnam. President Parks's concern for the predicament of one student and one faculty member was inspiring. It's a memory that helped me decide what kind of leader I wanted to be.

Society of screamers

Unfortunately, we have become a society of screamers. Look at cable network news. We put people on opposite sides of a table and we get them to yell at one another.

Sometimes we just put them together via satellite, with screens side-by-side and let them go at it. We expect people -- we even want people -- to take extreme positions on issues. Are you pro or con? Left or right? Gay or straight? Pro-life or pro-choice?

But the truth of the matter is that the world doesn't normally operate at the extremes -- well, except for that Oprah show where Tom Cruise was jumping on the couch -- now that was a little extreme.

I sometimes feel like I have "The Gray Disease," where I am forced to see what's between the extremes. Few things are black or white. It is in the gray areas where most of the world operates. It is in the gray areas where compromises are made. It is in the gray areas where people must come to terms with decisions in the workplace, in their family life, in their community, and across borders.

Many of you will graduate and go into the workplace believing that all decisions are business decisions. But they are not. Most decisions are also people decisions.

Learn to operate in the gray areas

As future leaders, you must be able to operate, and operate well, in the gray areas. You need to be accessible, reach out to people, and strive to understand diverse viewpoints.

Most days we're given the opportunity to connect to dozens of people. Not all of these people will be the captains of industry or the leaders of nations. Some may be your next door neighbor, the bagger at the local grocery store, your mechanic, a cab driver, or your child's teacher. You might be the only one listening or noticing. But every encounter has the potential to influence your life. A true leader recognizes this and strives to make people feel important and accepted no matter who they may be.

As one American author has noted, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel."

A leader must be tolerant of others' weaknesses, appreciative of their strengths and their differences. Putting people first involves more than good deeds. It involves an attitude and a way of life.

It is my deepest hope that you will care enough about humanity to work toward solving some of the world's most pressing problems. I urge you to strive to make a genuine difference in the world by always putting people first.

Robert Louis Stevenson had it right when he said, "A person is successful who has lived well, laughed often, and loved much; who has gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children... who leaves the world better than he found it; who looked for the best in others and gave the best he had."

I ask you to look for the best in others and you will find it.

To this Iowa State class of 2006, I offer my heartiest congratulations for all your hard work and effort. I wish you happiness, success, fulfillment, and a life filled with compassionate and caring people -- even if they aren't Cyclones!

-30-

Graham Spanier

Graham Spanier

Quotes

"As future leaders, you must be able to operate, and operate well, in the gray areas. You need to be accessible, reach out to people, and strive to understand diverse viewpoints."

Graham B. Spanier, president, The Pennsylvania State University

 

"Most days we're given the opportunity to connect to dozens of people. Not all of these people will be the captains of industry or the leaders of nations. Some may be your next door neighbor, the bagger at the local grocery store, your mechanic, a cab driver, or your child's teacher. You might be the only one listening or noticing. But every encounter has the potential to influence your life. A true leader recognizes this and strives to make people feel important and accepted no matter who they may be."

Graham B. Spanier, president, The Pennsylvania State University