Convocation Address, October 2011

October 06, 2011

Professor Andrew Petter
President and Vice-Chancellor
Simon Fraser University

Madam Chancellor, honoured guests, members of the Board of Governors and Senate, faculty members, staff … and, most especially, graduands, families and friends.

It is my honour – and great pleasure – to participate in this celebration of your success … to engage with you in this culminating event of your SFU career.

It is also implicit in the motto to which the Chancellor referred – nous sommes prêts – that SFU, as one of Canada’s great universities, has helped to get you ready, to prepare you for the next stage of your life.  By harnessing your talents and our resources, we have enabled you to gain the skills, the knowledge, the curiosity – the appetite – to take on the world. 

Now that’s a tall order.  Listening to the news, you might be forgiven for thinking that the world, in its current state, offers too much to take on. 

The global economy is unsteady.  The environment is threatened.  Social injustices abound.  The very scale of the world’s problems is such that they seem to challenge our capacity to turn them around – to make a difference.

But if you take a closer look, there is a common contributor to the world’s ills.  From market instability, to climate change to social inequality, the greatest and most difficult dilemmas are a product of human agency.  It has been the concerted – if not always intentional – activities of human beings that have brought us to our current state.

That creates both a responsibility and an opportunity.

On responsibility:  if humans created these problems, it is humans who have an obligation to rectify them. 

On opportunity:  The fact that these problems were produced by humans implies we have the means to correct them.

This is not a new sentiment.  In a 1963 convocation address at American University in Washington, DC, US President John F. Kennedy expressed the same view when he said:

“Our problems are man-made; therefore they may be solved by man.  And man can be as big as he wants.  No problem of human destiny is beyond human beings.”

In an age that aspires to gender equality, that quote could rankle – or even amuse.  Some of you may be thinking that any problem created by a man is more likely to be solved by a woman.

And given that women constitute more than half of this year’s graduating class, I frankly hope that you are right.

But we can regret Kennedy’s choice of words and still embrace his message:  no problem of human destiny is beyond human capacity.

The answer lies in our actions … in our willingness to mobilize our capacities and in our determination to engage.

That is a fundamental part of SFU’s vision as an engaged university:  not only to provide a world class education; or to conduct research that expands the scope of human knowledge; but also to harness our talents and ideas for the well-being of current and future generations.

Now, along with your degree, we confer upon you a share in that responsibility – we challenge you to stay engaged, to contribute your energies and capacities to finding and forging the solutions that the world needs.

I urge you to embrace that challenge, knowing that you are not – and have never been – acting alone.  If you look around, you will recognize how substantial and significant a problem-solving team you have already assembled.

Beside you are your friends and classmates – the best of whom will be with you for life.

Before you are some of your favourite and most influential professors and mentors – whose inspiration and ideas will always stay with you.

And behind you, figuratively as well as literally, are the people who helped bring you to this day – parents, grandparents, special family members and friends.

Take a moment to be grateful for their presence and their support.  Your success is also their success – and you have good cause to be proud of one another.

Proud and hopeful.  Optimistic and undaunted.  Ready to tackle even the most pressing challenges of our time.

I want to thank you today for the intelligence and energy that you have brought to SFU … for the value that your ideas and actions have contributed to this university.

I want to thank you also for what I know that you will do in the future with the talents and skills you have gained here.

And I want to thank you, especially, because you give us hope.  With all you have to contribute to society, I have confidence that humankind is that much more ready to take on the world.

Congratulations to you all.