Convocation Address, June 2014

June 10, 2014

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 and friends.

It is my privilege to preside at this celebration of your success – this culminating event of your education at Simon Fraser University.

And it’s my pleasure to welcome those who have come to help you celebrate – your parents, family members and friends – for whom this occasion is as special as it is for you. 

I’d like to speak you today about the wisdom of someone who – though not a philosopher in the traditional sense – is renowned for his pearls of inadvertent wisdom.

I’m speaking of famed New York Yankees catcher and manager, Yogi Berra.

Yogi – who’s still very much with us by the way – offered many memorable insights over the years:

  • “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”
  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Or my personal favourite:

  • “Always go to other people’s funerals; otherwise they won’t come to yours.”

Yogi also said something that I think is particularly relevant to this graduating class.  

“The future,” said Yogi, “ain’t what it used to be.”  

Like many Yogisms, there is deeper truth to be found within this saying – “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

What Yogi was trying to tell us, I believe, is that the world is changing in ways that are new and difficult to predict.  That can be a scary prospect.  Or it can be a source of tremendous opportunity.

It depends upon whether one has what it takes to see the potential offered by change and to seize it.  

Consider Xerox – “the documents company” – which in the 1970s was at the cutting edge of computer innovation.  One of the most innovative things Xerox developed was called the WIMP – which stood for Window, Icon, Menu and Pointing device.  The last we now refer to as a Mouse.

But Xerox wasn’t looking to the future. Its executives held to the view that they were running a printing and photocopy business.  So they WIMPed out.  They gave their innovation away to some upstart named Steve Jobs, in return for which, Jobs let Xerox invest a million dollars in Apple.

Xerox has survived, but its future, in Yogi’s words, ain’t what it used to be.  Its current market capitalization is $14 billion – not bad.  Apple’s is $529 billion.

The lesson is that, while we live in today’s world, we must prepare for a future that will be almost unrecognizable.  

The businesses of yesterday – the photo development stores and video rental outlets – are gone.  They evaporated in a Kodak moment or collapsed in a Blockbuster fashion.

This can be worrying for people trying to find their way into the job market.  Things are changing at a remarkable pace. Indeed change is the only thing we can guarantee will not change.

And while futurists may strive to make good guesses about the jobs of tomorrow, there are no courses to teach you the necessary skills.

Or perhaps there are.  Perhaps you have already taken them.

Journalist and author Fareed Zakaria makes a good case in this regard.

In our skills-obsessed world, says Zakaria, there’s no substitute for the advantage you receive from studying at a university that values the liberal arts.

Depending on your discipline, you pick up a certain amount of specific knowledge and skills.  But more importantly, Zakaria argues, you also learn how to write, how to speak and, most critically, how to learn.

So, if the coding language changes three times in the 10 years after you become a computer engineer, you’ll be equipped to adapt to these changes.

If you’re a business graduate working in a sector that collapses, you’ll be able to adjust and shift successfully to another sector.

And if you’ve been schooled in philosophy or economics and the world takes an unanticipated turn, you may be one of the first to figure out what’s going on – and help chart a new course for the future.

Canada’s employment numbers provide strong support for Zakaria’s analysis. 

In past decade of incredible change – including the worst economic downtown since the Great Depression – university graduates enjoyed continued success in the labour market, while those with only high school credentials languished. 

In the five years from 2008 to 2013, jobs for university graduates increased by 810,000, while jobs for those without post-secondary education decreased by 540,000. 

The benefits of the liberal arts have also been noted in the rest of the world.  Institutions across Asia, for example, have begun to introduce liberal arts courses and programs to add balance to what has been an overly narrow focus on skills alone.

SFU has also worked hard to find that balance.

We have endeavoured to inculcate the critical thinking, problem-solving and research skills that will enable you to be employable, adaptable, global citizens.

And regardless of your program of study, we have required you to hone your writing and quantitative abilities, and to gain interdisciplinary breadth.

And, as Canada’s “most community engaged research university”, we have provided you with opportunities for experiential learning, to gain workplace skills and civic understanding.

But I hope you also leave SFU with a sense of your own capacity – your own responsibility – to change the world … even as the world changes.

Just as we have encouraged you to be engaged students, I hope you will become engaged citizens – committed to making the world better. It is, in a profound way, your world now.

In closing, I want to thank you. Thank you for choosing SFU. Thank you for inspiring your professors and your colleagues. Thank you for engaging.

Thanks also to your parents, your extended family, your friends and mentors – all those who have helped you to this day. Your success is their success.

Finally, while you will soon have your degree, your education remains unfinished. You are alumni now.  I hope you will cherish that status, and come back, often, as your educational needs require or just to stay in touch.

We at SFU will always be here for you.