Charles Vest's 2011 Investiture Address

President of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE)

June 11, 2011

Dean Helble, distinguished faculty colleagues, parents, family, and above all, ... graduates. My wife Becky and I now live in Washington, DC, and I have observed at close hand the proper etiquette these days for public and semi-public figures.

It seems like every day, another public figure is admitting to some indiscretion, resigning, moving into damage control mode, or disavowing tweets and photos. In that spirit, I stand before you today to admit publicly that ... I have had an affair.

Yes, I admit it; for 40 years I have had a love affair with American Higher Education. My passion for our great public and private universities and the opportunity they create is undiminished.

Life and my education, received at West Virginia University and the University of Michigan, have been very good to me. And it turns out that Dartmouth played a big role in forming my philosophy as a university administrator.

Here is how it happened: My good friend Dave Ragone once told me something really interesting. Dave had been dean of the Thayer School in the 1970s when John Kemeny was Dartmouth's president. Ragone said to me, "Being at Dartmouth was an astoundingly unique experience, because the president was smarter than anybody else on the faculty."

Many years later when — to my personal amazement — I became president of MIT, I recalled Dave Ragone's description of Dartmouth and Kemeny. And I decided right then and there that at MIT I would enter each discussion and decision recognizing that every other MIT faculty member was smarter than the president!

Dr. Charles Vest This philosophy served me very well. I call it the Inverse Dartmouth Approach.

In fact, I have been blessed to serve as president of two great institutions: MIT and the U.S. National Academy of Engineering. It can go to your head.

One day, I was striding across the campus, and a faculty member came up to me and she said, "President Vest, I just want you to know that I think you are a model president." Naturally, I felt really good about being a model president. But then I looked into the dictionary and discovered that the definition of model is "a small replica of the real thing."

The "real thing" these days, President Barack Obama, is said to be the most powerful person in the world. But I contend that collectively, you, the new generation of highly educated women and men, hold the true power and responsibility for the decades ahead.

For this century truly is the Knowledge Age. To thrive in this century, America cannot depend on our geography, natural resources, or military might. We can only thrive based on brainpower, organization, and innovation. And brainpower, organization, and innovation must work together. And to do that, they must be harnessed by a loosely structured partnership among government, industry, and academia.

My view is that academia is a far more essential element of this partnership than most people understand, whether among the general public, or in government or industry. The fact is that institutions like Dartmouth are the indispensable partners in driving innovation and producing economic and social good in America.

If someone doesn't believe that our role is important, just remind them of a few of the innovations that came entirely or predominantly from our research universities during the second half of the 20th century:

There is not a job in America that does not depend on one or more of these university-based innovations.

Through your own education and research here at Dartmouth, many of you have prepared to devote your careers to seeking the engineering insights and developing the technologies that will similarly transform the 21st century. They will be needed to meet the great challenges of your time.

I am an optimist. I think you will succeed. But I must admit that you face challenges far greater than those we faced during my career.

Dr. Charles Vest

Today, as the planet's population moves inexorably toward 9 billion people, the challenges of securing clean water, sustainable energy, a stable climate, and health and security for the world's people are immense. Your challenges are greater than those we faced because of their scale, complexity, and global nature; and frankly, because of a dwindling of rationality, civility, and political will.

This is a time in which our world is integrating, tied together by inexpensive rapid travel and by the ubiquitous Internet. This integration should enhance our opportunities to meet global challenges.

Yet the world is simultaneously fragmenting along the ancient fault lines of religious and cultural intolerance. The civic discourse is increasingly subverted. The core issues are ignored. Rationality is frequently abandoned.

In this age, it is incumbent on the United States to enhance its capacity for engineering and scientific innovation, and to build the broad technology literacy and skills of its workforce in order to have the possibility to prosper, be healthy and secure, and to contribute to the solution of the great challenges to our planet and its inhabitants.

But all the scientific and engineering skills we can conceive of will not solve our world problems if we do not build and adapt a base of human and cultural understanding; ethical and moral underpinnings; sensible rules of law for the 21st century; and integration with the insights, inspirations, and communications of the arts. And, it is my belief that the new technologies needed to address the large-scale issues of water, energy, climate change, security, and world health cannot be deployed in sustainable ways without the full engagement of markets.

But first must come political will. Without political will, none of these challenges will be met. And political will must be driven by our vision, our underlying values, our world view, our cultural appreciation of nature and of people, and our ability to envision a future that is different from the past. And it must be driven by our willingness to transcend narrow interests and boundaries and to find common cause.

Our success in doing so will depend on our ability to understand the lessons of the past, to communicate effectively, to inspire, and to use critical thinking to make difficult choices among disparate and important goals.

It is time to regain our optimism and our "can do" spirit in order to remain a great nation and meet the challenges of our times. The way to accomplish this is to reconnect what we do with what we dream.

We need a country with more people dreaming about what's possible, where young people are inspired to imagine a better world and empowered to make it a reality.

In the last century, big-thinking engineers brought us automobiles, airplanes, electrification, clean water, computers, refrigeration, radio, television, medical imaging, lasers, the Internet, and the Web.

They transformed our world.

Those engineers were mostly young ... about your age ... and they were empowered by education and funded by government, industry, and venture capital to create new technologies, hire people to produce them, and move them into the market place.

That was the heart of the real economy.

Yes, some of those technologies also left a legacy of problems we now must deal with, such as cyber-crime, the specter of nuclear war, and a national addiction to fossil fuels.

But, you, the new generation of engineers must now be at the heart of solving these problems, and of making dreams of a better world become the new reality.

Let me close by reiterating my view that collectively, you, the new generation of highly educated men and women, hold the true power and responsibility for the decades ahead.

When I was young, I sat in our comfortable home in front of a small black-and-white television and watched an interview with Dr. Tom Dooley, an American medical doctor serving people in Asia in the midst of unfathomable poverty and dire living conditions.

Dean Helble presents the Robert Fletcher Award to Dr. Charles Vest
Dean Helble presents the Robert Fletcher Award to Dr. Charles Vest

Dr. Dooley held up in front of the camera a tiny, ill, starving child with a distended belly. Now, in the 1950s, such sights were never seen on television, or in magazines. It was shocking, and I recoiled emotionally.

But then he calmly said, in essence, "When you look at this child you see something horrifying, but I look at this child and know that I have the knowledge and skill to make him well."

I believe this simple statement is a metaphor for what 21st century graduates can and must do — make the world well.

Yes, you grasp the complexity of the world and you understand the enormity of its challenges, ... but you also have the new tools to resolve them.

In the end, I believe that knowledge and skill trump ignorance, and that optimism trumps pessimism.

If you believe this and if you embrace the opportunity to serve, you will find personal happiness and fulfillment beyond expectation, and you will benefit our world beyond measure.

* * *

I am grateful for the opportunity to have played a role in your investiture. But of course, I cannot close without providing a bit of personal advice, which I will do by telling you a true story.

Jerome Wiesner was president of MIT from 1971 to 1980. He also served as President John F. Kennedy's Science Advisor.

One day, long after his service as president had ended, an alumnus came up to him and said: "President Wiesner, do you remember me? You shook my hand when I crossed the stage at my graduation several years ago. And you gave me advice that has profoundly guided me ever since."

Jerry replied in some diplomatic manner, that — well — he did not specifically remember him.

"But, tell me," he said, "exactly what was the profound advice I gave you?"

"Why President Wiesner, you looked right at me, waved your arm, and said 'Keep on moving!'"

So that's my advice to you: Keep on moving!

Congratulations and Godspeed.