Investiture Address: Dean Helble

June 10, 2017

Every Commencement is unique of course, but this year’s holds particular meaning.

As the posters on the stage remind us, you are graduating in our 150th anniversary year, and today’s ceremony—the largest one we have ever held—seems particularly appropriate in this year of celebration.

And as I suspect most of you have recognized, for me, personally, this is also a special celebration, as I have the privilege of having three generations of family present to see my daughter join the ranks of Thayer Engineers.

I speak today not just as the dean, but as a parent who has gotten to see this school in new ways through the eyes of his child.

And it has left me even more impressed and inspired by what I have always known of you, our students—your intellect and your intellectual curiosity, your incredible work ethic, your uncanny ability to locate free food anywhere in the building (the true definition of a nanosecond is the time between a staff member hitting send and students descending on wherever that location of free food has been promised; it is truly astounding) and also your fundamental decency as human beings. And their belief—to our graduates, your belief—that engineering is not, at its core, simply about problem-solving.

It’s about harnessing the power of technology, about creating and inventing, to improve the human condition. To serve society.

And as engineers, of course, it is not just your mindset but your skillset that set you apart. You are analytical. You are quantitative. At the end of the day, when we reduce what you do to its most fundamental, it is about hypothesizing, measuring, interpreting. It’s about data. Data matters. Facts matter. Numbers matter.

Like 113—the number of BE degrees being awarded this year, the largest total in the history of the school.

Like 52, the percentage of women earning bachelor’s degrees in engineering last year, the largest in our history and a cause for national celebration the past 12 months for breaking through a perceived glass ceiling. Many of you, receiving a BE or MEM today, were part of that record-setting class.

Or a number like 175,000, which is my estimate of the minimum number of engineering degrees—bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate—that will be awarded in this country this year—an all-time record and a positive statement of your generation’s goals and aspirations on so many levels.

Now, here’s one more number for you: that’s the number eight. That is the number of individuals in today’s US Congress that the Congressional Research Service cites as engineers. Eight. Seven in the House of Representatives, one in the Senate.

That’s eight out of 535—just under 1.5 percent.

Now, the obvious conclusion is that engineers are generally not politicians, at least not in this country.

Now, interestingly, the polling organization Gallup, which is well known for its polls on trends that affect elections and governance, also samples public opinion on its view of the value to society of different professions.

And back in December, just six months ago, they surveyed the American public on different professions, asking respondents how they would rate, and I quote, the “honesty and ethical standards” of people in 22 different fields. The choices they gave them were: very high; high; average; low; or very low.

Top of the list: nurses. And if you think about it for a moment, it’s not particularly surprising.

Next, essentially tied: physicians, pharmacists, and engineers, with engineers being evaluated by 65 percent of the public as having very high or high standards of honesty and ethical integrity, and only 5 percent perceiving engineers to be low or very low, essentially tied with nurses as the lowest of any profession in the country—well ahead of members of Congress, but also ahead of business executives, lawyers, bankers, journalists, psychiatrists, even ahead of members of the clergy.

But you, our graduates—our Thayer Engineers—you’re different. You’re anything but inward-facing, and that is something I’ve seen year after year after year.

So let’s think about this for a moment.

We engineers often complain about a lack of public understanding of what engineering is, yet here we see a clear signal that the public sees you, sees us, sees engineers as serving the public good, as putting others first. It seems, in fact, that engineers are viewed as perhaps one of the few remaining honest, ethical, trustworthy, and selfless professions in society.

We’re data-driven, we’re analytical, we’re fact-based. For this reason we’re trusted.  And yet for this reason, we tend to stay out of the public sphere. We tend to retreat into the data, stay on the sidelines, contribute to the public debate only when pressed, and in many ways, conform to that public stereotype of engineers as smart, hard-working, sometimes unintelligible, introverted problem solvers.

But you, our graduates—our Thayer Engineers—you’re different. You’re anything but inward-facing, and that is something I’ve seen year after year after year.

Sure, some of you may be a little less vocal. Sure, some of you may have a quiet passion for coaching a middle school Lego League robotics team or engaging in After School Science or Junior Solar Sprint, or spending a weekend, when not working in the lab or on a problem set, quietly hiking Moosilauke with friends, or attempting to emerge victorious while you settle this place called Catan.

But I have seen you, year after year, eloquently present your work to faculty, to staff, to the local community during our annual Open House, speaking passionately, quantitatively, substantively—a rare combination—about your work and its benefit to society.

As BE students, for example, you describe your work developing a wearable device capable of monitoring personal exposure to second-hand smoke; your work developing low-cost and effective testing instruments to quantify polymerase chain reaction (PCR) in order to enable detection of the concentration of DNA over time; or to evaluate the material and adhesion properties of bone cements being developed for dental applications

As MEM students, your work evaluating marine energy technologies to identify alternatives suitable for an integrated ocean energy, off-shore wind technology complex; or the potential for increasing life expectancy in developing countries through broad, systematic, and regular deployment of telemedicine technology that exists today; or assessing the feasibility of using free space laser technology for short range, line-of-sight terrestrial transmission of voice, video, and data in office parks or on college campuses.

As MS and PhDs, your work in imaging, sensing, protein engineering, electronics, and a host of other areas – published in papers, presented in conferences, but also readily discussed at our Open Houses with the broader public.

All of you used your technical and analytical skills to accomplish great things. But an important part of your success went beyond the technical. It was your unusual ability to communicate: to listen and to speak eloquently to the non-specialist about your work and the impact that your work might have on the world.

The public tells us that this voice—the engineering voice—your voice—is a trusted voice.

To use your voice.

So my message this morning is that the public tells us that this voice—the engineering voice—your voice—is a trusted voice. And I am asking you, each of you, in your own way, to think about at this moment in time, what it would mean to use it in a more public way.

I’m not asking you to run for Congress, although changing the anemic numbers that I reported in that regard would, I’d say, not be a bad thing over time.

But I am asking you to think about engaging in the issues of your day in whatever way works for you, but that pushes you slightly outside of your engineer’s and engineering comfort zone.

I am extraordinarily proud of our faculty, whom I have seen, in this past year alone, weigh in publicly on issues of the importance of supporting scientific funding for research and education, to the impacts of climate change, to change needed in math and science education. They have done something that engineers do not naturally do: They’ve taken a public stand—an action that for engineers is not easy and one that immediately invites criticism, but an action that, I will argue, is essential to the public debate and for the public good.

So when you think about the technical-related policy issues that are facing you, that are facing us, now, at this moment in time, the public needs our voice, the public needs your voice.

When our ceremony ends in just a few moments, we will gather outside of Cummings and Maclean, for the reception and lunch that I announced just a few minutes earlier at the start of my remarks. And there, I promise you, as happens every year, I will see many of you, unless it’s torrentially raining, gather with your friends and families, for photographs next to those words carved in stone—and you know what words I’m referring to. But this year, I ask, that when you stand there, and you pose with one another and your family and friends for those photographs, you reflect one last time as you leave Thayer and Dartmouth on what those words mean:

“To prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.”

And I ask you, today, is there any more responsible position, or any more difficult service, than informing the public debate because if we as engineers do not speak out using data and the position of trust the public holds us in, if not us, than who? There will be a void. You have a tremendously important opportunity and role to play.

Let me conclude by saying to you, our students, you have truly left your mark on us, your faculty and staff, and I say thank you. Thank you for the time you have spent with us, thank you for the provocative questions you’ve asked, thank you, not really, for the empty pizza boxes left piled up in the atrium early in the morning, but thank you for your energetic contributions to our enterprise.

And to you, the family and friends, parents, grandparents, and siblings gathered here today, I say as I do every year—but this year it is particularly personal for me—thank you for lending us your sons and daughters, your family and friends, this extraordinary group of talented individuals.

On behalf of the entire Thayer faculty and community, it has been a privilege.