UT Commencement 2002  

Commencement Address

Edwin Dorn

Edwin Dorn
Dean, Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
The University of Texas at Austin

Speaker Biography

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Edwin Dorn
Commencement Address
The University of Texas at Austin
May 18, 2002


     Is this a great evening, or what?!

     Ambassador Schieffer, Regent Oxford, Chair Willeford, Commissioner Brown, Vice Chancellor Sharpe, President Faulkner, platform guests, members of the faculty, alumni, and most important , graduates and their families…

     This is a time to celebrate!  There are a lot of happy moms and dads and grandparents and husbands and wives and children in this audience – and some eager creditors, too. 

     Yes, it’s a time to celebrate.  It’s also a time to think about the future.  I look at you graduates, and I envision the wonderful things you’ll do.  I see new businesses, new technologies, new health care procedures, new literature.  I look at you, and I see ….. thousands of weird-looking hats.


     Last week, the Daily Texan published a special supplement about our graduation festivities.  It listed the thousands of men and women who make up the class of 2002.  I started noticing the numbers of people who bore the same last names.  One of the most frequently occurring last names was Smith.  That’s not surprising, because Smith is the most common last name in the United States.  There are 45 Smiths in UT’s class of 2002.  There are 36 Johnsons.  That’s a common name in the United States, but it has a special meaning for Texans.

     More interesting than the numbers of Smiths and Johnsons is this: 46 of you have the last name of Lee, and 39 of you have the last name of Kim.  What are the other most frequently occurring names among UT’s class of 2002?  There are 34 Patels, 34 Chens, 33 Nguyens, 24 Garcias, and 18 Garzas.

     The prominence of Asian and Hispanic surnames -- that is a huge change from when I graduated from UT in the 1960s.  The change is traceable to an unheralded triumph of the Johnson Administration, the Immigration Reform Act of 1965.

     For most of our history, the vast majority of immigrants into the United States had come from a handful of countries in Western Europe, because our immigration laws favored Western Europeans.. The ‘65 Act ended favoritism, and since then, most of our immigrants have come from Asia and Latin America. That’s why, in the class of 2002, there are as many Lees as Smiths.


     Where you come from is interesting.  But what is more interesting, and far more important, is where you are going.  This ceremony, after all, is called “commencement.”  It is a beginning.

     In fact, a commencement ceremony marks a distinctive aspect of our American character – our focus on the future. 

     America invented the future.  Of all the wonderful things that this nation has created, the most important is the shared conviction that tomorrow will be --and should be -- different from today.  Belief in the future is our common faith.  We often resist specific changes, but we seldom question whether change should occur at all; this, we accepted and embraced generations ago. 

     Our faith in the future grew out of our historical experience.  In the 19th century, the future lay in westward expansion. “The West of The Imagination”, to borrow the title of UT Professor Bill Goetzmann’s Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary, was a place of fantastic beauty, daunting challenge, and limitless opportunity.

     The continental United States had been well explored and settled by the end of the 19th century.  But just as the western frontier was closing, we were introduced to a new frontier.  In the 20th century, our future would be based on the technologies and the mass manufacturing of the industrial age. 

     We Americans put were especially attracted to size and by speed.  We had the biggest factories, the tallest buildings, the most powerful cars, the richest oil fields.  Today, we Austinites are proud to have the biggest personal computer manufacturer. 

     UT-Austin is the biggest university in the United States.  It’s also one of the best in the world.

     (Let me dwell on that last point.  There are thousands of institutions of higher education in the United States.  About half of UT’s schools and colleges are rated in the top 20 of those institutions; several are rated in the top 10.  So graduates, you got a first class education.) 


     Now, back to the future: If physical space dominated our sense of the future in the 19th century, and if industrial might dominated our sense of the future for the 20th century, what will characterize the nation’s future in the 21st century? 

  • Could it be new technologies that, in contrast to the 20th century emphasis on the huge, emphasize the small?  Could it be microscopic machines that can course through the vessels of the human body, revolutionizing health care?

  • Could it be new approaches to education that enable us to maximize the potential of all our citizens?

  • Could interactions among this nation’s many racial and ethnic groups bring about vibrant new forms of theater and dance and music?

     Our society has given its universities a special responsibility to answer those questions. It is here that new knowledge is developed, experimented with, and passed on to a new generation.  It is here that the future begins to take shape.  


     The responsibility to shape the future also devolves upon you, the graduates of this great university.  The future – a specific future – will happen because of the choices that you make.

     Right now, you are confronting a profoundly important choice:  whether to build walls of fear, or to build bridges of faith.

     You were born into a world divided between two great powers.  The “Iron Curtain” was not a metaphor.  It was a real and frightening thing – a high, black, steel mesh fence, and at points a thick concrete wall, that ran the length of Germany.  That wall was built because of fear and mistrust.

     In the early 80s, when most of you were very young, President Ronald Reagan challenged his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev, to tear down that wall.  During the administration of former President George Bush, the fearful wall came tumbling down.  Many of you may recall the television images of people from East and West Germanyhammering the Berlin Wall to pieces. 

     You also may remember watching television, just a few months later, when the gates of a South African prison swung open and Nelson Mandela walked through them, into the bright sunshine of a new South Africa. 

     Today, Germany is united.  The Soviet Union has fractured into more than a dozen independent nations.  In South Africa, the pillars of apartheid also have crumbled.  Indeed, the past twenty or so years have been good ones for champions of openness all around the world.

     Last September, however, while you were preparing for life after UT, we suffered the horrible, frightening reality of international terrorism.  The people of this nation responded with shock and anger and a determination to defeat a new adversary. 

     We needed strong public leadership, and President George W. Bush provided it.  We also developed renewed respect for public servants – for the policemen, firefighters, hospital workers and, yes, for the bureaucrats and politicians -- who helped us cope with tragedy.

     In spite of our courageous and proper response to September 11, however, we are confronting a profound irony: in the place of one great wall, we have begun to build thousands of smaller walls. 

     We have put concrete barricades around our Nation’s Capitol.  We have closed the gates that lead into the grounds of the Texas State Capitol.  Just west of here, on Lake Travis, we have erected an ugly metal fence to keep people from walking across the Mansfield Dam.

     We have installed elaborate security procedures along our borders with Mexico and Canada, so that a crossing that used to take minutes, now can take hours.

      We talk about making it harder for foreign nationals to enter this country, and about tracking them more closely once they arrive. 

     We talk about restricting the types of people who can study in our universities, and about restricting the publication of research findings.

     In response to the terrorist threat, we are beginning to build more walls, to close ourselves off, to let fewer people come in and let less knowledge get out.

     We should be very, very cautious about this course.  Closed societies do not thrive.  Countries that seal their borders do not thrive.  Universities that lock their laboratories to new research, find themselves relegated to intellectual backwaters.  Societies that build walls to protect themselves, eventually wind up being crushed beneath them.

     Do we need to be vigilant?  Yes.  Do we need to protect ourselves from an ever-growing array of threats?  Yes. 

     But we need to weigh the costs and benefits very carefully.  When we build a wall to make ourselves safer, we need also to ask, will it also make us stronger?  When we restrict research in order to make us more secure, we need to ask, will it also make us smarter?


     So here is your charge: whenever the choice arises, choose to build bridges of faith, not walls of fear.  This great nation must remain open to new people, new ideas.  The UT Tower should not become a look-out post for a citadel; it should be a beacon for a knowledge gateway.  The University must be a portal through which information and ideas can flow freely in both directions. 

     Graduates, this is not just a matter of grand policy; it is a matter of how you live your lives. It is a matter of your willingness to reach out to people whose backgrounds and beliefs are different from your own.

     We know that the future will be different from the present.  We expect it to be; we want it to be.  People who do not have faith that they can shape the future, will continue to fight over the wrongs of the past.

     We must explore, discover, refine, and then begin the process all over again.  That’s who we are – people who invent the future.


     One last thing: wherever all you Smiths and Lees, Johnsons and Garcias, Chens and Patels choose to go from here, I hope that you will take with you some cherished memories of this place.  Remember the Tower bells, the Hill Country sunsets.  Remember the cheers of Longhorn fans at Memorial Stadium.  

     Remember that your most rewarding moments happened when you learned something new. 

     And please remember, as you shape your future, to build bridges of faith.

Congratulations, good luck, and hook’em Horns.

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23 May 2002
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