Commencement Address by President Amy Gutmann
May 15, 2006
Magical Capacity for Inventiveness
Chairman Riepe, Trustees, honorary degree recipients, honored guests, parents, families, friends, survivors of Senior Week, … and all returning alumni: It is my great privilege to welcome you to a landmark occasion: the 250th Commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!
Two hundred fifty years ago, our Founder Benjamin Franklin put a charge into Philadelphia, and the Trustees of his College congratulated the graduates of the Class of 1757—all six of them.
How impressed Ben would be to observe this gathering of 6,000 high-voltage men and women who have put the greatest charge ever into his Academy!
Franklin Field is abuzz right now—and we all know the source. Let us all join together in cheering the great graduating Class of 2006!
Graduates, how about a roar of love and gratitude for your parents, families, and partners?
This day marks major turning points in your lives. No more final exams. No more Hey Days. And no more late-night visits to the Greek Lady after Smokes closes!
But make no mistake: Something’s coming from your inventive, Penn-educated minds. Something magical. Something that can come only from you.
For inspiration, why not fire your imaginations and join with me in channeling the inventive spirit of … who else? … Benjamin Franklin!
Lionized on two continents as a writer, diplomat, publisher, philosopher, scientist, and statesman, Franklin never rested on his laurels. The moment at hand was the thing, his every observation charged with the promise of a transformative discovery.
Inventor of the lightning rod, architect of American independence, conscience of the Constitutional Convention, and the toast of Paris—Franklin resisted conventional wisdom and intellectual complacency, which doused the human spirit.
By the time he died at the age of 84, Franklin had finally grown wise—wise enough to serve as the President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.
But the most remarkable expression of Franklin’s wisdom—and the one most fitting for us to consider today—is his inventive spirit, his talent for creating something out of nothing more than the play of his unusual mind.
With magical leaps of imagination, Franklin created new knowledge that transformed the quality of life for his time—and all time.
Today, bifocals. Tomorrow, constitutional democracy.
Franklin’s inventive imagination has inspired generations of illustrious Penn graduates, starting with John Morgan, Class of 1757, who would later found America’s first medical school—at Penn, naturally.
Franklin’s inventive spirit inspired a Philadelphian named Robert G. Allman, who was permanently blinded by a freak accident at the age of 4.
Undaunted, he went to the Overbrook School for the Blind, where he mastered Braille, invented a form of baseball called “groundball,” and took up wrestling.
As a Penn undergraduate in the late 1930s, Bob Allman captained the wrestling team, captured the Middle Atlantic AAU wrestling tournament, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
After graduating from Penn Law, Allman enjoyed a distinguished career as an attorney, a civic activist, and a sportscaster on KYW radio.
Most significantly, Allman was a pioneer who inspired sighted and sightless people alike to lead robust, fully integrated lives. An avid golfer and president of the U.S. Blind Golfers Association, he took special delight in challenging sighted golfers…as long as it was after midnight.
Another exemplar of Franklin’s inventive spirit is Connie Duckworth. A Wharton M.B.A. graduate, Connie became managing partner at Goldman Sachs by the age of 40. Like Franklin, she retired from business in her mid 40s to devote herself to changing the world.
Her trip to Afghanistan as a member of the U.S.-Afghan Women’s Council changed her life—and many lives.
Shocked by the pervasive poverty and illiteracy that afflicted women, Connie sprang into action. She launched an organization that sold Afghan rugs, with the surplus going to the weavers’ families—as long as they kept their children in school and enrolled in health and education programs.
Like Franklin, Connie runs her philanthropic enterprise pro bono. The name of her organization is Arzu—the Dari word for hope.
It takes courage to heed the playful call of your imagination and take those first magical leaps forward.
How did Steve Wynn conceive the idea of re-inventing Las Vegas? How did Judith Klinman change the course of bio-chemical research? How did Henry Louis Gates, Jr. make America’s African connections come alive for all Americans?
Each of you has the imagination, talent, courage, and heaven knows, the playfulness to become an exemplar of Franklin’s inventive spirit. You came to Penn hungry to learn. I have seen you delight in the creative cacophony of perspectives, ideas, and discoveries that our rich diversity produces.
I have rejoiced in the flowering of your inventive genius in our classrooms, laboratories, hubs, galleries, and theaters.
And I know that each and every one of you has the power to solve a problem, create a daring work of art, unlock a mystery of the human mind, break new ground, and improve the world in bold and unpredictable ways —as surely and as unpredictably as did Jodie Foster, Shirley Ann Jackson, and Lawrence Klein.
Cynics may mock my optimism and point to the polarized politics that prevails in our world, and to the global problems of poverty, disease, violence, indeed of genocide and environmental desecration. They insist that nothing will ever change for the better. They know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
Graduates, I have already seen you begin to prove the cynics wrong during your time at Penn. You have invented more durable prosthetic hip implants, organized effective anti-hunger campaigns, launched the first national peer-reviewed bioethics journal by undergraduates, and staged innovative and imaginative productions of Shakespeare’s plays.
And I know you will not stop now. Your magical capacity for inventiveness will prevail.
Members of Penn’s 250th graduating class: Every challenge you will face can furnish a moment to work the magic of your mind.
The world craves that magic. So please honor Franklin’s spirit—and boost our spirits and your own spirits as well—by re-inventing our world one creative step at a time.
As you go forth, I wish you happiness on your life’s journey. May you gain wisdom long before you reach the age of 84. And may the magically inventive spirit of Penn always be with you.
Almanac, Vol. 52, No. 34, May 23, 2006