Next Gazetteer item | July/August
Contents | Gazette home
Rubin Advises Acting on the Certainty of Uncertainty
Robert E. Rubins father attended college, he signed up for a philosophy
course with a renowned professor. "On the first day of class, the
professor debated the question of whether you could prove that the table
at the front of the room existed," noted Rubin, secretary of the
U.S. Department of the Treasury, in his address at Penns 243rd Commencement.
"My father was, and is, very bright and very pragmatic. He went to
the front of the room, pounded on the table with his handand dropped
out of the course."
Rubin also took philosophy in college, but he came
away with a different perspective. "I believe there are no provable
absolutes," said the man who has been lauded by both political parties
for his adept management of the global financial crisis and his contributions
to the rare combination of low unemployment, high growth and low inflation
in the United States. "And it is that view that prepared me for the
world of arbitrage on Wall Street, [an advisory position at the] White
House and the job I now have." (A job, incidentally, which he announced
that he will leave this month in order to spend more time with his family.)
"Since there are no provable absolutes, then all matters become
judgments about the probability of different outcomes, and the costs and
benefits of eachand on that basis you can make good decisions."
Existential musings aside, its a fairly safe
assumption that the 4,370 robed students assembled on Franklin Field
before Rubin and a cheering crowd on the morning of May 17 did indeed
exist and were about to become graduates of the University of Pennsylvania.
Along with the usual exuberance and visual gagsincluding balloons
shaped like surgical gloves waving proudly over the mortarboards of a
couple dozen School of Medicine graduatesCommencement for the last
class to graduate from Penn in this century was also the occasion for
"We stand, somewhat anxiously, on the edge of
the new century," remarked Dr. Peter Conn, Andrea Mitchell Professor
of English and chairman of the Faculty Senate, "staring back into
the past and forward into the future, searching at once for the reassurance
of continuity and the exhilaration of promise."
Rubin continued that theme, observing how the world
has been transformed in the many years since he graduated from college:
"Information moves at a dramatic speed. The decision cycle is far
shorter. Economies and peoples around the world are closely linked ...
Global markets and technology have brought us together as never before."
Countries that were once "economically irrelevant"
to the United States "today provide great opportunities for American
businesses and consumers." Those same nations, however, can experience
financial upheavals "that affect countries around the world, including
Some believe that America should turn inward in the
face of these challenges, he added. "I believe that as most of the
history of the 20th century shows, this cannot work ... The world does
not end at our shoresit begins there."
It wasnt long, however, before Rubin moved on
from the international arena to delve into a topic more immediately applicable
to college graduates, telling them, "Effective decision-making is
the key to almost anything you will do."
He left the Class of 1999 with four pieces of advice:
"First, the only certainty is that there is no certainty. Second,
every decision has a consequence. It is a matter of weighing probabilities.
Third, despite uncertainty, we must decide and we must act. And lastly,
we need to judge a decision, not only on results but on how a decision
Years ago, he recalled by way of example, a securities
trader bought a very large block of stock based on a predicted set of
outcomes. Rubin, also "highly optimistic, but recognizing uncertainty,"
took a smaller position in the same stock. When the projected events failed
to occur, he said, "I caused my firm to lose a lot of moneyin
fact, they called a special partners meeting to discuss what I had donebut
not more than they could absorb." The other trader, however, lost
his job for the damage he had done to his firm.
More inspiring models than that unfortunate trader
were provided by Peter Conn, who looked back into the Universitys
history to illustrate to graduates "an unbroken chain of intellectual
and professional achievement" that "binds you to those who came
before and to those who will come after."
Conn cited Benjamin Franklin, who "provided us
with our charter and our distinctive vision of educational excellence";
the pioneering sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who "taught here and published
his landmark book, The Philadelphia Negro, exactly 100 years ago";
and Alice Paul, "scholar and champion of equality," who in 1912
became the first woman to receive a doctorate in sociology at Pennand
who, just 11 years later, "wrote the text of the Equal Rights Amendment."
In the "struggle against disorder," Conn
added, "we rely upon the non-negotiable values that lie at the core
of the university: a belief in the power of cultivated intellect, energized
by a restless discontent with received opinion and governed by a commitment
to the truth. So we persevere with a rightful confidence. Like Henry David
Thoreau at Walden Pond, we know where we live and what we live for. Those
of us joined here together today affirm our commitment to the primacy
of rational inquiry and the disciplined investigation in the service of
human welfare. I can think of no more honorable vocation."
Dr. Judith Rodin CW66, president of the University,
took the opportunity to reflect on changes that took place on and around
Penns campus in more recent years. "You have certainly been
at Penn during a time of buildingbuilding new academic programs,
building new facilities and building on Penns standing as one of
the premier schools in the nation," she said.
Rodin went on to praise the commitment of students
involved in community-building service projects; the excellence in teaching
exemplified by this years Lindback Award winners, and more concrete
developments, such as the transformation of an underused parking lot into
a new bookstore and the completion of extensive renovations to Van Pelt
"You were students here at an exciting and pivotal
time for a university established more than two and a half centuries ago,"
she added, "and I hope when you return for Homecoming and Alumni
Weekendperhaps when you bring your own children here on a sunny
September day making the start of their freshman yearyou will say
fondly, I remember when ... As you graduate today from Penns
community of scholars," Rodin said, "let me be the first alum
to welcome you to Penns community of alumnia community that
will welcome you with open arms around the world, a community that is
bonded forever by the university that Benjamin Franklin built."
Next Gazetteer item | July/August
Contents | Gazette home
Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania
Gazette Last modified 6/28/99
And the Honorands Are ...
Robert E. Rubin,
Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa,
for "redefining the role of the Secretary of the Treasury, blending
economics and diplomacy to affect change in world markets. His is a portfolio
without geographic boundaries and his impact is felt around the world
as he balances the economic and financial needs and interests of a global
Dr. Isabella Lugoski Karle, head of the X-ray Diffraction Section,
Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, Naval Research Laboratory, Doctor
of Science, honoris causa. She established the experimental procedures
used worldwide for molecular structure analysis using electron and X-ray
diffraction techniques, "and her work has had an impact on the fields
of chemistry, biology and medicine." Her structure determinations
provide the basic information for computer databases for molecular modeling
and molecular mechanics programs.
Billie Jean King, director and co-founder of World Team Tennis,
Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. She dominated the world of professional
tennis, winning 20 Wimbledon Championships, 13 U.S. Open Championships,
the French Open Championship, the Australian Open Championship and 20
Virginia Slims singles titles. She was ranked No. 1 player in the world
seven times between 1966 and 1974, and founded both the Womens Tennis
Association and the Womens Sports Foundation. Her leadership "was
instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in tennis, and for changing
the perception of women in sport."
Dr. Gerda Lerner, Robinson-Edwards Professor of History Emerita
at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris
causa. Her lifes work includes "pathbreaking scholarship
as a founder of the field of womens history, establishing at Sarah
Lawrence College the countrys first graduate program in womens
history, and as a founder of the field of African-American womens
history, building the premier Ph.D. program [in this field] at the University
of Wisconsin." She also was a founding member of the National Organization
Dr. Earl Reece Stadtman, chief of the section on enzymes, Laboratory
of Biochemistry, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National
Institutes of Health, Doctor of Science, honoris causa. He is recognized
as "a pioneer in the field of enzyme regulation." His work led
to more recent investigations in the basic biology of aging, including
studies of the role of oxygen radicals and the mechanisms of repair
in damaged cells. He has shaped the careers of many eminent scientists,
including Nobel laureates Michael S. Brown C62 M66 Hon86
and Stanley N. Prusiner C64 M68 Hon98.
Dr. P. Roy Vagelos C50, retired chairman and CEO of Merck
& Co., Inc., and chairman of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania,
Doctor of Science, honoris causa. His honors include membership
in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and
Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He will be remembered
by Penn "as a man of vision, commitment and focus" who translated
his "remarkable talents as a researcher and business leader into
the effective leadership of an academic institution." He became chairman
of the Trustees in 1994 during the same week he retired from Merck after
19 years. Under his leadership the company developed life-saving drugs
such as Mevacor, the first potent cholesterol-lowering drug, and Vasotec,
which treats hypertension.