"Taking the Environmental High Road "

May 14, 2007 - Commencement Address
by Penn President Dr. Amy Gutmann

 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 the 251st commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

John Masefield wrote, "There are few earthly things more beautiful than a university." Let’s hear it for the great, beautiful class of 2007!

Graduates: You have secured your place in Penn history… as the class that saved Hey Day!

There is a lot of love radiating right now from the stands of Franklin Field. Graduates, I am sure the feeling is mutual. How about cheering your parents, families, and partners!

Commencement itself celebrates the timeless beauty of knowledge and wisdom. But the world surrounding us is not timeless. Quite the contrary, its future is at risk. Scientists at Penn and around the world have demonstrated that global climate trends, if allowed to continue, will lead to an ecological catastrophe.

No task is more pressing or more capable of uniting us across many divides than managing our planetary health for the long term.

That great philosopher Woody Allen reminded a graduating class more than a quarter century ago that humanity faced a similar crossroads. “One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Today – as we contemplate our environmental prospects – this is no joke. Future generations will face an increasingly grim tomorrow… unless we get smarter today about treating our environment with greater care. We do not have to rewire human nature in order to help our planet heal itself before it is too late.

Graduates: You have already set the healing process in motion. With passion and intelligence you have raised your collective voices, and Penn is taking the environmental high road toward fostering a sustainable future.

We are cutting energy usage during peak hours by nearly 20 percent.

We are purchasing 30 percent of our energy from wind-generated power, making Penn one of the largest private purchasers of wind power in the nation.

We also are a national campus leader in the adaptive reuse of existing buildings and materials.

Earlier this year, we signed an historic higher education pact to develop a comprehensive sustainability plan by 2009.

We must and we will continue to do much more to help save our planet.

We will transform ugly parking lots to our east into beautiful fields of green. We will reuse stone and paving materials while choosing native plants for landscaping and storm-water management.

And we will be at the global forefront in converting our academic research into ever greener practice. With colleagues in Europe and Asia, our faculty is devising a host of practical solutions to environmental challenges.

We put a premium on environmental responsibility not to claim bragging rights… but rather because great universities have a duty to serve as leading agents of long-range thinking and action that will sustain humankind today, tomorrow, and for generations to come.

Graduates: You have already proved yourselves trailblazers for a more sustainable and more humane future.

Let’s hear it for Penn’s Engineers Without Borders, who have brought clean drinking water to a village in Honduras.

Let’s hear it for the Wharton trailblazers who are working to promote sustainable agricultural and economic development throughout the developing world.

Let’s hear it for the trailblazers from the College and Grad Ed who have formed close mentoring relationships with local public schoolchildren and made a lasting impact on their lives.

Let’s hear it for the trailblazers from Penn Nursing and Medicine who have brought expert care and comfort to the poor and elderly of Philadelphia and hope to the AIDS population of Botswana.

And how about all of our Penn students who have spent spring, summer, and winter breaks helping the survivors of Hurricane Katrina rebuild their lives?

Each and every one of you leaves Penn better than you found it. Now, we ask you: Are you ready to step up… and become global stewards for a more sustainable and more humane world? Are you?

Achieving sustainability will not come easy. Differences and disagreements over how best to pursue common goals will inevitably arise. We can’t play down our differences – nor should we. That is part of the beauty of living in a free society.

We must resolve to work through our differences with a habit of mind – an attitude – that propels us to treat all of our neighbors – locally, nationally, and globally – ALL of our neighbors as we would like to be treated ourselves.

I am talking about a concept that Aretha Franklin has sung right into our souls with far more soul than any one else I know can muster. Shall I spell it out? R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

Ultimately, our planetary fortunes boil down to our ability to make mutual respect the natural order of our lives. We must cultivate respect for the values of science, which are too often distorted. We must demand respect for the dignity of every human being, which is too often denied. And we must learn to respect our earth by undoing the damage we have done to our soil, water, air, and biodiversity.

Today we honor lifetime achievements in medicine, science, the arts, the humanities, the law, and public service. Along the way, our honorees have earned prestigious awards – including the Grammy, the Lasker Prize, the Macarthur fellowship, the National Medal of Science, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Graduates of the great class of 2007: There are Nobel Prizes and medals galore waiting for those of you who can solve the defining issues of our times. There is also a planet dying to be saved for future generations.

While the world is waiting, our environment does not have the luxury of time.

But the world has you. You have the power to sustain the planet just as you will be sustained by the strength of your Penn education and the love of your friends and family.

Yes, we live in a beautiful world that deserves a longer lease on life. Make it happen! And remember: there are few earthly things more beautiful – and more alive – than the love of your extended Penn family. Godspeed!