Commencement Address 2012

May 14, 2012

By Amy Gutmann

Collaboration Generation

Vice-Chairman Weiss, Trustees, honored guests, families, friends and alumni: welcome to the 256th commencement of the University of Pennsylvania!

Graduates: You are an exceptional class, and you do nothing by half measures—including your celebrating. I'm impressed that you were able to make it for our 8:30 start this morning. I'm more impressed that our seniors beat all records of participation in their gift drive, exceeding 1740, in honor of our founding. And I'm most impressed by the collaborative spirit that distinguishes so many of our student leaders.

Jibran Khan soldiered on through the tragic loss of his beloved father sophomore year, with classmates at his side every step of the way, to continue on serving as junior and senior class president. A Penn Civic Scholar, Katie McCabe has given of her gift and passion for teaching to countless children in need in our West Philadelphia community while also coordinating six service trips across the country with her fellow students for Alternate Spring Break. When Triston Francis was struggling in a crowded inner-city school in Jamaica, Queens, his single mother enabled and inspired him to overcome adversity. He has soared at Penn, becoming President of the Onyx Senior Honor Society and serving as an inspiring peer mentor to his fellow students.

I have been touched by so many remarkable members of this graduating class, but let mention just one more by name: Ivy League Player of the Year, Zack Rosen. Rosen's record for assists and minutes played on the basketball court is a perfect metaphor for the theme of my remarks to each of you today. Our society and our world desperately need leaders who are less like Napoleon and more like Rosen, Khan, McCabe and Francis.

Let me explain. Penn graduates: You have lived through exceptional times during your years at Penn. Think about it: A new era in Presidential politics began and the Harry Potter saga came to an end. You witnessed the world economy plummeting, and the Phillies soaring.

Here on campus, you celebrated Penn Park when it grandly opened—and you rejoiced during a record blizzard when the University closed. Osama bin Laden ignominiously left this world just as the Apple Corporation seemed poised to rule it. Together we have seen so much.

True to the Penn spirit, you have not only seen so much, you also have done so much. From the Class of 2012 came bright new collaborative resources like Skillhub, which matches people online who need to learn specific skills with those who can teach them. You created TutorChatLive, a nonprofit that employs innovative technology to tutor students. You created SMS PersonFinder—an app designed "not to make a million dollars, but to help people" in disaster areas find missing persons through their cell phones. And you created Dorm Room Diplomacy, which directly connects Middle Eastern and American students to promote open-minded dialogue and greater understanding.

A common thread runs through all of these efforts. Forged in the embers of a sputtering world economy, hardened by the disappointment of poisonous partisan politics, you have found your creative freedom in the power of how you lead by connecting to others.

To no small extent, we are all the product of our times—and the technology that defines our times. The Europe of 1500, when the invention of the printing press was taking hold, was not the old Europe, plus the printing press. It was a new Europe. America of 1960, when I was a child and nine out of ten households suddenly had television, was not the old America plus television. It was a new America.

So, too, our world today—where a quarter of the population is connected by the Internet, where Facebook has almost a billion users, and where by the end of this year more people on our planet will have access to a cell phone than to adequate sanitation—our world is no longer the old world, plus connectivity. This is a new world—and you are its first fully connected citizens.

What a difference! As you moved from movies and TV to interactive games and social networking, suddenly you weren't just consuming culture; you were co-creating it.

So, too, with knowledge: Instead of pulling out the Encyclopedia Britannica (as I did, on occasion), you consult Wikipedia – and you help create its content. This sets you apart. You are truly the collaboration generation. You will solve problems and make discoveries and promote solutions in ways that those mired in the old world cannot even begin to imagine.

But—there is always a 'but' in such bold predictions—collaboration doesn't just happen. Someone has to lead these efforts. Yet our inherited theories and practices of leadership are outdated and inadequate. For more than two hundred years, the West has been in thrall to a Napoleonic model of leadership. We think of ideal leaders as being bold and visionary, single-minded in their determination, and ruthless in their execution.

Napoleon had a very simple management theory. "I have only one counsel for you," he said. "Be master."

The trouble is, the ability to seize the crown and become master of all around you no longer works. This is your challenge: You must create a new paradigm of leadership to advance in a fragmented world that cries out for cross-cultural collaboration. Dare I say it: collaborative leadership is sorely lacking in our world today. Will better leadership models emerge from your keen appreciation of the powers of collaboration? Only you can make that call.

As luck would have it, you are graduating from the very university best equipped by history and inclination to support this new approach to leadership. Two hundred and eighty-five years ago, Ben Franklin was 21 years old. At that age—at your age—he determined that a brain trust of different people with different backgrounds would solve problems faster, and come to an understanding, better than any number of brilliant individuals working alone.

So he established the Junto Club, a Friday evening discussion group made up of a dozen citizens of Philadelphia.

Ben was the youngest by far, yet already respected enough around town that—had he wanted—he could have composed his group from among the most exalted elements of Philadelphia society. He chose instead to favor breadth of experience and scope of vision, extending membership to a merchant and scrivener, a glazier and mathematician, a cobbler, a cabinetmaker, a clerk and a shoemaker—and one lone gentleman who didn't need to work. What they all shared was a keen spirit of inquiry, an avid desire to improve themselves and their community, and a firm commitment to helping others.

Over the years, the Junto Club developed a style of free-ranging collaboration and cooperation that remains an admirable model to this day. From their meetings came ideas that shaped this nation for the public good, including volunteer fire-fighting clubs and a public hospital.

The secret of their success as a group was to give attention to all, precedence to none—the ideal of true collaboration.

And so I conclude by paraphrasing Ben Franklin, who, as always, said it best: "If you are all wrapped up in yourself, you make a very small bundle." Looking out upon our Penn graduates—all 5,858 of you—this morning, I could not be more pleased than to say that I see no small bundles. Class of 2012: Everyone here today joins me in applauding your amazing achievements and your powers of leadership through collaboration. Know that this university is immensely proud to call you our newest alums. We will always delight in welcoming you back.

Not only is today your day. This is your new world. Go forth. Collaborate. Change it for the better.  And rejoice in doing so. As we rejoice in you!

God speed! May you succeed!