Urbana University: 2013 Fall Commencement Address

Urbana University

Fall 2013 Commencement Address

“Lessons of a Lifetime”

Roderick G. W. Chu

December 14, 2013


President Peterson, Chair Polsley, Rev, Coffman, Provost Hasan, Mr. Workman and your fellow members of the Urbana University fall graduating class of 2013, Trustees, Faculty, Staff, Alumni, family and friends …

On this very special day for our graduates, their families, faculty, and the many others who have been so instrumental in helping them reach this achievement; on a weekend we will remember as challenging us with warnings of severe winter weather; in a week the world paused to remember the life and example of an extraordinary man dedicated to harmony, equal opportunity, democracy, and learning: I am honored to receive this degree and to join the ranks of you graduating today as an Urbana alumnus.

Lessons of a Lifetime

Honorary degrees are somewhat like a “Lifetime Achievement Award” issued by the Academy. Indeed, I guess I have achieved a lot during my life.

I am a child of immigrant parents who came from China to America as teenagers with very little. They worked hard and sacrificed to provide me the best education I could get.

I pursued my career, first in management consulting, rising ultimately to become a worldwide managing partner in Accenture, the world’s largest technology consulting firm, and making enough money to live comfortably for a lifetime. I accepted the opportunity serve as the Commissioner of the New York State Dept. of Taxation & Finance – second largest tax department in the nation – at the ripe old age of 34. I later moved to Ohio to oversee the policies and activities of its 140 public and private college and university campuses as the Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents. In the process, I became one of the highest-ranking Chinese-Americans in government and education at the time.

By any measure, I have led a successful life. I’ve lived the American Dream.

I’ve learned a lot in that journey – and I’m sure I have more lessons to come. As you leave Urbana today to set on your journey, I’d like to share a few of the key lessons I’ve learned so far.

To do that, I’ll need this banana.

Urbana University

Before I get to that, though, let me ask “Why should you bother listening to what I have to say?” – other than the fact that you are gracious, well-mannered, and polite, and I occupy this traditional segment of your commencement program and you don’t have much else to do – other than perhaps texting your friends.

You who are graduating here today and your family, friends, Urbana faculty and staff who have guided and supported you – this is YOUR day.

Recognizing that fact, I came to visit your campus 3 weeks ago to talk to some of your fellow students, faculty, staff, and trustees.

In that visit, I learned a bit about what makes Urbana such a special place – and thank you, Josh Brown, for showing me around campus!

Many of you chose Urbana because you could be student athletes – Blue Knights. You have developed something extra from your engagement in sports that you don’t typically get from sitting in classrooms: your character – determination, perseverance, experiencing the rewards that come from hard work and postponing gratification.

You’ve formed close bonds with your faculty, being comfortable texting them even in the wee hours of the morning – a practice many of you might continue long after you leave here.

You’ve grown through your liberal education, recognizing that everything is connected; learning not just how to tackle and solve problems, but to see things differently, to ask the relevant questions, to seek out and find the problems.

You’ve become part of this warm, caring place where people are committed enough to you and your future to keep challenging you, yet at the same time to stay focused on your individual needs – be it advice, coaching, a kind word, or just a piece of chocolate – to let you build the confidence you need to realize the potential you’ve always had.


With your Urbana education and experiences, you leave here, like Johnny Appleseed, with the challenge to better the world – or at least your part of it.

Yet, I must confess, for the last few decades, we who have graduated before you have left that world with much more to make better. We Baby Boomers and Gen Xers have been so focused on our own need for immediate gratification and amassing personal wealth that we’re leaving our succeeding generations with trillions of dollars of debt, immeasurable environmental damage, a crumbling infrastructure, and governments in which our elected officials feel they can’t even talk civilly with each other, let alone develop answers to our most pressing problems.

Your college degree today is not the guarantee of success that mine was over 4 decades ago. Your degree is only a ticket to enable you to compete.

On this, your graduation day, I don’t mean to deliver a downer of a message, for there is, indeed, great hope in what I have to say.

You are, after all, members of the best-educated generation America has ever seen. You have a passion and commitment to help others that reflect the values and ideals of a prior generation of Americans: the one Tom Brokaw labeled “The Greatest Generation.”

What will you do, though, with that education, that passion, that commitment, to address the challenges you are inheriting?

In the issue of The Lancer announcing my selection as your commencement speaker, your fellow graduating student Zach Iiames, stated his hope that I would “deliver a speech that is honest and real.” Well, Zach, be careful what you ask for, for you may get it.

Lessons & advice

If you are to fix the mess that prior generations are leaving behind, you are going to have to work hard – really hard.

The experience that most of you have had at Urbana, though, shows that you know how to work hard. I’m afraid that you’re just going to have to keep that up. These are not simple problems we are leaving you – after all, if they were simple, we would have solved them by now.

So in addition to working hard, you’re going to have to be smart.

Your professors and years at Urbana have taught you how to learn. But with knowledge doubling every 2-5 years in most fields, about half of what you’ve learned since starting at Urbana may already obsolete.

So you’ll need to keep learning. To do so, you’ll need to be thoughtful. You’ll need to keep an open mind. You’ll need to think critically. Don’t let yourself be lulled into thoughts and actions made on autopilot.

As I said, you’ll need to keep learning. I certainly have. Remember my banana? Of course, I’ve eaten bananas almost my entire life: A wonderful fruit, with delicious flesh that comes in its own handy, stay-fresh wrapper. Getting it out, though, is sometimes a challenge. The stem is quite hard when it’s not very ripe.

Well, just last year, I learned there’s another way to open a banana: Turn it around, pinch each side of the nipple end, and pull. Voila! It’s said that this method was discovered by observing monkeys eat bananas; monkeys don’t have energy to waste on inefficient methods.

Now if you already knew about bananas, come see me after the Commencement and ask me about the new way I just learned to eat an apple!

Keep an open mind and don’t be lulled into doing things the way you’ve always done them.

But the problems I spoke of are a lot bigger than opening bananas. Most recently, I’ve been studying research in human behavior, behavioral economics, learning theory, and spiritual growth. Look for the problems that need solving – for example, creating a new economy that unlike the one you’re inheriting, is efficient, fair, and sustainable for future generations.

To put a new spin on an old saying, you will need to work both harder and smarter.

You’ll also need to figure out what you’re working harder and smarter for. Is it to make a lot of money? That certainly was my answer when I left college. But here’s something I’ve learned in the 42 years since I left grad school: The root of success is not money.

Money doesn’t buy happiness.

I’ve read a lot of research in the past few years that concludes that chasing money to increase happiness is a losing game. Beyond a point of basic subsistence, when asked how much money do people think it would take to make them happy, there’s a surprisingly universal answer: Twice what I have now. Unfortunately, you never reach that point. For if you’re fortunate to get twice what you have now, that becomes another base point for needing twice as much. Seeking happiness through money becomes a never-ending rat race for twice as much.

Alas, this everlasting quest for ever more – consumerism – has become the lynchpin of our capitalist system. But the dirty little secret is that increased consumption doesn’t make us happier.

America is the wealthiest nation in the world, but studies on happiness find that we’re way down in the pack in terms of our individual and collective national happiness. We have the world’s biggest economy, based on the stuff we consume, but I’ve learned that the old maxim “he who dies with the most toys wins” just isn’t true. I have a beautiful house in New Albany, full of a lifetime’s collection of “stuff” that doesn’t make me inherently any happier than I was with my teeny apartment in NY with far less “stuff.”

My advice to you: Collect experiences, not things. Don’t get trapped in the money-grubbing rat race. Look for what makes you truly happy and gives meaning to your life.

Figuring out what you’re working harder and smarter for may change during your life. In fact, I hope it does, for that would indicate your are continuing to grow in your understanding of yourself and taking charge of creating your own life instead of letting your life be driven by “isms”– capitalism, consumerism, conservatism, liberalism, Liberatarianism, or the many other “isms” – that are set by others.

As you do figure these things out, you may eventually recognize that fulfillment comes from thinking of and serving others instead of just yourself.

We’ve heard it all our lives, especially at this time of the year: “Tis better to give than to receive.” But honestly, I went through a lot of my life thinking how foolish this aphorism was.

Yet the exhortation to be generous is as old as the Bible and as new as current research.

When you finally recognize that questing for “twice what I have now” is a losing proposition, you’ll find the joys of giving – of your money, your time, your passions – to someone or something other than yourself is fundamental to building deep personal happiness.

Alas, as we’ve all seen, from the financial antics of those on Wall Street to the buying of political influence in Washington for corporate gain, there are some who don’t recognize this reality.

But there are many others with whom we’ve been blessed with having in our own lives – our parents, our families, our teachers and professors, our neighbors, and friends – who through their generosity have found this answer and made themselves happier through their love, support, and caring for us and others.


I know that almost no one remembers what speakers said at their graduation – I certainly don’t – though some of you might remember the lesson of my banana. So if some day you wonder who spoke at your graduation and what was said, instead of trying to remember me, Google Ashton Kutcher – the celebrity who was the first with a million Twitter followers – and his acceptance speech at the Teen Choice Awards, and you’ll get a very tweetable Cliff Notes version of my lessons: Work hard. Be smart. Be thoughtful. Be generous.

As you leave Urbana, with testy memories of Rose in Brown Hall, but knowing you can now safely touch the Rock after dark, I offer you my congratulations and best wishes for finding happiness and living up to your potential of making your community, your state, your nation, and the world better places to be.

Thank you and Godspeed.


CERPP Conference Remarks: 2012

21st Century Knowledge and Skills:
The New High School Curriculum and the Future of Assessment

Perspectives: Media, Politics, and the
Responsibility of Higher Education

Roderick G. W. Chu
Chancellor Emeritus, Ohio Board of Regents

January 13, 2012
I delivered the following presentation and remarks in Los Angeles at the USC CERPP 2012 Conference.

1. The Case for Change from Within

As Chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents (the state coordinating board for Ohio’s public and private colleges and universities), I lived at the interface among the worlds of K-12, higher education, and politics, so I’m delighted to reiterate some of what I learned from our conference speakers and participants, to offer a few observations of my own, and to hear those my fellow panelist, Scott Jaschik, representing the Fourth Estate of the press and media.

Before getting into the topic, however, I need to ask: Why change? Harry Brighouse kicked off this conference with his though-provoking challenge regarding the purpose of education. Yet mine is a serious question, because in many ways, the school curriculum fundamentally hasn’t changed for about 100 years.

Indeed, our agrarian school calendar hasn’t changed for over 200 years, despite the fact that less than 2% of our population – and virtually no kids – work on farms and many students lose 70% of what they’ve learned in the school year during their summer breaks.

Despite the local control authority of over 10,000 school districts, our industrial one-size-fits-all model of education has persisted, in the face of students who learn different subjects better at different times and in different ways – the age-graded instead of ability-graded system that Morgan Polikoff mentioned yesterday – and of cognitive research that has found that our model successfully educates mainly the 25% of students who are abstract learners but not the 75% who are contextual learners.
Why do we continue to educate kids for our past, instead of for their future?

NY Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote so persuasively on the impact of globalization and the Internet in The World is Flat – now almost 7 years ago. He brought popular attention to the fundamental sea changes that have occurred in the past decade.

At this conference 2 years ago, I noted forces driving change because of state policies. Since then, the impact of the Great Recession has settled in.

Per capita state funding in constant dollars for public colleges and universities has shrunk to its lowest point in 25 years and hefty increases in tuition has barely kept resources level, in the face of the highest enrollments in history. [SHEEO SHEF 2010]

Yet things continue not to change much, driving higher education further down the death spiral I described then of inadequate higher education funding resulting in graduates without the requisite capabilities to produce growth, leading to economic and social decline, producing further shortages in funding for education.

As one who has been tweeting the pearls of wisdom I’ve picked up during this conference, I am hopeful that a tipping point of public understanding on the critical need for dramatically improved educational outcomes may come about through the social media.

For example: this excerpt from the viral YouTube video, Shift Happens.

It has become clear to most Americans that the objective of making students college-ready is critically important economically – since an educated populace is the key to winning in a world of global competition, and a knowledge and creative economy – and continues to be the main defender of a free and democratic society. But it’s also becoming clear that we need to re-ignite the American Dream that Jaime Aquino spoke of so passionately last night – of enabling future generations to do better than the current one, socio-economically.

On the political scene, I see a continuing building of the Perfect Storm. Because of a muddling economy in most states and communities, there will be a continued inability and political unwillingness to invest what’s needed to dramatically improve educational attainment with 100-old strategies, techniques, and attitudes. Further, increased public demand will pressure politicians to transfer the heat they’re feeling, resulting in their demanding better performance and greater accountability for results, while at the same time, they continue not to invest more in the education of our children and adults.

The educational establishment will continue to do what it’s proven itself best at doing: resisting change. Millions of the K-12 teachers and college and university professors who will be retiring in the next several years will deny there’s a need to change, hoping to ride out this perfect storm until they retire.

Tristian Stobie’s graph yesterday Accelerating Change Demands Different Skills reminded me of Al Gore’s graphs in An Inconvenient Truth. Yet educators seem to be very much like those who deny global warming and their need to do something to contribute to a solution. Where is our Union of Concerned Educators, crying for action by our own colleagues to rescue our future?

So what hope is there for change? Will the Academy recognize higher education’s responsibility for school reform?

(continued ➛)

2. Higher Education’s Responsibility for School Reform

Despite my gloomy introduction, I’ve always been tremendously optimistic about the ability of our higher education institutions to change the future.

After all, we in higher education have the privilege of working with the single biggest concentration of intelligence our country has!

If we adopt 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Stephen Covey’s habit of focusing on our circle of influence (what we can do), rather than our circle of concern (what we need to rely on others to do), we can reignite the American Dream for vast numbers of Americans!

Of course, changes to the Ivory Tower will be required. Higher education needs to take some responsibility to instigate and facilitate change. The Academy needs to become the change it wants to see in others.

For the first time in 900 years, the Academy no longer has oligopolistic control over the transmission of knowledge, as demonstrated by the Khan Academy and Sal Khan’s thousands of video instruction clips on YouTube, and MIT’s Open Courseware initiative.

For the Academy to remain relevant, it must become more than transmitters of knowledge. It must generate graduates who are critical thinkers and synthesizers, who can and do – as Trevor Packer stated – employ their thinking skills to translate knowledge into action.

But even if the Academy is willing to accept its responsibility as a collaborative partner in K12 curriculum reform, the challenge will be enormous.

We need to bridge the K-12/higher education divide.

  • The K-12 world has mainly been about authority and control, not results.
  • Our education colleges are now seen as our institutions’ cash cows rather than creators of colleague educators.
  • Higher education faculty disdain what’s being taught in their disciplines in K-12 schools, yet do little to change this sad state of affairs.

An example: Prof. James Loewen’s revealing picture of the sad inadequacy of K12 history texts and instruction in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me. Yet, as Trevor Packer noted, until faculty are recognized for helping their K12 colleagues, most won’t invest their time doing so.

In general, most colleges and universities don’t work effectively with elementary and secondary schools, despite their inability to successfully remediate the academic preparation of entering students in most disciplines, let alone the needed non-cognitive skills we don’t try to remediate.

Perhaps one reason for this failure of engagement is that we have competing objectives:

  • Some seek authority and control;
  • Others focus on job protection and salary increases;
  • Most faculty are concerned with professional regard,
  • research and publication, and
  • creating the next generation of professors.

Will the enlightened self-interest that David Conley mentioned – or public or political suasion – convince K12 and higher education that we must work together and agree on the primacy of one objective: Educational Equity, Excellence, and Success for All?

As Jaime Acquino challenged last night, America’s colleges and universities educate our nation’s educators and we are somewhat culpable for their shortcomings. We also educate many of our local, state, and federal policy makers, and, I shudder to think, we are somewhat responsible for their shortcomings as well.

Higher education has claimed to be about developing critical thinking and synthesis abilities in our students. As we’ve heard throughout this conference, we need to be about more – about nurturing dispositions and the ability to act effectively on the knowledge we have imparted.

As Allison Jones and Christyan Mitchell noted, we need to define what students need to be life-ready and help them acquire these skills. We also need to help politicians, as Doug Christiansen mentioned, by declaring the achievement level required – cut scores on assessments – to do college-level work.

If “it takes a village,” we need to get out of our ivory towers and work with others in our villages to define and develop the needed knowledge and skills, attitudes and beliefs, motivation and behavior for many, many more to succeed.

We need to get beyond eduspeak and express cognitive and non-cognitive standards in terms students and their families can understand. If we want them to take responsibility for their own education, standards need to pass the “refrigerator test”: be in language and succinct enough to put up on the refrigerator door, so students and their families can work on and monitor their attainment progress.

As a former businessman, I was heartened by Carolyn Adams’ observation: Educators need to work with the employers of our villages. For when we do, we’ll find their standards for career-ready employees are the same, academically, as those for college entry. Actually, as Patrick Killonen just reported, recognized workforce needs are greater than those for college entry, since workers must have non-cognitive skills and dispositions not required to enter college:

  • Interpersonal skills such as teamwork – which, as I noted yesterday, schools call “cheating” – and
  • Intrapersonal characteristics, like integrity – in an era in which 70% of high school graduates admit to have cheated in school.

Getting American education out of our death spiral will take far greater wake-up calls than a former chancellor can muster. Perhaps the cries of public opinion and a greater exposure to the new realities from respected members of the media can help.

With that hope, I’ll turn the session over to Scott. Thank you.

Cornell Asian Alumni Association’s 2011 Banquet

“More than any other person I know, [Rod Chu] is an international leader in higher education.” – President Emeritus Frank H. T. Rhodes

The Cornell Asian Alumni Association had its 20th annual banquet on Jan. 22, 2011 at Grand Harmony Palace restaurant in Chinatown, NYC. Here are the videos that my good friend Chester Mah took of the entertainment and speeches from that fun evening.

The 350 guests who attended the dinner were astounded by a performance of Bian Lian – Chinese Face Changing Dance – by Master Jiao, introduced by Matt Palumbo. Can you count how many times he changed masks?

Did you notice that he also changed his costume? How many times? Here’s a closer view that I got with my handheld camera.

I am especially happy to share these videos as I was the honoree at this year’s event. Bringing greetings was President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, who was introduced by CAAA President Monica Gelinas.

Martin Tang, a Trustee Emeritus of Cornell and past CAAA honoree, came from Hong Kong to support the banquet. He introduced me …

… and presented me with CAAA’s award.

Here’s the video of my remarks, which I entitled Reverence for Education – and Our Educators.

The text of my remarks is in my earlier blog.

Next came a vibrant performance of traditional Korean percussion by the student group Shimtah. This video was posted on YouTube by the group.

It was an absolutely delightful evening. I’m glad we have these videos to remind those of us who were there how much fun it was, and to enable me to share the evening with my family and friends who couldn’t be there.

Johnson Dean Joe Thomas, Winston Tom, Frances Wong, President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, Frances Chu, Rod Chu, Monica Gelinas, Matt Palumbo, Cornell V.P. Susan Murphy

Congratulations and thanks to the Cornell Asian Alumni Association President Monica Gelinas, Banquet Co-Chairs Winston Tom & Frances Wong, Matt Palumbo and other committee members, and all my Cornell friends and supporters who made this 20th Anniversary Banquet so memorable.

Thanks to Chester Mah for all his hard work in taking and editing the videos and hundreds of photos! You can see Chester’s photos of the evening on his photo website with password = banquet.

"Reverence for Education – and Our Educators"

The Cornell Asian Alumni Association honored me at its 20th Annual Banquet on Saturday, January 22, 2011 in Chinatown, NYC. The following are my remarks to the 350 guests who attended. I’ve posted the videos of my speech and the evening in another blog.

President Frank Rhodes, thank you for your eloquent, kind, and generous remarks. We are all honored by your presence here this evening, but sorry your lovely wife Rosa couldn’t join us. We wish her a speedy recovery. We are all indebted to you for your outstanding leadership and continued service as Cornell’s 9th and one of its greatest presidents.
Martin Tang, you again have demonstrated your love and commitment to Cornell and your fellow Asian Alumni by flying over from Hong Kong to support this evening’s festivities, and also agreeing to take on the difficult task of finding something nice and impressive to say about me. Thanks for all you’ve done and continue to do for Cornell!
There are so many others here whose presence I should acknowledge. Given the large number, I was tempted not to do so.
I recall the numerous weddings and new baby parties I’ve attended in this and other Chinatown restaurants in which speakers went on and on introducing the attendees. I used to get upset and weary of these long acknowledgements until a speaker explained – in English for the non-Chinese speaking guests – that the reason these acknowledgements are made – as they have been for thousands of years – is that these dignitaries were the legal witnesses of the event, serving the purpose of a being able to attest to it.
So permit me to extend Chinese tradition by acknowledging some of the many notable guests here at this evening‘s 20th Annual Banquet of the Cornell Asian Alumni Association.
Please hold your applause until after I get through them all – or we’ll be here all night!
Cornell Executives:

  • Student Affairs Vice President Susan Murphy
  • Cornell Plantations Director Don and Sue Rakow
  • Cornell Art Museum Director Frank Robinson
  • Industrial & Labor Relations Dean Harry Katz
  • Johnson Dean Joe and Marney Thomas

My family and friends – some who’ve come from afar to be with me on this special evening:

  • My mother, Frances Chu, from Westchester
  • My niece Karen and her husband Gian – both Cornell Class of 1996 – and their children AJ and Alexandra from Boston
  • My longest and dearest friend from our high school years together at the United Nations International School Dr. Michael Richardson, who flew in from Chicago for this evening and his daughter Adassa
  • Johnson School Classmates from class of 1971 – Randy Hatch, Tom Senker, and Jack MacPhail
  • Friends from NYC, NJ, CT, and Westchester, including celebrated WPIX newscaster Kaity Tong, fashion designer Zang Toi, and philanthropists Miranda and Hamburg Tang

The Chancellor of the State University of New York, and my friend and colleague from our years together in Ohio, Nancy Zimpher.
Cornell Trustees: Gene Resnick, Bob Harrison, Marcus Loo, Paul Salvatore, and Sheryl WuDunn
Members of the Cornell University Council’s Administrative Board: Ken Gurrola, Annie Wong, and my fellow vice-chairs Katrina James and Jay Taylor
CAAA President Monica Gelinas, banquet committee co-chairs Winston Tom and Frances Wong, and all the banquet committee members.
All the students who took a break from their studies to come down from Ithaca to be with us this evening.
And finally, CAAA’s past honorees: Martin Tang, Sheryl WuDunn, Jane Hyun, and Annie Wong
My apologies to all of you whom I inadvertently failed to mention by name, but thank you all – friends of Cornell and of the Cornell Asian Alumni Association – for coming and making this evening so special!
Thank you also for your support for the idea of a new Pan Asian Garden at the Cornell Plantations. Congratulations to Plantations Director Don Rakow for all you have done to make the Plantations a place that continues to inspire and inform generations of Cornellians and visitors.
Now everyone smile so I can capture this moment for Facebook! If you want to see the photo, please “friend” me on Facebook – look for Roderick Chu.
Reverence for Education
I am especially pleased that Cornell Trustee and past CAAA Honoree Sheryl WuDunn is here this evening with her husband, NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. They jointly have won a Pulitzer Prize and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize for Lifetime Achievement.
I follow Nicholas Kristof’s postings on Facebook and was pleased to see his column this week entitled “China’s Winning Schools” because it provided a wonderful backdrop this evening.
In his column, Mr. Kristof explains that 4 of the 5 places in the world with the highest student educational performance in math, science, and reading have a Confucian legacy of reverence for education.
As a College Board Trustee and Chancellor, I’ve seen the results in this country, with students of Asian heritage, on average, outpacing the educational performance of whites and other minorities.
Growing up with a Confucian father and grandfather, I was the beneficiary of my family’s high expectations and sacrifice to provide me the best education I could get.
My mother, of course, joined in those expectations and sacrifices, and has been an exemplary role model of integrity, achievement, and giving. She is our dinner co-chair Frances Wong’s predecessor as a president of the Rotary Club of Chinatown. Among her many notable accomplishments, Mom was one of the first woman Rotary Club presidents in the world – when she was the first Asian woman vice president of Chemical Bank – and continues to serve on her Rotary District’s Foundation Board. And like most moms, she’s also been very proud and encouraging of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Thanks Mom!
Importance of Education – Our Debts
About 12 years ago, when was to receive my first honorary degree when I was Ohio’s Chancellor, my Mom told my then 99-year-old grandfather that both his grandson (me) and his great-grandson (Karen’s brother) would be receiving doctoral degrees that year. She told me how my grandpa perked up and said (in his native Toi Shan dialect) that he didn’t realize that I had gone back to school. When my Mom told him I hadn’t, he gloomily told her “Oh, that doesn’t count. Those are the kind of degrees they just give away.”
Despite my achievements in private business, in government, and in education, in some ways I had always been a failure in my dear grandpa’s mind because I hadn’t earned a doctoral degree.
I remember how disappointed my father was when I wasn’t admitted to Cornell for my undergraduate studies and so went to a slouch of a school, the University of Michigan, instead. Pop had been admitted to Cornell after returning from his post-World War II U.S. Army assignment in Shanghai, where he met the beautiful young woman who would become my mother. However, as a poor immigrant, even with the GI Bill benefits, he couldn’t afford to attend the school of his dreams and instead enrolled in Hunter College. This is why I am so pleased that CAAA and my family have endowed student scholarships at Cornell for needy students.
I’m glad I was able to get admitted to Cornell for my MBA and experience the wisdom of my father’s dream of getting a Cornell education.
I tell you this story because it says how important our families can be in keeping our egos in check. But also because it demonstrates Nicholas Kristof’s point of how important securing a good education for their kids is and has been to so many Asian families throughout the world.
The sacrifices my parents made afforded me the opportunity to learn from them and from talented faculty and fellow students in some of this country’s finest schools.
That education has served me well and my education has continued throughout my life. I’ve learned how vitally important education is not just for personal success, but also for the vitality of our communities, our nation, and our democratic way of life.
This realization is why I am passionately continuing to seek ways we can better educate all Americans – so we can re-kindle the American Dream that I’ve been so fortunate to have lived. It is why, in these difficult economic times, we must all continue to support our educational institutions and educators while at the same time insist that they reinvent themselves to take on the difficult yet critical task of successfully educating many, many more of our fellow Americans for an ever changing and challenging future.
Learning and Love
It was the German writer Goethe who observed “Everywhere, we learn only from those whom we love.”
So this evening, I am proud to acknowledge my debt to my family and my friends, but especially to my professor, advisor, and friend for 42 years, Joe Thomas, now Dean of Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, who embodies for me the strength and love that most of us here tonight have for our dear Cornell.
I offer you all my very best wishes for a joyful, healthy, and bounteous Year of the Rabbit. Gung hai fat choy. Sun tai geen hong. Man see yue yee.
Thank you all for this wonderful honor and delightful evening.

Wicked: Questioning what we know

As a frequent Metropolitan Opera goer, I haven’t gotten out to see many Broadway shows in recent years. So I was delighted to catch up with the performance of Wicked during its latest Columbus run. While not the same caliber experience as the opening cast on Broadway, the touring company versions we get here compare well to the later casts of long-running shows in NYC. Wicked was no exception: bright, energetic, entertaining, with an appreciative audience; it made for a very enjoyable evening.

Wicked is currently the longest-running show on Broadway (it opened in Oct. 2003). I wanted to see it mainly to learn the backstory it presented to The Wizard of Oz. For those who haven’t seen it, Wicked tells the Oz story from the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West. We learn how the Cowardly Lion, Tin Man, and Scarecrow came to be as well as many other aspects of the story that, thanks to Judy Garland, is so well known to all of us.

While I was being entertained by the show, songs, and story, I kept thinking how we grow up thinking of history in one way. Of course, The Wizard of Oz is fiction, not real history. But Wicked asks us think whether the story we know so well is what really happened.

So while I was watching and listening, I thought about Josephine Tey’s book The Daughter of Time and learning at Cornell several years ago what the study of history is all about. (See my prior blog: Why Study History?) In her book, Tey turns around the story of King Richard III and asks the reader to question whether history’s view of the wicked hunchbacked Richard portrayed by Shakespere in his play (and by Lawrence Olivier on the screen), is really accurate. History, after all, is written by the victors, and in Richard III’s case, depicting Richard as wicked served the purposes of the succeeding Tudor dynasty. Tey raises her question, though, through a fictional mystery story, much as Dan Brown raised his question, 52 years later, on Jesus Christ’s real relationship with Mary Magdalene in his wildly popular The Da Vinci Code.

A more direct history vs. history challenge has been raised by Gavin Menzies in his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World in which Menzies challenges the story American schoolchildren have learned for generations: that the European explorers starting with Christopher Columbus discovered the sea routes that led to the Americas, Africa, and Asia. The romantic history we were taught is that Columbus and other Europeans were so bold that they questioned the flat earth notions of the time. Menzies reveals documentary and other evidence that Chinese Admiral Zheng He led Ming Dynasty treasure ships around the world in and after the year 1421 and prepared maps that reflected the world – maps that ultimately Columbus and the other European explorers had seen that helped them in their voyages.

American education has long been criticized as being far too Euro-centric. My purpose in this blog entry isn’t to carry on that debate (I’ll leave that issue to a future blog), but to raise the issue of questioning what we know.

Questioning what we know can be a dangerous pursuit. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History,  wrote of the slings and arrows he suffered in questioning what we all think we know in his book and PBS show The Pluto Files. When Tyson and other astronomers downgraded Pluto’s status from “planet” to “Kuiper Belt Object” he and his colleagues were vilified by the venerable NY Times and scores of third-graders (at least until the Times published another story, 5 years later, acknowledging the reasonable position the scientists had taken). So many of us learned (and had drilled into us) the fact that there are 9 planets in our solar system; that history must be respected and protected. As one who once aspired to be an astronomer myself, my sympathies are with Tyson. But the reasons for my sympathies go further.

One of the fundamental purposes of post-secondary education is to develop critical thinking. But thinking critically about issues – whether they be about stories, histories, or the definition of scientific terms such as “planet” – is not merely an intellectual ability. Critical thinking is also a disposition: a willingness to undertake the hard work of questioning what we are being presented with. Such disposition does not come naturally after 12 or so years of elementary and secondary school education in the U.S., since much of what we learn in school is so often presented as unquestioned fact to be accepted and memorized.

With the continually growing volume of factionalized political argument we are faced with, the future of our democratic system of government and the future of our country depend on our ability to instill more Americans with the ability and disposition to think critically about the “facts” we are presented with and the choices we are being asked to make. I am delighted that a Broadway show might get some in the audience to question what they know and so help underscore the importance of critical thinking.