Lehigh University
Lehigh University
President Alice P. Gast

Speeches & Writings

Commencement Address: Change in a Changing World

May 21, 2012
Alice P. Gast

Congratulations to the graduates of 2012. It is an honor and privilege to celebrate this day with you, your families and with our distinguished honorees.

Graduates, you have been on a journey of change and of growth. You are different from when you arrived at Lehigh in 2008.

You have grown intellectually.

You have expanded your horizons.

You have made new friends.

You are more independent in your thinking.

You are the same person today as you were in 2008, only better.

You have worked hard in the classroom and beyond, winning accolades in research, creative writing and music composition.

You have excelled on the playing fields. Your classmates shined on the national stage in football, wrestling, basketball, lacrosse, and softball. You have a four year run of winning Lehigh-Lafayette. Oh, yes, and we beat Duke.

You entered Lehigh during the worst economic crisis in recent history.

Firms that had been on Wall Street for a century disappeared. And on Main Street people lost their jobs, their houses, and their confidence. The change was overwhelming.

You coped with changes thrown at you by “snowpocalypse,” meningitis and today it rained on your parade.

You have contributed to changes in the community and the world. You rose up to help the victims of earthquakes in Haiti and Japan and you set new standards with Lehigh’s award-winning Relay For Life.

And, you lost a dear friend in Deborah Pearsall, whose great spirit is here with us today as her brother accepts her degree from us.

All of this has made you realize that time is a precious commodity, to be enjoyed, but always to be used wisely and with a purpose.

And Lehigh has changed, as a great institution must.

Just ask the members of our class of 1962.

They remember a much different campus, a much different Lehigh than you experienced.

As we’ve said, there were no women in the class of 1962.

This stadium wasn’t here in 1962. Nor was the Rauch Business Center and the Zoellner Arts Center.

And the STEPS building opened just two years ago.

And there was no FUD truck until a few months ago.

And, when you come back in 2062, you will see what Lehigh has done with the land donated by the Stabler Foundation last month.

Yes, you have changed. Lehigh has changed. And the world has changed, in ways both big and small.

The question is: How will we create positive change going forward? How will you, the class of 2012 be the “change agents” of the 21st century?

We can look to the inspirational leaders we are honoring here today. Each has created change and improved the world.

Larry Bacow’s leadership at MIT and Tufts changed the student experience, and created new opportunities for microfinance throughout the world;

Jody Williams changed the world fight for the elimination of landmines by convincing governments to cooperate to create an international treaty banning antipersonnel mines;

Ali Al-Naimi has changed the world in many ways including his leadership of the first coeducational university in Saudi Arabia.

Meaningful change is hard. In hindsight it may seem simple but during the process it is hard.

Look at Lehigh’s decision to become a coeducational institution 42 years ago. What seems like a straightforward decision today, was controversial at the time. Advocates had very strong positions on both sides. In order to effect the change, the men driving it needed to convince those remaining somewhere in the middle. They needed to find the compelling reasons, pragmatic facts to influence opinion. In the end, the decision to go coed at Lehigh happened because it was the right thing to do for Lehigh to survive and to thrive. Lehigh’s core value of excellence combined with pragmatism and foresight prevailed. Today it looks simple.

Today many changes occurring in the world are not simple, they are very complex and multifaceted. As I look at changes occurring in the world today and the public discourse about complex issues, I see dangers. I see dangers in oversimplification and extreme stances.

Too often and for far too long complicated issues are reduced to a soundbite or a headline...

Is it getting better or worse in our information-laden world? Citizens today can spend their time reading, listening to and comparing notes with only those who agree with them. Are we in danger of losing the dialog and discourse we so value?

I saw this in a minor role in the controversy over research about the avian flu, H5N1. Research into the virulence of influenza that crosses from birds to humans is important for the development of new therapies.

On the other hand, developing those virulent strains and telling others about it poses a danger that they can be used by those who would do us harm. There are many important questions in the decision to publish detailed research results in an area where misuse could do harm. Yet the media and the blog dialog tended to oversimplify into pro and con, yes or no.

It is understandable that in order to sell media, or to get elected, people are driven to make an issue more divisive than it has to be. Yet there is great value in finding the central, common ground where perspectives can be heard, and good decisions, and changes can be made.

You leave Lehigh as educated citizens who can drive the rational and healthy debate about controversial topics. Use reputable sources and enter into the dialog. Look for the perspectives of others and learn from them. You are on Facebook, Twitter, you write blogs, you have more opportunities than ever before to contribute to dialog, to debate, to confer and to lead change. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to make changes.

Be sure that you continue to broaden your horizons as you did at Lehigh, make sure to keep growing intellectually as you did on South Mountain.

You are ready to leave our beloved campus and to change the world.

Make the most of your days.

Welcome change.

Embrace change.

Initiate change.

I wish you a life of happiness and fulfillment.