2011 Spring Medals Ceremony

Last weekend we conferred Scholars’ Medals on over 360 students who were graduating with Honors from Penn State and the Schreyer Honors College. I usually do not share my speech, but this time was special. I share it here along with my sincere congratulations to all our Scholar graduates. I could not be more proud.

2011 Spring Medals Ceremony

Good afternoon Scholars, Parents, Trustees, President Spanier and Provost Erickson, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen. Congratulations to you all! Each one of you in this room has played a significant role in getting to this moment.

It is my great pleasure and honor, as dean of the Schreyer Honors College and as our tradition dictates, to address you one final time.

“Graduation is both an ending and a beginning.” “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” “A journey begins with but a single step.” “Your future lies ahead of you.” “The best is yet to come.” “Remember, do what you love and love what you do.” “Keep your eyes on the prize.” “Spread your wings and fly.” “Be true to yourself.” “Always aim for the moon and if you miss you’ll still be among in the stars.” And finally, “Will you succeed? Yes, you will indeed. (98 3/4% guaranteed.)”

For the last few years I have begun this speech with this same silliness. Graduation speeches can be boring; you are ready to get on with the celebrations, so why not inject a little humor into the affair?

This year I contemplated leaving aside what has become my traditional opening. You probably know that Mr. Schreyer passed away in January of this year and I want to spend some time this afternoon remembering not simply his generosity to Penn State, but his legacy that you are fulfilling as Scholars. So I thought perhaps such a frivolous opening would be inappropriate. But then I remembered that Mr. Schreyer would have loved the irreverence. Mr. Schreyer was known for many things and certainly one of them was his tremendous sense of humor.

Mr. Schreyer was, of course, president and CEO of Merrill Lynch and saw the company and all of Wall Street through the dramatic plunge of the stock market in 1987. This was serious business, to say the least, and yet he always maintained that it is “important … never to lose your sense of humor when the going gets tough, or to take yourself too seriously. Take the situation seriously,” he would say, “but not yourself.” Needless to say, five years ago these same words were a great encouragement to a young dean just starting out at Penn State.

Those who were privileged to spend any length of time with Mr. Schreyer were regaled with stories and the tone was often self-deprecating. He was often fond of telling the story of how he was fired early in his career with Merrill Lynch. While in high school he worked in the Williamsport office that his father ran and was caught in the back room one afternoon “necking” with a girl from school. An inauspicious start, perhaps, for the man who would make Merrill Lynch a global giant.

Mr. Schreyer was also fond of implying that he was not a very good student, but that wasn’t strictly true. He did very well in all courses except an introductory course in engineering. As a result he decided to move into Liberal Arts and business. He went to meet with the engineering dean of students to make the transfer and the dean kept insisting that he should stick with engineering. In his memoirs, Mr. Schreyer writes,

Finally I got a little desperate and said, “I never did see the results of the aptitude test we took during freshman week.” [The dean] said, “That’s a good idea, Schreyer.” So he had his secretary bring in the file. He took one look at it and said, “Your request is… Granted! The last thing in the world you should be is an engineer.”

Even as a young man Mr. Schreyer knew what he wanted and had determination. I found this out when it was decided we would be able to create a creamery ice cream flavor in recognition of the college. Many of you were able to sample some of our fantastic “Scholars Chip” ice cream earlier today. When I called Mr. Schreyer to ask for his thoughts he was very direct.

“I like chocolate chip.”
Well, we couldn’t just have chocolate chip that already existed, so I asked him if he liked swirls, maybe some fudge in it.
“I like chocolate chip.”
What about fruit, perhaps some fruit with the chocolate chip?
“I am not nuts about fruit. I like chocolate chip.”
What about nuts?
“I am not crazy about nuts either. I like chocolate chip.”

And so we have Scholars Chip, a delicious blend of French vanilla and Wilbur’s Buds chocolate.

It would be easy to slip into hagiographic writing about Mr. Schreyer, to portray him as a saintly figure that never set a foot wrong in all his business and personal decisions. It wouldn’t be accurate and frankly I don’t think it would be what he would want. But at the risk of putting him on a pedestal I do think there is much we can learn from the man whose name you now bear as Schreyer Scholars.

Certainly he would council you, as he often did me, to enjoy life to it’s fullest. We ought to have a sense of humor and always seek to be optimistic in our outlooks. Our graduates weren’t even born on that Monday in October of 1987 but it was the largest one-day decline in the history of the stock market and Mr. Schreyer was the CEO of Merrill Lynch. The decision was made for him to go on TV and announce firmly and with conviction that Merrill Lynch was still “bullish on America.” That phrase became synonymous with Bill Schreyer and Merrill Lynch but it was more than an ad slogan. It epitomized his approach to life. He believed that, in the long term, if people are willing to work hard and remain true, the future would always, eventually be better than the past.

And he firmly believed that our future rests with you. Mr. Schreyer often remarked that out of all his many and profitable investments in his life, the best investment he and Mrs. Schreyer ever made was in you. He understood full well that the college and university is not the named buildings or well-groomed sports fields. It is the people who make up this wonderful community. Their endowment was a direct investment in you, the men and women who will leave Penn State and transform this world. The question is, how will you transform it? What sort of impact will you make in this world?

That is why the mission of the honors college is not, “to bring in the very best academic students regardless of all other criteria and characteristics.” Rather it is “to achieve academic excellence with integrity, to build a global perspective, and to create opportunities for leadership and civic engagement.” Mr. Schreyer understood that smart people will find a way to succeed and the job of the honors college and Penn State is to help you understand that this success must be with integrity and honor.

These weren’t just platitudes, he firmly believed that our mission was to ensure that we are developing you as leaders who understand the importance of doing what is right and not just expedient. The very first time I met Mr. Schreyer was during the interview process and he “suggested” that we should require an ethics course. Being smart isn’t enough, he said, these students also need to understand what it means to be ethical and do what is right. Needless to say I agreed whole-heartedly with his sentiments, but I disagreed about requiring a course. It was and is my view that we want you to be ethical people, not people who study ethics. That means that moral questions have to be a part of everything we do in the college. We have to set the example for you to follow that there is no area of your life in which you are not making ethical choices every day. I hope that at least in some small measure we have done that.

It is now up to you. You have earned the academic honors that we have bestowed upon you. Now you must decide if you are going to be a person of honor. Will you do what is right, not thinking first of profits or personal gain, but of what is best for all? Will you be not simply some of the smartest people the world has ever seen, but people who have a vision of the world that is large enough to embrace others? Will you engage in scientific and humanistic research, not simply for its own sake, but so that it might benefit others? Will you be able to run a company well and profitably and ethically?

I know the answer to all these questions is a resounding Yes! You will continue to fulfill the VISION of our college, as men and women having an important and ethical influence in the world.

Mr. Schreyer once told me the story of a friend having found an aphorism in the front of an old family Bible.
“Lose money and lose nothing.
Lose health and lose something.
Lose character and lose everything.
[Mr. Schreyer said,] “I think of those words in relation to my dad’s life. He lost money, and he lost health. But he never lost character. It remained straight and true throughout his life, and it inspires me to this day.”

And so the younger Mr. Schreyer also remained straight and true through his life and continues to inspire us all.

Congratulations to you, the 2011 class of Schreyer Scholars!

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