Commencement Speech 2015 SUTD President Professor Thomas L. Magnanti on 29 August 2015

29 Aug 2015

President Dr Tony Tan

Minister for Education, Mr Heng Swee Keat

SUTD Board of Trustees Chairman, Mr Philip Ng

MIT Provost, Professor Martin Schmidt

Zhejiang University Vice President, Professor Ying Yibin

Graduates, Families and Friends

SUTD Faculty, Staff and Students

Distinguished guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

Today, we are gathered for the graduation of the first cohort of undergraduate students in the history of this university, a university that is distinct in so many ways. We also celebrate the graduation of 10 MIT-SUTD dual degree masters’ students. This is a moment of extraordinary significance and great poignancy. A moment that is filled with great joy and emotion for me and for the many others assembled here today.
Our students have completed a demanding academic programme, among the most rigorous in the world. They have experienced both personal and professional growth, including exposure to a diverse community of faculty, staff and students. Graduates, you are different today than you were three years and four months ago, when you entered SUTD as undergraduates, or two years ago as the master’s students. And, we as educators and staff are different from having the pleasure of working with you. And I don’t just mean having grayer hair. Graduates, you have developed lifelong relationships with your fellow students and with the faculty and staff who have been here to guide and support you. And, a deep association with SUTD.
You have experienced and accomplished much. You have been the recipient of a rigorous education. Some of you might even refer to it as painstaking, but as pioneers you have also had a direct impact on the curriculum and SUTD pedagogy as well as on the design of our campuses; in particular, the new one on which we stand. You have completed 20 or more design projects and have created a student government and a vibrant fifth row co-curricular programme with numerous clubs and interest groups. You have climbed not only an academic mountain, but a physical one and named it in honour of SUTD. You have created new technologies and spin off companies. Indeed today, I can use an Easy Ring that you created as far away as Boston to enter and pay for my rides on the subway. You have created a wonderfully engaging and entertaining Open Mic platform and received awards for musical performances, and won several external design competitions. You have created clubs and excelled in sports such as frisbee and taekwondo. You have designed the Chinatown Chinese New Year Light-up for each of the past four years.  And, you have had many moments of fun and joy. I recall the hilarity of hearing a cluck, cluck in the classroom as I was teaching introductory calculus during one of the very first classes at SUTD. The chicken was there as part of a student fun-filled bonding experience. I can assure you that in over four decades as an educator, this was the first time I have ever had a live chicken in my classroom.
Today’s signature occasion is, I believe, a time to reflect a bit on the 10 or so years that have gone into the planning and development of SUTD and to look forward to the future. We have created a very special place: with a unique organisational and degree structure, an innovative multidisciplinary culture and environment, a progressive approach to teaching, education, and research. This University is like no other. Needless to say, 100 years from now, SUTD will be a very different place, a place that I can hardly imagine. However, if we remain true to our mission and vision, I can clearly see several enduring aspects of SUTD in 2115 and beyond.

As I have noted in other forums, technology and design have been instrumental to humankind’s well-being and prosperity forever, so much so that we speak of epochs of the human experience in terms like the stone, bronze, iron and information ages and the industrial revolution and the renaissance. Tomorrow, like today and all past ages, our world will need technically-grounded leaders and innovators. The education of such students should be with us forever, as is the creation and dissemination of knowledge to serve societal needs. That, as embodied in the SUTD mission statement, is our institutional DNA and should, in my view, be the enduring feature of this institution. We should continually be flexible and strive to be educational and research leaders. We should always be a place that values and celebrates ideas and innovation, be it for scholarship or practice. We should never forget any of this. Nor should we forget that universities exist for more than just knowledge creation and assimilation. Education is also about skills and attitudes. The skills needed undoubtedly will change overtime, and so might societal norms and attitudes. But a university education should always value the importance of and embrace the triad of attitude, skills and knowledge. They are to me all essential for this university as I see it today, and as I see it one hundred years from now. 

We need to keep these enduring features always in our thoughts and sights. As reflected in the bible, Matthew 18:18:

Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Or, from a Chinese proverb:

With time and patience, the mulberry leaf becomes satin. With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.
With the unimaginable advances we will make in science and technology in the years ahead, some of you graduating today might even be here to see the SUTD of 2115. As you look back then to today or look back ten or twenty years from now, you should say to yourselves, “I was there at the beginning.” Take pride in being a trailblazer, a pioneer and in having had a significant imprint on the university’s formative years. Say to yourself, I have played a role in creating a great university that contributes so essentially to society’s well-being. That, my young friends, is quite a legacy.
SUTD and the Singapore government have made a significant investment in you, and you and your families have made a significant investment in SUTD. We at SUTD are committed to continue to support you. In this context, I am delighted to announce today a new initiative that is both a substantive and symbolic investment in your future, and is one way that SUTD can support Singapore’s innovative SkillsFuture framework, an initiative we call LIFE, for Lifelong Initiative for Education. For all students currently enrolled in SUTD, we are providing upon your graduation a $500 account to be used to match the Government’s grant of $500 to enroll in future continuing education courses or modules at SUTD. We hope that through this initiative, we can not only support your continuing professional development, but also firmly retain you as a member of the SUTD family.

I might be expected on this occasion to offer you a bit of advice, and it is quite simple. Through the SUTD broad yet deep curriculum and the outside-in curriculum design, you have been educated to do almost anything, working in basically all contextual domains; products, information, systems and services. I would urge you to find something that is meaningful and that you enjoy, be it in graduate school, research, working for a large, small or even start-up company to create desired and needed products or services, or contributing through government or social service. I found my place in the world as a university educator and administrator and have enjoyed every moment. I feel privileged to have played a role in knowledge creation and in the education of exciting young people. This is my professional passion and it gives me a wonderful sense of joy and satisfaction. Find your own way, something that will give you a sense of enjoyment, fulfillment and passion. And, use the fact that you have been educated as technically-grounded leaders and innovators, equipped to improve the world, to fuel economic and social prosperity.

I ask, as you graduate today, as well as throughout your life, to reflect on SUTD’s mission to nurture technically-grounded leaders and innovators to serve society’s needs. We have provided you with foundations in STEM, HASS, your specialisations in pillars and tracks, as well as Big-D Design. Through our innovative active learning approach to teaching, and your many projects and design experiences, as well as your efforts in the 5th row, you have learned to define problems holistically and develop creative solutions from a total design perspective. You have learned that technology and design touch every aspect of human endeavor and that design includes the full value chain from conception through development, prototyping, manufacturing, operations, maintenance and sustainability. You have had many opportunities to communicate and defend your designs and in doing so, have developed competencies in teamwork and communications. We have also, I hope, provided foundations for responsible and informed citizenship, and fuelled and sparked your imagination and touched your hearts. Use these learnings, these skills, and these attitudes wisely to steer your future endeavours. In short, be responsible and thoughtful technically-grounded leaders and innovators. Create a better world by design.

I would like to conclude with some heartfelt appreciations. By definition, a salute is an expression of goodwill, respect and honour. Our pioneering students, and their family and friends, as well as the SUTD faculty and staff are well deserving of such an accolade for the risk they have taken and the confidence they have shown by joining SUTD. So please faculty and staff, would you stand for a moment and face the audience and on my count of three, offer a salute to our graduating students and their families. Now students, would you please rise and on my count of three, offer a salute of gratitude to our faculty and staff.

And, if I may, salute and offer my thanks to you all. 

Here’s to the technically-grounded leaders and innovators who graduate and we celebrate today. I very much hope SUTD has touched your minds, your souls and your hearts. 

You have touched mine.