The New American University: The Graduate as Change Agent

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The New American University: The Graduate as Change Agent

Prepared remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Commencement of Arizona State University
Sun Devils Stadium, Tempe, Arizona

May 16, 2014

[Note: Secretary Duncan deviated in spots from his prepared remarks]

Thank you, President Crow. And congratulations, Sun Devils!

On the way over, President Crow gave me a quick tutorial on how to make the Pitchfork.

I think I'm going to have to attend some Sun Devils games, to get some practice with this. But I'm stunned you didn't get hand cramps this year when you had to flash the Pitchfork on touchdowns in the UA and USC games!

I'm delighted to be here today—to offer my congratulations to each and every one of you, to your parents and family members, to the faculty, and to the remarkable President Crow, on this great day. Everyone here has scored their own touchdown by persisting to earn their degree!

I've always thought that we don't celebrate success enough in education. And today is absolutely a day to celebrate.

Now, I've been warned that it's not necessarily a good idea to start a speech at ASU by, in effect, saying: "It's time to party!"

I know we have some graduates here tonight who, in their minds, are already halfway down to Mill Avenue!

In fact, whenever I give commencement addresses, I know I am always speaking to two audiences. The graduates want a short speech so they can get to celebrating.

But your parents, your grandparents, your professors, they're not in such a rush. They say, "Not so fast. I've been waiting a long time for this day. We're buying dinner. Take your time."

So, I want to take just a few minutes to ask our graduates a simple question that is, I know, already on your minds: Now that you have earned your degree, what are you going to do with it?

Every one of our graduates will have their own answer to that question. For many of you, that answer is still a work in progress, as it absolutely was for me at your age.

But, as you move forward, I would urge each of you to take the lessons and benefits of an ASU education to heart.


Because your families, your communities, your state, and your nation very much need that special combination of egalitarianism plus excellence that is the hallmark of an ASU education.

I was thrilled to see a few minutes ago how many of our graduates today are first-generation students, how many did public service, and how many worked while they earned their degree.

Breaking down barriers to educational opportunity, serving others, working hard while studying hard—those aren't burdens, those are opportunities that mold our character in profound and lasting ways.

It seemed like nearly all of our graduates fit in at least one of those categories. Courage, selflessness, having a strong work ethic—your traits are the traits of leaders across every sector.

You should also be so proud that, during your time here, ASU has continued to lead the way in reinventing the research university.

Instead of building excellence through exclusion, you have built excellence through inclusion.

Instead of relegating academic inquiry to the Ivory Tower, you have grounded it firmly in the real-world challenges of Tempe, of Arizona, of the nation, and of the world—from I-Projects to new entrepreneurial ventures.

Today, more Native Americans are graduating from ASU than from any one of the 62 research universities in the Association of American Universities.

The same is true for Hispanic students. And nationwide, only five other AAU research universities graduate more African-American students.

Collectively, we must put an end to this false choice in higher education—and in our country at large—between promoting excellence on the one hand and promoting access on the other. ASU is demonstrating what's possible, and helping to lead us where we need to go.

Increased excellence and increased access can't be at odds—they must go hand in hand. And as the 10,000 ASU undergraduates graduating today have shown, excellence plus equity is a win-win strategy.

ASU awards about 60 percent more degrees today than it did a decade ago—and ASU students today are more likely to persist to get their degree.

The number of African-American and Hispanic students at ASU has jumped even faster, doubling over the past decade.

I loved meeting with the ASU Obama Scholars earlier this evening. They are great examples of bright, committed students who follow in the tradition of President's Obama's own commitment, as a young man, to academic excellence and community engagement.

Now, even as ASU has dramatically expanded access, its students and faculty have excelled, distinguishing ASU as among our top-ranked research universities.

ASU has been among the nation's top 10 producers of Fulbright Scholars. Last year, only Harvard and Michigan had more Fulbright winners. And you have not one but two Nobel laureates on your faculty.

As the graduates here know, the teaching and cultivating of entrepreneurship has spread through all disciplines in the university, instead of being reserved just for business majors.

I know of no research university that has done so much to reimagine traditional academic departments to support cross-disciplinary learning.

And ASU has been an amazing partner in the TEACH campaign, which is helping bring our best and brightest into one of the most important and rewarding careers they can have—teaching.

So as I thought about my remarks today, I asked myself 'what could I say to these impressive ASU graduates about what lies ahead?'

The truth is that when I graduated, I didn't have a clue about the unexpected twists, turns, and tracks my life would take. And I would have thought you were crazy if you had told me that one day I might be the Secretary of Education.

I played basketball in college. And I had a brilliant plan for when I graduated. My plan was to go to the NBA and play for the Boston Celtics . . . clearly, that didn't work out!

But in an unexpected way, getting cut from the Celtics became a stroke of good fortune. I ended up playing professional basketball in Australia for the next four years.

And those four years changed the course of my life. I met my wife there, and we are now blessed with two wonderful children, a 12-year old daughter and ten-year old son.

You might think that bumping around in Australia, playing basketball for teams with names like the Eastside Spectres and Launceston Ocelots might not prepare you for the competitive rigors of the global economy. But that was not my experience.

On and off the court, I had to learn to work both independently and in teams.

I learned the importance of persistence, of taking responsibility, and the demands of leadership. I learned then, and in later years, how important it was to surround oneself not only with a great team but to learn from great mentors.

But most of all, I had a chance to pursue my passion—and experience the life-altering opportunity to find what you love and stick with it.

In 1992, we moved back to Chicago, where I got to pursue my other life passion in a totally different arena. I joined my sister in working at a small foundation that provided the sixth grade class at a struggling inner-city school with the promise of a college scholarship. We worked out of the same church basement as our mother, who began her afterschool center serving the community in 1961, and raised us as part of the program.

With the help of great mentors, and a lot of hard work by staff and students, that work led, 10 years later, to the incredible opportunity to improve education system-wide in my hometown, as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools.

Every day in that job, I thought about the thread that connected my work to my mother's life-long commitment to creating educational opportunity, which began three years before I was even born.

I describe my own post-graduation journey briefly here, not because it is so unusual, but because it helps underline the value of an education that prepares one to succeed in the 21st century, to follow your passion, and to have an impact.

In our interdependent, global economy, it is not just knowledge and subject mastery that determine your success, as important as they may be.

Your ability to adapt, to be creative, to stretch yourself, to take risks, to learn and grow from failure, and to be a hungry lifelong learner will largely determine how you fare in the job market and in life.

Whatever the personal equivalent is for you, you have to be prepared to chase your dream—whether it is playing basketball on the other side of the world or running the Chicago Public Schools.

Everyone here knows that the days of the Organization Man are over. You no longer come out of college to go work for one employer for life. The graduates of the class of 2014 will work for multiple employers—and many of you will pursue more than one career.

Truthfully, in today's innovation economy, the best jobs will be the ones you invent yourselves, that probably don't even exist yet. Doing that requires creativity, courage, and the capacity to pursue your calling—exactly the habits of mind that an ASU education instills.

President Crow proudly says that ASU does not seek to produce graduates but master learners.

At ASU, it's not your major that distinguishes you as a graduate—it's whether you have the ability to learn anything and the grit and creativity to adapt to new challenges in multiple disciplines.

It's whether you can work successfully on diverse teams—as you do with I-Projects, or in creating new entrepreneurial ventures.

When you arrived as new students at ASU, 11,000 strong, President Crow brought you all together in Wells Fargo Arena and asked you to close your eyes for a moment. He asked you to think about what you have always dreamed of doing.

He didn't ask you to think about what your parents told you to dream about. He didn't ask you think about what your boyfriend or girlfriend told you to dream about.

Instead, he told you about one of ASU's mottos: Dream It, Do It. ASU's fundamental mission, he said, was to help your dream come alive. That's a powerful vision for a university!

Now, the truth is that chasing your dream is never as simple as it sounds. It's about so much more than finding a job or paying off your college debt—both of which, I know, are on many of your minds today.

But in the long-term, you'll know that you are pursuing your passion if it is what you would want to do every day, even if you weren't getting a paycheck.

In many ways, President Crow's message to chase that dream cuts against the grain of what our freshmen have been told repeatedly by the time they arrive at college.

It is troubling that the number one ranked objective—number one—that college freshman said was "essential" or "very important" in last year's national freshman survey was, quote, "being very well off financially."

That was the top goal of 82 percent of freshmen—a record high, nearly double what it was in 1966.

So, if I can leave you with two messages today, the first would be to pursue your passion, your genius, in the years ahead. Whatever your calling is, pursue it with all your heart, even if it takes you down some unexpected or difficult paths.

The second message is to please continue the ASU tradition of giving something back, of paying it forward.

In the 2011-12 school year, more than 12,000 ASU students engaged in over 750,000 hours of community service in almost every kind of project imaginable.

That is an amazing, inspiring accomplishment.

It is a testament to your collective commitment to public service in an ever-more diverse society. And it speaks to your commitment to both equity and excellence upon which the future of America depends.

I can't do justice in a few words to the remarkable honorary degree recipients here today, Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz, Dean Pamela Matson, and my friend, Freeman Hrabowski.

But I will say this: All three of these extraordinary individuals found a way to combine their calling with giving back to the larger community.

In the end, your goal in life can't just be to do well for yourself. The truth is that none of us got here just by ourselves.

Along the way, there was someone or some program that gave you a helping hand—who picked you up when you fell, and who helped you get back on your feet.

When you stop to think about it, that's a role that health insurance helps fulfill as well. It helps you stay on course for wherever you want to go.

The good news is that, even though you are graduating, all of you who don't get jobs right away that offer health coverage can now stay on your parents' plan until you turn 26, thanks to the new health care law. And if that's not an option, you can still go to and choose from a range of affordable private plans. That's one less thing to worry about as you chase your dreams.

There are, of course, lots of ways to pay it forward, lots of ways to give back.

You can volunteer at a local school or coach a team. You can help mentor a child. You can run for office.

You can serve in the military. You can fight to preserve the environment.

And for those of you who plan to become teachers, you have an incredible opportunity to help shape the next generation of children, and strengthen our nation in the process.

I thank you for your commitment, your talent, and your hard work.

As you leave ASU, I have no doubt that you'll look back and remember those moments and traditions that were special.

Who can forget this year's Valentine's Day present of beating UA in basketball in double-overtime!

Maybe you'll recall getting your hands covered with paint as freshmen during the whitewashing of the A.

Maybe you'll remember laughing your way through the muddy mess of an Oozeball volleyball tournament.

Maybe you'll think of sitting down with good friends for a burger at Chuckbox or Food Truck Friday—or standing out in the sun to guard the A.

Maybe you'll recall that special professor who lit a spark of curiosity for you. The book you couldn't stop reading. Or your gratifying work in a Changemaker Central project.

Yes—those traditions, those ties will linger. But at this moment of passage, what will ultimately endure is the education and preparation for life you received here.

That will be part of you forever. That will help empower you to face life's inevitable challenges.

So, as you leave here, please strive to lead a life of consequence, in ways big and small.

Please know that your ASU education has prepared you to be a change agent. You are ready. As they say on campus, gold equals bold.

I know that I join everyone here today in saying that we look forward, with great anticipation, to the next stage of your journey. We could not be more proud of you.

Congratulations—and good luck!