Office of the President

Dr. Patrick T. Harker is the 26th president of the University of Delaware. He also serves as professor of business administration in the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics and professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering.

Penn Commencement/School of Engineering and Applied Science
Franklin Field, University of Pennsylvania
May 16, 2011

I thank my good friend and colleague, Eduardo Glandt, for that introduction. Dean Glandt and I have occupied the same orbit for some time now, and I’m thrilled that our paths have crossed again, here today, in Franklin Field, at the University of Pennsylvania, a school that has meant so much to me—personally and professionally—throughout my life.

My wife, Emily, and I are celebrating our 30th Penn reunion this year. And our son Michael is graduating today. None of this was in the cards back when I was sitting right where you are. I’d never have dreamed that I’d be on this stage, in this field, doing this.

I’ve been gone from Penn for four years now, just as most of you were arriving, so I thought I should get to know you a little better. I came up here a couple of months ago and met with student leaders. I asked them all the things that Commencement speakers ask the students who have to sit through their speeches: What are your hopes and dreams, your fears? What does the future hold for you?

This is how one of your classmates summed up the future: “We’re in charge now. And we’re doomed.”

Well, she was right about the first part. You are in charge now. Or you will be. But where you’ll be in charge—where you’ll take your talent and drive and top-notch education—might be surprising to some.

Of the ten students I met with, only two are going into technical careers. Eight are going into banking or consulting. Those numbers are in line with this class as a whole. Three-quarters of you won’t be going into engineering, but into business, banking, finance, consulting. And it’s the same story at many of this country’s best engineering schools.

I don’t know how to say this except bluntly: This isn’t the best news. Not only because we need the nation’s best-trained engineers to be … well … engineers, but because we need the nation’s best engineers leading other engineers.

And even before that, we need you to want to be engineering leaders. That’s half the battle. One of the graduates I talked with said that leadership roles are too ambiguous. And that the whole reason engineers become engineers is because they hate ambiguity.

A couple of years ago, Duke and Harvard surveyed CEOs and Heads of Product Engineering at more than 500 tech companies. Only 37 percent of them held degrees in engineering or computer technology. Think about that. That’s hundreds of thousands of engineers being led by people with no background in engineering.

You might argue this isn’t important. After all, a good number of those companies with non-engineers at the helm are industry leaders. And once you look at all the Fortune 500s (not just tech companies), the number of CEOs with an engineering degree is—comparatively speaking—a booming 20 percent. But when you count up the share who’ve actually worked as engineers, you’ll have to chop that number in half.

So we’ve got an interesting situation here: We’ve got students getting a degree that—by all accounts—requires intelligence, curiosity, creativity, discipline, drive, logic, perseverance, ingenuity, and talent. In short, a degree that prepares them for successful careers in any field out there. And then, these students … go into any field out there. They earn their MBAs and their JDs, and they go into finance, operations, marketing.

I’m not sniping. I did the same thing. And I applaud you for being good enough to write your own ticket. You’ve earned it. You have.

But I also think that if fewer engineers emerge as leaders, we’ll be left with a huge void in what has become an overwhelmingly technology-dependent, technology-enabled society. And nowhere will that gap be felt more keenly than in U.S. policy development. Fewer than 50 members of Congress have any type of science degree. Only eight have an engineering degree—that’s 1½ percent.

Meanwhile, they’re grappling with issues of national security and defense, environmental protection, energy sufficiency and sustainability, public health and public safety, information and communication freedoms. They’re deciding how to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and how to create high-wage jobs in emerging tech industries. They’re giving out billions of dollars in R&D, trying to stoke innovation and economic development. They’re making policy on intellectual property rights, tech transfer, and commercialization. They’re weighing in on ethical issues—in nanotechnology, bioengineering, cognitive sciences, research scope and procedure.

Twenty years ago, I was teaching at Wharton and ready to take a sabbatical. But Bill Hamilton, director of Wharton’s management & technology program, suggested that, instead, I apply for a White House fellowship. And that one move changed my whole perspective.

I was a special assistant to the FBI director, and responsible for the FBI’s technology portfolio. This was in 1991, when the U.S. had just started admitting DNA science into evidence. People were making life-and-death decisions based on science they didn’t fully understand. That’s not how this country should work. It’s unjust, myopic, and—ultimately—crippling.

I learned a lot during my time at the FBI. Most of all, I learned what it takes to be a leader. So I know that you have what it takes. You have all the qualities that got you into Penn; and now all the academic training and prestige that you’ve derived from Penn. You have knowledge and insights that are rare among the population—opinions that can inform this nation’s conversation on any number of urgent issues.

And so this is where I begin giving you advice, telling you what to do with this steep competitive advantage you have. Don’t worry: I’ll make it quick.

  • Don’t be afraid to lead—in your profession and your community. If you’re ever concerned that your presence won’t make a difference, please know that your absence will.
  • Take a job with people you’ll learn from. Nothing makes people plateau faster than always being the smartest person in the room. And the thrill of smugness will disappear once you realize there’s less reason for it.
  • Listen more than you speak. It’s a truth as old as time that people want to talk about themselves. If you shut up and let them, they’ll think you’re brilliant.
  • Take the pain early. When something goes wrong—and it will—admit your mistake, your hubris, your lapse in judgment, your taking bad advice or rejecting good—whatever got you into the hole. And then stop digging.
  • Know your strengths and weaknesses. Surround yourself with people who complement the former and compensate for the latter.
  • Always take the blame, and always give the credit. That’s the only way to develop a strong and loyal team.
  • And, finally, be yourself. It’s gotten you this far.

Actually, I have a corollary to “be yourself”: Find your own meaning.

John Gardiner was an extraordinary public servant and leader. He founded the White House Fellows program, where I learned so much. This is what he said about meaning: “Meaning is not something you stumble across. Meaning is something you build into your life. You build it out of your own past, out of your affections and loyalties, out of the experience of humankind as it is passed on to you. Out of your own talent and understanding, out of the things you believe in, out of the things and people you love, out of the values for which you are willing to sacrifice something. The ingredients are there. You’re the only one who can put them together into that unique pattern that will be your life. Let it be a life that has dignity and meaning for you.”

To all the graduates, congratulations on this terrific achievement. And to all the parents of graduates, please know that Emily and I are as hopeful as you that our child is off the payroll now.

Thank you.

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