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.

Doctoral Hooding & Convocation
Carpenter Sports Building
May 27, 2011

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Good afternoon. I’m Patrick Harker, president of the University of Delaware, and it’s my privilege to congratulate all the doctoral degree recipients we’re honoring today.

It’s been nearly 30 years since I earned my own PhD—but if you think I’ve forgotten the amount of time, and effort, and sleep deprivation, and torture I went through to get those three little letters behind my name … well, clearly—you’d be wrong. And so I commend you for your passion and perseverance—two attributes that are admirable in ANY pursuit—but that are absolutely indispensable in this one.

I address the University’s doctoral degree recipients twice a year—in January and May. And twice a year—in January and May—I tell them why their work matters. After many years of working toward this goal, that seems to be something they appreciate.

I tell them that their research will have a material effect—on people’s health and happiness, on cultural understanding and community cohesion, on world peace and security, on global sustainability. And then, looking ahead, I tell them their work will serve as scaffolding for future scholarship. That it will plant a seed from which a garden—lush and verdant beyond our understanding—will grow. That their ideas will inspire a whole new generation of thinkers, and yield a whole new raft of solutions to problems we once considered impossibly dense. That we can’t even comprehend their work’s future scope and implications, because the accumulation of small discoveries and incremental breakthroughs, of nuance and refinement can absolutely recast what we believe—and what we believe is possible.

But today is different. Not because my words aren’t still true. They are. But because, today, we have with us proof of that very fact.

Our Convocation Address will be delivered by the University of Delaware Willis F. Harrington Professor Emeritus of Chemistry and Biochemistry Richard Heck, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Nobel Committee credited Prof. Heck and two co-laureates not only with fundamentally changing and enlarging the discipline of chemistry, but with laying the chemical foundation that has improved our everyday lives.

Yesterday, we hosted a symposium in Prof. Heck’s honor, and hundreds of the country’s most respected, prolific scientists came to Newark, bearing witness to the transformational influence of palladium catalysis—the Heck Reaction—on pharmaceutical development, electronics manufacture, DNA sequencing, energy innovation … the list is long.

It was abundantly clear that the research Prof. Heck conducted right here at the University of Delaware has provided a scientific platform for a whole new generation of synthetic chemists who are now advancing the field even further.

Now I’m not promising a symposium for each of you here. (Win the Nobel Prize and we’ll talk.) But I am proposing that your work will be a spark—the spark—for someone else. And what a wonderful proposition that is—because that’s how you leave a legacy.

And I hope you’ll indulge me for a minute as I invoke another kind of legacy you’re leaving. I talked about the material effect of your research. But there’s a transcendent effect, too. Your work will help us test the world around us—find its limitations and its possibilities. Maybe know ourselves and each other a little better.

Your work will shrink the unknown, diminish the untried, and expand our human capacity—not just for knowledge and technique, but for care and consideration and compassion. Your work betters humanity—our nature, our outlook, our optimism, what we prize and what we strive for. It contributes to a richer intellectual life, where questions are welcomed and curiosity rewarded—where an open, vigorous mind is valued above all else. Now that’s a legacy.

And so as we celebrate the end of one leg of your journey and the beginning of another, I ask that we recognize the full community of support that has a piece of this accomplishment. Your teachers, mentors, advisors, and colleagues are in no small way responsible for this degree.

It was their expertise, encouragement, and advice that helped set your path, and probably make a few course corrections along the way. This degree is a little bit theirs, and I know you’re in their debt. Don’t worry: They know it, too.

Could we acknowledge the faculty and colleagues who played such a big part in this achievement?

Your friends and family have been in this with you from the beginning. Your panic attacks weren’t yours alone. Your sleepless nights were theirs, too. They may not have known what they were getting into the day you began down this path. And so I think your families and friends deserve our recognition for staying strong, and making it out the other end—still side-by-side with you.

Could we give them a round of applause?

I’ll close with what I ask of every class of doctoral candidates. I ask you to continue to be guided by the responsibilities your degree confers: to pursue truth and prioritize compassion; to improve the lives of others and the world in which they live; to expand the boundaries of human understanding, and to contribute doggedly to a body of knowledge that will help perfect us as a people.

Thank you.

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