Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre, UBC Vancouver
Well, I’ve been waiting for today for several months. People have been working really hard trying to choose you. As you probably know, there are about 30,000 people who applied to this institution to have the privilege and opportunity to be in your place. You are an awesome group of individuals. It was not easy to select you from everyone else that applied. Let’s hear it for you for being here today.
Now, you probably don’t remember when you were a toddler. In 1962, I was on this campus. My dad was a professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia, and it’s a very special institution to our family for a number of reasons. My father was actually invited to come to North America by a brilliant physicist, some of you may know, his name is Robert Oppenheimer. And you know who he is. Wow. And it meant a lot to us because my parents didn’t have much. In fact, they came to this country with everything in one suitcase and no money. And it was this University, the University of British Columbia, that gave our family a chance to make it in this wonderful country, in this wonderful continent. And it’s for that reason that it was a privilege, it was a dream come true, for me to come back to where I was a toddler. This is a very special place that you’ve joined. It’s a great community of scholars and you have surrounding you some of the best and brightest young minds in the world and from all over the world. Isn’t that amazing? And I can tell you from working with the students, they’re older than you. It’s people like Allan. Let’s hear it for Allan. Let’s hear it for our president, Allan. I can tell you that the students here are not only bright, but they’re passionate, that they should be inspirations to you as you embark on this part of your journey.
So why did I talk about being a toddler? Well, you won’t remember this because you were a toddler and people usually don’t remember back that far. But if you talk to your parents or look at some videos or some photographs of when you were a toddler, that magical moment – if you’re a parent or you have a younger sibling, that magical moment when that toddler starts to try to walk is something that will forever be part of a memory of that individual. You’ve seen babies. First, they can crawl, then they try to walk and then they’d fall down. They grab onto your finger and they try to walk and they fall. And they fall over and over again. But guess what? They get up and they keep trying until they’re successful in taking that first step. And a lot of us as parents have videos of our kids as toddlers taking that first step and it’s magical but its also significant. It shows that every single one of you has this drive, that you won’t be defeated by something you haven’t done before. And you’ve shown not only with that, some of you may be skateboarders, or you might have remembered – you probably do remember the first time you tried to ride your bicycle, right? Do you remember that? What happened? Remember when your mom or dad or brother was holding the seat, and you had training wheels, and then they took the training wheels off? Remember? Well, at least for me, I fell down. I scraped my elbows and my knees. But guess what? I wasn’t going to let that stop me, just like you. Because I wanted to learn how to ride a bicycle. We’re all the same. Everyone here, the deans, distinguished faculty, they were all toddlers. I have some photos of them – no I don’t [laughter]. But we’ve all been there. They’re just older than you. But they all remember, poignantly, with love, what it was like to be you, to be a first-year student coming into a great institution full of other amazing people. Well, I know that a lot of you are pretty excited. You come from all over the world. You’re at one of the world’s best universities. And you should be proud just like your parents should be proud, and your teachers are proud, and we are proud of what you’ve done to get here. Because you’ve learned to walk, you’ve learned to ride a bicycle or maybe skateboard. But you’ve done a lot of other things. You got a 90.5 at least. That’s pretty amazing. Hey, let’s go for it. Let’s hear it for you guys!
But is there anyone here, I’m wondering – let me tell you what I was like when I was in your shoes. My parents put me on a train from Baltimore, Maryland, to go to the University of Chicago, a place I’d never been. I got off at the train station, saw the Sears Tower, didn’t know anybody, made my way to the strange University I had never seen, just read about. And I was scared. I got this form from the financial aid office saying, “You only have half enough money that you need to pay for your education, so you’re going to have to work”. And I had to work two jobs because we didn’t have a lot of money being immigrants. And somehow, even though I was scared, even though things were tough, I’m still standing. That’s not special. That’s not special. It’s the same story for all of these amazing people that surround me. All I’m trying to say is that if you’re scared like I was, it’s perfectly normal. It’s perfectly okay. Because we were all in that position as well. And guess what? There’s nothing wrong with being a little nervous or scared because when you’re scared, it means only one thing, that you’re about to do something very brave. That’s what you’re doing. You’re doing something very brave. Let’s hear it for you again!
The other thing I want to just say is that you remember your mom or your dad or your uncle or your brother or sister, when you were trying to learn how to ride that bike for the first time, taking off those training wheels? We feel the same way about you. We are here because of you. The university exists because of you.
This institution used to be called McGill University of British Columbia. But about 101 years ago it was students, your students, your predecessors who said, “We want a university of our own in this province”, and they had this great trek from downtown Vancouver to here, to show how important it was to them to have a great university here in British Columbia. Let’s hear it for them for making this possible for you. And today, just 101 years later, not only are we a different university from McGill University, but – please don’t quote me, we’re a better university than McGill University. I can say so with confidence because I just came back from London, England. By the way, if anybody loves McGill University it’s got to be me because I have a degree from there. I got my Ph.D. from there, found my wife there. I love McGill so no knock on McGill, it’s a great university too, but we’re better! You’re not tweeting that, right? McGill’s going to get pretty upset at me. So how can I say that with confidence? I just came back from London, England, and somebody from London – pretty great city, right? Pretty great city. I was at something called the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit and there were 500 presidents there from the best universities around the world. And guess who was asked to speak reflecting the esteem by which those institutions are regarded by their peers? The president and vice-chancellor of Oxford University was asked to speak in the plenary session. The president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore was asked to speak. The president of New York University was asked to speak. The president of Humboldt University was asked to speak. And the president of your university, UBC, was asked to speak. And we used to say that UBC is 1 of the 40 best universities in the world, and today we can say that we’re in the top 31 universities in the world. And I believe – and that’s why I’m here – that the sky is the limit, and we’re going to get there because of these great deans and vice presidents and faculty. And because of you, UBC is on a trajectory which is the envy of the world. And you’re going to be part of the ride. Are you excited?
Now there’s something else. There’s this phrase that means a lot to me, that is, to those to whom much has been given, much is expected. So here you are at one of the most distinguished, most respected, comprehensive research universities in the world. And so the presidents were all there together in the Kelvin Room of the Institute of Engineers. And guess what we talked about? We talked about the state of the world. We talked about how good a job we are doing. As those that are just several decades older than you, how good are we doing in protecting the planet which will ultimately be handed off to you? Imagine that. 500 people, average age 60-years-old in the Kelvin Room at King’s College, London, and we talked about the question, how good are we doing in protecting the planet that is on loan to us, that we need to hand to you? Because, you see, that’s a responsibility of all of us, especially those of us who are privileged and educated and in positions of influence to make decisions that determine the fate of the planet.
I was at UBC Okanagan earlier today, and the student union president there asked a question to all the students. He said, “How many of you believe the state of the world is healthy?” Let me ask the same question. Do you believe the state of the world is healthy? If so, raise your hand. Guess what? It was the same thing in the Okanagan. And therein defines our collective responsibility as individuals that are gifted and privileged, individuals that have with that gift, great expectations. In our case, expectations from you. In your case, because you will be, some of you, potentially, the next prime minister of Canada or head of another state. Three UBC graduates have gone on to be Prime Ministers of Canada. Isn’t that pretty awesome? Several have gone on to be CEOs of multinational companies, Nobel laureates, influential people in every possible sector of human activity. So we talked about these grand challenges, the presidents there in London. We talked about issues of energy, clean energy, climate change, health disparities, the problem of having sufficient clean water and getting it to people who are thirsty, the problem of having enough food and being able to get it to people, entire regions of this planet where people are hungry. We can say it’s not our problem, as some people say. You might say, “It’s not really true. Don’t trust the experts. Climate change isn’t really a reality.” We could do that. We can say it’s not our problem, but then I’d say we, collectively, and individually, are failing in our responsibility to the world, where we are uniquely positioned to do something about these grand challenges.
Now, look around you. You see engineers, individuals in the arts. Individuals in the sciences. Think you’re over there. We’ve got some kinesiology folks. I think you’re over there. It’s amazing. We have some dentists over there, if I recall. With those bright shiny lights, right? Well, guess what? Not only do we have the responsibility–
This incredible diversity that you have around you, this incredible expertise for a faculty and of your own future potential, this diversity that exists in this institution, is an incredible gift. It’s an incredible reservoir that will really form the foundation for the future solutions for these grand challenges. And I ask you one thing – I’m going to ask you a couple of things before I finish – but one thing, that is to embrace the diversity around you, the diversity in every sense of the word. Embrace the fact that you’re from 130 countries. Embrace the fact that there are so many different ethnicities here, that there are people with many different religious beliefs. The fact that there are people who do not have religious beliefs. Embrace the fact that around you are people that agree with you on difficult questions and issues. Embrace that and listen to what they have to say because it’s incredibly important for your formation as a human being and citizen. And the fact that you have such a diverse group of people here is one of the greatest gifts that you can potentially gain from being in an institution such as UBC. Let me explain to you why. All of those presidents in that room agreed that if anyone or any institution has the capacity to address what ails this planet, they are the people in the research universities. Everyone agreed that it is going to take more than one university, more than one specialty, to solve the grand challenges of the world. These are major issues and it’s going to require that each of you work as teams in a multidisciplinary way to try to address these challenges. And it’s going to require more than one institution to solve these problems. We have to collaborate for a better world. And how can you do this? I mean, how can you take advantage of the situation? For example, to address one of the most vexing problems that has been part of society for eternity, that is achieving world peace. Who here doesn’t want to have peace in the world? Well, I argue that you will learn how to do it here because there are people with different points of view. And I think that one of the things that you have to do from day one, and for the entirety of your career, is to realize that to achieve this individually and to solve these grand challenges of the world, not only do you have to listen to each other, sometimes in very uncomfortable conversations, but you have to subscribe to the fundamental tenant that there is freedom of speech and that even those of you that you disagree with fundamentally at an institution such as UBC, one of the central cores of this institution is that we embrace academic freedom. Do you embrace that?
I knew the answer because Michael Griffin, a professor who I respect enormously in the arts, was working with a group in JumpStart and he shared with me a word cloud of the values held dear by you. And at the very center of that word cloud were honesty, academic freedom, and freedom of speech. Those were some of the biggest words that were highlighted as things important to you and your generation and I applaud you for that because that’s the first step in embracing diversity and using that to solve the most vexing problems of the world. It requires– and you already know this– that you embrace civility, that you are decent to each other and respectful to each other, regardless of how angry you might feel inside about a view that is different than yours. And it is our responsibility, as your deans, your president, your vice presidents, your chancellor, your professors, it is our responsibility to create an environment where that can be done in a respectful, civil, safe way. But it is also your responsibility to help us create that environment. And if you collectively embrace, as you’re articulated to me, that belief in the fundamental tenant of academic freedom and freedom of speech and civil discourse, that is such an incredibly powerful foundation for us together, to be as an institution, and as individuals, global change agents for a better world.
Now, as I said, this is not easy. Sometimes you’ll be very upset by somebody saying something that you don’t agree with. And you can respond and say that you don’t agree. But let’s all agree to one thing because we agree fundamentally that the solutions to these problems require collaboration. Let’s agree that this is a time to build bridges, not to build walls. Do we agree on that one? And do we agree that we reject, unilaterally, hate and violence, even in the most heated of conversations? Do we agree upon that? And as an educational institution – now I’m about to wrap up because people are upset because I’m only supposed to speak for 8 minutes and I’ve probably spoken for 16, but I think this is important on day one – let us commit, each and every one of us, as a educational institution, perhaps as one of the remaining bastions committed to evidence-based reasoning in a global society where truth and post-truth and alternative facts are really challenging what is happening in the fabric of society. Let us commit to evidence-based reasoned opinions in every question, especially those that are difficult. Do we commit to that?
I’m sorry. I’m a little bit passionate. But I’ll tell you why. One thing that I say – and you’ll hear it over and over again – is that there are two kinds of education, there’s a kind of education that happens everywhere, it’s called the education of the mind. It’s what you read in those textbooks, it’s what you hear from your professor, it’s what you’re examined on. That’s one kind of education. But you are a University of British Columbia student and we expect more than that kind of education. Because the other kind of education that Allen spoke about, I submit, is even more important in your formation as an individual, but also as a human being and citizen, and global change agent for a better world, and that is an education of the heart.
Let me explain. There’s all kind of brilliant people that have been educated the finest institutions. I’ll give you a couple examples. There was someone called Josef Mengele, a brilliantly educated physician, who was an evil physician, who was there at concentration camps making decisions about who lived and who died in the Holocaust, who decided to experiment on Holocaust and Jewish individuals, children in concentration camps. You see, that person had the education of the mind, but clearly didn’t have an education of the heart, the kind of education that comes from a commitment to respecting civil discourse, to putting yourself in a situation where you try to understand a different view, to commit to building bridges and not building walls. That is a kind of education we want you to have at the University of British Columbia. Do you understand? This takes work. And I’ll tell you, not everyone is going to want to engage with you in these kinds of conversations. But you are active participants in this community of scholars. You are equals with us in these conversations, in these dialogues. You should challenge us. You can make us a better institution.
I’m going to end with these two words that Frank Wesbrook, the first president of UBC, uttered to his first group of first year students. You’re going to hear it all over the place. You’ve seen it, you know what the words are, but really think about what they mean. Tuum Est, two meanings for that, one is, it’s yours. And that’s true. Every single one of you, regardless of where you’re from, what you’re studying, what your circumstances are, whether you’re prepared right now for your course of study, or whether you think you got to really work hard to catch up to be up there in terms of preparation to your peers, it’s yours. It’s all yours.
Take advantage of each other. Take advantage of the great professors that are here. Take advantage of all the lectures and the events and programs and activities that are here because you have one shot at it. Carpe diem, seize the day. And here’s the second thing, the second meaning for Tuum Est, which I think in many ways is even more profound. It’s not that it’s there for you, it’s yours. More importantly, if you get this part it’ll really drive you. The other meaning is, it’s up to you. Tuum Est. I’ll tell you, you’re all amazing people. You all have the potential to become anything. So I ask you this, will you be somebody that exhibits just an education of the mind, that might use that education like Bernie Madoff did on a Ponzi scheme? To use that intelligence for your own self-enrichment? In that case, taking $65 billion of people’s life savings so that he can live the high life? Very bright guy. He had an education of the mind, but he didn’t have an education of the heart. Or will you be someone like Nelson Mandela or somebody like that? I’ll tell you this much, that’s the part that’s really profound. Tuum Est, it’s up to you. And I can tell you, I have confidence that each and every one of you has it within you to use your gifts and use your formation here to become global change agents, to use this place as an institution to grow as a human being and collectively, through collaboration, through building bridges, and through love, to make this world a better place.
Welcome to the University of British Columbia.