Office of the President

Place Matters

Commencement Address Fall 2009

Good day to our visitors. Welcome to UT Dallas. We’re pleased that so many could join us to celebrate one of the most significant days of the year on our campus and one of the most important days for each of our graduates.

At the end of each semester, we don this ceremonial garb, bring out the mace, and join together in this ritual to confer on those assembled a document that attests to the celebration of something we can’t see or touch, but that is, nonetheless, one of the most tangible and valuable assets you possess — your education.

Whatever the future may bring, education is one thing no one can take from you. What you learned here — in and out of class, from faculty and from friends — is yours to take with you wherever you go.

And into what kind of world are we sending you? Where will you find your place? And does place even matter anymore?

The author Tom Friedman has written about the so-called flat world, where, for example, an image taken in a hospital can be sent half-way around the globe for expert analysis. The radiologist interpreting the X-ray need not be on duty in the local hospital or even be located in the same country. Information and commerce are unimpeded by geographical barriers such as oceans, mountains and deserts. Friedman contends that economic success will naturally flow toward any place that has a large supply of adequately educated people who can provide the needed services or products. In this sense, he says, the world is flat.

But another author, Richard Florida, contends that the world of ideas and economic activity is spiky. Mr. Florida argues convincingly that a few special places are home to most of the world’s innovations and discoveries, the so-called “spikes” of enterprise, creativity and innovation.

The resources of our planet are not uniformly distributed. For instance, most of the world’s diamonds are concentrated in just a few regions. Within Texas, most of the people are concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. And within the U.S. most of the patents generated come from a few cities: Boston, which happens to be the home of Harvard and MIT; San Francisco, which happens to be the home of Stanford and UC Berkeley; and Los Angeles, the home of Caltech, UCLA, and USC.

The relationship between top-tier research universities and the machinery of entrepreneurship and venture capital attraction is unmistakable. California is home to a disproportionate share of the nation’s top research universities, including not only those I just mentioned, but also UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UC Santa Barbara. Though California represents just 12 percent of the U.S. population, it is home to a whopping 30 percent of all members of the National Academy of Sciences, and earns 50 percent of all venture capital investment in the U.S.

Tiny Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT, has only 2 percent of the U.S. population but attracts an amazing 11 percent of America’s venture capital dollars.

We can also see that to a large degree, innovation drives economic progress through venture capital investments and creation of start-up companies:

  • 11 percent of all American jobs and 21 percent of America’s gross domestic product come from venture-capital-backed companies.
  • From 2006 to 2008, job growth in venture-capital-backed companies was eight times larger than job growth in the economy as a whole.
  • Examples of venture-backed companies include Amazon, Apple, AOL, eBay, Facebook, Google, Intel, Medtronic, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and YouTube. Facebook is especially interesting because of its success and because it was started by Harvard students in their dorm room.

Texas, the state that many of us are proud to call home, represents 8 percent of the U.S. population but earns a paltry 4.5 percent of America’s venture capital — less than half of Massachusetts, and far less than California.

We’re doing well in Texas compared to the rest of the nation, and perhaps it’s easy to believe that we don’t need to change anything to prepare for the future.

But, let’s consider this. In 1920, the six largest cities in the U.S. were New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis.

Try telling people in Detroit that their past success assured prosperity today.

Years ago, the key drivers for economic prosperity were transportation resources such as great ports or rail hubs, and abundant, nearby natural resources such as iron ore.

The great resource of the future will not be natural resources — it will be brains. In the past, we built factories and rail lines to create jobs and wealth. These are still important. But to compete successfully today and tomorrow, the critical differentiator will be great research universities that attract a disproportionate share of the brightest minds, most creative people, and entrepreneurs who can transfer the best ideas to the world of business.

That’s why so many citizens of DFW and Texas are placing top priority on UT Dallas accelerating its quest to become a top-tier research university. In such universities, brilliant students come together and share classroom, research, and social experiences that create a special community of learning and development.

At UT Dallas, we’re on the cusp of becoming a major, nationally competitive research university. We already boast an undergraduate class that most American universities look upon with envy. We’re one of only four universities in Texas whose faculty include Nobel Laureates as well as elected members of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. Our course offerings and research are rapidly expanding, offering even more and better learning opportunities for our students. In the past four years we’ve twice won the national championship of collegiate chess. And this fall our debate team finished No. 1 among 173 competing universities, defeating Harvard in the semi-finals and Emory University in the finals. Parents, be careful when you argue with your UT Dallas student or graduate — they may be much better debaters than you realize!

Graduates, you chose to come to one of the most academically rigorous universities in our state and nation. You could have selected an easier path, but you chose to challenge yourself, perhaps realizing that it’s the university community that helps to mold the individual and create an intellectual team than can lead through innovation.

Place does matter. We’re proud that you chose to come to UT Dallas, and proud to have been a part of your success. We are working to make this a place where innovation and discovery thrive, and to build the value of your degree by strengthening both our reputation and the reality of UT Dallas’ standing as a research university on a national level.

Today is the beginning of your relationship with the University as alumni. Many of you will live nearby. Those of you who leave to pursue opportunity elsewhere may yet return, because Texas has a way of calling people home. Wherever you are, keep your University on your radar. We’re going to do things that will make you even more proud than you are today of being a UT Dallas graduate.

Thank you, and good luck to all our graduates!

Updated: November 22, 2011