Office of the President

The Ordinary Things That Count

Summer Graduation Speech
August 10, 2007

President David E. Daniel

In a few minutes, today’s graduates will pass across this stage and receive their diploma certificates.  Congratulations to each of you, and especially to those of you who are the first in your family to earn a college degree.

The University of Texas at Dallas is an academically distinguished and challenging institution.  This year’s freshman class had the highest SAT score of any public university in Texas.  Once again, we are the national champions of chess.  And UT Dallas didn’t lose a single football game! 

We are among a relatively small group of universities that not only have an exceptionally strong student body, but also a truly superb faculty.  Our faculty members include a Nobel laureate as well as elected members of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.  Only four universities in Texas that can say this, and one is UT Dallas.  The other three are UT Austin, Texas A&M University, and Rice University.

Each of today’s graduates chose to work hard and to succeed under rigorous academic demands.  Students of lesser dedication and discipline did not fare as well.  For parents who have worried about whether their son or daughter could compete successfully in this trying world, worry no more.  They can.  They just did.  They have proven themselves.  I hope that you will let them know how proud you are of them.

Let me now offer comments about the future.  I recently completed an assignment as chairman of an external panel of experts, appointed by the Secretary of Defense and the American Society of Civil Engineers, to review the causes of the levee failures in New Orleans during hurricane Katrina.  I learned much from the experience, both as an engineer and as leader of a large organization. 

For any who lost friends or relatives in New Orleans, please accept my heartfelt sympathy.  The devastation in New Orleans was one of the worst catastrophes in U.S. history.  More than 1,000 people died and roughly one-fourth of all homes were destroyed.  Social infrastructure was decimated.  The loss of both life and lifestyle were overwhelming.

What went wrong?  Unfortunately, almost everything, at every level.  The levee system in New Orleans was built over a period of decades, in an uncoordinated, piecemeal manner.  No one was ever tasked with assessing the entire protection system, integrating all the components from wetlands to off-shore gates to levees to emergency evacuation.  The lack of broad planning for such important infrastructure is appalling – it’s an example of too much focus on the tree and too little attention to the forest.

The design was inadequate and protected the city only from a moderate storm, not from the inevitable extreme storm.  The sad part is that we know that extreme hurricanes will hit cities like New Orleans.  There’s no hiding from their wrath. 

Closer to home, I worry, for example, about whether North Texas is adequately prepared for a drought worse than any we have seen.  It is inevitable.  The only question is when.

Several key levees in New Orleans collapsed even though the water levels were 5 feet below the tops of the levees.  The levees should not have failed, and yet they did.  Some of the engineering designs were too close to the margins of safety.  Federal, state, and city officials constantly pressed to save money, as is their tendency and our expectation.  Under the pressures of budget and schedule, the safety and welfare of the public ceased to be the top priority.

And there were numerous poor decisions.  New Orleans is slowly sinking, and yet the surveyor’s benchmarks were not updated to account for the subsidence, causing many levees to be built lower than intended.  The levees were not always maintained properly – a mundane but essential task.

Numerous agencies are responsible for various pieces of the hurricane protection system, but no one agency or person is in charge or accountable. We know from sad experience—catastrophes such as space shuttle explosions, for example—that disasters related to technology almost always involve two components: a technical problem and a management problem.  And we know that complex organizations without clear lines of responsibility and accountability are almost always destined to disappoint.

I’m sure that most of you are aware of the tragic collapse a few days ago of the I-35 bridge in Minneapolis.  We don’t yet know what caused the terrible tragedy.  But, based on past experience, I have two predictions.  My first is that technical and design problems will be identified as the direct cause for the failure.  If the past is any guide, the cause is not likely to be some mysterious, poorly understood phenomenon but, rather, a unique and improbable (though entirely predictable) combination of circumstances that had dire consequences.  My other prediction is that we will discover organizational and decision-making flaws that were as important, if not more important, contributors to the failure. 

So what do we as ordinary citizens and soon-to-be college graduates take from all this?  I would suggest three lessons:

  1. Recognize that organizations and leadership do matter.  Graduates, please become engaged in developing your own leadership skills.  Learn from good organizations and leaders.  Vote.  Never get lulled into the mistake of believing that it doesn’t matter who is in charge.  It does matter.

  2. Life is full of competing demands for attention and resources.  It’s easy to get seduced into focusing on high-profile and emotional subjects, and much more difficult to focus on the simple things that are critical to a safe, healthy life. 

    Like diet.  Exercise.  Healthy and respectful relationships with others.  Adequate funding of essential public works.  Repair of infrastructure.  Building critical life-safety structures properly, to last, and to be safe above all else.  Successful people know how to pay attention to the simple things that really matter.

  3. Listen carefully to the experts, and ask the right questions.  So often people hear what they want to hear, not what they need to hear.  Regarding New Orleans, perhaps the biggest failure of Congress was that it did not question vigorously enough whether it was taking the steps necessary to keep the residents of New Orleans safe.

    And the leaders of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers never went before Congress and said, “We won’t build this – you aren’t authorizing a safe system.”  This is not to blame anyone, but rather, to indicate how difficult it is to sort through competing priorities, especially balancing cost with public safety.  Seeking out and listening to diverse perspectives, especially to perspectives and points of view that argue for the more difficult path forward, are essential to being well informed and to good decision making, regardless of the endeavor.

As B.F. Skinner said, “Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”  Each of you has been educated in your discipline, and, if you’re like me, you’ll remember some and forget much.  But an educated person always has a good sense about the world. You’ll use your education well if you recognize the importance of good leadership, if you pay attention to the ordinary things that really count, and if you seek out and listen carefully to a diverse group of knowledgeable people, especially if their input is well informed but isn’t necessarily what you wanted to hear.

Again, congratulations to all for your hard work and outstanding achievement.  You’re well prepared for your life and your careers.  Use your intelligence and education well, and I know that you’ll be very successful. 

Thank you, and good luck!

Updated: November 22, 2011