CHANCELLOR CAROL L. FOLT Doctor Hooding Ceremony
May 12, 2018
Dean E. Smith Center
Today, we come together to honor recipients of the Doctor of Philosophy – the highest degree awarded in the academy. The Hooding Ceremony is a time to celebrate your achievements, and to thank you for your research, for the students you’ve inspired, and for your contributions to our university. I also may commiserate a bit with you about all the time you spent on what felt like no progress at all, your frustration with editorial “suggestions” that completely missed the point, you know I’m right about, and the seemingly endless cups of burned coffee, the fast food, the missed events and the lost sleep that dogged you for many days.
But if you are like comedian John Stewart – “Insomnia was your greatest inspiration.” Or if your advisor’s suggestions sometimes felt like they came from former VP Dan Quayle who said, “Verbosity can lead to unclear, inarticulate things.” Or if you at least during one sleepless period felt exactly like Yogi Berra when he said, “I made a wrong mistake.” Congratulations, you truly ARE ready to enter the “real world!”
Receiving a doctorate is a great privilege – less than 1.7% of Americans hold a doctorate. Your future is brighter because of your degrees, and it’s important to remember you’ve had the financial support of millions of people in this state and nation – the majority of whom do not have your advantages and may have never had the chance to attend college. So as we celebrate your accomplishments today, I also know you take seriously your responsibility to make a difference in the lives of others through your scholarship with unwavering integrity and courage.
One of my heroes is legendary theoretical physicist, Stephen Hawking, who recently passed away after decades of living with ALS. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to spend three days with him at a conference in Stockholm, Sweden. I was there because Carolina physicist, Dr. Laura Mersini-Houghton, played a pivotal role in bringing together the world’s experts on black holes and Hawking Radiation – and I got to introduce him at his public lecture. It turns out that Laura had an office next door to Professor Hawking at Cambridge and for years they had spent time discussing black holes and the Information Loss Paradox.
Professor Hawking was a powerful presence. While the ALS he lived with for more than 50 years severely restricted his physical capacities, it did little to restrict his participation in things. For example, one day during the conference, after a long guided tour and a multi-course lunch, he went to the Opera, to a banquet and then back to his room to continue working into the wee hours of the night. While everyone at dinner introduced themselves with details of their work, he spent 45 min laboriously typing his answer with minute flicks of his cheek, and then simply said through his voice simulator, “My name is Stephen Hawking, and I want to solve the mysteries of the universe.”
The conference brought together some of the greatest minds of our era, scientists who worked together for more than 40 years. Old friends, colleagues with radically different points of view, students and students of students. I’ll never forget the scene, after a full day of conference and a three hour banquet, of Stephen sitting with Nobel laureate Gerard t’ Hooft, head bent to head, still talking, like two young graduate students after an all-nighter, scribbling equations on the whiteboard.
I learned much about the secret to a long career from Professor Hawking and his colleagues, and I’ll share a few today.
No one is expected to know all the answers. While finding truth is wonderful, the real passion for these scientists was in asking great questions and debating possible solutions.
To discover anything, embrace disagreement and debate. These scientists were not shy about disagreeing. To stop debate, they said, is to stop the quest for truth.
Lighten up. Humor was one of Stephen’s most powerful teaching tools.
And last – stay curious, it keeps you young.
Interestingly, Dr. Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo’s death and died on the 139th anniversary of Einstein’s birth.
What moved me most about Stephen, was how he lived – his courage, humanity and commitment – overcoming so many obstacles. He showed us a single voice truly could inspire an entire planet to reach for the stars. Like all of you, Stephen and his friends all were links in long chains of mentors and mentees. None of us takes the path of a scholar alone. As Isaac Newton said, we all “Stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Approximately 550 dissertations are being awarded at Carolina this Academic year. And every one of those dissertations resulted from the help and support of family and friends; and the drive and belief of your academic mentors. Graduates, please join me in a round of applause and gratitude for this network of your staunchest supporters, your own special giants.
I also thank Dean Steve Matson for his leadership of The Graduate School. He’s all about students – his door is always open – and he listens to your career aspirations, your goals and he advocates tirelessly for your needs. Thank you Dean Matson and the graduate school team.
Congratulations graduates and welcome to the academy.
In a speech marking his 70th birthday, Professor Hawking said – “Remember to look at the stars and not down at your feet… Be curious, and however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at it … it matters most that you just don’t give up.”
Stephen Hawking’s personal mission was to solve the mysteries of the universe… He knew his mission wasn’t simple… he knew he could not achieve a complete understanding of the universe in his lifetime or a generation of lifetimes. Yet he never stopped trying. This ceremony signifies another step forward for each of you… on your own path to achieve your personal mission… And you never know what can be accomplished with courage, conviction, commitment and – as Stephen demonstrated – a little bit of humor. Now, everyone please stand for our alma mater.