​​​​​Commencement 2011: Distinguished Guest Speaker

Charles Vest
Distinguished Guest Speaker
December 16, 2011

Minister Al-Naimi, …Chairman of the KAUST Board of Trustees, and other distinguished Members of the Board; … President Choon Fong Shih, … Provost Stefan Catsicas; … Executive Vice President Nadhmi Al-Nasr, … Senior Vice President Mohamed Samaha, and other members of the Executive Staff; … distinguished members of the faculty and staff who have made today possible; … honored members of the second graduating class of KAUST:

In October 2007 - just four years ago - I had the great honor to attend and speak at the groundbreaking symposium for the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. At that time, there was a great, empty expanse of sand, and there was a bold and compelling vision – a dream, really.

What a thrill it is for me to return here today and see with my own eyes that the vast expanse of sand has been replaced by a beautiful, functioning, state-of-the-art university campus populated by bright and energetic men and women, and that the vision and dream has become reality.

The vision and dream of which I speak, of course, is that of KAUST's Founder, the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. His magnificent vision is to create a university and make it "a 'House of Wisdom,' a forum for science and research, … a beacon of knowledge for future generations, … and a source of knowledge to serve as a bridge between people and cultures."

This vision and dream arises from the values of one of the world's most ancient cultures. Yet it is very much a 21st century vision … one that has cutting-edge science and technology at its core …one that is global in scope … one that brings hope and promise to a beleaguered world.

KAUST now has a magnificent campus, an excellent and growing faculty, an initial research agenda, and expanding partnerships with top scholars around the world. But the most important element that KAUST possesses is you … the men and women graduating here today. You are at once the product of KAUST and also the people whose lives and accomplishments will define the true contribution of KAUST to humankind. You have entrusted your education to this bold new institution. And, in turn, this bold new institution has entrusted its vision and mission to you … as students and graduates … to make KAUST a living, expanding, world-changing reality.

Think for a moment about the flow of people and ideas that will develop around KAUST.

The flow of people and ideas to and from KAUST will provide great opportunity for the Kingdom. This is the opportunity to enhance its economy, health, security, and quality of life. But here I want to add one caution. Patience and flexibility are required. It is very difficult to plan and predict exactly how and when a research university will advance the economy of a nation or region. In my own country, no one planned the complex of high-tech companies along Route 128 around Boston, and no one planned Silicon Valley. They emerged in large part because universities like MIT and Stanford brought smart, innovative, and adventurous faculty and students together, and because they developed strong interaction with business people and companies. Today, one can establish institutions and create environments and cities that will create opportunity for entrepreneurship and economic expansion. But they will be fertile gardens in which exactly what grows will be a surprise.

MIT and Stanford share a critically important characteristic: in them, the most fundamental research and scholarship exists side-by-side and in mutual respect with highly applied and industry-relevant research. I am pleased to see that KAUST is following this model, and I believe that as graduates, you will benefit greatly from your engagement in such an environment.

The founding vision for KAUST is that it will, in this way, drive diversification and strength in the Saudi economy. Yet KAUST also very explicitly recruited you, a student body drawn from nations all over the world. Some might ask, "How can this be? Does KAUST serve the Kingdom, or does it serve the world?"

The answer, inherent in the Founder's vision, is that KAUST must do both. In the 21st century, each of you must be both citizens of your home nation and citizens of the world.

Why is this so?

It is because our destinies, and the destinies of all people, are intimately intertwined. We all share the same earth. We share the same great challenges of securing clean water, sustainable energy, a stable climate, health, security, and economic wellbeing for the world's people. We share the earth's precious but finite resources. We share the earth's thin and fragile environment. We share the cumulative knowledge and technology developed all over the world. And we share our very humanity. Our hopes and dreams are held in common.

Now think for a moment about the flow of people and ideas around our earth.

In the last half of the 20th century, we all spoke of a "brain drain." This meant that many of the brightest and most energetic young men and women from all over the world emigrated to the United States or western Europe where they found the most adventurous and well-funded universities in which to study or become faculty members, especially in science and engineering. These immigrants also became entrepreneurs and corporate leaders in their new country. But these talented individuals also were "drained" from their home countries, where some would argue they were needed more.

As we moved into the 21st century, we entered the current era of "brain circulation." This means that bright young people now move around the globe studying or doing business in many different countries that present opportunities to them. Research universities and their students now serve the needs and meet the opportunities of their own nation, but they also are global citizens.

But I think that today you, the graduates of KAUST, are at the beginning of an even more exciting phenomenon that I call the era of "brain integration." By this I mean that researchers, students, and entrepreneurs all over the world are linked together by the Internet and the World Wide Web, and they all soon will have access to massive computing power through the so-called "Cloud." Increasingly, communities of scientists, engineers, and others in many different locations around the world will integrate their thoughts with the data and analyses of large-scale computation to solve big problems. I believe that this "brain integration" will characterize the age in which our universities will leverage and expand their abilities to make major scientific and technical contributions to humankind. "Brain integration" will also contribute to the learning process in ways that I, as yet, can only vaguely foresee.

This is why the Founding vision of KAUST as a global, international university that must, and will, serve both the Kingdom and the world is the right vision for our times and for the future.

You will contribute greatly to defining and building the future.

And the future is rushing at us more quickly every year, so you must get on with it.

One advantage that you have is that our world now is integrating, tied together by inexpensive, rapid travel, and by the ubiquitous Internet.

This integration should enhance your opportunities and ability to meet global challenges.

You can and must meet them.

You have at your disposal entirely new tools, many of which you have learned about and even helped to develop here at KAUST. And you have the Internet and the World Wide Web.

But all the technologies and networks we can create will not solve our world problems if we do not establish a better base of human and cultural understanding, and ethical and moral underpinnings.

Technology and science will be absolutely essential to addressing the large-scale issues of water, energy, climate, health and security.

But without motivation and resolve, none of these challenges will be met.

And motivation and resolve must be driven by your vision, your underlying values, your worldview, your cultural appreciation of nature and of people, and your ability to envision a future that is different from the past.

Motivation and resolve to build a better future require that you be willing to transcend narrow interests and boundaries and to find common cause.

Your success in doing so will depend on your ability to understand the lessons of the past, to communicate effectively, to inspire, and to use critical thinking to make difficult choices among disparate and important goals.

The way to accomplish this is to reconnect what we do . . .with what we dream.

We need nations and a global community with more people dreaming about what's possible, one where young people are inspired to imagine a better world and then make it a reality.

You are prepared to do this.

Indeed, the great gift that KAUST has given to you … and the great opportunity that you have earned here … is the knowledge, skills and opportunity to connect what you do with what you dream.

In the last century, big-thinking engineers brought us automobiles, airplanes, space travel, electrification, clean water, computers, refrigeration, radio, television, medical imaging, lasers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web.

They transformed our world.

Those engineers were mostly young … about your age … and they were empowered by education and funded by government, industry, and venture capital to create new technologies, hire people to produce them, and move them into the market place.

Yes, some of those technologies also left a legacy of problems we now must deal with, such as cyber-crime, and the specter of nuclear war.

But, you, the new generation of engineers and scientists must now be at the heart of solving these problems, and of making dreams of a better world become the new reality.

As engineers and scientists you must advance the knowledge base and invent and develop the new technologies we will need to progress and sustain life in this century.

You must increase our understanding ¬– and appreciation – of our universe – the worlds within us as well as the worlds around us, and those beyond us.

You must ignite productive economies through entrepreneurship and industrial transformation.

You must work in concert with others to build more healthy lives for all people, and to more effectively and efficiently deliver care to the sick.

You must focus on feeding the burgeoning mass of humanity inhabiting our planet as its population approaches nine billion people in this century.

We will all be the better for it.

What I have tried to say to you today is that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques had a noble dream of a great university that would help build a better future for the Kingdom and its people … and also for the world. By his actions, he made that dream become a reality. He connected what he did with what he dreamed.

Now, you, the men and women of the new generation, are empowered by what you have learned here to connect what you do with what you dream.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have played a role in your commencement as the second graduating class of KAUST.

But of course, I cannot close without providing a bit of personal advice, which I will do by telling you a true story.

Jerome Wiesner was president of MIT from 1971 to 1980.

He also served as U.S. President John F. Kennedy's Science Advisor.

One day, long after his service as president of MIT had ended; an alumnus came up to him and said:

"President Wiesner, do you remember me?"

"You shook my hand when I marched across the stage at my graduation ceremony several years ago."

"And you gave me advice that has profoundly guided me ever since."

Jerry Weisner, who had shaken hands with thousands of MIT graduates, replied in some diplomatic manner, that – well -- he did not specifically remember him.

"But, tell me," he said, "exactly what was the profound advice I gave you?",

"Why President Wiesner, when I marched across the stage, you looked at me, waved your arm, and said 'Keep on moving!'"

So that's my advice to you.

Keep on moving!

Men and women of KAUST, congratulations and best wishes.