As if being back at Georgia Tech as president weren’t surreal enough… how about riding the Rambling Wreck on stage to your investiture? As we say… We are Georgia Tech, We Can Do That!
I am so honored that so many of you have joined us. And so grateful to be able to share this moment with friends from as far as South Korea, Costa Rica, Mexico and Spain. Gamsahabnida! Gracias de corazón! I will never forget.
I’m grateful to all the members of the Georgia Tech community for being here today: faculty, staff, students, alumni. I really get to work with amazing people!
I understand that our friend George P. Burdell is here in the audience too, and that he’s never missed a Georgia Tech investiture. You don’t need to stand up but thank you George. (If you haven’t heard of George yet, ask any student later about his legendary accomplishments!).
I hope you’ve enjoyed the proceedings this morning as much as I have! The Master of Ceremonies, College of Computing Dean Charles Isbell may have found a new calling! I want to thank him and all speakers for sharing their wisdom and advice on behalf of each of the constituencies we serve.
A warm welcome to the delegates from our sister schools in Georgia and from universities across the nation and around the world. Thank you for honoring us with your presence and for all you do to advance higher education. We are in this together! Thanks to all government officials, community leaders and philanthropists with us today for believing in higher education and investing in us. And thanks to all my friends and family for always being there. I am moved to have many of you here today and many others watching from afar.
A toda mi familia que nos está siguiendo desde lejos: Un abrazo muy fuerte desde Atlanta y un millón de gracias por todo lo que siempre habéis hecho por mí.
A most special recognition to Beth, my wife of 25 years. Beth was the smartest, most fun and beautiful person in my class at Georgia Tech—and she still is. She’s been a wonderful travel companion in an exciting journey neither of us could have anticipated. She is the best mother in the world and has had an impressive career despite the demands of mine. She has been a true partner to me every step of the way. Thank you, Beth. I love you.
Despite not knowing Spanish when we met, Beth went on to earn tenure as a business professor in a leading Spanish university. That university, Carlos III, is represented here today by the very person who hired and mentored her, our dear friend Professor Isabel Gutiérrez, and by a childhood friend of mine, Prof. Juan José Vaquero. Carlos III is one of the most admired universities in Spain and a terrific study abroad destination for Georgia Tech students.
Since you’ve heard me talk so much about our children, I’m delighted to be able to introduce them to you. They are both skipping class to be here today. Alex is a proud alum of Georgia Tech, an NSF Graduate Fellow, and a first year PhD student at Carnegie Mellon (thank you, Dean Isbell, for preparing him so well!). Emilia is a junior at Harvard, where she’s majoring in computer science. ¡Alex y Emilia, os quiero muchísimo a los dos y estoy muy orgulloso de vosotros!
Probably the toughest test I took during my time as a student at Georgia Tech was the day I traveled to Florence, Alabama, to ask Keith and Mary Lynn Fraser for their blessing to marry their daughter and to let them know that (ahem) we were planning to move to Spain. Instead of running me out of town, Keith, Mary Lynn and their other daughter Katherine have treated me like a member of the family since. Thank you all.
Key to today’s celebrations, of course, are the people who actually brought me here: the members of the search committee that recommended my appointment under the leadership of chairman Ben Tarbutton, and Chancellor Steve Wrigley, Chairman Don Waters, and the rest of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia who appointed me. Thank you all for your confidence in me and for the opportunity to serve this institution that means so much to me.
I feel a great sense of responsibility as I follow in the footsteps of 11 prior presidents, each of whom skillfully steered us through different times and circumstances. Two of them, Wayne Clough and Bud Peterson, are with us today. Together they have led us through a remarkable 24 years of growth in size and stature. I look up to them as examples and value them as friends. I would like to recognize them both and thank them for their continuing service to Georgia Tech.
If I got the numbers right, the average Georgia Tech president has had a tenure of 11 years and 3 months. The shortest serving president, Art Hansen, left after only two years to move to his alma mater, Purdue. It is my hope that Hansen will retain his record for many years to come, especially since I am already at my alma mater. The longest tenure was Marion Brittain’s 22 years. I am not interested in breaking that record either. I am shooting for a productive presidency of average length!
Beth and I have had a lot of fun rediscovering Atlanta in the last two months. We love what has happened around here since we graduated in the 90s. Tech Square, the Belt Line, the creative scene—music, film. We now even have a world-class soccer team (Vamos Atlanta United!). And we have loved to see Georgia Tech behind much of this change!
One of the visits we found especially impactful was the National Center for Civil and Human Rights downtown. It was a powerful experience that made us reflect on the magnitude of the impact Atlanta had on the entire nation and beyond during the Civil Rights movement. And it inspired us to think of how much more we are poised to do.
Right after we arrived, Congressman John Lewis invited me to his office. We talked about the Civil Rights movement and he shared some historic photos. I was moved by the cover of Life magazine of that day in 1965, when at the age of 25, he led several hundred people across the bridge in Selma to protest segregation. He, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and thousands of other young leaders at the time, put their lives on the line to demand justice for the oppressed. Their courage helped transform an entire nation for the better and sent a message of hope around the world that still resonates today.
The epicenter of that movement of hope and social change was right here in Atlanta. It grew out of churches around Auburn Avenue, classrooms in the Atlanta University Center, and the hearts of people who were committed to a better future. I feel strongly that it is now our turn to take up the mantle. There are still many bridges that need to be crossed to make our society more just and prosperous, to bring about freedom, opportunity, and peace to people around the world, to help us all live healthier, safer, more enlightened lives. And much of that work can once again start here in Atlanta, in the classrooms, the labs, the innovation spaces at Georgia Tech.
We have what it takes. We live in one of the largest, most vibrant, most diverse, best globally connected cities in the nation. We have a state-of-the-art campus in the heart of a neighborhood that we have transformed into a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship. We enjoy a world-class faculty across a whole array of academic disciplines and an amazing staff. We offer outstanding programs in business, liberal arts, sciences, computing and design in addition to engineering, that are considered among the world’s finest. We attract thousands of the most talented students across Georgia and around the world to our campus and serve thousands more online. And, with over a billion dollars in research awards across all colleges and GTRI, we are among the nation’s most research-intensive universities.
Few institutions enjoy the abundance of talent and technological resources we have here at Georgia Tech. And with those resources come the responsibility and opportunity to try and make a difference in the world. That is what our motto, “progress and service,” means.
Every day since I arrived, I have discovered a new amazing project that shows how much we can do. I recently met Prof. Shannon Yee, in Mechanical Engineering, an expert in the thermal conductivity of polymers who is partnering with none other than Bill Gates to invent a new toilet that could save millions of lives of children living in cities and slums around the world lacking proper sewer.
I also ran into General Stephen Melton, who told me how technology developed at GTRI had saved his life and the lives of many other American soldiers flying missions on the C-130 since the mid-nineties. And I met the Executive Director of the Peanut Commission of Georgia, who explained how Georgia Tech research is helping increase the productivity of a crop that is essential to the state economy.
Or take my new favorite spot on campus, the Kendeda Building that we just dedicated last week. A striking example of sustainable design, integration with nature, human inclusion and well-being, that will inspire architects, civil engineers, business and policy leaders for generations to come.
These projects and hundreds more across Georgia Tech show how technology can drive change when it is grounded on a deep understanding of its human, social and economic context, when it connects ideas from different disciplines and incorporates perspectives from different stakeholders. And this should inform how we think about the future of our curriculum and research.
One thing I learned here as a cognitive psychologist is the fact that learning requires that we confront and connect evidence, perspectives, and ideas that are different from our own. Our minds are hard-wired to reaffirm what we already believe. That’s why we like to hang out with people who agree with us or why we always watch the same news channel and read the same newspaper. If you wonder why our society is becoming so polarized, that is why!
Yet learning and innovation happen when we do just the opposite. When we consider that our beliefs may be wrong or incomplete, when we engage in conversation with diverse people who may hold different ideas and when we confront evidence that challenges our beliefs. Just like biological evolution requires genetic diversity, learning, innovation, creativity feed on diversity of ideas.
Increasing diversity at Georgia Tech is therefore not only a moral obligation. It is a necessary condition to be the best learning and research environment that we can be. We have made great progress in this regard over the past century, but there is much more that we need to do.
It wasn’t until 1952 that Tech accepted the first white women as full-time students, and 1961 when the first African American students were allowed to enroll. During my first week on the job, I had the privilege of meeting the first black students in Tech’s history: Ford Greene, Ralph Long Jr. and Lawrence Williams, as well as Tech’s first African American graduate, Ronald Yancey. I am delighted that Ralph Long and Lawrence Williams are with us today. While they were on campus to be honored for their courage and leadership in desegregating our campus, they shared with our community what it was like to be the lone black student here in the 60s. Their stories, while hard to process, were inspiring too. They showed that progress, while in no way inevitable, is indeed possible.
Today, we are the No. 1 producer of women engineers, the No. 1 producer of minority engineers and the largest producer of African American engineering PhDs in the country. These are wonderful statistics. But still less than six percent of our total enrollment at Georgia Tech is African American, women remain underrepresented in engineering and computer science, and our percentage of low-income students trails the numbers at other leading research universities. We can and must do better.
And, as we increase diversity on our campus, we need to work equally hard at building an inclusive environment where everyone feels a sense of belonging, where everyone can thrive regardless of their ethnicity, or gender orientation, or the wealth of the family they grew up in. If you have talent, if you want to work hard, if you share our commitment to progress and service, we want you here, no matter where you come from.
The world today is healthier and safer, better fed, less poor, more educated and freer than ever before in no small part because of new technologies and the institutions and social changes technology has enabled. Much of that progress has emanated from places like Georgia Tech.
There will soon be eight billion of us on this planet, and we must figure out how to improve the quality of life for all of us — how to provide clean, sustainable food, water, and energy, health care and education for all; build more just and peaceful societies; and protect the natural environment on which our lives depend.
What makes me excited about being back at Georgia Tech is to be part of a community that can make a real difference in the most important issues of our time.
I have spent a good part of the past few weeks getting to know some of our most generous donors. And I have asked many them why they choose to give money to Georgia Tech. Their answers are surprisingly similar: They believe this is how they can have the biggest impact in the lives of others. We all get that because we all know we wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the opportunities each of us had to go to school.
The likelihood that a kid like me raised in the 70s by parents without a college education in a working-class neighborhood in Madrid would one day be named president of a leading American research university is virtually nil. It can only be explained with three words: public higher education.
Thanks to the education I received at Universidad Politécnica of Madrid I learned about research, about new technologies, and about a program called Fulbright Scholarship that could allow someone like me to get a doctorate in America. And it was thanks to Georgia Tech and the amazing faculty I had here that I was inspired to pursue a career in higher education.
When I first arrived at Tech 28 years ago, I was struck by the resources available here and about the fact that a place like this would welcome someone like me with open arms. At first, I thought this was the reflection of this nation’s wealth. This country had great universities, I assumed, because it could afford them. I soon realized that I had it all backwards. America is prosperous, innovative and competitive, American society is dynamic and open, because it built great universities that opened their doors to talent of all backgrounds. And that is, in a nutshell what brings us all together: a belief in the transformative power of a great research university.
We stand at the forefront of those efforts. Georgia Tech is not only a strategic asset for Atlanta and Georgia and an invaluable national resource, but it is also one of the world’s essential innovation hubs, with the potential to create solutions for the many pressing challenges of our time. Let’s design and build a better future, let’s work on our mission of progress and service – together.