Confront life’s ‘grand challenges,’ commencement speaker says
“Your lives are the ultimate grand challenge,” Pitt alumnus and trustee John A. Swanson told Pitt’s 2010 graduates May 2 at the annual commencement exercises. “You in this room, are, first of all, by far the most intelligent group I have ever been able to face, and that makes this a joy. You are also highly qualified to meet these challenges,” said Swanson, who helped revolutionize computer-aided engineering soon after earning his PhD in applied mechanical engineering here in 1966.
In developing the theme for his address Swanson, the founder, former president, CEO and director of ANSYS, drew on a National Academy of Engineering concept, “the grand challenges in engineering.” ANSYS markets the software code that Swanson created for use by the aerospace, automotive, biomedical, manufacturing and electronics industries to simulate how product design will behave in real-work environments.
“I thought, ‘Why should it just be engineers that have grand challenges?’ Because most of the challenges combine engineering and philosophy and religion and education and teaching and everything else,” said Swanson, who is the University’s single largest benefactor, having donated more than $40 million. In 2007, Pitt renamed its engineering school the John A. Swanson School of Engineering in recognition of his generosity.
“A grand challenge is something that you plan for, that you say, ‘I have a problem. I need to do something.’ It’s also something that’s going to be major. It’s going to affect the world — all of the people in the world,” Swanson told graduates, their families and friends in the packed Petersen Events Center. “The solution may or may not be obvious. It may be that you know exactly what needs to be done, but you don’t have the will to do it. That’s a case that I call, ‘You have the way, but the will is weak.’ Or you may have the will, but haven’t the foggiest idea what the way might be. Both of those are grand challenges.”
Among the grand challenges Swanson pointed to was America’s space program in the 1960s, which succeeded in its goal to send humans to the moon within a decade.
He also cited the Salk polio vaccine, developed at Pitt in the 1950s.
“That was a grand challenge. We knew exactly what the problem was. We knew what the desired goal was. We knew what the schedule was — as soon as possible — because many people were dying of polio,” said Swanson, who last year was named to the National Academy of Engineering for contributions to and innovations in engineering, and in 2004 received the American Association of Engineering Societies’ John Fritz Medal, widely considered the highest award in the engineering profession.
“If we focus on the survival of the species, where are the grand challenges? I found just one, and it’s a big one — the problem of nuclear war. Mass annihilation. This has every potential to wipe out our species. It is absolute stupidity to maintain vast archives of nuclear weapons,” Swanson said to vigorous applause.
“First of all, we’re never going to use them. Secondly, who controls them? And if we look at the Gulf of Mexico, accidents will happen … and we do not want an accident to happen here. The way is clear; the will is weak.”
However, even if nuclear weapons were eliminated, war and conflict still would exist, he noted.
“An underlying cause of that, unfortunately, seems to be religion. We almost all worship the same god, but somehow that does not seem to be enough,” Swanson said. “For those of you in philosophy, think about it. Find a way for all of our religions to co-exist. The world is too small for us to be as fragmented as we are.”
Another grand challenge to human survival is maintaining sufficient energy supplies, Swanson said. “Energy is not a big problem. There is lots of energy falling on this Earth every day. The problem is timing, and the problem is location. No one wants to live in the desert, but the energy is there. So we have network problems. We can solve those. It’s a grand challenge. The end is clear. We have the tools. Let’s go and do it,” he said.
Diseases such as bird flu also potentially can threaten human survival. “Because diseases can move back and forth between us, if we are healthy and the animals are not, we are not healthy. So we need to look at a total health system,” Swanson advised.
Other threats include solar storms, the possibility that the Earth’s magnetic poles will reverse and global climate change, he said. “Let me tell you for sure that our climate will change. What we don’t know for sure is which way it’s going. It would be presumptuous to think that we can control the climate,” Swanson said.
“The answer, I believe, is let’s plan on change … not on which change. But let’s not build on flood plains. Let’s get the houses away from the seacoast. Let’s do the incremental things that can be done, so that when the earthquake comes or the hurricane comes, the Earth will not be annihilated, that we can pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go on again.”
Swanson apologized on behalf of his generation for the threat it created to the survival of the nation. “I can talk about this because I am a U.S. citizen. I am proud of it, but I am not necessarily proud of our government,” he said. “A grand challenge is to balance the federal and state budgets. We cannot continue spending more than we earn. I have to apologize for my generation, because what you are facing in the national debt, you and your children, is abominable. You have your hands tied behind your back and we are imposing upon you the sins of the adults.
“So please be a little forgiving, accept the challenge and see if you can dig your way out of the mess that we’ve put you in.”
Swanson said the biggest threat to the United States is cybersecurity. “The Internet has given us access to everything with only a little bit of hacking required to get to some items which are very threatening. We need to solve the cybersecurity problem,” he said.
Similarly, the nation faces the threat of terrorism. “But I would like to quote the distinguished philosopher Pogo: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’ The impact of terror is much greater because of what we do [rather] than what any of our enemies do. And if you have traveled, you know what I am referring to,” Swanson said.
Individuals, too, face grand challenges, Swanson said, offering the new graduates some advice.
“Use time. Use it to invest in your future. Use it to invest in education. This is just the beginning of your education, not the end,” he told the newly minted grads. “Don’t hesitate if someone says it will take a long time. Get started, because the 10 years or the 15 years will go by very quickly. If we start out, the world we see in 10 years will be much improved over the world we see now.”
He also advised: “Find a life partner, and make it work. Be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Be informed. Learn how to get information instead of just raw data. Form opinions. Discuss those opinions. Be curious. Look at the other fields — look at what they are doing versus what you are doing.”
He continued, “Get involved in government. Make sure that you are a part of it and you understand it. Work with society. Being a loner is not a good thing. Have friends. Have neighbors. Talk to them. Work with them. Stay healthy.
“Volunteer. Work with other people. There are needs out there. And support your University. You have received; now is the time to start giving back,” he said.
One last lesson on facing the grand challenge of life, he said, “When troubles come — and they will — a very useful thought is, ‘This too will pass.’ It may hurt, and it may hurt badly. But a week from now, a month from now, it will get better. You have a Pitt education. You are well on your way. Try to make each day a better day. Make the world a little better each day.”
Following Swanson’s address, Pitt conferred on him an honorary Doctor of Science degree.
When he introduced Swanson, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said, “In summarizing his philosophy, John once said, ‘Charitable giving feels good. It’s a happy thing. It’s so much better than just keeping up with the neighbors.’
“That may be true, but your gifts to Pitt have made it possible for our engineering school not only to keep up with its engineering school neighbors, but to surpass them by allowing us to make available cutting-edge facilities, attract and retain world-class faculty and top students, expand innovative industry partnerships and provide educational programs that are second to none.”
Breaking from the custom of awarding only one honorary doctorate at commencement, the University also conferred an honorary science doctorate on Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher, who is stepping down as provost after 16 years in the post to return to the physics faculty.
Pitt awarded approximately 7,000 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees this year at its five campuses. Pitt-Bradford, Pitt-Greensburg, Pitt-Johnstown and Pitt-Titusville hold their own graduation ceremonies.