Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

May 12, 2016


Provost Patricia E. Beeson congratulates 2016 commencement speaker Vinton G. Cerf


“Progress is not made unless someone is to some degree dissatisfied with the status quo,” said Vinton G. Cerf, widely known as one of the “fathers of the internet,” in a brief address to Pitt’s 2016 commencement convocation on May 1.

Chancellor Patrick Gallagher, in awarding an honorary Doctor of Science degree to Cerf, noted that his work “changed the very fabric of the world we live in.”

The white-bearded Cerf, now vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google, joked that he might be “a dinosaur” today, holding up a model of what looked like the Dippy statue in front of the Carnegie Museums. But he urged the new graduates to embrace discontent and risk as engines of change. He said he has been praising the value of dissatisfaction with one’s current state since he spoke as valedictorian of his high school in 1961.

“You can afford to take risks because you have time to recover” from failure, he said. “Moreover, risk is not fatal.”

He recalled two instances in which he resisted taking a large risk, only to succumb in the end, for the betterment of his own life and the future of the internet.

After he completed his PhD dissertation at UCLA in 1972, he was asked to join the faculty of Stanford, where he had been a guest lecturer earlier. “I turned them down, thinking I had little to offer the undergraduate students there,” Cerf said. Stanford faculty, however, “would not take no for an answer.” Faculty member Robert E. Kahn in particular recruited him persistently, and Cerf acquiesced. Together, he and Kahn then worked on the design of the internet, beginning in 1974.
After seven years at Stanford, Kahn had moved on to the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency and he asked Cerf to join him there to continue designing the internet. “I thought, if I mess this up, all my friends will know, because this is such a visible project. So I refused.” Later, he relented. “Of course, this was an opportunity of a lifetime.”

The rest is online history: With Kahn (now chairman, CEO and president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives), Cerf invented the way computers from disparate companies could communicate across a network.

“It took many years of patient and persistent work with many colleagues to make it work,” he noted, adding: “I do not suggest that the class of 2016 should leave this august university in an unhappy state of dissatisfaction” — at least not without acting upon it. Instead, he urged the graduates to work for change and improved conditions locally to globally.

“While you’re young, you can afford to take risks,” Cerf concluded. “When forced into choices, you can take the risky road.

“Patience and persistence count in a world that may resist change. Set your sights to make a difference … Who knows? You may even change the world.”

—Marty Levine 

Leave a Reply