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May 1, 2003

Commencement 2003

Pitt’s Class of 2003 — the first to hold graduation ceremonies at the Petersen Events Center — heard a short list of “universal truths that may be worth sharing” from speaker Paul H. O’Neill, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and former president and CEO of Alcoa.

In a commencement address striking for its brevity, titled “New Directions: The Opportunity Ahead,” O’Neill talked about unrealized human potential and the value of leadership in developing it.

“I believe, and I think I could demonstrate it to you, that human beings everywhere have the potential to succeed greatly — every human being,” O’Neill told the new Pitt degree-earners April 27.

His world travels have convinced him that society needs “to move with much greater speed than we have moved so far as a world civilization in achieving what we know is possible for every human being,” he said.

“To put us in the context of where we are today, we can win war with munitions but we can only win the peace with ideas,” he said. No matter where graduates choose to live and work, “You’re now empowered, as a consequence of the investment you’ve made, with ideas and a capacity to learn, and I hope you also feel an obligation to make a difference.”

James H. Cassing, chief University marshal and president of the University Senate, opened the commencement convocation, followed by the traditional procession of faculty, deans and administrative officials in academic regalia.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg then welcomed the 12,000-plus faculty, graduates, family and friends of the University in attendance and introduced O’Neill.

“During an important chapter in his life, our honored speaker took one of those classic Pittsburgh industries, the manufacture of aluminum, to new heights,” Nordenberg said. He noted that during O’Neill’s 13 years as Alcoa’s CEO, the company’s stock value increased by 800 percent and worker safety was emphasized.

Nordenberg further cited O’Neill’s role in civic engagement, building the regional economy, and national government service, including serving “with distinction and with candor” as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.

“He has stood beside the weak and made them stronger, and stood among the privileged and made them more aware of their responsibilities,” Nordenberg said of O’Neill.

One of the pleasures of being Pitt’s chancellor, Nordenberg said, is having “the opportunity to bestow the highest honor on an individual who embodies the things that the University stands for: intellectual curiosity, high achievement, humanitarian commitment and engagement in the joys of a fully realized life.”

O’Neill was awarded an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree by Nordenberg and Pitt Board of Trustees Chair William S. Dietrich II, who said O’Neill demonstrated straight-forward leadership that has helped to better people’s lives. “Your innovation, ambition, passion for social justice and ability to inspire others to embrace your noble vision … is combined with a practical sense of what it means to do the right thing,” Dietrich said.

Citing O’Neill’s role as defender of workers’ safety at Alcoa, and his commitment to meeting health care needs both in this country and abroad, Dietrich said, “Your life’s work has brought honor to the task and mission of leadership to our nation’s business sector, its government and to the city of Pittsburgh.”

In his address, O’Neill said, “On the off-chance that you will remember something beyond the sunny day, let me tell you things that are meaningful to me. I believe with leadership everything is possible. And without leadership nothing is possible.”

He said a leader needs to provide a stable system that promotes certainty, and have a daring vision of what could be.

O’Neill, who this March was appointed a University director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC) and a member of the executive committee of the UPMC board, lambasted a health care system where “one in every 14 people in the United States who goes into an acute medical facility gets an infection they didn’t bring with them.”

Referring to the concept of the theoretical limit, O’Neill said, “We have enough science and knowledge and understanding of process that at the theoretical limit no one should get an infection when they go into a hospital. This is not only theoretically possible but is practically possible, and we’re going to do it here in Pittsburgh with 42 hospitals to demonstrate to the rest of the world this concept that we can reduce the cost of health and medical care in this country by 50 percent and simultaneously improve the outcomes,” he said to loud audience applause.

The sign of a great organization, O’Neill continued, is when its people can respond in the affirmative to three questions: Are you treated with decency and respect every day by everyone you encounter? Are you given the things you need — equipment, tools, ideas and training — to make a contribution to the organization that gives meaning to your own life? and Did someone at the organization acknowledge what you did?

“With those three ideas and with leadership, I do believe that we can accomplish whatever we can imagine.” He told the graduates they had “the obligation of creating organizations … so that the people that encounter you can say yes to those three questions every day. And then you will have succeeded greatly.”

Following O’Neill’s remarks, degrees were conferred on graduates from the 16 degree-granting schools at the Pittsburgh campus.

Roars of approval followed each school’s conferral of degrees, including a confetti and silly-string eruption — a tradition at Pitt graduation exercises — from graduates of several health sciences schools.

Following the extended demonstration by new pharmacy graduates, Nordenberg quipped to the audience, “Keep that in mind the next time you have a prescription filled!”

Provost James V. Maher presided over individual recognition of doctorate recipients, who were named by their dean or associate dean and invited to the podium for “hooding,” the ceremonial recognition of academic achievement.

Nordenberg thanked those who contributed to the success of the graduates, asking family members, faculty and staff members to stand and be recognized. He also acknowledged those 2003 graduates who are Pitt employees and read a congratulatory letter to the graduates from President George W. Bush.

Cynthia G. Kinnan, newly minted Arts and Sciences graduate and Marshall scholar, spoke on behalf of the students, and Eva Tansky Blum, president of the Pitt Alumni Association, welcomed the graduates into the ranks of Pitt’s 200,000-plus alumni.

Stephen Andrew Esper, Class of 2003, led the congregation in the singing of the national anthem and the Alma Mater.

Musical accompaniment was provided by the University of Pittsburgh Symphonic Band, under the baton of Jack R. Anderson, director of bands.

Pitt awarded some 6,800 undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees this year, including 379 doctorates.

Pitt also will award about 1,000 degrees to students at the regional campuses in Bradford, Greensburg, Johnstown and Titusville, which hold their own ceremonies.

—Peter Hart

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