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

March 8, 2007

Pitt past, future highlighted at honors convocation

Speakers at the University’s honors convocation marked Pitt’s 220th anniversary with a look into its past as well as its future.

The convocation honored academic awardees; student leadership award winners and study abroad scholarship winners; faculty awardees, including recipients of the Chancellor’s awards for distinguished public service, distinguished research and distinguished teaching and emeriti awards; staff awardees for distinguished service, and distinguished alumni fellows.

“It’s the lot of humans individually and collectively to struggle to build a better life and to resist the destructive side of our individual and collective personalities,” Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor James V. Maher said as he acknowledged the long tradition represented by the medieval academic garb worn for the occasion — a link to the universities “which struggled to define themselves as the European world emerged from the Dark Ages.

“For most of the last thousand years, Western society has drawn great strength in its struggle from the work of its universities. For almost a quarter of those thousand years, the University of Pittsburgh has contributed to the struggle,” he said, noting that the intellectual work done at Pitt continues to better the human condition “both in material ways and through the generosity of spirit that accompanies true intellectual curiosity and attainment.”

The gathering not only affirms the importance of the honorees’ academic work and their commitment to the betterment of the world, but also serves as an inspiration to potential future honorees, Maher told the group of several hundred who gathered in the Carnegie Music Hall for the Feb. 23 event.

To celebrate Pitt’s anniversary, rather than inviting the customary speaker from outside the University, Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Pitt Rhodes scholar Daniel Armanios shared the keynote spotlight.

“It is a time,” Nordenberg said, “not only to examine the present and to envision what lies ahead. It also is a time to celebrate our roots.”

Looking back to the 1780s, Nordenberg drew upon several dismal early assessments of the city as a center for immorality and idleness. “A government official, temporarily posted here, noted in his diary that ‘There are in the town four attorneys and two doctors … but not a priest of any persuasion, nor church, nor chapel; so that they are likely to be damned, without the benefit of clergy. … The place, I believe, will never be very considerable,’” Nordenberg quoted.

In contrast, University founder Hugh Henry Brackenridge saw something different in Pittsburgh and in its potential, Nordenberg noted. “As interesting as his positive counterpoints to the much bleaker assessments of his peers might be, what really distinguished Mr. Brackenridge had less to do with his upbeat take on the community in which he lived and more to do with his remarkable ability to see what that community could become. And, so, in looking at the humble settlement that surrounded him in the mid-1780s, he declared: ‘This town must in future times be a place of great manufactory. Indeed, the greatest on the continent, or perhaps in the world.’ Many decades later, as is well known, Pittsburgh rose to meet that dimension of the Brackenridge vision — becoming a world center of manufacturing might,” Nordenberg said.

In addition, Brackenridge saw the value of Pittsburgh as a seat of education, the chancellor said. “His goal ‘to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians and statesmen equal to any in the confederacy,’ though we might now express it more expansively, essentially remains our goal today,” Nordenberg said.

Commenting on Brackenridge’s ability to dream big and to advance his dreams, Nordenberg said Pitt “remains both the product of those dreams and their perpetual fulfillment,” adding that the University’s mission is tied to the pursuit of dreams. “It is an institution that not only stimulates and nurtures our aspirations but positions us to achieve them.

“Who could possibly have foreseen, 220 years ago, that the Cathedral of Learning would have sprung from the muck and mire about which the contemporaries of Hugh Henry Brackenridge were inclined to complain? And when I ask that question, of course, I am referring not just to the Cathedral as a building but to everything that our ‘academic skyscraper’ has come to represent,” the chancellor said, citing a litany of achievements by Pitt faculty and graduates whose dreams changed the world.

Pitt’s noted faculty achievers over the years include astronomer Samuel Pierpont Langley, whose success with the world’s first flights in heavier than air machines paved the way for the Wright brothers’ manned flights; former electrical engineering chair Reginald Fessenden, who transmitted the first voice and music by radio in 1906; the developers of the Salk polio vaccine; Peter Safar, considered to be the father of CPR and the founder of the science of critical care medicine, and Thomas Starzl’s teams who developed surgical techniques and drug therapies for organ transplantation.

Nordenberg also cited several Pitt graduates whom he said have changed the world: alumnus and former trustee Herb Boyer, whose gene splicing work ultimately led to the development of the nation’s biotechnology industry; 2003 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Paul Lauterbur, who developed the scientific foundation for magnetic resonance imaging, and African activist Wangari Maathai, whose work on advancing sustainable development, women’s rights and human rights won her the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

“The truly extraordinary triumphs forged by these people of Pitt are our legacy,” Nordenberg said. “To build effectively on the impressive foundation they have bequeathed to us is our almost sacred trust. And we have many strengths upon which to draw in building our future — an ever brighter future — together. We are fortunate to be a part of an institution with such a noble mission. Everyone connected to this University is contributing to the development of human potential, to the enhancement of human knowledge, to the deepening of human understandings and, in a broad range of ways, to the advancement of the greater good,” the chancellor said.

“Our record of recent successes is, of course, a tribute to the commitment and creativity of tens of thousands of people who have worked hard to fuel our momentum and are determined to do their part to ensure that we continue to pick up speed,” he said, as he applauded the work of this year’s honorees and at the same time looked toward the future.

“As we think about the vast reservoir of still-untapped potential remaining in this room and how that potential might be applied to the challenges that exist in the world outside this building, it is difficult not to be excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. It is a great time to be at Pitt, and it is a great time to be from Pitt, and I want to thank you all for what you have done to help make it that way,” he said.

Pitt senior Daniel Armanios may be a prime example of the potential yet to be developed. Selected for both a Marshall and a Rhodes scholarship, he accepted the Rhodes in order to study management research and dryland science and management at the University of Oxford.

Citing the examples of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, Armanios said the pair “inspire us to directly seek change” although the way requires pain and sacrifice.

“When we look at today’s news in the Middle East, it can often be very disheartening and hinder peace activism in the Middle East and North Africa. Hezbollah has again captured prisoners from northern Israel and has again blocked the streets of Beirut; Israel has again entered into Lebanon after a six-year hiatus; Iraq is again embroiled in sectarian violence,” the Rhodes scholar said.

“With such ongoing tragedies all over the world and even domestically, as Hurricane Katrina sadly reminded us, I would be lying if I did not wish I was indifferent because it is easier to be so. Such events truly bring to light the fact that caring comes at a very real emotional, mental and even spiritual price. This is why public service is called inconvenient: It requires the difficult action we fearfully call sacrifice against the powerful nameless being we kindly call status quo,” Armanios said.

Citing his own family’s sacrifices in immigrating to America, he called upon his listeners to devote themselves to the good of future generations. “In the middle of the night, my grandmother took her two young sons and fled Abu Diab Ghraib, a small suburb of Qena in Upper Egypt, so they could have a better life in Cairo. Without this remarkably courageous and selfless act from one woman in the 1950s, my father would have never reached the unattainable, and America, for me, would have been a distant dream. My father would later come to this country with exactly $198 in his pocket. Now, he is a college professor and the head of the NASA Consortium in Georgia. My mother followed him from Egypt and was pregnant with my sister when she went through her doctoral qualifying exams. She later became a Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellow, the only international fellowship for women pursuing aerospace sciences. Now, she is the director of the women in engineering program at Georgia Tech, a college professor and a former finalist for Atlanta Woman of the Year in Technology,” he said.

“They made their sacrifices for a single dream: better opportunities for their unborn children, my sister Laura and me. They had the faith to continue a race in which they knew they were miles behind so their unknown children could start on the same line as everyone else. I strive every day to have that same faith for my own unborn children,” Armanios said.

He cited the experiences of Pitt students whose perseverance likewise has been an inspiration. “Aristides Papapetropoulos never saw himself going to college when he was working as a carpenter in Greece with a high school education. Six years later and multiple transatlantic journeys, he is now a master’s student in Manchester, U.K., with dreams of building bridges adjoining the many Greek isles.

“Brandon Gilbert was a star football player at nearby Carrick High School. Now, the first from his family to graduate from a four-year college, he is tackling an engineering career he never envisioned while a provisional admit four years ago.

“From her South African village, Mamothena ‘Carol’ Mothupi never thought life would bring her to the United States. Now, just like the great Nelson Mandela, the man her scholarship enshrines, she’s a youthful face of hope for her country.

“Bahdua ‘Reuben’ Sirleaf survived rebel gunfire to arrive at refugee camps on the Liberian border. Through remarkable inner strength and an even more devoted grandmother, he is now an aspiring health information manager using computers he saw for the first time when he was 16,” Armanios said, recounting the tales of fellow students he counts as friends.

“These are the people and the stories we will remember. These are the stories the University of Pittsburgh helped make. These are the legacies 220 years helped create, diverse individuals overcoming immense odds and becoming great change-agents,” he said.

“Any university can give you the laws of thermodynamics, the mechanics of economic growth or an analysis of the works of William Shakespeare. Only at a school that prides itself in giving the general community the chance to raise their lot in life with the powerful tool of an education will you find true diversity,” Armanios said, adding that Pitt and its students are positioned to produce further change.

“Whether it is hunger, education, development or AIDS, we have the tools to alleviate these problems. Whichever direction you wish to choose, whichever problems you wish to face, you can take control of that issue now. Just like Gandhi and King, we no longer need to wait to implement the great deeds of change.

“The lessons learned through life give us each our own intimate annals of history. This is what makes life worth living and experiencing, being able to etch our own name in our own books and take pride in that book when it closes, no matter how small or large the audience. I hope we can all feel satisfaction in our books when they close because there was often much pain and sacrifice to write the pages of those still-open books. We must leave nothing regretfully unwritten, nothing wanting revision and nothing uninspiring progress.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Leave a Reply