Speaking at a Graduate and Professional Convocation ceremony that was moved outdoors due to the latest COVID surge, Bill Boulding pointed to the pandemic and the inextricably intertwined polarization as he delivered a call-to-action for Duke’s new graduate and professional students on Wednesday.
“This is your time,” said Boulding, dean of the Fuqua School of Business and the J.B. Fuqua Professor. “We need you to provide the leadership that unifies rather than divides. Whether it’s a crisis of health, climate change, racial equity and justice, food security, or cybersecurity, we need you. Whether you are studying the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, business, law, or medicine, you are being given the gift of education, which, if used wisely, can be a gift of leadership to society.”
In particular, Boulding implored students to strive to build diverse, inclusive teams at Duke and beyond instead of focusing on individual brilliance.
“Duke’s goal is not to produce the smartest person in the room,” he said. “That’s not enough, because a great team beats that great individual.” [Read the text of Boulding’s speech | Watch the convocation]
Wednesday’s convocation marked the official start of the academic year. The Graduate School is welcoming the largest cohort in its history—more than 1,050 Ph.D. and master’s students—after a dip last year due to COVID disruptions.
New Ph.D. students
New master's students
Of the new students are women
Of the new students are international
Countries are represented among this year's new students
Of the new domestic students are from underrepresented racial/ethnic backgrounds
It is an absolute privilege to be here with you today. I fear that the privilege is all mine though, and it may not be your privilege. And I want to explain that. When [Graduate School Dean] Paula [McClain] gave me this invitation, the directions were surprisingly sparse. Basically it was “a few words here, do whatever you want, but keep it under 15 minutes.” That was the one thing that was crystal clear. I think she may have heard about one of my previous speeches, and I want to tell you about that one.
When you are dean, you give a lot of talks, and you hope that when you talk you connect with your audience, that whatever you have to say is something people want to hear, that they feel it’s worth their time to be there. But the reality is, when you give all these talks, there are days when you just don’t have it.
I was giving a talk, prepandemic, and as I was looking out at my audience, I saw some people who were giving me some cues that suggested that this might not be my day. It started with [crosses his arms], and then they started to slump down, and then heads started to roll back, and I was pretty sure I heard light snoring. And so I just thought, “Ok, it’s not my day. What can I do?”
And then, the really interesting thing about when you give a talk is you go out and mingle. In a world where you were not afraid of COVID, you go out and mingle with the very people you spoke to and bored to tears. So after I gave this spell-binding talk, I’m out mingling, and I hear someone behind me say the following:
“If I only had 15 minutes to live, I’d like to spend it listening to Bill Boulding talk.”
I was stunned. Here I thought it was not my day, but in fact, this was THE BEST DAY EVER. My head was growing as I think about what I really had done that day. I wasn’t boring; I was mesmerizing.
Unfortunately this person had not completed their full thought, which was: “If I only had 15 minutes to live, I’d like to spend it listening to Bill Boulding talk, because it would feel like a lifetime.”
I tell you this story for two reasons. 1) fair warning that you have a lifetime ahead of you and 2) we are back to live and in person—it’s not like Zoom where you can hit the mute button, or direct message. Remember we can hear what you’re saying if we’re standing behind you.
Honestly, it feels presumptuous of me to give you—all surely smarter than me—advice about your academic journey, but if I could tell you only one thing, it would be this:
Education is best played as a team sport. While all of you are surely brilliant with remarkable achievements already in hand to earn your place in the Duke community, the reality is that a great team will always beat a great individual. It’s not enough to be the smartest person in the room—you will lose to a great team. By the way, as we lived our lives on Zoom, it finally came true for all of us that we were the smartest person in the room. It wasn’t so great, was it? In contrast, it’s incredibly fulfilling to be here on campus and part of a great team.
Make no mistake, Duke is a great team. Great teams require diversity, and you will find people wildly different from yourself at Duke—with different academic interests, different backgrounds, different experiences and different ideas. Make it a point to connect with the richness of diversity that Duke has to offer. We know that a diverse team beats a homogeneous team when one important condition is met: everybody feels like they belong and are valued members of the team. It’s not enough to be in the game; are you on the team?
That leads me to my second piece of advice: please take responsibility for making each other belong. More than that, can you create belonging that lasts a lifetime? Don’t think of your programs as a transaction, rather you have signed up for a lifetime membership in the Duke community. As the Eagles sing in Hotel California, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
As you ponder the combination of difference and belonging, please recognize that you will have to deal with the reality of extreme levels of polarization in the world. Polarization creates homogeneity—people are allowed on the team if they think the same way, act the same, and so on—polarization is the enemy of great teams.
If you don’t think polarization is a profound issue in society, look no further than the COVID crisis, which is actually three concurrent crises that have produced a fourth crisis due to polarization. We are facing the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes. Depending on who and where you are, there is enormous economic hardship. There is a crisis of marginalization of different populations around the world and this marginalization has led to highly differential health and economic outcomes.
If ever there was a time to unify to attack a common foe and advance the common good, this would be it. And yet, every response to the COVID crisis has become political and polarizing, producing a fourth dimension to the crisis: a crisis of leadership that has left us confused, scared, anxious, and alone at the very moment when we need a sense of belonging and confidence in a plan that will bring us to a better place.
This is your time. We need you to provide the leadership that unifies rather than divides. Whether it’s a crisis of health, climate change, racial equity and justice, food security, or cybersecurity, we need you. Whether you are studying the sciences, the social sciences, the humanities, business, law, or medicine, you are being given the gift of education, which, if used wisely, can be a gift of leadership to society.
In particular, as the poet Yeats said: “talent perceives differences; genius, unity.” There are plenty of talented people trying to use difference as a wedge that furthers polarization; talent is not enough, we need genius. We need you to draw out not only your own potential to make a positive difference in the world, but to draw out the potential in others.
I believe the genius that produces unity requires triple threat capability on your part. Yes, you have to be smart in the traditional sense of a high IQ. You need rigorous, analytic thinking that makes sense of a complicated world. But Duke’s goal is not to produce the smartest person in the room. That’s not enough, because a great team beats that great individual. You need to have the ability to work effectively with others and be on a great team. To do that you need emotional intelligence, or a high EQ. But high IQ and high EQ are not enough. People can be high IQ and EQ, but be manipulative and selfish. You may know such people, and they definitely do not offer a sustainable leadership model. The third capability that genius requires is DQ, or decency quotient. Decency means genuinely caring for, valuing, and respecting others. Decency means elevating others and bringing out their best. Decency means having the humility to recognize that no matter how smart you are, you still have much to learn from others. If you can combine high IQ, EQ, and DQ, that’s the genius Duke—and more importantly, the world—needs.
If you can become the geniuses we need, in return, I believe you will receive two gifts of immeasurable value. The first is happiness, and by that I don’t mean that life becomes a nonstop party or is all fun and games. Rather, you have the opportunity to achieve true happiness, as Aristotle defined it, which is “making full use of your talents along the lines of excellence.” Imagine what you can achieve if you are surrounded by people who have the decency to bring out your best.
The second gift you will receive is friendship, not of the transactional variety, but rather true and sustained friendship, which, according to Aristotle, can only happen with “good people, similar in virtue.”
As you embark on your lifetime journey with Duke, you will find yourselves surrounded by people wildly different from yourself in ways that will bring you true happiness, and yet similar in ways that will offer you lasting friendship. Make the most of your Duke journey, and I wish each and every one of you the decency that enables belonging, happiness and friendship. As Jean-Luc Picard says, “Make it so.”
Thank you and you now get your lives back!