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USC Phi Beta Kappa Induction

Remarks by Steven B. Sample
President, University of Southern California
March 28, 2007

What a great privilege it is for me to be inducted as an honorary member of Phi Beta Kappa! I happened to look up a list of other honorary members of this august fraternity. You have now put me in company with people I greatly admire: Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, Harry Truman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, Helen Keller, Justice Louis Brandeis, Eudora Welty, and Woodrow Wilson. Seeing me appear among their number, some of them, I imagine – wherever they be – are raising an eyebrow. I can only hope to approximate their contributions to the creative and intellectual vibrancy of this nation. I can only hope that my modest efforts, in my small corner of the world, have had a positive effect on some of the people with whom I’ve come in contact.

It’s somewhat dazzling to realize that at this moment I stand before some of the brightest minds amongst our undergraduate student body. You are the elect. You are the chosen ones amongst many accomplished students in the liberal arts and sciences at USC. You are the crème de la crème.

I don’t know if you grasp just how great a privilege it is to be Phi Beta Kappa. Let me try to bring it home to you.

Of the world’s population, only a small fraction – it’s estimated at only 1.6 percent – get to attend college. Of these few, only about two-tenths of 1 percent attend a premier, selective college or university.

So already you know that merely by virtue of attending USC you are in a tiny, but privileged, minority of the world’s population.

Now consider this: Of the 4,000 or so colleges and universities in this nation, less than one-tenth of these have Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Only 300 of these meet the rigorous academic standards that are required by Phi Beta Kappa for establishing a chapter. Then add this to the equation: This small number of Phi Beta Kappa chapters typically elects fewer than 5 percent of its degree candidates for membership. And now, consider this: You’re in!! You’re one of them!

Everywhere you go for the rest of your life, your designation as Phi Beta Kappa will be one of your calling cards. When someone writes about you in the newspaper, he’ll put a comma after your name, and then use this phrase: “who graduated from USC Phi Beta Kappa.”

You can put it on your résumé. In fact you should put it on your résumé. I don’t encourage you to mention it in conversation at a dinner party. That would be crass. And, although we are located very near Hollywood (a veritable hub of crassness), and although at USC we have a lot to be proud of, we Trojans try hard not to be crass.

Your membership in Phi Beta Kappa is a signal to everyone that you have accomplished something that very few people in the world have accomplished.

Those three Greek letters, Phi Beta Kappa, are code. They mean: You are smart. And what is more, you are ambitious, inquisitive, creative, motivated, hard-working, well-rounded, and passionate.

I can imagine that for some of you, this idea of being extraordinary, the crème de la crème, makes you uneasy. After all, we live in a democratic society. Each of us has internalized the great line: “All men are created equal.”

We believe – and have had that belief substantiated again and again – that with hard work, the right opportunities, and the right incentives, anyone can reach the stars.

I’m a Midwesterner by birth. You may know what we Midwesterners think about pretension. We routinely go around popping the overinflated balloons of pretension. We take a lot of pleasure in that particular activity!

So it may feel a bit scratchy, like a rough tag on our shirt collar, to acknowledge that our induction into Phi Beta Kappa places us in an elite society. As Americans, we are always a little suspect of elitism. (However, I must admit that as president of this university, I never tire of telling people that because of our academic excellence and selectivity, we are truly an elite research university.)

I would not want you to brag. I would not want you to feel superior, to be a snob. But I do want you to realize this: Being Phi Beta Kappa is one of the highest, most prized, most hard-won honors you will ever possess. Be proud of it. You’ve earned it.

Your world, your nation, your community, your family, need smart people. And, truth be told, there aren’t enough smart people to go around. Because of the needs, the challenges, the problems, and the opportunities, society has an almost insatiable hunger for smart, motivated, creative people.

In the 1950s when Adlai Stevenson was running for president of the United States, a woman who was an enthusiastic supporter came up to him and said, “Mr. Stevenson, every thinking person will be voting for you.” Stevenson replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”

We desperately need more thinking people. And that is exactly what you are. So embrace it; celebrate it; and use it for the betterment of all mankind.

You are gifted. But remember that your gifts are not your own. “To whom much is given,” it says in the Bible, “much shall be required.” Thus, what you are blessed with must be shared.

I hope you will always desire, with your whole heart, to serve your fellow man. I hope you will use your knowledge and talents to make the world a better place, or to make your corner of the world a better place.

As thinking persons, and now as members of a society dedicated to liberal learning, you have had practice in developing intellectual agility and in expanding your mind. This is a habit that should be lifelong for each of you.

In view of this, let me reinforce your pursuit of mental agility by offering some advice, based on my own experience, about how to think.

First, learn to think gray.

Thinking gray is an extraordinarily uncommon characteristic. It’s not easy to develop. But it is one of the most important skills you can acquire.

Most people are binary and instant in their judgments. They immediately categorize things as good or bad, true or false, black or white, friend or foe.

But as you journey through life, you will need to be able to see the shades of gray inherent in a given situation in order to make wise decisions as to how to proceed.

The essence of thinking gray is this: Don’t form an opinion about an important matter until you’ve heard all the relevant facts and arguments, or until circumstances force you to form an opinion without recourse to all the facts (which happens occasionally, but much less frequently than one might imagine). F. Scott Fitzgerald once described something similar to thinking gray when he observed that the test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing thoughts at the same time while still retaining the ability to function.

A second way of thinking that I should like to recommend is what I call thinking free – free, that is, from all prior restraints. Thinking free is a close cousin to thinking gray. It goes beyond “thinking outside the box” or “brainstorming.” Thinking free takes that process of inventiveness to the next level.

The key to thinking free is first to allow your mind to contemplate really outrageous ideas, and only subsequently apply the constraints of practicality, practicability, legality, cost, time, and ethics.

As with thinking gray, thinking free is an unnatural act. It therefore requires enormous effort. It also requires the suppression of a completely natural urge to immediately dismiss novel and seemingly ridiculous ideas. If they can do it at all, most people can bear to truly think free only for a matter of minutes. The process exhausts the mind.

My favorite way to stimulate this kind of thinking free is to force myself to contemplate absolutely outrageous and impossible ways to address a particular problem.

For example, in 1967 I was struggling to invent a new way to control a dishwasher, in order to replace the ubiquitous (and troublesome) clock-motor timer. At one point I lay on the floor and forced myself to imagine hay bales, elephants, planets, ladybugs, sofas, microbes, newspapers, hydroelectric dams, French horns, electrons and trees, each in turn and in various combinations controlling a dishwasher.

This exercise was, to say the least, extremely difficult and disconcerting, so much so that I could do it for only 10 minutes at a time. But after a few such sessions I suddenly envisioned an almost complete circuit diagram for a digital electronic control system for a home appliance. This system was unlike anything I or others had ever contemplated before. As a consequence my colleagues and I were able to establish a very strong patent position in this area of technology. My invention was eventually employed in hundreds of millions of home appliances around the world.

As improbable as it might sound, this same approach to thinking free can lead to novel ways of addressing some of the many challenges you will confront, no matter what your field or vocation, may be. The key is to break free for just a few minutes from the incredibly tight constraints that rule our thinking almost all of the time, even when we dream or engage in so-called free association.

As I said a moment ago, I assume that all of you during your time at USC have honed your ability to think critically and to imagine audaciously. I encourage you to keep at it: Think gray, don’t jump to immediate judgment; and think free, allow your mind to play with really crazy ideas and solutions.

My words thus far have been directed principally to our students. But I don’t want to neglect the people here today who have nurtured, shepherded, mentored, and inspired our students along their way.

First, I should like to commend our dedicated faculty. The primary relationship at a university is that between an individual faculty member and an individual student. During the course of my 16 years as president of this university, I have talked with thousands of alumni about their experience at USC. In these conversations no one has ever said to me, “You know what I love and remember most keenly about alma mater? The faculty,” that is, the faculty collectively.

Rather, an alum will typically say to me, “You know what I really remember? Professor Jones. He taught this particular course, and was just wonderful. He changed my life, and helped me move in a new direction.”

It almost always comes down to an individual student being affected by an individual faculty member. The faculty who are here today have had without question a profound impact on their students’ lives. For the dedication and passion of my faculty colleagues, I am deeply grateful.

And to the parents who are here today: You who watched that first precocious chess game, that first recital of a poem, the perfect recitation of the alphabet at a remarkably early age, you parents who responded with sincere interest and amazing calm when the first specimens were brought into the house from the pond or from the wet dirt, who introduced stimulating conversation topics over dinner, who watched that ambitious – perhaps overly ambitious – science-fair project come together and hold up . . . To all of you parents, I say, “Well done!” Your efforts have paid off.

Let me close with some final injunctions to our students.

You are the clerisy, the educated class. Perhaps you’re even on your way to being – dare I say it? – the intelligentsia. But more than that, your parents, your teachers, your advisors, your mentors, and your president have tried to nurture you to be – to use a simple Yiddish word – a mensch, a good human being possessing integrity and honor.

In USC’s Role and Mission statement, we articulate that holistic view in this way: “We strive constantly for excellence in teaching knowledge and skills to our students, while at the same time helping them to acquire wisdom and insight, love of truth and beauty, moral discernment, understanding of self, and respect and appreciation for others.”

Let me accentuate one of those lofty goals, “to acquire wisdom and insight.”

Phi Beta Kappa: Those are the first letters of three Greek words that form the society’s motto. And that motto is, in English: “Love of wisdom, the guide of life.”

You are without question individuals of uncommon intelligence. As you go forward, I wish for you that quality without which intelligence counts for naught: and that is wisdom, and the love of wisdom.

Congratulations on achieving this momentous distinction. It is indeed a badge of honor that you will wear, and that will serve you well, for the remainder of your days.

Thank you also for the gift of my honorary membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and thank you for allowing me to share this special event with you.

You have truly made us proud, and in return the entire Trojan Family is proud of you.