Home Official News Releases Undergraduate Commencement 2009 Address by President David E. Maxwell

Undergraduate Commencement 2009 Address by President David E. Maxwell

Undergraduate Commencement 2009

Address by President David E. Maxwell

As all of today’s graduates know (if you read emails from the president), at the end of spring break I sent you message inviting you to suggest topics to me for my remarks at Commencement, and I want to begin by thanking the dozens and dozens of you who shared your thoughts, insights, aspirations and fears with me. This is the sixth year that I have issued the invitation to graduating seniors, and — not surprisingly — in the midst of all of the variety of responses there has been a common thematic undercurrent: we’re about to take one of the biggest steps of our lives — how do we know we’re ready for it?  

But this year, as you might expect, in the context of the global financial meltdown and tectonic shifts in the job market, that theme has a very specific focus: are we going to be able to step into the career path toward which we have aspired, and for which we have been preparing for the past 4-6 years?

While I am not foolish enough to try to assure you that you’ll each have a job in your chosen career on Monday morning, I am confident, without reservation, that each of you is prepared to achieve your aspirations, to fulfill your dreams. Let me share with you the reasons for that confidence — some objective and evidence-based, and some perhaps more subjective, but nonetheless, I hope, convincing.

In 2006 and 2007, the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), on whose Board of Directors I serve, commissioned Peter D. Hart Research Associates to conduct survey research on what employers are looking for in college graduates. In total, the researchers interviewed 606 employers, and held an additional three focus group sessions with business executives.

In AAC&U’s report of the research findings, in the appendix of a publication entitled “College Learning for the New Global Century,” they summarized the results with the following rather distressing conclusions:

  • 63% of employers believe that too many recent college graduates do not have the skills they need to succeed in a global economy
  • A majority of those interviewed believe that only half or fewer recent graduates have the skills and knowledge needed to advance or to be promoted in their companies
  • In none of the twelve skills and areas of knowledge tested — from writing to global knowledge to ethical judgment — do a majority of employers rate recent graduates as “very well prepared.”

Now, before you all get too depressed listening to these statements, let me tell you the conclusion that I draw from them, and the reason that I’m sharing them with you — these people obviously haven’t been hiring enough Drake graduates! And I’m not saying that to be self-congratulatory, or to mislead you about the challenges ahead.  

Let me provide you with some evidence for my sincere belief that you — as Drake University graduates — are powerfully and distinctly positioned for eventual success — not only in having meaningful personal lives and serving as responsible global citizens (which ultimately will define who you are in much more important ways than your job title and how much money you make), but in achieving your dreams for your professional careers as well. As you have heard my colleagues and me say during your time at Drake, we consider our Mission Statement to be a promise to our students. Several years ago we created a document entitled the Mission Explication, which identified in some detail the characteristics of a Drake graduate who has realized the promise of that mission. The Drake Curriculum, with its First Year Seminars, Areas of Inquiry, Engaged Citizen Experience, and Capstone Seminars, is the formal structure that underlies Drake’s exceptional learning environment and that helps us — with the engaged and committed efforts of dedicated faculty and staff — to keep the promise of the mission.

I’m going to share with you those skills and areas of knowledge that the employers who took part in AAC&U’s research study identified as critical to professional success (and in which they feel today’s graduates are underprepared), and I am going to connect those findings to the promise of the Drake Curriculum and/or the Mission Explication. Again, my purpose in doing this is to give you concrete evidence that — assuming that you have done all that you can to take advantage of this rich learning environment — you are those people whom employers are looking for, and whom they’re having a hard time finding.

The first area, identified by 82% of the respondents, was:

  • Concepts and new developments in science and technology (82%): Drake students will gain sufficient understanding of the theory and experimental basis of the life/behavioral and physical sciences to read and comprehend scientific writings designed for an interested, knowledgeable audience
  • Teamwork skills and the ability to collaborate with others in diverse group settings: (76%): Drake University emphasizes collaborative learning, structuring curricular and co-curricular experiences in a manner that students learn how the knowledge and skills of individuals are brought together to achieve collective goals. . . [Drake graduates] synthesize and focus the ideas and efforts of a group in the solution of problems. . .[Drake graduates] value the knowledge, perspectives and input of others…
  • The ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings through internships or other hands-on experience: (73%): Drake University provides a rich array of undergraduate and graduate research and experiential learning opportunities. . . [Drake graduates] have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to new situations
  • The ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing (73%): Speak and write effectively.
  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills (73%): Think critically with an ability to conduct a reasoned analysis and evaluation of arguments. . . 
  • Global issues and developments and their implications for the future (72%): Responsible global citizenship — Drake graduates understand that their individual knowledge and skills must be connected to the contributions of all cultures to the human experience.  
  • The ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information from multiple sources (70%): Invites connections among several areas of study or disciplines.
  • The ability to be innovative and think creatively (70%): [Drake graduates] push the boundaries of current knowledge and current practice in their fields. . . . Pursue new knowledge with intellectual curiosity, rigor, honesty, and accountability
  • The ability to solve complex problems (64%): [Drake graduates] understand that important issues rarely have one, simple solution, and are able to manage the complexity of the challenges that face us.
  • The ability to work with numbers and understand statistics (60%): Drake students will learn to reason with the symbols and components of mathematical languages as well as effectively use the principles that underlie these operations.
  • The role of the United States in the world (60%): [Drake graduates] understand the impact that our nation and its cultures have on the larger global community.
  • A sense of integrity and ethics (56%): [Drake graduates] hold themselves to high standards of integrity and accountability
  • Cultural values and traditions in America and other countries (53%): [Drake graduates] understand the historical and social contexts that inform their own development. . . [Drake graduates] demonstrate an understanding of the historical and cultural foundations of a society other than their own

It’s also important to note that we have evidence that the promise that is articulated in the Mission Explication and in the Drake Curriculum is being met. Numerous studies ranging from National Survey of Student Engagement, the Drake Student Survey, and a variety of other research studies in which we participate demonstrate without a doubt that our students have achieved the mission outcomes — the skills, abilities and knowledge that I’ve just enumerated.

What these correlations — between those skills and abilities that employers are looking for and the evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of Drake’s exceptional learning environment — what they tell us is that the world obviously needs more Drake graduates. They tell me that if you’ve kept your side of the bargain, if you’ve done all that you can to deserve the privilege of a Drake education, you are the people that businesses, organizations, governments, school systems and associations are looking for. Perhaps all the more important, you are the people who will take on the challenges that confront us, who will take on the responsibilities of engaged global citizenship, who will live your lives in a way that adds meaning to the lives of others.

What causes the greatest anxiety, I suspect, is that the world has changed under your feet while you’ve been in college. A great number of you, when you arrived as first-year students at Drake, knew (or thought you knew) exactly what you wanted to do upon graduation, and the data about job placement rates and other indicators suggested a seamless transition from college to the first steps of a career within hours of graduation. The catastrophic shifts in the financial environment have undermined the legitimacy of those expectations for many, and I certainly do not want to minimize in any way the worry and uncertainty that creates. They’re real, and I do wish that you were graduating into a more stable and predictable world. But I’ll also tell you that the phrase “predictable world” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

The only reliable prediction is that things will always be different, the only constant is change, and whatever assumptions you had about the world when you entered Drake University, you’ve probably noticed that some of them aren’t valid anymore. That’s simply the way the world works — nothing stands still, and everything changes — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but it’s always — always — changing. I can tell you that the past 4-5 years of hyper-inflated job market were not normal; they were yet another manifestation of the unregulated and irresponsible behaviors that dominated the financial world.  

In my nearly four decades in higher education, the thousands of students whom I’ve known more often than not did not have a first job in their chosen career field (many of them weren’t even quite sure what that field was), and virtually all of them have gone on to the successful and rewarding careers, to meaningful and rich lives. These days, the average number of job changes during a lifetime is between 8-10, with half of them coming before the age of 40. The only constant is change.

For those of you who were actually listening to me on Saturday night of Welcome Weekend when you arrived at Drake, and who have a really good memory, you might remember that I emphasized the following:

Quoting Tom Friedman in “The World is Flat,” I said,


The reality, then, is the world is a bit different than you expected it to be when you graduated, so what are you going to do to adapt? I believe that I’ve already provided you with some concrete evidence that you’ve got the intellectual skills, the knowledge, the habits of mind to succeed. How are you going to adapt to the new realities, how are you going to anticipate future change, how are you going to make change happen? I can’t answer that for you, because the right answers are specific to each one of you.  

Aside from the objective evidence,  I can tell you on a subjective level that I have full confidence that you’re ready to tackle the challenges ahead of you, that you’re ready to adapt, because in recent weeks I’ve heard very powerful things from many of you—both in conversations and in the emails that you’ve sent me. You’ve told me that you cannot believe how much you’ve learned in your time at Drake — not just academic or professional knowledge and skills, but how much you’ve learned about the world, about people, about yourselves. You’ve told me that the faculty and staff of this University with whom you have worked have become your models for a life lived with meaning, value and impact. You’ve told me that you’ve grown, matured in ways that you could not have imagined, and that your time at Drake has enabled you to articulate great dreams for who you will be and what you will do. I cannot tell you how impressed I am with the thoughtfulness, the introspection, the self-knowledge and the generosity of spirit that I have heard in your comments. In essence, you’ve told me how much you’ve  changed  — changed in ways that you find meaningful, so I know that you understand the importance and the value of change.

As the president of Drake, these conversations have been very moving and very rewarding, because they tell me that we’ve kept our promise to you. And they tell me that you have great promise — as people, as professionals, and as engaged global citizens.


You’re leaving here as Drake graduates, and — as the AAC&U surveys indicate — there apparently aren’t enough of you.  I can’t promise you it will be easy, but I can tell you — on the basis of our conversations with thousands of alumni — that in 50 years you will be telling my successor (unless I haven’t retired yet and you’re telling me) that it’s been wonderful, and that your dreams came true. Just remember what I told you (with Tom Friedman’s help): be adaptable. Congratulations, best wishes — we’re very, very proud of you!