Monday, April 30, 2007

Commencement Speech of Reynaldo B. Vea

Here is a copy of the commencement speech given by Dr. Reynaldo B. Vea during the 96th general commencement excercises on April 22 at the UP DILIMAN amphitheater.

“Stay grateful – to the Filipino people who helped see you through school; to the beloved alma mater which will help see you through your career; and to your parents and loved ones who have seen you and will continue to see you through life.”

complete text:

Reynaldo B. Vea, Ph.D.
Commencement Speech
University of the Philippines at Diliman
April 22, 2007

A thousand life and career trajectories; a common origin

From hereon out you will all be flying off in career and life trajectories as many as there are of you here this afternoon. If a commencement speaker had to prescribe formulae for success without lapsing into platitudes, I say I would not know how to do that. And this is because you each would have a different measure of success. Is it how big a fortune I will be able to amass? Is it how comfortable and quiet a life I will be able to secure? Is it how beautiful a family I will be able to raise? Is it how much happiness and fulfillment I will be able to derive from my work and creation? Is it how full a life of the mind I will be able to live? Is it how well I will be able to be of service to my countrymen, to humanity, to God? Or is it some combination of the above?

While I cannot offer formulae, I can, however, share some lessons and attempt to impart perspective. With your indulgence I will show one specific trajectory, namely, mine. I will also paint you a picture of the world today as I see it. I hope these will help you plot your own trajectory

Dimensions of a UP education: the maelstrom and the gauntlet

When I entered UP in 1969, a war was raging in a neighboring country, Vietnam. A so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, then not yet known to be bloody, was in full swing in another neighboring country, bamboo-curtained China. The battlecry “make love not war” reverberated in US campuses. Barricades were once again sprouting up in the storied streets of Paris. Bearded, cigar-chomping romantic figures were leading Latin American revolutions.

Closer to home, the intellectual ferment and the academic debates between the so-called progressives and reactionaries in UP were rising fever pitch to the plane of action, helped along by the increasingly violent actions of a nascent dictatorship and by now-iconic images of the times that were clearly “a-changing”, as Bob Dylan puts it,

The hottest bed of clamors for change was UP, and it was hard not to be swept into the maelstrom. Stark poverty in rural and urban communities tugged at still-properly-placed young hearts. Blatant corruption in high places tested the limits of forbearance. Brazen violation of civil liberties provoked the loss of political meekness. And wave upon wave of mass actions made it easy to find a way to get involved.

This was the gust of historical wind that buffeted several batches of students of UP and other schools who, coming out of high school, mistakenly thought that their lives would follow the straight and narrow as had those who had gone before them. They were not passive elements, to be sure. They huffed and they puffed and got tossed around, too. They made history as much as experienced it.

Although one could not find it in the curriculum, this experience on the streets I consider to be a part of my UP education. Students of other schools could likewise claim it to be part of their education. The classroom simply spilled onto the street. And vice-versa. Revisiting the past and examining the present in the classrooms led to attempts at the reshaping of the future on the streets. Dramatic events on the streets in turn enlivened and enriched what otherwise would have been staid, less-than-relevant classroom discourse. It was simply an expression of UP education at the time. It taught me politics and the historical process like nothing could.

These lessons indeed came at a very steep price, including lives lost, lives of close friends even. We are proud of what we did. The regret would have been if we had not answered the call of the times. But it is nothing to crow about. A previous generation suffered a shooting war. My own mother, here with us this afternoon, was on the Death March for 3 days from Cabcaben to Balanga, Bataan. It is also something not to be wished upon any other generation. We certainly did not wish tumultuous times upon our own kids when they were in College. Young people should be able to concentrate on scholarly pursuit to better serve the nation and humanity later.

Was I glad and am I ever grateful that this great University, which has seen its fair share of rebellious students over the decades, took me back into its fold after my 20-month incarceration. This afforded me a chance to experience the other dimensions of University life and to finish what I had set out to do years before.

Academic life at the College of Engineering was tough. First there was the gauntlet of departmental exams in the engineering sciences that one had to go through. Then came the professional courses in which the faculty basically gave no quarters in upholding standards. What was “so UP” about it all, I believe, was the time spent in studying the underlying principles of and in deriving formulae to represent physical phenomena. This deep understanding enabled one to work from first principles when there were no sample problems and solutions to bank on. It has always served me well as a practicing engineer and as an academic.

Drinking from the fireman’s hose; standing at the frontiers of knowledge

Nothing boosts the trajectory of an academic career like a graduate degree. My UP credentials and the good work of UP alumni who studied before me helped me get admitted to the best engineering schools in the world. My faculty position at UP also certainly helped me obtain the scholarships I needed to afford my studies.

Getting an education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is, as they say, “like drinking from a fireman’s hose!” One is simply bombarded with too much content. These educational materials all come from a body of knowledge that people working across continents and across time have assembled. When Isaac Newton said figuratively that he was able to see as far as he did because he was standing on the “shoulders of giants,” he was referring to this fund of knowledge. Eventually, in one’s own field, one gets to appreciate the shape and form of this fund of knowledge and to understand the process by which it grows. Eventually, too, one gets to intimately see the envelope of this body of knowledge beyond which nobody knows anything anymore. To an academic no experience could be more exhilarating. To be given a chance to push this envelope even in the minutest degree felt almost like a privilege.

At Cal Berkeley, I was able to make a bigger but still humble contribution. While a master’s degree may in general require only the solution of a nontrivial problem, which leads to a minor contribution, a doctoral degree requires original work, which by its very nature should be more significant. As a newly-minted PhD, one can, for a second, stand at the frontiers of knowledge, arms akimbo, knowing that he knows more about a particular subject than anybody else in the world, past and present.

The generation of new knowledge: the need for it and the freedom to do it

I stand in awe of the capability that MIT and UC Berkeley have built over the years in generating new knowledge and new technologies. I marvel at how they have wielded the principles of academic freedom, collegiality and tenure as instruments to further individual and institutional excellence.

The fact that the best US schools were so far ahead of us in this regard did not bother me any. The heights they had attained simply felt so out of reach of Philippine schools.

What bothered me a lot in the early 90’s, though, was how the schools in neighboring countries had charged so far ahead of us in this respect while we were still reeling from the debilitating effects of a long period of misrule. And these schools have sustained their momentum to the present, despite the hiccup of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, while we are still bogged down and unable to get our politics right.

It is important for us to learn how to generate and manage knowledge because knowledge is the coin of present-day economies.

The field of chemistry bloomed in the 19th century. Multi-awarded writer John Horgan of the Scientific American states that by the 1930’s Linus Pauling had shown that all chemical reactions could be explained in terms of quantum mechanics. Yet a lot has to be learned in applied chemistry. Physics was the science of the 20th century. Stephen Hawking declared in his book A Brief History of Time that physics is on the verge of putting together a unified theory of the basic forces of nature that could unlock the secrets of the origins of the universe. There are still basic questions to be answered and the field of applied physics is wide, wide open. According to UC Berkeley biologist Gunther Stent, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA in 1953 has left three unanswered questions for biology: how life began, how a single fertilized egg develops into a multicellular organism and how the central nervous system processes information. Getting answers to these basic questions should keep scientists very busy in the 21st century, which many say will be the century of biology.

Out of what some people term as the “explosion” in basic and applied scientific research have been developed technologies that have become the enablers of global businesses and national economies. As early as 1957, MIT economist Robert Solow calculated and showed that technology is responsible for about 80% of growth. New York University’s Professor Lev notes that in the manufacturing economy of the 1970’s the market-to-book ratio of Standard and Poor’s 500 corporations ran at about 1:1. At the turn of the century it was at about 6:1. High flyers like Microsoft at one point came in at about 25:1. The books were not showing value that the markets knew about! This value that goes unreported in traditional accounting methods is attributed to so-called intellectual capital, some of it ingrained in corporate culture and much of it embedded in technology. According to Fortune magazine, when the Pentium chip came out, ounce for ounce, it was about 40 times more expensive than gold. It was not due to the material because the chip was mainly just plain silicon, one of the most abundant materials on earth. Rather, it was the technology and the knowledge embodied in the chip that made it so valuable.

We have upon us a knowledge-based economy and in such an economy nothing could be of greater strategic value to a country than the capability to generate new knowledge and technologies. In his book Building Wealth Lester Thurow of the Sloan School of Management states that one of the more robust conclusions of economics is the high social returns of R & D spending, which for the U.S. has been estimated at 66%.

If we are not content to be the modern-day equivalents of “hewers of wood and bearers of water”, then not having R & D capability is not an option. I hope that some of you out there would feel challenged enough to be part of such a big endeavor to develop R & D capability. It could be a good career trajectory.

It is a good time to be a graduate, a tough time to be “nationalistic”

As surely as the intangible world of knowledge has dramatically expanded so has the physical world rapidly shrunk.

Transportation, information and communications technologies have so battered down the constraints of time and space that business operations on a global scale have become commonplace. Businesses naturally seek places where it is cheapest to produce and markets where it generates the most profits. If one company would not do it then some other competitor company will. If one country would not find a way to participate in the interest of its own people then some other competitor country will. The very logic of the situation makes globalization inexorable. One can stem the tide no more than one can keep this venerable University from turning 100 next year.

But there are concerns. A basic one is that there is yet to develop a global political and regulatory system to tame such a galloping economic phenomenon. In an earlier period, technological developments had enabled local and regional economies to become national in scale. By and large, the development of national governments has been able to cope with such economic upscaling.

Global companies have to decide which part of their operations shall be done in-house and which shall be outsourced, which shall be done onshore and which offshore. They look upon the world as their source of manpower and of services. On the flipside, a professional or a service firm in any country can look at the entire world as the source of job opportunities. It can be said that the market for human resources and for professional services has by and large gone global. The McKinsey Global Institute, for one, estimates that 52 % of all engineering jobs are globally resourceable. The corresponding figure for accounting is 31 %.

What the emergence of a global knowledge-based economy means for young people like you is that the possibilities for employment and for the establishment of businesses are vast. There are more kinds of businesses to engage in, businesses the exciting models for some of which are waiting to be devised by you. There are more types of knowledge-based jobs to do, jobs for which UP graduates are eminently prepared. There are a lot more choices of places to work and live in, places which are rendered more accessible by modern transport systems and in which loneliness is mitigated by the vanishing cost of communications. The world is figuratively at your doorsteps. Under such a situation, it is as extremely hard to follow, as it is to give, advice that you should be “nationalistic” by staying in the Philippines.

The hot button and the cold advice

Now, that is a hot button.

Policy makers and administrators of the Republic are rightfully concerned about a “brain drain.” If health and IT professionals, engineers, accountants, airline pilots and other professionals leave in droves, who will be left to serve Philippine needs? In the engineering sector we are worried enough to want a count of engineers still in the country and to project how many will still be here in the years to come given the present graduation and offshore hiring rates. There is after all a projection by McKinsey Global Institute that if current hiring rates persist there will be a “constraint” in the supply of suitable or qualified young – meaning 7 years or less out of school - engineers globally by the year 2015.

For UP administrators there is double the concern because tax money went into its students’ education. Furthermore, it is always assumed that it is part of UP’s mission to contribute to national development.

It is not an option for UP and other schools to tailor fit their curricula solely to local needs because Filipino professionals who stay in the Philippines must also be trained to international standards. This is because Philippine and Philippine-based companies have global markets and connections as well. Furthermore, our own people deserve no less than world-class professional services. And what would a UP education be if it were not at the highest standards? There simply cannot be a dichotomy of curricular standards.

Albeit highly unlikely, the best thing that could happen is for everyone to stay home permanently and share the burden in the awesome task of developing Philippine society so that it becomes a player to reckon with on the global stage and so that eventually the life chances of the ordinary Filipinos in the Philippines do not become stunted or stymied.

However, I say that it isn’t fair to ask everyone to permanently stay and work in the country. But neither is it fair for us, UP alumni, not to give back to the country and the University that have given us so much.

To those already itching to grab global opportunities, I say work in the country for a number of years after graduation – heal the sick, help design some urban area, create some fine works of art, teach the children, do multimedia, help build roads and bridges, do research on some social issue, engage in some entrepreneurial activities, work in a bank, show an example of good local governance, do some lawyering, some marketing etc. I have a feeling that this is already happening anyway. And when you eventually find yourselves on distant shores, make giving back part of your trajectory. The ways are many, some of which you yourselves should be able to think of. Share your expertise. Share your resources. Help build up the University’s endowment fund. Come back and work here again. Invest in the Philippine economy.

The world is much changed from the one we knew way back when. And in ways that many, including us, would never have imagined. Dominoes never toppled, and Vietnam now competes for foreign direct investments. China lifted its bamboo-curtain and rises quickly not on wings of ideology but of market economics. The mighty-looking Soviet Union simply crumbled under its own weight. Che Guevara remains a popular, romantic figure but only innocuously on t-shirts and posters. Only a few years ago there was talk of a “Pacific Century.” But then came the 1997 financial crisis and the dramatic rise of India.

As each of you mull over your individual opportunities you no doubt also think about how the Philippines can get it right. How can there be a national consensus and united effort to bring the country back to the top of the heap? Each generation of young men and women faces its own challenges. And the challenges for each generation change with its growing influence through the years. The time of being allowed to decry without being held to resolve problems soon comes to pass. UP graduates are eventually called upon to give of themselves. One finds that it is just as hard, if not more so, to make a cusp with one’s hands in which to cradle this society as it is to clench a fist in times of danger. But give of ourselves and give back we must.

Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates 2 years ago to “Stay hungry!” Although I am certainly no Steve Jobs, I say to you, “Stay grateful – to the Filipino people who helped see you through school; to the beloved alma mater which will help see you through your career; and to your parents and loved ones who have seen you and will continue to see you through life.”

Stay grateful.

Congratulations and thank you very much!

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