perhaps the most inspiring graduation address i have ever heard

At the recent graduation ceremony for students from Waikato University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering (& those from its sister Faculty, Computing & Mathematical Sciences), we were privileged to hear an absolutely inspirational address from the recipient of an honorary Doctorate at that ceremony: Dr Gordon Stephenson. And I mean, inspirational! After the event I spoke with Dr Stephenson & asked if he’d be willing to provide the text of his speech, because I believed it deserves the widest possible audience, and he was kind enough to provide me with a copy. (I’ve taken the liberty of adding a hyperlink in a couple of places, for those who may not be familiar with some of the references.)


Chancellor Rt Hon Jim Bolger, Vice chancellor Professor Roy Crawford, academia, distinguished guests, students at all levels, my whanau, everyone.

This really is an extraordinary and totally unexpected honour that you have bestowed upon me. I find it very difficult indeed to adequately express what it means to me.   

When my daughter Janet handed me the letter from the University on Christmas day, she says it is the only occasion she has seen me speechless. I was truly gob-smacked ! So I will just say ‘Thank you’.

It is actually somewhat ironic, because in the late 1940’s, as a returned serviceman, I took a BSc (Agric) at Reading University, England, and passed with a ‘C’ grade.

But life was too full as a student, what with sport, starting an agricultural journal, getting married to a beautiful civil engineer  graduate of London University, living on a small boat, and many other activities better left unsaid, such that the ambition to attain a First Class Honours degree went by the wayside.

I did, however, become infected with the stimulating topic of science. Even as a 10 year-old, I pored over nature magazines. I still have some of them.

But I left university puzzled. I had been taught things which just did not make sense, such as the idea that mountain formation was due to shrinkage of the earth’s surface, while the concept of so-called continental drift was anathema. And the explanations of  heredity were far from complete or even believable.

It got me thinking about ‘truth’ and the realisation that truth is only that which is the current knowledge and thought, and that it is constantly being replaced with new ideas. And where do ‘facts’ tie in with ‘truth’?.

We moved to Waikato in 1960, and I have followed with interest the development of this University from paddocks to a landscaped campus. Your reputation has grown, and you can now boast of being a leader among NZ universities in the particular disciplines you have chosen to develop. Congratulations.

Universities have critical roles in society.

Research is a heavy responsibility. It is actually a huge privilege to be paid to research. You are a repository of knowledge, not only in your libraries and theses, but also in the research-based understanding lying in the minds of academia.

Then there are your teaching responsibilities, hence all these wonderful students hopefully fired by your inspirational lectures. I know I was by some unforgettable tutors.

But there is another responsibility, which I often feel is not adequately addressed. This is the role of a university as the public conscience.

It has long perturbed me that the public battlers and advocates for a better society are almost all lay people or NGO’s, whereas those very issues are probably being studied in depth in this institution.

It takes courage to step out beyond the walls of the campus and into the hurly-burly of controversy. There are noble examples at this University, and they will know to whom I refer, but I’ll mention one from Waikato, the late much-loved Dr Charlotte Wallace.

Besides being an assiduous researcher of snails, she was totally fearless in her environmental advocacy, and greatly admired and respected as a result. She virtually started, decades ago, the South Auckland Conservation Association. She made a difference.

We look to the Universities to be the champions, the leaders, for the big issues facing us. You have the knowledge. Please, make sure it is put to good use.  

I turn now to you graduates of all disciplines and interests.

I was born in 1924 (I can see you all doing some rapid mental calculations). In that year, there were only two billion people on earth.

Now, in this one person’s lifetime, that has more than tripled. There are three people alive now for every one alive then. Picture if that were to happen to you all present here in the world of 2013. It would seem impossible.

So believe me when I say that maybe I can personally appreciate the creaks and groans of poor old mother earth, and the pressures and stresses placed upon the populace and natural systems.

There are the issues such as climate change, peak oil, the health of the oceans, extinctions and the loss of biodiversity, the rush to urbanization, rising sea levels, let alone the forecasted inability of farming to feed the projected ten billion people.

We ignore at our peril the intricate web of millions of species whose interactions create our living conditions. We have a lamentable inability to recognise the implications of exponential growth, and the menace of the bell curve. The downside of that curve will turn round and bite.

These matters are all interconnected, and cry out for solutions that are also interconnected. My generation has failed to find those solutions, or, where they are blindingly obvious, failed even more miserably to implement them.

Many of these issues were faced by Maori some 5-600 years ago. Their previously known world of easily harvested fish and birds suddenly faced the impacts of resource depletion. Their reactions paralleled those that arose centuries or millennia before in many parts of the world.

Their first reaction was war, to safeguard their food supplies and other resources. The other reaction, to their great credit, was to impose upon themselves strict rules of harvest, through such mechanisms as rahui. There are lessons there for humans everywhere.

And so I look to you, our next generation, to whom we dodderers bequeath our one-and-only beautiful and magical earth. In some ways, it matters little the topic you studied here.

You have, I trust, been taught by this University to think, because you will need to use those analytical skills that are so necessary in any field of study, for the massive tasks you face ahead. You have to persuade both the wider population and the decision makers, of the root problems we face. There are doubters galore, both for commercial and political reasons or because of reluctance to face facts.

The centuries-old saying is ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see’. You have an absolutely necessary task ahead, which may seem daunting, and you may react by thinking ‘what can little me do&rs quo;.

However, I say you can make a difference. You will recall the butterfly effect, as expounded by Edward Lorenz, he of the chaos theory. He postulated that the effect of a beat of a butterfly’s wing in the tropics could trigger a hurricane many kilometres away.

I say to you, be that butterfly.

It is a sobering thought that you, we, are each utterly unique, an assembly of atoms never ever seen before. You will each therefore by definition, have abilities that are also unique. To make that ‘difference’ I speak of, you need to develop those abilities, and grow a fire in your belly, a determination to see things through.

Many of our gurus talk of the need to have ambition, but they are usually referring to the ambition to make money. While important, money does not equate satisfaction or contentment. Of its own, neither will it solve the problems you now face.

Nor will you achieve overnight success. It may take years, even decades. You’ll suffer setbacks, but that is in the nature of things, and our world needs stubborn battlers.

You will need to learn the skills of working with, rather than against, and of respecting the right of others to hold opinions that are so divergent from your own that they infuriate you. Anger is no solution. I think Churchill is credited with the saying ‘jaw-jaw is better than war-war’.

Seek friends, make alliances, and above all be positive. So often, even those who you originally felt were opponents, were actually just looking for solutions. Find those solutions.

Many years ago, a truth dawned on me. I had been used to complaining that ‘they’ should ‘do something’. ‘They’ frequently didn’t. I then realised that therefore ‘we’ must do something. Again, ‘we’ sometimes failed, and the clear conclusion was that ‘I’ must get stuck in. If I didn’t, why should someone else ?

Then something magical occurred. My actions suddenly activated the ‘we’, and in some cases, the ‘we’ became a reformed ‘they’. So I say, never be afraid to stick your head above the parapet.

Nor should you be put off by time. May I quote the proposed National Wetland Centre, at Lake Serpentine, south of Ohaupo. It is beginning to take shape, 16 years after planning started. Given maybe two more years, it could be completed.

And another issue took 67 meetings to end up with a solution that was welcomed by all parties. The Waikato Ecological Enhancement Trust was formed. It now puts hundreds of thousands of dollars annually into the wetlands and waters of the Waikato Catchment.

Stick at it !

To date, you have been absorbing, assembling, knowledge. Today, from this moment, your role changes. You have been learners, now, while still seekers, you become teachers. You have been followers, now you must become leaders.

Your collective tasks are frightening in their necessity. I challenge you. Get out there. Don’t be afraid. Be determined. Make sure our planet earth continues to be a place of diversity and beauty we can all truly love and protect. Play your part.

Then, when you reach the age of 80, people will say,’ yes, you made a difference’.

I end with a quote from the inspirational Helen Keller: deaf and blind from early childhood.

I am only one, but still I am one.


I cannot do everything, but still I can do something.

I will not refuse to do something I can do.


Thank you.

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