Chancellor Tong Shijun at Commencement 2024

tong 1 2024
May 19 2024

Distinguished guests, dear colleagues, dear students, and their loved ones,

Please allow me to express my warmest congratulations to all the students of the class of 2024 for the happy conclusion of your four years as NYU Shanghai undergraduate students, and my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has devoted love, care, and endless efforts to our students!

In less than two weeks, I will have been the Chancellor of NYU Shanghai for four years. So please allow me to take the liberty to turn this occasion, this once-a-year occasion for a university chancellor, into a once-every-four-year opportunity, in order to express my gratitude to you for what I have hopefully learned from you over the past four years.

I learned a lot from you because you are likely a cohort of students who have had the richest learning experiences, particularly in terms of the locations of learning, in the world history of higher education.

Like other college students, you did your learning both on campus and off campus; like other NYU students, you did your learning both on your home campus and on other campuses; like other NYU Shanghai students, you did your learning both in Shanghai and in other parts of the country. Unlike any other students in the past four years, however, you did your learning in spaces that are not only real but also virtual, not only shared but also isolated, not only designed for studying but also designed for sleeping, and not only at Century Avenue but also at Qiantan, a region previously called 三林塘. I’m very happy to have had the privilege of being together with you in almost all these spaces, and I thank you very much for this, indeed.

I am particularly happy to have learned a lot from you when you showed in various ways your happy times not only in other parts of the city, but also in other parts of the world. I must confess that I’m a little jealous of you, not because of the museums you visited, the foods you enjoyed, the events you participated in, and the friends you met in so many countries and cities that I have not been able to visit, but because of your ability to connect these “dots” into a “line” that leads to the next stage of your personal development in so many imaginative and creative ways. I should also confess that sometimes I enjoyed seeing you torn between those wonderful options that you know you cannot take all at the same time.

Of course I was keener to know how you see the learning opportunities here at NYU Shanghai and why you particularly appreciate some of the courses you attended; I was particularly happy when you told me that you appreciated these courses not because there you could get higher scores, nor because there your prior interests were met more sufficiently, but because you found these courses so cool and so classic at the same time, and you thought they both matched and transcended the image of a good university in your mind.

I would like to express a special kind of gratitude to you what I learned when or after I taught a course, gave a talk, joined an afternoon tea, or made a speech like this one. Thank you very much for refusing to agree or to pretend agreeing with those positions or arguments of mine that I myself may come to see as too ambiguous or too weak later on.

I thank you very much, by the way, also for providing important data supporting my argument for the permanent human superiority vis-à-vis AI: the human interest in prompting relevant questions.

There are a lot more opportunities I have or could have learnt from you, but I am not going to list all these opportunities now. I want to emphasize the special role you play in telling me what I should do and what I should not by citing only one more example. Several months ago, on my way to school every morning I used to spend 10 minutes to bike on a beautiful pedestrian path along the Suchow Creek during fine days. But one day I stopped doing that, and took another route to bike instead, for suddenly I realized that I would have difficulties explaining to my grandson of 4 why grandpa biked on a path that is exclusively for walking.

In a similar way, my dear students, you play a special role in guiding me: I often need to think how to explain to you why I chose to do this instead of that.

What I said above about myself, as you may guess, is to prepare for what I would like to advise you today, my dear students of 2024. Yes, this is what I would like to say to you most sincerely at this moment: please keep in mind that from today on you will be seen by all undergraduate college students and those younger as someone to be imitated or followed; from today on, that is to say, you will often need to explain to anybody who has not yet attended a commencement ceremony like this why you do this but not that. Whether you will be able to give your explanations all the way along your life from now on is, in my view, the most important game you will play in the future. The annual football competition, or the annual “American football” competition, between Harvard and Yale, is described to be “the only game that matters” by a book I happened to see recently in my favorite place to visit in New York, the Strand Bookstore. This is an interesting book but I did not buy it, because in my mind, the game in which we win if and only if we can give our explanations about our morally significant choices to those who look to us for examples calmly, comfortably and confidently, is rather the only game that matters.

With the metaphor of “game”, I would like now to conclude my speech by wishing all of you, my dear students of 2024, to be inspired by the person who will give this year’s NYU Shanghai Commencement Guest Speech today, the person who is respected and admired not only for what he did during those incredible matches, but very often also for what he said after these matches. It’s impossible to imagine at present what you guys will most charmingly say in the future before the audience applauding your victories in “the only game that matters” that I just mentioned; but I, as a person who became an NYU community member almost at the same time as you did, would hope that you, when asked how you have managed to win that game, could all say this: I did this because I was once a player of a team called NYU Shanghai.

Thank you very much for your attention.