Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman at Commencement 2023

Jeff at graduation 2023
May 22 2023

Members of the Class of 2023.

Today is a day for celebration. After a challenging four years of undergraduate education, you are going out into a renewed, more hopeful world.

I would like this afternoon to share two modest suggestions that might, together, be of some assistance as you greet the surprises that await you in the next chapters of your lives.

My first suggestion is that you continuously expand your capacities for understanding and for innovation by reading literature recommended to you by people you love. 

Let me share a personal example. Before my mother passed away in 2019, she suggested I read a book called Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt.

My mother had been born to Irish Catholic parents in New York City. Frank McCourt had been born to Irish Catholic parents in New York City two years after my mother. While my mother grew up in New York, McCourt’s family moved back to Ireland when he was four years old, and that is where he spent his childhood. Angela’s Ashes is McCourt’s memoir of those childhood years. He did not write it until he was in his 60’s. And the book earned the Pulitzer Prize for biography and autobiography.

Angela’s Ashes is heavy with poverty, alcoholism, depression, disease, and death. But it is also light with songs and jokes, stories, religious faith, and community support. Reading that book transported me into a world that I had never experienced first-hand. But my mother’s worldview had definitely been shaped by her Irish heritage, and the book gave me a new appreciation for that worldview, and for my mother herself.

After spending his childhood in Limerick, Ireland, Frank McCourt came back to the United States and studied at NYU. He spent thirty years teaching English before he wrote Angela’s Ashes, and he went on to write another memoir called ’Tis, in which he discussed the challenges he had faced as an NYU student. 

McCourt had been older and poorer than most of his NYU classmates. In ’Tis, he talks about how self-conscious he had been speaking English with an Irish accent. He talks about how self-conscious he felt having been raised in a different culture from his American classmates.

On his graduation day, Frank McCourt knew that NYU had changed him. The classes he had taken, the books he had read, and most of all the classmates he had gotten to know. They had changed him so much that he would be writing books about his experience three decades later.

Today, on your graduation day, I am confident that your NYU Shanghai experience has changed each of you. The classes you took. The books you read. And most importantly the classmates you got to know who had grown up in different cultures from the one you grew up in.

Looking to the future, I encourage you to build on those changes with more and more books that open your minds to worlds you have never experienced directly, and that deepen your understanding of people you love.

My second suggestion builds on an idea that has been well described by Professor Paul Romer, who taught GPS at NYU Shanghai back in 2013 and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. 

Five years ago, Professor Romer wrote a blog post in which he talked about the difference between complacent optimism (believing that good things will happen even if you don’t do anything) and conditional optimism (believing that if you do the work, then good things can happen). 

The blog post was about climate change, and Professor Romer argued that the right kinds of social policies can motivate people to do the work to innovate in ways that are beneficial instead of harmful. But I think his discussion of the power of conditional optimism suggests a useful attitude towards all of life. It reminds us that we have the agency to innovate, and it reinforces the hope that our innovation can be a force for good.

Conditional optimism is, after all, the attitude that leads scientists to keep discovering cures for deadly diseases. 

Conditional optimism is, after all, the attitude that leads diplomats to help very different countries to cooperate and benefit together, even when their interests are in some ways competitive with one another.

Conditional optimism is, after all, the attitude that leads societies to believe we will be able to use generative AI as a tool for creativity and innovation, and we will be able to develop the social institutions we need to protect our societies against the harms that could ensue if people abuse such a powerful tool.

Members of the NYU Shanghai Class of 2023, as you embark on lives of worth and purpose, lives of service to a world that desperately needs you, let me conclude by sharing a few hopes that we, your teachers, hold for you:

May you enjoy the special pleasures of craft — the private satisfaction of doing a task as well as it can be done.

May you enjoy the special pleasures of profession — the added satisfaction of knowing that your efforts promote a larger public good.

May you be blessed with good luck, and also with the wisdom to appreciate when you have been lucky rather than skillful.

May you find ways to help others under circumstances where they cannot possibly know that you have done so.

May you be patient, and gentle, and tolerant, without becoming smug, self-satisfied, or arrogant.

May you always be able to confess ignorance, doubt, vulnerability, and uncertainty.

May you build long and loving relationships with people whom you respect.

May you know enough bad weather that you never take sunshine for granted, and enough good weather that your faith in the coming of spring is never shaken.

May you be able to travel frequently beyond the places that are comfortable and familiar, so that your appreciation for the miraculous diversity of life grows ever stronger.

And may your steps lead you often back to Shanghai. Back to Pudong. Back to the New Bund. For you will always be members of the NYU Shanghai family. And we will always be happy to welcome you home.