Vice Chancellor Jeffrey Lehman at Commencement 2024

jeff banner 2024 commencement
May 19 2024

Members of the Class of 2024.

Today is a day for celebration. After a challenging four years of undergraduate life, you are going out into a world in which the pandemic that was once all we could think about has now faded from view.

To be sure, the world you are entering is not what we would call an easy world. It features wars, and it features conflicts that might not be wars but are nonetheless challenging people’s ability to live with hope and optimism. But my main message this afternoon is this:  During your time at NYU Shanghai, you have developed all of the tools you will need to surmount every one of these challenges.

I want to begin by referring you to a work by Liu Cixin, the science fiction writer who has become a truly global phenomenon. Last year, a television version of his novel, The Three Body Problem, was released here in China. Two months ago, a second, English-language television version of the novel, was released on Netflix.

But I am not going to talk about The Three Body Problem. Instead I will talk about To Hold Up The Sky, a collection of ten short stories that Liu Cixin published during your second month as NYU Shanghai students. In particular, I want to talk about the seventh story, entitled Ode to Joy.

In that story, Liu describes an imaginary evening when the United Nations was going to close down for good. You see, the UN had stopped pursuing its original mission – to advance the interests of all humanity. Instead it had become just another forum where nations struggled with one another. So on this evening, the heads of state of all 200 member countries went to New York to participate in a ceremony marking the end of the UN.

But then, during the ceremony, something amazing happened. A giant Mirror appeared and filled the sky, reflecting the earth. The Mirror spoke to the heads of state and used light from the stars to play a concert. The light-music was beautiful, and it reminded the heads of state how things that look huge to us here on earth are but tiny specks when seen from a distance.

The 200 heads of state were deeply moved. They all joined together to sing the Ode to Joy from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which celebrates the moment when all people are brothers and sisters. The Mirror broadcast their song through the entire universe. And the heads of state decided not to end the UN after all.

In the introduction to the book, Liu Cixin describes his motivation. He wants us to adopt the perspective of the universe. From that perspective, we humans form a single “collective unit, rather than an assembly of different parts divided by ethnicity and nation.” Science fiction can help to remind us of this great cosmopolitan truth.

It is not a fantasy to suggest that you, the NYU Shanghai Class of 2024, have the capacity, each in your own individual ways, to be for other people what Liu Cixin’s Mirror was for his heads of state. During this past year the United States Secretary of Commerce, Gina Raimondo, and the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, each spoke with a group of NYU Shanghai students. And afterwards they each talked about how moved they had been by the conversation, about how important it is for students from different countries to come together in the way that all of you have.

Your NYU Shanghai experience has given you a unique perspective. 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. That experience has given you special powers.

But this brings me to my second point. You see, you must not be complacent about the good that you can do. Six years ago, Professor Paul Romer, who taught GPS at NYU Shanghai back in 2013 and went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics, 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 2024, 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 be the Mirrors that can help others to see the world in healthy and constructive new ways.

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.