The following is a commencement address given by T.J. Barlow Professor of Management Asghar Zardkoohi to the 2009 graduating class of Mays EMBAs on May 2 in The Woodlands, Texas.
A long time ago, actually exactly 32 years ago this month, there was an announcement that Milton Friedman, the well-known economist (a Nobel Laureate in economics and my hero) was going to deliver the commencement talk at my school. I was graduating that year after six years of hard graduate work. On the way to the commencement ceremonies, while holding on to my graduation cap for the fear of losing it to the wind, I ran into one of my favorite professors, Charlie Goetz. I remember asking Professor Goetz two questions: the first was about his speculation of what Professor Friedman was going to talk about at the ceremonies, and the second was about my confusion between the terms “graduation” and “commencement,” as I had never spent any time thinking about the distinction. I knew one thing, I was graduating, and that was the ending of graduate school, not beginning.
T.J. Barlow Professor of Management Asghar Zardkoohi (at left, with 2009 EMBA graduate Kenneth Mercado) was selected by the students of the graduating class as the recipient of the 2009 Executive MBA Program Teaching Excellence Award.
On the first question, we both had the wrong guess: we thought Professor Friedman was going to talk about stagflation, as the economy then was suffering from stagnation (that is a heavy dose of recession) and inflation simultaneously. Instead, Professor Friedman talked about the torch of knowledge and how WE, the graduates, had the responsibility to advance the torch (like in a relay race) and pass it on to the next generation.
On the second question about my confusion between graduation and commencement, Professor Goetz told me, and I paraphrase: “commencement is the more appropriate of the two terms. What you think you have learned so far in the graduate school is HOW to go about learning and HOW to go about thinking; what questions to ask, and how to go about analyzing information. The real learning starts now, when you are on your own.” I sort of felt let down. I never told my children this story, for the fear that they would be discouraged to start college.
I actually didn’t need to keep the information from them, as my eldest son heard the same idea first hand from someone else. It was 2001 when my eldest son was choosing between two medical schools. One of them was Johns Hopkins. The prospective students who had already been accepted into the school were invited to visit the school to make up their mind whether this is where they would be spending the next four years of their lives. Some parents were with their son or daughter at the orientation; I was with my son. As part of the orientation, participants were invited to hear one of the well-known medical professors. In his remarks the professor said, and I paraphrase, “Half of what we will teach you will be proven to be irrelevant information within the next 10 years, and you’ll forget the remaining half within the next five years or so.”
He continued by adding, “and you should be happy about what happens to each half.” The professor stopped talking, and there was a big silence in the room. I believe the professor’s silence was intentional to make sure everybody got the point. Very quietly my son asked me, “What is he talking about?”
After 32 years of practice as an academician, I believe my professor, Charlie Goetz, and my son’s professor of medicine were right. Learning continues and knowledge evolves: the procedure that works today becomes obsolete as it is replaced by a safer and more effective procedure. The knowledge that is applied today will be supplanted by new knowledge that is superior. The organizational structure that works today becomes obsolete as a new and superior structure will be discovered that will prove to be more efficient.
I hope that what you have learned during the last two years is how to look at things, what questions to ask, how to go about thinking about organizational, economic, and social phenomena and to always, always question the status quo. Try to find a better way of doing things, as the ideas we have taught you may soon become irrelevant, and new ideas that are superior will replace them. As Professor Friedman said 32 years ago at my commencement ceremonies, “like a runner in a relay race, YOU with the advanced knowledge have the responsibility to advance it further and pass it on.”
The future relies on you and those you’ll teach to find alternatives that work better than the ones learned in our classes. There is no graduation from learning and innovating; there is only commencement.
Congratulations for this commencement.