Keynote Address by Wanda Austin

Dean Staudt, President Rich, Chairman Leiter, Chairman Lovelace, President-elect Matheny, Trustees, Board of Governors, faculty, distinguished guests, family members, and degree candidates, it is an honor and a privilege for me to be here with you today to celebrate this milestone achievement and this momentous leadership transition as my friend, Michael Rich, begins a new chapter.

I have to say, nobody warned me that you also produce poet laureates. Luke and Claire, that was absolutely awesome. I salute you.

Before I begin my prepared remarks, I would like to say a sincere thank you to Michael. He started as a summer intern and rose through the ranks to lead the RAND Corporation and take it to new heights. My career paralleled Michael's as I became the CEO of the other FFRDC down the street, the Aerospace Corporation, after I started there as an entry-level engineer.

Michael and I faced many challenges together. We scratched our heads and never admitted defeat. We simply agreed that we had to be more innovative and try again another day.

I learned many valuable lessons from Michael, and I learned a lot about him from reading the book of his father's life, Ben Rich, father of the Skunk Works.

So it is in Michael's DNA to do hard things and make it look easy. But the nugget that I received from Michael that struck a chord and that I carry with me everywhere is the message about the risks inherent in Truth Decay.

Michael, thank you for your leadership, thank you for your friendship. You, like your father, are an American hero.

Graduates, you have made a permanent mark on the Pardee RAND Graduate School and on society that cannot ever be erased.

Your commitment to being a future leader, to discovering and developing solutions to the world's most pressing public policy challenges, in the classical tradition of excellence and purity of purpose, will have an impact that will last forever.

Graduation is an end and a beginning, a closing of one chapter and the opening of the next. You worked hard to get here, and the transformation that has occurred within you has set you on the path to a phenomenal future.

The faculty takes pride in what you have accomplished. Your family and friends are thrilled to see what you have already achieved. But I know, and you know, that you have only just begun. This graduation serves as a launchpad for what you will do next. You are limited only by your own vision and aspiration for your personal and professional ambitions.

As leaders—for there is no doubt that you are already leaders—you will hold the world accountable for what we are and what we do, because you have a focus not only on what is needed today, but what we will need well into the future. As you embark on this next chapter in your life, I am confident that you are fully prepared to make your mark on society.

Our world is being re-created and re-imagined like never before, and at an astonishing pace. Now you have opportunity to set the direction and ultimate goals for serving and changing our society. Without a doubt, you are going out into a world that needs you. Our world is changing and we are searching for that sense of awe, wonder, and achievement.

Research, innovation, and determination can help us to achieve our goals. Inclusivity and collaboration can take us there. But we must use our powers of thought leadership to enhance our world, to overcome the challenges we now face, and to utilise your skills and expertise going forward.

Our sense of confidence and stability are being challenged every day. Even though we are keenly aware of the significance of science and engineering for our health and prosperity, respect for—and acceptance of—fact-based science and engineering is not guaranteed.

Unfortunately, you have witnessed and experienced the effects of atrocious acts in unlikely places. Against the youngest among us in schools, against all of us in places of worship, government buildings, movie theaters, grocery stores, airports, concerts, and all manner of public venues. Not to mention that you are still living through a global pandemic and bearing witness to a war.

I wish I could declare to you that these issues and incidents are all in the past. But in fact we all know that this is our present, and unfortunately for some time these challenges will be part of our future. But you cannot be defined—and your future must not be constrained—by these circumstances.

You've witnessed unification and healing of communities that could easily have been ripped apart by grief and loss. You've also borne witness to how people find strength, compassion, resolve, and solutions in difficult times. Your research has addressed some of the hardest societal challenges that we face today. Your commitment to public service is a beacon of light and hope for the world.

Your work to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis in cyber, climate change, education, energy, health, homeland security, public safety, homelessness, caring for our military vets, and stabilizing great power rivalries will make us all safer, more secure, healthier, and enriched.

But my personal favorite is your work to ensure access to high-value and sustainable health care, to improve the quality of life for [points to self] "older" adults. [laughter]

You have the tools, the insights, and the passion to untangle this complex maze of challenges, to define and implement policy that will put our society on a different trajectory.

Because of what you have already accomplished, now you have the opportunity—and yes, the obligation—to set the direction and ultimate goal of sustaining and changing our society. You will embrace technology and all it offers, but you will balance that against the environmental and social costs required for successful execution. You are the leaders we need to define the future, to develop solutions for public policy challenges facing our society, and to determine the future of our planet.

When I was introduced today, you heard my professional bio. Let me share a little about the rest of my story.

I grew up in the 1960s during the height of the Civil Rights movement. I was born in New York City; my father was a barber who never finished high school. No one suggested that I, the great-great-granddaughter of a slave, could become the CEO of a major corporation or the president of a highly ranked private university.

But a few people—admittedly not everyone, but a few people—encouraged me to be all that I wanted to be. I challenge you to remember the people who encouraged you. They are your jewels. Treasure them and keep them close to you.

Thanks to forward-leaning public policy, I was bussed out of my neighborhood to go to a "good" school. Thanks to public policy, I was able to compete for and be selected to attend the Bronx High School of Science. So I received a quality education through the public school system, and that redefined what would be possible for me in my life.

My career was not a straight line, hard work was required, and there were some bumps along the way, for example when I called to tell my dad I was quitting my job. However, the bumps were usually followed by exhilaration, excitement, energy.

Students often ask, When did you decide to be a CEO? I didn't. I just tried to do my best on the current job that I had, put one foot in front of the other each day.

After working for a few years, my husband and two small children cheered me on when I decided to go back and get my Ph.D.

I am sharing this with you today because I know that each of you will chart your own journey.

My charge to you today is: Be fearless. Be courageous. Be bold. You have the tools you need to be successful. Don't let anyone, anywhere tell you that you don't. By choosing the Pardee RAND Graduate School, you have distinguished yourself and identified yourself as a leader. But being a leader is not easy. It's definitely not for wimps, but it is extremely rewarding.

Before I close I'm going to share with you some quotes that still inspire me today, and some lessons that I have learned along the way.

Madeline Albright said: While democracy in the long run is the most stable form of government, in the short run it is also the most fragile.

So the lesson is: Be part of the solution. Share your ideas. Advocate for what you think is right. Speak up, and certainly, skip the great resignation. Don't be afraid of change. You didn't know there would be a pandemic, but look what you've accomplished. There will always be changes. You must embrace them and look to what's next.

Martin Luther King said: The time is always right to do what is right.

The lesson is: Be ethical. Get the facts, ask questions, and avoid Truth Decay. Truth doesn't come in shades. It either is the truth, or it isn't.

Maya Angelou said: People may not remember exactly what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.

And the lesson: Take care of your team. You will accomplish very little by yourself. So use the gifts that you were given to be a gift to someone else. Great leaders say thank you. Sometimes people struggle with taking credit for what they've done. As leaders, you know that you are accountable. So you are expected to take responsibility for the success or the failure. Saying thank you to those around you does not diminish your accomplishments, it acknowledges that you also see the contributions and the accomplishments of others.

Bon Jovi said: If you can't do what you do, do what you can.

And the lesson is: Not making a decision is a decision. Paralysis is not risk-free, so don't get paralyzed. The circumstances will never be perfect, so assess the risk and make the best decision you can. You will move forward, then you can reevaluate and make another decision which moves you closer to your goal.

And finally, Winston Churchill said: Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.

And the lesson: Choose to grab the steering wheel and drive the changes necessary to achieve your goals and improve the quality of life in the complex and changing world that surrounds you every day. Perhaps the biggest contribution you can make is to help the world become a more thoughtful, more measured, sensitive, and less polarized place where decisions are research- and fact-based.

Make certain that your voice is being heard, because your ideas are extremely important and well formulated. You will assimilate new information and understand that there may be a different and valid view. You can promote greater understanding by asking good questions and then listening carefully to the answers.

You are the critical thinkers who will define the world for the future. Don't look around for someone else to do it, because we are looking to you to determine what needs to happen next on a global scale.

Whatever we are today as a nation, as a society, as humanity, you have the power to make it better. Graduates of the Pardee RAND Graduate School of Public Policy, we are all anxiously watching to see what you are going to do next.

Thank you, good luck, and congratulations.