Carnegie Mellon University

Inauguration Address

As written for delivery
by President Farnam Jahanian
October 26, 2018

Chairman Rohr, trustees, faculty colleagues, students, staff, alumni and honored guests: good morning and thank you. It is a great honor — and a truly humbling experience — to stand here as the tenth president of Carnegie Mellon University. I hereby accept the symbols of the Office of the President and all of the responsibilities pertaining thereto.

It brings me great joy to celebrate this occasion with my family — especially my wife, Tris, and our children, Daniel, Thomas and Sara — who have always been my greatest blessing. I am touched by the presence of friends, former students, colleagues and collaborators who have traveled from across the country to be here. I also want to acknowledge community partners and civic leaders from the Pittsburgh region who are showing their support for this university, today and every day. And I would especially like to thank Marlene Behrmann, Keith Block and Martha Pollack, for their kind and thoughtful words this morning.

Today's ceremony is a celebration steeped in tradition: the singing of our national anthem, our academic regalia and the iconic sound of bagpipes. These rituals remind us that this moment is not about the beginning of my journey as president. Rather, this ceremony celebrates our storied history as a community of scholars, in a nation driven by learning and discovery.

CMU is a relatively young institution. We have come so far in such a short time, and our accomplishments would not have been possible without the leadership of my predecessors. I especially wish to acknowledge and thank President Emeritus Dr. Jerry Cohon and past provost, Dr. Mark Kamlet, for their enduring commitment to this university. Jerry, Mark: please stand to be recognized.

Of course, great leaders are inspired by an extraordinary community. As Jerry and Mark can attest, countless faculty, staff, alumni and partners helped to build the foundation of excellence CMU enjoys today. I am grateful to all the women and men who have guided this university since its founding, and those who will secure its future. In particular, I wish to recognize the members of Carnegie Mellon's Board of Trustees, who are the stewards of this institution. I am so grateful for the trust they have placed in me. Trustees, would you please stand to be recognized?

I would also like to acknowledge and thank the university's deans, vice provosts and executive management team, who do so much to advance CMU every day. Would the university's leadership team please stand to be recognized?

Like so many of us here, I left home as a teenager to pursue an education. As I prepared for my journey from Iran to Texas, I remember asking my mother to help me pack. She said, "Pack lightly, because whatever you need, you'll find there."

And so, I left my home with little more than a sense of optimism and a desire to make the most of the incredible opportunities that only an education in the United States could provide. I have carried my mother's words with me over these many years. I think her advice may have been based on a hope that I would return home once the initial excitement wore off. But I was pretty stubborn. In fact, I got my tenacity from her, along with a work ethic instilled in me by my father.

But looking back, perhaps my mother was hinting at the knowledge that I would accumulate in the journey ahead. As a teacher and advisor, I came to understand the incredible power of education to change lives. As a researcher, mentor and entrepreneur, I observed the potential of a single idea to launch a new enterprise or disrupt an entire industry. And during my time in public service in Washington, D.C., I saw how the ideas emerging from higher education served as the foundation of our success as a nation. My 30-year career ultimately led me here — to this city and this university. This community — our community — embodies all of my most fervent beliefs and my greatest passions.

Every day at CMU, I am inspired by you. Here, the world's most ambitious students collaborate at the edges and intersections of diverse fields and go on to change the world as alumni. Here, faculty leave an indelible mark on society through their scholarship. Here, professional and dedicated staff create an environment that supports our shared success.

These are the people and the ideals that have set CMU apart from the very beginning, when Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie Technical Schools to educate the sons and daughters of factory workers in 1900. Early in its evolution, this institution would house two great learning environments: the College of Engineering and the College of Fine Arts. You see, right from the start, we were bringing together creativity and industry.

Our willingness to take risks continued into the 20th century, when we became the first degree-granting drama institution in the United States. And then, when the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, founded by Richard and Andrew Mellon, merged with Carnegie Tech to create Carnegie Mellon University. And again, when Newell, Simon, Perlis and Reddy came to dominate the emerging field of computer science and establish artificial intelligence as the next frontier in human progress.

To paraphrase computer science pioneer Grace Hopper, "The most dangerous phrase in the English language is, We've always done it this way." At a time when computers were barely understood, we were among the very first to recognize the power of computing, and we made some big bets. In 1965, we established our department of computer science. In 1979, we founded the first robotics institute at a U.S. university. In 1984, we attracted funding from the government to launch the Software Engineering Institute. And in 1988, we announced the first college in the world devoted solely to computer science. Ours is still the model that others follow.

In the process, we have created new fields of inquiry — such as machine learning, transition design and the science of learning; we magnified our societal impact through technologies like autonomous vehicles and additive manufacturing. And we did all of this while also cleaning up at the Tonys, the Emmys and the Putnam Competition.

There is a lot to be gained by looking back at our past. We see who we are — who we have been. Alumni from those early years would certainly see themselves in today's students: entrepreneurial, creative, collaborative, whip-smart...and just a little bit quirky.

While the past has left a bright trail, the future is arriving faster than anyone could have predicted. Our entire world is adapting to unprecedented advances that are rapidly transforming our economy, our society and our culture. We must ask ourselves: How can higher education fit into this dazzling future? Indeed, our industry has recently come under scrutiny. This is not a new phenomenon. Academic institutions have often been criticized as ivory towers.

But there is no doubt that sustained investment in research and education has fueled our nation's broad prosperity since World War II. Universities exemplify our faith in the power of education to transcend social, economic and racial divides. To reinforce our role as pillars of a progressive society, higher education must approach our mission with renewed attention to the unique demands of tomorrow. At stake is the ability of our society to retain its fundamental commitment to democracy, truth, equity and freedom of expression.

At Carnegie Mellon, we have always responded to challenges with a trademark fearlessness. I am reminded of the leadership of Dick Cyert, who not only pioneered a new model for business education as dean of our business school, but also served as one of CMU's most visionary presidents. More than 40 years ago, he made bold, but calculated investments in the very areas that define our leadership today. These risks were not always met with broad support. But they paid off. As a result, CMU grew from a small regional institute to an international center of higher education. The time to be intentionally bold is once again upon us. We have a singular opportunity to wield our exceptional strengths and make the next big investments in our global leadership.

Let's consider together what society needs most from academic institutions in the context of our two core missions — research and education.

At CMU, we advance human knowledge through scholarly research and forge new connections to our humanity through the arts. But the nature of research and creativity is rapidly changing, becoming increasingly dependent on boh people working across the boundaries of established disciplines and on computational, data-driven approaches that are accelerating discovery and innovation. This is precisely where CMU excels; in fact, we have cultivated a distinct leadership where these two areas intersect — at the nexus of technology and society. Through this expertise, we are enhancing the way we live, work and communicate, and we are shaping modern culture through visionary art, performance and design.

CMU legend Herb Simon once said, “We are not observers of the future; we are actors. Our job is to design a sustainable and acceptable world and bring it about.” This remains as true today as when he said it 20 years ago.

What has also remained constant is the tremendous responsibility that comes with this influence. I was reminded of this last year, when I came across a New York Times editorial by David Brookswhich reflected on Pittsburgh’s renaissance. Of course, our connection to this city is one of our greatest strengths, but this article, while acknowledging CMU’s positive impact, also warned of a so-called “Carnegie Mellon ... layer of prosperity” that had not quite penetrated working-class neighborhoods. Indeed, we are witnessing the disenfranchisement of a growing segment of our population — people who just do not see themselves as part of the new economy, who cannot even imagine a pathway to entry. 

While the nature of this divide has been debated by pundits on the left and on the right, this goes beyond partisan politics. We all bear responsibility for ensuring that the future we are building works for everyone. If we succeed, the United States will continue to serve as a shining example of prosperity and democracy for the rest of the world. 

Here lies the greatest obligation for institutions of higher education in the modern era, and a commitment that lies at the heart of CMU’s leadership. Even as we break new ground in technology, we must work to mitigate any consequences that might diminish human dignity and opportunity. That is why, at CMU, scientists and engineers work together with the philosophers, artists and economists who will shape what might be possible; with the ethicists, humanists and policy experts who will guide our path; and with the behavioral scientists who will measure the impact of our work on humanity.

Reinforcing our distinct strengths at the nexus of technology and humanity will be crucial to building on our extraordinary momentum in both research and creativity. And as president, I am committed to supporting this leadership — by investing in a diverse community of faculty and researchers; by doubling down on our partnerships beyond the borders of our campus; and by creating vibrant, living laboratories in communities around the world. This is the next frontier for Carnegie Mellon. And I believe it will only deepen our societal impact heading into the future.

As much as we value the impact of our research and creativity, we are equally committed to our educational mission. And as a CMU parent, the responsibility of preparing the next generation is deeply personal for me. 

To the CMU students here today and at our campus watch parties — you are my most important motivation. You are spending your most formative years here. From what I remember of my own college experience, you are undoubtedly forming life-long friendships. You know, many of my best friends from college are still my best friends today.

The foundation you build here will sustain you as you enter a world defined by continuous disruption. According to one recent study, about two-thirds of the jobs that you will hold throughout your lives do not yet exist. This reality has dramatic and immediate implications for the kind of education you deserve today. 

Throughout our history, every period of significant technological change has been met with a corresponding wave of innovation in education. I am here to tell you that, right now, we are at the dawn of the next major transformation in education, and Carnegie Mellon will be at the forefront of these changes. From curriculum, to pedagogy, to structure and organization, we are re-imagining higher education with your futures in mind:

  • We are breaking down disciplinary silos and launching cross-cutting programs that better serve YOUR interests and society’s needs — programs that include behavioral economics, neuroscience, and IDeATe. 
  • We are embedding continuous learning in the skills that will only increase in demand as automation reshapes the future of work — skills like communication, critical thinking and entrepreneurship. 
  • We are investing in infrastructure that supports the new ways that students learn and collaborate — spaces such as Tepper Quad and Scott Hall. 
  • And we are utilizing our expertise in the science of learning to develop a personalized model of education focused on how each of you learns best.

Every day, we work to build and sustain a community that is inclusive, equitable and nurturing for both graduate and undergraduate students — a place where diverse perspectives can come together in a culture of civil discourse.

To our students, thank you for entrusting us with this most important chapter in your lives. You will always be at the heart of my presidency.

As we consider the aspirations that unite this global community, philanthropy must continue to catalyze and support our forward momentum. In fact, this university was founded by an act of philanthropy. At this pivotal moment, I am delighted today to announce two extraordinary, new commitments that will provide critical resources for Carnegie Mellon.  

In recent years, Carnegie Mellon has been making significant investments in infrastructure for our College of Engineering, including a state-of-the-art maker ecosystem that serves the entire campus. 

Today, I am pleased to announce that the Allegheny Foundation has committed a $30M lead grant toward the transformation of Scaife Hall into a modern, new home for Mechanical Engineering. This grant, the largest in the history of the Allegheny Foundation, will enable us to bring our total infrastructure investments in engineering over the past decade to more than a quarter billion dollars. With this commitment, CMU will be better able to compete for the best students and faculty, driving Pittsburgh’s reputation as a hub for innovation.

We are joined today by Matt Groll, president and chairman of the Allegheny Foundation. Please join me in thanking the Allegheny Foundation for their generosity to Carnegie Mellon. Matt, please stand to be recognized. 

At a time when a college education has never been more important, many prospective college students and middle class families feel as though they are simply priced out of the education they need for the future. That is why CMU has made growing our endowment for scholarships, fellowships and financial aid one of our most important strategic priorities. Today, I am pleased to announce that CMU trustee Tod Johnson and his wife Cindy, two CMU alumni, have committed $50 million to create an endowment to support undergraduate scholarships and student success.  

This support will greatly expand our ability to ensure that a Carnegie Mellon education is within reach of all talented students. This gift, the largest toward scholarship support in Carnegie Mellon’s history, was inspired by Tod’s own path to success here at CMU and the fellowship that funded his education. 

Please join me in thanking and congratulating the Johnsons for their generosity and commitment to our students. Tod, Cindy, please stand to be recognized.

My fellow Tartans — whether you are in Pittsburgh, Silicon Valley, Australia, Rwanda or Qatar — I hope you are as excited as I am about the future of Carnegie Mellon University. To be part of CMU at this moment is to be at the cusp of the next great phase of societal and human development. 

If we continue doing what we do today, we’ll maintain momentum and continue to be a great university. But if we are very intentional, if we are unapologetically bold, and if we are committed to taking risks, I am confident that we will position ourselves among the top-tier institutions in the world. We will become a place that is known for writing the story of this century, an institution dedicated to anticipating and solving the most pressing challenges facing humanity — through creative inquiry, through scientific discovery,through the impact of technology and through a transformative education that changes lives.

As we embark on this exhilarating future together, we do so as a community bound by a set of core values that serve as our foundation — integrity, knowledge, compassion and respect. 

The great scientist Albert Einstein understood this fundamental connection between excellence and human values. In 1950, he wrote: “Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. To make this a living force and bring it to clear consciousness is perhaps the foremost task of education.”

Andrew Carnegie put it a little more simply: “My heart is in the work.”

Each one of us has a role to play in bringing beauty and dignity to our mission through the impact we make on society, the leaders we develop and the opportunities we create for others. 

I feel privileged to work with such outstanding partners and I look forward to all that we will achieve together. Thank you.