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David Rubenstein Commencement Speech: What 'Go Duke!' Means

Part of the Commencement Stories, 2017 Series
Trustee Chair David Rubenstein said Duke graduates should show leadership by giving back to Duke and the country. Photo by Duke Photography
Trustee Chair David Rubenstein said Duke graduates should show leadership by giving back to Duke and the country. Photo by Duke Photography

I fully recognize that there is very little excitement over hearing a University Board Chairman deliver a commencement address. What could be more boring? Surely, all of you feel a bit cheated and have been wondering why you could not get to hear from a Nobel Prize winner or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Oprah or Coach K.

Indeed, I have been wondering that myself. To be honest, I was also quite disappointed at this year’s selection of a commencement speaker. That is because I am also graduating this year as Board Chair after four years in this position. And I wanted to hear someone certain to be far more enjoyable or more inspiring than I can ever be.

So exactly how did I get selected? The explanation is simple: Dick Brodhead received a letter earlier this year from our University’s founder, James B. Duke. The letter reminded Dick that his current Board Chair has not done  much as Chair; so the suggestion was made by Mr. Duke to have the Chair make the commencement speech to force the Chair to show that he actually did at least one thing in that job before he leaves as Chair. So here I am. But, please bear with me. I will be short – the essential requirement of a commencement speech.

On the subject of Board Chairs, many of you may ask – what in God’s name does a Board Chair actually do, and how does one become Board Chair? I have frequently asked myself both of these questions, and am still seeking the answers.

As I get ready to depart this position, I think that I now know enough to say that the Board Chair’s main job – at least in my case – has been to take credit for all of the good things that happened at Duke during my term, and to look to find someone else to hold responsible for all of the less than good things that happened at Duke. I suppose I get this credit-taking/finger pointing perspective from the place I live – Washington, DC.

Without doubt, over the past four years there have been many very good things which have happened at Duke, no one of which is probably more important than the fact that Duke has surely reached the status of being not only one of the country’s finest universities, but has also reached the status of being one of the world’s finest and also most respected and also most admired universities.

And all of you graduating today are the direct beneficiaries of this enhanced status of the University – for the degrees you will shortly receive have an enhanced status from what was the case just four years ago. And, to be sure, they have an infinitely enhanced status from the time I received a Duke degree some four plus decades ago.

And why should you care about this enhanced status? There are many reasons, but think about this: from this point forward, and for most of the rest of your hopefully long life, whenever you meet someone for the first time in the world, you will inevitably be asked these questions:

What is your name?

Where do you live?

What do you do?

Where did you go to school?

When you say you went to Duke, you will surely impress almost anyone, for having a Duke degree and being a Duke graduate connotes intelligence, accomplishment, good judgment, commitment to others, and a quality person to be reckoned with. And that good impression will certainly be helpful to you as you move forward in life. Trust me. You will truly benefit from having a Duke degree. The time and effort you spent getting the degree was well worth it.

So please, from this moment forward, always say that you are a Duke graduate with great pride and a strong voice. For the rest of your life, you will always be a Duke graduate. You may change your name. You may move to another city. You may change what you do. And you may change your appearance. But you can never change that you are a Duke graduate, and you join a group of 165,000 fellow people who now welcome you into their elite alumni group and who are eager to help you as you go through life. So never fail to ask another Duke graduate for help, support, advice, guidance. They will always be there for you – and proud to do so.

To be honest, and as you know quite well, Duke’s extraordinary growth in stature and in status over the past four years is not the result of anything that I actually did. (Except that when Duke won its NCAA basketball title in 2015, it was due principally to the fact that I was secretly sending in the plays from the stands to Coach K.)

In truth, as everyone really knows, Duke’s success over the past four years is due not at all to the Chairman of the Board but rather to so many of you here today – the students, the faculty, the administrators, the employees, the alumni, the donors – for it is you who have worked together to create this unique oasis in the academic world – a beautiful place where scholarship and learning, commitment to society, true student athletes, and school spirit come together in a wondrous way, not replicated anywhere else in this country or on this planet. You should all be proud of what you have done to help make this achievement possible. As Board Chair, I feel obliged to say thank you for what you have done to make this University so special.

And, of course, over the past four years, and indeed over the past thirteen years, the indispensable guiding force behind Duke’s growth in stature and emergence as a great national and global university has truly been Duke’s gifted, charming, and extraordinarily eloquent President, Dick Brodhead.

For all that Dick Brodhead has done for Duke – for today’s graduates as well as for all of the other constituents of this University – I offer (on behalf of the Board), my deep appreciation and admiration. All of us who care about Duke are and always will be in your debt. And as a symbol of our appreciation, the University is proud that West Union will in the future be known as the Richard H. Brodhead Center for Campus Life.

Dick Brodhead will be succeeded by another talented and gifted leader, Vince Price, and I will be succeeded by an equally talented and gifted leader, Jack Bovender, who has served as Board Vice-Chair, and who so ably led the search for the new President. With Vince and Jack, Duke will be in great hands, well-positioned to propel Duke even further into the world of great global universities, but one with that distinctive Duke flavor and spirit.

Now, as I asked a moment ago, how does one actually become the Board Chair at Duke? Would anyone here like to be Board Chair some day? In my case – and in Jack’s case as well he would be the first to admit – it was hardly something our classmates would have predicted. Indeed, in my class, there were a great many talented individuals, and I was surely not one of them. Any vote by my classmates when I was a student here about who might wind up as the Board Chair some forty years later would have surely found me among those with the fewest votes. A million to one odds would surely have found more than a few takers.

So all of you sitting here today who were not superstars, or even little stars at Duke, cheer up. You too can someday become Board Chair. It just takes a little luck. I became Board Chair solely because good luck intervened, as happens often in life. And this may happen to you. And my life has been one of undeserved good luck.

I did not come from a wealthy or college educated family – but I had the good luck to have two parents who provided the most important ingredient for a successful life – unconditional love and support.

I did not really deserve, based on high school performance, to get into Duke. I could certainly not get into Duke today with my high school record. I wrote my application in longhand – I couldn’t afford a typewriter then – and I had the good luck to have an admissions officer who no doubt felt sorry for someone with such illegible handwriting.

I could not have afforded to attend Duke, but I had the good luck to persuade Duke to give me financial aid and a job at the library.

I later went to law school and practiced law for several years – and had the good luck to be surrounded by individuals – and clients – who told me that I was not a very good lawyer and should try something else.

I worked in the White House as a young man, helped get inflation to 19%, and had the good luck to be forced out of my job when we lost the re-election in 1980.

I later had the good luck to start a business where my partners knew a good deal more about investing and building a global company than I did.

And then later, when the business became successful, I had the good luck – really the greatest of good luck – to realize that making money was far less pleasurable than giving it away intelligently to causes, organizations, or individuals who could put the money to far better use than I could.

Indeed, that was the greatest bit of my luck – having the good fortune to realize before I was too old to do something really useful with my money – that trying to give back to society and trying to make the world a slightly better place was a better use of money than buying more homes, and boats, and planes, and artwork.

This bit of good luck occurred in part because of my mother. When I was building my company, she seemed outwardly pleased, but she never called to say congratulations on buying a new company, or selling a company at a large profit, or in taking my company public.

But she regularly called when I gave money or other assistance to those in need or who could help society better by having the money or assistance.

So I had the good luck to have a mother with the right values who made sure I knew what was more important to her. I call this the mother test – if your mother is pleased with what you are doing with your good fortune, and tells you so, that is the real test of good luck.

I have also had the good luck to be reasonably adept at figuring out mysteries or riddles or puzzles or codes. Maybe that came from my Duke course in logic. (I had not wanted to take that course, but it somehow fulfilled the math requirement.)

Because of that course, it has been my good luck to decipher the real code of what it means to be a Duke graduate. In discovering this, I think that I may have broken the Duke equivalent of the Da Vinci Code.

And for those who may not be as adept in breaking codes, let me give it to you now the code of what it means to be a Duke graduate.

The code is a bit of a secret; it is something only Duke graduates should know. But I am certain everyone else here today who is not a Duke graduate can keep what I will say a secret.

For many decades, Duke supporters have used the phrase Go Duke. Sometimes, they also use another phrase relating to where a school ten miles south of here can go. In deference to the Dean of the Divinity School, and the dignity of this occasion, I will not utter that phrase. But do you all know what it is? Can you say it?

Let me just focus on Go Duke. While that might seem like a simple enough school rallying cry, I can reveal to the graduates today the real meaning behind this phrase. It is less, honestly, an athletic event cheer than a code of expected conduct for Duke graduates. Let me explain and reveal the code.

G really is designed to represent GRATITUDE.

Of course, you should express gratitude to those who enabled you to get your Duke degree and the opportunities this degree now offers you. But it is not adequate to think that by expressing your gratitude to your relatives, or friends, or professors today or tomorrow that you have punched the GRATITUDE ticket.

For in truth, gratitude is an essential character trait necessary throughout life. You should always realize that little you can accomplish in life is accomplished solely on your skills or intellect. Even Albert Einstein realized that. Your accomplishments will inevitably be due to the help of others. And I should add that you can get others to help you far more readily if you seek help with an attitude of humility rather than arrogance. Telling people how great you are may not – as a general rule – be the best way to get things done.

If you recognize these facts, you are likely to be far more successful – and happy – with your life if you recognize repeatedly that whatever you do, you inevitably are dependent on others to help you succeed.

As President Ronald Reagan frequently said, there is no limit to what humans can achieve if they are willing to share the credit.

So, as Duke graduates, remember that the G in Go Duke stands for Gratitude and the need to regularly express it and really mean it.

What does O stand for? It stands for ORIGINALITY. If you want to truly succeed in life, you have to be original. Do something others have not done. Following what others have done can lead to a satisfactory life. But if you want a truly rewarding life, you need to think and act outside of the box. Be creative. Go where others have not gone. Be a leader, not a follower.

And to be an effective leader, you need to be original: to do, say, think, or express something which has not been done that way before. To show real originality.

If you think of those who you admire who have graduated from Duke, or graduated from anywhere to be honest, and look at what they have done with their lives, you will soon realize that those individuals have originated something of significance – they have created something new – they have lived outside of the box that others have too comfortably lived in.

So now on to D. You think of D and you think of Duke perhaps. But the secret code has a different meaning for that D.

D stands for DIFFERENCE. And by that I mean your responsibility as a Duke graduate is to do what you realistically can to make a difference in the world.

It will be relatively easy for all of you, with a Duke degree, to glide through life if you so choose, taking repeatedly the path of least resistance. And doing so can lead to a conventionally pleasant life, and when you get to my age, you can say that you have had a satisfactory life.

But you should want more out of life. As the Bible tells us, to those whom much is given, much is expected. You now have a Duke degree, and much is expected of you. Live up to those expectations.

Try to find a way to make a difference in the world – to give back to society – to leave your community or your country at least slightly better if not much better than you found it. There are many ways that you can do this, given your intellect, your drive, and your talents. But do not wait until you are past your prime of life.

Remember that you are on the face of the earth for a relatively short period – a nanosecond – in the several million year span of humankind. Do not waste that precious time. Do not shrink from the responsibility of trying to make a difference. Accept that responsibility. Welcome it. Cherish it. You stand now in the docket of history, and you can make history. Try to do so. Take up this torch and run with it. You will never regret doing so.

Next is U. The U in the code for Duke graduates stands for UNRELENTING.

If you are going to accomplish something of note in your life, you need to be unrelenting in pursuit of your goal.

You will inevitably face challenges, obstacles, hurdles, naysayers, and roadblocks to doing what you want. If you allow them to prevail, you will find yourself captive of conventional wisdom and the status quo. And you will accomplish almost nothing.

To achieve something of note in your life, you have to be persistent. You cannot lightly take no for an answer. Persevere. Persist. Be unrelenting.

Those who have changed the world – just in your lifetime – did not accept the notion that what they wanted to build or create could not be done. Bill Gates did not take no for an answer when he was told that personal computers had no real future. Steve Jobs did not take no for an answer when he was told smartphones would have no market. Jeff Bezos did not take no for an answer when he was told there was little interest in buying books or other products over the internet. Mark Zuckerberg did not take no for an answer when he was told people would have no interest in a product which would allow people to regularly communicate their activities to others. Wendy Kopp did not take no for an answer when she was told that Teach for America could not get off the ground. And Barack Obama did not take no for an answer when he was told no African American could be elected President.

None of you may have ideas as creative or earth shaking as these ideas. But all of you, in whatever you decide to do, can persist with your own ideas, can resist the answer no that so many will give to you, and can find ways to overcome obstacles to prove your point, your concept, your idea.

So be unrelenting.

Now K. That does not stand for Krzyzewski, though Coach K is a fitting model for any Duke graduate. It really stands for KNOWLEDGE.

The theory is that a university is supposed to provide knowledge to the student. And, despite all of the distractions of university life, knowledge does seem to get imparted from time to time.

But for many university graduates, there is often the feeling that the need to gain knowledge ends at graduation. The result is that university graduates often focus on conventional professional or personal goals, and often forget that gaining knowledge is a lifelong process – not one which ends with the receipt of a degree.

It is hard to believe, but 30% of those who graduate from college in this country never read another book in their life. Yes, you heard that correctly.

They must think that, once graduated, they have all the knowledge they need. Obviously, that is a serious mistake, and the result is that they will not grow. They will be limited in what they can achieve. They will be held back from truly enjoying life.

Without doubt, knowledge is the essential ingredient to success in any area of human activity, and it is also an essential ingredient to a fulfilling life.

The human brain is surely God’s most incredible creation on this earth. Without it, humans – from Madame Curie to Albert Einstein, from Leonardo to Picasso, from Mozart to Beethoven, from William Shakespeare to Toni Morrison – would not have achieved the extraordinary feats they have achieved. But the brain is a muscle which must be exercised regularly. You cannot stop exercising it upon graduation.

Remember, an educated person is not someone who has one or two or three degrees. An educated person is one who uses degrees as simply the base upon which to continually learn and build up a reservoir of knowledge about so many different subjects. And you should want to be an educated person. So read, explore, learn – it is a lifelong and never-ending quest.

And finally, E. That E stands for ENJOYMENT.

While I have told you about the importance of trying to make a difference in the world, I did not mean to say that this undertaking is to be a joyless exercise of drudgery and seemingly unpleasant activities.

Just the opposite. To make a difference, and to have the fulfilling life you deserve, it is only possible to do so if you find the right formula for enjoying what you do, and therefore enjoying life – what Thomas Jefferson called the “pursuit of happiness”.

No one ever achieved great things in their life by hating what they do. Nobel Prizes are not won by those who hated what they were doing. Almost certainly Nobel Prize winners thoroughly enjoyed what they were doing, and it was that enjoyment which propelled them to think better, work harder, and accomplish more.

And how did Nobel Prize winners and others who have achieved great things with their lives find the activity or calling which gave them this joy? No doubt, it was by experimenting with many different possibilities.

While a few individuals might find their life’s pleasure at an early age, for most people – and for most of you – the search for what will give you enjoyment – personal and professional – may take time.

Remember, life is not designed to torture you. It is designed to give you pleasure and enjoyment. And you should seek to enjoy life. Only if you are enjoying life despite its occasional trials and tribulations, can you really leave a lasting mark and have a fulfilling and meaningful life.

Now, I sat where you are sitting nearly fifty years ago. The graduation was then held at what is now Cameron Indoor Stadium. It was not air conditioned and was hot as hell. Perhaps because of my focus on the temperature, I do not remember who the speaker was or what he said. In truth, I am not sure I remembered what he said within an hour of his saying whatever he said. My focus was on getting the degree, celebrating with my family, and going home.

I suspect all of you are the same. I do not expect anyone to remember what I say nearly fifty years from now. I would be pleased if you remember it even if only fifty minutes from now.

To make that task easier, I thought summarizing everything you needed to know about being a Duke graduate in six letters would be best.

So “Go Duke” is something I thought everyone can remember. And hopefully for more than a few minutes.

But let me add one additional element to these six letters. Something you will hopefully remember as well. I am sure everyone recognizes that the first three letters of the Go Duke code are GOD. That is not by chance, in my view.

I am highly confident that these first three letters are evidence of what all of us who have Duke connections fully understand: God looks favorably on Duke and its graduates.

Now I cannot prove this. Nor can the Divinity School. But why should anyone dealing with a Duke graduate take a chance and not believe this? And why should any Duke graduate not accept this as well? Surely, Duke graduates are God’s modern version of the Chosen People.

But as President Kennedy reminded us in his historic Inaugural Address: “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

So while God is looking favorably on all of the new Duke graduates, remember that it is your responsibility to show gratitude, be original, make a difference in the world, be unrelenting as you do so, consistently acquire knowledge, and find ways to enjoy life while helping others. If you do so, I promise you will have a much more meaningful life – one that your parents will be proud for you to live. One that your children will be proud for you to live. One that Duke will be proud for you to live. Most importantly, one that you will be proud to live.

But for all of you, before you begin to conquer the world and make it a better place, take today off to celebrate and thank your friends and family for helping you get to this day. Hopefully, one of you will be standing here in 30-40 years or sooner as Chairman of the Duke Board of Trustees, and giving a far better – and shorter – commencement speech than I have been able to give.

Now, a final word.

Today is Mother’s Day.

Can all of the mothers raise your hand or stand up?

Thanks very much for what you have done in bringing to life and helping to raise your children, many of whom are no doubt Duke graduates.

I had very much wanted my own mother to attend today’s commencement, to hear her only child deliver this Address. She had certainly wanted to attend, in part because she had a hard time actually believing I had been given this honor.

Sadly, just a few weeks ago, quite unexpectantly my mother passed away.

So I have given this speech today in her honor, and hope she is in a place where she can hear it. And in her memory, I am now re-dedicating myself to giving back to our country for she thought that was the most important activity that I could – or anyone – pursue. And of course she thought that giving back to Duke is also a way to give back to my country.  

And to all of you who are fortunate to have mothers who are living, please cherish them while they are on this earth. It is obviously much harder to do so after they are gone.

And to all of you fortunate enough to have mothers who are alive, but who are not here today, be sure to call them. You are privileged to be able to do so. I no longer have that privilege, but certainly wish that I did.

Happy Mother’s Day and congratulations to all of our graduates. GO DUKE!