2017 commencement speech by Alexander Stubb
May 6, 2017
Madam President, Mr. Vice President, professors, parents, and class of 2017. I’ll start in Finnish. How y’all doin’?
Every word that (President) Elizabeth (Davis) just said about my Furman experience is true. I’ve had the chance to travel the world since 1993. Met a lot of interesting and, so to speak, important people. Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and you know what they love? When I introduce myself, they ask me, “Where did you go to university?”
I went to Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina (spoken in a Southern accent). They laugh. After that I say, “You know what? I’m Finnish by birth, and Southern by the grace of God.” It’s one of the greatest honors for a Furman alumnus to stand here today before you.
I remember graduation like it was yesterday. I took some pictures with students at the fountain today. I remember doing the same thing with my mom and my dad in 1993. It’s just one of those wonderful feelings when you get an invitation to give the commencement speech at your alma mater. And you said kind words about how I have honored Furman over the years, but to be honest, I have everything to thank Furman for. It is a great honor to be here today.
Now, Furman taught me many things. And one of them was, to give a speech you have to have an introduction, three points, and a conclusion. So that’s what you’re going to get.
The first point is going to be about Furman in 1993, so kind of about me. The second is going to be about Furman in 2017, that’s you. And the third one is going to be about the world beyond 2017, and that’s all of us. And at the end I’m going to do two things. One is to teach you a word of Finnish, and two is to go for a cheer. But I’m going to keep that a secret.
Now ladies and gentlemen, first point. In 1993, a lot of people ask me, how did I end up at Furman? And the reason is very simple. My brother who is actually sitting over in the audience, somewhere to the left. And he is probably so shy that he won’t even wave at you. Come on, Nicolas. Ah, there he is. He’s the good looking one out of us.
He was an exchange student with Professor (Bill) Lavery, who was a professor of history. And I, at the time, was playing golf. I was on the Finnish national team, but that’s a little bit like being on the national team in ice hockey in England. Not exactly very impressive. I was looking to come and study somewhere and play golf. I wanted to become a business major. As a matter of fact, Dr. (Bruce) Brown, who is retiring today, taught me macroeconomics. But I noticed quite quickly that business or economics wasn’t my thing. On top of that, I played in a tournament with Phil Mickelson, and I looked at his hands, and I looked at mine. I ain’t got what he’s got.
So I became interested in academics. There are five professors that I would like to recognize. I won’t ask them to stand up, because I know that some of them are just at home having a beer right now and watching this. They are Professor Lavery, Professor Brent Nelsen, Professor Ty Tessitore, Professor Don Gordon, and Professor Jim Guth.
These were the guys who instilled the notion of curiosity, academia, and a love of learning to me. Without them I would not be here. Thank you. And to make it complete, without them I wouldn’t have gotten interested in international relations. Without them, I wouldn’t have gotten interested in the European Union. Without them, I wouldn’t have gone to the College of Europe in Bruges. Without them, therefore, I would not have met my wife, Suzanne. And without them, probably I wouldn’t have had my children. They had little to do with that, I promise. But nevertheless, the bottom line is that I have everything to thank them for.
Now, you know what? 1989 to 1993 was a fantastic time to be a political science major. I’m going to juxtapose this to 2017 in a second. Think about it. 1989, November. The Berlin Wall comes down. Germany is reunified. The Cold War ends. Freedom versus Communism. Freedom wins, hands down. The bipolar world is over. The Soviet Union collapses. And remember, Finland has 1,300 kilometers of border with what was then the Soviet Union, now Russia.
It was an era of hope. The whole foundation on which our societies are based—liberal democracy, market economy, and globalization prospered. Nelson Mandela was freed. Can you imagine the feeling that we had? I feel so lucky because for the better part of 25 years, that’s what the world’s been like. I’m not saying it’s been all lovey-dovey and happy, but the bottom line is that we’ve lived in an era of relative peace where everything has gone well, and everything has been, in many ways, based on what I would call Furman values.
To all of you in 2017, just take back the film to 1993, 1989. Furman was a Southern Baptist school when I came here. In the middle of it, we weren’t anymore. It wasn’t my fault, I promise. This was a very civil severance. Did we have email? No. Internet? No. Laptops? No. Wi-Fi? No? Smart phones? Certainly not. Faxes? Yeah. Really cool faxes.
We didn’t have many things. Downtown Greenville … I came from Atlanta Airport on Wednesday and according to the GPS I landed in downtown Greenville. I said, “This is not Greenville. Excuse me, Am I in the wrong city?” At the time, there were two restaurants downtown: The Sophisticated Palate and Annie’s. That was about it. You certainly wanted to lock your car doors when you went downtown, and now it’s completely different.
And you know what? Worst of all at that time, Furman was a dry campus. Not only that, I was 21 years old. First week at Furman. What do I do? I’m trying to integrate. So of course I buy Budweiser, lovely excuse for beer. And what happens? Someone in our dorm busts me. And I get fined $100. Madame President, any chance I can get that money back? (President Davis hands Stubb some money.)
But this is only 60 bucks. I guess the dollar has devalued. As a matter of fact, tuition was a bit cheaper at the time. I can see the headlines in the Finnish media. Stubb goes to Furman, gets drunk, gets fined, and then gets bribed by 100 bucks from the president to come back. Looking really good.
The bottom line is in 1993 … I just want to tell you all, and I’ll finish off my part … it was the proudest moment of my life. It’s right up there with the moment when I got married and when I had children. It was a memorable moment. It was a lovely moment. And I would not stand here was it not for Furman and the professors. So I want to thank all of you for giving me this opportunity. As I said, this is not about me. This is about you. 2017.
Point number two. You made it. Congratulations. (Student speaker) Jack (McNeill) with straight As. And the great thing was, that he was sober throughout his four years here. Typical Minnesotan, right? Congrats to the parents and the relatives as well. I know that right now a lot of you have that tingling feeling, almost butterflies. You’re waiting for your child to walk that aisle. It might be your first, second, third, I don’t know. But it’s a wonderful feeling. And believe me, when I stood and did that walk and got the Bradshaw-Feaster medal, it was a great moment for my parents as well.
My mother is no more, unfortunately. But neither one of my parents had a degree. And they had always said that, “Whatever you do, Alex, whatever you do Nicolas, we’ll help you with the studies.” And for them to see their first son, and later on, second son get degrees was a big moment. And I think you, all parents, should feel very proud. And I would like for the whole class of 2017 to give a wonderful standing ovation applause to your parents.
Thank you for the applause. Looking behind you I hope you saw the faces of your parents? They were smiling. “Glad you’re out of here, I don’t have to pay for you anymore.” That’s what your parents were thinking, really.
But more more seriously, 2017 is very different from 1993, when I graduated. You’ve been a little bit in the midst of the financial crisis, and I would argue that a lot of the values that we started to push forward in 1989 with the end of the Cold War have been challenged. You see heavy duty populism in Europe. You saw Brexit, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. You had, by all measures, an interesting presidential race in the United States, and you also have an interesting debate going on in the United States.
We’ve had an asylum crisis with over 1.5 million asylum seekers flooding into Europe in 2015 from North Africa, and from the Middle East, and a lot of people are questioning the exact values that I was taught here at Furman University. Values of liberal democracy, and of market economy, and of globalization. And I would argue that you’re entering the world, at least the global world, international relations, at a time which is not necessarily full of hope. It’s almost a little bit despair and a little bit insecurity. That’s why I feel that there’s a huge burden on your shoulder.
Now you lived in a Furman which was completely different from 1993. You have laptops, you have Wi-Fi. Is it good enough here by the way? Complaining about Wi-Fi, right? It’s not fast enough. First world problem. You have smartphones, applications. You have Google. You have spell-check. You have Facebook. You have Twitter, Instagram, email, and you have downtown Greenville. So you must have had four great years here. But you know what? It’s over now. I see a couple of sad faces around. Yeah. You’re leaving the Furman bubble, and it’s a big moment.
And here’s where I come to my third point about our world and our future. You see, and this is to all of the parents as well, I think we are in the midst of probably the most important industrial revolution in the history of mankind. We call it the fourth industrial revolution. It’s about artificial intelligence. It’s about robotics. It’s about digitalization. It’s about the internet of things, and it’s about 3D printing.
My kids, 15 and 13, don’t remember a time before a smart phone. Their children will, most probably, never go to school in a vehicle that has a driver, and probably not in a vehicle which has a combustion engine. Their children will probably be diagnosed by a computer, an artificial intelligence, better than by a doctor. They might have a microchip under their skin which will regulate their vital organs, and give and provide the correct medication when needed.
The world that you’re entering is completely different from the one that I entered 25 years ago. What is this going to do to jobs? Are you going to have a job? Some people say that about 50% of all white collar and blue collar jobs will disappear in the next 15 years. We’re not going to need market analysis because algorithms are going to do that.
We’re not going to need X-ray specialists. Are we going to need cab drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers? We are going to need professors, don’t worry about that. But the world is completely different, and some people are saying that the second industrial revolution brought with it Marxism. The fourth industrial revolution is actually bigger than that. And we don’t know. Now technology plays a big part in democracy as well.
You might ask the question, “Will we, in the future, need politicians? Or will algorithms take decisions and legislate better than we do?” Just to take a current example, for instance, in American healthcare. Perhaps. I don’t know. But what I want you to do when you get out there, is to defend the Furman values. Defend what you learned here, because there are a lot of people who are going to challenge that. Defend democracy. Defend freedom. Defend civil rights. Defend human rights. Fight racism. Fight hate speech. Fight the rejection of the other. This is your task.
I’m a firm believer in reverse mentorship. It used to be that we, the older, taught the younger. It’s not going to be like that anymore. I’m going to need your help. My best teachers on information technology are my kids. You’re going to have to help your parents. You’re going to have to help your bosses in the office because we’re not as savvy, and not as good at the stuff that you do. And remember that the fourth industrial revolution is going to bring with it also huge ethical questions. It’s all well and good that we can cure disease. It’s all well and good that we have almost eradicated war. It’s all well and good that we have almost eradicated famine. And it’s all well and good that we can grow an ear on a mouse, and transplant it on a human. It’s all well and good that we can have a heart transplant and a longer life. But what if we move into the stage where the human being gets even closer connected to the machine?
What happens to us, as human beings, when we’re able to grow particles in ourselves? What happens when neuroscience advances to the stage where neural races will communicate with your smart phone? What happens when algorithms start making the decisions. Or when it happens, it happens on the basis of good, rather than on the basis of evil.
Is this Star Wars, or science fiction? No, it’s not. It’s around the corner. These are enormous decisions. When we stand here in 25 years, and you’re celebrating your 25th anniversary of graduation, the world is probably going to be as radically different from what it was in 1993.
That’s why I want to leave you with four words. These are four words which my parents told me when I was a kid. And which I tell my children every day. The first one is dream. And I say dream big. Dream huge. The sky, in many ways, is the limit. Pursue that dream. Do the stuff that you love. Don’t get anyone else to tell you what you should do. “Go to med school. Get an MBA.” Yeah, I wanted to become an ice hockey and golf professional. That was my dream, but I never did. Instead, I became a Furman alumnus. Things can turn out good. You have to dream big, and don’t let anyone kill that dream. You have to think with your heart. You have to have a warm heart and a cool head. So dream is the first word.
The second one is believe. And by believe, I say believe in yourself. You have to believe in yourself. There are going to be moments in life when it feels like, “I can’t handle this.” It can be anything. Someone will say you can’t do that. Yes, you can. Someone saying from the outside that, “Yeah, you don’t have the talent.” Yes, you do. You have to believe. The only person that can believe in you, is you. And let me tell you, I’ve had my moments. When you have high office there are moments when you’re shafted so hard that you lose self-belief. A feeling that you look at yourself through the public eye thinking, “Can I really do this?” And in those moments, you simply have to believe that yes, you can. One of the best ways I’ve heard to deal with this was Michelle Obama saying, “When they went low, we went high.” Keep that in mind throughout your life, no matter what you do.
The third combination of words is work hard. So dream, believe, work hard. I don’t need to tell you that. Because, had you not worked hard, you would not be a graduate of Furman University. You would not get your degree. The interesting thing with your career and working hard is that you’re not going to have one set career. You’re probably going to have 5, 10, even 20 careers. The whole way in which the world works is going to be completely different. But there is one key to it all. You have to work hard if you want to achieve results.
And the fourth and final word I want you to remember is succeed. So dream, believe, work hard, and succeed. And here, success is not your CV. Success is not your title. Success is not your career. Success is not money. Success is linked to your mind, and it’s linked to your body. It’s linked to happiness that you wake up almost every morning of your life and you say, “Listen, it’s a good life.” And you radiate that happiness around you, but that doesn’t happen unless you dream, believe, work hard, and succeed.
And here is where I come to my conclusion, and all the serious stuff is over. I want you to do two things. And the first one is to learn Finnish. Very easy language. Some people say it’s alphabet soup gone haywire. It is a little bit complicated, I must admit. Why do I want you to do this? Because, 2017, you guys are celebrating your graduation. 2017, Finland is celebrating its 100th year of independence. We do that on the 6th of December. We separated from the Russian Empire at that time, the Russian Revolution. And the word that I want you to learn is thank you. And I’m not kidding, I’m not throwing out any obscene word and you’re just repeating me.
You’d probably be clueless about it, wouldn’t you? The word is kiitos. Kiitos. And you will remember it forever if I tell you to think of the word mosquitoes. So just take the “mos” out, say kiitos. And the first thing I want you to say is to say “Kiitos, Furman.” That would be thank you, Furman. When I count to three, could you all say … One, two, three. Kiitos, Furman. Excellent, fluent.
Now, the second thing, and I’ve been asked to do this … When I was at Furman, the president was Dr. John Johns, and he had a cheer. The professors are already laughing. And this cheer was, “FU one time. FU two times. FU three times.” And you know the rest. I would like for the class of 2017 to stand up and do the cheer with me. So please. And remember, this is something that I’ve been dreaming of ever since I graduated from Furman, to be able to do this. I want the professors to stand up and do it as well.
I’m not going to ask the president to do it. We need some dignity in here. Okay. So here we go, start off. FU one time. FU two times, FU three times, FU all the time.
Ladies and gentlemen, and especially the class of 2017, be good, be happy, live life to its fullest. You have the foundation for it, and that foundation is called Furman University. I am, we are, extremely proud of you today. This is a wonderful day. Congratulations, and thank you.