Despite attacks on universities’ integrity, higher learning institutions are valuable to paving the path to the future and must be supported by their communities, neuroscientist Susan Hockfield (MED ’79) said in her commencement address to the Georgetown College in McDonough Arena on Saturday.

“All of us are tempted to assume that our universities and our community institutions can stand on their own, but they cannot,” Hockfield said. “It will be your responsibility as citizens, as members of your communities, to shoulder the responsibility for defending the institutions that secure our principles and guard our society.”

GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY Susan Hockfield (MED ’79) urged graduates of the College to support the university against attacks in her Saturday morning commencement address.

Hockfield served at Yale University as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences from 1998 to 2002 and later the provost. She went on to become the first woman and first biologist to serve as the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2004. During her tenure at MIT, Hockfield was a prominent voice in conversations about the future of U.S. energy and economic development, serving as the inaugural co-chair of the White House-led Advanced Manufacturing Partnership, a collaboration between academic leaders, government agencies and private industries.

The university awarded Hockfield an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters prior to her address.

Hockfield cited Nobel laureate Maurice Maeterlinck in her address, reminding graduates to have the courage to be innovative in the face of opposition, which was a lesson she said she learned during her time at Georgetown.

“Georgetown equipped me well to pursue my passion for scientific discovery,” Hockfield said. “I learned about the many failures that precede any success and I learned that adventuring beyond the frontier of knowledge requires not only new tools but also the courage to question received wisdom.”

Georgetown fostered this intellectual courage in its graduates through exceptional academic environments, Hockfield said.

“Georgetown’s academic leadership over decades and centuries has carefully, and deliberately, sculpted this university to make it possible for us students, you and me, to study with fantastic teachers and scholars,” Hockfield said. “They created conditions that allowed us to learn the tools that would change our lives and that would enable us to change the world.”

Through this realization, Hockfield said she found her calling to serve the next generation of students, embarking on her career in academic leadership.

“I had discovered something wonderful in this second calling,” Hockfield said. “It was the same wonderful thing that fuels scientific discovery: the intoxicating joy of thinking and working with others to find new answers and new insights. I quickly learned that great universities remain great only by constantly reinventing themselves.”

Hockfield then turned to the importance of preserving the institutions that safeguard the path to the future. She said a narrow focus on individuality leaves universities susceptible to attack.

“If we focus too intently on individuality and individual achievement, we neglect our institutions, the structures that promote community and shared purpose, and by doing so, we leave our institutions open to attack,” Hockfield said. “Indeed, the university is under attack today with rampant skepticism about the utility of higher education and, along with it, the devaluation of both expertise and the commitment to the search for truth.”

Regardless, Hockfield said she hopes graduates pursue their passions while also giving back to their universities and the communities that educated them.

“I hope you will find your calling, the path down which you can run with joy and full-hearted commitment,” Hockfield said. “But my even more fervent hope is for you to find along that path the great paradox that in doing something you love, you will also serve and support your institutions and your communities.”

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