A few thoughts on a special day
Jeff Immelt | Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Even though I am far from campus, I have been listening to the spirited disagreement over President Obama’s participation in Notre Dame’s 2009 Commencement. I consider myself a friend and admirer of Notre Dame’s, and the criticism and controversy have prompted me to share some thoughts with you.
Two years ago I was deeply honored to be asked to give the Commencement address to Notre Dame’s class of 2007. I told all those gathered there that day that Notre Dame represented everything that is good about this country. I am even more certain of that today.
As I think of the University’s commitment to excellence, scholarship and values, I understand the challenge of being one of the nation’s preeminent academic institutions while holding firm to its Catholic character. I know the tug between those goals invariably invites tensions. But it is precisely that dual aim that makes Notre Dame unique in higher education and a valuable voice in the national consciousness.
I was back on campus last fall as a panelist for the forum on sustainable energy, environmental health and the strategies needed to ensure that the human race thrives well into the future. Other places might argue the science and technology, the economics and the practical measures for preserving our natural environment. But at Notre Dame – everyone knows – the ethical and the moral, even the spiritual will be central to any complex and difficult discussion.
So why would the CEO of GE, which has its own challenges in a tough economy, stick his nose into this issue? There are two reasons. First, Notre Dame and GE have a long and beneficial relationship. We love recruiting at Notre Dame – we employ 400 Notre Dame graduates, including our chief financial officer, Keith Sherin – and our television network, NBC, has a great relationship with Notre Dame football. Second, I consider your president, Fr. John Jenkins, to be one of the finest people I have ever met. So I offer these thoughts from those perspectives and with great humility.
The first is to congratulate those graduating May 17. This is your day. Your family’s day. It represents the culmination of a family’s love and support, sacrifice and pride. Don’t let others, and these other issues – however important they may seem to be – take the day’s celebration away from you.
The second thing I think about is what a profound moment this is in the life of your University. America’s first African-American president has selected Notre Dame as one of three universities he’ll visit for graduation ceremonies during his first year in office. That’s an honor, and a deserving one. Where better to go than the home of Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the man who shepherded the U.S. Civil Rights Movement into law 45 years ago? What a great moment in the life of this nation. And how fitting that Notre Dame graduates will be witness to this.
Here’s something else you might consider as you think about those who criticize the selection of the president as your speaker – the opportunities and burdens of leadership, the importance of an organization’s core values, and the absolute need to listen carefully to diverse opinion in order to move that organization forward, for it to adapt, to change, be innovative and so continue to lead.
I manage a company that supplies 25 percent of the world’s electricity. We operate television networks and movie companies. We manufacture aircraft engines, locomotives, health care equipment, appliances and light bulbs. And I can assure you that the bigger you are, the bigger the target you wear. Like many CEOs recently, I have been criticized by the best of them, from The Wall Street Journal to “Fortune” magazine.
But I also know that leading – by definition – means to be out front, where your actions are more visible, more scrutinized. Not many colleges or universities in America are more visible, more scrutinized than Notre Dame. Much of the reason this current controversy is so very public is simply because of Notre Dame’s stature in the minds of Americans, and not just Catholic Americans.
Another reason for this debate is that Notre Dame stands for something. And people know it. It’s a compliment that those who hold an institution in such high esteem call it into account when they don’t think it has lived up to the standards they ascribe to it. Arguments naturally arise when competing values come into conflict. Faith traditions and the institution’s moral compass can sometimes seem at odds with academic freedom, scientific inquiry and societal or cultural movements. Being different isn’t easy. And Notre Dame, in striving to be a truly great Catholic university, is trying to achieve something few other institutions in the world have even attempted.
Part of growing as a leader is to open the doors to divergent opinions, to let critics into the boardroom, and to engage diverse viewpoints and perceptions. Institutions cannot be insular or static. Both Notre Dame and GE have matured and thrived because of a willingness to try things, to explore and to change.
I know that Notre Dame is a force for good in the world. But sustaining that reputation requires a real and earnest engagement with that world, a certain level of give-and-take. Notre Dame is an international enterprise. You cannot bring about positive change in so diverse a world without working cooperatively with those who are different, who may disagree with you, but whose perspectives should be welcomed and seriously considered.
At the same time, we must adhere to core values – core values that ground each institution at all times. And it’s those enduring values that persist over time, that give an institution the confidence to engage in dialogue and cope with challenges without feeling threatened by different points of view. I believe Notre Dame to be an institution that knows itself well enough to welcome diverse voices and to embrace a lively exchange of ideas without sacrificing its fundamental nature and sense of good.
I encourage you to find and celebrate common ground where it exists. And where there are differences, remember that goodwill and respect are the best ways to foster understanding and that meaningful relationships are necessary to bring about the changes we desire.
In fact, I encourage you to see commencement as an opportunity to open and pursue conversations and strengthen mutual beliefs in order to build broader appreciation for who you are and what you believe. More than anything else, congratulations to the class of 2009 and their families. It’s your day to savor – individually and collectively – accomplishments dreamed about long ago.
Jeff Immelt is the chairman and chief executive officer of General Electric. He gave the Commencement address at Notre Dame in 2007.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.