Happy 220th Birthday, Pitt!

Issue Date: 
February 26, 2007

2-26-07 Birthday

Following are the printed versions of the addresses delivered by Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Daniel E. Armanios, a University Honors College senior and 2007 Rhodes Scholar, at Pitt’s 31st annual Honors Convocation Feb. 23 in Oakland’s Carnegie Music Hall.

Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg

It is wonderful to be with you today, on this very special occasion and in this truly magnificent hall. Just across the street sits the most impressive academic building in the world, our Cathedral of Learning. And, as many of you know, the windows of the Cathedral’s upper floors provide magnificent views of the beautiful city of Pittsburgh, including its aptly named “Golden Triangle.”

But this is our Founder’s Day Honors Convocation. Next week will mark the 220th anniversary of our chartering. It is a time, then, not only to examine the present and to envision what lies ahead. It also is a time to celebrate our roots. Unfortunately, from what we now know about it, Pittsburgh in the 1780s probably was not a place that many of us, as citizens of the 21st century, would have found to be particularly appealing.

In his classic history of the city, Stefan Lorant described the then-frontier town as consist[ing] of “perhaps 60 wooden houses and cabins, in which live something more than 100 families.” The buildings were neither elaborate nor were they beautiful; they were simple structures made of unsquared logs. The streets before them were unpaved, dirty, littered with refuse, with dogs and hogs roaming through the mire. On rainy days one waded through the mud, in dry weather the dust rose in clouds.

One of the town’s leading citizens offered something less than a testimonial on the moral fiber of the community when he described Pittsburgh as a place where “all sort[s] of wickedness were carried on to excess, and there was no morality or regular order.”

If anything, outsiders seemed even less impressed. One visitor concluded simply that the town was an “excellent [place] to do penance in.” Another, commenting on the character of the people, said that they “appeared not only poor ‘but also extremely inactive and idle.’” A government official, temporarily posted here, noted in his diary that:
There are in the town four attorneys [and] two doctors . . . [but] not a priest of any persuasion, nor church, nor chapel; so that they are likely to be damned, without the benefit of clergy… The place, I believe, will never be very considerable.

According to the accounts of Lorant and of Robert Alberts, Pitt’s bicentennial historian, markedly more positive perspectives were offered by our University’s founder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge. This Princeton-educated novelist and lawyer, after assessing the formidable competition in his native Philadelphia, traveled west across the Allegheny Mountains to seek his fortune. When he came to this region, he loved it, and he stayed.

In the inaugural issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette—the town’s first newspaper, which he played a role in founding—Brackenridge wrote lyrically about his adopted home. He described the air itself as “constantly perfumed with aromatic flavor” and sang the praises of the morning fog as being “of a salutary nature…which the sun of the preceding day had extracted from trees and flowers, and in the evening sent back in dew, with it rising from a second sun in fog… .” In commenting on the seasons, he said, “There is not a more delightful spot under the heavens to spend any of the summer months than at this place… .Nor is the winter season enjoyed with any less festivity than in more populous and cultivated towns.”

As interesting as his positive counterpoints to the much bleaker assessments of his peers might be, what really distinguished Mr. Brackenridge had less to do with his upbeat take on the community in which he lived and more to do with his remarkable ability to see what that community could become. And, so, in looking at the humble settlement that surrounded him in the mid-1780s, he declared: “This town must in future times be a place of great manufactory. Indeed, the greatest on the continent, or perhaps in the world.” Many decades later, as is well known, Pittsburgh rose to meet that dimension of the Brackenridge vision—becoming a world center of manufacturing might.

But there was another—very important, more directly relevant, and, as things have turned out, longer lasting—aspect of what our founder foresaw. Recognizing that “the strength of a state greatly consists of the superior mental powers of the inhabitants,” he declared that “[t]he situation in the town of Pittsburgh is greatly to be chosen for a seat of learning” and said, “I do not know that the legislature could do a more acceptable service to the Commonwealth than by endowing a school at this place.” His goal—“to see Pennsylvania at all times able to produce mathematicians, philosophers, historians, and statesmen equal to any in the confederacy”—though we might express it more expansively, remains our goal today.

Woodrow Wilson once said that “[w]e grow great by dreams” and, using the gender conventions of the time, added that “[a]ll big men are dreamers.” Certainly, Hugh Henry Brackenridge had, and worked effectively to advance, big dreams. And 220 years after our founding, this University remains both the product of the Brackenridge dream and its perpetual fulfillment.

In fact, if, as the poet Matthew Arnold described it and as most of us believe, the world “seems to lie before us like a land of dreams…so various, so beautiful, so new,” then our University can be seen as an institution with a mission tied to the pursuit of dreams. It is an institution that not only stimulates and nurtures our aspirations but positions us to achieve them.

Many of our dreams, of course, are relatively modest—which does not mean they are unimportant. Most of our dreams are quite personal—thousands of them, no doubt, held secretly in the hearts of those who have assembled in this hall today. Some, like the dreams of Mr. Brackenridge himself, have had an impact unbounded by either space or time and extending far beyond the life of the “Pitt person” who was their original source.

Some of those Pitt dreams have dramatically changed the ways in which we relate to the physical world. Consider the case of Samuel Pierpont Langley, who first won international recognition as a brilliant Pitt astronomer for his programs measuring distances to and between nearby stars. In the early 1890s, while splitting his time between Pitt and the Smithsonian, his pioneering work on flight attracted the attention of many, including the Wright brothers. And in 1896, he sent two unmanned flights over the Potomac River—in each case with a “heavier-than-air flying machine” traveling at an altitude of 100 feet. This was a first-in-the-world achievement that paved the way for manned flight.

Some of those dreams have fundamentally changed the ways in which we interact with each other. Consider the case of former Pitt electrical engineering chair Reginald Fessenden, who advanced the then-controversial theory that radio waves could transmit human speech. He proved that theory on Christmas Eve of 1906, with the transmission of carols and a violin solo—the first voice and music transmitted by radio.

Some of those dreams have advanced the quest for ever-higher levels of human health. Consider the development on this campus—through the work of a team that included current Pitt Professor Julius Youngner—of the Salk polio vaccine. Consider that the late Peter Safar, a revered member of our faculty, was considered to be both the “father” of CPR and the founder of the science of critical care medicine. Consider the development on this campus—through the work of teams led by current Pitt faculty member Thomas Starzl—of both the surgical techniques and the drug therapies that have made human organ transplantation commonplace.

Or consider the case of Pitt graduate and former trustee Herb Boyer. The “gene splicing” work that he helped pioneer was said by Time magazine to have “forever changed the course of civilization.” That work also led to his founding of Genentech, which marked the beginning of this country’s biotechnology industry. Dr. Boyer and his key collaborator, Stanley Cohen, remain the only people ever to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science and the National Medal of Technology.

Or think about the work of Pitt graduate Paul Lauterbur, who developed the scientific foundation for magnetic resonance imaging, work that won him the 2003 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Or think about the efforts led by African activist and Pitt graduate Wangari Maathai—initiatives advancing sustainable development, women’s rights, and human rights, initiatives for which she received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. When Professor Maathai returned to Pitt last fall, 40 years after completing her graduate work here, she said, “I feel as though I am back home. I am deeply grateful for the gift that this institution gave me. I felt I was prepared to go forth, ready to serve the world.”

Of course, if Pitt gave something to Professor Maathai, as she clearly has said we did, it is equally clear that she gave something back to us. And that also is true not only of the other “Pitt exemplars” I have named but also of countless others among our “University of Pittsburgh ancestors.” The truly extraordinary triumphs forged by these “people of Pitt” are our legacy. To build effectively on the impressive foundation they have bequeathed to us is our almost-sacred trust. And we have many strengths upon which to draw in building our future—an ever brighter future—together.

We are fortunate to be a part of an institution with such a noble mission. Everyone connected to this University is contributing to the development of human potential, to the enhancement of human knowledge, to the deepening of human understandings, and, in a broad range of ways, to the advancement of the greater good. Whatever one’s particular role may be, being a part of that mission gives real meaning to one’s work life.

We are fortunate that we have each other. This is a community of exceptional people, whether measured by the power of their brains, the strength of their character, or the size of their hearts. The fact that we are “in this” together not only makes us far better at what we do but makes moving through difficult times more bearable and adds to the sense of satisfaction that accompanies the victories we are able to claim.

We are fortunate to be moving through a period when, despite the serious challenges we face, times at Pitt basically have been good. Our record of recent successes is, of course, a tribute to the commitment and creativity of tens of thousands of people who have worked hard to fuel our momentum and are determined to do their part to ensure that we continue to pick up speed.

Speaking more generally, we are blessed to be part of such a wonderful academic home—and acknowledging this general form of good fortune seems especially appropriate at a Founder’s Day Convocation.Who could possibly have foreseen, 220 years ago, that the Cathedral of Learning would have sprung from the muck and mire about which the contemporaries of Hugh Henry Brackenridge were inclined to complain? And when I ask that question, of course, I am referring not just to the Cathedral as a building but to everything that our “academic skyscraper” has come to represent.

It was one year ago this month that Pitt Professor Thomas Starzl received the National Medal of Science in recognition of his significant scientific and medical achievements as “the father of modern organ transplantation.” Dr. Starzl commented on that award with the grace for which he is known, saying, “The medal was most welcome. It was not, however, a personal distinction, but rather the recognition of a body of institutional work. The individuals whose names should adorn the medal are too numerous to list. Moreover, the fertile soil of the University of Pittsburgh did not exist in any other city or institution.”

As we come together for this Founder’s Day Honors Convocation, we gratefully acknowledge the contributions of our predecessors for everything they did to build an institution with such a proud past and such a promising future. We enthusiastically applaud today’s honorees, who have used the “fertile soil” of our University to grow such an abundant harvest of achievement and impact. By pursuing your individual dreams, by doing the work and taking the risks required to convert those dreams into something real, you have honored those who preceded you, you have brought honor to yourselves, and you have helped advance our shared and never-ending quest to clearly and consistently demonstrate that this is one of the finest and most productive universities in the world.

And as we think about the vast reservoir of still-untapped potential remaining in this room and how that potential might be applied to the challenges that exist in the world outside this building, it is difficult not to be excited about the opportunities that lie ahead. It is a great time to be at Pitt, and it is a great time to be from Pitt, and I want to thank you all for what you have done to help make it that way.

Congratulations on all of your many achievements. Best wishes—to you individually and to us collectively—for all of the important work that still lies ahead. And happy 220th birthday!

When we think about an enormous pool of extraordinary human talent just at the very early stages of being tapped, we naturally think first of our students. They are, as we all know, a group that possesses great talent, but what our students offer extends far beyond that. They are people of character and of commitment and of compassion. They also are good company and keep many of the rest of us feeling young, whatever the calendar says.

Our main mission in promoting growth within our student body is to create an environment in which all of our students have the chance to be the best that they can be in everything they do. And we know that if we successfully advance that mission, then some of our best students will become among the best that anyone can be.

One measure of our success is the outstanding record that our undergraduates have crafted in the most prestigious national and international scholarship competitions over the course of the last several years. Since 1995, Pitt can proudly claim two Rhodes Scholars, six Marshall Scholars, four Truman Scholars, four Udall Scholars, one Churchill Scholar (selected just last year, our first year of eligibility), three Mellon Humanities Fellows and
27 Goldwater Scholars.

This morning, two winners of these prestigious awards addressed our Board of Trustees. One was Anna Quider, the winner of both a Goldwater Scholarship and a Marshall Scholarship and a student responder at last year’s Honors Convocation. Anna is here with her family, and I would like to acknowledge their presence and congratulate her on her many achievements once again.

The other student presenter at this morning’s board meeting was Daniel Armanios. To put Daniel’s accomplishments in perspective, let me simply say that the list of scholarships won by our undergraduate students collectively would be far less impressive if his personal victories were removed from the tally.

Daniel arrived at Pitt from his hometown of Marietta, Ga., in 2002. He had been awarded one of two Donald Henderson Scholarships available to freshman enrolling in our School of Engineering. He arrived with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of intellectual curiosity, a powerful analytical mind, and a passion not only for engineering but also for politics and international relations. Not surprisingly, he quickly embraced a challenging dual degree program in mechanical engineering and political science.

My first opportunity to meet Daniel and to discuss his work came in 2004—when, as a sophomore engaged in innovative engineering research, he was chosen as a Goldwater Scholar, this country’s highest undergraduate honor in science and engineering. In 2005, he was named a Truman Scholar, this country’s highest honor for college juniors “with exceptional leadership potential who are committed to careers in government, the nonprofit or advocacy sectors, education, or elsewhere in public service.” Among other things, Daniel was recognized for his founding of “Session: Middle East,” an undergraduate forum for discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This year, Daniel was selected for both a Marshall Scholarship and a Rhodes Scholarship—widely regarded as the two highest, and most highly competitive, honors available to American undergraduate students. He accepted the Rhodes—which is awarded on the basis of “high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor”—because it will give him the chance to pursue Master of Science degrees in management research and dryland science and management at the University of Oxford.

Daniel’s many other honors include being selected as one of only 20 members of USA Today’s 2007 All-USA College Academic First Team. He was honored as a second team member in 2006. He also was chosen as a 2005 American Helicopter Society Vertical Flight Scholar and is a three-time National Science Foundation summer intern. He is an exchange and events editor for the Oxford International Review, and his own articles have appeared in the International Journal of Technology, Policy, and Management, the Journal of College and Character and Biomacromolecules.

The University is grateful to Daniel’s parents, Professor Mahera Philobos and Professor Erian Armanios, for sharing their son with Pitt for the last five years. And I now am pleased to share him, at least for a few moments, with you. Please join me in welcoming to the podium Daniel Armanios, an outstanding graduate-to-be who has won more of the most prestigious national and international scholarships than any student in Pitt’s 220-year history.

Daniel E. Armanios

Chancellor Nordenberg, Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, alumni, students, family, and friends of the University of Pittsburgh:

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., alone in a Birmingham city jail, came to a conclusion that would change the world. In that very dark and isolated jail cell, Martin Luther King wrote these words: “At the end of the day, it is not the words of our enemies that we will remember, but the silence of our friends.” Seeing the indifference of the human race to his noble cause, King looked to an earlier time when another people were fighting for the same cause.

Fifty years earlier, when India was fighting for its independence, Mahatma Gandhi told his comrades, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” Gandhi reminded King that no one else should be asked to lead the way to social justice except King himself. King later achieved what many people around the world thought would never come, the day when people began to be “judged by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin.”

King and Gandhi inspire us to directly seek change, and we have learned just as they have that this road is rarely trodden and comes with much pain and sacrifice. However, with each obstacle we must be convinced of the necessity of this road and the successes that result from it. We must find ourselves with each thorn desperately trying even more to be humble Samaritans because in our lives, we have seen too many indifferent Levites.

When we look at today’s news in the Middle East, it can often be very disheartening and hinder peace activism in the Middle East and North Africa. Hezbollah has again captured prisoners from Northern Israel and has again blocked the streets of Beirut; Israel has again entered into Lebanon after a six-year hiatus; Iraq is again embroiled in sectarian violence. With such ongoing tragedies all over the world and even domestically, as Hurricane Katrina sadly reminded us, I would be lying if I did not wish I was indifferent, because it is easier to be so. Such events truly bring to light the fact that caring comes at a very real emotional, mental, and even spiritual price. This is why public service is called inconvenient: It requires the difficult action we fearfully call sacrifice against the powerful nameless being we kindly call status quo.

But when we hesitate to do what we know is right because it might be inconvenient, we only need to remind ourselves of the sacrifices that our families have made for us. We come from a human ancestry where the generation of the present devotes itself to the generation of tomorrow. In the middle of the night, my grandmother took her two young sons and fled Abu Diab Ghraib, a small suburb of Qena in Upper Egypt, so they could have a better life in Cairo.

Without this remarkably courageous and selfless act from one woman in the 1950s, my father would have never reached the unattainable, and America, for me, would have been a distant dream. My father would later come to this country with exactly $198 in his pocket. Now, he is a college professor and the head of the NASA Consortium in Georgia.

My mother followed him from Egypt and was pregnant with my sister when she went through her doctoral qualifying exams. She later became a Zonta International Amelia Earhart Fellow, the only international fellowship for women pursuing aerospace sciences. Now, she is the Director of the Women in Engineering program at Georgia Tech, a college professor, and a former finalist for Atlanta Woman of the Year in Technology. They made their sacrifices for a single dream: better opportunities for their unborn children, my sister, Laura, and me. They had the faith to continue a race in which they knew they were miles behind so their unknown children could start on the same line as everyone else. I strive every day to have that same faith for my own unborn children. These sacrifices only join the many our families make for each of us daily. Their toils live through us and mandate us to reciprocate their gestures for our posterity.

Every day when we think about giving up, we remember our family’s struggles to give us this very pedestal we call an education. Every day when we think about giving up, we remember the words of the late, great Pitt alumna and trustee Bebe Moore Campbell, who said, “As I grow older, part of my emotional survival plan must be to actively seek inspiration instead of passively waiting for it to find me.” Every day when we think about giving up, our fellow students in this very University do not let us. Here are just some of their many stories, stories which never cease to inspire us. Through our diverse backgrounds and stories, I had the honor and privilege of calling these fellow students my friends.

Together, in my five years here, we worked to endure and overcome the unifying struggle for an education.
Aristides Papapetropoulos never saw himself going to college when he was working as a carpenter in Greece with a high school education. Six years later and multiple transatlantic journeys, he is now a master’s [degree] student in Manchester, U.K., with dreams of building bridges adjoining the many Greek isles. Brandon Gilbert was a star football player at nearby Carrick High School. Now, the first from his family to graduate from a four-year college, he is tackling an engineering career he never envisioned as a provisional admit four years ago. From her South African village,

Mamothena “Carol” Mothupi never thought life would bring her to the United States. Now, just like the great Nelson Mandela, the man her scholarship enshrines, she’s a youthful face of hope for her country. Bahdua “Reuben” Sirleaf survived rebel gunfire to arrive at refugee camps on the Liberian border. Through remarkable inner strength and an even more devoted grandmother, he is now an aspiring health information manager using computers he saw for the first time when he was 16.

These are the people and the stories we will remember. These are the stories the University of Pittsburgh helped make. These are the legacies 220 years helped create, diverse individuals overcoming immense odds and becoming great change agents. Any university can give you the laws of thermodynamics, the mechanics of economic growth, or an analysis of the works of William Shakespeare. Only at a school that prides itself in giving the general community the chance to raise its lot in life with the powerful tool of an education will you find true diversity.

This University and this student body are ready to empower even further change. In a world where more than 3 billion people stare at a daily income that equals the $2 or $3 we spend on our cup of coffee, our world desperately needs our skills. Who better to know the sacrifices necessary for change than our generation? Many grew up in areas where being a college student rather than a statistic was truly the miracle and product of sacrifice. Many know what it is like to have one parent take on the role of two by working many jobs and making many sacrifices.

These daily trials, unknown to many, are quietly responsible for the small victories and miracles that paint the mural of each day. Behind both our tragedies and victories in this microcosm we call our daily life, sacrifice is the one prevalent quality throughout. These sacrifices often come out of time-sensitive pressure where only direct action suffices. Whether it is that last-minute paper deadline or the final we have to ace, our best always seems to come out in the midst of some seemingly unalterable fate of failure.

Whether it is hunger, education, development, or AIDS, we have the tools to alleviate these problems. Whichever direction you wish to choose, whichever problems you wish to face, you can take control of that issue now. Just like Gandhi and King, we no longer need to wait to implement the great deeds of change.

The lessons learned through life give us each our own intimate annals of history. This is what makes life worth living and experiencing, being able to etch our own names in our own books and take pride in thse books when they close, no matter how small or large the audience. I hope we can all feel satisfaction in our books when they close, because there is much pain and sacrifice writing the pages of our still-open books. We must leave nothing regretfully unwritten, nothing wanting revision, and nothing that does not inspire progress.

I am honored, privileged, and, frankly, humbled to have been invited to address all of you as an equal. When I leave this University, people may remember most the awards and honors I received. However, what I will hold most dear are the enriching interactions I had with all of you, my fellow students and the faculty and staff. It is all of you whom I will remember. You all have inspired me, motivated me, and pushed me when I thought there was no way I could continue. For that, I am eternally grateful and indebted to each of you. It is you all I thank. I look forward to the struggles we will collectively endure, the greatness we will all create, and the positive changes we will together make. Thank you.