Rubin Advises Acting on the Certainty of Uncertainty

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WHEN Robert E. Rubin’s father attended college, he signed up for a philosophy course with a renowned professor. “On the first day of class, the professor debated the question of whether you could prove that the table at the front of the room existed,” noted Rubin, secretary of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in his address at Penn’s 243rd Commencement. “My father was, and is, very bright and very pragmatic. He went to the front of the room, pounded on the table with his hand–and dropped out of the course.”
    Rubin also took philosophy in college, but he came away with a different perspective. “I believe there are no provable absolutes,” said the man who has been lauded by both political parties for his adept management of the global financial crisis and his contributions to the rare combination of low unemployment, high growth and low inflation in the United States. “And it is that view that prepared me for the world of arbitrage on Wall Street, [an advisory position at the] White House and the job I now have.” (A job, incidentally, which he announced that he will leave this month in order to spend more time with his family.) “Since there are no provable absolutes, then all matters become judgments about the probability of different outcomes, and the costs and benefits of each–and on that basis you can make good decisions.

    Existential musings aside, it’s a fairly safe assumption that the 4,370 robed students assembled on Franklin Field before Rubin and a cheering crowd on the morning of May 17 did indeed exist and were about to become graduates of the University of Pennsylvania. Along with the usual exuberance and visual gags–including balloons shaped like surgical gloves waving proudly over the mortarboards of a couple dozen School of Medicine graduates–Commencement for the last class to graduate from Penn in this century was also the occasion for serious reflection.
    “We stand, somewhat anxiously, on the edge of the new century,” remarked Dr. Peter Conn, Andrea Mitchell Professor of English and chairman of the Faculty Senate, “staring back into the past and forward into the future, searching at once for the reassurance of continuity and the exhilaration of promise.”
    Rubin continued that theme, observing how the world has been transformed in the many years since he graduated from college: “Information moves at a dramatic speed. The decision cycle is far shorter. Economies and peoples around the world are closely linked … Global markets and technology have brought us together as never before.”
    Countries that were once “economically irrelevant” to the United States “today provide great opportunities for American businesses and consumers.” Those same nations, however, can experience financial upheavals “that affect countries around the world, including our own.”
    Some believe that America should turn inward in the face of these challenges, he added. “I believe that as most of the history of the 20th century shows, this cannot work … The world does not end at our shores–it begins there.”
    It wasn’t long, however, before Rubin moved on from the international arena to delve into a topic more immediately applicable to college graduates, telling them, “Effective decision-making is the key to almost anything you will do.”
    He left the Class of 1999 with four pieces of advice: “First, the only certainty is that there is no certainty. Second, every decision has a consequence. It is a matter of weighing probabilities. Third, despite uncertainty, we must decide and we must act. And lastly, we need to judge a decision, not only on results but on how a decision was made.”
    Years ago, he recalled by way of example, a securities trader bought a very large block of stock based on a predicted set of outcomes. Rubin, also “highly optimistic, but recognizing uncertainty,” took a smaller position in the same stock. When the projected events failed to occur, he said, “I caused my firm to lose a lot of money–in fact, they called a special partners meeting to discuss what I had done–but not more than they could absorb.” The other trader, however, lost his job for the damage he had done to his firm.
    More inspiring models than that unfortunate trader were provided by Peter Conn, who looked back into the University’s history to illustrate to graduates “an unbroken chain of intellectual and professional achievement” that “binds you to those who came before and to those who will come after.”
    Conn cited Benjamin Franklin, who “provided us with our charter and our distinctive vision of educational excellence”; the pioneering sociologist W.E.B. DuBois, who “taught here and published his landmark book, The Philadelphia Negro, exactly 100 years ago”; and Alice Paul, “scholar and champion of equality,” who in 1912 became the first woman to receive a doctorate in sociology at Penn–and who, just 11 years later, “wrote the text of the Equal Rights Amendment.”
    In the “struggle against disorder,” Conn added, “we rely upon the non-negotiable values that lie at the core of the university: a belief in the power of cultivated intellect, energized by a restless discontent with received opinion and governed by a commitment to the truth. So we persevere with a rightful confidence. Like Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, we know where we live and what we live for. Those of us joined here together today affirm our commitment to the primacy of rational inquiry and the disciplined investigation in the service of human welfare. I can think of no more honorable vocation.”
    Dr. Judith Rodin CW’66, president of the University, took the opportunity to reflect on changes that took place on and around Penn’s campus in more recent years. “You have certainly been at Penn during a time of building–building new academic programs, building new facilities and building on Penn’s standing as one of the premier schools in the nation,” she said.
    Rodin went on to praise the commitment of students involved in community-building service projects; the excellence in teaching exemplified by this year’s Lindback Award winners, and more concrete developments, such as the transformation of an underused parking lot into a new bookstore and the completion of extensive renovations to Van Pelt Library.
   “You were students here at an exciting and pivotal time for a university established more than two and a half centuries ago,” she added, “and I hope when you return for Homecoming and Alumni Weekend–perhaps when you bring your own children here on a sunny September day making the start of their freshman year–you will say fondly, ‘I remember when’ … As you graduate today from Penn’s community of scholars,” Rodin said, “let me be the first alum to welcome you to Penn’s community of alumni–a community that will welcome you with open arms around the world, a community that is bonded forever by the university that Benjamin Franklin built.”

And the Honorands Are …

Robert E. Rubin, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, for “redefining the role of the Secretary of the Treasury, blending economics and diplomacy to affect change in world markets. His is a portfolio without geographic boundaries and his impact is felt around the world as he balances the economic and financial needs and interests of a global economy.”

Dr. Isabella Lugoski Karle, head of the X-ray Diffraction Section, Laboratory for the Structure of Matter, Naval Research Laboratory, Doctor of Science, honoris causa. She established the experimental procedures used worldwide for molecular structure analysis using electron and X-ray diffraction techniques, “and her work has had an impact on the fields of chemistry, biology and medicine.” Her structure determinations provide the basic information for computer databases for molecular modeling and molecular mechanics programs.

Billie Jean King, director and co-founder of World Team Tennis, Doctor of Laws, honoris causa. She dominated the world of professional tennis, winning 20 Wimbledon Championships, 13 U.S. Open Championships, the French Open Championship, the Australian Open Championship and 20 Virginia Slims singles titles. She was ranked No. 1 player in the world seven times between 1966 and 1974, and founded both the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation. Her leadership “was instrumental in breaking down barriers for women in tennis, and for changing the perception of women in sport.”

Dr. Gerda Lerner, Robinson-Edwards Professor of History Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa. Her life’s work includes “pathbreaking scholarship as a founder of the field of women’s history, establishing at Sarah Lawrence College the country’s first graduate program in women’s history, and as a founder of the field of African-American women’s history, building the premier Ph.D. program [in this field] at the University of Wisconsin.” She also was a founding member of the National Organization for Women.

Dr. Earl Reece Stadtman, chief of the section on enzymes, Laboratory of Biochemistry, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health, Doctor of Science, honoris causa. He is recognized as “a pioneer in the field of enzyme regulation.” His work led to more recent investigations in the basic biology of aging, including studies of the role of oxygen radicals and the mechanisms of repair in damaged cells. He has shaped the careers of many eminent scientists, including Nobel laureates Michael S. Brown C’62 M’66 Hon’86 and Stanley N. Prusiner C’64 M’68 Hon’98.

Dr. P. Roy Vagelos C’50, retired chairman and CEO of Merck & Co., Inc., and chairman of the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Doctor of Science, honoris causa. His honors include membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. He will be remembered by Penn “as a man of vision, commitment and focus” who translated his “remarkable talents as a researcher and business leader into the effective leadership of an academic institution.” He became chairman of the Trustees in 1994 during the same week he retired from Merck after 19 years. Under his leadership the company developed life-saving drugs such as Mevacor, the first potent cholesterol-lowering drug, and Vasotec, which treats hypertension.

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