Final Exercises 2017: Pianta Speech

Robert C. (Bob) Pianta
Commencement Address, May 21, 2017
University of Virginia

Thank you, Mr. Rector for that generous introduction.  Members of the Board of Visitors, President Sullivan, vice presidents and deans, distinguished guests, faculty, students, family, and friends.  It is my honor to offer remarks today, and I am humbled to share this podium with the weekend’s other distinguished speakers.

Today’s ceremony prompts two memories – 30 springs ago, I was winding up my faculty interview when the search chair took my wife Ann and me on a tour of Grounds – It was one of those stunning sunny spring mornings.   We walked up the steps on the far corner and I saw the Lawn for the first time.  I recall the tranquil beauty and power of a place so long dedicated to human progress, learning, and ideas –– It felt like the past – embodied in physical space and buildings --connected with the present – and the thread was this commitment to the power of education in human lives and society.  I was all in.

More recent Lawn memories come from a decade ago, sitting in front of the Rotunda, on a late August Sunday, with the buildings reflecting the early evening colors. We faced the newly arrived first years for opening Convocation and the honor pledge, an event brimming with pride and anticipation --  an experience yoked to the occasion that spring of walking the Lawn in this direction, on another sun-splashed May morning --  when, taking care not to trip while walking up these steps -- I turned and for the first time faced those assembled for graduation. It was remarkable – a collective, communal instantiation of the work of a great university.

I suspect we each entered this place feeling a mixture of pride, uncertainty, excitement, and curiosity – I did, as a newly minted PhD.   Those feelings have morphed into deep appreciation and respect for your aspirations and work as students and our opportunity as faculty. Thank you for your choice to join us and contribute to the collective, dynamic transformation that is this University.  Thank you for participating in our journey from that end of the Lawn to this end.

Today we celebrate our unique work together – –– Although universities are often rightly critiqued as sclerotic and static – the same courses and programs year after year – every single person here today moved through this university together only once – we have been a community of the possible balanced by the gravitational pull of place – a yin and yang of history and potential, making this commencement a unique event. 

So -- congratulations graduates, and my deepest appreciation to those supporting you along the way – parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, family and friends -- thank you for the preparations that made today possible.  This moment launched long ago, and you bear much responsibility for the successes we celebrate.  I am humbled to stand here as a grandson and great grandson of immigrants, knowing that my participation in today’s celebration was launched by the risks they took moving here, by their hard work, and by their instilling in my parents a set of values and aims for their kids that enabled this opportunity.  And as a dad of two UVA grads (and proudly of one VT grad), a resident of the Lawn, and faculty member for many years, I am grateful for the role this institution has played in my own life.

Let’s get on with it.

Today we celebrate graduations from the University’s 10 professional schools – a notable share of the University of Virginia’s impact on the world –  we publicly certify your commitments to and success in your preparation for a wide range of fields -- each engaging world in a particular and practical manner –– preparation to act on the world toward certain ends.  We celebrate your promise and potential to solve big challenges.

One way I started thinking about this speech was by Googling “profession,” and here’s what appeared first:

A profession is “a specified activity and one’s main paid occupation rather than a pastime.” Not very inspirational and not a good way to start a speech.

Next popped up the Merriam Webster definition, a bit more high-minded than Google:

“a profession is an act of declaring or publicly claiming a belief or opinion” and “a calling requiring specialized knowledge and often long and intensive academic employment”

Note the emphasis on --

 engagement – a form of action,

declaration – a statement of identity - a claim about who you are

A period of training and apprenticeship, an evolution that culminates in qualification

Let’s reflect on three questions – What personal qualities drew you to your education?  What forms of learning have and will enable your success? And what experiences will you draw from as you make your mark in the years ahead? 

In other words, let’s make this all about you. 

What does your graduation from a professional school at UVA say about you?

At some point you made an explicit decision to receive the education and preparation required to enter a professional school at UVA – a place with both a high bar for academic standards and an expectation for leadership  --  That choice says something about you – your press for action or influence – in a sector or system or problem –– A choice to apply your energy and talent – to face out to the world --– There’s something enticing, from which you draw energy, when pressing into a problem instead of observing it.   Maybe it’s the action and reaction – the serve and volley of acting on the world and responding to what it returns to you – experience that brings a sense of vitality –

Your choice and training also create an identity – a shape and form for engaging the world – at some point soon you are likely to assert publicly -- I AM a … nurse, teacher, doctor, lawyer, engineer, planner, accountant, banker --   A declaration of your-self and a frame for the relationship you will form with the world.

What forms of learning have and will enable your success?

In your time here we hoped to cultivate two forms of learning  –  one oriented to a knowledge base --- principles of accounting, theories of human learning, provisions of constitutional law, the facts of anatomy and physiology, analytic methods, or the laws of thermodynamics.   I suspect that type of learning was familiar – get the textbook, memorize the facts, and reproduce them on tests.   That kind of learning leads to the test scores and grades you need to get into good schools, and you are all really good at it.

But recall Webster’s definition includes a period of preparation and training –  a second form of learning -- of the subtle skills needed to interpret and act in the amalgam of interests and aims surfacing around real problems, in real settings and real systems. 

The intriguing opportunities that entice us as professionals lie in the land of ambiguity, uncertainty, and risk – mastering this terrain is why professionals are also entrepreneurs and creatives.  Navigating this nexus draws on your unique synthesis of experience, knowledge, attunement, and improvisation in real-time.  Fostering these skills, barely detectable, or predictably reproduced, make your education unique. And frankly, higher education is only starting to elevate and explore this alchemy.  These skills, a situated form of learning, will distinguish your capacity to influence and lead change, and they are located in relationships.

Here I quote and paraphrase John Cacioppo, a University of Chicago Neuroscientist, who writes:

 “as we enter the third millennia of higher education, consider that facts and technology alone cannot elevate humanity, that relationships are not the antithesis of rationality, that relationships are an essential ingredient for, and an overwhelming obstacle to optimizing human potential.  Graduates should leave not only with an ability to think and build, but also with a heightened awareness to monitor one’s own and others’ emotions and relations, and to use the information to guide one’s thinking and action to the benefit of all

So it won’t be whether you know the latest facts (which you get from Google anyway) but rather how you recruit assets in the midst of ambiguity – how you build relationships, enroll stakeholders, establish mutual aims, and act – those skills will set the shape and slope of your professional pathway.

This situated, relational form of learning was described by the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky as “The Zone of Proximal Development.”   For persons, organizations, or societies, the zone of proximal development focuses on that entity’s capacity to master a complex challenge – defending an alleged murderer, turning a profit during a recession, teaching a seventh grader, compassionately caring for an aggressive patient, or managing a struggling non-profit – And the “zone” is the difference in accomplishment when facing that challenge alone --- or when working with a skilled teacher, mentor, coach, or leader ---

Vygotsky reminds us of this truth --  performance is always embedded in relationships  – there are no truly solo acts –– rather learning is potential activated by context -- an interplay of challenge and support --- too much challenge and not enough support, you’re overwhelmed and retreat --- too much support and not enough challenge, you’re not interested and so don’t engage--- and with the right supports, achievement can soar beyond the imaginable.

Let me offer an example.

Jeff Bulington is a chess teacher hired to live and work in a rural Mississippi county that fits the stereotype of “nowhere” – one streetlight and a lot of tough times, with little reason to think aspirationally. That was particularly true for the kids, enrolled in a school system regularly on the list of failures.

Bulington started teaching chess in the elementary school – to kids that had never even seen chess played.  From the incongruity and challenge of teaching and learning chess in rural Mississippi emerged curiosity, connection, a new and entirely unanticipated level of performance when the elementary kids dominated much older peers in winning the Mississippi state championship. 

Then, amazingly they upped the ante -- entering the nationals, most leaving town for the first time to face 1,500 of the best players in the country, for seven rounds over three days. Think of that challenge….

They lost 30 of their first 32 games…

Bulington observed, “they’re learning they have to struggle at a different level than ever before.”

Rather than fold, the players found new resolve and focus. To a person, they describe a Bulington mantra playing in their heads: “Let your opponent show you how they’d like to lose.”   With their self-esteem on the line, the kids trusted their coach, and found resources in a relationship.

And 18 months after their first exposure to chess -- Franklin County placed their 5th and 6th grade teams in the nation’s top 10. 

That’s learning situated in relationship --with the dynamics of challenge and support exquisitely titrated and choreographed by a mentor, a coach, a leader.


I would venture that your most memorable learning experiences were organized around a challenge that made you wonder if you were up to it – and an experience of working with someone or some resource – of relationship – that created – literally created – some new level of performance or knowledge in which you could take pride

You leave here as both learner and leader, so how will you navigate this duality?

In our work on measuring and improving classroom teaching – a role that Malcolm Gladwell compares to that of an NFL quarterback, the elements of effectiveness are anchored not in knowledge or even technical skills but in attention to the subtle, nuanced, momentary signals of learners –  to the serve and volley of engagement –

To work effectively in complex and ambiguous settings, I would argue those skills we seem to prize most -- collaboration, teamwork, leadership, are actually phenotypes of fundamentals –  attention, awareness, empathy, and perspective.  Your cultivation of these sensibilities, will determine success as a professional, as a leader, as a citizen.  How? Through relationships.

If I offer any advice today, your first order of business – as learner and leader -- is to take responsibility for your own zone of proximal development --  and assemble a support team of mentors and guides.   Don’t make this an accident, it’s too important.

And now the third question – What do you draw from here as you face into the challenges of our time?

You cross the graduation threshold at a worrisome time.  Unsettling in part because the anchors informing responses to the adaptive ambiguities of this epoch in human history – globalization; human capital development; equity and justice; climate, health; economic and social stability; governance, and perhaps even the nature of truth – have become unmoored and untethered.  We float, navigating without a compass or a north star. 

These and other intransigent challenges will not be addressed by knowledge alone – knowledge can describe disease but will not create health; mapping climate change and its causes will not create resilient cities; the wonders of technology make life easier for some and displace millions of others; decades of an education system focused on teaching and testing facts didn’t close the achievement gap –   Failure to design around problems in situated and systemic form too often leads to wasted human potential and political isolation.

Notably, the limitations of knowledge are proportional to the glut of information available -- a world in which information is commoditized and free on demand – but what good does it do that we can Google any fact?

The psychologist Carol Dweck, describes two distinct mental frames that shape leaders’ choices in navigating ambiguity and engaging intransigent challenges.

A deficit mindset triggers actions as a fixer; it equates challenges with a lack of resources; stakeholders are passive participants, and solutions determined by external forces. A growth mindset triggers actions as a facilitator; it assumes the presence of sufficient assets and interested stakeholders; and good leaders create conditions in which assets are identified, signaled, and mobilized.

In this frame, “solving” a problem is the polar opposite of fixing. Rather it is a restoration to health – such as using the body’s immune system to fight cancer, or schools enabling disenfranchised youth to follow their own interests as they learn; or when marginalized communities revitalize through self-organized planning.

When leaders focus on assets the power is transformative – it creates chess champions – it is in this sense of leadership that we become educators -- from the Latin root EDUCE –  meaning “to bring out or develop something latent or potential”

Let’s return to the kids in Mississippi.

One dad described the effect of winning as the kids realizing, “‘Wow, we are good.’ Having the realization of their own potential was a beautiful moment.” 

Bulington recalled, “People say, ‘I did not know that he could do that’, or ‘I did not know he or she was smart,’   Too many people got it wrong; kids have been underestimated or written off for reasons that are false.

And listen to this third grader, “I feel like chess could take us anywhere. But it’s not about where it takes us, it’s about how far it takes us.”         

These are words of the transformative power of learning – declarations of value and recognitions of worth and hope

As leaders, to elicit potential we must cultivate awareness, recognize and engage assets where, how, and with whom we work and live.    As we do this, in ourselves, in workplaces, and communities, we create resilience, open-mindedness, empathy, and respect.

What qualities will you need in a world of commoditized knowledge, rising divisiveness, and ambiguity -- where as a professional you own responsibility for results, and as a citizen have responsibility to others?  How will you respond when stakes – for you, the children you teach, the business and organizations you shape, the patients you care for, the communities you live in --  stakes rise while resources wane?  Where will you find your compass?  In professional ethics?  religious creed? cultural norms?  Or in your own unique constellation of values?

It is about you.

Increasingly I am convinced that values --- not knowledge, not technical and professional skills – are the determining factor for career and life --  One reason education at this place is unique – is our honor system -- a public and collective instantiation of values –


This institution was founded in part as an experiment in human development, in the education of young adults – for the first time in higher education religion did not play a guiding role and students were offered a broadening curriculum and wider view of the world – This was a project of conscious untethering of the enterprise of fostering human progress from the foundations around which it had been anchored for hundreds of years.   Without a religious core, guideposts were found in the confluence of self and community, a form of relationship.

As influencers --  --  you will engage a world that desires and demands your answers and action to daunting challenges…. in this crucible, you will establish your agenda and set your anchors –  I hope you take from here not only knowledge acquired and reproduced, but also an authentic experience of mentorship and learning situated in relationship – of the importance of self-awareness and honesty – and bedrock values of open-mindedness, empathy, and trust – if this was your journey these past few years, then the rest will take care of itself.

And as this institution navigates into a third century, you have a stake in that future – in scaffolding us to be relevant, influential, and constructive in the world – so we invite your attention, curiosity, and presence.

I was reminded of the power of this experience we share while attending a recent reunion with students I taught almost 20 years ago…  for me the energy connecting past and present was palpable --  sourced from the intimacy, creativity, and honor of participating in someone’s life journey. I was reminded that there is nothing so gratifying and humbling, as this process of co-creation that we call education.

Graduates, thank you for joining us for a time, for your openness to what we have offered, for what you have contributed to one another, to this place, and for what you will be in the world.  And thanks for listening. Congratulations.