Dean Feniosky Peña-Mora's Convocation Address

Aug. 31, 2009
I am pleased to be able to join President Bollinger, Provost Steele, Vice President Dirks, Dean Moody-Adams, Dean Shollenberger, Alumni Association President Colvin, New Student Orientation Program Coordinator Dehui Kong and the faculty in welcoming you, students, your parents, family and friends to today’s Convocation ceremonies.
Like all of you new first-years sitting out there, I’m a first-year. I just joined Columbia this past July. Like you, I am thrilled to be here and to be part of this great institution that traces its roots back to 1754.
I’ve been told that congratulations are in order. Each year, the impressive statistics about the entering class of both SEAS and the College show that each new class surpasses the previous year’s by all measures. You, the Class of 2013, and transfer and combined plan students, have set a new record as the classes before did at their time.
Collectively, you are among the most intellectually precocious, socially active, musically talented and athletically gifted high school students in the country and, indeed, the world. And, of course, also extremely modest about your many accomplishments.
You are following in the tradition of the classes that have preceded you. You are becoming part of an academic lineage that goes back to the founding of the University. King’s College, as Columbia was known then, in its founding mission in 1754, was charged to “enlarge the Mind, improve the Understanding, polish the whole Man [and today, also women], and qualify them to support the brightest Characters in all the elevated stations in life.”
To complement the teaching of what we now know as liberal arts, the mission of King’s College was also to teach “the arts of Number and Measuring, of Surveying and Navigation . . . the knowledge of . . . various kinds of Meteors, Stones, Mines and Minerals, Plants and Animals, and everything useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life.”
You can see that, from the beginning, Columbia has been an institution of and for engineers, and, as such, our School has had a long history of educating engineering leaders whose contributions have influenced the lives of the world’s citizens. Among the first was John Stevens, Class of 1768, who invented the technology that made possible early steamboats and locomotives.
As scientific knowledge grew, the need for specialization developed, and our School was one of the first of its kind in the country. In 1864, Columbia founded the Columbia College School of Mines, where all the scientific disciplines were contained. Within a quarter-century, the new school was turning out many of the country’s most prominent engineering leaders.
One was William Barclay Parsons, Class of 1882, who was responsible for building New York City’s first subway line, the Broadway line, with a stop right over there at 116th Street. If you are not familiar with that station, you soon will be as you use it to make your way south to the heart of mid-town Manhattan or north to Baker Field for football games.
Parsons was among the first Columbia engineers to have a global impact. In 1898, he traveled to Shanghai to become a primary surveyor for China’s 1,000-mile-long railway. He also was involved in the design and construction of the Panama Canal. He is definitely an early example of a socially-responsible Columbia Engineering leader working globally.
Stevens and Parsons are not the only giants on whose shoulders you will stand. Other great engineers and inventors from our School are peppered throughout the country’s history—all making advancements for “the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life.”
  • Michael Pupin, the developer of the transatlantic undersea telegraph cable,
  • Edwin Armstrong, who revolutionized modern radio communications in the early 20th century,
  • Hyman Rickover, the founder of the nuclear navy
  • Joseph Engelberger, the father of modern robotics,
  • Robert C. Merton, the 1997 Nobel laureate in economics,
  • and our two NASA astronaut-alumni, Mike Massimino, who, earlier this year fixed the Hubble Space Telescope, and Greg Johnson, who will pilot the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station next year.
We see you as the next generation of Columbia SEAS’s leaders, following in the footsteps of those who have preceded you and, in the fullness of time, becoming the giants for succeeding generations. You are the future of the School. As you take on more responsibility as engineering and applied science leaders, working on socially-responsible projects to improve the human condition, you will be impacting lives as significantly as Stevens, Parsons, Pupin, Armstrong, Merton or Massimino.
To help you achieve these goals, you will be taught by professors working on some of the greatest challenges to society as well as on “everything useful for the Comfort, the Convenience and Elegance of Life.” Two technological break-throughs immediately come to mind.
Every time you turn on a television or use a DVD, Columbia technology has made it possible. MPEG-2, the video and audio compression standard, is the core of most digital television and DVD formats. Thanks to the work of Electrical Engineering Professor Dimitris Anastassiou, we are the only academic institution in the MPEG-2 patent pool. And then there are the smart phones—and I hope you have your ring tones turned off.
These phones have sharper display screens thanks to Sequential Lateral Solidification technology developed by James Im, professor of materials science and metallurgy. These professors and so many others on our faculty are working at the intersection of the digital, physical and biological worlds to develop innovative solutions to problems that are, at once, local, national and global—problems that impact communications, infrastructure, health, water, energy, and sustainability.
In a modern restatement of our original mission, The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science seeks to educate socially-responsible engineering and applied science leaders whose work results in the betterment of the human condition, locally, nationally, and globally.
To achieve that mission, our philosophy of engineering education is one that has developed by leveraging the rich and vast intellectual resources of Columbia University as a whole. I call this educational paradigm “pi engineering”—not apple pie, but the Greek letter pi, which—I hope—you all know from geometry.
The first supporting leg of a “pi engineer” is the depth of knowledge you will gain in your engineering or applied science major; the second supporting leg is the knowledge you will gain through research experiences, entrepreneurship programs, community-based service-learning, and minors, both technical and liberal arts, available through the School or the College.
The over-arching connector between the two supporting legs is Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, the knowledge you gain in the humanities that gives broader context to your engineering and applied science expertise.
With this pi engineering education, you will be equipped to become the next generation of engineering and applied science leaders. You will make a difference. You will follow in the footsteps of the great alumni who have gone before you and you will set the footprints for the next generation of socially-responsible engineering and applied science leaders whose work results in the betterment of the human condition, locally, nationally, and globally.
I am looking forward to our first year together at Columbia. And by the way, I expect to see you all bright and early tomorrow morning at 9 a.m. at Havemeyer Hall for your SEAS orientation. I will be there to greet you personally and to make your first academic event at Columbia SEAS memorable. It will be an exciting four years together.
Thank you.
And now I would like to introduce Vice President Nicholas Dirks, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Franz Boas Professor of History and Anthropology.
Vice President Dirks came to Columbia in 1997 to chair the Department of Anthropology. His previous post was Professor of History and Anthropology at the University of Michigan, where he had also been the founding Director of the Interdepartmental PhD Program in Anthropology and History, Director of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, and Director of the Advanced Study Center of the International Institute.
A graduate of Wesleyan University, he joined the PhD program in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, from which he received his PhD.
Please welcome Vice President Dirks.


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