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U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

Speech by SEC Chairman:
Northeastern University Commencement Address


Chairman Christopher Cox

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

TD Banknorth Garden
Boston, Massachusetts
May 2, 2008

President Aoun, trustees, faculty, graduates, and friends of Northeastern University: it is a great pleasure to be with you on this truly wonderful day for everyone in the Northeastern family. And President Aoun, I very much appreciate your generous introduction. I'm at a loss to respond adequately. So instead I'll quote the words of humorist Robert Benchley, whose birthday it is today: "Drawing on my fine command of language, I will say…nothing." Except, of course, thank you — very much.

Standing here at the center of the Garden among the assembled legions of the Husky Nation, it's remarkable to behold what this institution has become. Northeastern has far surpassed the dreams of your first president, Frank Palmer Speare. But you've never lost sight of his vision. He believed strongly that the purpose of education is "to carry the work of the school into the home, [the] office and society."

All of us who are here this morning to honor and support the Class of 2008 are excited to imagine what each of you will carry into society. What amazing achievements will you add to the already impressive contributions made by Northeastern alumni? The graduates of this university have become leaders in every sphere of human endeavor, in 122 nations across the globe. I have no doubt that you will, too.

In thinking about what I wanted to say to you today, I asked several people what they remembered about the commencement speeches at their graduations. Rather remarkably, few of them remembered anything at all. Perhaps that's not so surprising. Because it's not that commencement speeches fall on deaf ears; it's that they fall on preoccupied ears - and rightfully so. This is a momentous occasion. After years of effort, and long nights, and seemingly endless final exams, you are actually, finally, graduating! The thoughts rushing through your mind this morning are surely more exciting than any that might be imparted by some elder pointing out life's do's and don'ts, or admonishing you that now, the real work begins.

I'm still going to say a few of those things, anyway. But if you remember just one thing, remember this: How this day feels. Savor it. Catalog and preserve this feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. Then, when someone asks you, decades from now, what you remember about your commencement, you'll remember the truly important part.

It turns out, some of the most memorable commencement speeches never took place at all. Such as Kurt Vonnegut's famous address to MIT graduates, which holds the record for brevity. Supposedly, the entirety of his address was this: "Wear sunscreen." Of course Vonnegut never said that, nor did he ever even give an MIT commencement address. And thus is illustrated one of life's don'ts: Don't believe everything you read on the Internet.

Just a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, I witnessed a commencement address I'll never forget. The speech was short, to the point, and enormously moving. It was given by the president of USC to a single graduate, class of 1943. Sixty-five years ago, he missed his commencement to ship off to the Philippines, where he became part of one of the most decisive campaigns of World War II in the South Pacific.

That graduate was my father. And the long-delayed presentation of his diploma was meant for all the men and women of his generation who traded Pomp and Circumstance for reveille, and who gave up their caps and gowns for olive drab. Perhaps, one of your own relatives was among them.

While my father's diploma two-thirds of a century after the fact came with its promises for the future already fulfilled, the diplomas you hold today are fresh and new. You can't know what will happen next. But one thing, at least, is certain: it is you who will decide your future. And I know that you, like your Northeastern forebears, understand that there are great purposes outside yourself. There are far greater callings than mere salary and capital gain. I trust that you will devote your talents and your skills not only to your own advancement, but also to the betterment of our communities and our world.

A half-century ago, Erwin Panofsky wrote that a graduate's most valuable possession is not the general knowledge acquired through lectures and readings, or even the more intimate familiarity gained in one's major field of study. It is, rather, the "ability to turn [your]self into a specialist" in any domain you choose. The degree you receive today more than anything underscores the fact that you have learned how to learn. And in so doing, you have mastered life's most valuable skill.

Knowledge is the universal currency, and it will never devalue. It is the pound sterling of our time — and you not only own much of it, but you have acquired the ability to make it. In essence, you are your own mint.

And never has the gift of lifelong learning been more valuable. In years past, the things one learned could be counted on to remain somewhat constant. At the least, facts acquired in school would be operable long enough to sustain a career. But technology is changing all that. The workplace knowledge and skills we acquire now have a much-reduced shelf life, and learning must constantly be refreshed.

Technology is spreading and advancing knowledge faster than ever before, spurring invention — and creating new hazards and threats as well. To cope with this constant change, you will have to be more intellectually nimble than any generation before you. This is, therefore, the perfect occasion to consider briefly the meaning of these changes that future technology will constantly make in your lives.

What kind of change do I mean? Let me illustrate by giving you an example drawn from my experience with the agency I lead, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

The SEC will turn 75 in just a few months. Since 1934, it has collected information from companies whose stock is publicly traded on U.S. exchanges. And it has made that information publicly available to investors and the markets. The purpose of all of this public information is to help you as an investor to decide which stocks, or bonds, or mutual funds to buy. But for most of the 20th century, the information was made public by mailing small bits of it to shareholders once a quarter, along with a more substantial report once a year. If you wanted to actually see the complete filings with the SEC, you had to come to our office in Washington and inspect them in person.

In the 1970s, the SEC designated a handful of public reference rooms around the country. But it was still exceptionally difficult and expensive to get to see the documents themselves. Then in the 1980s, when Apple was introducing the Macintosh, and IBM gave us the PC, the Securities and Exchange Commission started planning for companies to file their reports by computer. The new system was called EDGAR, for "Electronic Data Gathering and Retrieval System." And although it was essentially just an electronic filing cabinet for the 1930s paper forms, EDGAR brought us into the computer age.

But the most important part for our purposes this morning is that the SEC's new technology took over a decade to implement. Companies were phased in to EDGAR so that this 1980s idea wasn't fully in place until 1996. And even at that, foreign companies got until 2002 before they had to file electronically. The SEC's transition to the computer age was so slow by today's standards that you could almost sleepwalk through it. This is not the kind of change I'm talking about that will characterize your future.

Your world is going to be marked by change at truly blinding speeds. Think about how different your experience has already been compared to the SEC's transition to electronic filing that I just described. During your adult lifetime, the Internet has been a given — and, if I might take a moment of personal indulgence to note a pet cause of mine, it has been tax free. Keeping the tax collector from your email is among my most cherished accomplishments in Congress. I pass the mantle of that cause on to you.

You have not only seen the advent of global, instant, always-on, personal telecommunications and computing, but you have helped shape it. As part of the Millennial Generation, you are the force that drove innovations such as MySpace and YouTube — and as they have passed into the mainstream, you have witnessed their replacement on the cutting edge by dozens of new social networking services and virtual worlds.

No sooner are these new technologies introduced than they surprise their creators by proving useful in unexpected ways. For example, the latest peer-to-peer networking services are becoming powerful tools for information sharing in health care, and they are serving as sites for global intellectual collaboration in science and the humanities, as well as business and finance. They are even a boon to organizers for charities and social service providers. And of course, it won't stop there.

Here is a glimpse of what else might be in store:

For starters, there is teleimmersion — which combines virtual reality with collaboration technology. It will let you feel as if distant individuals are actually there with you. And when you turn your head, your view will change, just as if you were in the same place with them.

New manufacturing techniques will combine nanotechnology with biology — producing, for example, a contact lens with imprinted electronic circuits and lights that generate the ultimate heads-up display. You'll absorb video, text and graphics from a midair virtual screen that only you can see. Someday, your employer might see you staring off into space, and think, "Good! She's working."

Your laptop will no doubt soon be a lumbering relic. Computers will be wearable, blended into the fabric of your clothing — making obsolete even Vonnegut's apocryphal advice to wear sunscreen. Sunblock will be out; pop-up blocker, in.

There will be sensors both in your environment and, if you choose, on your person that record all the sights and sounds around you. So that anything you experience could be retrieved and re-lived. A virtual, automatic diary. We can only imagine the applications — for elderly people with short-term memory problems, or people with autism, or those with hearing and sight disabilities.

You'd even have a sure-fire way to remember your commencement speech.

This is the kind of breathtaking change that will be the distinguishing feature of the rest of your life. For all the good these changes will undoubtedly bring, there is disturbing Orwellian potential, too. Keeping that part in check will be a grave responsibility.

Perhaps technology's greatest impact won't be on the gadgets you carry, but on your own health and life span. The odds are, perhaps half of you in the class of 2008 will live to be one hundred. Of course, living longer means saving more money to survive through a much longer old age. For those of you keeping track, yes, this is the part where the SEC Chairman gives you fatherly money advice. So listen up; I'll make it short.

The fact is, most Americans do a poor job of planning their finances for the future. And given the daunting demographics facing Social Security, you're going to need a plan. You'd better start now.

One great resource is the SEC's online investor education program. Check out what the $50 in just one graduation card from your aunt can turn into by age 70, if properly invested. Then check out the tips on how to avoid scams — and while you're at it, show your grandparents our senior anti-fraud initiatives. Most importantly of all, you will soon be able to exploit the SEC's new technology for investors that is leaving EDGAR in the dust.

In just the last few years, a lot has changed at the SEC when it comes to technology. Today, the time from concept to consequence is no longer measured in decades — in fact, it's often mere months. And right now we're on the threshold of completely remaking financial disclosure using interactive data. Instead of an electronic filing cabinet for 1930s-style forms, every item within an income statement or a balance sheet will be individually searchable and downloadable.

The information that companies provide to investors will be infinitely more useful than ever before. You and the entire marketplace will be able to compare any information you choose for thousands of companies in an instant.

We've come a long way from the days when in order to look up corporation information you had to personally visit the SEC's public reference room. Very soon, RSS feeds will send the latest SEC filing to you, on your desktop or your handheld, without your even having to ask for it.

But future tools such as this that will automatically gather information and do other tasks — whether to help you invest, or for use in any other area of your life — will never eliminate the need for thought. In fact, these new tools will depend upon your knowledge and creativity to use them well, and to guard against their misuse.

It will be those with intellectual curiosity and a commitment to a lifetime of learning who will master this new world of interconnected knowledge, and who will thus have the opportunity to bend it to the service of their fellow human beings.

As the ancient proverb tells us, "We are more than the sum of our knowledge; we are the products of our imagination." So imagine your future. It's dazzling. Because above all else, you have learned how to learn. We are proud of you. Make the most of what you have been given, and what you've earned.

And if, on some beautiful May morning in the coming years and decades, any of you happens to recall something I've said today, I'd love to hear from you.

Congratulations, Class of 2008 — and Godspeed!


Modified: 05/06/2008