Office of the President

Amit Chakma's installation speech as Western's 10th President and Vice Chancellor

October 23, 2009, delivered at the University's 294th Convocation Ceremonies

Mr. Chancellor and Madam Chair of the Board of Governors, distinguished guests, colleagues, graduates, family and friends of our graduates, representatives of our sister academic institutions, dear family and friends.

I am deeply grateful to Western’s Board of Governors for giving me the privilege of serving as Western’s 10th President. I thank you for the confidence you have placed in me. I wish the Board, faculty, staff, students and alumni to know that I plan to give my heart, my soul, and all my energy to the service of Western.

To the graduating class, I offer my warmest congratulations. I have a very special bonding with you because, we each – in our own way – are embarking upon a new journey. As you continue to chart your new courses, I offer you my very best wishes.

I am humbled in recognizing that only 9 other distinguished individuals have had the honour and the privilege of serving as Western’s President over its 131 years. But I am also reassured in knowing that I’ll be standing on the shoulders of these 9 giants who came before me. I also offer thanks to the talented and dedicated faculty, staff and students – as well as committed alumni and friends – who have made Western such a great institution.

To my teachers, colleagues, friends and mentors who have shaped my past and my present, and to all of you who bring your warm wishes, I seek your good will and your blessings as I embark on this important journey in my life.

I have been told that my appointment symbolizes hope and possibility for future generations, regardless of their socio-economic, ethnic or cultural backgrounds.
Who would have thought that a boy from a tribe in the hills of South Eastern Bangladesh, facing challenges brought about by war and political conflict, would stand here before you, as the President of a century-old Canadian institution? Neither I nor my parents would have ever dreamt of this happening.

I was very fortunate to have parents who placed a great value in education. My father was a meritorious student but could not attend university because his family could not afford it. My mother did not have a university education either, but through her efforts she became a primary school teacher.

My parents had very high aspirations for their children. My father wanted me to be a scholar. He passed away just before I completed my PhD. I have no doubt that his “soul” is very happy today. I am very pleased that my mother and my two brothers and their families, my wonderful wife Meena, and our two beloved boys, Justin and Hiroshi, are here today to witness this moment of triumph for our family.

The story of my family is one of many examples of the strength of the human spirit. It is in many ways the story of so many – past and present -- who have come to Canada with dreams, ambitions and a determination to build better futures.

I assume Western’s presidency with boundless hope and unbridled optimism.  When I review the history of Western, I marvel at what has been accomplished over the past 131 years. This great institution was founded at a time when our young confederation, then barely 10 years old, was full of optimism about its future.

In 1956, confident about Western’s bright future, President Ed Hall urged the Western community to think of the next 100 years and called for Western to become the greatest university in Canada.  This is the time when the space race had begun, and five years later President Kennedy gave his famous “We choose to go to the Moon” speech. It was a unique period in history. It too was a time of hope and optimism.

In the following 50 years, our world has changed significantly. John F. Kennedy’s dream of a human walking on the moon was realized. Smallpox had been eradicated. The Information Technology age had begun. The human genome has been mapped. Society progressed. In Canada, The Charter of Rights became enshrined in our constitution.  Canada continued to open its doors to new waves of immigrants again and again. And a Prime Minister of Canada formally acknowledged the wrongs that had been done to our aboriginal peoples. And south of the border, Barrack Obama became President.

These are remarkable events symbolizing the outstanding ingenuity and resiliency of the human spirit. They also represent triumphs of “hope” over “despair”.
During this period, many great universities have contributed to these successes through their discovery and dissemination of new knowledge. Western in particular has achieved much and has indeed joined the ranks of Canada’s great universities.

I also recognize the gravity of the responsibility that accompanies being Western’s 10th president. The task of educating future citizens and leaders is a noble but daunting task. 

We need to educate leaders and global citizens of tomorrow -- who not only have a command of the core knowledge in their academic disciplines -- but who also possess the qualities needed to succeed in an increasingly technologically, socially, and culturally inter-connected, complex global village.

Our students need real-life opportunities to be exposed to a diversity of views and cultures in Canada and around the world. Let us take Western to the world and bring the world to Western.

We have a responsibility to educate future citizens who will make Canada a better country. Canadians know our future strength will have to come from our brain power and our graduates will be the source of this brain power.

While we pursue our global aspirations, let us also acknowledge that most of our campuses are still very much regional in character, drawing a vast majority of students from the surrounding area. Before we can become global citizens, we need to have a better understanding of our own country.

I have travelled across this vast and beautiful land and have had the privilege of living in 5 Canadian provinces. These experiences have enriched my life and made me appreciate the diversity and the richness of Canada and Canadians. It has instilled in me the importance of creating opportunities for our students to pursue higher education outside of their home provinces.

Let us make Western a destination for students from coast to coast to coast and become a truly national institution. Let us work with our governments to encourage students to seek their university education outside of their home provinces.

In addition to educating future citizens and leaders, we also have a responsibility to seek solutions for complex challenges facing our society. We need to find ways to facilitate knowledge transfer across the disciplines and create an environment that allows scholars from a range of disciplines to put their minds toward finding answers to these complex problems. It is through collaboration between the best minds from Western – with the best minds from other institutions in Canada and abroad – that we will become the research leaders of tomorrow.

Our world is vastly different from the 1950s when President Edward Hall challenged Western to be the best. The pace of change has accelerated. Western has changed as well. We need to continue evolving. This year we celebrate the 200th birthday of Darwin. In capturing his thoughts, it is said that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change. At Western, let us adapt to our new world and let us lead the change. 

It is time now for Western to have global aspirations. It is time for Western to educate “Global Citizens” and our future leaders. Let us have the courage to review our curriculum to ensure that we can meet the needs of our future citizens.

I call upon the academy to come together and elevate our level of aspiration so that Western can join the ranks of the great universities in the world by 2050, within the timeline set out by President Ed Hall. It will be a challenge and it will not be easy. But it can be done.

Our challenge is no greater than the challenges faced by those who put humans on the moon. It will take our sheer determination, hard work and relentless pursuit of excellence as a collective.

Some may ask, are we aiming too high? Will we have the resources to get the job done? Let us remind ourselves of a quote from Michelangelo: “The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark." At Western, let us set our aim high and have the courage to fall short.

I call upon Canadians to invest in education as a priority and a shared responsibility between our citizens and our governments. I can think of no better investment than in education -- from personal, societal, economic or national points of view.

The government of Ontario is to be congratulated for investing more in education in recent years but Ontario still remains the lowest funded jurisdiction in Canada on a per-student basis.  We need the provincial government to continue increasing university funding per student to the national average within a five-year time frame --  and then to raise it to the North American average in the following five years.

These are financially challenging times – which make it even more important for the Government of Canada to continue its support for research by doubling its investment in university research to ensure future prosperity for Canadians.

As graduates, you will have to work hard and use your ingenuity and creativity to find solutions to the problems that my generation has created. The food crisis, the energy crisis and the water crisis are a few examples of these problems. You have the power to make a difference.

As you embark upon a new journey, let me wish you every success in your personal and professional lives and let me leave you with the following remarks inspired by John F. Kennedy:  “Ask not what your country and the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world and humanity”.

Go out there, discover and change the world for the better. Come home to Western often and further enrich our community with your experiences.

Thank you very much.