University for Life -- Cerberus or Unicorn?
Vice-Chancellor and President
Orientation Summer 2022
4 June 2022
I am going to play a short piece of music for about three minutes.
Students, parents, guests and colleagues, good morning.
This piece of music just played is called Victory by a music production company called ‘Two Steps from Hell.’ This piece is different from what we used to play in the university’s events. It also means something, particularly after the COVID. And finally, after two years, we are having our first in-person orientation. I welcome our freshmen and freshwomen to the University.
Early this year, I attended an international conference in Stockholm. We were given a campus tour of the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology. When we came to the university campus, two statues stood at the main entrance. Each statue is a dog with three heads. If you have read Harry Potter’s stories or watched its movies, you may know that there is a three-headed dog guarding the Philosopher’s Stone in an underground chamber. The three-headed dog is originated from the Greek mythology. It’s called Cerberus. The Cerberus guards the entrance to the underworld. His job is to prevent the dead from leaving the underworld.
I wonder why having a Cerberus guard a university? Later, I found out that the Swedish Royal Institute of Technology campus was designed more than 100 years ago. What was it like 100 years ago? The world was still in the Second Industrial Revolution. Digital computers and silicon chips had not been invented yet. The task of a typical job was rather well defined, the process was fixed, and efficiency improvement came from more output being produced. The labor skills were highly specialized. And people didn’t change their jobs.
The architect designed to have a Cerberus guard the campus entrance. So, when students came to the university, they would focus on their study, and never leave the campus. The campus would be like the ‘Hotel California’ in Eagles’ Hotel California: “You can check out anytime. But you can never leave!”
Now fast forward to today. Today’s economy can be characterized as two acronyms, 4IR plus VUCA. Altogether, it means ‘The fourth industrial revolution with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous economy.’ What’s 4IR? Technically speaking, 4IR is about artificial intelligence, big data, internet of things, etc. Efficiency improvement will be made via enhancement in intelligent decision making. 4IR is about lots of cool stuff. But is that all? My answer is ‘No.’
Let me share a story. Lately, in my apartment, the water leaked through the shower door. Day 1, I told the manager. In the evening, he told me everything was OK. He said nothing wrong. So, he did not do anything. Day 2, I suggested to the manager to perhaps do X, he did exactly X, and the water still leaked. Improved but not solved. Day 3, I told him perhaps to do Y, he did exactly Y. Day 4, I suggested to try Z, he did exactly Z. And then I gave up, because I was running out of English alphabets.
This story tells us that there is no problem-solving mindset, no thinking, no attention to the results, no sense of urgency, no willingness to take a risk, and maybe fear of making decisions and making mistakes
This is not an isolated case. Just look at our Ready-Made Garment industry. Bangladesh’s RMG industry contributes to 80% of Bangladesh’s exports. And yet, the majority of the management are non-Bangladeshis. Do you wonder why? Hint: it’s not technology, not just technology.
4IR is not only about the cool stuff like ‘artificial intelligence’. It is also about fixing a shower door, and doing a proper manager’s job. The fundamental issue of 4IR is not only technology, but also, mindset and attitude.
What’s mindset and attitude? It’s so common sense that everyone talks about it but very few deliver it: problem-solving mindset, critical thinking, attention to results, sense of urgency, taking a risk, embracing mistakes and learning from the mistakes. And perhaps most importantly - Just Do It. Do, don’t just talk.
These skills shall all be part of core skills for 4IR and the VUCA economy. And these skills shall also be part of a student’s development in a university. But, these skills cannot be learned in a mere classroom setting. These skills can be learned most effectively outside the classroom.
For that purpose, at Brac University, after two years’ COVID delay, we will be launching some cool, amazing programs. All are outside the classroom, some are outside the campus, and some are even outside the country.
We will start to plan to move to the new campus. Here is a question that may interest you: “If we are to install a statue at the entrance of the new campus, what may it be?’ A Cerberus symbolizes something that is defined, fixed and uniform. I don’t know what you think, but I may prefer something that is imaginative, inspirational, agile, and unique.
I have traveled extensively. During my travels, I have found a fictitious animal carved, or painted, on sacred places – a horse with a single hone. Yes, a unicorn. What does a unicorn symbolize? A unicorn is considered rare, pure, magical, imaginative, and beautiful. And, a unicorn is also referred to as a startup company worthy of $1 billion, something valuable.
If we are to have a statue guard our new campus, I’d choose a unicorn. And that’s exactly my expectation on each and every one of you. Regardless of the subjects of your study, you can all be a unicorn – rare, unique, and valuable. As long as you are curious, purposeful, with problem-solving mindset and actions, you’ll find a way in this 4IR plus VUCA economy and you’ll contribute to the society in your own unique way.
How do I know? Because I have seen it. And it’s already happening. When I worked in the Silicon Valley and the Wall Street, my colleagues were from all types of disciplines. On an engineering project, I once worked with an anthropologist and a historian. On Wall Street, I worked with three stock market traders: one majored in mathematics, one in German literature, and the third one in classic Arabic.
And when I was at my startup, my head of marketing was a West Point U.S. Military Academy graduate; head of strategy a high school graduate, without a university degree; and head of operations a Harvard graduate. What bound us, was not the degrees or the subjects we studied, but our purpose to make a dent to the world.
I have always liked to use the example of Elon Musk. He has made lots of insane ideas into realities. His company SpaceX has launched more rockets than NASA in the recent years. Yet he was not even a rocket scientist before he founded SpaceX. He is an inspirational unicorn.
I recently ran into the story of Wasfia Nazreen. She has overcome her childhood hardships and become an influential social activist. She has scaled all the seven summits in seven continents. Not easy at all! She is an amazing Bangladeshi unicorn.
You may ask, “But I’m a quiet, shy type of person, can I?” Of course, you can. Any type. All types.
I have learned about the story of Kathrin Jansen. As head of Pfizer’s vaccine development in Germany, she was given a nearly impossible task: to create and test a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year. And she made it. Imagine how many lives she has saved. She is a quiet and yet impactful unicorn.
And just yesterday, I learned that a 25 years old Alexandre Wang became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire. He dropped out from MIT in his freshman year to start a data company. He is a fresh unicorn.
What do they have in common? Curious mind, having a purpose, solving problems, going for the results. And just do it. They are all unicorns in their own ways. Because of them, the world has become a more interesting place and, in my opinion, a better place too.
You belong to the generation called Generation Z. Gen Z cares about the purpose of work, more than my generation. Gen Z wants to engage in a career with purpose. This is great, because you’re born, just in time, for the 4IR plus VUCA economy. Your generation will have more opportunities to become a unicorn of your life than my generation.
And therefore, the university for life can no longer have the one-size-fits-all curricula; the university for the future can no longer have the one-size-fits-all graduates. It’s easier to educate all of you to be a uniform type of students. It’s more challenging to educate each one of you to be uniquely you. At Brac University, as long as I’m the Vice-Chancellor, we’ll take on, not the easy task, but the challenging one.
So here is my promise: we’ll never use a Cerberus to guard the campus; we’ll consider each of you a unique individual; and we’ll do our best to make the university a learning hub of life and for life. And here is my expectation: I expect you to be the best version of yourself, not somebody else; and I expect you all to become a unicorn in your own way.
During the Eid break last month, I travelled to a town by the sea inside the Arctic Circle. In the late night first night, I strolled along the seashore where the frozen sea met the floating ices. I watched the midnight sun set towards the sea. But then, the sun lingered on the horizon. It never sank into the sea.
Then I thought of what my mother had told me when I was little, “If you study hard, you may be able to travel far.” She was right, figuratively and literally.
I wish your journey takes you as far as you can, figuratively; And if possible, literally too, for the sky shall not be the limit. I want you to be a unicorn of your life, and if your luck permits, to be a unicorn of the society too.
Welcome to Brac University. We’re here to help each one of you with your unicorn journey.