I was asked to give the faculty address at Stanford’s annual LDS Convocation, held in Stanford Memorial Church. This is the text of my remarks. Video production is by Ken Allen, posted with permission.
In Computer Science, our traditional greeting is, “Hello, world” So, “Hello, world!”
My task this evening is to join our identities as scholars and saints, and so I want to explain what I think is a particularly Mormon moral obligation we assume as members of the Stanford community.
When I think about what is different about myself now compared to when I arrived at Stanford one year ago, the thing that stands out most is the degree to which people care about my voice. To the newly arriving students here this evening, you too will soon experience this. For the rest of your life, people will care about what you say to a degree that they did not before and wouldn’t otherwise, because of your association with Stanford. Not only by virtue of the name Stanford, but by the skills you acquire here. In my classes, I’ve taught students the fundamentals of directly manipulating the memory of a computer. These are the same fundamentals underlying the infamous Heartbleed vulnerability. This is powerful stuff! All of you are much more likely to have close access to those in charge, and you are more likely to be in charge, wherever you go in life. In writing, teaching, speaking, leading, and in meetings of all kinds, your voice has just been granted a new and powerful megaphone. What will you do with this voice?
Let’s talk about meetings. Since coming to Stanford, I’ve been in innumerable of them. New students, I’m sorry to say that you should anticipate the same in your future! My strategy in meetings is that I concern myself very much with who will be there—I want to know their names, their job titles, their backgrounds. I want to know who the VIPs are, and who reports to me. I pay careful attention to where they sit, and where I sit in relation to them. I am acutely aware of everyone in the room. As Sheryl Sandberg wisely advises, I lean in. This is all good strategy, and I recommend it to you. But today we consider our Mormon moral obligation associated with the louder voice we’ve been granted, and I invite all of us to bring a new strategy to meetings. That new strategy is to focus more on who is not in the room.
Because we are there and others are not, do we not have an obligation to think of them and say what they would say if they were in the room?
Esther, Queen in the Old Testament, shows us the way. She had special access to the King that none of the rest of her people had. Rather than concerning herself primarily with how to impress the VIPs in the room, she kept in her heart the needs of those who were not in the room, and she courageously used her voice to speak for them.
In business, law, technology, academia, government–and in the church–are we not obligated to do the same? I echo to you the words of Esther’s adoptive father Mordecai to her: “who knows but thou art come here for such a time as this?”
You may be wondering why I consider this a particularly Mormon moral obligation. My inspiration for this talk comes from the temple. For our guests, I will explain that when we enter that Holy house, we are each given a small slip of paper bearing the name of a deceased person, often one of our own cherished ancestors. In a room on earth where they can no longer be, we say on their behalf the words they can no longer say.
In the meetings of our daily lives, will we perform the same service? If the business plan grinds the face of the poor who have no seat at the boardroom table, if the law serves a few at the expense of the many, if the script has no worthy role models for our girls, will you reach in your pocket and imagine holding a small paper there, bearing the names of those who need you to speak for them? Will you be the one to say the words they cannot say?
Can I ask an even more difficult thing of you? Can I ask you to do this before you are the #1 VIP in the room? As Stanford graduates, you are not unlikely to get there! But don’t wait. As Queen, Esther had access to the King in a way no other Jews had, but her very life was completely at his mercy. She did not wait until she had tenure, or made partner, or her options vested, or she closed the next round of funding, before using her voice. She was as junior an associate as there was on the court, but she used what access she had to be a voice for the voiceless.
I invite each of us to be that voice. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
October 9, 2014
4 February 2015: Awarded “Best Spiritual Post” of the year for Mormon blogs