After Thiel, What Next?


Jack M. Wilson, Thiel College ‘67

President, The University of Massachusetts

Speech at the  Thiel College Graduation Ceremony

May, 2004


President (Lance) Masters, Chair (Ronald) Anderson, Distinguished guests, faculty, and especially the graduating class of 2004.  I am honored and pleased to be here today to receive this honorary doctorate of Science.  Thank you for this recognition which is so much the better coming from my own alma mater.


When I learned that I would be the graduation speaker this year, I emailed many of my old friends from Thiel.  Several of them are here today: Jim Bergman, Fred McCullough, ?   One of them, my old roommate, Gary Fincke, is an internationally known author.  His advice to me in return was: "Give a memorable graduation speech."


Thanks a lot Gary!  A memorable graduation speech?  Isn't that an oxymoron like jumbo shrimp, military intelligence, or cafeteria food?


I asked several friends who had given graduation speeches, how they made them memorable, but they all just blushed and confessed that they probably were not!


So, I decided to give up on that foolish idea and instead concentrate on leaving you with a message for today, that you may remember long after you forget what I said and even who I was.  In the end, that is better anyway.


That message is:  "Work hard, play hard, focus on the things that matter to you (especially people), laugh at everything including your own mistakes, and set your goals high.  You can get there."



One of the  things that research has taught us about problem solvers is that poor problem solvers often try to analyze the entire problem at once and see their way all the way through to the solution.  Expert problem solvers, on the other hand, never spend much time trying to see the complete solution.

They just look at the problem and break off a chunk that they think they understand.  They solve that chunk and then look again.  Eventually, one chunk at a time, they solve the problem that they never thought they could solve.


That is the way life is.  It is almost impossible to see all the way to the end, but if you do your best on every chunk, you are sure to have life and life evermore abundant.


How could a small town kid from Western Pennsylvania ever aspire to become a Physics Professor, head the worlds major physics organizations, found a 500 million dollar company, meet three Presidents and the last leader of the Soviet Union, get surrounded by Russian tanks on the plains of Jena, be honored by several national organizations for innovation in higher education, travel to many of the interesting corners of the world, and become the President of a major University?


The answer?  He or she cannot.  No chance.  Unimaginable.  Forget it.

Simply put it out of your mind.  Can't happen.  ...... But it did.


Was this a grand plan on my part?  Hardly!  Is the story over?  I don't know.  I am still trying to decide what I want to do when I grow up.


Was this a grand plan that I put together in my youth.  Surely you jest.


Even the decision to become a physicist was somewhat random.  When I was about twelve, I got sick and had to stay home in bed for over a week.  My uncle brought me a great book that introduced me to the world of physics at a level that was only slightly above my head.  I loved it.  Besides, interesting and challenging things were going on in the world.  The Russians launched Sputnik and the world was abuzz with discussions about nuclear energy and how that would change the world for good or evil.  Besides, physics sounded hard, and I love challenges.  So at twelve years old, I decided to be a physicist.  Of course, I really had no idea what that even meant!


When it came time to look for a college, I was completely clueless.  No one in my family had ever gone to college except my grandfather and he had done that in Germany under very different circumstances.  Fortunately, I got lucky on a few standardized tests.


(I was always good at standardized tests.  I found it so upsetting that the rest of life had no standardized tests!)


I scored very high on the PSAT and SAT tests and was named a National Merit Scholar.  That attracted college recruiters from all over the country, but I still had no idea of where I wanted to go.  I narrowed the choices to Princeton, Lehigh, and Thiel.  Princeton, because that is where Einstein spent most of his career.  Lehigh, because it was known as a good technical school and it was not too terribly far from home.  Thiel, because I had met the Chairman of the Physics Department, Bela Kollosvary, when I competed in a regional physics competition at Carnegie Mellon.  My visit there convinced me that I did not like Carnegie Mellon, but I thought Dr. K was amazing. 


My father convinced me that I could not go to Princeton, even though I had a scholarship, because I could not keep up with the rich kids there as far as clothes cars, and social life.  I then picked Thiel because I loved the campus, I thought Dr. K was brilliant, and it was close enough so that I could hitchhike home on the weekends to see my girlfriend.  Somehow those decisions all seemed rational to a 17 year old kid.


In retrospect, even though any logical analysis of this decision would never stand up, it turned out to be the right decision for me.  I had a great four years at Thiel.  I worked with some truly outstanding faculty, had great peers in class with me, got a world class education and had a great time. 


Yes, I even discovered that Thiel had girls too, so I broke up with my girlfriend and stopped hitchhiking home on weekends.  I remember my last

hitchhike home very well.  It was November 22, 1963.   As I waited downtown near the corner with Rt. 58, a screaming woman ran up to me wailing that the President had been shot.  I assumed that she was deranged and pushed her away.  A trucker came by and I climbed up into the cab.  He said “hello” and then looked over and asked me to try to tune in the radio, because he thought he heard something about the President.  As soon as I was able to tune in the radio, the truth became apparent:  John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas.


Life really is random.    But it is not accidental.


After Thiel I went off to graduate school, I had a wonderful time in graduate school and managed to get out eight major publications by the time of my PhD in 1972.  Unfortunately, physics faculty jobs were essentially non-existent in that year.  First I took a job with Hughes Aircraft Corporation, but shortly thereafter I was offered a job in Texas.


Although Texas could not have been more unlike where I grew up, I thrived and had a wonderful career for 10 years.  I even met John Connolly who had been in the car with John F Kennedy when he was shot.


I became physics department chair after working there for 6 years.  Life was good.


I looked around the department one day at some of my colleagues who were in their 60's and had spent their entire career there and decided on the spot, that I would not follow in their footsteps.  I made a resolution then that I have held to ever since:


Work at a particular job for 7 years +- and then make a change in my career.

You have to be willing to focus for at least five to seven years on something if you really want to make a difference, but you begin to repeat yourself eventually and ten years is about the outer limit. I have held to that model ever since.  It did not mean that I had to quit, it only meant that I had to change my focus.  Sometimes it surprised people.   A few years ago, when I was working as the Director of a Research Center at RPI, I walked into the Provost's office and told him: "Well, Gary, it is time to get together a search committee for a replacement for me."  Dumbfounded, he looked at me and asked where I was going.  I replied that I had no plans to leave, but that it was time for a change.  It worked out fine for me.  I became a Dean and we hired a great replacement for me as the Center Director.


For years, I had been working on networked systems and studying the cognitive science research on how humans learn and collaborate.  My goal was to create new learning environments in the convergence of computing, cognition, and communication.  To make a long story short, I won a passel of awards, became an IBM consulting scholar, and spent much of my time traveling around the world talking about new networked learning environments at a time when networks were unknown to almost anyone except scientists.  As the rest of the world began to learn of networks, my work became more and more popular, and I spent a fair amount of time briefing corporate executives on what this would do to their lives and world.


One of those briefings was to a group of AT&T senior corporate executives at Bell laboratories.  They loved the vision I painted and asked me to create a new product for them.  I readily agreed, because they had money and I needed money to do my research.  I did create that product and delivered it to them for their "WorldWorx" system, but I also told them that I had an idea for a follow on product that would be much bigger  -  if only they would fund it!


They patted me on the head and told me to go back to RPI and be a nice Professor.  They liked my product and did not see the need or desirability for the follow-on.


Of course, I kept on developing my ideas and building prototypes on my own time.  Eventually an idea for both a product and a company developed, but I was simply to busy to take it any further.


One day, one of my graduate students showed up in my office to announce that he was beginning to plan for his upcoming graduation and that he wanted to share that plan with me.  He explained that he did not want to go to work for a large company and that he wanted to start a business in software.  When I asked him what he wanted to do, he said he wasn't sure, but that he wanted me to be the President of the company.


Life is random, but it is not accidental.


He had recruited one of his classmates with strong sales experience to join us in the venture.  I laid out my idea for a new product that used multicasting on networks, but I did NOT point out to him that no one had really been able to make multicasting work reliably and that most of the Internet did not support it anyway.  I was confident (foolishly) that these were all solvable problems.


The story of LearnLinc is far too long to go into here, and you can read it on my web site if you are interested, but the end of the story is that I sold out of the company on February 29, 2000.  In March 2000, our market capitalization on NASDAQ was over $500 million dollars.  The rest of the story is too ugly to tell here.  If I stop the story here, I sound either lucky or intelligent.  However, the truth is that I reinvested most of the proceeds and watched the market crash of 2001-2002 devour my expected retirement fund.


Now I found myself back at RPI as a professor, but profoundly restless when a headhunter found me and asked me to be the CEO of UMassOnline for the University of Massachusetts.  It sounded like fun to me.  It combined my passion for students, education, and technology. I liked the UMass team, and Boston and Massachusetts are among my favorite places in the world.  Within three years UMassOnline was serving 14,787 students and earning about $12 million per year for the university.  (Editors note in 2009: Today it serves over 45,000 enrollees and earns over $47 million per year for the University.)


When the President of the University resigned last summer, I was asked to step in on an interim basis and by last month, I was asked to take the Presidency permanently.  And, I am having a ball. (Editors note:  I still feel the same way after 6 years service in the summer of 2009.)


So there it is.  How could anyone plan such a random life?  Impossible.

Life has to be lived one chunk at a time, just like problems have to be solved one piece at a time.


Now, please do not misunderstand.  Do not wander aimlessly through life hoping that good things will happen.   That is a sure way to be sure that they will not.  Focus on those things that matter to you and prepare yourself as well as you can to do that. Don't worry if you cannot see clearly all the way to your goal.  Go for it. Give it 100%. 


Have a sense of humor.  That sure helps when you screw up, and believe me, when you attempt much you will fail often.  Failure is just another lesson in life.  One of the best.  Laugh, make a joke at your own expense.  Pick yourself up, and get back to work on what matters to you.  Remember that it is the people that matter and the rest will take care of itself. 


I left out some of the best parts.  Now you will never know how I got surrounded by Russian tanks on the plains of Jena or how I learned that a Harley Davidson is not a mountain bike near the top of the Maroon Bells near Aspen Colorado.  Don't worry, you will make your own stories and I am sure that some of them will be far better than any story I could tell.


Have fun.  Wish I could do it all over again with you.  I am sure I would do it differently next time.  I might go to Princeton, become a government official and have a boring life! But, whatever I would do, I doubt I could have any more fun than I have had with this life.


If I can do it.  You can do it.


Thank you.