FY2022 Degree Conferment Ceremony Remarks (24 March 2023)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University is proud to award 2,193 master's degrees, 169 professional master's degrees, 116 juris doctor degrees, and 541 doctoral degrees. Of these graduates, 511 are international students. Let me begin by offering my sincere congratulations to all of you on your accomplishments.

With today's ceremony, Kyoto University will have awarded a cumulative total of 90,441 master's degrees, 2,525 professional master's degrees, 2,765 juris doctor degrees, and 47,974 doctoral degrees. On behalf of the executive vice-presidents, deans and directors, and the Leading Graduate School program coordinators here today, as well as all of the other faculty and staff of our University, I would like to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you on receiving your degree.

According to Rekishigaku Jiten ("encyclopedia of historical studies") from Koubundou Publishers Inc, specifically its 14th volume, which is devoted to religion and scholarship, the system of doctoral and master's degrees emerged in 13th- and 14th-century Europe, with the establishment of universities as institutions for higher education and research. It is said that, in those days, degrees served as certificates that qualified faculty to teach at the universities after successfully passing a series of individual exams. Later, with the emergence of the concept of wissenschaft (academia) in 19th-century Germany, degrees began to spread globally as academic titles recognizing knowledge and achievements in specific disciplines, rather than as certificates of qualification. In 1911, Kyoto Imperial University, founded just 14 years earlier, granted a Doctor of Medicine degree to Hideyo Noguchi, then aged 34 and based in the United States. Noguchi had graduated from the Tokyo medical school Saisei-Gakusha, the precursor to today's Nippon Medical School, and obtained a medical license at the young age of 20. He then traveled to the United States at 24 to work as an assistant to Professor Simon Flexner in the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, where he would carry out research on snake venom. Noguchi authored a paper on that topic and submitted it to the Imperial University's College of Medicine, despite having no prior affiliation with the institution. It was for that study that he was awarded his doctorate. The conferment of that degree, issued by the education ministry, was reported in the official gazette as follows: "Hideyo Noguchi submitted his dissertation to the Kyoto Imperial University College of Medicine, requesting a degree. The college's faculty meeting recognized him as having academic ability equivalent or superior to those who have passed the examination required of its graduate students. It was thus that [the ministry] decided to award Noguchi a Doctor of Medicine degree, pursuant to Article 2 of the Imperial Ordinance for Degrees No 344 of 1898." This dissertation on immune reactions to snake venom, a truly excellent work in my opinion, remains stored to this day in our Faculty of Medicine's reference room.

Today's system of graduate schools as degree-granting academic institutions originated at Johns Hopkins University in the late-19th-century United States. It then rapidly spread across the country to other prominent universities. The United States' global leadership in scholarship and research since the 20th century is often attributed to the success of this system in attracting talented students from around the world to engage in cutting-edge research. In the US as well as in Europe, there exists a long history of individuals who received specialized education at highly competitive graduate schools and went on to play central and leading roles in not just academia but also many other spheres of society, including politics and economy. It may be natural, therefore, that an academic degree has become an assumed prerequisite for entry into the elite ranks of power.

On the other hand, a recent book by Harvard University Professor Michael Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit, calls attention to the negative effects of excessive "meritocracy", a phenomenon that he asserts has become pervasive in the United States amongst those with high educational credentials. His concern is that within this group, meritocracy may be causing a lack of empathy with the majority of citizens and a diminished sense of commitment to public welfare, possibly contributing to social divisions. He writes, "We are most fully human when we contribute to the common good and earn the esteem of our fellow citizens for the contributions we make," suggesting that today's power elite may be losing this kind of humility. While you might argue that in Japan, degree holders are not yet enjoying the social benefits of elite status, I tend to agree with Professor Sandel's statement about what can make us fully human.

In the meantime, we are today faced with a myriad of global challenges, including environmental changes and large-scale natural disasters associated with global climate change, infectious disease pandemics, population and food-related issues, and growing poverty and social inequality. These are all very complex and highly uncertain phenomena, whose solutions require more than just conventional academic and scientific approaches. In the 1990s, Jerome Ravetz, a philosopher of science at Oxford University, pointed out that there are areas in which science can pose questions but not provide answers, and introduced the concept of "post-normal science". "Normal science" is conventional science that operates in the domain of simple causality, and that has long played a direct role in improving our lives and guiding our decisions. In contrast, "post-normal science" corresponds to the domain of extremely complex and uncertain phenomena, of issues involving numerous stakeholders, and which is beyond the capacity of any single branch of science. Dr Ravetz suggests that due to their uncertain nature, these issues cannot be solved by existing AI, which relies on big data and ultra-high-speed calculations, and that their solution calls for the development of the "sciences of safety, health, and environment, plus ethics". The Covid-19 pandemic, which has affected nearly everyone on earth, is an example of an issue belonging to the realm of post-normal science. It has given us a unique opportunity to contemplate the roles that scholarship and science should play in our responses to and decision-making about highly complex and significant issues.

Meanwhile, the term sogo chi, or "comprehensive knowledge", has come into frequent use over the past few years. The emergence of this phrase, which as far as I know still lacks a universally agreed-upon definition, seems to reflect a growing sense of crisis about our inability to effectively respond to complex and intricate global issues — profound issues that belong to the domain of post-normal science — based on any single branch of science or piece of technology. Comprehensive knowledge, in my view, requires a foundation of academic and scientific diversity. The importance of diversity is today being emphasized on various levels with respect to individuals, societies, and humanity as a whole. Diversity is also believed to be a key factor in the survival and evolution of organisms in the natural world. Many organisms do not fully optimize themselves for a specific environment. It is known that a species may selectively retain a trait that does not offer it the greatest advantage in the given environment. This is known as "bet hedging", a strategy for increasing the chances of survival in the face of a drastic and potentially devastating environmental change.

For example, gene mutations, which occur in each individual with a certain probability, may produce alleles that offer less advantage than the original genes did in the given environment. Such alleles, however, will be maintained within the population as long as they do not cause extreme inconvenience. This is because having mutated alleles may prove advantageous in the event of a sudden environmental change, and genetic diversity resulting from mutations can increase the chances of survival and even contribute to evolution. The important thing to note here is that mutated alleles are not eliminated from the population, but are instead preserved and maintained until a major change occurs in the environment.

The same principle probably applies to science and scholarship as well. I believe that maintaining academic and scientific diversity is crucial to ensuring the continued existence of what we value about ourselves, especially in the face of an extremely complex, uncertain, and unpredictable future. It goes without saying that diversity is also an essential prerequisite for cultivating comprehensive knowledge and for conducting the kind of highly original research that Kyoto University has fostered since its establishment. You have gained specialized knowledge and scientific literacy in diverse fields of study, and may now be expected to be able to see complex global issues from multiple perspectives.

Now you are about to set out to assume new roles in society. Returning to what I said earlier about the conferral of an academic degree, it is more a starting point than an endpoint. While there may be various kinds of difficulties awaiting you, I wish you all the best in your future endeavors and hope that, as you work in areas that matter, you can confidently demonstrate the skills you have honed here, be needed by your fellow citizens, and be recognized for your contributions.

Once again, let me offer my sincere congratulations to each and every one of you.