2022 Fall Graduate School Degree Conferment Ceremony Remarks (26 September 2022)

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Nagahiro Minato, 27th President


Today, Kyoto University is proud to award master's degrees to 92 students, professional master's degrees to four students, and doctoral degrees to 224 students. Of these graduates, 164 are from overseas. 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 total of 88,248 master's degrees, 2,356 professional master's degrees, 2,649 juris doctor degrees, and 47,433 doctoral degrees.

On behalf of the University's faculty and staff, I would like to extend my congratulations to each and every one of you on receiving your degrees.

A significant portion of your time at graduate school was spent amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has continued for nearly three years now, causing severe restrictions to be placed on your research activities on campus.

Yet, despite those difficulties, you pressed ahead and brought your projects to completion, and I would like to sincerely commend and congratulate each and every one of you on reaching this milestone today. Now you are officially recipients of graduate degrees from Kyoto University. At the same time, you are about to embark on a new journey, either within or outside of the academic world. The conferral of your degree today is therefore both an ending point and a starting point.

Kyoto University was founded in 1897 and is marking its 125th anniversary this year. The University has undergone some significant changes over its 125-year history, including in graduate education, where it has considerably expanded over the last few decades. Twenty-five years ago, in our centennial anniversary year, there were just 11 graduate schools, enrolling approximately 6,900 students. Today, we have 18 graduate schools with 10,000 students studying in them, including those registered as research students and preparing for degree program enrollment. This period has also seen a dramatic increase in the numbers of full-time faculty and staff members, and of postdoctoral researchers. Today, the former stands at nearly 7,500 and the latter at some 850.

The University has continued to intensify its focus on research over this quarter of a century, with seven of its 11 affiliated Nobel laureates, the most from any Asia-based institution, receiving their awards during this period.

On 18 June this year, our foundation day, we hosted a 125th anniversary forum featuring six of those scientists. Listening to their presentations and comments, I noted that despite representing different fields of study — physics, chemistry, medicine, and physiology — they had at least three things in common. Firstly, they share a strong desire for originality as the foundation of their science and philosophy; they have always been eager to venture into unknown territory and to tackle unexplored issues, rather than following trends. One of the laureates, Professor Tasuku Honjo, often says that trends are to be created, not to be followed. Secondly, they are all free-spirited, which I believe is key to originality. Dr Ryoji Noyori, another Nobel Prize recipient, says that excellent researchers do not care about location and would instead go anywhere in the world for opportunities to work on their chosen topics. In my case, I have relocated a few times for my research, from the United States to Japan's Kanto region, and then to the Kansai region. Those moves greatly helped expand the breadth of my research.

The third thing they seem to have in common is a conviction that genuinely original research will generate value for society at large. Their highly original work is rooted not in dogma but in something universal. Their achievements have in fact led to advances in a broad range of fields, including particle physics, organic chemistry, and molecular biology. Their findings have also paved the way for the development of key technologies for the treatment of intractable diseases and for energy innovation. I think that behind the extraordinary originality of those eminent scientists, we can see an unwavering faith in universality.

In the meantime, the graduate school as we know it today, a department centered on educational curricula leading to academic degrees, was first established in the United States in the late 19th century. Pioneered by Johns Hopkins University, this education system rapidly spread to major institutions nationwide. The Unites States' global leadership of scholarship and research since the 20th century can certainly be attributed to the success of this system in attracting talented students from around the world to engage in cutting-edge research.

Those who gained admission to highly competitive universities in the US and Europe were the "Best and the Brightest", and many of them went on to assume crucial leadership roles not only in academia but also in politics, the economy, and many other spheres of society. An academic degree thus became 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, raises the issue of meritocratic hubris, which he asserts has become pervasive among those with high educational credentials. His concern is that among highly educated people, meritocracy may be causing a lack of empathy with the majority of citizens and a diminished sense of commitment to public welfare. Some of you may have already read this book, which has been translated into Japanese.

While academic credentials are generally regarded as proof of one's abilities, Professor Sandel points out that two-thirds of Harvard students come from the top fifth of the income scale. He also writes that many of the academic elites attribute their admissions success to their own efforts and diligence, while largely ignoring their favorable life circumstances. It is in this context that he calls for a shift from a meritocratic society to a just community, writing that "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. According to this tradition, the fundamental human need is to be needed by those with whom we share a common life."

Notwithstanding the concern raised by Professor Sandel, the number of degree holders in the US and Europe has been rising in recent years. The situation, however, is quite different in Japan, where the ratio of degree holders in the population, already much lower than in any other OECD-member industrialized country, has actually been decreasing. Kyoto University is not exempt from that trend.

Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the education ministry has recently spelled out a series of possible solutions, including expanded financial support. As to the reasons for the ongoing decline in the number of graduate students in Japan, there are several possible explanations, but we can probably say simply that this country has yet to cultivate a social environment in which degree holders can fully exercise their talents and abilities.

In the meantime, there are certain qualities that I believe are expected of degree holders of all disciplines. Chief among them, in my view, is the ability to tackle challenges creatively, utilizing the academic knowledge and logical research literacy acquired through higher education.

Humanity is today faced with an array of serious global challenges, including climate change, large-scale natural disasters, pandemics, population growth, food insecurity, poverty, and other forms of social disparity. Perhaps your true value depends on how you respond to these challenges with the knowledge and scientific literacy you have cultivated in your respective fields of specialization. I am convinced that, even though it may take some time, Japanese society will recognize the true value of academic degrees, as you start to make a difference for the global environment and international community, utilizing your solid scholarship and creative thinking, and in the process becoming needed by your fellow citizens.

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 ending point. I wish you all the best in your future endeavors, and I hope that you can put the abilities you have cultivated here at Kyoto University to full use.

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