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Jackson School Commencement Speaker: Dr. Larry Faulkner

The 2008 Jackson School Commencement Speaker: Dr. Larry Faulkner, former President of The University of Texas at Austin.
The 2008 Jackson School Commencement Speaker: Dr. Larry Faulkner, former President of The University of Texas at Austin.

Thank you, Dean Barron.

How satisfying it is to be a part of today’s ceremony. This is an important moment in the life of the Jackson School. It is an important moment in the lives of today’s graduates. And it is a very important moment in the lives of parents and family members, who celebrate for more than one reason.

I have spent a lifetime in the academic world, but the magic of commencement has never faded for me. It is the time of fruition, the season when a school celebrates success in its most important work. And it is an overwhelmingly positive time. For a school leader, who, on other days, receives a steady stream of grumbles about athletic success, admissions decisions, budget allocations, or parking, this is a marvelous day! Almost no one is unhappy at commencement.

But of course, friends, you still have to endure the commencement speaker. I guess it’s one of those customs that we just have to respect. A little like academic regalia. No one thinks it’s practical, but neither does anyone seem to think that it would be commencement without it.

It has been said that a university president is a lot like the man who mows the grass in a cemetery. Many people are under him, but not many are listening. That analogy may also apply to the commencement speaker. I will try to be brief.

Let me start with the warmest congratulations to the graduates. You have completed your work in a distinguished institution. Not many in our society have succeeded as you have. Because you are encircled today by classmates who have met the same success, it is easy to lose sight of the distinctiveness of your achievement. But you have been at the task for a long time. You have persisted. You qualified for an education at a challenging and highly regarded university; you pursued it; you completed the work; you met the standards. Congratulations, indeed! You and your families deserve to take great satisfaction on this day.

There is pleasure for me today for yet another reason, for I was present at the creation of the Jackson School. At that time, I was President of the University and was involved in many of the events and decisions that led to the formation of the Jackson School in its present form, but I left office and the campus just after its launch as a collegiate unit. Now I can stand here and see it as a living organization, in a moment marking the successes of its people.

Mostly I hope to use this time to covey a bit about the founding of the Jackson Schools – about the reasons for its coming into being, about an extraordinary gift that enabled an extraordinary future, about a man who had such regard for a university and such ambition for your future.

The Jackson School of Geosciences was assembled less than three years ago by drawing together the three organizational units that now exist within the School – the Department of Geological Sciences, the Institute of Geophysics, and the Bureau of Economic Geology – which had previously been spread out in the University. Our vision was that by pulling together all three of these units – quite different in mission and organization and character, but having a common scientific focus on the earth and its processes – we could establish a more powerful enterprise, able to achieve at a higher level – at the top level worldwide.

Predating this reorganization, enabling it, and creating a powerful drive behind it was a gift of rare size and magnificence. On Texas Independence Day, March 2, 2002, Mr. John A. Jackson of Dallas, speaking for himself and his beloved late wife Katie, announced that he was committing the largest portion of his estate to the University of Texas. Mr. Jackson’s intent, expressed on the day of announcement, was that this gift would


…create perpetual revenue to support teaching and research in geology, geophysics, energy, mineral and water resources–as well as the broad areas of earth sciences, including the environment.”


On the day of announcement, the value of the estate commitment was estimated to be in the range of $150 million. By the time of Mr. Jackson’s death in 2003, the value was above $230 million. Because of residual benefits from the estate, the gift value will eventually rise above $300 million, perhaps quite substantially above that figure.

These are breathtaking numbers, but my point is not just to take your breath away. My goal is to help everyone here to realize that this one Texan invested powerfully in your future and issued a charge for excellence. The Jackson gift is among a handful of the very largest ever received by an institution of higher education in America. And it is focused entirely on your field – on the earth and its processes. Mr. Jackson provided the wherewithal for this University’s programs in the geosciences to be at the very top internationally, and he did so with great hope and confidence and expectation.

On that day of announcement in 2002, Jack Jackson said,


“The resources of the Earth have been important to me and to what Katie and I have been able to achieve. The continued study and understanding of geology and the resources and environment of the Earth will be important to The University and the citizens of Texas in the future.”


The truth of this statement, especially the forward-looking part at the end, has become only more evident in the six intervening years.

Let me take a moment to tell you more about this man, Jack Jackson, who did such an extraordinary thing. My title, “Thoughtful Ambition,” is meant to express what I saw as the very essence of his career, his approach to community and family, and his reach toward the University of Texas.

Mr. Jackson graduated with a degree in geology from this university, a credential and identity that he held proudly for the remainder of his life. He went immediately into federal service in support of the nation’s needs at the time of the Second World War, and spent quite a bit of time on finding and securing bauxite for the production of aluminum. After the war, he became interested in mineral geology relating to oil and gas and was modestly successful. Leading eventually to his great success was his fascination with a subsurface formation in the Fort Worth Basin, mainly in Wise County, just north of Fort Worth. Drawing upon his experience during the war with bauxite-bearing formations, Jack Jackson developed an unusual theory about how Wise County could become productive for natural gas. But he lacked the resources to follow up, and he had difficulty selling his novel concept to potential partners who could follow up. He stayed at it for years. Eventually someone listened, and the rest is – as we say – history. Jack’s insight was exactly right.

From Wise County, he built substantial personal resources. From his vision about the development of Dallas toward the north, he built more from land investments. Over time, he accumulated the remarkable estate from with the Jackson School now benefits.

This was a man who could see into the earth and into the future in very practical ways. He also had the courage to act on what he saw.

Jack was wholly devoted to Katie all their long married life until her death a couple of years before his. They lived in a modest and quiet way, with a strong commitment to community. Not only did they support this university generously, they also were major donors to Texas Lutheran University and Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, and they gave generously to countless other civic charities.

Jack believed that the University of Texas had enabled his career and professional identity and had given him extraordinary opportunity. He felt continuing indebtedness to individual teachers and mentors here, who had aided him in critical moments and who had helped him to better himself. He loved his association with the leading professional figures in geology whom he encountered among the faculty and the membership of the Geology Foundation.

Mr. Jackson made his magnificent gift to UT for two simple reasons: First, he loved his field and retained confidence that it would be everlastingly important. Second, he had experienced the enabling power of the University of Texas and retained confidence that it would provide that same power to generations yet to come.

Remember, this was a man who could see into the future. During his life, he invested accordingly and reaped great benefit. The Jackson School is his last great investment. What an honor for all of us. What an opportunity. What an obligation.

As I consider the Jack Jackson whom I knew, “thoughtful ambition” is the phrase that keeps coming into my mind. He was indeed competitive and ambitious in his career. He was definitely ambitious for this Jackson School. About that, he was quite explicit. The very top of international leadership is what he identified as the goal.

But raw ambition can be grindingly destructive. In his life, Jack tempered ambition and made it constructive with both thought and thoughtfulness. Ambition alone was not a driver in his life, as far as I could see or reconstruct. It was ambition coupled with an animating idea of value, an underlying concept or purpose. Jack seemed consistently to take the step that pushes ambition out of the realm of emotion into the more trustworthy arena of intellect and reason.

With his dedication to family and community, Jack Jackson also coupled thoughtfulness to ambition. His purposes generally included the future well being of others, even generations not yet born.

“Thoughtful ambition.” That’s what gave rise to the Jackson School. It affords a lesson for our individual lives.

Well, that’s mainly what I have to say. It seemed to me important that some speaker early in the Jackson School’s history take time at Commencement for a personal reminiscence of Mr. Jackson, and that role had to be fulfilled by someone who knew him well. I count as a privilege that this natural and honorable task fell to me.

It is customary in commencement addresses for the speaker to give advice to the graduates, but you will not get much of that today. There is not room for even a short sermon here. But it is still appropriate for me just to say this one thing to the graduates: As you proceed through life you will find a very few extraordinary people who handle important aspects exquisitely. Pay special attention and learn. In my life, Jack Jackson was such a person.

Fifty years from now, your world will be different. And you will be different because of your journey within it. You, graduates, are specially equipped for that journey, for there is no doubt that the earth and its processes will be matters of central concern in the decades ahead on the agendas of both science and policy. You are able and you are needed. My wish for every graduate here today is that you will reach a deep satisfaction over your ability to contribute and to maintain your integrity, an abiding joy over the experiences and affections that life brings, and a warm residue of exhilaration from the exquisite moments that you encounter.

Congratulations, graduates. We are proud of you all.