Commencement address: Michael Rutter, associate professor of statistics

Mike Rutter, associate professor of statistics, speaks at Penn State Behrend's spring commencement ceremony.

Michael Rutter, associate professor of statistics at Penn State Behrend, gave the faculty address at the college's 2019 spring commencement ceremony.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

ERIE, Pa. —Michael Rutter, associate professor of statistics at Penn State Behrend, gave the faculty address at the college’s 2019 spring commencement ceremony, held Friday, May 3, at Erie Insurance Arena.

Rutter is an active researcher whose work often focuses on Presque Isle Bay. His 30-year study of tumor incidence in brown bullhead catfish was instrumental in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to lift the bay’s designation as an environmental area of concern. Rutter currently is working on a predictive model that uses weather data to help Presque Isle State Park’s leadership forecast when and where high levels of E. coli bacteria necessitate swimming advisories in the park.

Rutter holds a doctoral degree in fisheries and a master’s degree in statistics from Michigan State University. He also holds a master’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Tulsa and a bachelor’s degree in applied mathematics from the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford.

The full text of his address, “Three (Plus or Minus One) Hopes for the Class of 2019,” can be found below.


Thank you, Dr. Silver. Chancellor Ford, graduates, faculty, parents, family and friends: Good evening. To the Penn State Behrend graduating class of 2019, this is your commencement.

For approximately 210 of you, this will not be your last commencement. You will soon begin studying for master’s degrees, Ph.D.’s, law degrees, medical degrees, MBAs. I envy you.

About eight or nine years ago, I was fretting about turning 40. Hearing this, my mother told me, “Your 40s will be your best decade. You still have your health, your children will be entering their teens, money won’t be an issue. I loved my 40s.” I turned to her and said, “Mom, I spent my 20s (and part of my 30s) in graduate school. Can my 40s be better than that?” Begrudgingly, she said no, probably not. I liked graduate school so much, I never really left. So to you graduates continuing your education, good luck. And enjoy.

For the other 352 of you, this is your last commencement. Oh, you will be attending many more, for friends, for family, maybe for your children. But this is the last in which you will be the ones we are celebrating. For you, I think, this is a bittersweet moment. You are excited about moving on to the next phase of your life, but at the same time sad to leave the experience of being a college student behind.

Your formal education is ending. This doesn’t mean you will stop learning. Continuing to learn, continuing to pursue knowledge, is a noble, lifelong endeavor. Hopefully, we have given you the tools to continue that pursuit.

Now that you can no longer mark “student” as your occupation, you will have to start doing, for lack of a better term, “adult” things. Renting “nice” apartments or buying a house. Saving for retirement. Introducing yourself to strangers at social events. This last one can lead to some interesting conversations.

When I first started working at Behrend and living in Erie, I met a lot of new people. The introductions were not always smooth.

“So, Mike, what do you do?”

“I work at Penn State Behrend.”

“What do you do at Behrend?”

“I teach statistics”

“Oh, I hate statistics.”

I was stunned. I just met you and the first thing you tell me is that you hate what I do.

This was not a one-time occurrence. It happened again and again. At first, I thought I needed a snappy response. I said to myself, I’ll just claim to hate whatever it is they do. That will show them.

“Sorry to hear that. What do you do?”

“I run an orphanage”

“Oh, I hate orphans.”

Probably not the best response.

What I realized from this conversation is that even though some (although not all) people I meet really appear to hate statistics, I love statistics. It’s my job, my profession, and I love it. And I think that makes an excellent measure of personal success, to love what you are doing.

So that is my first hope for you, the class 2019: that you love what you do. That you have the passion for your profession that when someone tells you they “dislike” what you do, or tells you “I could never do that,” that you can brush those comments aside, and be proud of your career, your vocation.  Not every day, week or even month will be amazing, but as a whole you should love what you do.

Now, it may take some time to discover that profession, to find the pursuit that reaches this measure of success for you. Parents, this profession might not even be related to the degree that you child is about to receive. I should know. After receiving my master’s in applied mathematics, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in fisheries. My parents were thrilled to learn, after six years of college, I was changing majors again. After completing my Ph.D., I sort of doubled back and became a statistics professor. But I think I made the right choice.

Even worse, parents, this process may even involve your child moving back home, if only for a short period of time.

As I think back to the people who’ve told me, “I hate statistics,” this may not have always been the exact phrase they’ve used. Sometimes it was, “I hated statistics.” This is a subtle difference. Most people don’t hate a statistic, the mathematical construct. For example, people don’t hate the number seven, the number of riffle shuffles it takes to randomize a deck of playing cards. Or the fact that if you do shuffle a deck of cards thoroughly, you have created a sequence of cards that has never been seen, or will never be seen again in the history of the universe.

They more than likely hated the process of learning the science known as statistics. In other words, they had a less-than-great impression from their first statistics class. This is an excellent example of the importance of first impressions.

In his book “Blink,” the author Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment.”

This leads to my second hope for you, the class of 2019: that you remember that, at any time, you could be part of the experience that makes a first impression for somebody. Maybe you will be the math teacher who first introduces trigonometry to a young student. Maybe you will be the nurse that a patient first sees in a hospital. Maybe you will be the first accountant or financial adviser someone hires. These experiences could happen at work, at home, or even just walking down the street. And it will happen many times.

As an educator, the power of the first impression is a great responsibility. When teaching an introductory statistics class, there is a delicate balance between teaching the material, challenging students, and creating a positive, semester-long first impression that students will remember, hopefully for the rest of their lives.

The responsibility of the first impression is something that everyone has, but as new college graduates, it is even more important. There is the impression you will make when someone meets a Penn State Behrend graduate for the first time. There is the impression you will make on the first day of work. There is the impression you will make when first talking to someone about topics you are passionate about. There is the impression you make on a first date.

Making a good first impression isn’t easy. Keep a positive attitude. Be yourself. Be confident. Find common ground. Treat others as you would want to be treated. Sometimes you will be successful. Sometimes you will mess it up. Some days it will be easy. Some days you won’t have the energy, but you will need to try. You will learn from your success, and from your failures.

The title of this address was “Three (Plus or Minus One) Hopes for the Class of 2019.” I included a confidence interval for two reasons. One, because I thought it would be funny. This just goes to show you there are no funny statistics jokes. The other reason is if I had given the exact number, you would be counting along to see when I was about to be done. Well, without uncertainty, life would be boring.

I would like to end with the quote that Conan O’Brien used when he signed off from “The Tonight Show” in 2010, and again in 2011 at a commencement address where he plagiarized himself: “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.”

Thank you, and congratulations.