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L. John Wilkerson urges USU graduates to "mess with world's status quo"

Saturday, May. 07, 2011

John Wilkerson

Highly successful business leader, community leader and philanthropist L. John Wilkerson reminded Utah State University graduates Saturday that they are building their lives in a country that allows them to be empowered, unlike in many of the world’s troubled nations.

So he urged the new graduates to take that good fortune and the responsibility that comes with it and build both career success and to move the world to a better place.

“Along with your career success, I urge you to find the big social issues that resonate for you, commit to them and do your part to move our world onward and upward,” Wilkerson said.

Wilkerson spoke in the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum during USU’s 124th Commencement Ceremony. He was one of five recipients Saturday of honorary degrees from USU. Others receiving honorary doctorates were: C. Hardy Redd, ranching and environmental activist and a supporter of religious studies; Syng-il Hyun, long-time supporter of learning and democracy in South Korea; Karen Haight Huntsman, philanthropist and community volunteer; and Mike Dmitrich, retired legislator and lifelong devotee of higher education.

Wilkerson told the students that talent, ambition and compassion are all attributes that are critical to their success, but not as separate traits.

“Each attribute by itself is necessary but not sufficient for success,” he said. “You have the opportunity to combine them and produce a better and just world while simultaneously building a great career.”

He said people should relish the idea that they can “reinvent” themselves at any age. Americans should be proud to live in a nation whose mantra is meritocracy -- a nation where people can celebrate personal reinvention at the ages of 20, 40 and even 80.

“Americans empower each other, and we define failure not as defeat but rather as a learning experience,” Wilkerson told the graduating class. “And when we are at our best, we combine meritocracy and compassion to create America’s ultimate ‘performance’ drink. Just a sip of this liquid is a potent fuel for human progress.”

He said he is reinventing himself again now, this time embracing what he called a vibrant youth movement whose aspiration is to make extreme poverty history in his lifetime. 

The Global Poverty Project, new in the United States, advocates changing broken systems that keep people poor. The project employs the most advanced social media technologies to attract, educate, engage and mobilize the persuasive and politically powerful 16-35 year old cohort.

“There are big social-justice issues out there, and the Global Poverty Project takes them on – we mess with the world’s status quo,” he said to cheers from the graduating students.

Wilkerson was a 1965 graduate of USU in biological sciences. He received both a master’s and a doctorate in managerial economics from Cornell University. He spent his professional career as a business leader, consultant and expert authority in the healthcare field, especially in the medical device industry.

His far-ranging personal interests include education, conservation, community health and the arts. He served as president and executive committee member of the New York City-based American Folk Art Museum, as a member of the Cornell Council and as founder and president of the E.L. Rose Land Conservancy.

He is on the executive committee of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and was recently appointed to the national board of the Smithsonian Institute.

Writer: Tim Vitale, 435-797-1356,

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