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Businessman Ron Autrey to JU grads: Never stop learning

As with technology, education never stops. If you let either pass you by, you will be passed by.

That was the core of Jacksonville businessman Ronald A. Autrey’s technology-centric keynote address at Jacksonville University’s 2012 Fall Commencement on Saturday, Dec. 15.

“Problems cannot be solved with the same level of thinking that created them,” Autrey said, quoting Albert Einstein while encouraging JU’s newest alumni to keep their thinking caps upon leaving campus a final time.

Of the record JU fall commencement class of 389 graduates, 169 of the 309 undergraduate degrees were awarded in nursing, while 51 of the 80 graduate degrees were awarded to master of business administration recipients.

The graduates hailed from 28 states and five foreign countries. Twenty-eight bachelor students graduated with Latin honors, which are awarded to students who earn a minimum GPA of 3.50 with 60 graded credits at JU.

Saturday’s event on a picturesque late-fall morning on the Science Green marked the final commencement ceremony for outgoing JU President Kerry Romesburg, who is retiring Feb. 1 after a 45-year higher education career. Romesburg arrived at JU in 2004 at one of the most turbulent fiscal periods in the university’s history and is credited with putting JU on track for long-term financial stability and growth.

Romesburg will be succeeded by 1981 JU alumnus and current Trustee Tim Cost, a consultant for PepsiCo whose most recent position with the company was executive vice president.

Autrey, JU’s Board of Trustees’ chairman, received an honorary doctorate of business and commerce degree at the commencement ceremony, as did retired banker and former Board of Trustees Chairman Billy Walker. Autrey and Walker are in the company of such notables as President Gerald Ford, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson, and publisher Malcolm Forbes Jr.

Also at the ceremony, Marc Anthony Cribb received the Fred B. Noble Medal for Scholarship awarded to the graduating senior with the highest grade point average. A graduate of Global Impact Ministries Academy in Jacksonville, Cribb earned a bachelor of science degree in computing science, maintaining a 4.0 grade point average.

The award is given on behalf of the late Fred B. Noble, who earned a JU bachelor’s degree at age 91.

Autrey is chairman and former president of Jacksonville-based Miller Electric Co. After returning to Jacksonville University to finish his business degree in 2001 and within five years of Autrey taking over as president in 2003, Miller Electric grew from a 650-employee company with $80 million in revenue to a 1,650-employee, $311-million business.

In his keynote address, Autrey provided a history of computing technology dating back more than 4,000 years. He recollected that as recent as the 1970s, he used mechanical adding machines.

“You may see them in old movies,” Autrey joked in a reference that many of the JU grads weren’t yet born in the 1970s. “You tap in the numbers and pull the mechanical lever to calculate the sum.”

Technology has become so important, Autrey said, “that authors, philosophers, scientists and engineers are writing hundreds of books about its existence and the unknown impact it will have on society, on our economy, and our global existence.”

Autrey noted that in May, IBM surveyed CEOs worldwide, asking them what would have the biggest impact on their organizations’ future. Their overwhelming answer: “Technology and a fear of falling behind the pace of changes in technology,” Autrey said.

Autrey recalled the late Jacksonville banker Charles Rice having the humble wisdom of realizing that his relatively small $40 billion financial institute would be unable to compete with mega-banks.

“He saw transaction costs that were previously measured in dollars and days drop very quickly to fractions of pennies and milliseconds. The capital costs necessary to achieve these efficiencies was staggering,” Autrey said.

“It was not that the larger banks were smarter in any way,” Autrey said. “What occurred was the result of technological advances in computing science and the operating systems and applications in banking. These advances reduced transaction times and increased data storage and processing speed exponentially.”

Indeed, Barnett Bank later sold to Nations Bank, and Nations Bank then merged with the Bank of America, Autrey said.

“Change was the topic 20 years ago. Exponential change was the topic of a decade ago. The exponential rate of exponential change is the topic today,” he said.

Autrey also discussed the theory of “technological singularity,” the notion that greater-than-human super-intelligence and, thus, unpredicted events may emerge through technological means.

“Technological progress has been limited by the basic intelligence of the human brain, but with the increasing power of computers and technology, we may be able to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity,” Autrey said.

A generous JU financial supporter who has served on the Board of Trustees since 2003, Autrey has received many prestigious honors, including JU’s 2012 Distinguished Alumni Award. Among his many other servant leadership posts, Autrey has chaired the Northeast Florida United Way Campaign and the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

Walker began his banking career with Atlantic National Bank of Jacksonville at the age of 17. After holding various managerial positions with the bank, he was named president and chief executive officer in 1974, and became president and CEO of its parent company, Atlantic Bancorporation, in 1976. Walker served as chairman and CEO of First Union National Bank of Florida until March 1991, and retired from First Union Corp., now Wells Fargo, as its vice chairman in 2002.

Walker was a member of the Jacksonville University Board of Trustees from 1980-2003 and was the Board’s chair from 1993-1996. He also is a generous financial supporter of JU.

Also speaking at the commencement was JU Alumni Board of Governors President Matt Tuohy, who welcomed the graduates as the newest JU alumni.

“The JU Alumni Association continues to grow in numbers, strength and stature,” Tuohy said. “We have mayors, CEOs, Hollywood producers, actors, authors, admirals, scientists, doctors, lawyers and professional athletes — even, now, university presidents (Cost). We have a basketball hall of famer (Artis Gilmore) and a former United States Comptroller General (David Walker) …

“Much like each of you has your own story to tell, so do the alumni that have gone before you. Collectively we make up a large and widely diverse group, tied with a common bond … our days here at JU.”