1. 2017 Spring Commencement Address

    April 29, 2017

    (As prepared for delivery)

    Class of 2017, Congratulations!

    During your time at Michigan, you and your fellow students have worked with faculty to give us new insights into prehistoric Americans, a new interpretation of “An American in Paris,” and new knowledge about the farthest reaches of our solar system.

    Students were part of the excavation and research team that studied an ice age mammoth found in a farmer’s field near Chelsea. That discovery revealed that people may have arrived in Michigan more than a thousand years earlier than previously believed.

    Student musicians have performed versions of George Gershwin masterpieces that hadn’t been heard since the 1930s. The performances followed Professor Mark Clague’s discovery of the composer’s original intent for his works.

    Students also created the computer program that identified a dwarf planet 8.5 billion miles from our sun. That discovery is the second most distant minor planet ever found in our solar system.

    Graduates, these are just a few examples of your many contributions to the University of Michigan’s amazing legacy of scientific and scholarly discovery.

    We are able to make these discoveries, and many more across our campus, because at our heart, and in our mission, we are a research university.

    At the University of Michigan, the commitment to discovery is sacred.

    It was our first president, Henry Tappan, who transformed all of American higher education by proposing a university whose teaching and research would be grounded in open and critical inquiry. Tappan’s vision is the foundation of each of our 19 schools and colleges.

    To this day, in our 200th year, it’s what sets us apart. It defines our university, and it makes a U-M education different.

    The great philosopher and U-M professor John Dewey said that knowledge “authorized by inquiry” is produced by “a mode of intelligent practice, an habitual disposition of mind” — and that only the knowledge created through this inquiry is “entitled to be called knowledge, instead of being mere opinion or guess-work or dogma.”

    Here at U-M, students learn from professors who are creating new knowledge and asking the questions that are redefining their academic disciplines. They participate in discovery at the highest levels.

    The discovery process employs observation, hypothesis, evidence and logic, to arrive at a better understanding. Like the University of Michigan, it has stood the test of time.

    Without it, we would not be able to fulfill our obligation to society. The process of discovery
    is how we drive the cadence of human progress.

    It guides the creation and application of knowledge and will allow us as individuals and as a nation to make good decisions that lead to a happier, healthier, wealthier and more secure future.

    It is similarly useful for every discipline represented here today.

    Your outgoing Central Student Government President, David Schafer plans to work as an Urban Fellow in the New York City Mayor’s Office. His dedication to advancing human rights and shaping policy was informed by research he did with the Post-Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo.

    At its best, the discovery process guides our search for the truth and is the basis for everything we do — as scientists and as scholars. It prescribes that we design experiments and collect data to test our ideas.

    These experiments demand rigor and measurements that strive to challenge and eliminate human biases.

    Through the discovery process, we also welcome the opportunity to continually modify our conclusions and be persuaded to think differently, when confronted with new evidence or more compelling logic.

    When we encounter those who disagree with us, we say “bring it on,” and we invite them to prove us wrong.

    These are the great qualities that make science, science; and scholarly inquiry, scholarly inquiry.

    It’s the only way to create new knowledge. There are no alternatives. Facts must earn their status.

    Our institution has been doing this hard, but crucial work, for 200 years. You’ve been at it for 4 or 5 – or maybe a few more – at a place that’s not easy to conquer.

    That perseverance speaks to your talent and your values, as well, because one of the defining qualities of discovery, is that it’s not easy.

    There are three lessons about discovery I’d like to share that illustrate what I mean.

    First, sometimes your experiments will fail.

    That’s OK. It’s part of the process and how we learn.

    I have cabinets full of notebooks from my research days that document experiments that never got published. And they still hired me here!

    Second, sometimes your interpretations will be wrong.

    That’s OK, too, as long as evidence is the deciding factor. History gives us many examples. The immutability of atoms, the existence of canals on mars, the notion that there was no such thing
    as African history – all disproven by the rigor of the discovery process.

    We once thought peptic ulcers were caused by stress or spicy foods, until evidence showed most are caused by bacteria. Now you can take an antibiotic, pick the hottest spice level at No Thai, and eat to your heart’s content – all because of scientific discovery!

    Being willing to re-evaluate your own conclusions and those of others is essential. Discovery is never finished and understanding is never complete. And places like Michigan will always be training new students to come along and break your creations – or make them better.

    This is all part of the process.

    Harold Shapiro, who served as president at U-M and Princeton, said “Scholarship can be wrong, but it is seldom wrong for long and it remains a mighty engine for propelling us to a better life.”

    His words are a great segue to the third lesson: That our society will only advance to its full potential, if we use the knowledge created through the discovery process to inform decisions.

    This potential is why the University of Michigan and its graduates have an essential role in the modern world.

    There are still so many problems to solve – problems that cut across all disciplines, and demand the attention of all scholars and citizens: the scientists and humanists, the artists and historians, the journalists, the nurses, the psychologists and the poets – the leaders and best.

    So when you become the first person to create an original thought or discovery, make the most out of it.

    Use it wisely and share it broadly. Help humanity use evidence to make decisions that will better our society. Convince others that scientific understanding based on facts and logic, matters.

    Last weekend at the March for Science in Washington, D.C., U-M professor Meghan Duffy told the story of how her research studying a tiny shrimp-like creature called Daphnia, may lead to a drug to fight fungal infections in humans.

    Dr. Duffy is an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and she and her students were studying Daphnia’s role in lake food webs.

    They discovered that the creatures had chemicals that prevented fungal infections. Now they are testing to determine if there are human applications. Fungal infections kill 1.5 million people each year.

    As Dr. Duffy said, “This is how basic research works. Working on a topic with seemingly no direct relevance to humans can lead to breakthroughs that have enormous unanticipated impacts.”

    When I reflect on this great university, and when I see all of you, I realize why I am an optimist.

    It’s the scientist in me. I believe that there are answers to even the most complex problems, just waiting to be discovered.

    I hope you will never give up your search for knowledge and understanding. If you keep searching, using the lessons you learned here, you will always find them – because nothing can hide from a Wolverine forever.

    Class of 2017, when you go back through that Michigan Stadium Tunnel, you will take with you an education from the finest public research university on the planet.

    It is an education informed by two centuries of inquiry, by two centuries of truth, and – of course – by two very powerful words.

    Graduates, Michigan’s third century is now yours.

    Go discover. Go achieve. Go serve. And Go Blue!