(as prepared for delivery)
Good morning, Michigan graduates, and welcome to all of your family and other guests.
At an event last year organized by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, University of Michigan Professor Skip Lupia addressed the topic of “Communicating Scientific Facts in an Age of Uncertainty.”
“We all agree that science’s insights continue to transform our lives,” he said. “Given the range and influence of science in the world today, you’d think that science’s future as a generator of social value would be very bright. But it doesn’t feel like that, does it?”
As reported by the University of Chicago, which hosted the event, Dr. Lupia “described (this) process with a cognitive science term: motivated reasoning.”
Basically, this means that individuals prioritize information that aligns with their point of view, often at the expense of evidence.
The University of Michigan’s commitment to graduate education, on the other hand, values evidence in the pursuit of knowledge and understanding. It’s reinforced throughout the Rackham Graduate School, and is an essential component of your academic training.
Today, you graduate from the No. 1 public university in the nation in research productivity. You’ve worked alongside world-class professors and extremely talented classmates. You’ve posed novel research questions and relentlessly pursued truth.
But Dr. Lupia’s point about communicating facts presents a new problem as you embark on the next phase of your lives and careers.
How will you ensure that the public can discern what is factual or true from the vast amount of noise which sometimes contains purposeful untruths? And that the public will value the work of highly trained scholars.
The work of scientists, humanists and artists?
The voice of experts.
The contributions of University of Michigan graduates.
For more than 200 years, our university has conducted research for the public good. But how we engage beyond the academy in our third century will determine our success.
U-M Engineering Professor Ella Atkins has used her considerable research acumen to work with the federal government and NASA to directly influence national policy.
She says that “as engineers, we are looking to make the world a better place.”
Her truth is applying knowledge of systems in decision-making, in aerospace and in robotics, to make space flight safer and more successful. She has also recently helped to inform policies around drone use – because she saw there was a need.
“It became natural for me to ask these questions as a technologist,” she said, “and see what was happening in government and communities and try to understand how to help.”
The University of Michigan, along with many campuses across the nation, is examining how
to make the research, scholarship and expertise of its faculty and students more public-facing.
We are asking questions that include, how can we make sure that work that engages the public
is properly counted for the career advancement of scholars? What tools and skills do faculty need to more effectively disseminate their work for a public audience? And what other barriers must academic institutions overcome to unleash the talent and expertise of researchers in service of society?
Another challenge for early career scholars is the career risk of attempting to engage in public scholarship.
William Lopez, a postdoctoral fellow at U-M’s National Center for Institutional Diversity and a Ph.D. grad in Public Health, says younger scholars often feel like they are gambling with their careers because they don’t know if future employers will value this work the same way they do more traditional modes of research.
At U-M, we have made public engagement a major focus area, with extensive work taking place across our institution. We want all scholars to feel like they have the option to take their work in this direction and that its value will be recognized.
I want to mention just two U-M examples of relevance to our graduates.
First, our university is a pioneer in large scale two-way interactions between faculty and learners. Our Academic Innovation Teach-Outs have engaged nearly 60,000 learners around the world in topics as varied as free speech, fake news, the opioid crisis and hurricanes.
Teach-Outs provide an online forum for conversation and intellectual examination of modern issues. They are free, open to anyone, and bring together highly diverse points of view.
The Hurricane Teach-Out, for instance, included a learner who works for FEMA and is a graduate of our Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. He shared a valuable, real-world perspective on the aftermath hurricanes with the participants.
The second example is one that you may have participated in that provides experience in engagement.
The Rackham Program in Public Scholarship supports graduate students in reaching public audiences through research, teaching, and projects co-created with community partners and organizations.
Our overall approach to public engagement at U-M is one that I hope all of you will take with you, no matter what your next step is.
Engaging the larger society with your talents is not merely about public service. It should be embedded in everything we do.
For the university, it’s scholarship, teaching AND service. For our graduates, it’s how you pursue your career and your interests, and the ways you endeavor to create positive change in your communities.
Professor Harley Etienne of our Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning came to Michigan specifically because of opportunities to engage with Detroit. He views the discipline of urban planning as “the organization of hope,” adding that he wants to “contribute to the knowledge base but also our shared project of improving human conditions.”
“The symphony that is urban planning” he says, “is the magic of rigorous analysis and this marriage between analysis, speculation and prescription. We don’t just study problems, we actually offer solutions.”
I know that during your graduate studies with us, many of you have contributed knowledge that helps address important challenges and better understand the world.
U-M’s two most recent MacArthur Fellows both involve graduate students in their work. Commonly known as “Genius Grants,” the MacArthur Fellowships recognize exceptional creativity.
We are very proud that both of U-M’s 2017 recipients also share their work outside of the academy.
Anthropologist Jason De Leon and his students have provided fascinating new insights into human migration. They have examined artifacts left by people during clandestine border crossings in the Sonoran Desert, towns in Northern Mexico, and the Mexico-Guatemala border region.
Historian Derek Peterson and his students digitized half a million government documents that had been neglected in Uganda. Formerly housed in attics, sheds, and basements, the documents provide an unprecedented wealth of understanding about Ugandan culture and politics. The insights they provide are especially valuable because they are in the native language, not interpretations by others.
Graduates, I began today with Skip Lupia’s discussion of the influence of science.
Despite the uncertainty he has pointed out, I have every confidence that scholars like you can lead us to brighter future – using evidence and applying rigorous analysis as you’ve learned and practiced during your time here in the Rackham Graduate School.
I hope you will also take the risk to engage publicly.
Our society needs you.
As the journalist H.L. Mencken has written: “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem —neat, plausible, and wrong.”
Class of 2018, you have ability to address every human problem. To uncover the messy and complex solutions that can be discovered only through careful scholarship. To ensure the future of research as a generator of social value.
Thank you very much. And congratulations on your graduation!