(As prepared for delivery)
Good evening to you, the great Class of 2021.
Before I begin, I want to extend the sympathies of the University of Michigan to all members of our community who have been affected by Hurricane Harvey.
We have worked with our students from the area to assist with scheduling and housing needs. The difficulties are ongoing, and I wish everyone the best as they cope with the devastation. We stand at the ready to provide other types of help to academic communities in Texas and Louisiana, as well.
It is a pleasure to be here and help welcome you along with so many of your friends and families as new members of the Michigan family. Welcome, everyone, to the University of Michigan.
Students, I hope you are all moved in and ready to begin. On that note, I want to express a special thank you to the 700 volunteers who helped with our Move-In days this year. The planning and expert execution of this annual event is remarkable.
This year as always, I am impressed by the amazing qualities and spectacular credentials of the incoming class at U-M. You hail from all parts of Michigan, 49 of our 50 United States, and 67 other nations around the world. Get with it, Wyoming. You’re being left behind this year!
You are amongst the best and the brightest in your communities, and now you are here, at the University of Michigan, about to embark on the next phase of your lives.
I’d like to speak with you about two important topics this evening. They may seem unrelated, but I bet that you’ll see the connections.
First, I would like to encourage you to take charge of your own education.
A lot of people have played a role in getting you here — your teachers, your parents and your community have supported along the way. But now you are here, and a different question comes into focus: What is it that you want to get out of college? How are you going to figure out what you plan to do after your formal education is complete?
We’ll advise you, but these are choices and decisions you are going to have to make for yourself.
For our part, the outstanding Michigan faculty will be sure that regardless of what you study, you’ll learn: To read and think critically, write well, express yourself persuasively, hone your quantitative reasoning skills, and develop deeper expertise in one or more subject areas or majors.
But Michigan is about much more than just this set of important skills and knowledge. The truly successful students here learn how to define for themselves what they want to learn or accomplish here and later in life.
The best students explore, and take risks by engaging in things you might not think you are naturally so good at. You seek out experiences you haven’t had before, and develop relationships with people very different than yourself.
This is a first step towards living a more fulfilling life, a life with purpose and personal agency. When you take control of your own education, you also begin to take ownership of your future.
I want each of you to think of yourself as an entrepreneur. Not necessarily in the most common sense of that word, but rather as a person who takes ownership of their own destiny.
Entrepreneurs don’t fear uncertainty or failure. Entrepreneurs set big goals and they persevere regardless of obstacles, and they take risks.
I’d like to focus for a few moments on what I mean by taking risks.
One kind of risk I’m referring to is an intellectual one. If you’re good at math, take a poetry class, or better yet try linguistics. If you’re an economics whiz, take some biology or physics. If you’re a musician, take statistics or sociology.
You won’t truly be able to uncover your full range of talents without exploration that entails the risk of failure. You might discover novel connections between things you already know or you might uncover distinct talents you never knew you had.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t be a nerd, but rather you should be a fearless nerd with a sense of purpose.
Those of you who intend to conduct research with us here at U-M will inevitably encounter intellectual risks. It’s a risk to pursue knowledge when you don’t know what the outcome will be.
This type of exploration has been central to our success as a university for 200 years. Faculty and student researchers across the breadth of our university do it every day.
It’s led to cures for diseases, walking robots, new editions of Gershwin masterpieces, and software like Adobe Photoshop.
And beware — everyone who takes an intellectual risk will fail at times. That’s OK. It’s how you learn and make progress. It’s how you can turn ideas into actions that change lives, communities and society for the better.
In case you think this advice is just coming from me, let me quote an alum, Roger Ehrenberg. He has built his career and a venture capital firm on the idea that entrepreneurial approaches can be applied to solve problems and maximize opportunities.
“You are the founders of yourselves and your future,” he advises students. “Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to new students is the urge to be resourceful, to take ownership, to engage, to try without fear of failure. And to get all you can from your peers, professors, advisors and the community.”
There is yet another type of risk that is directly linked to our university’s mission, but it is far more personal.
It is the risk of thinking differently and deeply about an issue or idea that is familiar or better yet, one that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe that’s a different political stance, religion, or viewpoint that you haven’t encountered before. It’s also a risk to reach out and interact with someone from a different place or background.
The admissions office has worked hard to assemble a freshman class that draws from the incredible diversity of our great state, nation and world. Many races, religions, nationalities and cultures are represented among your classmates.
Some grew up in apartments in big cities and others on farms in rural communities. Some are immigrants to our nation, drawn here by the opportunity to study in an excellent academic environment.
As students, your richest opportunity to learn beyond the curriculum is to engage across your differences. Understanding the perspectives and lived experiences of others is the best way to understand yourself and become equipped to succeed in our increasingly multi-cultural and globalized society.
We learn more from people who are not like ourselves. We learn more when we critically and honestly examine views that are different than our own. We learn more when we listen with our hearts and minds open to persuasion. We learn more when we test solutions built from diverse perspectives.
We are a much better academic community when we learn from the unfamiliar, and from our differences. This takes practice, and college provides the perfect opportunity.
But I also believe that true commitment to your own education means recognizing when difference is not being used to enhance learning. And that’s the second topic I’d like to focus on today. When difference is instead used as a weapon to harm or threaten you or other members of our academic community.
Recent events are illustrative of the challenges we face in today’s political and social climate. The actions of the hate groups and white supremacists who caused the tragic death and injuries in Charlottesville last month are a horrific reminder that there are those who use our differences as human beings in the name of evil. They use difference to attack our shared values of peace, unity, equality and hope – and those who stand for them.
In recent years at U-M, we have been subject to despicable messages espousing sentiments similar to those of the hate groups in Charlottesville. Even this week, we saw hateful statements on the rock near campus on Washtenaw. Many students, staff and faculty have had their rightful place in our academic community called into question.
This is simply not acceptable. Rigorous discussion of conflicting viewpoints is one way we learn, but hateful displays by anonymous provocateurs do not enhance learning in any academic environment.
They are meant to discourage learning, disrupt lives, and incite fear. They seek to interfere
with our students’ ability to control their own futures. They take advantage of the role of the university as a marketplace for ideas and a bastion of free speech to spread hate and fear.
Let me first reassure students and families here tonight, that the physical safety of all members of our campus community is my first priority. I can tell you that our student life staff and our Division of Public Safety and Security feel the same way.
Second, I would like to reiterate to all of our students, from our own state, elsewhere around the country, and from all around the world, that you are welcome here. We are proud you have decided to pursue your education at the University of Michigan. You make us a stronger university and enrich our community and nation by your many talents, hard work, and the diverse perspectives and life experiences you bring to campus.
So how do we as an academic community respond?
First of all, we will not take actions that violate our responsibility as a public institution to ensure the Constitutional right to freedom of expression and to maintain our campus’ status as a marketplace of ideas.
You can count on me, however, to work within the law to protect physical safety and to speak out against racism, bigotry and hate of all kinds. A personal attack on any of us because of our race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, or political beliefs is an assault on all of us.
As students in control of your own education, you will each have to decide how to respond to these assaults as well. How will you prevent expressions of hate from seriously interfering with your education? How will you deny those who express hateful ideas power over us? Will you take the risk to speak out if your classmates are targeted? Will you reject a purposefully hateful speaker on campus by protesting, by instead seeking productive dialogue, or by simply ignoring them?
I began today by talking about responsibility and freedom as you embark on this next step in your academic career. We all share a responsibility for rejecting hate in our academic and campus environment here at U-M. And we all have the freedom to choose how we engage in and work to solve one of the most difficult issues that we face in our society today — the balance between freedom of expression and our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
I hope our choices begin with unity.
Actively supporting one another will help us build strength and resilience as a community and maintain control of our own educational goals and purposes. We are planning additional opportunities to get together to discuss difficult topics throughout the year.
The day after the Charlottesville tragedies, members of the U-M community and others assembled on the Diag for a vigil commemorating the victims and calling for an end to hate.
I know we face many challenges, and there is much more we must do to live up to the ideals that attracted you to our 200-year-old public university. But we are at our best, when we work together to ensure that everyone is welcome at the University of Michigan.
So that we all can have the freedom to engage across our differences. To learn. And to turn ideas into actions that change lives, communities and society for the better.
All of you, through your hard work and because of your talents, deserve this chance. You have earned your place here at the University of Michigan, along with the responsibilities that go with it.
Four years of intellectual risks and opportunities are before you for the taking. Go learn from them. Take charge of your education and your future. Help us build an increasingly strong and resilient community. Have a great and productive time at the University of Michigan.
And GO BLUE!