The University of Michigan Winter Commencement
December 14, 2003
President Mary Sue Coleman
Good afternoon! I think it is very appropriate that your last official memory of the University is filled with snow!
Congratulations to all of you who are receiving degrees, and to those of you who have supported today’s graduates through their years of academic work.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge all of today’s graduates.
You have devoted years of work to earn these degrees.
But today, your long wait is over!
Let me ask all the families, friends, and faculty members to join me in applauding the newest crop of Leaders and Best!
All of these proud graduates would not be here today without the support of families, friends, and everyone who has loved and encouraged you for decades. They got you through high school, they happily made sacrifices to send you to college, and they are thrilled to see you graduate today.
I would like to ask today’s graduates to take a minute to thank their loved ones by applauding their families and friends for all their years of support.
I know that for many of you, these years have gone by very quickly, with the possible exception of a lecture or two that seemed to go on forever.
Remember the day you received your thick envelope inviting you to be a student here? It really was not very long ago—but think of the world of new experiences and friendships you have discovered in the years you have been here.
Those thick envelopes did not only provide an offer of admission—they were also invitations to a lifetime of opportunity.
We call our students Leaders and Best because we have a proud tradition of almost two hundred years of illustrious graduates who have led our nation and world in virtually every field of endeavor, at every level of contribution, from President of the United States, to presidents of universities, to presidents of civic associations.
Many of the undergraduates who are graduating today started college in 1998. It is hard to remember what was happening in September 1998, but fortunately for you, I had some time to look at the headlines from that month.
What were you reading then? On September 11, 1998, you may have joined the millions who went to the Web to read the best-seller that could not be bought in any store—the Starr report was accessed by so many readers on that day that a number of Websites shut down.
You might remember that in September 1998, a new company joined the dot.com boom with a name that no one had heard before:
Or, if you were reading the financial section of the papers, you might have noticed that the recommendations for stock purchases were for a safer company than the upstart Ebay—there as a major company that was expanding rapidly, and was considered a secure investment:
Students who were graduating from college in 1998 often chose to go directly into the job market, because jobs were so plentiful. So I especially want to congratulate those of you who chose to attend graduate or professional school a few years ago.
We all know what has happened since September 1998—
Ebay is in,
Enron is out,
the dot.com boom has gone bust,
and now students are returning to graduate school because many of those earlier jobs have evaporated.
And we no longer think of September 11 as the day the Starr report was released.
The world seems more precarious than it did then.
But this is a day of accomplishment, and of congratulations. I did not remind you of better days to depress you, but to have you realize how much the world can change, for better or for worse, in such a short time.
You have a responsibility as you exit the University of Michigan—a responsibility to fulfill the promise of your ability, and to contribute your talent in significant ways by putting your education to use in the world. If you face some initial challenges, I want you to remember that sometimes, the obstacle of adversity can send us down a path with opportunities we might never have encountered otherwise.
I want to tell you about two conversations I have had in the past month, one with a person named Mike, and one with a person named Jason.
I have become acquainted with Mike during my time as president of the University of Michigan, and had dinner with him last week. Most of you know him also—he is Mike Wallace, the investigative reporter best known for his decades of work on “Sixty Minutes.”
Mike is one of the proud graduates of our University. He came here as an undergraduate during a very difficult period in our country, the Great Depression. When I talked to him last week, I said that I wanted to interview him so that I could relate his experiences at Commencement—which makes me one of the few people who has been able to interview one of the great interviewers of our time!
These Depression years have been on my mind recently because of another famous graduate of the 1930s who visited our campus this semester.
President Gerald Ford spent several days here for the site dedication of the Ford School, meeting with students and presenting some public remarks. He pointed out the difficulty of finding the money to pay his tuition of one hundred dollars a year, as well as paying for food and lodging. While he was a student, he held several jobs, waiting on tables in different dining halls on campus. But he told us that despite his struggle to stay in school, the education he received at the University of Michigan prepared him for a life he never could have imagined.
Mike Wallace also found it difficult to make ends meet when he was a student in Ann Arbor. He traveled here from Massachusetts, where his father was a grocer.
He and his family were determined that he receive an outstanding education, and Mike had heard from an uncle on our faculty that the University of Michigan would be an excellent choice.
Mike applied to our University, and he got his own thick admission envelope in 1935.
But, he found different opportunities than he had expected. When he arrived here, his plan was to be an English major and possibly to attend law school. But his original plans were altered in a completely unexpected way. Our campus had a 10-watt radio station, and from the first day he wandered in there, he knew he had found his passion. When he graduated in 1939, he entered a world on the brink of war.
Like President Ford, Mike Wallace began a gradual ascent, first working in local radio stations, then serving as a communications specialist in the armed forces during World War II, and eventually finding his way into the new medium of television. Dare I say the rest is history?
There are so many lessons to learn from his experience—the financial hardship he overcame to get his degree, the change of direction he found when his aspirations shifted from law school to broadcasting, and the way he used his education to make a contribution to the war effort in the 1940s. And finally, he was able to put his experience to use in an entirely new medium, for which there was no formal training when he was a student!
He is a wonderful example of a point we make to our students—what you learn is not as important as how you learn. Of course, each of you is an expert today in your chosen field, but you will see that you have acquired a broad set of skills that will serve you in any profession.
I am sure that a number of you have veered from the paths you thought you would pursue when you came here, and perhaps today, some of you are planning to veer again after we award your degree.
But as you enter the next phase of your lives and careers, remember that even though Mike Wallace and Gerald Ford, and millions of others, entered the workplace in a time of economic decline, they entered it nonetheless and found a way to advance steadily as the economy recovered—as it always does.
I said I wanted to tell you about another conversation with a person named Jason. I have not actually met Jason, but I spoke with him on the telephone. He called Michigan Radio on a day when I had one of my regular call-in shows.
The topic that day was the funding of higher education in our state.
Jason went on the air, and he told us that he had not graduated from college himself, but that he thought the state was making a terrible choice in cutting funding for higher education.
I have thought about Jason since that call—perhaps he did not want to attend college, and perhaps he did not have the choice to go to college.
But I am touched by the fact that Jason understands the need to have excellent opportunities in higher education for our next generation and for the future of our state and nation.
What I wish I had told Jason is that even though he did not attend our university, we are working for him, and our graduates are making his world a better place.
This is a point we must all keep in mind—although we earn our degrees as individuals, we are providing a collective good by applying the education we have acquired to help change the lives of people who have never set foot on this campus. This is the reason I will continue to make sure that this is the best public research university in the world, and that we provide access to as many aspiring students as possible.
So take heart from the story of Mike Wallace, and commit your hearts and minds to Jason, and to everyone who values what we do here.
This is a day to remember that the world is better because we continue to have aspirations, we continue to contribute our talents, and we continue to make a difference. I want to conclude by reading a poem that was written almost a hundred years ago, by an Indian poet who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913, Rabindranath Tagore. It had lessons for a troubled world one hundred years ago, and can inspire us all today:
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action —
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.
We must all remember to keep the quest for knowledge alive, to broaden our thoughts and actions, and to avoid that “dreary desert of dead habit.”Every time we send a new class of graduates out into the world, we are sending our hopes with them.
I congratulate you on your achievements, and I know that your Michigan degree will provide you with a lifetime of the opportunities that come in those thick envelopes! Congratulations! And especially on January 1, GO BLUE!