University Graduate Exercises 2006
April 28, 2006
For our graduates, I know the tremendous pride I feel in your accomplishments is only a fraction of the emotion you are experiencing, and rightly so. Graduate school is hard work. Period. You have conquered it, you are soon-to-be Michigan alumni, and I congratulate all of you.
For the parents, siblings and spouses of these new owners of master’s and doctoral degrees, today is a celebration of your love and encouragement. You are just as responsible for the success of graduation, and I would like to ask our graduates to join me in applauding your families.
Graduates, you leave here to join world needs you, and your intellect, more than ever. We are in dire need of great minds that are eager to collaborate and create in order to develop solutions to problems that sometimes seem overwhelming — crises like disease, waste, and war.
As a nation, we are the best in the world at invention and scientific exploration. We are the very icons of risk-taking, social progress and economic success. At Michigan alone, our scientists have discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntington’s disease, and our alumni are responsible for the iPod and Google.
But we have a problem. We are at risk as a nation if we do not commit to more innovation, more math and science, and more basic research.
Yet my concern is tempered by the graduates I see before me this afternoon. As a university, we prepare the people who solve the problems of the world. And you leave here today equipped with the confidence, knowledge and ingenuity that come with graduate education at Michigan.
As a scientist, I came of age with Sputnik and the space race. I sometimes find it hard to believe it’s been 45 years since President Kennedy issued his call to put a man on the moon, because the enthusiasm and energy it produced in me and so many others is still so distinct.
Getting into space and to the moon was an obsession. An absolute obsession. There was the science, of course, but more importantly there was the Soviet Union. Americans love competition, and here was our Number One enemy — communists — already sending men into orbit. JFK was going to beat them and so was every aspiring scientist in America, young people like me who became enthralled with the power and promise of science.
Win we did. And now the generation that couldn’t get enough engineering and medicine and math is at the helm of leadership and saying, “We need another Sputnik!”
But today’s crisis in innovation cannot be compared to Sputnik, because this is not your father’s space race.
We have no enemy, except perhaps ourselves. Our national priorities are not necessarily shared priorities, as any observer of Congress — or American culture, for that matter — knows. There’s not a whole lot that we rally behind together as a society, except perhaps who should be the next “American Idol.”
As a nation — and as individuals who have studied and trained at the best of universities — we absolutely must put more emphasis on brains than we do Britney and Beyonce´. And not just brains, but brain power. Putting a man on the moon was, frankly, easier than finding a cure for AIDS or a solution to global warming. Today’s challenges are incredibly complex, and require the creativity and expertise of many great minds — minds like yours.
This is not to say that the desire to be innovative — indeed, the very need — comes without complications. If the space race was a battle cry, today’s push to be innovative can just plain be a battle.
I think of our university’s great partnership with Google, to make the 7 million books of our research library accessible to the world. What we see as a noble collaboration, others interpret as a threat to publishing and writing, and eventually the courts will decide who is right.
Or our work in stem cell research, a field that holds such tremendous medical promise but faces the challenges of restrictive state and federal laws. Researchers from so many different backgrounds are eager to come together to explore this new science, but they can literally be jailed if they delve too deeply.
That’s what I mean about this not being the same kind of brain race as Sputnik. Even with new discoveries before us — new discoveries that mean new knowledge, new technologies and new jobs — we sometimes face a resistance and skepticism that the Mercury Seven never encountered.
One of the many features of our great state is the Detroit Pistons basketball team. I hope you found at least an hour of your graduate career to watch them. They are remarkable not because of one star — no Shaq, no LeBron — but because of talented individuals who come together to find the best way to succeed.
There is something magical about great team-building. There is a world of difference between the NBA and DNA, but the model of the Pistons is spot-on because it demonstrates the remarkable energy of collaboration. And collaboration means power. It does not mean sacrificing leadership — it means enhancing it.
Your time at Michigan has immersed you in a culture that thrives on exploration and experimentation, on reaching out across traditional academic boundaries in search of novel answers. Risk-taking has been an integral part of your studies and research. And the importance of leadership has been pervasive.
John Quincy Adams said, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
Collaboration is our future, and you must be its champion. I have no doubt that with your talents and your creativity, you will better our world with your critical thinking, your research prowess, and your passion for leadership. You have impressed us at Michigan, and I know you will continue to make a statement as you pursue your careers in the academy, in the boardroom, and in the community.
Good luck, and once again, congratulations upon your remarkable achievements!