Grand Valley State University Winter Commencement 2009
Made in Michigan: Working for Our State's Future
December 12, 2009
Good morning! And congratulations to the graduating students who will leave this arena today as alumni of Grand Valley State University.
I want to thank President Thomas Haas and the Grand Valley State Board of Trustees for the invitation to be part of your special day.
And it really is a magnificent day: You are surrounded by parents and family members who have supported you through the years. You are seated alongside friends and faculty who have broadened your intellectual horizons, both in and out of the classroom. And you represent a university that later today will play – once again – for a national championship. Given the accomplishments of your women’s soccer team, I think two national championships in one week would be quite a graduation gift for the Class of 2009.
Now, I know that I am the only thing standing between you and any television carrying today’s football game. But I want to take a few minutes to talk about your future, the future of our state, and how the two are directly connected.
A championship football game like today’s appearance by the Lakers is guaranteed to be full of energy and spirit and hard hits. In a way, the game symbolizes the state of our state: We’re getting hit and punched and tackled, but we have a well of spirit and determination that will not run dry.
There is much talk throughout Michigan and beyond about what ails us, and it may be weighing on you a bit as you prepare to leave college for the next stage of your lives. We all know the headlines: Unemployment holds back our residents, whether they live in urban Muskegon or rural Jackson County. The auto industry is shrinking, foreclosures are growing, and our cities and townships are wrestling with greater demands for service from residents unable or unwilling to pay more taxes.
For our many challenges – and let’s not fool anyone, our state faces an uphill battle – there are just as many proposed remedies. And yet for whatever reason, be it politics, religion, race or class, we struggle to move forward, together, with a plan for our state’s future.
This is where you come in.
If you’ve seen the classic movie “Cool Hand Luke,” you’ve heard the famous line, “What we've got here is failure to communicate.” I can’t pass up the opportunity to credit that remark to the actor Strother Martin, a University of Michigan alumnus who was so powerful in an equally powerful film. And his observation pretty much sums up the climate in our state.
Too often, when looking toward the future, we are talking at each other, rather than with each other. We need to focus more on dialogue than diatribe. Because whether you are leaving GVSU to become a teacher in Saginaw, a nurse in Kalamazoo, an advertising manager in Detroit, or a graduate student in Ann Arbor, we all share a common goal: We want to transform Michigan for the better.
For all of us to move Michigan forward, I suggest we first take a step back and look at what binds us as a community of 10 million.
Ours is a state whose citizens have always placed enormous importance on education and innovation, on hard work and entrepreneurship, and on the spectacular natural resources that make Michigan such a beautiful place for residents and tourists alike.
I am not a native, but I have come to appreciate and advocate the ideals of Michigan. We value our environment, our entrepreneurial spirit, and our education system because they have shaped us, our parents, and their parents before them.
These long-held values define our quality of life.
As college graduates now taking your next steps, you must reaffirm these ideals and elevate them as never before.
You must draw on our entrepreneurial legacy and innovate once again; you must collaborate to harness our creative strengths; and you must help adapt attitudes and expectations to a changing economy that threatens to pass us by.
We must focus not on short-term fixes, but rather long-term solutions, and we need to know this will take time, patience and resilience.
We face hard choices, but hard choices must be made or Michigan faces no choice at all in succeeding in the 21st century.
Last month, one of our state’s most beloved citizens achieved the honor of a lifetime. Steve Yzerman was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame after an exceptional career leading the Detroit Red Wings, and in his acceptance speech he paid tribute to his sport.
“I look back on my life in hockey, how it shaped me and all it’s given me,” he said, “and I am certain of one thing – I am where I want to be.”
The people of Michigan feel the same about their state. Michigan made us, and Michigan is where we want to be.
Our natural resources are second to none. You know this well, having spent your academic years in western Michigan surrounded by gorgeous state parks and the magnificence of Lake Michigan. Parks and forests throughout our state are sanctuaries for campers, hikers, birdwatchers and hunters. Our soil nurtures farmers and their fruit trees, asparagus, soybeans and corn. And swimmers, boaters and anglers treasure our rivers and streams.
It was along the shores of Lake Superior that a fur trader paused in 1840 to send a package south to the village of Ann Arbor. It held an encyclopedia set, and the trader, saying he wanted to guarantee an education for this state’s young people, designated the books for the University of Michigan library.
At that point, U-M had been in Ann Arbor for only three years, and had yet to enroll a single student. There were more sheep on the campus than faculty. You could count the number of buildings on one hand, and have a finger to spare. Here on the west side of the state, a place called Grand Valley State College was still some 120 years in the future.
But this set of books – which you can still see in Ann Arbor – was the start of something powerful for our state. Because of this fur trader’s belief in the power of knowledge, it helped lay the foundation of public higher education in Michigan that is second to none, and has given us such strong and diverse institutions as Michigan State, Central Michigan, U-M, and Grand Valley State University.
As someone who has served at six public universities in very different regions of our country, I can tell you that Michigan’s collection of 15 public universities is the envy of other states for its quality, diversity and autonomy. This is complemented by 28 community colleges that stretch from Ironwood and Escanaba to Scottville, Warren and Grand Rapids, and are in more demand than ever.
You are a product of this great family of public universities. Grand Valley graduates have an exceptional record of moving into jobs or graduate school, and I commend you and your parents for taking advantage of one of Michigan’s public universities.
In addition to placing a premium on education and natural resources, Michiganders believe in hard work and the entrepreneurial spirit. Our state was the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, and my guess is a member of your family may have helped build the planes and jeeps that rolled off our assembly lines.
We sometimes take for granted the giants of innovation who came to success here in Michigan.
We know the automotive kings, entrepreneurs like Henry Ford, Ransom E. Olds, Billy Durant, the Dodge brothers, and David Buick.
Let’s also remember that Thomas Edison grew up in Port Huron, where he developed a love of tinkering. To the south in Battle Creek, Will Kellogg invented corn flakes by accident, and in the process revolutionized breakfast food. Daniel and Dorothy Gerber did as much for baby food not far from here in Fremont, where they experimented with straining fruits and vegetables for their infant daughter.
Lou Upton was curious about electric washing machines and went on to establish Whirlpool and a $100 billion industry in Benton Harbor. And Herbert Dow was a Midland chemist whose name today symbolizes innovation in technology and science.
The names and accomplishments are quite remarkable, and they bear a common denominator in being from Michigan.
So how do you as graduates take this great legacy of innovation and education in our state, and retool it for the economic challenges of today?
First and foremost, you must be team players. As individuals and organizations, you and I must do more together, as partners.
In academe, we say, “Publish or perish,” but I am a bigger champion of “partner or perish.” The problems of today – such as greater need for human services, faltering school systems, overwhelmed courts and hospitals – these challenges demand collaboration.
Let me give you a very real example of the power of partnering. Our two great universities already have academic partnerships that strengthen connections in kinesiology and pharmacy programs.
We’re ready to do more, and this time on a critical issue for the state and, indeed, the world.
A consortium led by the Grand Valley State University, together with U-M and Michigan State University, has just submitted a multi-million-dollar proposal to the Michigan Public Service Commission to explore offshore wind technologies in the Great Lakes. Working together, our researchers will study the unique challenges of providing safe, economically viable, environmentally friendly, and reliable wind power in the Great Lakes.
I am also pleased to say the University of Michigan has committed an additional $50,000 of internal funding to support this proposal.
Collaboration is our future. When we bring together the brightest minds, whether from our universities, our businesses, our churches, our neighborhood groups or our service clubs, we all benefit from a unique synergy of experience and expertise.
No matter where we come from in the state, we need to see each other as talented people eager to do what is best for Michigan. Your thoughts and perspectives as a new college graduate are just as critical and important as mine as a college president. Voice your opinions, contribute your ideas, and roll up your sleeves, because it will make a difference.
Next, to lift our state from this economic malaise and move forward, we absolutely must once again promote and reward the entrepreneurial spirit that made Michigan an economic giant in the 20th century.
I am certain that throughout your studies, you used Google to help with your research. It’s a fantastic tool. But I wonder if you know the story behind Google.
Google is the invention of a young man – and I can call him young, because he’s just 36 – who grew up here in Michigan.
Larry Page is the son of a Michigan State professor and a graduate of the University of Michigan. His idea for Google literally came to him in a dream, and it was a dream he decided to chase.
His vision has genuinely transformed the way our world accesses and shares information through the power of the Internet.
Larry was back in Ann Arbor last spring as our commencement speaker, and I love what he told our graduates: “Always work hard,” he said, “on something uncomfortably exciting!”
Always work hard on something uncomfortably exciting.
It is that very spirit of initiative and innovation that we are seeing here at Grand Valley and at universities across the state. I was thrilled to learn you just completed the first annual Regional Idea Pitch Competition that brought together aspiring entrepreneurs from Grand Valley and other colleges and universities from throughout western Michigan.
I love these competitions, and I love that they attract enthusiasm and support from both students and venture capitalists eager for creative thinking. We just completed the second such competition at U-M and more than 2,000 students offered business plans for creating new businesses, developing new products, or improving communities.
These business plan contests are a tremendous showcase for innovation, and for building an entrepreneurial culture that is not only vibrant and vital, but also absolutely essential for our state’s economic future.
Most of these ideas will not come to fruition. We know that. What is really at the heart of this competition is that you push your ideas out there, be willing to take risks, and learn from failure.
I mentioned Thomas Edison earlier, and he once observed, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
That’s what it means to be an entrepreneur. To pursue something uncomfortably exciting. To come at a problem from all angles, and constantly try different approaches. To be the next Thomas Edison or Larry Page, and chase a crazy dream that just might change the world.
I want to close with a 21st century success story built on a foundation of pure Michigan values – values I hope you will carry forward and promote as you leave here.
Just down the road from here, in Holland, a family-owned business is reinventing itself. S2 Yachts designs and builds boats – beautiful, high-end sailboats, powerboats and yachts. The company has been manufacturing these boats since just after World War II, and two years ago decided to diversify their business using their marine knowledge.
S2 Yachts began making research buoys, using a licensed technology developed by a professor in the University of Michigan’s Marine Hydrodynamics Lab. When we built one of these buoys at the university, it took two months. When S2 Yachts builds one, it takes two weeks.
These buoys are floating research stations, and because the federal government loves what they can tell us about the health of the Great Lakes, it has ordered dozens from S2 Yachts.
The diversification of this long-time Michigan business, using a technology created at a university supported by Michigan taxpayers, is expected to create as many as 1,000 new jobs.
This is the power of research and education – research and education like you have experienced at Grand Valley. This is hard work and innovation, which you must commit yourself to in the upcoming weeks and years. This is collaboration and teamwork between a private business and a public university. And this is a dedication to protect our Great Lakes for tomorrow’s generations.
This is a showcase for Michigan, and I can’t think of a better beacon for our state’s future.
You are now ready to write your own success stories. The opportunities that await you are both fascinating and daunting. What cures do medicine and technology hold? How quickly can we develop new energy technologies that move us away from foreign oil? Who has the best ideas for revitalizing our public school systems?
The potential of biomedicine, the immediacy of global communications, the power and precision of sustainable technologies – all will transform our approach to health, the arts, and public policy. But only with creative thinkers like you leading that transformation, and only with you being innovative, entrepreneurial, and collaborative with your skills, your talents, and your ideas.
All of us – whether we are university presidents and professors, aspiring entrepreneurs, proud parents, or newly minted graduates of Grand Valley State University – all of us play a role in Michigan’s future. We cannot leave the challenges to our leaders alone. Rather, we must commit to improving our schools, our businesses, our communities and our government through imagination, innovation and collaboration.
Together, we must work toward a prosperous future that will have our children and grandchildren saying, “Michigan made me, and Michigan is exactly where I want to be.”
Thank you. And Go Lakers!