Remarks at 2011 University Graduate Exercises
April 29, 2011
I can’t tell you how magnificent it is to stand before this Class of 2011.
I am in the presence of astonishing women and men, and it is one of the most rewarding experiences of being president of this great university.
I join Dean Weiss, Professor Rothman and Provost Hanlon in offering my warmest congratulations to you upon receiving your graduate degrees, and to the families and friends who have supported you through years of advanced study at Michigan.
Graduates, I know it’s been hard work. The pride, the satisfaction and, yes, the relief you feel is richly deserved.
You thought this day was never going to arrive, and at the same time, it probably feels like you just began your graduate work.
Of course, you leave here a very different person than the new graduate student you were not so long ago. You have acquired not only your degree, but also an entire new set of skills to complement your scholarly talents.
If you are preparing for upcoming job interviews or are still polishing your resumes, I hope you stress the many attributes gained in graduate school:
You are a financial analyst. You are an expert on cheap meals, inexpensive housing, and stretching a grant.
You are a marketing manager. Selling yourself and packaging your ideas have been paramount.
You are a mental health counselor, providing insight and consolation to friends wrestling with the eternal dilemmas of a graduate student: Why am I doing this? Am I crazy? Will I ever finish?
You are a competitor, fighting for fellowships, lab space, and post-docs. Like any contender, you have tasted both success and failure.
You are a monk. In pursuing new knowledge, you have encountered depths of solitude, isolation, and self-reflection unlike anything you may ever again experience.
And you are a performer, staring down stage fright and drawing upon your strongest dramatic talents in defending your thesis or dissertation.
Today, finally, is your well-earned curtain call. And you deserve to take a bow, because you are the realization of a dream set out by this University 160 years ago.
In 1851, a scholar named Henry Philip Tappan produced a book that would become the blueprint for graduate education at Michigan. He was a professor in New York City, and he was still a year away from becoming this University’s first president.
But the ideas he put forth in his writing came with him to Ann Arbor, and would forever shape the University of Michigan and the academy.
Henry Tappan believed America should be bolder with its higher education. He didn’t want four-year colleges simply to produce graduates to add to the work force. That approach, he said, produced ordinary people.
Rather, he envisioned institutions of higher learning that would inspire students to pursue the life of the mind, so that those students, in turn, would improve and invigorate the world around them.
Henry Tappan wanted a university where students were given the independence to pursue their studies. He believed a university should be a repository for all knowledge, with museums and libraries and laboratories.
He saw the University of Michigan, in particular, as a place of “high promise and expectation.”
He said: “This conception of education is not that of merely teaching men a trade, an art, or a profession; but that of quickening and informing souls with truths and knowledges and giving them the power of using all their faculties aright in whatever direction they choose to exert them.”
For promoting this grand vision, President Tappan was castigated by Michigan newspapers. Absolutely castigated. They didn’t like that he was from New York. They didn’t like his fancy ideas. And they didn’t want tax dollars being used for such folly.
He was labeled, “Vain. Silly. Extravagant. A dreaming theorizer. An aping aristocrat.”
And that was just one sentence.
Another journalist said the fledgling University of Michigan was doing just fine in its current state, thank you very much. “If Mr. Tappan is not satisfied with that, the sooner he leaves ‘these diggins,’ the better.”
And yet another newspaper account characterized Dr. Tappan as, I’m afraid to say, “a thorough and unmitigated ass.”
It’s never easy being a university president.
You, the holders of master’s and doctoral degrees, are what Henry Philip Tappan wanted to see, and what caused such apoplexy among the Fourth Estate. You are, to paraphrase that boorish editor, a thorough and unmitigated success.
Listen again to President Tappan: Graduates of this great academic enterprise shall apply their intellect “in whatever direction they choose.”
And, oh, the directions you are choosing. With your talents and your creativity, you are entering all arenas of our changing world with your critical thinking, your research prowess, and your passion for leadership. You are going to enhance our communities, our universities, our corporations, and our public institutions.
This great hall is filled with amazing, inspiring graduates who will announce their presence, loudly, to the world. We expect nothing less. Graduates of the University of Michigan have stood on the moon, won Pulitzer Prizes, graced the stages of Broadway, and occupied the Oval Office.
They have set a very high bar, knowing you will surpass them.
Before leaving, you must first cross this stage. You will do so wearing gowns and hoods whose colors represent the many schools and colleges of our University. This rainbow of Michigan academia is emblematic of the diversity of careers you will follow, the multitude of successes you will find, and the wealth of lives you will enhance.
Take from here the legacy of Henry Tappan, and the rich academic heritage that is the University of Michigan. Let them be your compass as you move forward and change the world. We need the thoughtfulness and creativity you have honed here at Michigan.
And every now and then, steer back to Ann Arbor and tell us of your accomplishments. Your success inspires us to continue that grand dream of 160 years ago.
Good luck, and once again, congratulations upon your remarkable achievements!