Remarks at 2011 Spring Commencement
April 30, 2011
Good morning! And congratulations to the Class of 2011.
You are the first class to graduate from a renovated, expanded Big House. We thought it only appropriate to provide a venue large enough for your dreams, your aspirations, and your celebration.
We are honored today by the presence of Governor Snyder, himself a three-time graduate of Michigan, and our distinguished honorary degree recipients.
With all these luminaries, the most special guests in the stadium are the families of our students. The moms and dads, the grandparents, siblings and spouses – all of you have provided invaluable support through the years.
Graduates, please join me in thanking your families for everything they have done for you through the years.
Graduates, in your time at Michigan, we have stressed the value and importance of leadership. From your research and learning, to your community service and civic engagement, we have provided leadership lessons and opportunities, and you have responded enthusiastically. It is part of the DNA of Michigan.
Indeed, you have spent many Saturday afternoons cheering in these stands, singing about the “leaders and best.”
Of course, leadership is about far more than a school slogan.
We are serious about creating thoughtful leaders. Our world needs strong, decisive individuals – individuals who listen, who gather and respect different ideas, and who act boldly based on an informed point of view.
This is no time for wavering, but rather for people willing to stand up for their beliefs and ideas. People unafraid to challenge the status quo. People eager to take risks, because big risks can deliver big rewards.
These are the kinds of people Mark Twain thought worth knowing. “Keep away from people who belittle your ambitions,” he said. “Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
You, too, can become great. To see that, look no further than your classmates.
Your student body president and fellow graduate, Chris Armstrong, is a proven leader. He has represented you on campus and in Lansing. He has argued for changes in student housing and campus dining. He wants tuition to remain affordable.
And yet what created the biggest headlines for Chris is the fact he is a gay man, the first to lead the Michigan Student Assembly. When this generated criticism and bullying, he did not blink. He continued to hold his head high – as student body president and as a Michigan student – and to speak out for equality, tolerance and compassion.
That’s what leaders do.
For great leaders, look no further than this stage.
We honor the guests here today because of their unique and significant accomplishments – accomplishments made because of bold, carefully considered and thoughtful decisions.
Leadership is not easy, nor should it be. I am reminded of the words of Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat who suffered slings and arrows as both a university president and the 28th president of the United States.
“If you want to make enemies,” he said, “try to change something.”
Spike Lee uses filmmaking to elevate the conversation about one of our country’s most sensitive topics: race. His artistic boldness has drawn praise and scorn.
As a longtime member of Congress, Vern Ehlers cast votes that pleased many, angered others, and shaped public policy for millions.
Bill Ford Jr. wrestles with the sometimes-conflicting values of capitalism and environmentalism in steering a family business that helped define our state and nation.
Gene Robinson is willing to share opinions not universally applauded with hundreds of thousands of readers, because journalism and a free press are essential to our democracy.
Stephen Ross makes multi-million-dollar real estate decisions that can determine the livelihood of individuals and the economic fortunes of cities.
And Rick Snyder is looking for answers to the tangled question of how to advance a state that has borne the brunt of the nation’s economic fallout.
I suspect each of these honorees has had moments of doubt.
“Mountaintops inspire leaders,” said Winston Churchill, “but valleys mature them.”
Being willing to make a difference means encountering resistance, criticism and, sometimes, anger. But real leaders push forward, confident in their ideas and their actions.
Finally, for great leaders, look no further than yourselves.
You, the Class of 2011, have successfully navigated one of the most academically challenging universities in the world.
In your time at Michigan, you’ve launched businesses, created apps, made headlines as entrepreneurs. You’ve worked to protect the climate, including how best to develop, use and save energy. You’ve traveled to China, to Ghana, to communities throughout the country and the world, discovering new cultures and, equally important, discovering yourself.
Both your professors and your classmates have expanded your viewpoints and your base of knowledge in ways you just now understand, and may understand even better in the years ahead.
All of these experiences, all of this knowledge, all of these lessons, make your diploma a passport of sorts, one that will take you to places you cannot yet imagine.
But your Michigan degree does not guarantee a free ride. If anything, people will expect more of you, because of the heritage of leadership by Michigan alumni worldwide.
These are individuals who, like you, crossed the walkways of the Diag and the corridors of Angell Hall. 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.
You will, of course, need to prove yourself, every day, just as you have in your classes, your labs, and your student organizations.
You must display a tolerance for diverse ideas, because the world is full of opinions and people very different from you.
And you absolutely must exercise the critical thinking skills that are a hallmark of a Michigan education. Today’s problems and challenges are simply too complicated for quick fixes.
Do this – think critically, be tolerant, believe in your convictions – and you will be seen as a leader. Strive to be a catalyst for change, to continue the Michigan tradition of success, service and leadership, and you will be the best.
For today, goodbye.
For tomorrow, good luck.
And forever, Go Blue!