Remarks at 2012 Graduate Exercises
April 27, 2012
For our graduates, this is a day to celebrate … to walk across the stage and out into the world as the holder of an advanced degree from one of the world’s great universities.
Your achievements as master’s and doctoral graduates are the latest in careers I know will be extraordinary.
For our faculty, this is a morning of accomplishment, of knowing you have mentored tomorrow’s scholars and furthered the legacy of exceptional graduate education at Michigan.
And for the families gathered here, this is a moment of great pride. These graduates are your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives, your sisters and brothers, and you have been a vital part of their lives throughout their rigorous academic journey.
The celebrations and achievements of today have added significance. This year marks the 100th anniversary of an established graduate school at a distinguished university.
Of course, Michigan had been providing graduate education for some time before 1912. Nearly 20 years prior to the formal establishment, University President James Angell was lobbying the Board of Regents for a graduate school
“No scholars who go forth from our walls do more for the reputation of the University. It is therefore of the first importance that we encourage such work as theirs.”
A bona fide graduate school would send a message to the world: the University of Michigan delivers academic excellence in its the master’s and doctoral programs.
There were fits and starts, committees and reports, and concerns about fellowships.
There are always concerns about fellowships.
Harry Hutchins was president a century ago, and he wanted a graduate department that was rigorous. He deplored graduate programs elsewhere, programs that amounted to students – in his words – “hanging around universities.” He wanted a renaissance here at Michigan.
“I don’t care if we have only 30 students in the school, if we only have a real one.”
The University of Michigan does, in fact, have a real graduate school.
And now you, the centennial class of the Rackham School of Graduate Studies, have very real obligations.
You leave here as privileged individuals. You are highly, highly educated. With that education comes tremendous responsibility.
Our world is about to experience the ramifications, good and bad, of a youth bulge – the largest wave of young people in human history.
Half of the world’s population is 30 and younger. In Africa, the number is almost 70 percent.
Eighty-five percent of the world's young people live in developing countries.
These are the workers, the citizens, and the decision-makers of tomorrow. These are people who will want and need decent housing, clean water, access to health care and outlets for ideas and creativity.
Yet unlike you, most of these young people – your global peers – have little or no connection to higher education or decent-paying jobs. Unemployed and undereducated, they have taken their angst and anger to the streets, from Egypt and Libya to the financial districts of this country.
Even those who do have access to classrooms and teachers could, and should, be better served.
Let me share this observation about the state of global education from experts at the World Bank:
“Very few education systems emphasize the thinking and behavioral skills—motivation, persistence, cooperation, team building, ability to manage risk and conflict—that individuals need to process information and make wise decisions.”
This is the world you must navigate.
This is the world you must change and lead.
It is an environment that absolutely demands an understanding of diverse cultures, beliefs and values. It makes your Michigan education more valuable than ever. And more critical than could have been imagined 100 years ago.
One of the great faculty members in the history of this institution was the philosopher John Dewey. The University of Michigan was his first stop after receiving his doctorate, and he spent a decade here shaping both students and ideas. I don’t want to scare our Ph.D. recipients today, but his starting teaching salary was $900 a year.
It was here where John Dewey met his wife, wrote his first book, gained a reputation as challenging but fair teacher, and rose through the ranks to chair the Department of Philosophy.
He also found time to ponder a question posed by Michigan students: What should I expect of a college education?
His answer had many facets, as you might expect from a philosophy professor.
He stressed the importance and value of losing one’s provincialism and exploring different thoughts and cultures. Equally important, he said, is learning to set aside partisan ideas; he felt it essential to exercise patience before jumping to conclusions or taking sides.
There is nothing weak, he said, in suspending judgment and collecting the facts.
But the most critical component of a higher education, he wrote, is to take all you have learned and find ways to apply that knowledge to being an ethical human being.
Without connecting your studies to the very essence of human nature – emphasis on human – your work as a student is simply a random collection of intellectual bits and pieces.
In 21st century terms, John Dewey would say your education should provide the tools to be open-minded, flexible, and interconnected with your fellow citizens.
Fellow citizens who will look to you for ideas, answers and knowledge. Citizens who share the same dreams as you, but may not have the education, tools or wealth to achieve them.
The world needs you, and your intellect, more than ever. We are in dire need of great minds eager to collaborate and create. Great minds to develop solutions to problems that sometimes seem overwhelming – crises like disease, waste and war.
Your studies here – the research, the teaching, the writing, the re-writing – have exposed you to myriad concepts. And if we have done our jobs as faculty and administrators, we have worked with you to appreciate the necessity of connecting those ideas in countless ways.
Apply the thoughtfulness and ingenuity you have honed here at Michigan. Your experiences have been shaped by many people, but none more important than the faculty. They have challenged you in numerous ways, leading you to discoveries about your academic discipline and, hopefully, your inner self.
Today you wear the academic hoods that represent the many schools and colleges of our University.
This rainbow of Michigan academia is characteristic of the diversity of careers you will follow, the multitude of successes you will find, and the wealth of lives you will enhance.
For 100 years, Michigan has awarded advanced degrees for the very real accomplishments of its students.
Real graduate school. Real world. Real challenges.
And, as we have come to expect of Michigan alumni, real change that makes for a prosperous, productive world.