Remarks at 2012 Spring Commencement
April 28, 2012
Good morning! And congratulations to the Class of 2012.
Graduates, in your time at Michigan, this stadium has been home to the Big Chill and a shutout of Michigan State.
A thrilling Under the Lights victory over Notre Dame.
And a long overdue defeat of Ohio State.
But no Michigan Stadium moment is more significant than applauding your success as graduates – and soon to be alumni – of the University of Michigan.
Just as Michigan players always enjoy tremendous fan support in this stadium, you have never been alone as a student. Before today’s ceremony goes any further, I want to ask our graduates to stand, look over your shoulders, and applaud your families and friends for their love and encouragement all these years.
Graduates, to complement your achievements, we have a host of talent on the stage today.
I want to single out Chris Van Allsburg, a Michigan graduate and one of our honorary degree recipients.
He has entertained both young and old worldwide as the creator of The Polar Express and Jumanji. Each book, with its engaging story and superb illustrations, earned him the prestigious Caldecott Medal.
Not bad for a man who never took an art class until coming to Ann Arbor. But art and design sounded like interesting stuff when he applied to Michigan.
What I particularly love about his story is how he convinced an admissions officer to let him enroll in art school despite having absolutely zero experience.
Chris confidently explained that his artistic skills were so advanced, so exceptional, that he took private lessons on the weekends – classes that far exceeded anything being taught at his high school.
That, he said, explained the absence of any art coursework on his transcript.
He got in.
I share this for two reasons.
One, I believe we scrutinize our applications a little more closely these days.
Two, and much more important, never hesitate to be creative. You’ll go far.
Be creative and you will succeed. Embrace different people and ideas, bring them together in new ways, and will you develop innovative approaches to old problems.
We’ve worked hard to give you the necessary tools to do so during your time here.
Coursework in the humanities, health sciences, public policy, art and music, science and engineering.
Interactions with dancers, artists, politicians and pioneers.
Space to design, argue, write, collaborate and play, as well as room to fail.
And most significantly, faculty and classmates with more ideas, knowledge, experiences and potential than any of us can truly grasp.
In turn, 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 continued the Michigan legacy of public service. You’ve traveled to China, to Ghana, to Australia. You’ve engaged with communities throughout the country and the world, discovering new cultures and, equally important, discovering yourself.
This is a Michigan education.
How you use it – how creative you are with these tools – will define you and your generation.
It is your generation that has benefitted fully from one of the most inventive individuals of the last 100 years.
Steve Jobs transformed communication with computers and phones, movies with Pixar, and music and books with iTunes. He was absolutely brilliant at blending science and art to create entire new models of communication, collaboration and entertainment.
“Creativity,” he said, “is just connecting things.”
He made it sound easy, of course, but there was actually profound thinking and work behind his creations.
Creativity means connecting people and ideas in unconventional ways.
The old ways just aren’t working. It shows in our national discourse, our economy, our health care and our public schools.
You will not solve the problems of the day by taking the safe path. Rather, you will need to push yourself and others to think and act in new ways.
Simply put, we expect you to raise a few eyebrows.
Let’s look at today’s honorary degree recipients, because they embody the power and reward of creativity. They express their ideas and talents in different arenas and outlets, but share a flair that distinguishes them.
Sanjay Gupta is both television correspondent and practicing neurosurgeon. When he is in the operating room, he turns to music to stay focused. Coldplay, Eddie Vedder and Weezer are his partners in surgery.
Ira Harris is a gifted strategist who approaches financial opportunities and needs with uncommon ingenuity. In return, many benefit, including Michigan students.
Susan Orlean’s words and keen eye bring us memorable, quirky characters with the power to inspire and haunt.
Dick Sarns defines entrepreneurship with pioneering medical devices that have saved lives around the world. His creativity delivers the gift of life.
And Chris VanAllsburg, whose once-hidden talent has blossomed over and over again, feeds our imagination and our dreams.
This is creativity in action. Imagine if we put them on a team and asked them to explore poverty in India, human rights in Burma, or the digital divide in America. Their ideas, I’m certain, would be fascinating and innovative.
It was Steve Jobs who said, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
Michigan alumni innovate and Michigan alumni lead. 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 both generate and tolerate 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, believe in your convictions, and be creative – and you will be seen as a leader. Strive to be a catalyst for change, to further the Michigan tradition of service and leadership, and you will be the best.
Your days at Michigan have been special for many reasons. The president of the United States visited our campus twice. That doesn’t happen at every university.
But it happens here because of you – exceptional students and what you represent.
The president said: “You’re here at Michigan because you believe in your future.”
That future begins today, and it demands creativity. Leave here knowing that if you’ve never had an art class, you can still become an artist. And create a better world.
For today, goodbye.
For tomorrow, good luck.
And forever, Go Blue!