Class of 2020, congratulations on your graduation from the University of Michigan.
I make special note of the fact that you are graduating into an historic moment for our world and an extremely challenging set of circumstances.
On behalf of the Board of Regents and everyone in the University of Michigan family, I thank you for your perseverance and dedication to your studies.
Congratulations also to your families, teachers and loved ones!
I’d like to begin this message with a look back to another important moment in our history.
Sixty-five years ago, Dr. Thomas Francis Jr. of U of M’s School of Public Health took the stage at Rackham Auditorium and announced the success of the massive polio vaccine field trials he had helped organize. More than 1.8 million children, an unprecedented number, participated in the trials, and greater than 500 scientists and physicians took part in the announcement.
Francis’ April 12, 1955, announcement that the vaccine was “safe, effective, and potent” took place a decade after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had been diagnosed with polio in 1921.
That moment is one of U-M’s proudest. It demonstrated the power and impact of a public research university, a place where inquiry, service and a commitment to the public good could change the lives of children and families in neighborhoods all around the world.
But as James Tobin writes as part of the University of Michigan Heritage Project, the vaccine developed by Jonas Salk faced its share of criticism:
The bill for the trials was to be paid by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which had underwritten Salk’s pursuit of the vaccine. Critics balked. The Foundation had too great a stake in the outcome, they said. How could it guarantee an unbiased result?
Francis’ appointment to lead the field trials “laid to rest any questions about bias and integrity,” Tobin writes, as “he resisted pressure to complete the trials before the onset of the summer polio season of 1954. And he insisted on a double-blind trial.”
In essence, Francis upheld the rigors of his discipline and of science – and our world is much better as a result.
This same adherence to the fundamental doctrines of research is a hallmark of a University of Michigan education. To graduate from U-M demonstrates a high level of achievement in academic programs that are deeply grounded in research. As graduates, you have participated in the discovery and creation of knowledge at every level, in all 19 of our schools and colleges.
In this way, Francis’ announcement was not just a moment, it was also a monument to the enduring importance of our public research university.
Our society is now confronting a challenge that is similar in many ways to the polio epidemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life throughout the United States and all around the world. But it has revealed once again the importance of research universities and the need for educated, creative and talented people to rise to confront a major societal problem.
In their white paper titled, “When Can We Go Out? Evaluating Policy Paradigms for Responding to the COVID-19 Threat,” Allen, Stanczyk, Sethi, and Weyl assert that our current society wasn’t well-prepared for a novel pandemic:
Individual countries and the globe as a whole have been caught by surprise by COVID- 19 and the rapid spread of this highly infectious disease. This has been especially true in the U.S. where pandemic planning has primarily focused on strategizing for response to an influenza pandemic.
The authors point out that COVID-19’s differences from the seasonal flu – including reproduction number, case fatality rates, and vaccine availability – have left “existing planning frameworks in the U.S. badly out of alignment with current needs.”
Our nation’s ability to respond to a pandemic demands the level of disciplinary breadth that we pride ourselves in at U-M. We have all seen the effects of the pandemic as they relate to medicine, public health, business, public policy and education. At the same time, other disciplines have engaged deeply and importantly, whether it is using technology to bring the arts to people while they shelter in their homes, or through examining the disparities among people that are being exacerbated by this virus.
Each of you now has the opportunity to help ensure that we won’t be caught by surprise next time.
In fact, many of our faculty members have already conducted research and scholarship related to the pandemic. These include a survey of parents whose children are learning remotely, and published works using the data from more than 15 million cell phone records to examine social distancing, commenting on how the universal fear of dying alone applies during a time when hospital visitations are prohibited, understanding preparedness in our state’s nursing homes, and sharing telemedicine lessons for the future.
I hope everyone can be inspired by the outstanding innovation we are seeing as a result of the pandemic. The opportunities are everywhere we look. During an interview on PBS’ NewsHour, the great musician Yo-Yo Ma said he felt a responsibility to help those coping with the pandemic:
I can tell you one thing. When I was 19, I had a teacher who said, Yo-Yo you haven’t found your voice. … So I kept looking for my voice. And I think my voice is in finding the needs of others and then representing them. And so everywhere I go, it’s always about finding what people are thinking, feeling, how they think about themselves in the world, and if I can find something that they need, and if I can actually offer a little bit of something that is comforting, then that’s how I would define my job.
As a society, we need talented individuals in all disciplines to challenge the uncertain future that the pandemic has thrust upon us. We know that life will be very different, in the near future and likely beyond. Our great faculty and staff have worked diligently to prepare you.
I hope you will take the time to cherish this moment – as you are now University of Michigan graduates – before deciding what your role will be in tackling the challenges that lie ahead.
I am ever so grateful that you, the University of Michigan Class of 2020, will rise to meet them.
Best of luck always as you…
And Go Blue!