100th Annual Honors Convocation

(As prepared for delivery)

It is truly a pleasure and honor to be with all of you this afternoon.

Our student speakers and musicians have been fantastic – thank you.

I’d also like to thank our faculty and staff and leadership team – it is so much more to your credit than mine that we have built such an exceptional university.

So thank you.

This is the 100th year that our outstanding students have gathered in this great hall, to be celebrated as Michigan’s leaders and best.

Honors students, through your brilliance, grit, and resilience, you have lifted, you have soared.

So I’d like to ask all of us to once again join together in applauding your achievement and your excellence.

Yet you have not done it alone.

Each of you has had a network of support – a community of encouragement and excellence – parents and professors, partners and mentors, families and friends.

This is the day to honor them as well.

So let’s also give them a round of applause.

We’ve come together, not only to honor the outstanding achievements of so many of you, but to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, and what we can aspire to become as a great public university.

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus declared that in life, the only constant is change.

And certainly we have seen that over the past decade, and the past century.

To give just a few examples:

  • Ten years ago, Barack Obama had just been sworn in to his second term as U.S. president.
  • Mary Sue Coleman – a great mentor and friend – was president at U-M.
  • No one had heard of TikTok or ChatGPT.
  • And the San Francisco 49ers were being led by a coach named Jim Harbaugh.

If we look back another nine decades, the changes were far more profound.

Calvin Coolidge was soon to become the 30th President of the U.S.

Marion Leroy Burton – after whom the Burton Tower just outside is named – was Michigan’s 5th President.

Our Maral Family School of Education had recently appointed its first dean, and the Ross School of Business would do so in 1924.

The personal computer and the internet were a long way away – and the exciting new technologies coming online were the television, the electric blender and the hand-held hair dryer.

Technologies have changed.

Platforms have changed.

Political leaders, coaches and deans have changed.

But values have not.

The fundamentals of excellence, achievement and honor remain.

It is those values that we are celebrating with you today.

If we look at the definition of honor, we see it means much more than simply high achievement or excellence, more than high esteem or praise.

It also means respect, integrity and even service – values that make our university great.

For there can be no honor, no lasting achievement without integrity.

Integrity is, and must be, the bedrock of our university.

Integrity infuses all that we do – it catalyzes trust, strengthens relationships, and opens new perspectives and understandings.

Integrity lies at the heart of the scientific method – truth in method, openness in testing, and reproducibility in results.

Integrity also lies in the heart of the classroom – honesty in effort, togetherness in teamwork, and honor in achievement.

Yet integrity may also be difficult and challenging at times.

For there often seems an easier way – a shortcut, a white lie, a slightly soft step to meet a requirement or a deadline.

That’s why integrity is such essential duty for each of us. As honors students, you must be leaders, not only in academic achievement, but also integrity. And as university citizens, we all play a critical role in fostering, sustaining and strengthening that ethos of honor and integrity.

A culture of integrity is tantamount to a culture of respect, and truly, the two strengthen one another in our pursuit of achievement and excellence.

Respect is one of our core values at the University of Michigan.

So we will act in ways that acknowledge the humanity and contributions of each individual.

But even more, will treat each individual with deep respect and high dignity. We will walk with others in humility, eager to celebrate the exceptional person they are, the gifts they can offer to our community. And we will elevate the distinct, ineffable potential of each person, no matter their background, color or creed.

This is why we have placed such an emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion. It is the path to achievement, it is the way to excellence.

Finally, if we truly respect others, we will honor them with service. 

This is our ethos at Michigan, to excel, to lead, and to serve.

My philosophy of leadership is called “servant leadership,” which was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf in 1964 and refined by many others over the decades.

Servant-leaders focus on the growth and well-being of others. They aspire to build small communities and lead by influence, rather than power. They start from a position of humility and respect, and they strive to listen and serve with compassion and empathy.

As Greenleaf observed, “Servant leadership certainly doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make tough decisions or assert yourself. But when you approach people from a foundation of mutual respect, no one is left feeling disempowered or dehumanized.”

There really is no secret formula for servant leadership, but there are some important principles. You have to listen well and often … reflect and learn … and build community.

That’s truly what we aspire to as an exceptional university.

And it is by living out those values that we will address the greatest challenges of our time.

We have come through much over this past decade.

And over the past century our campuses have changed in astonishing ways.

But our values, our aspirations, and our honor remains.

And a decade or even a century from now, when Michigan’s brightest again gather in this hall – and today’s shiny new technologies seem archaic and quaint – the values we’ve discussed will hold essential and true.

So let us go forward together – in leadership and service, in integrity and excellence, and in respect, achievement and honor.

Thank you.