(as prepared for delivery)
Well done, Class of 2018!
I join Provost Philbert, and our faculty and staff in offering my utmost congratulations to you, graduates of the University of Michigan, as well as to your families and friends, professors and instructors, and everyone else who made this day possible.
Graduates, I also thank you.
You have strengthened us as an academic community and as a campus community.
You have changed us – through your classroom studies and through your participation in research, but also through your activities outside of class, your service projects, your interactions within our community, and often through your advocacy for what we should be doing better or differently at U-M and beyond.
But while your graduation marks the time for you to celebrate an important accomplishment, there’s something larger at work that I want us to consider today. A Michigan education is not merely about your coursework, your activities, or your grades. It’s not even about your first job — or the graduate or professional school you are attending next.
While these milestones are important and laudable, you’d be selling yourselves short if they summed up the full extent of your time here. A Michigan education — what sets our university apart and what now sets you apart — is about preparing you to confront challenges at scales that range from personal to local to global.
It’s about change – promoting it and being comfortable with it — and that’s the theme I want to explore here: The change you have experienced and contributed to in your years as students — which has positioned you to continue to grow as an individual and to lead change in our society.
In other words, it’s about feeling the power to go out and do big things in the world, and making it a better place for all.
The late President George H.W. Bush spoke to this idea when he delivered the commencement address on our campus in 1991.
“We live in the most exciting period of my lifetime, quite possibly of yours,” he said. “The old way of doing things have run their course. Find new ones. Dare to serve others, and future generations will never forget the example you set.”
As members of the Class of 2018, you have identified challenges and applied your talents, drive and passion to create change in our world.
You’ve done it at the ballot box. We know that during the 2014 midterm election, fewer than 1 in 5 students on our nation’s college campuses voted. As Michigan students, you worked to change that.
In partnership with our Edward Ginsberg Center, Central Student Government, the Turn Up Turnout student group, and many others, U-M led the way in the nonpartisan Big Ten Voting Challenge in last month’s election.
Nearly 13,000 students from our campus registered to vote. And the precincts that serve students living on or near campus all experienced a higher number of voters, with many seeing increases of more than 200% from 2014. That’s how change works at Michigan.
Michigan students also saw a need to make mental health services more visible for their peers. Allie Williams, then a student in Communications Studies, raised this issue as part of our diversity summit in 2015, then spoke up again during one of my fireside chats.
Less than a year later, the after-hours hotline number for our Counseling and Psychological Services office was printed on all new student MCards – meaning that students could immediately know how to access services if they were in need. That’s how change works at Michigan.
In recent years, Michigan students have invented technology to transform a bicycle’s motion into stable electricity, launched a company that redirects medical supplies that would otherwise be sent to landfills to communities of need, and developed a cost-efficient method for farmers in India to increase crop yield and reduce the use of fertilizers by using silt extracted from ponds.
At Michigan, we marshal the diverse intellectual power, passions and perspectives of the most talented students from within our state and all over the world. We attack problems and create answers grounded in research. We create new knowledge and apply it for the benefit of society.
That’s how change works at Michigan.
In the summer of 2015, as many of you were completing your first year here at U-M, New York City faced the largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in its history. More than 120 people were infected, and 12 people died.
The source of the outbreak was identified by a computer program — which was developed by a team led by U-M School of Public Health graduate Sharon Greene. As director of the Data Analysis Unit in New York city’s Bureau of Communicable Disease, Greene told Five-Thirty-Eight that she wanted to change how data was used in public health.
She devised a program that could mine data from hundreds of reported diagnoses every day — and pinpoint the location of possible outbreaks. The system traced the outbreak to a cooling tower used in the air conditioning system of a New York hotel. And since then, new regulations for inspecting water towers have been implemented in New York City. This is just one example of a Michigan alumna changing the world.
Graduates, your accomplishments to this point – as impressive as they are – pale in comparison to those that lay ahead.
It’s why we call our ceremony today commencement, not completion. It’s part of your lifelong journey, as a member of the Michigan Family, to challenge the present and enrich the future.
Your ability to challenge the status quo and overcome obstacles adds a level of depth to your Michigan degrees that is unmatched in higher education. It’s why you are sought out by employers and grad schools. Why you are our best hope for positive change in society. Why you are not merely college graduates, but Leaders and Best. And why we are so proud that you, the members of the Class of 2018, are the newest graduates of the University of Michigan.
I want to point out that your campus has also changed in profound ways, as we too live by the idea that Michigan must strive to do big things. In several cases, you’ve helped us get there.
The University of Michigan is now pursuing a trajectory towards carbon neutrality, and levels of greenhouse gas release that are environmentally sustainable. Many of you advocated for us to make this change, in expressing your devotion to the defining scientific and social challenge of our age.
You also advocated for us to do something about college affordability. U-M now guarantees free tuition to all eligible Michigan residents from families with incomes of $65,000 and under, as part of our Go Blue Guarantee. We did this after hearing from far too many students and families throughout our state who don’t pursue a U-M education because they feel they can’t afford it.
Our university also removed the names of Alexander Winchell and Clarence Cook Little from campus facilities, after students and other members of our community made the case that the two men held and promoted racist views that were antithetical to U-M’s values and aspirations. This is how change works at Michigan.
During his Commencement Address in 1991, President Bush had one more bit of advice. He urged the graduates to “make the most of your abilities. Question authority, but examine yourself. … Strive to do what is good. Take risks. … Also, define your missions positively. Don’t seek out villains. … Focus on freedom’s promise, on your promise.”
Class of 2018, you are the leaders and best of today, and the vanguard of a better tomorrow.
Congratulations, and I wish you all the best, as you go discover, go achieve, go serve, and Go Blue!