2020 Comeback Commencement

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good afternoon!

We are absolutely thrilled to welcome you home to Michigan. It’s so good to see all of you here in the Big House!

We are so proud of you. You completed your studies during a very unsettling and confusing time for our world. The Class of 2020 will always stand out in Michigan history.

Your achievements are remarkable. So, too, are your families, for the unconditional love and encouragement they have provided through the years.

Graduates, please join me in applauding your families for everything they did to make your graduation, and today’s celebration, a reality. Let’s give them the ovation they deserve.

Today you are back on a campus you love.

So am I.

I did not anticipate standing here as president with the privilege of celebrating your accomplishments. I served as president from 2002 to 2014, and I never imagined having the opportunity to address another exceptional graduating class. And now, in the past eight days, I’ve had the chance to address two – the Classes of 2020 and 2022. And I know we also have graduates from the Class of 2021 with us today.

Life does not always go as planned.

This has been an unusual experience for all of us. I want to thank the students and alumni for welcoming me as president and reminding me what I have always known: That it’s great to be a Michigan Wolverine.

The global pandemic of the past two-plus years has come with many lessons.

We have learned the importance of science and the need for truth and accuracy.

We better understand public health protocols and how to prevent the spread of disease.

We know how to work and collaborate in remote settings successfully. Yet we also have a stronger appreciation for the human connections with colleagues, friends, and family.

And in matters large and small, we have learned that life does not always go as we hope.

And yet we adapt and persevere. That is how educated, creative, responsible people respond to challenges. We press on and find ways to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

More than 70 years ago, a University of Michigan graduate left Ann Arbor determined to help others by defeating cancer. He committed himself to conduct research into different drug therapies in hopes of treating this terrible disease.

After several years in the lab, Jerome Horwitz felt that he and his colleagues had created a compound that would slow the growth of cancer cells. He was excited about its potential and thought he was on the verge of a genuine breakthrough.

Alas, his tests in mice showed no positive progress. Dr. Horwitz put his synthesized drug on the shelf. He was the first to say his experiment had failed miserably.

That was in 1964.

Fast forward to the mid-1980s and another Michigan graduate. A new disease called AIDS is causing what amounts to panic in medical and public health circles. Scientists like Anthony Fauci and others at the National Institutes of Health are perplexed and worried.

One of Dr. Fauci’s NIH colleagues is Dr. Samuel Broder, a researcher with two Michigan degrees. He is desperately seeking something that will stop AIDS.

When a drug company comes forward with the forgotten compound created by Dr. Horwitz, Samuel Broder sees a glimmer of hope.

Where the Horwitz drug was ineffective in treating cancer, in early trials it stopped the AIDS virus from replicating.

Dr. Broder became a champion of the drug Dr. Horwitz created. He experimented with the compound, pushed for clinical trials, and lobbied for FDA approval. In 1987, that drug – AZT – became the first genuine treatment for AIDS. It along with similar drugs helped transform the diagnosis of HIV from a death sentence to a chronic disease that could be managed.

Where Jerome Horwitz conceded failure and advocated patience, Samuel Broder saw potential and hope.

Life does not always go as planned.

Just ask Alexa Canady. She was an extremely bright student from Lansing who came to the University of Michigan with dreams of becoming a mathematician. But she encountered the same situation that I suspect many of you did as students: Academics at Michigan are demanding. Stressful and demanding.

She began to struggle. Poor grades rattled her confidence, and she stopped going to class. Her grades dropped to Cs and Ds and she found herself on academic probation.

It was only because she needed money to buy a car for transportation to and from school that Alexa applied for a fellowship that came with a stipend. This was a fellowship in the health sciences, and she soon fell in love with medicine. She changed her major to zoology, earned her bachelor’s degree, and enrolled in U-M’s medical school.

She thrived as a medical student and graduated with honors. And the student who had considered dropping out went on to qualify as this country’s first African American woman neurosurgeon and chief of pediatric neurosurgery at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan.

Life does not always go as planned.

I want to tell you about one more graduate of the University of Michigan. You may remember him, because your days on campus overlapped.

Austin Hatch has a story that is hard to believe. It’s even harder to tell.

Austin did not survive one plane crash. He survived two.

These horrible accidents occurred eight years apart. The first killed his mother, sister, and brother. The second took the lives of his father and stepmother, and occurred just nine days after Austin had achieved a life’s dream: he signed to play basketball at U-M, his mother’s alma mater.

Instead, he spent the next three years recovering from severe injuries, including a traumatic brain injury. He had to re-learn how to walk, speak and eat.

Coach John Beilein and the University honored his scholarship, and following his recovery, Austin spent four years with the basketball team. He scored all of one point in competition. But I would argue it was one of the most meaningful baskets in campus history.

He graduated in 2018 with a degree in organizational studies.

But more change was ahead. A job in the corporate world was unfulfilling, and people kept asking about his extraordinary story. So he created his own enterprise and today devotes himself to helping others overcome their challenges.

He lived through two plane crashes, and now helps others face adversity.

Austin likes to quote his late father, who once told him, “We’re going to press on. That’s what we’re called to do.”

We are pressing on.

That is what we said in 2020, when the coronavirus turned our lives upside down, here on campus and beyond.

The pandemic stole so much of what we know as the college experience: your interactions with professors, animated discussions with classmates, and a social scene you can only find in a university town like Ann Arbor.

And you lost out on graduation.

But you will always have your University of Michigan education. No event or person, no pandemic or protocol, can take that away. You earned a degree from one of the most challenging universities in the country. You have the critical thinking skills, the talent, and the creativity to make a difference.

We are honored to celebrate you here today. It is our way of applauding your many impressive accomplishments. But we also know what genuinely matters: That your Michigan education will serve you well no matter where life takes you, whether it’s back to the Big House or into a world that needs your skills and perspectives.

Adversity? No problem.

Setbacks? You’ve been there.

Challenges? Bring them on.

Life does not always go as planned. No one knows that better than you. And when it doesn’t, always remember that you graduated from the University of Michigan during a global pandemic. Those are unique credentials that tell the world you can achieve anything. And you will.

I have always enjoyed the signature ending of my commencement speeches, so it is an honor for me to say these words one last time:

For today, goodbye.

For tomorrow, good luck.

And forever, Go Blue!