Class of 2021, I begin today by thanking you.
You deserve our most vigorous congratulations, but first and foremost I express our gratitude.
You stuck with us during a very difficult period.
For you as students and as human beings.
And for us a university.
You had so much taken from you.
But you’ve also given us so much.
Your strength and perseverance.
Your curiosity and courage.
Your intellect and excellence.
You’ve challenged yourselves to make it to the finish line – and you’ve challenged me to think differently.
So thank you, and congratulations to the great University of Michigan Class of 2021!
I have spent a lot of time in recent weeks considering what to discuss in this address.
And I’ve gotten plenty of advice from you:
Please stop sending us long emails.
Don’t dwell on the negative.
Celebrate our achievements.
We want to look to the future.
I’ve taken all of this to heart, so today I want to express my optimism for the future.
Class of 2021, spring in Michigan has arrived, and with it your graduation into a changing world.
I’m hopeful because your graduation matters to our society – as we are, by many measures, the top public research university in the country.
In essence, your Michigan education is a passport to reshape the world.
This is especially true after more than a year in which we were focused on just living, instead of experiencing life.
A year in which we experienced fears around COVID-19 and violence in this country motivated by hate and white supremacy.
It was a year of turmoil, but it was also transformative.
And now, as we celebrate your commencement, we also have a great deal of hope – because of everything you have accomplished while you’ve been here.
The story of the Class of 2021 is one of human potential.
And it’s bolstered by the transformative power of education and research.
When I consider how much you’ve accomplished during the pandemic, it makes me very much miss being in the classroom.
Months ago, you made hand sanitizer in our labs to help flatten the curve, and now you’re helping us put shots in arms in Michigan Stadium.
You’ve discovered new ways to bring the healing and nurturing benefits of art into the lives of students and people in our communities who craved a connection to life.
As part of our School of Social Work’s 100th birthday celebration, you’re leveraging the discipline’s unique combination of heart and mind to affect systemic change through the pursuit of social justice.
You’re marking our School of Education’s centennial, as well, with examinations of access and diversity, and providing resources to help K through 12 teachers and students learn remotely.
In Public Health, you’ve collaborated with our county health department and advised Michigan’s governor to make our pandemic response better.
And in multiple schools and colleges, including LS&A and Engineering, you responded to the COVID-19 Campus Challenge with ideas for how to help your classmates.
Many of you were on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle, as well, treating patients in our hospitals and clinics before it was even declared a pandemic.
Hail to the front lines!
Hail, also, to our researchers – and that’s many of you, too.
Just look at the body of knowledge that has been created about a disease that was totally unknown a year and a half ago.
U-M researchers have published more than a thousand papers on COVID-19.
So you already have a head start on using your Michigan education to reshape the world.
I want to use the rest of my time to call upon you to address another crisis we face in a future we all share.
Climate change caused by human activity, particularly the burning of fossil fuels, is the defining scientific and social challenge of our age.
It is truly global and all encompassing, with major ongoing threats to human life, economic prosperity, and social justice.
I have heard many of the same arguments against action that were used during the pandemic:
The denial of the science.
That the solutions are far worse than the problem.
That government should not be telling us what to do.
Global climate change will impact where, how and even if we live.
It breeds new diseases, increases the frequency and intensity of natural disasters and collapses food webs.
It disrupts the global economy, and similar to a pandemic, it disproportionately affects disadvantaged populations.
So my call to action today is both communal and personal.
We again face the choice of succumbing to fear and base instincts of self-preservation.
Or we can embrace a path informed by research, education, and a commitment to environmental justice.
You can transform the world with your Michigan passport – as many of you are already doing.
Your advocacy and intellectual achievements have informed and inspired U-M’s new approach to our endowment.
We are committed to achieving a net-zero endowment and discontinuing investments associated with greenhouse gases and fossil fuels.
We will also achieve carbon neutrality as a university.
Our President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality has put forward many outstanding recommendations to achieve neutrality in all scopes of greenhouse gas emissions.
I know many of you contributed to those recommendations and helped get us on the path to success.
A carbon neutral University of Michigan is an important first step.
But we need to help the rest of society get there, too.
We will not solve the climate crisis if we are merely an island in a rising sea of apathy and inaction.
We need all of you to apply your talents – the skills you’ve learned here in every academic discipline – to continue to address this problem. And get your families, friends and future employers onboard.
To help ensure that the cherished Michigan values of research, education and service prevail.
This is how we change the world.
Class of 2021, as you graduate into a changing world, you’ve earned a passport to shape it for the better.
You are the leaders and best of today, and the vanguard of a brighter tomorrow.
Congratulations to the University of Michigan Class of 2021.
And Go Blue!