99th Annual Honors Convocation

Good afternoon!

Thank you, Provost Collins, and thank you to the talented students who have performed and spoken this afternoon.

There are always many indicators that spring is on its way in Michigan. It may be an upward tick in temperature. Or the sounds of more and more birds singing. Or tiny snowdrops and crocuses pushing their way through the soil.

For me, it is Honors Convocation. It always conveys a special radiance and a burst of energy, regardless of what is happening outside of Hill Auditorium.

For almost 100 years, University students have gathered in this great hall each spring to be celebrated as Michigan’s best and brightest. They have been surrounded by their professors, their friends and their families, all of whom have contributed to their success.

It is a remarkable legacy of achievement. And I’d like to ask everyone in the auditorium to once again applaud this year’s University of Michigan honors students.

The scientist Carl Sagan told us: “The brain is like a muscle. When it is in use, we feel very good. Understanding is joyous.”

You – our most accomplished students – have exceptional minds, and you know the joy of curiosity and discovery. You have thrown yourself into your coursework, challenged your classmates, and impressed your professors. Or perhaps you have impressed your classmates and challenged your professors.

Trust me, faculty love students like you who ask the hard questions and force the class to think a little harder about an issue.

And understanding is joyous. It’s that magical moment when everything clicks and you feel a surge of exhilaration and you say, “I get it!”

But I want to encourage you to do more than understand, critical as that is.

I want you to feel more. I want you to push yourselves to experience the feelings of your classmates, your lab partners, and the students sitting alongside you today. I guarantee it will make you a better person, in addition to already being a very smart person.

Let me share a story. I attended Grinnell College, a liberal arts college in Iowa where I studied chemistry in the early 1960s. When I was a sophomore, I was having a conversation with a young woman who was on our campus as part of an exchange program with a liberal arts college in Tennessee. She lived in my residence hall and one day we were talking about movies.

I should note that at that time, seeing a film meant going to a movie theater. We didn’t have Netflix or Amazon Prime or the many other streaming channels available today.

I was telling her how much I enjoyed going to the theater for a show. And she turned to me and said, “Do you understand what I experience in going to a movie in Nashville?” I confess I had not thought about that. And she said, “I can only enter by the back door and immediately go up the stairs to the ‘colored’ section.”

The colored section.

This young woman was African American and attended LeMoyne College, a historically Black institution founded during the Civil War.

I will never forget our conversation. Nor will I forget how much it affected my understanding – my feeling – of how drastically different this young woman’s daily experience was from mine. I couldn’t imagine feeling bad about going to a movie.

I was a bright student. I encountered many people during my college career and had endless conversations. But nothing has stayed with me through the decades as vividly as talking with that student from LeMoyne. It was an absolute jolt and it taught me about the value of empathy and the importance of really listening.

I want every Michigan student to have a moment like this. It may be uncomfortable, or embarrassing, or humbling. Or it may be thrilling and uplifting. What matters is that you take the time to feel another person’s situation.

We know what a lack of empathy does. It turns us cold, hard, and cruel. It divides us as neighbors and citizens. It makes us devalue our fellow humans.

At its worst, there is no more powerful example of a lack of empathy than the murder of George Floyd. The stark reality of that event is that the nation saw rogue police officers who had absolutely no empathy for another human being.

It was such a shock – for most of us, but not all, because there are those who have walked in George Floyd’s shoes.

We should all be grateful to Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded this terrible moment, because she helped us to feel what so many Black and Brown men and their families know all too intimately. Her bravery, her empathy, triggered a critical reckoning for our country.

There is a lot going on in the world today: the lingering pandemic, the suffering in Ukraine, the damage of climate change. Many of us are feeling anxious about tomorrow. Our empathy is tested every day.

It’s been tested here on campus.

The past few years have been challenging for us as a university community. People are hurt and are questioning their trust and faith in Michigan. I feel that. And I pledge that we will do better at listening and understanding the experiences of those around us.

We’ll learn from our mistakes and share with others how to be a more just, inclusive, and responsible university. This is our obligation as your university, an institution that others look to for leadership and integrity. To do anything less would not be Michigan.

You can help. You are our finest students. Please join me in committing to greater empathy and understanding, to building a more compassionate university and a better world.

It’s not easy work. Then again, I don’t believe the University of Michigan is easy. As honors students, you understand difficult situations. You do not achieve honors status without being challenged. You take the most rigorous courses, you spend that extra weekend in the library, and you step forward to engage with, and challenge, your professors.

You have the power to say, “I get it,” and to make a difference.

What you do not do – what you must not do – is close your eyes and ears and let it all pass by. We need your honesty and your compassion.

It is our honor to celebrate your remarkable intellect today. Never let that intelligence overshadow your empathy because empathy is what makes us human.

Congratulations, again, on your outstanding academic achievements. We are so very proud of you.