Spring Commencement 2022

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Good morning!

Congratulations, graduates! You did it!

Just as remarkable as today’s graduates themselves are their families, for the unconditional love and encouragement they have provided through the years.

I want to thank these families – the parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings. Your students are beyond impressive. Thank you for sharing them with us and, in doing so, enriching our University.

Graduates, please join me in applauding your families for everything they have done to make today’s celebration possible. Let’s give them the ovation they deserve.

Graduates, today is the final time you walked into the Big House as Michigan students.

When you leave, you will do so as Michigan alumni. You will say goodbye to a period in your life that can never be repeated and one you will never forget for its uncertainty.

Not only have you earned a degree from one of the country’s most rigorous universities, but you earned a degree from one of the country’s most rigorous universities during a global pandemic.

It’s been an incredibly unsettling time.

A few weeks ago, our musical theater students staged a production of the show “Hair.” This is a rock musical that grew out of another turbulent, unsettling time, the 1960s. I remember it from when I was in graduate school, and your grandparents may remember it, too.

Its theme is timeless.

The lead character is a young man named Claude, and he is wrestling with what to do with his life. The country is dealing with racial unrest. Sexual morals are shifting. Young men are being drafted to fight in an unpopular war.

Claude can’t decide whether to wait for his number to be called and prepare for Vietnam, or burn his draft card and drop out of society with all its norms and obligations.

He’s torn.

“I don’t want to be a dentist,” Claude says, “or a lawyer or a bum or an IBM machine, or a rock ’n’ roll hero, or a movie star.

“I just want to have lots of money.”

He’s not the first young person to say that.

Claude also says he wants to be invisible, a free spirit of sorts who merely drifts in and out of people’s lives.

Claude is hardly the first young person to feel anxious about the future and their place in it. Young or old, none of us knows what will happen tomorrow or the day after, or how we will make a difference in the world.

But these last few years – the days and nights you spent as a student – have been a revelation.

We have faced a public health challenge unlike anything the world has seen in a century. The pandemic disrupted your studies and stole from your social lives. It made planning all but impossible. And it divided our society over vaccines, masks, and rules of behavior.

At its worst, COVID robbed us of loved ones and left others to face long-term health challenges, unemployment, and depleted bank accounts.

This anxiety and loss have unfolded in tandem with a long-overdue reckoning about race and the treatment of African Americans and people of color in our country.

We have seen the senseless deaths of everyday citizens: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Patrick Lyoya, and too many others with black and brown skin. We should all grieve for the loss of their promise and potential. And the travesty of their deaths must drive us to create a more just society.

It has been difficult, emotional, and sobering, and the work has really just begun.

So it’s been a hard few years to be a college student preparing to enter a world on edge.

But I want to believe these difficult days also have brought some clarity to the dilemma of what should matter in your lives. That the course correction we have undergone has given greater emphasis to balancing careers and lives.

Happiness. Health. Family.

This is what truly matters. It may sound simple, but happiness, health and family should always be at the core of your being.

I think of the words from poet Mary Oliver. “Tell me,” she asks, “what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

You have a University of Michigan education. If we’ve done our jobs as faculty and administrators, you have the critical thinking skills to succeed. Maybe you’re planning on graduate school or already have a new job lined up. Perhaps you’re starting your own business.

Maybe you just don’t know what comes after today.

There was a point in my career when I faced a decision about what to do next. I was a professor of biochemistry and had envisioned a life working in a lab and mentoring students.

But I was given the opportunity to leave that behind and become an administrator.

Now, most college faculty frown upon administration and equate it with going to the dark side. But I wanted to experience a different aspect of the university.

And you know what? I enjoyed being an administrator. I genuinely enjoyed it, and I was good at it. I was making a difference, it made me happy, and I have never regretted my choice. The decision to reverse the trajectory of my career has made it possible for me to stand here as president of this great university and tell you how important it is to find balance and purpose.

What will you do with your one wild and precious life?

You leave here today with energy and enthusiasm and the accomplishment of earning a Michigan degree. Everyone on this platform and in this stadium wants you to succeed professionally. And we know you will.

But, at the same time, never forget what truly matters in your life and the lives of others, regardless of your salary, or title, or zip code.

Whatever your choices, seek out and celebrate your happiness. Take care of your physical and mental health, because it will sustain you. And always, always give priority to those you love and who love you.

We are all moving into a new normal. We don’t know what to expect other than that life will be different.

You may make lots of money, or be a free spirit, or try a new job. Maybe you’ll work for a non-profit to find ways to protect our planet.

Whatever your choices, always know that your one wild and precious life is just that. So make it a happy, healthy one, filled with purpose and surrounded by those you cherish most.

And please come back to campus to tell us about your lives, because your success and impact are what give purpose to our mission as a university.

It has certainly been my honor to come back to campus. I served as president from 2002 to 2014, and I never imagined having the opportunity to address another exceptional graduating class.

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

In the past, I always closed my commencement remarks with the same words. While I did not anticipate the honor of celebrating the Class of 2022, it is a privilege to say once again:

For today, goodbye.

For tomorrow, good luck.

And forever, Go Blue!