Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you to the Aero Saxophone Quartet for that lovely performance and to Valerie for her inspiring words.
Graduates, I know it has been hard work. The pride, the satisfaction, and, yes, the relief you feel are richly deserved.
Take a deep breath and enjoy this moment! You’ve made it.
This is also a day of accomplishment for our faculty, knowing you have mentored tomorrow’s scholars and furthered the legacy of exceptional graduate education at Michigan.
And for the family members here today, the close friends, the significant others – this is a moment of great pride. These graduates are your sons and daughters, your husbands and wives, your sisters and brothers, maybe even your mommy or daddy. You have been a vital part of their lives throughout their rigorous academic journey.
This is a day for all of us to celebrate a love of learning and the importance of creating and sharing knowledge.
Graduates, I did not anticipate standing here as president with the privilege of celebrating your accomplishments.
I want to thank you and your professors for welcoming me these past several months. This change in leadership has been an unusual experience for all of us.
It’s certainly nothing I had envisioned when I was completing graduate school.
I walked onto the University of North Carolina’s campus in 1965 as a doctoral student. My husband Ken and I arrived in Chapel Hill just a few days after getting married in Iowa. It was a whirlwind for us.
I know each of you can appreciate the feelings of taking those first serious steps in your graduate careers. You are overwhelmed with nerves, confidence, anxiety, and eagerness. Graduate school is not for the weak of heart!
My husband and I found an apartment to call home and it turned out to be less than ideal. Inside, substandard heating left me suffering from mononucleosis. And outside, a backyard thick with fleas left Ken covered in bites. This was not the honeymoon suite.
But no matter. We were immersing ourselves in the rich intellectual life that only a top research university can offer. My husband was pursuing a Ph.D. in political science, and I was in the laboratory working toward my doctorate in biochemistry. We each had thoughtful, supportive advisers and mentors. Fellow grad students encouraged and supported us and became lifelong friends.
I received my doctorate in 1969. It seems like a long time ago because it was a long time ago. But when I look out at all of you, the leaders and scholars of a different generation, I feel a strong sense of déjà vu.
The pursuit of education is about much more than research and writing and time spent in libraries and laboratories, essential as all that is. It is about the world around you that frames those experiences and, in turn, inspires you to put your knowledge and discoveries to use.
I had long believed that my time in grad school was a unique period in American history, and it was.
Young people marched in the streets to protest the Vietnam War. Assassins robbed the world of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. While I worked on my dissertation, cities like Detroit erupted in flames and violence during civil uprisings. It was a time of fear, tragedy and injustice.
But your education also has taken place during a most remarkable time. COVID-19 has attacked our world. The murders of Reverend King and Senator Kennedy have echoed in the senseless deaths of everyday citizens like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Patrick Lyoya. Political violence at home and war abroad have left us uneasy about the future of our nation and our world.
It has been an extraordinary few years that you will always associate with your time at Michigan.
But here’s another remarkable thread that binds our respective tenures as graduate students. In 1969, I joined millions of people in watching the television as astronauts walked on the moon. America’s space race against the Soviet Union had fueled my desire to become a scientist. And to see our astronauts step foot on the lunar surface was breathtaking.
You, too, have lived to see the improbable: In record time, scientists developed not one but several vaccines against the coronavirus. Aside from the space race, which shaped my belief in how science could change the world, the demand placed upon researchers to find a coronavirus vaccine has been unlike anything I’ve seen.
Think of how long people suffered from polio and smallpox before there were vaccines. And then reflect on the speed and effectiveness of these covid vaccines. It’s astonishing and a testament to the power of good science.
So, you and I have walked similar paths. We have shared a range of emotions and experiences.
But a considerable difference separates us. Not only have you earned an advanced degree from one of the country’s most rigorous universities, but you did it during a global pandemic.
I marvel at that. You taught classes, passed written exams, wrote and defended theses and dissertations, all at a time when the world was in disarray. You accomplished it all during the most isolating, frightening time in our lives.
I applaud you. We all applaud you. And now that the country and world are re-opening, we desperately need you. We need the new knowledge you are creating and the truths you are sharing.
One of the few bright spots of the pandemic is that we’ve seen the absolute need for experts – in the sciences, yes, but across all disciplines.
I am proud of the natural sciences community because of the many critical contributions it has made these past two years.
We also need expertise in the humanities to help us tell our histories. We need it in political science, public policy and other social sciences to provide insights into domestic and international challenges. We need expertise in the arts and creative expression to explain and interpret our world. We need experts in public health as we seek how best to secure a safe and healthy future for all people.
Your advanced degree signals your attention to detail, your persistence, your dependability, and your independent thinking. You are that expert in your discipline.
You are needed now more than ever because expertise is more critical than ever.
You leave here as a very different person than the new graduate student you were not so long ago. You have acquired not only an advanced degree but an entirely new set of experiences to complement your scholarly talents. These moments have shaped you. Now it is your turn to shape the world of others.
Don’t hold back.
We talk a lot about leaders and best here. These simple but powerful words take on a new meaning as you complete your time at the university. It’s what we ask of our graduates.
We know there is greatness in each of you. The foundation upon which you stand is a University of Michigan education earned during a most extraordinary time. The heights you can reach are limitless.
I will be thinking of you as you move forward. Congratulations on a job well done.
It is now my privilege to introduce our commencement speaker.
Dr. Maria Klawe is president of Harvey Mudd College and a renowned mathematician, computer scientist and scholar.
She has dedicated her career to creating science and engineering cultures that support everyone with the ability and interest, independent of gender, race, or other factors.
Her research has focused on ways to increase participation of women and other underrepresented groups in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.
Her brilliant career has taken her to the University of Toronto, the University of British Columbia, IBM, Princeton University and, for the past 16 years, Harvey Mudd College.
Tomorrow, we will present Dr. Klawe with the honorary degree, Doctor of Engineering, at ceremonies in Michigan Stadium. Today, we are honored to welcome her.
President Klawe, I invite you to address our graduates.