(As prepared for delivery)
Way to go, Class of 2017!
I offer my warmest congratulations to you, graduates of the University of Michigan, as well as to your families and friends, professors and instructors, and everyone else who made this day possible.
Today marks a very momentous beginning for you, the Class of 2017. Perhaps more than any previous class, you have helped to determine the future of the University of Michigan.
You have advocated for your fellow students amid changes in federal policies around immigration and taxes. You’ve had the opportunity to shape our Strategic Plan for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. You’ve helped to move us closer to achieving our goals for environmental sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction.
Each of these activities will make us a better University of Michigan as we embark on our third century as a public university. One important conclusion of our Bicentennial is that we are a university that is changing – and you have a central role, not just in its present, but in its future.
In fact, some of you developed projects that envisioned what a U-M “Campus of the Future” would look like, and how it would best serve students and society. We’re not quite ready to open a satellite campus on Mars, as one of those projects proposed, but we are expanding our reach and impact using innovation and technology.
You will have an unprecedented opportunity to continue to interact with U-M in the years ahead. And while we are happy to welcome you back to cheer us on during a few Saturdays each fall, what I want to talk about today is your continued intellectual engagement.
Thanks to advances in information technology, many of which were pioneered right here at U-M, your education may have only just begun. We know that Michigan alumni continue to learn from our faculty through Teach Outs and online courses, in addition to the more traditional relationships with our schools and colleges.
For instance, a learner in our Teach Out on Hurricanes first studied at U-M 50 years ago. Teach Outs are learning events focused on issues of timely importance that are based online, open and free.
Professor Perry Sampson of our College of Engineering and School of Information taught the Hurricane Teach Out in response to this year’s natural disasters in the Atlantic. The learner welcomed the opportunity to discuss the challenges of the modern world at an intellectual level.
He said, “I’m happy to see this approach reinvented, and I do want to learn about hurricanes — the social and economic aspects as much as the physics. I dearly hope (these topics) are not too hot for the University of Michigan.”
“Perhaps it is time for us to confront our differences, discover our common goals, and begin to diffuse the polarizing forces.”
Graduates, at a place like Michigan, you never stop learning. The possibilities are endless. We’ve been here 200 years and we plan to be here forever. Your continued participation in our university will inform and inspire the educations of future generations of students.
One of the best ways to appreciate and assess change is to look into the past. Our Bicentennial has given us the intellectual opportunity to examine, and learn from, key events and periods that have transformed our university.
There are ample lessons that provide important perspectives – and they are relevant to the world we live in today. If you look back to the halfway point in our history, to 1917, you would have seen a very different university.
The United States had just entered World War I. The completion of the Michigan Union was delayed, as the building was being used as an army barracks.
The close quartering of students for military training would lead to tragedy, as 57 students died during the next year’s global flu pandemic. This was well before basic research at U of M led to the development of “flu-mist,” a nasal spray flu vaccine. So, University President Harry Burns Hutchins recommended that students wear gauze masks to protect against the flu.
The specter of global conflict also profoundly changed our campus.
Hotly contested across the nation was the idea of Preparedness, which was a campaign to ready the U.S. for war in Europe, through build-ups of men and materiel.
And as all national debates do, the issue manifested on our campus. Members of the faculty and the administration, including President Hutchins, feuded over the merits of preparedness and the university’s role in the war.
One major issue was whether the university should engage in compulsory military training on our campus. Another centered on questions of loyalty among members of the faculty.
This period was marked by intense feelings of fear and discrimination. This may sound familiar to some.
A group called the National Security League pushed an agenda fueled by anti-German sentiment combined with unyielding views on American nationalism.
The Michigan Daily reported that the Ann Arbor branch of the League had 245 members, including dozens of U-M professors. This was despite Ann Arbor being a place that had long celebrated the heritage of its German immigrants.
The League’s activities and strong public pressure resulted in the dismissal of six professors in U-M’s German department. The accusations against them were based on statements claiming that they had made pro-German remarks.
Petitions for their dismissal were signed by people they had likely never met. The faculty members were not allowed to cross-examine those who made the accusations. Their dismissals were based on one-sided interpretations of their speech and expressions.
Important values were tossed aside, including: The importance of learning about a culture at the center of a global conflict. The need for open discussions to fully test ideas. And the dangerous and precarious pitfalls of institutionalized censorship.
This history serves as a reminder of what can happen when we let fear weaken our commitment to the protections of the First Amendment.
A century later, we must recognize that the world will continue to present us with new problems – and that our response to these problems has the ability to change our university for the better, or the worse.
As graduates of the Class of 2017, you are well-prepared to confront these challenges.
During your final semesters here, our nation has wrestled with debates over net neutrality, taxation of education benefits, access to health care and prescription drugs,
immigration policy, limits to free speech, and social justice.
All of these issues affect our university. And we will need your ongoing engagement to best respond.
You have the intellectual tools to encourage greater understanding and influence decisions that mend our society rather than divide it, that reinforce shared values rather than fall prey to fear, that prioritize discovery over ignorance. You can help to ensure that our differences don’t develop into fractures – and that change, while never easy, will make us better and stronger as a university and as a society.
A century ago, U-M experienced its share of positive changes, as well.
In the 1917-18 academic year, the Michigan Daily for the first time in its history had a female managing editor. Her name was Mildred Mighell, and she would go on to become a leader in the World Federalist movement.
Regent Levi Barbour endowed a scholarship program for young women from Asia and the Middle East. The Barbour Scholarship Endowment continues to fund scholars from the region who are enrolled in U-M graduate programs.
And in 1918, Elmer Samuel Imes earned his Ph.D. in physics from the U-M, the first for an African-American man on our campus and second in the history of our nation. His influential work included the first accurate determination of the distances between atoms in molecules and expanding the range of quantum theory.
For further inspiration, you need look no farther than the Bicentennial Alumni we will be recognizing in a few minutes.
As members of this year’s graduating class, you take with you lessons from some of the best and the most challenging moments in our 200-year history.
Your experiences here are grounded in the commitment to inquiry and discovery that has always been the hallmark of a Michigan education. You’ve learned that facts matter. I hope that never changes – for us as a university and yourselves as graduates.
That’s what Michigan is about. It has been for two centuries, and it will be forever, with scholars, students and graduates who add to our shared legacy and make us better.
Graduates, you are the leaders and best of today, and the vanguard of a better tomorrow.
Congratulations, and I wish you all the best, as you go discover, go achieve, go serve, and Go Blue!