Madame President, Regents, distinguished guests, Class of 2003: Congratulations!
To you parents: I can only imagine that when your child was crawling and toddling about, this day could only seem like a dream. Wow. To receive a degree from the University of Michigan—one of America's first and finest public universities, cream of the cream, home of the Big House, top ten in just about everything, where President Kennedy spoke, the birthplace of the Peace Corps, incubator of at least a dozen Nobel Prizes. Amazing to think...that this little baby is here, right now.
To you graduates: savor this tremendous accomplishment, taste it, breathe it in. And then look forward, as your parents did all those years ago when you were born, and then ask what is in this for your and for the future.
When you first arrived here at the University of Michigan, you were led to believe a great number of untruths and half-truths. You were told, for example, that the Dennison Building sinks two inches every year because it was built by an architect from Michigan State. You were told that, from an aerial view, the Dental School does in fact look like a molar. And I know, as this day approached, that you were told your diploma is the key to your success.
Well, maybe your diploma will ensure your success. But you better believe there's a whole lot of people out there who possess a U of M diploma whom you have never heard of, and whom you never will hear of. I know it's hard to believe, but there are some U of M grads out there who have wasted the paper on which their diploma was printed, who have squandered their talents. There are some U of M grads who are complete and total losers. Here's my first bit of advice: Do not be one of them.
So as you prepare to take flight, my friends, let me offer you three more pieces of advice that you might pack with you and that you can keep somewhere near that diploma, and near at hand, on your journey.
First, please preserve your commitment to excellence in things big and small.
Excellence was the singular attribute that you shared when you arrived here, in Ann Arbor. Academic excellence is what put you in that seat, for starters. Yours were extraordinary grades and scores, but your excellence—even in high school, stretched beyond academe to voice or speed or strength, soaring oratory or rhythm. Maybe it was an artist's eye, a sculptor's touch, a volunteer's heart, or an inventor's genius that brought you here. You excelled to arrive. And then, you arrived to excel.
You graduates are not cooked from mere everyday ingredients—something about you is a marinated chef d'oeuvre, a masterpiece. There are many who would have loved to be your seats, and there are many who could not make it. But you have persevered. So keep that nugget of greatness close at hand, keep it in your pocket.tuck it into your carry-on luggage for the rest of your life.
But more importantly, don't ever pack that luggage and lose sight of your destination. Make sure that your commitment to excellence and success never becomes so narrow that it excludes a commitment to moral excellence.
There will be those around you who will want to drag you down, into a moral bog. With your thoughts keen and your abilities proven, why would you ever need a compromised way, or a sullied solution? Not only do you not need to resort to lesser means, but it is not worthy of you, oh U of M graduate. Instead, I hope you plant your feet on higher ground and people will follow you.
As Governor, I fill my team with people who insist on taking the high ground. I probe for those who will clad themselves in the sure armor of integrity, who have strong guts, who have pure hearts and sure minds, and a true moral compass. Moral excellence requires more than a B or a B+. It means no shading of truth or shaving of points, no shirking of duty or shifting the blame, no sheepish denials or shopping for someone to tell you that it's okay to do what you know darn well it's not okay to do.
Keep that excellence in your bags and there is nowhere you cannot go. For wherever you find yourself, you will find yourself, and you will be able to live with yourself.
Second, triumph in complexity. You came from highly disparate cultures. In memorable moments here you have discovered and been confronted by vastly different ways of seeing the world. Over Blimpie burgers, sitting in the Diag, or strolling in the Arb—sitting in your spacious rooms in Bursley or MoJo at 3 in the morning, you have known, you have grappled with, you have reconciled to, or simply been amazed by people whose backgrounds and views are emblematic of the differences that make this campus life—and life outside this campus—so rich.
Intellectually rich, too. For upon this human richness—the diversity that your university has so proudly and eloquently defended before our United States Supreme Court—your professors have often constructed and often de-constructed the cell, the solar system, art, history, politics, and the very language that gives it all meaning. And all the while, you have been encouraged to ask deep questions and to probe, and to not be afraid of the other.
Out of this cultural and intellectual maelstrom, you have been putting together your own world view, or as the profs like to say, your weltanschauung. Your truths have been tested by complexity, and by diversity. You need to go out and embrace that complexity.
For in the world you enter, complexity abounds. Take the war. Fifteen miles away in Northville, elementary students formed a giant American flag and sang their hearts out for America. Then, here in the great city of Ann Arbor, voluble protesters sang their hearts out for a different America. Still 15 miles in a different direction, Dearborn Iraqis—Chaldean, Shiite, Suni or other—still struggle nobly and peacefully to understand their relationship to America, to Iraq, and to the calls for justice and for freedom. We all struggle with this question of complexity. The complicated and fractious views—even in our own state—only grow more so when you read the papers from abroad.
In the midst of the war last month, outside of my window at work, one band of passionate protesters had erected tents on the lawn of the capitol and they were objecting loudly to the war. On the opposite side of the street, another small knot of people with a bullhorn voiced support for the President and for the war. At one great moment, both sides began fervently to chant in unison, their voices braided together. They chanted: "USA!" USA!" It was beautiful, this complexity.
Indeed, gratefully, this is no simple world.
In just such times, I say, trust yourself and the ways you have learned of diverse thought, of openness to ideas and respect for others. The stronger minds and stomachs that you have acquired here for complexity, and the courage to ask tough questions and peel the layers of onion, will build your capacity to lead.
My third point—brilliant, young students: Do not pass by the opportunity to lead. Pack in your bags the stimulus for servant leadership. If "servant leadership" sounds like an oxymoron or a paradox, it is. I believe that position and power exist for service.
For demonstrating excellence and facility with the complex is great, but in the end these are tools and that is all. The question remains, tools for what, to build what edifice that will endure for others? How will you leave your mark as you walk from this place? And ask yourself—whom will you serve? It is easy to serve yourself. Everyone is doing that. The essence of leadership is to build something more than merely an altar of oneself. And I know that there are many sitting before me who have exercised leadership at the University of Michigan.
Stephen Covey gives you fine counsel at a time like this: Think about where you want to place your ladder, for it's a tragic moment when you have climbed it only to realize you have put it against the wrong wall.
You are young. Grab that ladder, climb a wall, climb a hundred walls. And with each climb, seek to lead, seek to serve, please dear God. But don't place your ladder against the wall of mere self interest.
You leave here today hailed as "victors," and tomorrow you begin a new chapter in your lives—again, as freshmen. Perhaps one day you will return and stand here behind this podium. Imagine that. What will you have done to merit that honor?
The measure of that merit—or any honor worth receiving—will be the measure of how you have changed institutions—moved people and organizations to some better and nobler way.
My wish is that when you take that diploma, you feel it like the force you feel when a baton is being passed. That when you wrap your hand around the paper—that symbolizes all your effort to be admitted to U of M, and all your effort to achieve here—I hope that you feel a little shock of power, and a calling to use that revered diploma to do a great thing. To embody excellence, complexity and service, and then to become, as Mahatma Gandhi said, become the change you want to see in the world.
You have been gifted, great graduates. I pray to you to use those gifts.
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