Gretchen Whitmer

Michigan State University Commencement Address - May 3, 2019

Gretchen Whitmer
May 03, 2019— East Lansing, Michigan
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All right. Well, thank you so much. I am incredibly honored to be with all of you today, and I want to start by thanking President Udpa, Provost Youatt, distinguished deans, faculty, staff, friends, family. Most importantly, the class of 2019. My years at Michigan State were some of the best of my life, so much freedom, and not so much responsibility. I loved living on campus at Wonders Hall. I made friends here at MSU that still keep me grounded today. I continue to debate which is superior, Crunchy's nugs or tots. Regardless, they have the finest ranch in the world.

Michigan State is a magical place. It's a place where in a single night Hootie & the Blowfish, Tiger Woods, and the Stanley Cup all showed up at Rick's American Café. I liked being a Spartan so much I came back to get my JD, and I loved the state of Michigan as much as I love Michigan State. But, I've got to tell you there's an issue. There's an issue that started during my time on this campus, during a cold trudge over the tundra, which is now known as the tennis courts in the practice fields. It really got chilly when I'd walk to class. I mean, this is Michigan after all. It snowed five days ago in Kalamazoo. But, my feet get cold. I mean, really, really cold. So, I wear boots six to nine months out of the year.

But, under those boots I always wear fun socks. Socks sent to me by my somewhat subversive sister, who is also a fellow Spartan. She sent me a pair that inspires me. They have a colorful word on them, so in deference to those who didn't like hearing me say, "Fix the damn roads," I'll clean it up for you a little bit. They say, "There are trolls everywhere." I bet you can figure out what word I replaced. Now, how is this inspiring, you might be wondering. Well, if this is true, there must also be good people everywhere. Otherwise, my socks would read, "The trolls have taken the bridge, and you should just stay home and binge watch Netflix."

I do believe there are good people everywhere. They are your professors. Well, they were your professors. They're the people who stop to help when you have a flat tire. They're the people at work, the people at school, the people at the grocery store. They are the people in this arena right now cheering you on. There are good people everywhere. I believe the good people far outnumber the bad, even though it might feel 50/50 during a Michigan, Michigan State game.

Now, you'll have to bear with me because I am reaching back into some old college courses right now, but I think people largely fit into a standard distribution. A bell curve. Most people fall within two standard deviations of the mean. Hey, stats wizards, did I get that right? You see, we lawyers are not really known for our prowess with numbers. But, I truly believe that 95% of people are fundamentally decent, and if we took the time we would recognize parts of ourselves in them. There are good people everywhere. So, my socks remind me that yes, while there are trolls in every crowd, there are also people capable of immense kindness and empathy and generosity. But, that five percent, the people who live way out in the tails, well, they can be extremely loud and disagreeable.

They're not really interested in collaboration or understanding, or compromise. The people who live in the tails, they're more interested in starting a fight than a conversation. The five percent makes it seem we people we have insurmountable differences. They're expert in inducing fear and inciting fury and making Thanksgiving dinner really uncomfortable. They have brought back ugliness that we had hoped was extinct. But, this didn't happen overnight. It took us a while to get where we are today. It even started before many of you were born with tabloids and reality TV and talk radio. We started to reward bad behavior and outrageousness in entertainment with fame and wealth and power.

But, it bled over into other areas like politics and government and the media, and even family dinner, where it's been decidedly more destructive to American society. Then, came along the internet and social media, which was a megaphone for fringe ideas. Anonymity: a savvy user can now make death threats and never get caught, and today with a computer that fits in your pockets that is always connected, the influence of that five percent has grown exponentially. Although technology has given it a place to evolve and fester, I think their numbers are still the same.

While it might be a strange and discordant era, the hate and intolerance we used to have to search for in the darker threads of Reddit are now a part of our everyday lives and you can't get away from it. I get it if it sometimes it's easy to become discouraged and angry. It's easy to attack someone if you don't have to put your name on it. It's easy to get drawn in. But you, you just got your degrees. You are a master or a doctor. Your road has not been easy. Getting in, getting through, getting a diploma from this fine institution, none of that is easy. You did not choose the easy road, so I am inspired by your generation’s passion and activism and courage.

You give me great hope for our future. Yes, I'm talking about you, the most unfairly maligned generation since, well Generation X. Don't take it personally, it happens to each of us. But, you are just about to come into your own. In 2019 your generation is forecast to overtake boomers as the largest generation in this country. You'll be able to stand up to those who blame you for avocado toast, Keeping up With the Kardashians, and the incomprehensibility of Snapchat. You have the power to change the world. You are the best educated generation ever. You're the most diverse generation this nation has ever seen. I want you to use your power for good. Change the tenor of the conversation. Listen to people you may not agree with, and remember that 95% of us are more concerned with our family, our health, affording college, having a good job, and just living life, rather than trolling people online.

I want you to remember there are good people everywhere. Now, problems rarely exist without opportunity. In times of strife and upheaval the greatest strides are possible. Progress can be messy and unpredictable, but it is also inevitable. We can improve the world when we fight injustice, intolerance, and indifference, but not when we fight each other. I have always tried to fight the good fight, and it's not always easy, and there will be times when you need a theme song to lift your spirits.

Mine begins, "On the banks of the red cedar I am a Spartan." I have been one at heart since before I even came to this university as a student. When my dad took me to see Magic Johnson play over in Jenison Field House. I loved my time at MSU, and there are times I wish I could come back now in my 40s and take classes in subjects that interest me, even at 8:00 on Friday morning. To ask questions, to go to office hours, debate ideas and theories, and never have to use a fake ID. I would appreciate when the marching band wakes me up at 9:00 am Saturday, and I'd open up the window to listen. One of the best things about going to a big, vibrant university like this, is knowing that you now have a global community.

There are Spartans all over the world. You will meet them in the most interesting places, and you will know that you have something in common. You may not agree on everything, but that threat binds you. I encourage you to wear Sparty on your sleeve long after you leave here so it reminds you to treat everyone you meet like a Spartan and embrace our shared humanity. Looking around here at scholars and parents and educators, I'm confident that in this arena right now the percentage of good people is significantly higher than 95%. I'm thrilled to be in your company on this important day in your life, but before you go, I have a few pieces of advice.

Build bridges, don't live under them. Look for inspiration in unusual places. Wear fun socks, and don't ever read the comments section. Class of 2019, you brilliant Spartans, get out there and change the world. Make it better. Show us what you can do. Be the good people everywhere. Congratulations and go green. Thank you.

White, R. (2019, May 4). Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s May 3, 2019 Michigan State University Commencement Address. Retrieved May 22, 2019 from