Update: I watched Barack Obama’s University of Michigan Commencement address today (Saturday) at the football stadium and really liked his remarks. I was glad the weather held off to allow his speech to be given.
I was honored to give a few short remarks to our University of Michigan Undergraduate Informatics graduation ceremony Friday morning. Here is the text of my remarks.
Every graduation is an important transition. Every graduation is an ending and a beginning. I remember as I was working on my own Master’s Degree and it seemed like it would never end. I took to humming a few bars ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ to myself each morning to motivate me and keep me focused on the end-goal of my education. But graduation of course is not the end.
It is the end of being a student and the beginning of being an alumnus. It is the ending of an undergraduate education and perhaps the beginning of a wonderful graduate education. It may be the ending of going to class and the beginning of going to work For a lot of students, it means taking out a loan and driving a brand new car for the first time in their life. Graduation is the end of taking out student loans and the beginning of paying back your student loans.
All of that ‘ending and beginning stuff’ applies to pretty much any generic graduation. This particular graduation is is not just any graduation – it is a very special graduation – the first of its kind. You are the first graduating class of Informatics concentrators at the University of Michigan! Now you might ask, ‘exactly why is that so special?’ I will tell you why I think that this moment is very special.
I believe that Informatics at the University of Michigan is a live and ongoing experiment that will ultimately redefine how higher education thinks of an undergraduate liberal arts education for the 21st century.
When a small group of faculty from Engineering, School of Information, Math and Statistics got together back in 2006 to dare to imagine the Informatics program, the founding principle was that this was to be an interdisciplinary program from its very core. A program that focused on giving students the breadth of a traditional liberal arts education and the skill depth needed to be a leader and an agent of change for their workplace and ultimately for society in the next century.
The recent and current economic situation is just one more tremor as the world economy moves in fits and starts like grinding tectonic plates from a manufacturing to a knowledge economy. The transition will not be easy nor will it be quick, nor will it will be smooth. No longer do you leave the University with your diploma and plop down in a job and stay the same organization for the next 40 years and then retire to a cottage up north.
If our world economy and the organizations in that economy are to survive, we need leaders who both understand the present and can anticipate a quite different future and pick the best path from here to there. Leaders who understand social science and social computing. Leaders who understand ethics and choices as well as statistics, technology, data mining and cloud computing. In a sense, the best leaders are the ones who pretty much know a good bit about everything and know how it all is connected together.
The Informatics program that we have developed and that you have experienced is designed to produce students who are both ‘well-rounded’ and ‘technically-skilled’. You graduates not only hold in your hands the hopes and dreams of your parents and friends as you move forward into a successful life, but also the hopes and dreams of the Informatics program itself. We have a grand vision that you have the right blend of skills and knowledge to make a positive impact on society going forward. And while your numbers seem initially small, we will be graduating lots more Informatics students to join you and help make the positive changes in society that we expect from you.
I hope that we have also taught you to think critically about everything and question everything. Not in a harsh or negative way – but always searching for opportunities for positive change. I hope that we have taught you that everyone in the crowd has a valuable contribution to make to our collective wisdom. This reminds me of a little speech I give to high school students when we are trying to recruit them to come to Michigan. It is a little late now since you are already here, but it still applies. I borrow my favorite line from the University of Michigan fight song. I think that the Michigan fight song is unique in that among the lyrics about “victors”, “heros”, and “champions” it has a line that to me speaks about about academics, philosophy, and approach – in a sense the ‘Michigan way’. That line I like from the fight song is, “the leaders and the best”. It is not just about winning and crushing opponents on the athletic field – it is about leading and being the best.
I hope none of you have seen the inside of the University of Michigan Hospital except as a visitor – but on the wall is one of my favorite UM posters. It is a picture of an open-heart surgery patient with a big scar down the center of her chest and below her are the simple words, “the leaders and the best” – that kind of sums it up for me.
What I tell incoming students and what I am telling you now is that the Michigan way – the way of being a leader and the best is not an ultimate goal – it is not the end-state. It is how you approach every moment – right when you are in that moment. You had to have been a leader and the best in high school just to make it to Michigan. While you are a student here at Michigan we don’t want you to just listen and furiously take notes from the sage on the stage – we want you to be part of us, contribute to us, be a a leader and the best as a member of our learning community that is Michigan. And now as you move on to the next phase of your life, we know you are prepared to continue to be a leader and the best in whatever you do going forward.
As I close, I would like to thank the students, their parents, and families for being part of our Informatics program. First, I want to thank the parents and family for producing students who are bright, inquisitive, intelligent, and ready to throw themselves wholeheartedly into ‘what ever is next’. I want to thank our students who are the ones who make the effort we put into this program all worth while. You have brought your energy and creativity to what we do. You became Informatics concentrators knowing that you were the pioneers and that there might be a few rough edges as we worked all the details out. And most of all I want to thank you as you pitched in and helped us work out those details for the next generations of Informatics students.
Even though next week you will be graduates, we still want to hear from you going forward. And we want you to come back and tell us how well you are doing and how we can improve and do a better job educating the next generation of Informatics graduates. And we will also try to make sure that whenever you come back, we always have a jar of free Starburst waiting for you.