Chancellor's Office

Convocation Address

September 2009

Greetings, new students and families.  We are glad to have you joining the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  This is an exciting transition for you – and it is an exciting moment for us as well.  Every year we greet another group of talented, curious, and imaginative new students; each year our courses are enriched by new perspectives from fresh minds; and each year our student organizations have a new infusion of talent and energy.  Your arrival is part of the mix of things that keeps the university a lively and dynamic place.  The faculty and staff of UM-Dearborn extend our sincere welcome to you!

The faculty are the heart of this university, and I want to extend my appreciation to them today.  They are committed to your success.

I think you will agree that this is a particularly important time for you to be starting your college education.  We are in a time of economic hardship; and you are making an investment in the one resource that is all but guaranteed to increase in value – an excellent education.  You’ve come to the University of Michigan in order to cultivate your skills; to extend your knowledge; to learn to work creatively within groups and organizations; and to be able to bring your talents into productive engagement with the tasks that you set for yourselves.  In other words, your college education should serve to greatly increase the impact and value that you can bring to the projects, jobs, and collaborations that you set for yourselves in the future. 

It is also a particularly important time for the University.  Today at UM-Dearborn we begin a year of celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the creation of the campus in 1959.  The faculty, staff, and students of the campus have accomplished so much in the past fifty years, and we will be recognizing and celebrating these achievements: the establishment of state-of-the-art academic programs, the creation of an outstanding faculty, and the establishment of fine facilities for our academic needs.  The impact of the campus has been extraordinary in the past fifty years, largely because of the generations of alumni who have preceded you. 

Some of the most accomplished leaders and innovators in our region are University of Michigan-Dearborn alumni.  Consider, for example, Tom Bloom, the chief financial officer of the Comptroller of the Currency and the person who had responsibility for management of the first installments of the emergency financial measures of a year ago (TARP); or Ismael Ahmed, director of the Michigan Department of Social Services and founding director of ACCESS; or Tom Stephens, vice chairman at General Motors; or Susan Sischke, Group Vice President for Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering at Ford.  These men and women are all graduates of the University of Michigan-Dearborn with bachelors or masters degrees; and they have all made a significant difference for our region and our nation.  (My favorite example is one of our electrical engineering alums who is now a chief engineer at Apple and was responsible for development of the Mac Mini and the Mac Air computers!)  UM-Dearborn graduates have helped to support the companies, the non-profit organizations, and the governmental functions that have laid the foundation for the quality of life we enjoy in southeast Michigan.  So our history is indeed worthy of celebration.

But even more important is what is to come in the next several decades.  This university has an outstanding vision of its future: to deliver the academic excellence of the University of Michigan in service to the people and organizations of southeast Michigan.  Our campus is dedicated to educational excellence and metropolitan impact; we aim through our programs, our student organizations, and our faculty research to find ways to contribute to improvements in the quality of life and the social and economic wellbeing of the five million people of our region.  A university can be a great force for social and economic progress, and we are committed to being such a force in this region.  And that is where you come in: like the leaders I just mentioned, you have all the potential necessary to become innovators and leaders during your careers, based on the education you will create for yourselves in the next four years.

Each of the academic units of our campus has made strong contributions towards our metropolitan and academic goals.  The College of Engineering and Computer Science is deeply involved in helping to keep the technical edge that this region has traditionally held in manufacturing and design.  With the inauguration of our first two PhD programs in engineering this fall, the faculty and students of CECS will continue to deepen their contributions to the creation of new technologies and new jobs.  The School of Education has distinguished itself in the past decade through its strong commitment to urban and metropolitan education, and their partnership with the Southfield schools is an exemplary one.  Our graduates are well prepared to help transform the lives of the children they educate throughout the region.  Our Early Childhood Education Center sets the standard for the education of pre-school teachers and researchers.  And the creation of a doctorate in education will be an important contribution to the professional development of teachers and administrators in our region.  The College of Business is making enormous strides in supporting entrepreneurship and the establishment of new businesses in the region.  And its research unit, iLabs, has demonstrated the ability of our faculty and students to add to the useable knowledge base for understanding the realities and challenges of the business environment in southeast Michigan.  And our largest college, the College of Arts, Sciences and Letters has programs across the full breadth of the academic departments that support the learning of our students and the advancement of our region – from programs in environmental studies, to innovative programs in mathematics education, to health research directed at better understanding the needs of underserved communities in the region.  So across the full scope of the campus, we find academic excellence and metropolitan impact.

What will your years be like at UM-Dearborn?  To begin, they will be challenging.  The faculty expect a great deal of you.  And the classroom is a bit like the gym: the harder you exert yourselves, the more progress you will make towards achieving your goals.  I believe there is nothing more exciting than gaining exposure to new fields of knowledge, new tools for understanding the world, and new perspectives gained from other cultures and peoples.  Discovering that some of our old beliefs are just plain bunk is a hugely important achievement in your higher education.  You will learn geographical information systems, foreign languages, historical research methods, deductive logic, statistical methods, heat transfer mechanics, ethnographic techniques, pedagogies, styles of political leadership, and the art of the fugue – or at least some of you will learn some of these things.  The variety of fields of knowledge and methods of inquiry that you experience in the classrooms of the University of Michigan-Dearborn will profoundly change your perspective on our world.  Accept the intellectual challenge!

We talk about engagement a lot on this campus. And what this means is pretty simple.  It means opening your eyes to the society you see around you; it means having compassion for the other people in your community; it means recognizing that action produces results, and inaction produces nothing.  Engagement is a habit – once you discover those first ways in which you find that your involvement with others can bring about genuinely good results, you’ll want to expand your impact through further engagement.  And community action is often like a grass fire: a single spark can lead to results far out of proportion to the first step.  Take the Alternative Spring Break that was such a success on our campus for the past two years: a few engaged students brought the idea to the campus; more students got involved; student organizations devoted their resources to the plan; and Metro Detroit witnessed one of the first examples of urban “Alternative Spring Break” locations in the country.  So get involved in the civic and university organizations that inspire you.

Our contemporary reality is a global world, and American society is deeply multi-cultural.  So it is crucial that you will gain more exposure to international perspectives and to the many different cultural perspectives that exist within our own country.  You will have a great advantage in the opportunities you will find at UM-Dearborn: you will encounter a broad diversity among your fellow classmates and within the faculty.  This campus possesses a wonderful mix of economic, social, ethnic, racial, and cultural groups; and all of us have so much to learn from each other. And internationally, it is possible to gain transforming insights about the politics, economies, and societies of countries throughout the world through your exposure to the classes you will take and the faculty who will lead you.  And you will find, I hope, that we can learn a great deal by taking seriously the challenges and obstacles that are everyday realities in many parts of the world today: poverty, oppression, corruption, hunger, and war; and we can find ways of making our own contributions to ending these global problems.

This is very much the point of the quotation included on the bookmark you received this afternoon in commemoration of this beginning of your university studies.  The quotation is drawn from the writings of Aung San Suu Kyi, a long-term Burmese democracy activist: 

Human beings the world over need freedom and security that they may be able to realize their full potential.

In my mind, Aung San Suu Kyi is a person who exemplifies the power of engagement.  She has been a voice for democracy and political reform in one of the most repressive states in the world, Myanmar; and she has shown courage and patience throughout her decades-long struggle with the Burmese junta.  She inspires fear in the generals who rule Burma – not because she commands a fighting force, but because the moral power of her words and actions inspire the Burmese people.  She illustrates the moral reality that is crucial for us as well: when people come together to achieve their goals, they wield enormous potential power.  Like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Rosa Parks, she expresses the power of moral courage.  (And did you know that Rosa Parks was the recipient of one of the first honorary degrees to be awarded at this campus?)  The conventional measurement of “powerful” and “powerless” overlooks the power of collaboration; and this is the resource that comes with engagement.

I’ll close by returning to an important fact about the relationship we expect to establish with you.  We have high expectations of you – to work hard, to be scrupulous in respecting the integrity of academic honesty, and to be engaged.  And you in turn have every right to have high expectations of us.  We believe in you, and I know that you will justify that trust.

Congratulations to you, students and parents of the class of 2013.  And I look forward to meeting you on many occasions, beginning with the ice cream social that will take place immediately following today’s ceremony.