Convocation Address September 4, 2012
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 creative mix that keeps the university a lively and dynamic place. The faculty and staff of UM-Dearborn extend our sincere welcome to you! This is our tenth academic convocation and it is a splendid celebration of your new beginnings.
You are the people who are most directly responsible for the quality and depth of your educations. But your partners in this journey are the faculty of the university. UM-Dearborn is privileged to have a particularly talented and dedicated faculty, and I want to extend my appreciation to them today. Faculty from all four colleges and schools are present. With us today are engineering faculty who have extensive relationships with the Michigan auto industry; education faculty who are working closely with urban and metropolitan school systems in the area to help improve the quality of education children receive; business faculty who have created a program of financial literacy for high school students; and arts and sciences faculty (CASL) who are doing research on urban history, environmental challenges, and the health of minority communities in our region. They are intellectually and civically engaged in numerous ways, and they are committed to your success.
Our campus is committed to being a truly inclusive one. In fact, we look at this goal as one of the really important challenges for the next twenty years for all universities and colleges. All of you know that our region is both highly diverse and highly segregated. How can we do a better job of learning from each other within the university and within our region? UM-Dearborn aims to become a national leader in establishing some of the practices that can make this goal a reality. An example is the campus tradition, now into its ninth year, of hosting regular “Conversations on Race” for the campus community. Civility, mutual respect, and a vigorous opposition to all forms of intolerance are a foundation for inclusiveness – but these are only the beginning, not the end.
As part of our efforts towards this goal of inclusiveness, two years ago we created the position of Assistant to the Chancellor for Inclusion. Dr. Ann Lampkin-Williams is here on the platform with other university leaders. She is already an active presence on the campus, as we find better and deeper ways of embodying the values of respect, acceptance, and mutual learning that will be the hallmarks of the twenty-first century. Dr. Lampkin-Williams, would you please stand?
These are exciting times at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. The enrollment of the campus continues to rise; we expect this year’s enrollment to exceed 9,000 students for the first time since 2003. This year the campus was awarded $30 million in state support for renovation of the science building. This will provide an invaluable improvement in lab and teaching spaces in the natural sciences, at a total cost of $53 million. The campus has been preparing intensively for the past two years for an accreditation visit by the Higher Learning Commission in 2013. That process serves to document the academic quality and success of undergraduate programs, and our faculty and staff have been working hard to prepare for the visit. We call this process “Vision 20-20.” This is important to you because it ensures that you will receive a quality education and you will be well prepared for the next steps in your lives.
You are beginning a truly important part of your life course by becoming a student at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. So I will take the risk of offering a few thoughts about what your educations can do for you. Of course we want to help you prepare for a career. But more fundamentally, we want to prepare you as thinkers, creators, leaders, and doers. We want to help you gain skills of analysis, reasoning, and communication that allow you to make sense of the complex problems our world faces. We want you to gain some of the knowledge of history, ethics, and culture that permit you to see the context of the events you experience in the next several decades. And we want to stimulate you to become creative and collaborative problem-solvers.
If your generation is going to solve the difficult problems we face in every direction – economic stagnation, intergroup conflict, hunger and malnutrition, rapid climate change, or urban decline – then you’ll really need all those skills of creativity and problem-solving that you can gain. And the broad education we want you to have at UM-Dearborn is the best way I know of to gain these skills.
Our campus has adopted a very simple mission for itself, and I hope it is one that will inspire you. It is this:
UM-Dearborn is committed to the academic excellence of the University of Michigan, dedicated to achieving positive impact in Metropolitan Detroit.
We want to bring together two sets of values: academic 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 4.5 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: you have all the potential necessary to become innovators and leaders during your careers, based on the education you will create for yourselves during your time at UM-Dearborn. Moreover, over three-quarters of our graduates remain in southeast Michigan – so the lessons you learn here can be applied in Michigan and throughout the world.
One of the core values that we have at the university is one that I think a lot of you already share. It is the value of civic engagement and community service. On this campus we realize that the world we live in requires compassion, commitment, and a willingness to serve in order to ensure that the communities we care about will thrive. There will be many opportunities for you to extend your own capacity for service during your years on campus. We want to help you make that engagement be as effective and transformative as it can be.
When a student organization comes together to take on a Habitat for Humanity project, the students are turning their skills into a source of hope and help for a deserving family. They are also learning how deeply satisfying it is to work together for a common purpose. Civic engagement is good for our communities, and it is good for us individually as people.
As you will see, UM-Dearborn places a lot of priority on metropolitan and community engagement. What does this value mean to you? We invite you to develop your horizon of caring and participation in the wellbeing of others throughout your experience on this campus.
Communities have multiple facets. One of the drivers of community progress is the availability of civic organizations that help coordinate and encourage collective efforts and concerns. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed this fact in his travels in America in the 1830s and discussed what he found in Democracy in America. Some of you will perhaps read this book in a course on political theory. Part of the vitality of American society, according to Tocqueville, was the myriad of voluntary associations and forms of cooperation that he found in the towns and cities of the United States. Citizens addressed the problems their communities faced together. Robert Putnam created a sensation in the 1990s (while professor of political science at the University of Michigan) with his book Bowling Alone. His finding was an alarming one: a rapid drop in the intensity and number of connections Americans have with each other through civic associations. So what Tocqueville identified as a strength, Putnam identified as a waning reality in contemporary America.
Putnam draws a sober conclusion: we are becoming more atomized and less connected to each other. Our social networks and social capital are more and more limited. This has serious potential consequences: each of us is less able to marshall the collective efforts of others in pursuit of a community need.
The great philosopher Mohammed Ali summed it up with a spontaneous poem offered to Harvard students in 1971 (the same year I began my graduate studies there). Here is the poem – feel free to commit it to memory, though it is printed on the bookmark you received today:
What is the pugilist pacificist philosopher conveying here? It is tricky to interpret a two-word poem. But here is how I read it:
You Harvard students are very talented. You are looking forward to great careers. You think you’ve done it on your own, as individuals. Think again. Your achievements, and your satisfaction, depend on “we” – on the extended social networks and communities to which you belong. So develop those relations and grow engagement in your communities. Give to your communities as well as take!
This is the idea we have for you under the idea of metropolitan engagement: that you can extend your involvement in the society around you through a variety of means at UM-Dearborn -- the CIVIC, service learning, and community-oriented student organizations; and that this will be an important aspect of your growth as human beings during the course of your education here.
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, parents, and friends of the incoming class of 2012. I look forward to meeting you on many occasions, beginning with the ice cream social that will take place immediately following today’s ceremony.
I would now like to introduce Kate Davy, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, to offer a few remarks.