Declaring them “a bridge in the unrelenting cycle of life,” Spring Commencement speaker Wynton Marsalis told University of Michigan graduates they must step up during difficult times to be leaders, critical thinkers and people willing to spark a change.
“You need a strong constitution and a willingness to invest in your position as emissaries of the past to the future,” he told the Michigan Stadium crowd at the April 29 ceremony. “You’re going to be responsible for bridging unforeseen transitions from one crisis to the next, from one time to the next, and from one way of being to the next.”
Of the 12,550 students eligible to graduate, more than 7,500 graduates claimed tickets to attend the ceremony, their seats filling the Big House field, while thousands more family members, friends and supporters filled much of the stadium around them, under cloudy skies and brief sprinkles of rain.
Marsalis, a world-renowned trumpeter and the managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, was presented with an honorary Doctor of Music degree.
Other honorary degree recipients are:
- Mary Sue Coleman, U-M president emerita and former president of the Association of American Universities, Doctor of Humane Letters.
- Phil Hagerman, entrepreneur, philanthropist, pharmacist and founder of the Diplomat Specialty Pharmacy, Doctor of Laws. He received his degree at UM-Flint’s commencement ceremony.
- Dominique Morisseau, playwright and actress, Doctor of Fine Arts.
Marsalis congratulated the graduates for their achievement, and encouraged them to recognize and appreciate their extended support system as they venture into their independent journeys after U-M.
“Although all eyes are upon you, you are not a destination,” he told the graduates. “You are connected, forever spanning what was and what will be, and actualizing the dreams and aspirations of parents, ancestors and alumni.
“You are also an inspiration to younger relatives, future graduates and those not yet on the path of higher education who wish to follow. You’re actually a bridge, a powerful translator between the generations of your family, this institution and of our way of life.”
As a musician traveling across the country, performing more than 200 gigs in the past two years alone, Marsalis said, he has had the opportunity to meet people from all stages of life. Through these interactions, he has noticed the need for leaders, a role he urged the graduates to fill.
“We desperately need your participation to silence the loud and messy divisiveness that has come to define our national life,” Marsalis said.
He encouraged them to fight against the barriers that oppress and discriminate. In a digital age overwhelmed by social media and superficial values, he said, it can be easy to lose sight of what really matters.
“The headlong descent into shameless decadence and unchecked commercialism has created an anxiety and an isolation that is increasingly destroying the mental health of our young,” he said. “This causes us to murder each other over minor disputes, to gun down young children in schools, to desire empty transactional lives, and ultimately, to interface more eagerly and meaningfully with gadgets and devices than with people.
“We need a revolution of thought and feeling through collective participation. An entire nation cannot hold itself hostage and become an armed perimeter in fear of itself.”
Throughout his 37 years teaching and playing music, Marsalis has performed at U-M’s Hill Auditorium more than 20 times. He said his relationship with the university brings him a deep sense of pride and pleasure, and he finds a great warmth and spirit of feeling within the U-M community.
“It is in this spirit of feeling I remain hopeful and vigilant,” he said.
“I’m just tired. I know y’all know it. Our country is actually crying out for a new collective dream; it’s screaming, it’s begging. We need a new belief and a massive, unapologetic assertion of integrity. There is just simply too much trash in this system.”
Marsalis also pointed to the growing presence of artificial intelligence technology as cause for concern. While the systems claim to create artistic masterpieces and write works of art, he warned they lack true intelligence, humanity and soul.
“Some confusing information with knowledge are already prepared to rethink the value of education itself,” Marsalis said. “Don’t be fooled, graduates. Because you have the recipe, it don’t mean you can cook the meal.
“At some point, of course, you have to breathe life into those instructions. And, eventually, you may transcend the recipe with the power of your own creative imagination and your own unique brand of feeling.”
With consumer culture dominated by fraudulent news outlets, intransigent political parties and narcissistic celebrities and influencers, Marsalis said, the graduates should strive to pave a future filled with meaning and a desire to better society.
“You are the avant-garde of our optimism. Your collective success will mean that this education has been brought to bear, to solve the pressing and overwhelming problems of our time,” he said. “I want y’all to forget the forced hipness of apathy. We need your enthusiasm, your willingness and your solutions.”
In his remarks, President Santa J. Ono also encouraged the graduates to look ahead to their futures with hope and strength. The unexpected tests and challenges they faced throughout their years at U-M, he said, have shaped characters steeped in excellence, integrity and resilience.
“Each of you has been tested and tried, you have grown and excelled, you have achieved with integrity and excellence. Now, with your distinct gifts, you — each and every one of you — are prepared to transform our world,” he said.
Ono said graduates can liken their journey through life to the Clay as Soft Power exhibit at the U-M Museum of Art. The display features Shigaraki ceramics that began as common clay and were transformed into objects of beauty, strength and service.
“It is easy to imagine your coming careers as decades of priceless vessels, filled with years of service and success at the highest levels. This you will achieve,” he said. “As clay in the hands of a potter, aspects of your life will likely be made and remade many times, as you are tested and challenged, heated and broken, fired and refined.”
Laurie McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, applauded the graduates for their accomplishments throughout their years at U-M. She said the values they learned along the way have prepared them for a future of success as well as uncertainty.
McCauley said she saw the graduates’ strength and compassion firsthand when hundreds of students gathered on the Diag to honor the Michigan State University community following the tragic shooting on MSU’s campus in February.
“I was proud because I saw the selflessness and compassion of which this community is capable. The formation of character sits alongside academic excellence as the purpose of your time at this university,” she said.
Faculty Senate Chair Allen Liu said he wanted to send off the graduates with four words key to a successful life: purpose, compassion, connection and balance. After cultivating a purpose for professional growth at U-M, he said, graduates can hope to lead a life full of compassion, connection and balance.
“These four elements will help guide you in living a productive, impactful and happy life. I wish you all the very best,” he said.
Byron Brooks, a master’s degree graduate in the Marsal Family School of Education and one of three student speakers — the others were Nicholos Daniel and Ayda Qureshi — urged his fellow graduates to stand together to fight for their dreams.
Starting his collegiate journey homeless, Brooks said, he forged ahead against all odds. He said the love, wisdom and support of friends and family gave him the resilience and strength to succeed.
“I don’t care how hard our challenges are. No matter how high the mountains. No matter how low the valleys. We only have so many tomorrows. So, always, be unapologetically you,” he said.
Brooks said there is power in community. He spoke of an African proverb called “Ubuntu,” which means “I am because We are.”
“Today, I stand before you, proud to say the University of Michigan is my Ubuntu — my community. And, hopefully, I am a part of yours,” Brooks said.