When faced with decisions about issues important to them, President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman encouraged those obtaining University of Michigan graduate degrees to do what she did at two critical but very different points in her life: say yes.
“My message is ‘say yes’ and contribute to what matters most to you,” Coleman said April 28 during the Rackham Graduate Exercises. “A vibrant, caring society is a reflection of who steps forward. Use your voice and your intellect to improve our world.”
Coleman, who served as U-M’s president from 2002-14 and again in 2022, delivered the keynote address at Hill Auditorium to those receiving master’s and doctoral degrees. It marked what she estimated was her 40th graduation ceremony at U-M but her first as commencement speaker.
Coleman, who also is a former president of the Association of American Universities, was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from U-M.
Before introducing Coleman as the commencement speaker, President Santa J. Ono expressed to the graduates his hope that their experience at U-M provided them with rewarding challenges and cherished memories.
“When you reach a milestone in your education or your career like the one you’ve reached today, it’s only natural to look back on the experiences that have shaped you and helped you grow,” Ono said. “My hope is that the University of Michigan was a place that not only challenged your intellect, but expanded your world view, enriched your soul and connected you to colleagues and classmates who made you an even better person.”
In her address, Coleman highlighted two crossroads she faced — decades apart during her life and career — that were transformative because of her willingness to take a chance when life was good.
The first was when she taught biochemistry and conducted research into leukemia and other blood diseases while at the University of Kentucky, and she was asked to join a committee to study the future of the university as a longtime president entered his final year. Shortly thereafter, she was asked to serve as associate director for research at the university’s Cancer Center.
She said yes to both.
“I could have declined these assignments as a busy faculty member, saying I needed to focus on the progress of my lab,” she said. “I have never regretted saying yes to these unexpected duties and the experiences they afforded. … I came to see my institution from new perspectives, not just through the lens of my discipline, but through a wider array of university purposes and missions.”
Those new perspectives, she said, likely led to her election as a faculty trustee at Kentucky, a role that expanded her perspective of higher education as one that is embedded in a larger political and legal environment.
“These experiences happened because I said ‘yes’ to that first invitation to participate in an exercise that took me out of my comfort zone,” she said.
The second instance was in January 2022 when she and her husband, Ken, were enjoying retirement in Denver. She received a phone call from Jordan Acker, then chair of the Board of Regents, with an urgent request: Would she consider returning as U-M’s president?
“Mind you, I took the call while I was navigating an unfamiliar parking structure in Denver. Reviving my role as president was the last thing on my mind,” she said. “But I needed little persuading about returning to a place where earlier I had served for 12 years. If the university’s governing board said they needed me, I took them seriously.
“I said yes.”
Coleman said she agreed to reprise her role as president because she cares about U-M, and the nine months she was the university’s leader affirmed her belief in what a spectacular university it is.
She said she was not encouraging the attendees to aspire to be a university president but rather to embrace opportunities to support issues that are important to them, whether it’s climate change, social equity, public schools, healthy communities or gun laws.
“This is a challenging time to express opinions,” she said. “Values and beliefs are under attack from all points of the political spectrum. But Michigan has prepared you for this. Your advanced degree signals your attention to detail, persistence, dependability and capacity for independent thinking. You know how to deploy both facts and analysis on behalf of values that you hold dear.
“Use all of this to advocate for what you love.”
She closed by quoting Maya Angelou: “Nothing will work unless you do.”
“Graduates, you possess a Michigan education. Use it to make an impact,” Coleman said. “Say yes and make a difference.”
Rackham Graduate School Dean Michael Solomon shared his experience and hesitancy leading up to his postdoctorate studies at the University of Melbourne in Australia — “a time of uncertainty, confusion and self-doubt but also one of excitement and growth.”
“Taking risks and navigating the unknown can benefit us in ways that we can never imagine,” Solomon said. “You, as holders of advanced degrees from this university, are uniquely equipped to shape your own path forward, to step out into new fields, to even create new fields and launch into directions that can carry you farther than any trans-Pacific flight could.”
Other members of the U-M community who spoke at the event included Provost Laurie McCauley, Board of Regents Chair Paul Brown, Faculty Senate Chair Allen Liu and graduating U-M doctoral students Sara Abou Rashed and Michael Gonzalez.