Business leader and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg urged University of Michigan graduates to guard against intolerance and demagoguery as they enter a world where “an open mind is the most valuable asset you can possess.”
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Bloomberg delivered the 2016 Spring Commencement address Saturday to a crowd of graduates estimated at more than 6,200, along with thousands of family and friends gathered under cool and cloudy skies at Michigan Stadium.
Bloomberg, who created the international financial information company Bloomberg LP and who now is the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change, used his speech to encourage citizenship in the face of political intolerance that he said exists at levels worse than any he can remember.
“Neither party has a monopoly on good ideas, and each demonizes the other unfairly and dishonestly,” he said, decrying Republicans who target Mexicans in the U.S. illegally and Muslims, and Democrats who blame the wealthy and Wall Street.
“Every generation has had to confront its own demagogues, and every generation has stood up and kept them away from the White House, at least so far. And now it is your turn,” said Bloomberg, who led New York City from 2002-13.
“If we want to stop demagogues, we have to start governing again, and that requires us to be more civil, to support politicians who have the courage to take risks, and reward those who reach across the aisle in search of compromise.”
Bloomberg not only criticized politicians, but also those in academia who bow to pressure and attempt to shield students from challenging and uncomfortable ideas through “safe spaces, code words and trigger warnings.”
“The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations, not to run away from them,” Bloomberg said. “A microaggression is exactly that — micro. But in a macro sense the most dangerous place on a college campus is a so-called ‘safe space,’ because it creates a false impression that we can isolate ourselves from those who hold different views.”
Speaking from his experience of launching what became a worldwide company at age 38, after being fired from a job on Wall Street, Bloomberg urged graduates to never stop learning if they wish to succeed in a knowledge-based, global economy.
“If you have the luxury of more than one job offer, now or in the future, don’t pick the one that pays the most. Pick the one that teaches you the most,” he said. “Whatever you think your dream job today is, don’t get too attached to it. Chances are if that job exists in 15 years, it will be very different, and you will have found other pursuits.”
Besides Bloomberg, who was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, four others received honorary degrees. They are:
• Michael Brown, CEO and co-founder of City Year, a nonprofit organization dedicated to engaging young people in a year of national service, Doctor of Laws. His degree was to be conferred at the UM-Dearborn commencement.
• Michele Oka Doner, artist and U-M alumna known for her pioneering and multidisciplinary contributions to visual culture, Doctor of Arts.
• Mary-Claire King, world leader in cancer genetics and the use of genomics to address social injustice, Doctor of Science.
• Beverly Daniel Tatum, Spelman College president emerita, psychologist and U-M alumna, Doctor of Laws.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel encouraged graduates to share their stories with fellow citizens to advocate for U-M and all public research universities.
“I hope you will tell everyone about your experiences, to help others understand the value to the public of what we do here,” Schlissel said. “Graduating from the University of Michigan makes all of you an indispensable part of our impact.”
That impact is “lasting and ubiquitous,” he said, offering examples that ranged from helping make the Internet accessible worldwide, to inventing the iPod, to writing award-winning books and plays, to creating life-saving vaccines and medical procedures, to developing the technology for autonomous and connected vehicles.
“Behind these accomplishments are the breadth and depth of academic excellence and a commitment to helping society that are only possible at a public research university,” Schlissel said, warning that “America’s intellectual infrastructure” is being threatened by public disinvestment.
“We have to work hard to help the public and our policymakers understand the value of public research universities,” he said.
Faculty Senate Chair Silke-Maria Weineck, professor of German and comparative literature, welcomed graduates by declaring the faculty’s primary goal was to have taught them to think and to care, “and to act with thought and care is to carry forward the spirit of this remarkable place in which you have been immersed these past years.”
Provost Martha Pollack reflected on a similar theme, saying good leaders are made from two simple qualities: “being smart and caring about people.”
“There are many ways to lead,” Pollack said. “I feel confident that the education you’ve gotten at Michigan has provided you with both the characteristics you need to be a leader.”
LSA Dean Andrew Martin listed several examples of ways in which the U-M family has related to its community and the world, then told graduates it’s now their turn.
“Today, we turn you loose upon the world. But no matter how far you travel, you’ll always be welcome here, and we hope you will come back, again and again, to your Michigan home,” he said.
The student address was delivered by Kathryn Bertodatto, a transfer student and mother who commuted to Ann Arbor from Traverse City each week for the last two years to achieve a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
She urged her fellow graduates to follow the advice of Eleanor Roosevelt, who suggested everyone should “do one thing every day that scares you.”
Bertodatto said graduates should “stick with the people willing to fail with you, be wrong with you, make mistakes with you, believe in you.
“Because you will fail, you will be wrong, and heaven knows we all make mistakes, but the people who know that, and recognize that the hope of success is still worth it, those are your people. Be that person for them as well.”