Commencement speaker Bloomberg calls out intolerance, demagoguery


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.”

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.

Commencement speaker Michael Bloomberg called on graduates to be vigilant against intolerance and demagogues. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

“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.”

Faculty Senate Vice Chair Bill Schultz (left) and Chair Silke-Maria Weineck present Bloomberg with his hood as an honorary Doctor of Laws recipient. Regent Andrea Fischer Newman looks on. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

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.

President Mark Schlissel acknowledges Wallenberg Fellowship recipient Meredith Starkman during his commencement remarks. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

• 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.”

Graduates cheer from their seats in Michigan Stadium at Saturday’s commencement ceremony. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

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.

Kathryn Bertodatto, who commuted to U-M for two years from Traverse City, spoke on behalf of her fellow graduates. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)

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.”

Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets and midshipmen are sworn in as officers during the commencement ceremony. (Photo by Scott C. Soderberg, Michigan Photography)


  1. Chaoju TANG
    on April 30, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    This is my first time in my life to witness such large-scale graduates commencement, only one word keeps popping in my mind “amazing”.
    It is so impressive, marvelous, encouraging, exciting. I am so lucky to obtain the entrace ticket, Yes, I was present, I witnessed, I experienced, and I am inspired.
    Hail, all the graduates, Hail, UM.

  2. Angela Davis
    on May 2, 2016 at 8:25 am

    My daughter was part of the graduating class of 2016 as well as her 5 housemates. If these amazing young ladies are leading our future, we are in good hands. Congratulations and I look forward to the future.

  3. Sam Kaplan
    on May 4, 2016 at 11:23 am

    From press reports, Michael Bloomberg was an ideal speaker. His remarks were forthright and direct. He espoused the highest values of the academy. Above all, he pointed out that the mission of undergraduate education is to prepare graduates to participate in the rough-and-tumble of a democratic society and free economy where the remedy to bad ideas is better ideas, and that mission is ill-served by insulation from the world’s reality or by abandoning a commitment to the free exchange of ideas because some of them are ugly. Michigan has always been a leader in order to produce the leaders and best–we should not follow seductive trends that take us away from that path.

    • Marvin Jewell
      on May 5, 2016 at 10:43 am

      Right on ! Michael & Sam

  4. Donald Hackbardt
    on May 4, 2016 at 11:23 am

    I can not believe the many in this UofM graduating class “booed” Mr. Bloomberg when he talked about eliminating “safe zones.” If these graduates think his suggestion is bad… wait until they hit the “real world.” I’m surprised that you did not mention that in your article. I’m a graduate of the December ’73 class and your football coach, Jim Harbaugh, is my cousin. I wonder “what” Jim thinks of “safe” zones?

  5. Lydia Rund
    on May 5, 2016 at 9:32 am

    I was present at this commencement address and I thought it was extremely contradictory. Bloomberg opened and closed his address with some anti-Spartan remarks. (“You can all take pride in…that you didn’t go to Michigan State.”) It felt like he was saying, “Well, at least you’re all better than those losers”. I know his remarks were an attempt to pander to the audience, but as a Umich alumna, I really dislike that kind of spirit.
    In terms of the comment about safe spaces, Bloomberg mentioned that colleges have created them to “shield students” from certain ideas, which is really missing the point. The idea of safe spaces is not to protect students from ever being exposed to certain triggering ideas; it is to give them a place to go when all of that is too much to deal with and they need a temporary relief. Microagressions are actually extremely dangerous, in that over time they really do make certain groups feel unwelcome, unworthy, and undervalued, no matter what the intention behind those microagressions was. Safe spaces are not dangerous; they are necessary, because the world we live in IS harsh, and having a place to go and feel supported is invaluable, and something that EVERYONE deserves to have.
    I would also like to say that I am very disappointed in U of M for choosing a speech that was so politically charged. A commencement address is not supposed to be about promoting one’s political beliefs, but about inspiring the graduating class. While he tied to disguise the speech as one about getting along with others, it was more about why we all should vote Clinton in the upcoming election, rather than for Trump, or god-forbid, Bernie. We can be trusted to think critically enough for ourselves, thank you, as we all know very well that Bernie will not be giving out free ponies. As a recent graduate, I did NOT feel inspired by this speech, but disappointed in my university for choosing a political endorsement speech rather than a commencement address.

    • Mike Jefferson
      on May 9, 2016 at 11:19 am

      I am offended by your remarks and they are filled with micro-aggressions. You libs are so ridiculous. Always concerned about so-called protected classes at the expense of everyone else. So illegal and immoral behavior is tolerated by certain “groups” because? Different standards for different people is in itself discrimination despite what you might claim. If you don’t like hearing what people are saying, don’t listen and offer an alternative. You (and by your extension the university) have no right to determine whose speech is proper and appropriate. BLM and La Raza are inherently racist, yet you libs defend their rights over everyone else. We’ve had enough of your hypocrisy and liberal PC and if you don’t like it, crawl back into your safe space hole.

      • Lydia Rund
        on November 4, 2016 at 10:03 am

        Hi Mike,
        I noticed you didn’t provide any specific examples of what micro-agressions you found in my previous comment. I’d love to engage in a discussion about that with you, since I would hate to say something that made someone uncomfortable about their membership to a marginalized group.
        I would also love to hear more about why you think groups like BLM are racist when their sole purpose is to point out inequalities and fight to make them disappear. I really encourage you to take a second look at the mission of these groups as it seems like you missed the point.
        I would also like to address your wording of “illegal and immoral” behavior. Please specify what you meant here, because it seems like you are saying it is “illegal and immoral” to be a person of color, to be gay, to be anything other than Christian, to be trans, to have a disability, to be a female, or to be part of any other group that does not benefit from the privilege of being considered the norm. I am sure this is not what you meant to say, so I’d love some clarity here.

  6. Mike Jefferson
    on May 9, 2016 at 11:12 am

    Ha! The good little liberals at UofM booed Bloomberg because he challenged them to 1) Listen to what people have to say – in other words respect their First Amendment rights, 2) Critically think. None of these principles are being taught or employed at UofM. Instead, it is a hotbed of angry, intolerant libs who demand absolute submission and uniformity of opinion. Ann Arbor is now 1984 personified.

    • Jane Cameron
      on May 10, 2016 at 7:34 pm

      I so agree. I was there with Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden, etc. They were editors of the Michigan Daily. This “lib” thinking goes back a long way at Michigan. Our recent graduates at Michigan are a product of the people who are hired to teach and preside over them!

  7. Deborah Bunkley
    on May 20, 2016 at 8:19 am

    Bloomberg is a great speaker…….Go Blue! In response to Lydia Rund, Get a sense of humor!

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