University of Miami president and global health leader Dr. Julio Frenk implored University of Michigan graduates to “raise their sights” as they embark into a world that is undergoing a pivotal moment of change.
Frenk delivered the 2016 Winter Commencement address Sunday to an estimated 1,000 graduates, friends, family members and others at Crisler Center. A policy maker, physician and U-M alumnus, Frenk also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at Sunday’s ceremony.
During his address, Frenk said attending U-M helped him raise his sights, leading him to eventually pursue a second master’s degree and a joint Ph.D.
“I lifted my gaze and developed a new sense of what was possible,” he said.
He told the graduates their achievement coincided with an “extremely complex moment in human history,” a time when people often seem to be encouraged not to raise their sights but to lower them, to look inward and to “distrust the other.”
“My message to you: resist that,” Frenk urged the graduates. “You have been educated at one of the best universities in the world and that means you are uniquely qualified — one might say uniquely obligated — to raise your sights and by doing so, raise all of ours.”
Frenk used his speech to expound on the unique role of universities and how they help improve the world. He said the world’s great universities share common characteristics that allow them to create conditions for transformation — of people, of ideas and of problems into solutions.
He told the graduates they are entering a world that is in transition. He said they will face the most dynamic labor market ever, one where jobs are both disappearing and growing because of technological advances.
“In this dynamic environment, creative adaptability will be crucial,” Frenk said. “You will have the opportunity to reinvent yourselves multiple times throughout your working life.”
Frenk said recent backlash against the “establishment” stems from fear and insecurity, as millions of people across the world feel uprooted, left behind and threatened by globalization. However, the response should not be to lower one’s sights and embrace homogeneity, Frenk argued. Instead, diversity and interdependence are not only unavoidable but desirable.
“Universities must respond to this changing context by reaffirming their responsibility as engines of opportunity and social mobility,” he said. “They must become open spaces, capable of meeting the shifting educational needs of people throughout their entire careers, starting immediately after graduation.”
Besides Frenk, the other three recipients of honorary degrees were:
• Ronald Carter, legendary jazz double bassist and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Music at the City College of New York, Doctor of Music.
• Maxine Frankel, philanthropist, patron of the arts and U-M alumna, Doctor of Fine Arts.
• Dr. Michael Johns, Emory University executive vice president for health affairs emeritus and professor at the Emory School of Medicine and Rollins School of Public Health, Doctor of Science.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel told graduates the convergence of national and university events — the upcoming 45th U.S. presidential inauguration and U-M’s bicentennial celebration — heightens the importance of their transition from U-M students to graduates.
“I believe that each of these transitions — for our nation, for our university and for you as graduates — presents a chance to set the tone for the years ahead,” Schlissel said. “To reveal our character and commitment to moving forward as individuals and collectively, in search of a bright future, to take what we have learned and apply it to a new stage in life.”
Schlissel said U-M is using its transition to a third century to explore the future of higher education, evaluate what the university can do to better serve people across the world and assess how the university should evolve in the years ahead.
He urged the graduates to think hard about their futures during every step of their journey ahead, and to discuss the choices that lie before them with their friends and family.
“Be open to people you care about disagreeing with you, but take care to discuss even emotionally charged disagreements with an open mind and with mutual respect,” the president said.
In her last commencement before becoming president of Cornell University, Provost Martha Pollack said her time at U-M has reinforced a central, instinctive truth: The most important and rewarding work one will do will be on behalf of others.
“The University of Michigan’s mission statement in part commits us to ‘developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future,'” Pollack said. “That’s you, graduates. It’s your turn to challenge the present — that is to look constantly for ways to make our world better — and in so doing to enrich the future.”
Faculty Senate Chair William Schultz, professor of mechanical engineering and applied mechanics, and of naval architecture and marine engineering, said the faculty is proud of the graduates and wishes them the best in the next phase of their lives.
“We have not always made learning easy for you, but we hope you have developed the love of learning nonetheless and will continue to do so in whatever form that life takes you,” Schultz said.
The student address was delivered by William Royster, the president of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and a Black Student Union leader. He received a Bachelor in General Studies degree with a concentration in mathematics and African-American studies.
Royster said he endured a lot of adversity to get to graduation, like working three jobs to support himself. However, he said, his successes are also due to the efforts of loved ones in his life, like his grandmother, who was illiterate and sent Royster’s mother from rural Mississippi to Michigan to get a better education.
“So today, as we cross the maize and blue finish line together, I challenge you to ask yourself who has invested in you?” Royster told his fellow graduates. “And moreover, what is required of you now? That dream you’ve always had — you owe it to your parents to pursue it. That dream school or job you’ve always wanted — go out and get it for the professors that have invested in your potential.”
“We owe it to them,” he continued, “and we owe it to ourselves. And now today, with our diplomas in hand, we certainly owe it to the University of Michigan.”