Love will prevail, speaker Michele Norris-Johnson tells U-M graduates


Winter Commencement speaker Michele Norris-Johnson conveyed a simple, yet powerful message to the University of Michigan graduates gathered Sunday at Crisler Center: “Love wins. Love always wins.”

NPR guest host and special correspondent Michele Norris-Johnson addresses graduates at Sunday’s ceremony. (Photo by Austin Thomas, Michigan Photography)

The National Public Radio guest host and special correspondent said the theme of her address was prompted by recent events — in particular the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the death of former South African President Nelson Mandela.

She said the phrase “love wins” had become a mantra for a couple that lost a 6-year-old daughter in the school shooting, and it was exemplified by the life of Mandela, who “left prison and left bitterness behind him.”

“If you focus too much on breaking news, you can feel rather broken. But, even so, there’s strong evidence that love does prevail, even in the most desperate and divisive moments,” she said. “This is an idea that’s worth holding onto when you charge forward into the world.”

Norris-Johnson also is the founder of The Race Card Project, an initiative to foster a wider conversation about race in America. She brought the project — and its premise of summarizing one’s feelings about race into six words on a notecard — to U-M earlier this year. She read some of those summaries Sunday.

While matters of diversity and the questions surrounding how best to achieve it may divide us, she said, there’s another way of looking at the issue: “Racism is toxic, but race doesn’t have to be.”

Click the photo to view images from commencement ceremonies at the Ann Arbor, Dearborn and Flint campuses.

Norris-Johnson, who hosted NPR’s newsmagazine “All Things Considered” from 2002-11, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. Other honorary degree recipients Sunday were:

• Willard L. “Sandy” Boyd, president emeritus of the University of Iowa, Doctor of Laws.

• William I. Higuchi, professor emeritus of pharmaceutics and pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of Utah and a former U-M faculty member, Doctor of Science.

• Lou Anna K. Simon, president of Michigan State University, Doctor of Laws.

• Helen Zell, U-M alumna, executive director of the Zell Family Foundation and supporter of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, Doctor of Humane Letters.

• Dr. David Satcher, the 16th surgeon general of the United States, Doctor of Science. Satcher received his degree and delivered the commencement address at UM-Flint’s ceremony Sunday.

In her remarks to the graduates, President Mary Sue Coleman said the world looks forward to their contributions — “the next big discovery, the next compelling novel, and the next great leader. We need your intellect to change the world, and for the better.”

President Mary Sue Coleman told graduates the world looks forward to their contributions. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

America’s public universities like U-M have “an extraordinary compact with society” and are unrivaled in “innovation, creativity and intellectual fervor.” But, she warned, those same universities are threatened.

“Threatened by shrinking financial support from our federal and state governments. And threatened by waning public confidence and those skeptical of our value and our contributions,” she said. “With your degrees, you embody the value of public higher education. A university commencement is an ideal opportunity to celebrate our shared belief in the good of education and the infinite power of an idea.”

Coleman, who also addressed MSU graduates on Friday and will speak at Indiana University’s commencement Dec. 21, urged U-M’s newest alumni to “think beyond Ann Arbor.” She asked them to support all public universities, even rivals such as MSU and Ohio State University.

“Our similarities far outweigh our differences, and that is our collective strength. It is your strength as a graduate,” she said.

“I ask you to be a fan of Michigan State. … I encourage you to be an advocate for Indiana University. … Support Ohio State, say good things about Wisconsin, and celebrate Penn State. Be champions for all of them, because public universities and graduates like you strengthen our communities, advance our states, and showcase our nation as a beacon of knowledge and discovery.”

Provost Martha E. Pollack also noted the Mandela’s passing, citing it as a chance to reflect on his leadership and life lessons.

“Some years ago when a reporter asked for Mr. Mandela’s advice about how an individual can contribute to society, he replied, ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination,’” Pollack said. “You leave the university today with good heads and good hearts, ready to contribute to the world. We are proud to claim you as our graduates.”

Student speaker Tyler L. Jones addresses his fellow graduates. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Tyler L. Jones of Northville, who received a Bachelor of Arts degree from LSA, was the student speaker. He talked of finding comfort “in the intellectual bubble of Ann Arbor,” but said that, ultimately, “being ‘comfortable’ is overrated.”

“Personal growth was seldom easy, but Michigan demanded all of this from us because tomorrow will do the same. What lies ahead will have little respect for what’s comfortable, and sometimes even our best won’t be enough,” he said.

“From the professors who taught us to create, to the roommates that challenged who we were and what we believed, this place has changed all of us. It has made us into the people that tomorrow needs us to be. From an uncertain economic future to a Washington, D.C., that just seems broken, perhaps more than ever, tomorrow needs Wolverines.”


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