Unlike the deadlines they faced for papers or exams, U-M’s newest graduates will never run out of time to revise their life story, 2019 Winter Commencement speaker Hendrik G. (Hank) Meijer told them Dec. 15.
“Please don’t just take comfort, take inspiration — from knowing that there really is no more deadline for revising the essay that is your life,” said Meijer, executive chairman of Meijer Inc. and the author of two biographies. “If you’re lucky, you get to keep revising. And as you do, you make things better for all the rest of us, too.”
More than 950 graduates attended the commencement ceremony at Crisler Center. According to the Office of the Registrar, 2,175 U-M Ann Arbor students applied to graduate at the end of the term.
Meijer, a U-M alumnus who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, said revision – or reinvention – is a lifelong process. He recalled some of the challenges he faced starting his career as a journalist before eventually joining the family business.
Meijer’s grandfather, the late Hendrik Meijer, was an immigrant barber who founded the first Meijer store in 1934. Years later, the company sparked a retailing revolution with its pioneering, successful “one-stop shopping” concept.
“It worked out — so far — although new realities in the digital age loom ominously over brick-and-mortar retailing,” Meijer said. “We know we can never stop revising. The specter of extinction in our business is always with us, but that can inspire restlessness, and from restlessness comes the impulse to revise — not just a necessity, but a glorious opportunity.”
Meijer said every person has something important to contribute.
“We each bring some little — or not-so-little – something to the well-being of our loved ones, to peace and stability, we hope, or to a stronger community, or maybe to the world’s store of knowledge,” he said.
Meijer also talked about his biography of U.S. Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who earlier in the 20th century believed the U.S. should be a neutral power in the world. The attack on Pearl Harbor and World II revised the senator’s thinking, Meijer said, leading him to realize that the U.S. had a responsibility to be a world leader.
“This was a revision that changed the course of American history,” Meijer said. “It led the way to the United Nations, the Marshall Plan and NATO — cornerstones of world stability for seven decades and only recently under siege.”
Meijer said Vandenberg would have gotten a kick out of the commencement venue being the site of an upcoming presidential debate in 2020.
“Who knows what history might be made” during the debate, Meijer said. “Many of us will tune in, from wherever we are in the world. But just remember, what you are here for today is a bigger deal by far. You are each, quite literally, making your own history.”
Also receiving honorary degrees were:
- Epidemiologist and entrepreneur Lawrence Brilliant, Doctor of Humane Letters.
- TIAA President and CEO Roger W. Ferguson, Jr., Doctor of Laws.
- President Emeritus of the University Musical Society Kenneth Fischer, Doctor of Fine Arts.
- Economist and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen, Doctor of Laws.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel told the graduates their futures and globalism are inextricably linked. He said U-M has well-equipped them to tackle humanity’s greatest challenges, which aren’t bound by international borders.
“Climate change is global,” he said. “Conflicts between nations force refugees to flee their homes and migrate worldwide. Pandemics don’t stop spreading because the line is too long at Customs.
“Those examples barely scratch the surface, but they also provide opportunities to use your education and your influence for good.”
Schlissel highlighted several facets of U-M’s role as a global university. He said more than 5,500 students had an international educational or research experience in the most recent academic year. He also mentioned his own trip in November to India, which included visits to several U-M partner institutions and meetings with government leaders.
Schlissel said for U-M to fulfill its public mission, it must not shrink from its responsibility to promote global stability and peace for all humanity. Global partnerships and curricula are key components of a Michigan education, he said.
“National security and competitiveness concerns are real, but our benefits from international engagement are far greater than the risks, and these risks can be mitigated by thoughtful policies,” he said. “There is also a special dividend that comes along with international collaboration and academic travel: world peace and stability.”
Amy Dittmar, acting provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said commencement marks both an important completion and a beginning.
She urged the graduates to keep in mind the advice of former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who visited campus earlier in the fall: “Life is full of surprises and serendipity. Being open to unexpected turns in the road is an important part of success. If you try to plan every step, you may miss those wonderful twists and turns.
“Just find your next adventure – do it well, enjoy it – and then, not now, think about what comes next.”
Other speakers at the ceremony included graduates Anam Khan and Heather Camhi. Khan, a mechanical engineering major, recalled how she once visited a professor’s office for help before an exam, and the room was so crowded with other students that she had to sit on the floor. Her classmates’ complicated questions made her even more confused.
Embarrassed and anxious, Khan left without asking anything. Later that day, the professor sent an email apologizing for not being able to address her questions and offering his availability for one-on-one help. The message meant a lot to her.
“I hope you’ll remember that there is always space to act with empathy,” she said. “Just as a professor noticed my discomfort and reached out to help, you can always take the opportunity to consider the feelings and thoughts of those around you – for that is what it truly means to be the leaders and best.”
Joy Beatty, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, encouraged the graduates to reflect on why they chose to pursue higher education. She said they probably wanted to learn skills that would help them earn a living, but also stressed that education provides the habits of mind to think critically, ask questions, evaluate evidence and solve problems.
“There are many challenging issues, opportunities and problems that need your intellectual horsepower,” she said. “Collectively, we need you to contribute your knowledge and engage in significant projects in the world.
“You are part of the intellectual and social fabric of Michigan, adding your thread to the significant contributions made by University of Michigan graduates every day. When you leave here today know that we at the University of Michigan have trained you well, and we’re really proud of your accomplishment.
“Congratulations, and Go Blue!”