Commencement speaker Ruth Simmons cautioned University of Michigan winter 2021 graduates against being quick to shed the high expectations and standards set for them as students.
“Continue to value the fearless pursuit of truth. Keep seeking and forging commonalities among people who are different from you. Recognize and commit unabashedly to learning as a lifelong endeavor,” Simmons, president of Prairie View A&M University, said during the Dec. 19 ceremony at Crisler Center.
“And most of all, don’t just laminate or hang your diploma as proof of your studies here. Persistent fidelity to its values is the best proof of your success as an alumnus.”
U-M’s first in-person winter commencement since 2019 drew several hundred masked graduates and their families. According to the Office of the Registrar, 2,275 Ann Arbor students applied to graduate at the end of the term.
Simmons, who is also a president emerita of Brown University and Smith College, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. She said U-M’s newest graduates will continue to inform and reform the world, and innovate and heal. She said they will pass on to succeeding generations a better world than the one they inherited.
“Based on all that you’ve witnessed and experienced here, you are well prepped for this task, no matter how one characterizes the times in which we live,” she said.
Simmons spoke to the value of embracing differences. She also said achievement goes hand-in-hand with strong ethics and humane values.
Simmons, who grew up in the segregated South as the 12th child of poor sharecroppers, said dedicated and compassionate schoolteachers helped her tap into her potential. And as she advanced through her education and career, she realized she would never be better than her parents because, despite all the hardships they endured, they faithfully followed their beliefs.
One of those beliefs was that a person’s worth is not determined by the recognition they receive or the possessions they amass, but by how they treat others. “You will go far in life, all of you, but never so far I hope that you lose sight of the intrinsic value of human beings, whatever their state,” she told the graduates.
Simmons said while many people are despondent about the state of the world today, she is not.
“I’ve lived long enough to see waves of change across time. That change may come in fits and starts, but it comes, nevertheless,” she said. “But it never comes because we are indifferent or asleep. It comes because enough of us are awakened to the need and opportunity for change that advances the health of our fellow human beings.
“That change is buoyed by our incessant hopefulness about what we can accomplish when we reach across difference to achieve a common purpose. You’ve learned to do that, whether you recognize it or not. Now go and teach others how to be a part of a nation of difference.”
Also receiving honorary degrees were:
- E Hill De Loney, a nationally recognized pioneer and expert in community-based participatory research, Doctor of Humane Letters.
- Cleve Moler, a mathematical software pioneer, Doctor of Engineering.
- Kathy Anne Perkins, a renowned theater scholar and lighting designer, Doctor of Fine Arts.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel told graduates they have achieved a milestone during a time of adversity, both for them as individuals and all of society.
He said they, and the university, stepped up with solutions. He cited students’ role in helping to lift more than 3.5 million children out of poverty with research-supported advocacy for the federal child tax credit. He said students also shined a light on the importance of mental health and set an example for others in a critically important vaccination campaign.
“Great universities, and their graduates, work to solve problems,” he said.
Schlissel said universities across the nation are confronting challenges at the intersection of free speech, academic freedom and the commitment to inclusive campus environments. When differing values collide, he said, the best path forward is open and honest discussion.
Schlissel told the graduates that a U-M degree is special because of the university’s commitment to discovery and truth.
“I hope you will consider yourselves to be advocates for knowledge and understanding — and for the process of discovery that you’ve honed here with us,” he said. “There are so many communities and problems that need your attention. That need your commitment to the truth, now and always.”
Additionally, Schlissel said U-M must examine its past, including the racism and lack of inclusion that is a part of its history.
“These factors continue to influence U-M generations later, and a fuller reckoning will help to make us a more equitable and inclusive campus, now and into the future,” he said.
Provost Susan Collins said the graduates’ time at U-M was shaped by unprecedented world events, including the coronavirus pandemic and the reawakening of the need to address the country’s deep racial inequities. She noted how students had to pivot to online learning and faced other pandemic-related disruptions.
“In this complex and difficult moment, you have persevered,” she said. “With intelligence, thoughtfulness, energy and compassion, you have completed your academic programs and found new ways to make a difference in the world.”
Collins said recent societal challenges have required people to think about their responsibilities to others. She encouraged the graduates to continue reflecting on and engaging in discussions about important issues during the next phases of their lives.
Collins offered a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s message to Congress in 1862: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.”
Other speakers included seniors Walter Aguilar and Jayliyah Hicks and doctoral candidate Mikel Haggadone.
Haggadone said after earning his undergraduate degree at U-M in 2014, he struggled with depression and disordered eating while a Ph.D. student at Stanford University. He returned to U-M in 2016 to complete his doctoral studies. There, he found a supportive network of peers and mentors.
“If I can leave you with one lesson to guide your journey as you begin your post-graduate career, it’s this: No achievement, award or major recognition can ever provide the fulfillment and meaning that comes from leading with love. Authentic love. The type of love that inspires a person to live out the beauty of their full self, imperfections and all,” he said.
Allen Liu, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, shared a story about how he once helped a struggling student. Years later, when that student was employed as an engineer, he sent Liu a note saying he had impacted his life in a positive way.
“I was deeply moved by his message,” Liu said. “I know our faculty are proud of your achievements and cannot wait to see all the wonderful things you will do in the years ahead.
“Congratulations once again, and you are forever part of the Michigan family as one of our 600,000 and growing alumni. Go Blue!”