- Tracy Ko/Daily
By Peter Shahin, Daily News Editor
Published March 17, 2013
Let’s just say it probably won’t be done in 140 characters or fewer.
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On May 4, those attending the university-wide commencement ceremony will hear from 1985 alum Dick Costolo, the current chief executive officer of Twitter. Costolo will also receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree in recognition of his achievements pending approval by the University’s Board of Regents.
University President Mary Sue Coleman told The Michigan Daily that Costolo's role in transforming Twitter into a powerful and ubiquitous part of everyday communication had profoundly impacted the way that people interact with one another.
“(His) entrepreneurial drive, being at the leading edge of a revolution in communication, and the impact of Twitter on the world … he deeply understands the ways that this affects people’s interactions with each other,” Coleman said. “It’s that broad view that caught my attention.”
In an interview Sunday with the Daily, Costolo said he was deeply honored — and surprised — by Coleman’s invitation for him to address his alma mater.
“I asked them if they had the wrong number,” Costolo said jokingly.
During his time at the University of Michigan, Costolo was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity — commonly called FIJI — and practiced amateur improvisational comedy. In an unusual move for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, he then spent time in Chicago trying his luck as a standup comedian before beginning to work on web-based projects in 1996. Costolo founded three companies, the last of which, Feedburner, was sold in 2007 for $100 million to Google, where he worked in various capacities until 2009.
Later in 2009, Twitter hired Costolo as its chief operating officer. A year later, he became its chief executive officer, replacing Evan Williams.
In November, Costolo addressed a full house at Rackham Auditorium, where he shared his experiences in the technology sector and some anecdotes about his personal life. Coleman said during that visit, he talked with her about creating and maintaining a renewed relationship with the University and its students.
“He got rave reviews for his speech,” Coleman said. “I think he’s going to be very, very interesting for the student body.”
Costolo said he was born a Michigan man — making the opportunity to speak in the Big House a major life moment for him.
“It’s really the single greatest honor I could ever imagine receiving,” Costolo said. “When I grew up as a kid outside of Detroit in Troy, I always wanted to go to Michigan. It was the only university I applied to, and I always knew I wanted to go there.”
While Costolo didn't want to give away too much before commencement, he said his address will focus on his time at the University, how it helped shape him and how he approaches problems to this day.
“It will be highly personal and based on my experiences at the University and the way that my education and time at the University of Michigan shaped the path of the kinds of choices that I made in my life and the way I thought about those choices,” he said.
He added that he was encouraged to see the increase in entrepreneurship at the University since his graduation. Entrepreneurship programs and opportunities have blossomed across campus due to the focus of several Central Student Government initiatives and well as organizations such as MPowered and the Zell-Lurie Institute of Entrepreneurial Studies, among others.
“When I graduated from Michigan with my degree in C.S., I was in a group at the University my junior and senior year that was an entrepreneur’s group. There were five or six of us at the time,” he said. “It’s funny, the University came out the last couple of years to San Francisco with a group of entrepreneurs from the University and it’s 200 or 250 people now. It’s funny to go back and think of the five or six of us who were really focused on entrepreneurism and starting things and creating things. That’s where it really started for me.”
Rackham Dean Janet Weiss, chair of the Honorary Degree Committee, said that while the committee is not involved with the selection of the speaker, they did review Costolo’s nomination for an honorary degree. She said the immense amount of interest that he garnered among University staff and students during his November visit influenced their decision.
“There’s a lot of accomplishment — a lot of distinction — in what he’s accomplished since his days at the University of Michigan,” Weiss said. “We always like to recognize University of Michigan graduates in particular, so that’s a plus.”
HONORARY DEGREES TO BE AWARDED
Lisa Connolly, project manager in the Office of the President, helps coordinate the decision-making process for the commencement speaker with the president. She said that the honorary degree award process was one of mutual benefit for the University and the honoree.
“One of the purposes of honorary degrees is to be meaningful on both ends to the recipient and to the University,” Connolly said.
Six other individuals will receive honorary degrees from the University during the commencement proceedings, all pending approval by the University’s Board of Regents.
Rosabeth Kanter, a business professor at Harvard University and University of Michigan alum, will deliver the graduate exercises address on May 3 to recipients of graduate degrees. Kanter is a former editor of the Harvard Business Review and has published many books on sustainable enterprise and leadership in business. Kanter will receive a Doctor of Humane Letters.
“She’s well known in the business education world because of her prominence,” Coleman said of Kantor. “She’s just very admired by folks at the business school here. I’m delighted that it’s worked out for her to come.”
Suzanne Farrell, a ballerina who performed in a number of companies throughout the 20th century, will also receive an honorary degree from the University. Farrell is among the most noted American ballerinas in history and also served as a dance instructor later in her career. In 2000, she formed her own ballet company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, which is produced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. She will receive a Doctor of Fine Arts.
A University alum and generous philanthropist, William Brehm, will also be recommended for an honorary degree. Beginning in the 1960s, Brehm served in various capacities in the Department of Defense before co-founding SRA International, an information technology consulting company that primarily focuses on national security. Brehm has donated significantly to the University, most recently providing $8 million to renovate the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s Earl V. Moore Building. He has been nominated for a Doctor of Laws.
“He has been a tremendous philanthropist, not just for the University of Michigan,” Coleman said. “He is also a composer. We have performed some of his music here. It is his wide area of interest, his desire to do good in the world … His humanity is hard to express because he cares so deeply about the areas that he gives to.”
Pulitzer prize winning historian and lecturer David McCullough will also be nominated for an honorary degree. McCullough is a prolific author who has written several biographies of American presidents and other historical topics. He has also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can earn. He will be recommended for a Doctor of Humane Letters.
Former Democratic Congressman Dale Kildee will be honored at the University of Michigan-Flint. According to Coleman, Kildee was a longtime friend of the University of Michigan and higher education during his 36-year-long career representing Michigan in Congress. Kildee is now in retirement. He will be recommended for a Doctor of Laws.
Award-winning economist Jeffrey Sachs will be honored at the University of Michigan–Dearborn. Sachs is currently a professor at Columbia University and Special Advisor to the United Nation’s secretary-general. He has previously served as director of the Millennium Promises Alliance, which focused on international development and extreme poverty eradication. Sachs has also authored several New York Times bestsellers and has been twice named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 most influential people. He will be nominated for a Doctor of Science.
In a unique effort to generate excitement about this year's ceremony, the University is encouraging Twitter users to use the hashtag #MGoGrad to follow the conversation about commencement.
—Follow Peter Shahin on Twitter at @Peter_Shahin.