By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 9, 2014
With just a few months behind the wheel of one of the world’s largest automakers, Mary Barra, the CEO of General Motors Company, has been selected to deliver the University’s spring commencement address at Michigan Stadium.
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The University has announced plans to award Barra an honorary Doctor of Engineering when she speaks at commencement exercises May 3, pending approval by the University’s Board of Regents at their meeting later this month.
University President Mary Sue Coleman said Barra’s story exemplifies a business leader who learned every aspect of her industry and earned her advancements as she worked her way through the ranks of General Motors.
“She represents so many different things — somebody who worked her way through the company, someone who is in Detroit helping to revive the whole Michigan economy, a real breakthrough for women’s leadership,” Coleman said in an interview with the Daily.
Born in Waterford, Barra graduated from the General Motors Institute — since renamed Kettering University — in 1985 with a degree in electrical engineering. She earned an MBA from Stanford University in 1990.
Barra, who has dedicated her entire career to General Motors, has held a variety of positions. She was a plant manager at Detroit Hamtramck Assembly, vice president of global manufacturing engineering from 2008 to 2009, vice president of global human resources from 2009 to 2011 and senior vice president of global product development from 2011 until her appointment as CEO. Barra succeeded former CEO Dan Akerson in January.
Barra will lead Detroit-based General Motors as the city and its automakers continue to rebound from declining sales in the mid-2000s and subsequent bankruptcies.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department sold its remaining shares of General Motors common stock, closing a chapter in the automaker’s history marked by a national economic crisis that hit Detroit’s auto industry especially hard. General Motors filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The company still faces a historically low market share, among other challenges.
In an interview with the Daily, Barra said her selection as commencement speaker could speak to the resurgence of General Motors and the city of Detroit.
“The company has great potential and is already demonstrating that,” she said. “I’m highly optimistic for Detroit, and I think that reflects on the whole state and all the big institutions in the state like the University of Michigan.”
Looking at once-iconic companies that have now disappeared, Barra said businesses — and future business leaders — have the opportunity to glean important lessons.
“It’s important lessons on being focused on the customer, having great products, being responsible from all aspects of being a good corporate citizen — but also the power of heart: when things get difficult, you can turn it around,” she said.
Though Coleman said the selection was made for a variety of reasons, she said the city’s resurgence did factor into the decision.
“The fact that she does represent in many ways the resurgence of the auto industry — I’m very proud about that,” Coleman said.
While Barra said she hasn’t written her speech yet, she wants to ask graduates to think about the kind of leader they want to be upon leaving college.
“First of all, you should do what you love,” she said. “But there is no substitute for hard work. I’m proud of my parents for what they accomplished and following in my dad’s footsteps of being a part of the auto industry, so I think there’s very strong messages about what you can achieve — whether it’s the American dream or the global dream.”
She also said it’s often difficult to anticipate the entirety of a career path — and that’s okay.
“If you set your sights to it, you can surprise yourself with what you accomplish. I don’t think anyone can, as they leave college, can say I’m going to do this and that, because life doesn’t happen that way, but being ready for the wonderful opportunities that are going to be put in front of you and then working hard and seizing them.”
Barra, who in 2014 ranked first on Fortune magazine’s list of the “50 Most Powerful Women in Business,” is the first woman to lead a major automaker and is one of only a few female leaders of a major industrial corporation.
Since 1998, there have only been two female spring commencement speakers — former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2003 and Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, in 2006. Former NPR radio host Michele Norris delivered the Winter 2013 commencement address.
However, Coleman, who is the University’s first female president, said Barra likely doesn’t define herself as General Motors’ first female CEO.
“I know she probably downplays the symbolism of the role, but I do think it’s significant,” Coleman said.
Still, Barra said she wants to encourage students — especially young girls — to not shy away from math and science.
“I think we don’t do a good enough job of mapping how important math and science is to the areas they are interested in,” she said.
Selection credentials aside, Barra said she has always been a Michigan fan and is thrilled about the opportunity to address the University’s graduates.
“It’s just a privilege and an honor for me to have the opportunity to speak to the graduating class at the University of Michigan,” Barra said. “I take it very seriously.”
University to award five additional honorary degrees
Five others will also receive honorary degrees, pending approval by the regents.
James L. Curtis, a psychiatrist and philanthropist, will receive a Doctor of Science. The only Black student in his Medical School class, Curtis graduated with an M.D. in 1946 before pursuing a career in psychiatry that spanned more than half a century. Beside his work as a practicing clinician, Curtis was an educator and Medical School administrator. He served as the associate dean of student affairs at Cornell Medical School for 10 years and as a department director at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons for two decades.
Curtis has also been a longtime donor to the University, including support for the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s James L. and Vivian A. Curtis Gallery of African and African American Art, established in 1998.
Computer scientist Adele Goldberg, who made important contributions to the development of the personal computer, will also receive a Doctor of Science. Goldberg began her career as a researcher at Xerox before contributing to object-oriented programming language development in the 1970s. She is currently the founder and director of consulting firm Neometron, Inc. and is a member of the Women in Technology International Hall of Fame.
“She made real breakthroughs in computer science,” Coleman said. “She was one of the people who really began the development of the personal computer.”
Daniel Okrent, a journalist, editor and cultural historian, will be recommended to receive a Doctor of Humane Letters. Okrent is perhaps best known as The New York Times’ first public editor, responsible for critiquing the paper’s accuracy and objectivity. In 1980, Okrent created Rotisserie League Baseball, a precursor to today’s fantasy sports. Okrent was a features editor at The Michigan Daily before going on to serve as an editor at Life magazine and Time magazine.
Okrent will serve as the keynote speaker at Rackham's graduation ceremony on May 2 at Hill Auditorium.
Marshall Weinberg, a businessman and philanthropist, will receive a Doctor of Laws. Weinberg earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy from the University in 1950 and spent his career at Herzfeld & Stern, a New York investment firm. A noted philanthropist, Weinberg has frequently contributed to and raised awareness for a variety of causes, including Jewish organizations and University units. He has served on the LSA Dean’s Advisory Committee and the Honors Program Advisory Committee, in addition to endowing professorships, fellowships and programs throughout LSA.
“What I love about Marshall is that he has been so dedicated — not only to the University of Michigan — but to philanthropic organizations all over,” Coleman said.
José Antonio Abreu, an orchestra conductor, educator and economist, will receive an honorary Doctor of Music. A pianist renowned across the world, in 1975 Abreu founded El Sistema, the National Network of Youth and Children’s Orchestras of Venezuela. Born in Venezuela, Abreu simultaneously achieved success in both economics and music. Today, El Sistema has established more than 280 centers throughout Venezuela. Recently, the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance piloted a version of El Sistema at Ann Arbor’s Mitchell Elementary School.
Abreu was first nominated for an honorary degree in 2012, but was unable to attend the ceremony.
Coleman to preside over her final commencement
As this year’s crop of graduates prepares to leave Ann Arbor for new jobs and cities, commencement will in some ways serve as a graduation for Coleman. The University’s 13th president will retire in July when President-elect Mark Schlissel assumes the presidency.
“As our graduates are entering a new phase, so am I,” Coleman said. “Over my time here, when I reflect back on the people we’ve been able to honor, it will be a little bit bittersweet that it is my last, but I’m always so proud on commencement day because it reflects the ultimate goal that we’re all getting to — having great young people going out into the world.”