Before the Class of 2015 graduates received degrees Saturday, University President Mark Schlissel posed a question to them as they crowded the Michigan Stadium bleachers: “What are you going to do now?”
He was not referring to the jobs or graduate school programs that will be the next steps in life for many of them. Instead, he was asking the graduates to consider what they were going to do next as citizens.
“Over time, citizenship has changed,” he said. “Responsibilities are now codified as laws, and rights are guarded by lawyers and judges. But the fabric that ties the system together is a common identity that we share with a nation or community of people.”
In his first Spring Commencement speech as University president, Schlissel stressed the power of shared identity.
“There is one more category of citizenship that applies to you no matter where you come from,” he said. “It is not defined by blood or by soil. It is determined by the mind, by the spirit and by the heart. Today I want to consider with you what it means to be a citizen of the University of Michigan community.”
Members of this community include commencement speakers Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, University alums and co-founders of Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, who spoke after Schlissel.
Rather than describing their much-discussed business model and marketing strategy at Zingerman's to the graduates, Saginaw and Weinzweig asserted their personal and philosophical beliefs. The ideas of generosity, joy and unrecognized work stood at the forefront of both of their messages.
Saginaw opened the address, detailing examples of what he believed were moments of generosity throughout his life. He focused on instances in which giving and selflessness mattered more than anything, and urged the graduates to treat every moment like that. For him, he said, Zingerman's’ success was not defined by the line of customers stretching down Detroit Street.
“When you leave here today with your must-have list, I invite you to measure your successes not so much by what you gain or accomplish for yourself, but rather what you contribute to others,” Saginaw said. “I believe practicing generosity is the way to joy. It’s free for taking — or, should I say, for giving.”
“Half of what you have belongs to those who need it, and, if you’re successful, make your friends successful,” Saginaw said, followed by applause.
Weinzweig echoed Saginaw’s sentiments, urging students to measure themselves on the scale best fit for them, rather than ones constructed by society.
“I believe that going for greatness — greatness for you, and not how everyone else in the world identifies it — is energizing,” Weinzweig said.
On the central tenet of generosity, Weinzweig said acts of kindness are underappreciated, yet perhaps most important in our efforts to give back.
“I believe that simple kindness matters more than most people will admit. That instead of getting angry at others, we appreciate. That instead of blaming, we give blessings,” Weinzweig said. “...Kindness is free and kindness counts.”
Schlissel’s address paralleled these themes, saying University of Michigan citizenship means leading the way for others to have the greatest possible impact on society. He noted that in his first year at the University, he saw students practice these values in numerous ways, including working to combat LGBTQ homelessness in Metro Detroit and advocating for changes to student services related to mental health and sexual misconduct.
“You’ve organized and spoken out in support of increased diversity and greater inclusiveness within our campus community, and your activism has been deeply influential both on campus and in the national academic community,” he said.
He also lauded students for educating him about campus during his transition into the presidency throughout his first year. He specifically mentioned students who protested on his lawn in the fall, calling for the firing of former Athletic Director Dave Brandon. Schlissel said these students “educated” him on the state of University athletics.
Schlissel also acknowledged School of Public Policy graduate Bobby Dishell, former Central Student Government president, for committing himself to helping other students.
In opening the ceremony, University Provost Martha Pollack emphasized the continuing importance of receiving a university education, particularly at a time when many value workplace skills over the well-rounded nature of a traditional college experience.
“I believe that as you reflect on your time at Michigan, perhaps not today, but in the future, you’ll find what you gained here goes well beyond your skills for the workplace,” Pollack said.
Pollack also discussed the importance of the lessons students learned outside the classroom, as they will draw on these lessons as they make decisions and navigate society in the future.
“Graduates, here’s what I want to ask you: As you go through life, pay attention,” Pollack said. “...You can and should also push yourself to draw on your knowledge intentionally. Use what you’ve learned, and use it in all aspects of your life.”
In her speech to graduates, Catherine Huang, an LSA graduate and a leader of MPowered Entrepreneurship, told students and members of the crowd to take selfies with as many people as they could. Huang said these photos, filled with friends, strangers or both, can serve as reminders of the memories and shared moments students had at the University.
Schlissel conferred honorary Doctor of Law degrees to Saginaw and Weinzweig, and gave honorary degrees to five other individuals: John Dingell, the former congressman for Michigan’s 12th Congressional District; Sanford Robertson, the founding partner of the private equity firm Francisco Partners; economist and Nobel laureate Robert Shiller; journalist Robin Wright and gastroenterologist Tadataka Yamada.
Engineering senior Connor Toohey, who participated in Saturday’s ceremony but will officially graduate in December, said he liked the casual nature of Weinzweig and Saginaw’s speech.
“I thought they were very entertaining to listen to, and that’s what you want to hear at a commencement speech,” he said. “They were definitely inspiring, too.”
At the end of Schlissel’s speech, he urged graduates to use their abilities as citizens of the University community to create change and progress within society as a whole.
“You are the leaders and best of today, and you are the vanguard of a better tomorrow.”