In his address to graduates at the University’s Spring Commencement ceremony Saturday at Michigan Stadium, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder talked about how his collegiate experiences shaped his work in both the private and public sectors and urged students to be “explorers” in their quest for self-discovery.
In a speech that shied away from the political issues that have sparked controversy among many Michigan citizens since he was elected last November, Snyder emphasized the importance of the University’s resources in providing vast opportunities for students to become leaders and inspire positive change.
“Michigan is a special place to me and when you think about making a commencement address, you have two choices,” Snyder said. “You can talk about major issues, or you can talk about your life and personal issues. Today I’m going to talk about my personal experiences at the University of Michigan.”
About 40,000 people attended the ceremony at the Big House, including approximately 6,000 graduates.
Snyder was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University. Other honorary degree recipients included former U.S. Rep. Vern Ehlers (R–Mich.), William Clay Ford, Jr. the executive chairman of Ford Motor Corporation, film director Spike Lee, Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and real estate developer Stephen Ross, after whom the Ross School of Business is named.
Snyder — a self-proclaimed “workaholic” who earned three degrees from the University — said his academic experience, as well as the various organizations and jobs he was a part of during his time at the University, inspired his passion for helping others. He added that his time at the University also led to the development of his three-pronged career plan, which includes working as a businessman and public official with the ultimate goal of becoming a teacher after his time as governor ends.
“I would probably be at the far end of the least worldly person when I showed up at the University of Michigan,” Snyder said. “I had fabulous parents but I didn’t have a lot of opportunity.”
In his speech, Snyder lauded the University for being world-renowned in numerous programs, adding that its academic strength provides students with many opportunities in their quests toward self-realization.
“The true uniqueness here is the intersection between being the best of the world in so many fields,” Snyder said. “It’s about having an environment where you can build your own path through so many of them.
He added that while many critics say the size of the University hinders its ability to fully focus on individual student needs, the expansive student body and vast amount of organizations allow students to excel in their post-collegiate lives and careers.
“Our strength is our breadth and size,” Snyder said. “We need to stop being defensive about our breadth and size and start being proud of it.”
Snyder also said students are often attracted to the University for its “spirit of exploration” and for seeking a career path that helps the common good.
“You are all explorers and when you were exploring at the University of Michigan you’re mission was straightforward, it was to graduate and you have achieved that fabulous goal today,” Snyder said. “The next thing is you need a mission for the future.”
While he said today’s graduates do not necessarily need to have a finalized plan before graduating, he said students should engage in areas that positively impact their communities and the common good.
“What the best really means in my view is giving your best…and that’s by doing that in a positive fashion,” Snyder said. “A forward looking fashion.”
University President Mary Sue Coleman preceded Snyder, and talked about the importance of leadership in the University community and beyond. She recognized former Michigan Student Assembly President Chris Armstrong as “a proven leader” who persevered amid criticism for being openly gay.
“He has represented you on campus and in Lansing…and yet what created the biggest headlines for Chris is the fact that he is a gay man, the first to lead the Michigan Student Assembly,” Coleman said. “When this generated criticism and bullying, he did not blink. He continued to hold his head high as student body president and as a Michigan student and to speak out for equality, tolerance and compassion. That’s what leaders do.”
Coleman added that the University strives to prepare students to take on leadership roles by promoting tolerance and developing inner strength.
“We’re serious about creating thoughtful leaders,” Coleman said. “Our world needs strong, decisive individuals. Individuals who listen, who gather and respect different ideas and who act boldly based on an informed point of view.”
“This is no time for wavering, but rather for people who are willing to stand up for their beliefs and ideas,” she added. “People unafraid to challenge the status quo, people eager to take risks because big risks can deliver big rewards.”
The student speaker for the ceremony was Jillian Joan Garment Rothman, an LSA graduating senior who concentrated in political science, with a minor in Afro-American studies. Rothman told students not to be reserved in their careers and instead be bold in their post-collegiate pursuits.
“Being overly cautious is not a product of growing up, it’s just called boring,” Rothman said. “The greatest men and women of our community were the ones not afraid to take risks or get messy.”
“All we must realize is that by avoiding risks in fear of failure we have essentially failed already,” she added.
In an interview after the ceremony, Architecture graduate Rick Figura said he was glad Snyder spoke mostly about his own personal experiences, rather than politics.
“I think if he had gotten into politics he would’ve gotten quite a reaction (from the crowd),” Figura said. “All in all I thought it was a decent speech, politics aside.”
Still, Figura said he expected more extreme protests than just the handful of students who stood with their backs to Snyder as he spoke.
Clark Evans, an LSA graduate said he thought the graduation ceremony wasn’t the appropriate venue to protest Snyder’s policies.
“I have a problem with the protesters in the fact that he’s a Michigan graduate,” Clark said. “So, I think that it’s not appropriate, especially at commencement, to display their concerns with the governor.”
School of Music graduate Alexandra Kozak said the standing student protesters didn’t offend her and commended Snyder for speaking despite the controversy surrounding the speech.
“When people were actually booing it bothered me,” Kozak said. “There’s a level of respect, I mean they’re still people. But the back turning, that’s a quiet way of showing your protest.”
Despite the protests, she said graduating was a “surreal” experience.
“It was overwhelming,” Kozak said. “The sheer size of it, the Big House and then all the people. The family bond, even though there’s 7,000 graduates, having that many people behind you is really great.”