UMD Afternoon Commencement

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Good afternoon.

What a great day to be in Duluth and what an honor it is for me to be a part of this commencement for the UMD Class of 2013.

I am so glad we had this 3 o’clock start. Like all of you, I topped my Friday evening off with a warm glass of milk, put on my Bulldog pajamas, tucked myself in around 9 o’clock, and got a great night’s sleep.

This morning, around 8 or so, I went for a walk on campus, and was having a wonderful time listening to Trampled by Turtles on my headphones.

Then something really bad happened, and I panicked.

I couldn’t find my way out of the maze of tunnels and hallways!  It was like a bad science fiction movie. I escaped just minutes ago.

I’d give you guys diplomas just for figuring out the tunnels!

Congrats and honors

Seriously, congratulations to you, graduates of UMD’s College of Education and Human Service Professions, College of Liberal Arts and School of Fine Arts. On behalf of the entire University of Minnesota community, we are so proud of you.

I’d like to acknowledge the presence of 1983 UMD graduate and one of my bosses, University of Minnesota David McMillan. Thank you Regent McMillan for your leadership and your diligent advocacy for UMD.

I also want to thank Chancellor Lynn Black. I pointed this out this morning to the business and economics, and science and engineering students, but I really want to emphasize this to you graduates of these three colleges this afternoon. Chancellor Black was an English major and has a master’s and Ph.D. in theater.

You hear that parents?!

He also, over the past three years, has become an expert in climate change. That is, working successfully to change the climate and culture here at UMD, and leading this campus towards an ambitious future. He has courageously tackled head-on the very important issue of equity, diversity, social justice and tolerance. Lynn, you are a trusted colleague, and the perfect leader at the right time for UMD, and I thank you.

Value of a degree

Now, let me turn to a very hot topic making the rounds in higher education, and, more importantly, around dinner tables across Minnesota, and the nation. And it particularly applies to some of you liberal arts,  social sciences, and fine arts students.   It is an assertion by some misguided “experts” that there is limited, or no, value to a college education these days, and, especially, to a four-year college degree like the one you are all receiving here today.

That really frustrates me. It is hogwash, and I’m being kind.

Here’s an example of one expert’s bold idea. Last December, Florida’s governor suggested that students should pay more for an English degree than to earn an engineering degree.

Here’s the theory behind that, as best as I understand it: His state aims to encourage more students to study engineering (for example) because humanities and liberal arts graduates simply won’t bring as much “strategic” value to employers.

I’m not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Every day, Minnesota CEOs tell me that they need college graduates who are critical thinkers, clear writers, and are multilingual. They tell me to compete in an increasingly diverse state and rapidly changing economy, employers need to hire young people who can:  

  • communicate well,
  • work effectively in groups and across cultures,
  • have global experience,
  • who can bring an interdisciplinary perspective to solving critically important problems, and
  • and who can add value to the culture and vibrancy of our state, which is a beacon for the arts in the Midwest and the nation.

Now, I know that tuition and debt have become real burdens, and lessening that burden has been a priority of mine since I became President two years ago.

In fact, we are just days away — I hope — from achieving a major victory in the Minnesota Legislature of renewing our partnership with the state and achieving a two-year tuition freeze for all Minnesota resident undergraduates. That could happen by Monday. I know you won’t benefit — sorry about that! — but it is a start for the next generation of UMD students.

And I know that with the rise of student debt, and the very difficult job market — especially for liberal arts students — over the past five years, people have wondered, “Why college? What’s it really worth?”

First — and, parents, bear with me — preparing students to get a job isn’t the only reason to go to college or the only reason UMD is here. We are preparing leaders here. Regent McMillan happens to have been an economics and history major here at UMD, not a scientist. He’s now an energy executive now.

We’re preparing students to be engaged citizens, working to solve problems and do good in your communities. We’re here to enable you to love learning today and for the next 10 decades of your life.

Still, we know that being in a position to have a meaningful life of work and family, of being able to support yourself, requires an occupation that makes a difference in the world. And in your pocketbook. I get that.

As Chancellor Black told you, I’m a chemical engineer, so let me pull out some data.

I’ll start with the Georgetown University Jobs Study, an analysis of the work force needs across the nation. By 2018, just five years from now and as your careers will really start to blossom, 70 percent of all jobs in this state will require some post-secondary schooling.

In Minnesota, the demand for four-year college graduates is one of the highest in the nation. Out of all 50 states, Minnesota sits behind only Washington, D.C., Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey in its demand for four-year college graduates. Fact is, in this region, if you want a good job, in seven out of ten openings, you’ve got to have a four-year degree. That’s the baseline.

Now, at UMD, our record is very strong. In all three of the colleges here this afternoon, more than 92 percent of all of our graduates two years ago — the last year for which we have solid data — were employed within one year of getting their degrees. For those in Liberal Arts and Fine arts, about 60 percent were in related fields, but more than 80 percent of our CEHS grads got jobs in their fields.  Not perfect — but in the worst recession in nearly a century — pretty darn good.

One more data point: During the recession, employment for college graduates nationally has actually increased by 9 percent, while remaining stagnant or dropping for all other educational levels.

I know it’s been disappointing for some of you if you haven’t gotten the exact job you want right now. But I promise you, your UMD degree and the relationships you developed here, will, in the long run, serve you well.  

One other thing that’s annoying: and that’s the questioning of the public good that higher ed produces.

I look at you all, and I say: Wait, here are hundreds of the best prepared, most energetic young people on the planet, a talent force filled with hopes and dreams that will make Minnesota a better place to live and work for the next generation. Isn’t that a great public good for this state’s economy and future?

But just as important is this: more data tells us that more than 25 percent of you in these three colleges are first generation college graduates. I’m a first generation college graduate. So was a fellow named Brian Kobilka, a 1977 UMD grad who happened to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry last fall.

We at the University are doing what public education is supposed to do. We are helping to level the economic and success playing field. That is, in my opinion, a profound societal good.

With that, I’d like to turn to memories.

As you know, we are the only research University in the state of Minnesota. As President of the University, every once in a while I get to do my own research.

So, I’ve come up with a Top Ten list of memories for you, the UMD class of 2013. 

You ready?!

Number Ten: Laying out in the sun in Lester Park, wearing shorts, on the first day of above 40-degree weather, with snow all around you. 
Number Nine: 35-cent wings night at Burrito Union.
Number Eight: Pushing friends cars up the hill in winter, then shouting, “Dude, you should have four-wheel drive!”
Number Seven: Being able to identify freshmen because they’re the ones in the tunnels wearing their pajamas while walking to class in their slippers.
Number Six: You’re hungry, it’s 2 a.m., this must be the McDonald’s line.
Number Five: The football team and women’s hockey team both winning NCAA titles  in your freshman year.
Number Four: Clearly influenced by Chancellor Black’s theatrical sensibilities — and great acting tradition here at UMD — a whole bunch of you acted your way to honors at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.
Number Three: Right here in this arena, the men’s NCAA national title celebration, when you were sophomores, and the craziness afterwards.
Number Two: This year, as a mature, hungry senior, you begging freshmen for their One-Fifty meal plan cards to get a free dinner, even though you used to complain about the DC when you were a freshman.
And Number One: Drum roll, please: Snow days in April!!!

In closing, commencement speeches are required to end with quotations from a great philosopher, someone who deeply understands the heart and soul of the human spirit. 

As for many of you, for me that insightful thought leader of the 21st Century is Stephen Colbert. Since he couldn’t make it here today, Stephen asked me to share his words with you. A few years ago, speaking to graduates at another university, Colbert stopped kidding around for a moment. And I want to, also. 

Here’s what he said: 

“In my experience, you will truly serve only what you love, because service is love made visible.
“If you love friends, you will serve your friends.
“If you love community, you will serve your community.
“If you love money, you will serve your money.
“And if you love only yourself, you will only serve yourself.
“And you will only have yourself.”

Service …
Love …

Those are three words that I urge you to embrace as you march proudly onto your next chapter, what ever it is, where ever it is, always with UMD’s rugged spirit, its lessons and your passion in your hearts.

And then there are two other words — three indelible syllables — that I also urge you to forever embrace.


Thank you, Class of 2013, you have made your families, your friends and all of us at the University of Minnesota proud.