UMTC College of Liberal Arts Commencement

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Good afternoon all, and congratulations to the Class of 2013.

I’d like to begin with questions for you.

Who sits among you? Look around, who are you and they becoming, and what will each of you and all of you accomplish and impact? With expertise in areas such as Acting or Geography or Urban Studies — and all you others — how will you use your knowledge, harness your passion, and deploy the critical thinking skills this College of Liberal Arts has developed in you? How will you construct your own path?

Will you make your community more tolerant, your state more prosperous, your nation better informed, or your planet more sustainable? Will you write a novel, a legal brief, or a concerto? Will you save a child, preserve an ancient artifact, or rebuild a struggling neighborhood organization?

Will you follow in the foot steps of graduates of the College of Liberal Arts who came before you, making a splash as an artist and activist, like Dessa, philosophy ‘03, or will you less famously make a major difference like Svetha Janumpali, economics and global studies ‘08, who founded her own startup to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in Nigeria?

Or, will you be more like Rebecca Blank, economics major, class of 1976. Do you know what she did with her CLA degree? She went on to get a Ph.D. at MIT. She had a distinguished academic career, became a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, and interim Secretary of Commerce for the United States.

Success story, right?

But then the next step - two months ago this CLA grad was selected as the new Chancellor of the University of… Wisconsin!

And I am pleased to welcome her back to the Big Ten.

Seriously, the wonderful trajectory of Chancellor Blank could not have been known when she was sitting out there, like you, 37 years ago, an economics major with a bright, uncharted future, and, like most of you, without a clear view of her path. No one sitting next to her, or in the row in front of her, knew among whom they sat.

That’s why it’s such an honor to be with all of you today, and amid all of the excitement, possibility and mystery that you represent. Amid all the potential that you are bound activate in the months and years to come when you will serve, solve and enrich.

On behalf of the entire University of Minnesota community, congratulations.


I want to offer a special welcome to all the parents, grandparents, spouses, partners, mentors, guardians, siblings, other family members and friends who are here to embrace you on this very special occasion.

Greetings to our outstanding CLA faculty members.

And a warm welcome to one of my bosses, a member of the University’s Board of Regents, Rick Beeson.

Thank you, Provost Hanson, CLA 1970, for guiding our academic mission at the U.

The value of the liberal arts and humanities

As you may have heard, I’m a chemical engineer by discipline and profession. When I was here at the University in graduate school, I had no idea I’d wind up as the President of this great University with the opportunity to tell jokes about Wisconsin. In fact, at my college graduation I aspired to be the youngest senior vice president in the history of Exxon, dive into industrial research and climb that marvelous corporate ladder.

But the corporate world wasn’t to be for me. And it was not for me because I fell in love with teaching college students when I was a T.A. here. I still love being around University of Minnesota students.

And, second, I would argue my decision-making then — and now — developed from the core competencies of the liberal arts, humanities and social sciences courses I took as an undergraduate. The ability to analyze a situation and make a thoughtful decision, not one based on formula, and then go on to explain it in a convincing way to your key audiences. Engineers are sometimes described as someone who solves a problem you didn’t know you had in a way you don’t understand.

But that IS an old joke. Because today it’s simply prohibited to poorly explain a complicated issue.

Back in the 1970s, we were told the most important language to learn was math. Today, we tell scientists and engineers are told the most important language to learn is English, and how to use it well.

So, what you CLA graduates have been immersed in is exactly the milieu that’s required to move forward in the 21st century work force, and to be engaged and effective citizens. Believe me, now as the President of this University, communication, teamwork, interdisciplinary analysis, and critical thinking skills are essential every day to work with my leadership team, the faculty, and all the external partners we have at the U. Psychology gets a good workout, too.

You know the kind of people I work with everyday?

  • Provost Hanson, philosopher.
  • My chief of staff was a philosophy major, too.
  • The person in charge of Operational Excellence, our business side culture change, is an ethnomusicologist Ph.D.
  • For gosh sakes, my new athletic director, was a political science major.
  • And my wife of 33 years was an art major.

Liberal arts majors are everywhere – and are doing everything.


Let me talk for a minute about what you are going to be doing. I hear regularly from CEOs across the state. They tell me that to compete in an increasingly diverse state and rapidly changing global economy, they need to hire young people who can:

  • Write and communicate well,
  • Work effectively in groups and across cultures, and can persevere when faced with problems,
  • Have global experience and language skills,
  • 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.

These are the sorts of the skills, all the ways of knowing, that you, our College of Liberal Arts students, have learned and mastered. These are the talents that will help to solve some of the state’s and world’s most pressing problems.

THAT is who sits among you.

Tuition, debt, etc.

You have reached this important milestone, but you have had to pay some money to do so. 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 one day away, or less — I hope — from achieving a major victory in the Minnesota Legislature. The House and Senate have passed and sent to the Governor a budget that renews our partnership with the state that will enable a two-year tuition freeze for Minnesota resident undergraduates. That could happen tomorrow. It is a start for the next generation of Minnesota-resident U 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 this University is here.

We are preparing leaders here. We’re here to enable you to love learning today and for the decades to come. We’re not only training students to complete tasks. We must be in the business of allowing students to imagine better, to embrace curiosity, and then to act on it for the common good.

Still, we know that being in a position to have a meaningful life of work and family requires an occupation that not only makes a difference in the world. It must make difference in your pocketbook, too. I get that. We can’t live in a dream world. Dreams won’t put food on our tables or clothes on our backs.

So let me pull out some compelling 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. In the U.S., 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.

That’s why I get so annoyed when I hear the 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 all are receiving here today. In this day age when STEM education and preparing students for the work force is top of mind, the value of a liberal education is being denigrated and misunderstood.

For example, last December, A 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, the Governor said, humanities and liberal arts graduates simply won’t bring as much “strategic” value to employers.

I don’t believe that – and CEOs agree with me. And I know it’s so because of this story. I know a guy who didn’t take a business or finance class at all when he was at the U. He was a child of the 1970s, a political science major, who didn’t like bankers. Maybe it was because the bank at Cedar/Riverside turned him down for a $1,000 car loan while he was a student, but I never question anyone’s motives! A true CLA-er, he always envisioned himself as a public servant of some kind.

He started his career as a city planner and economic development manager, and soon learned of the power and impact of money and credit to a community. Before long, he saw that becoming a banker could help communities prosper. His mission-engrained liberal arts education gave him a broader, more strategic view, and set him apart from his traditional bank counterparts who had been trained more narrowly. It led him to be the president of a bank for 20 years, and today, he is an executive vice president for a collection of local community banks. That’s Regent Rick Beeson, who’s with us today.

Moral of the story? Then — and now — being nimble in this economy is essential. I believe you all are prepared to be nimble and forge an unknown, but exciting path. You will need to keep learning. It’s up to you to make choices of what you learn, and please make them knowing that all of us around this arena are rooting for you.

Still, as last year’s commencement speaker, Dessa, put it: “It’s all electives now, homey.”

It seems to me that commencement speeches are required to end with quotations from a great philosopher, someone who deeply understands the heart and soul of the human spirit. For me — and maybe some of you — that means the great 21st Century thought leader, Stephen Colbert. And since he couldn’t make it here today, I’ll share his words with you.

Colbert 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, dear Class of 2013, are three words that I urge you to embrace as you march proudly onto your next chapter.

Thank you.