Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, December 21, 2009

Graduates sent off with inspirational words and music at Winter Commencement

In words and music, multi-faceted entertainer Jeff Daniels helped send U-M graduates into the world Sunday, telling them they owe it to themselves and everyone who helped them achieve their diplomas “to give everything you’ve got toward your life’s work, whatever it is.”

President Mary Sue Coleman congratulates a doctoral recipient and the child he brought with him as he received his diploma Sunday. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

“Make it count. Make it have value. Make it matter,” said Daniels, an acclaimed film and stage actor, playwright and songwriter who grew up and still lives in nearby Chelsea.

He also issued a sobering reminder to the estimated 1,000 to 1,400 graduates at the 2009 Winter Commencement ceremonies in Crisler Arena: The world cares less about where they graduated than they might think.

“It’s a wonderful achievement. This is a fine university. But you’re going to find out tomorrow that the world doesn’t care. But you can change that. You can make them care,” he said. “And I ask that whatever it is you do, decide to do something that is your life’s work, that is your passion, that means something to you. This world is full of people who aren’t doing that.”

At the end of his address, Daniels surprised the crowd, which filled the arena’s lower level, by reaching for a guitar that had been hidden from view. At first he joked they were in for a “20-minute version of ‘Kumbaya,’” then closed with “The Michigan in Me,” a tender tribute to the qualities of his home state.

In line with the rest of Daniels message to the graduates, the song contained the line, “We’re only what we’re leaving behind.”

Regent Denise Ilitch congratulates commencement speaker Jeff Daniels as he receives his honorary degree hood from faculty representatives Michael Thouless, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs (right), and Bob Fraser, SACUA vice chair. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

Daniels received an honorary doctorate of fine arts in recognition of his contributions to the state of Michigan. Daniels started the Purple Rose Theatre Co. of Chelsea in 1991 as a showcase for Midwest theatre professionals. He also is a national spokesperson for the Michigan Economic Development Council in television ads.

Also receiving honorary degrees Sunday were:

• Helen Thomas, a Detroit native and longtime journalist who has served the White House press corps during 10 presidencies.

• Edward Osborne Wilson, an entomologist and biological theorist whose research on ants has led to an understanding of social behavior and interdependence.

• Grace Lee Boggs, a labor and civil rights activist, writer and speaker from Detroit, who has been engaged in various social and political movements for more than six decades.

Read the full text of President Coleman's statement to the winter graduates.

President Mary Sue Coleman pointed to each of the recipients as embodying values that are the hallmarks of a degree from U-M.

“Creativity, critical thinking, curiosity and civic engagement. If we have done our job as faculty and administrators, you understand and appreciate the importance of these values,” Coleman said.

“Carry these values with you today as keepsakes of your Michigan education. They embody the Michigan Difference, that measure of academic excellence that sets our university apart from other institutions, and that defined your education.”

Provost Teresa Sullivan spoke of the mixed emotions shared by faculty at commencement.

A graduate waves to the crowd Sunday at the 2009 Winter Commencement in Crisler Arena. (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

“We are pleased to see you ready to begin the next phase of your lives. But we have enjoyed your company and we will feel your absence,” she said. “This occasion lets us reflect on how you have learned and grown — intellectually and personally — in your time here. In doing so, we realize anew the importance of our academic values of learning, teaching and continual discovery.”

In his remarks on behalf of the students, LSA graduate Vikrum Vora sounded a call similar to Daniels’ that his classmates “try new things.”

“Don’t be happy with the bare minimum. Don’t be happy with what’s expected, what’s given to us, what’s comfortable,” he said. “The best way that we can give back to Michigan is by using our education to create something. Take risks. Not small ones, not medium-sized ones, but big ones.”