Commencement, December 2005

12-19-2005

If there was a single theme that seemed to resonate through commencement ceremonies, it was that even while the world continues to change, the values we embrace as the nation’s pioneer land-grant university remain constant.

And yet, we facilitate that change.

Through the knowledge they create, each generation that passes through Michigan State participates in building a new world, the world of our collective future, a world different from the one that they and we grew up in.

I think that’s appropriate, particularly as MSU’s sesquicentennial year moves into its final months. We celebrate how this university has been about building better tomorrows on a foundation of cutting-edge knowledge and a core set of values for 150 years.

At the advanced-degree ceremony on Friday evening, Jonathan Choi, a Hong Kong philanthropist and entrepreneur, reminded us of just how much technology has transformed our world and how it’s given us the ability to make connections that we might not have been able to imagine 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.

A great example of that took place during this year’s undergraduate ceremony at Breslin, a ceremony that literally reached from East Lansing around the world. Using a satellite hook-up with Capetown, we were able to award the honorary doctor of humanities degree from Michigan State University to Ahmed Kathrada, noted political activist in the struggle for social justice in South Africa and lifelong friend of Nelson Mandela.

I know many of our students take for granted our ability to communicate almost instantaneously across oceans and international boundaries these days. But it’s truly amazing, especially to those of us who grew up in different eras, to see how our technology has evolved, and more important, how today that technology facilitates linkages that bring us ever closer together.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond invited those of us gathered at Breslin on Saturday morning to step into a time machine with him and look even farther ahead, imagining what our lives might be like in the world that will exist fifty years from now. While he acknowledged the technological changes that will help get us there, he focused on the human side, speaking eloquently about the value of the education each of us receives, the resilience we’ll need to overcome challenges we inevitably face in life, and in particular the importance of the friendships we all make that will sustain us as we make our journeys.

And at Saturday afternoon’s ceremony, pioneering paleontologist Mary R. Dawson reminded us both of the inevitability of change and that, as life-long learners, we have a responsibility to make sure our work not only brings change, but that it advances the frontiers of learning and brings with it progress.

Taken as a whole, the ceremonies were about the formula that created MSU 150 years ago, and that has sustained us for all this time. We embrace and build on new knowledge—the scientific and technological changes that shape an ever-new, ever-changing world. We prepare our students to create that knowledge and use it, not only for themselves, but in service to and on behalf of society. And we recognize the value of the human connections and relationships that are such an essential part of that, sustaining it from generation to generation.

If we were to put one of our earliest graduates into Professor Diamond’s time machine and bring him or her to a commencement ceremony at Michigan State today, I’m certain that person would be overwhelmed by the size and scope of the modern Michigan State, by the changes in the science and the technology that have shaped it and by the kind of new world it’s helped to build.

But I’m equally certain that our time traveler would instantly recognize the fundamental values that still undergird everything we do here as being the very same ones that were central to the place from its earliest days.

And I have no doubt that with those values in place and after the initial shock wore off, we could teach that person all the rest and prepare him or her for whatever the next new world might require—after all, that’s what we’ve been doing for 150 years.

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