The commencement season has come to an end for this year. It is such a rich and rewarding time of year, with spring bursting around us, families gathering to celebrate milestones, students conducting the end of semester frenzy through final exams ‒ followed by a brief respite before whatever is next ‒ and faculty extending that frenzy through the finals grading period, taking a break, and then jumping into whatever research, teaching or Extension activities they have planned for summer months.
I feel like I’m going through my own little commencement as well. I have been blessed to fulfill my career at Michigan State University. I have had the opportunity to explore my research interests in aquatic and fisheries ecology, to apply the mutual crafts of teaching and learning, and to practice leadership in a variety of roles. And I have had some tremendous colleagues and mentors along the way.
My final weeks at MSU have had their own frenzy, with routine tasks and meetings that accompany the end of a fiscal year accompanied by my personal set of “finals”: farewells, receptions, last lunches and many warm partings.
And as with any commencement, this one merits a commencement address. Fortunately, no one has to sit through hearing me deliver a commencement address, and I’m not even writing something original. I attended the Commencement ceremony for MSU’s James Madison College in May, and celebrated the graduation of our oldest son, Robbie (with honors). The James Madison faculty members and alumni have a knack for speaking, and found a way to fill a 150-minute commencement ceremony for 300 graduates. By comparison, the College of Social Science ceremony earlier that day took the same amount of time for more than 1,400 graduates to process across the podium.
Among the speeches delivered at the James Madison ceremony, I was particularly taken by the charge given by Dean Sherman Garnett. Many James Madison graduates go on to carry out careers in public service, either as diplomats, policy experts, elected officials or staff for governmental offices and officials. In that context, the dean reminded the graduates that their work was important and that as public servants, they had a responsibility to work as hard for the people they serve as they worked to complete their degrees in James Madison. The volume of reading, the depth of inquiry and the insistence on sound reasoning and writing is a hallmark of the James Madison curriculum. They set a high bar for their students. And the dean made it clear that the faculty expect the graduates to continue to work at that high level in their professional pursuits.
His message came home for me in the following statement:
“No success – no matter how great – relieves you of the obligation to do more. No failure or shortcoming prevents you from turning a page and recording a fresh start or an act of redemption.”
That statement captures the essence of what I have learned in my time at MSU. We serve the people of Michigan, and beyond that, the people of the United States and the world. This institution was founded on the principle that sound, scientific research and rigorous reasoning could help people to change the world, whether in their personal lives, or in their businesses, on their farms, in their homes and in their communities. And the fulfillment of that proposition rests in the hard work of all of us. Our work is never done. It is never good enough. There is always more to do and always a better way to do it.
That sense of obligation and commitment to hard work is infused in the spirit of this place. It is evident on the brow of President Hannah’s statue in front of the administration building that bears his name. It is evident in the determined cadence of President Simon’s speeches and her forthright gait. It is evident in the thinning hair on basketball coach Tom Izzo’s head. It is evident in the way the workers who clear our parking lots of snow early on winter mornings maneuver their plows around obstacles. It is evident in the laboratories lit late at night as a graduate student checks on a critical experiment. It is evident in the professor who takes an extra few hours out of her weekend to grade papers, review a manuscript for a colleague and finish off a grant proposal. It is evident in the freshman student who shows up for that morning class 10 minutes early in hopes of getting a chance to ask his professor some questions about his previous lecture. It is evident in the secretary who takes the time to track down the answer for an anxious parent or an impatient administrator.
MSU has some very smart people who work here, and I’ve been fortunate to work with so many and to learn from them. MSU also has many very hard-working people, and I’ve been fortunate to be inspired by them every day since I arrived in July 1989. It is that hard-working dedication that I value most about my Spartan experience. It is the notion that it is our obligation to work hard that matters most. That’s the commencement address I needed to hear.