Winter 2019 Commencement Remarks

Prepared for delivery at the Kohl Center
Sun. Dec. 15, 2019

Good morning and welcome to the winter 2019 commencement of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Congratulations to the new graduates, and a warm welcome to family and friends.

I also want to welcome and thank our guest speaker.

Jason Gay is a Wall Street Journal columnist and sports reporter, and a UW alum who has built a career around arguing why the University of Wisconsin Badgers are better than the University of Michigan Wolverines…and every other Big 10 team.

In other words, he’s figured out how to get paid to do what many of you do for free.

Jason, we’re all looking forward to hearing from you, and I want to thank you for being here.

2019 Milestones
Class of 2019, you are graduating in a historic year for this university.

We are marking the anniversaries of two important events that changed our campus.

First, 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the graduation of the first women to earn bachelor’s degrees from UW-Madison. There were six of them. You will hear more about them, and their legacy, in a brief video we’ll show in just a few minutes.

Second, 50 years ago – following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – students here at UW and around the country staged protests to draw attention to systematic discrimination that was excluding students of color (and faculty of color) from higher education. Here in Madison, the Black Student Strike ultimately involved close to 10,000 faculty, staff and students. It led to the creation of our Afro-American Studies Department and prompted the administration to make diversity and inclusion a priority.

Both of these anniversaries remind us that we are a public institution that opens its doors to provide a college degree for everyone who can show that they’re ready to take on the academic rigors of this place.

While we have not always lived up to that promise – at times we have excluded groups or been less welcoming than we should – it is imperative that we remember our history and learn from it, to become an even better and more inclusive institution. Whoever you are, if you want to engage in the learning that takes place on this campus, you are welcome here.

Today’s graduates
Today we confer 1,770 degrees upon our undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students. About two-thirds of you are here in person – many others will participate in the ceremony next spring.

December graduates are an interesting group. As our student speaker several years ago pointed out – it’s pretty unlikely that you came to UW planning to graduate in December.

Some of you took a little more time to reach this milestone because you did internships and studied abroad.

Some of you took a little less time because you focused like a laser on completing your degree.

And some of you have overcome great challenges to reach this moment. For you, today has special meaning – and I want to share just one of your stories.

Uma-ima Mohammed Saed was just 11 years old when her family had to flee their home in Baghdad after a threat from Al Qaeda.

For the next 7 years, they were refugees. There was no opportunity to work or go to school, so Uma-ima’s mother homeschooled her and her siblings. And then, in 2014, the United States granted them asylum and they settled in Wisconsin.

Uma-ima worked hard to build her academic skills, and finally achieved her goal of admission to UW-Madison.

Today, she earns her bachelor’s degree in Human Development and Family Studies from the School of Human Ecology, and hopes to go on for a master’s degree at our School of Medicine and Public Health.

She is here with her proud parents and her siblings (who are also now UW students) – congratulations!

The value of a college degree
Today I want to make a few observations about the value of the degree you are receiving, which represents one of the biggest investments you (or your parents) will ever make.

As one of our students described his December graduation:

I am definitely hoping this is the most expensive ticket I’ll ever buy to the Kohl Center.

In your time here at UW, there’s been debate about whether a college education is worth it. In the last year alone, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post all published pieces questioning the value of a college degree.

Before I became chancellor, I was trained as an economist and have spent much of my life studying how the U.S. labor market operates. As an economist, I am entirely mystified by those who question the value of a college degree.

Simply put, you have just made the best investment you will ever make.

The monetary returns on a college degree are higher now than they have been in the past 50 years. College graduates earn far more than non-college graduates, and this remains true even if you adjust for differences in who does and doesn’t go to college. It’s clear that university training gives you skills that this global economy values more and more each day.

It’s not by chance that unemployment among college graduates is far lower than among other groups.

But it’s not just about the money. College graduates are more satisfied with their jobs and express greater life-satisfaction than people without college degrees.

• They are more likely to marry and less likely to divorce.

• They’re healthier and live longer than non-college-grads.

• They’re more involved in communities where they live, and more likely to do volunteer work and vote.

• And good news for all of you, college grads are far less likely to end up in jail.

The value of a UW degree
You have chosen particularly well, because you are graduating from a school that is consistently ranked as one of the best values in the U.S.

But the value of a college degree reflects more than the educational quality and the price of tuition at the institution you attend. It also sends a reputational signal about who you are.

So what will your diploma from the University of Wisconsin-Madison tell the world about you?

Let me start with the obvious answers. A UW degree tells the world:

• That you understand the appeal of deep-fried cheese curds

• That you believe shorts are not an unreasonable clothing choice on a 40-degree day in March

• That you will always root for Badger teams

• And that you know there’s no better place on earth on a warm summer evening, than the Union Terrace.

To be more serious – this is one of the top 25 universities in the world. The credential you receive today is a signal of excellence. It tells the world that you have deep knowledge of your academic field, and the ability to function in a big, complex, and sometimes daunting institution.

But there’s another thing that makes UW-Madison special. And that is our profound sense of responsibility to be involved with the world and to be part of changing the world for the better. That’s the Wisconsin Idea.

The class of 2019 has embraced this ethic in a big way.

• You’ve helped make UW the #1 school in the country for Peace Corps volunteers.

• You’ve helped make the Madison community a better place by doing 31,000 hours of community volunteer work in the last year alone.

• And you’ve set a new record for voting on this campus – and turned out to vote in far higher numbers than your peers at most other schools.

As one of our alumni said recently:

People like to talk about all the things “someone” really ought to be doing … at UW, they’re actually doing those things.

But very few people can tackle serious problems on their own. To make a difference in the world, you also need to know how to collaborate. There is a growing body of research that shows that groups solve problems faster than individuals. And diverse groups solve problems even better.

I hope you’ve learned something about how to work with people from many different fields and different backgrounds while you were here…while living in the dorms, being part of a student club, or participating in group projects in class.

There are plenty of big problems that need to be addressed and that will require many people working together. Like improving how we educate children. Dealing with climate change. Developing better treatments for disease. Or tackling inequities in our society.

No matter what school, college, department, institute, or research center you’ve been part of, I hope you have experienced an extraordinary community of scholars collaborating across many different fields.

I hope that you will stay connected to your friends and colleagues here at UW.

And I hope that you will use your education to make this world a little better.

Let me close by asking you to do something for me. Friends and family, this means you too.

Take a moment to look at the people all around you.

Today, we are all part of something incredibly rare in this country – and on this planet – a peaceful and joyful gathering of people from across the world, of every race and every religion … people from Beijing, China … Miami, Florida … Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and every point in between.

And people whose families started on every rung of the economic ladder.

All members of one big Badger family.

This community is what a great public university can create. Our doors are open wide to Wisconsin and the world.

Families, thank you for the support and love and advice you’ve given your students over these years – and thank you for sharing these wonderful people with us.

Students, thank you for making this university a better place while you were here. Keep in touch. Let us know how you’re doing. I can’t wait to learn what you accomplish in the years ahead.

Congratulations to each and every one of you … and On Wisconsin!