“Lean In”


Chancellor Mnookin's remarks to graduates at Spring 2023 Doctoral, MFA and Professional Degree Commencement

University of Wisconsin–Madison

May 12, 2023

Good evening and thank you, Provost Wilcots.  I am so happy to welcome you all to the University of Wisconsin–Madison spring commencement.  Congratulations, graduates!

Thank you to Justin Kroll for that beautiful performance.

And a very warm welcome to the many proud parents, spouses, partners, children, siblings, and friends who join us tonight from all over the country and the world —some of you are here in person, others are on our livestream.  Welcome to you all!



I also want to acknowledge and thank the members of the faculty who have taught and advised and mentored these graduates.  They have been your strongest supporters and, sometimes, your toughest critics … and they are extraordinarily proud of all that you’ve accomplished.

Faculty and advisors, will you please stand as you are able?  Thank you!

And a special thanks as well to two individuals who lead the University of Wisconsin System with a very “Wisconsin” blend of pragmatism and passion:  Regents President Karen Walsh and UW System President Jay Rothman.  Thank you!

Commencement is also bittersweet.  There are family members, friends, and colleagues who were with you on this journey, and who have passed away.  I know you are holding a place in your hearts for them tonight.

* * * *

I trust that your time with us has had both highs and lows, moments of inspiration and beauty and accomplishment and gratitude, and also moments of challenge.  And I need to say that this has been a difficult couple of weeks for us here at UW–Madison.  I know that some of you are feeling a great deal of hurt and frustration in the wake of the painful and racist video, and I want you to know that I see you and I hear you, and I am committed to doing the hard work that will bring us closer to the day when all people can feel a deep sense of belonging here.



And speaking of hard work, that is something that you all absolutely know and understand.  Each of you has dedicated years of hard work to reach this moment.  But there is one group I want to call out for special recognition.  If you are here receiving a graduate degree today as a first generation college student — if you are part of the first generation in your family that earned a college degree, I’d like to ask you to please stand as you are able and make some noise.  Congratulations!

And to all of you — graduates as well as those here to celebrate our graduates — if you are a veteran or serving on active duty or in the Reserves — please stand as you are able so that we may thank you for service.

Finally, I want to recognize a group of graduates who earned their degrees 50 years ago but didn’t participate in the ceremony.   Tonight, they will complete that journey they began so many years ago.  Fifty-year graduates, please stand as you’re able.  Congratulations!


Leaning in

Our 2023 commencement is particularly meaningful for me — I am also graduating (in a manner of speaking) from my first academic year here at UW–Madison.

It has been the experience of a lifetime!  There is something wonderful (and sometimes a bit daunting) about starting anew.

When you wake up tomorrow, you, too, will be starting anew.  Getting ready to begin residency, or your career, or a postdoc, or a project that will take your work in a new direction.

Anyone here not feeling a little daunted by this new beginning, this commencement?  I dare you to raise your hand!

But you are entirely ready for the challenges that lie ahead.

Graduates, whether you have completed an MD or an MFA or a DVM or a PhD or one of the many other top degrees we’ll confer this evening, you have achieved something quite extraordinary.

To get here took perseverance.  It took resilience.  It took gumption.

You worked late nights, early mornings, and many, many weekends.  Whether it was monitoring experiments … teaching discussion sections … studying for the qualifying exam … writing your dissertation … doing clinical rotations … starting businesses … creating works of art … and so much more — you rose to the challenge,

I will tell you, candidly, that writing my own dissertation was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  It challenged me intellectually and it was exciting, but it was also really hard.  Wrestling with the right intellectual framework. Trying to say something original while also staying true to my research materials.  Staring at the keyboard when some days the words flowed and some days they didn’t.

I am sure you had tough moments too, but I also know that those challenges, and surmounting them, will be a source of strength for you in the years ahead.

And you have taken part in some truly extraordinary things in your time here:

  • Our medical researchers began clinical trials of a new vaccine for the deadliest form of breast cancer.
  • Our pharmacists developed an injectable gel that jolts the immune system to kill off cancer cells left behind when surgeons remove a brain tumor.
  • Our renewable-energy researchers and dairy scientists developed a way to turn the residues left over from cheesemaking into biodegradable plastics.
  • Our veterinarians launched the largest clinical trial in the history of veterinary medicine — testing a vaccine for canine cancers.
  • Our experts in business helped companies to retool, refine, and reimagine their products to be more sustainable.
  • Our political scientists worked on better ways to run elections.
  • And the people on this campus who create things — the engineers, the artists, the musicians — produced an abundance of incredible works.

Let me give you one example.  Monty Little is an Indigenous artist and an Iraq War veteran who served in the Marine Corps.

Monty’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, and he now has a show at the Chazen that examines the erasure of Indigenous identities in the United States.

He is also a husband and a father, and the winner of our 2023 Prize for an Outstanding MFA Candidate.

And he has worked tirelessly to reach this moment.

Monty, thank you for your tremendous contributions to our campus and congratulations!


A proud legacy

Every one of you has been part of life-changing work in your time here — work that you’ve done despite, and in some cases because of, a global pandemic.  COVID-19 added extraordinary complexity to your work — for some of you, it delayed your graduation.  And for most of you, it made everything that much harder.

And still, you met every moment.

Like the incredible UW people who walked this campus before you.  People like:

Eudora Welty, who won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Medal of Honor.

Sister Mary Kenneth Keller, the first person in the U.S. to earn a PhD in Computer Science.

And Cecil Garvin, who recognized that every 10 to 14 days, somewhere in the world, the last speaker of a language dies — and the language dies with them.  And who said:  Not the Ho-Chunk language.  Not on my watch!

Tonight Dr. Garvin will receive one of the highest honors this university bestows — an honorary doctorate.  Congratulations, Dr. Garvin!

Each of you is now part of a legacy of people who have made history by showing up, doing more, and leaning in.

People educated in a place whose sheer intellectual firepower fuels a level of excellence and a passion for making a difference in the world.

That public service mission — which we call the Wisconsin Idea — has given us this virtuous circle that allows knowledge to flow from the campus to the community … and from the community to the campus.

Which is both the right way and the most difficult way to solve problems.

Because it requires us to get out of our lanes, to move not just forward but across.  Across academic disciplines, across the borders of the campus, and with people of every race, religion, nationality and gender.  With ideas, beliefs, and life experiences that may be nothing like your own.

To achieve excellence requires connection.  That is true here at UW–Madison, and it will be true in every moment of your career.



To achieve excellence also requires taking care of yourself.

You can’t achieve greatness by ignoring your own health and well-being.  To carve out time for a walk … to play music or plant flowers or cook good food or spend time with loved ones … all of these are essential to human flourishing.  As is supporting one another.

So in the years ahead, I encourage you to lean into excellence, and to rise to the challenges that come along, but equally to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and your community.



Let me close with one more piece of advice.

You are graduating into a world that desperately needs a countervailing approach to belligerent and simplistic assertions of certainty.

A world that desperately needs people with credibility and expertise who can explain scientific principles and challenging ideas about the world without falling back on jargon or academic-speak.

Albert Einstein said:  If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.

If you can communicate about your area of expertise in a way that allows you to connect with people outside of your field, you will find yourself in an even better position to make a real difference in the world.

And if you need a pointer, your classmate Kaitlin Moore might be able to help.

Kaitlin won our campus-wide “3-minute thesis” competition by explaining their extraordinarily complex work that brings together poetry and astrophysics to illuminate new ways of thinking time and space, land and ocean, and the human connection.

Kaitlin, thank you for your tremendous contributions to our campus and congratulations!

Graduates, as you leave this campus, I hope you will stay connected to your fellow graduate students, your colleagues for life.  The people who will laugh and cry with you, and who will be there to celebrate successes large and small, no matter how many years go by.

I hope you will take care of yourselves.  And I hope you will continue to do more by doing more.

Thank you for being part of our wonderful UW–Madison community.  Please come back and visit us every so often here in Madison.  We want to know how you’re doing.

Wherever you go next, I hope that this will always be a place that you think of as home.

Congratulations … and On, Wisconsin!