“Three essential things this moment requires of us”


Chancellor Mnookin's remarks to graduates at Winter Commencement 2022.

University of Wisconsin-Madison

December 18, 2022

Welcome graduates, families, and friends, and congratulations Class of 2022!

This class is extra-special to me – I get to celebrate my very first UW-Madison commencement with you!

I want to acknowledge and thank the members of the faculty who are here supporting the graduates they’ve taught, advised, and mentored over a number of years … thank you!

And speaking of advice and support, I also want to say a special thanks to Regents President Karen Walsh and UW System President Jay Rothman for their strong leadership, for being staunch supporters of UW-Madison and also for being such trusted advisors for me– thank you!

And I’m thrilled that Emmy winning journalist, New York Times bestselling author and – most importantly – proud UW alum Charlie Berens is here!

Charlie built a whole new brand as Wisconsin’s ambassador to the world – in other words, he gets paid to do something many of you have been doing for free.

He’s already educated me on the importance of ordering buttered rye bread with my Friday Fish Fry.

We’ve given each of you a copy of his book and look forward to hearing his good advice – Charlie, thank you!

I. Class of 2022 – shout outs

Today we confer degrees on 1,758 graduates (and about 1,200 of you are here in person), following a tradition begun in 1854.

  • Where are doctoral degree candidates? Make some noise!
  • Professional degrees – MD, JD, MPH, MPA?
  • Master’s degree candidates?
  • And let’s hear from those of you earning undergraduate degrees today!

I want to recognize one group for whom today has special meaning – if you are the first generation in your family to earn college degree please stand as you’re able.

I also want to recognize our grads who are veterans or serving on active duty or in the Reserves – please stand – thank you for service!

And there is one graduate for whom I especially want to cheer…

Many of you went through really tough times in these past years, but few approached the challenges this young man faced when he became ill, and doctors determined that he urgently needed a heart transplant.

That was less than two years ago.

And today he will walk across this stage to accept a degree in Personal Finance from our School of Human Ecology with a new heart.  His proud family is up in the stands, and we join them in immense gratitude to the team of doctors here at UW and the anonymous donor who saved his life.

Anthony Genac (JENN-ack) where are you?  We are so happy you are here, and doing well, and congratulations!

<< Anthony Genac liveshot>>

II. Class of 22 – touchstones

One of the things that’s made this class so special is the extraordinary care you’ve shown one another and our community.

<< slide – 4 pics – research, classroom, desk work, professor holding laptop>>

You’ve made friendships that will last a lifetime … even in the midst of a global pandemic that forced you to learn new ways of doing nearly everything to keep each other safe.

And in the proud tradition of the Wisconsin Idea, you’ve put your skills to work in the community to solve problems big and small.

You even helped us win national recognition as a “2022 Most Engaged Campus for College Student Voting”!

Of course, you’ve had a lot of fun here too.

  • You helped consume 240,000 brats and 96,000 gallons of Babcock ice cream in past 4 years!
  • Any guesses about your #1 flavor? (Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough).
  • You also helped us celebrate the 50th anniversary this year of Title IX – the law that said, ‘women get to play sports, too.’ And boy did we celebrate!

<<slide – volleyball photo>>

To our amazing volleyball Badgers … and our six-time national champion women’s hockey team … and all of the 850 student athletes who have given us a whole lot to cheer about – thank you!

III. Meeting challenges w discovery/innovation/creativity

You are graduating into a world that faces a constellation of challenges – but the good news is, at no moment in human history have we been better prepared to address those challenges.

Professor Bill Cronon recently spoke about this campus’ extraordinary contributions to the world.  He said:

“There are many things we did together, that were impossible.

They couldn’t be done!

But we didn’t know they couldn’t be done.

So we figured out a way to do them.”

 During your time here at UW-Madison, you’ve helped us do impossible things.

<<slide – Isobutanol>>

Like creating new biofuels from switchgrass and poplar trees.

<<slide – DNA strands>>

And editing the human genome to prevent and treat devastating diseases.

Our student speaker Kirstan Gimse has been deeply involved in this work – and it’s just one of the many impressive things about her – as you will hear shortly.

You’ve also helped with research to give us better ways to spot disinformation online as we grapple with technologies that can do a great deal of good … and a great deal of harm.

<<slide – 4 pics showing artists/performers in masks>> 

And where are our artists, musicians, poets, performers – the folks who added color and beauty to our world when that felt pretty impossible?   Wave a hand!  Your creations remind us of what it means to be human. Thank you!

IV. Three essential things this moment requires of us

You are now graduates of one of the top public universities and one of top five producers of future faculty members in the whole U.S. (we’re in pretty good company – the other four are Michigan, Stanford, UC-Berkeley, and Harvard).

The credential you’ve earned here will open lots of doors.  As you walk through those doors, I hope you will keep in mind three essential things this this moment requires of us.

  1. First: remember your big ‘whys.’

The Pulitzer-prize-winning poet Mary Oliver asked:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

We all have hundreds of small, everyday tasks that need doing – and many of them make possible the big things that bring meaning and joy to our lives.

But those small tasks can take up a lot of room.  So notice where you’re spending your time, and make sure you’re prioritizing the things that are truly meaningful to you.  Ask yourself from time to time, what really matters to you, and make sure you’re making time for that.

  1. Second, if you want to go far, go together

One of most important things you’ve learned here is the value of working across.

Here at UW-Madison, we’ve never been very good at staying in our own lanes.  Because we know if you want to aim really high, and make a difference in the world, that isn’t something you do alone.

So I hope you’ll continue to seek out opportunities to collaborate, to go farther by joining with others, and that you’ll also remember that sometimes you can go farthest of all by combining your own talents with people whose interests and skills and backgrounds are very different from your own.

  1. Third, give yourself and others a little grace

If you’re taking the kinds of risks you need to take to do big things, there will be moments when you drop the ball.

So I want to close by giving you a way to put those moments into perspective.  This comes from my sister (she’s my younger sister, so it took me a while to realize I had a lot to learn from her…)

Whatever comes next for you, you’re going to be juggling plenty of balls. And you know what?  You’re going to drop some of them.  It happens to all of us. But what my sister pointed out to me is that many of the balls you’ll have to juggle are rubber, but some are crystal.  And those rubber balls? They bounce. You can pick them up on the next bounce and try again.  But the crystal balls don’t bounce at all.  They break and there’s no way to put them back together.

So in both your work life and the rest of your life, be sure you’re prioritizing what’s critically important – your health, your family, your good friends, the things at work that really matter – so that when you do drop a ball or two, the balls you drop are the rubber ones.

V. Conclusion

Graduates, please take a moment to look around you.  Families and friends, you too!

Today you are part of something incredibly rare – a peaceful and joyful gathering of people who have come together to celebrate notwithstanding their differences.  You have different beliefs … different priorities … different religions, races, and life experiences … and you’ve come here from all over Wisconsin … the U.S. … and dozens of countries around the world.

And now you share a deep connection to this place and to one another that will last a lifetime.

I hope you’ll continue to be in each other’s lives, and to come back and visit us.  I promise you will always find a warm welcome here!

Congratulations, Class of 2022, and On, Wisconsin!