“When Answers Are Elusive, Change the Question”


Chancellor Mnookin's remarks to graduates at Spring Commencement 2024.

University of Wisconsin–Madison

May 11, 2024


Thank you, Kenny, and thanks to all of our senior class officers who have worked so hard to create unforgettable experiences for all of you — today and throughout the year.

Good afternoon, everyone!

Welcome to the 171st commencement of the University of Wisconsin–Madison!

And welcome to Camp Randall Stadium, where fans have been cheering for the Badgers for 107 years. For the record: the very first game in Camp Randall was a shutout. We clobbered Minnesota!

Family and friends: We feel your love and pride today. We have so much to celebrate. Please join me in another big congratulations for the amazing Class of 2024!

Graduates: You walked through those gates today as students, and when you walk through them again, it will be as alumni of one of the greatest universities in the world. Let’s show some love for the family and friends who helped you get here!

I also want to acknowledge that, for many members of this class, this is also a really hard day.

For some of you, there are classmates, friends, and family members who were with you at the start of this journey but cannot be here today. We remember them all.

And for many in our campus community, there is pain and grief over the devastating destruction, injustice, and loss of life in Israel and Gaza. Some of you have had to navigate this final year of your degree amid anguishing worry about friends and relatives there and around the world.

Please know that you are not alone at this incredibly difficult time.

* * * *

Class of 2024:

Today we confer 7,868 degrees, making this one of the larger commencement ceremonies in our 175-year history!

238 of you have earned law degrees — where are our Law School graduates? Congratulations!

1,382 of you have earned master’s degrees — where are the master’s graduates? Congratulations!

And 6,236 of you have earned bachelor’s degrees — make some noise!

We have an excellent keynote speaker for you today: UW alumna, Badger sports legend, and three-time Olympic medalist Meghan Duggan is here with her wife (also an Olympic gold medalist!) and their three children.

Welcome home to Madison, Meghan!


A milestone event in a milestone year

Every UW–Madison commencement is special, but this one feels even a step more special because we’re also celebrating the 175th anniversary of our founding. It’s our demi-semi-sept-centennial!

Our university was created in 1848, the same year that Wisconsin became a state, and the first students arrived here in 1849. Our first commencement was five years later, in 1854. There were six speeches … and just two graduates … a three-to-one ratio. And one of those speeches was in Latin!

As part of our anniversary celebration, we’ve decided to follow that tradition today — I hope you won’t mind listening to 24,000 speeches this afternoon?

OK, the truth is, we have far better commencement traditions now, including this one:

If you are part of the first generation in your family to earn a college degree please stand as you’re able and make some noise!

If you are a United States veteran or serving on active duty or in the Reserves — whether you’re graduating or celebrating our graduates — please stand as you’re able so we may thank you for your service!

Class of 2024, you came here four (or five or six or three) years ago from all over Wisconsin, around the U.S. and around the world. You arrived on this campus with very different backgrounds and identities and beliefs. And you found common ground around your shared identity as Badgers.

Among you are national debate champions … winners of major national scholarships … national championship athletes … and students who are forever grateful to have made it through some of the most challenging courses anywhere!

Comp Sci 577 anyone? Physics 335?

You are driven to succeed academically AND you are deeply engaged in solving problems out in the world, in our proud Wisconsin Idea tradition.

That’s how the Class of 2024 helped to make UW–Madison — for the first time in a number of years — the #1 university in the nation for Peace Corps volunteers!


Changing the question

Class of 2024, you are without a doubt graduating during tumultuous times — on campuses, in our nation, and across the globe. And it can sometimes feel hard to know how to move forward in a messy and complicated world.

But here’s one piece of advice: If you feel stuck, or like you don’t have any answers — perhaps you should try changing the question.

Because sometimes, asking a different question can open grand new possibilities. And, class of 2024, I think this is something for which you’ve already shown a talent. You have shown you are already good at changing the question — asking something new that invites us to explore possibilities we might never have thought of.

  • A great many of you began your time here during COVID. And you missed out on things — like senior prom, or a traditional high school graduation. But just this spring, as you looked forward, instead of dwelling on what you didn’t have, a chance to do, you asked, “Is it too late to have that senior prom we missed four years ago?”
  • Together we answered with a resounding “No, it is not!” More than 800 of you attended our first (and perhaps first of many) Madison senior prom “with some twists.” I hear it was quite a celebration!
  • And this isn’t the first year our students have asked, “Why doesn’t the university have a curling team?” But this year a freshman changed the question. He asked: “Who will help me start a curling team?” Members of this class stepped up, and in their very first season the new team won a national championship.
  • And on a much more serious note, at a time of great political and social upheaval, members of this class have looked for new ways to bring people with very different beliefs together to talk and to listen — respectfully and thoughtfully.
  • Chandra Chouhan asked why our Indian and Pakistani student organizations had never collaborated on a joint event. And the result was our first-ever Interfaith Iftar (an evening meal shared during Ramadan). Thank you, Chandra!
  • And in a very different arena, Rosalie Powell asked how we might bring environmentalists and landowners together to work toward a more sustainable planet. She met with people from very different perspectives but with a shared belief in the importance of conservation and laid the groundwork for some important changes to help protect our precious water and soil. Thank you Rosalie!

The questions you’ve asked also have helped define your studies here.

Evan Wooldridge is one of our Posse Scholars. He helped to ask a different question about how a certain kind of beetle that destroys thousands of acres of potato and tomato crops is staying one step ahead of us. Together with our faculty, he used RNA testing to move us closer to the day when we’ll be able to outsmart this pest rather than just out-spraying it. Evan, where are you? Congratulations!

Nick Lawton, Canyon Pergande, and Drew Levin asked a very different question — they saw classmates frustrated in their search for a college job and local businesses frustrated in their search for employees and asked: What if we created a platform to help these people find each other? So they did.  It’s called SideShift. Nick, Canyon, and Drew, where are you? Congratulations!

You and I can’t know today what questions each of you will ask in your lives and careers. But I can tell you this: The questions that challenge what we are certain we already know to be true are often the ones that drive extraordinary innovation.

In fact, they’re the questions that have propelled this campus forward for 175 years:

  • To produce 26 Pulitzer Prize winners and 20 Nobel laureates.
  • To produce the scholars who organized the national park system … created weather satellite technology … discovered Vitamin D … and isolated human stem cells for the first time.
  • To tackle some of the most complex social issues facing our world.
  • To set the standard for excellence in the arts.
  • And to harness the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to help people live better.

That’s what comes from asking great questions. So as you embark on your next adventure, hold fast to this simple mantra: Tell less. Ask more. And when you can’t find an answer that satisfies, don’t hesitate to ask a new and different question.



I opened by sharing a story about our first graduates in 1854. They were (as you might have guessed) both men.

It was 15 years later that we had our first women graduates.

In honor of this historic year, I want to close with a passage from a letter one of them wrote to her grandparents shortly before her graduation. Her name was Clara Bewick, and she went on to become a nationally known journalist and women’s rights activist.

She wrote:

How strange it is that the years fly so quickly by. 

 The close of each year brings us to a stopping place, where just for a moment we may tarry and glance back over the road we have passed; a milestone measuring off the past from the future …

 [Before we] turn to a new leaf, as yet clean and bright.  [And begin to] run with patience the race set before us.”

Class of 2024, I hope as you turn to this new leaf you keep your sense of curiosity and purpose … your commitment to helping make the world a better place … and your courage to continue asking questions no one else is asking.

I hope that you will continue to be there for one another.

And I certainly hope you’ll come back and visit us. We want to know how you’re doing!

Congratulations, Class of 2024, and On, Wisconsin!