2018 Winter Commencement address: From Knowledge to Wisdom (with video)

Good morning, and welcome to the winter 2018 commencement of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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

I also want to welcome and thank our guest speaker. Many of you know Bud Selig as the longtime Commissioner of Major League Baseball. What you may not know is that he also an alum, a mentor to our students, and—for the last 3 years – a teacher in our History Department.

So while his official title is Commissioner Emeritus, here at UW we call him Professor Selig, and I want to thank him for being here.


Today we confer more than 3,000 degrees upon our undergraduate, graduate and professional school students. About half of the graduates are here in person – many of the others will participate in spring commencement.

December graduates are an interesting group.

Some of you took a little more time to reach this milestone because you did an internship or studied abroad to enrich your education and open up new opportunities. Some of you took a little less time because of your laser-like focus on completing your degree.

And some of you have overcome enormous obstacles to reach this day.

Chance Cork is one of those people.

Chance grew up in Sauk Prairie. He spent some of his childhood homeless, living in a car, and then in foster care. He overcame a learning disability to get to Madison College, and then transferred into UW.

Chance is the winner of our Outstanding Undergraduate Returning-Adult Student Award, and he hopes to start a non-profit to help other foster kids find their way to college.

He graduates today with a degree in Materials Science and Engineering. His sister, his fiancée, and his loving foster family, the Quams, are here with him.

To Chance and his family – and the 100 other returning-adult students in the Class of 2018 who have worked tirelessly to achieve the dream of a college degree: Congratulations!

An Extraordinary Gathering

As we celebrate our graduates, I want to ask each of you to do something for me.

Take a moment to look around.

Friends and family, this means you too. See who’s behind you, in front of you, down the row from you.

Today, we are all part of something incredibly rare in this country – and on this planet – a peaceful and joyful gathering of people of every race and every religion … people from Beijing, China, San Francisco, CA, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and every point in between. And people on every rung of the economic ladder.

All members of one big Badger family.

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

A New Phase

Graduates, you have spent much of your time here absorbing knowledge.

Now you get to put that knowledge into practice.

To do that well takes skills we can’t always teach in a classroom.

Decision-making skills. The ability to collaborate and compromise. Compassion. Curiosity. Kindness.

These are the components of wisdom.

Becoming wise is a lifelong practice of refining your knowledge through many different kinds of experiences. You’ve started on that path with your experiences here at UW – working in community volunteer programs and internships, studying abroad, organizing student activities, and for some of the graduate students here – by teaching –which forces you to figure out how to communicate your knowledge to others.

Your challenge now will be continuing to build wisdom.

From Knowledge to Wisdom

There’s a myth that wisdom comes with age. It simply arrives one day, like the headphones you ordered from Amazon. But in fact, it’s entirely possible to live a very long time without becoming wise. You can probably think of a few people who are examples of this.

The truth is, wisdom can be learned if you’re intentional about it. Let me give you three pieces of advice for becoming wiser.

First, focus on communicating well.

A few minutes ago, I had you all look around the room. One of the most important experiences you’ve had here was interacting with people from all backgrounds and perspectives.

It’s easy to collaborate with people who think, look, and sound just like you. The challenge is to work effectively with people who are not just like you.

Social science research suggests that groups of people from different backgrounds generate far better solutions to problems than homogeneous groups – if they can communicate effectively.

But I don’t want to sound too optimistic. There are some differences that create chasms too big to cross:

• Wisconsinites will never understand why Minnesotans love the Vikings.

• Our students from China will never understand why Americans put cream cheese in sushi.

• And some of our students from the East and West Coasts will never understand the appeal of a deep-fried cheese curd on a cold Wisconsin night.

We may never agree on everything, but each of us has a responsibility to put our knowledge into practice and that means communicating effectively with the people around us, whoever they may be and wherever they come from.

Second – and closely related to the first – listen to other people.

How many of you have had Babcock ice cream recently? You don’t have to tell me how much – I know it’s been a long semester.

Many of you have heard the story of Professor Stephen Babcock’s most famous invention – a butterfat test that transformed the dairy industry. But you might not know that the Babcock Butterfat Test was initially a dud.

The 19th century farmers he hoped would use the test had no idea why they needed a new piece of equipment.

Babcock realized his mistake. He’d invented something brilliant. But he hadn’t talked with the users. So he shifted his focus to visiting farms, listening and learning and demonstrating how his invention could improve their work. It was an early lesson in how to market a product.

It took knowledge to invent the Babcock Butterfat Test … but it took listening to farmers to acquire the wisdom needed to get people to use it.

Third, when you face challenges and painful moments, learn from them

Michelle Obama once said, “Your experience facing, and overcoming, adversity is one of your biggest advantages.”

When Conlin Bass came to UW, he had recently lost two loved ones to suicide. He felt compelled to do something – but he wasn’t sure what. So he spoke with people on, and off, campus, and gathered ideas for how he could make a difference.

That was the start of The Bandana Project.

The Project gives students a lime-green bandana to tie to their backpack, to show support for people struggling with mental illness. They distribute information on campus mental-health resources.

There are now 3,700 students and staff participating here at UW, and Conlin has helped students at the University of Minnesota and Iowa State to start their own Bandana Projects.

Conlin, congratulations and thank you for making this campus a safer place.

It is not always easy to view difficult and painful experiences in your life as opportunities – but I hope you will remember that these are often the places where wisdom begins.


Families and friends, 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.

And remember to occasionally come back and visit. You will always be part of UW and I hope that UW will always be part of you.

Congratulations … and On Wisconsin!