Commencement, Michigan State University
December 7, 2002
Thank you, President McPherson, Provost Simon, Donald Nugent and the Board of Trustees, and the entire Michigan State family for this great honor.
The last time I was awarded a degree by this university was 1954 -- a year that the football team finished the season with a disappointing three-and-six record. The next year, the team had a remarkable turnaround and finished the season number two in the nation. Forty-eight years later, let's just say I hope that this degree -- like the last -- is an omen for good things to come for the Spartans.
I am deeply privileged not only to be honored by the university that taught me so much and prepared me for such a full life, but also to be a part of this milestone in each and every one of your lives.
This accomplishment belongs to the graduates of the Class of 2002. You made it. Congratulations.
It also belongs to the parents, grandparents, family, and friends who made sure the studying got done, who sent the care packages, and who paid the bills. You made it too. While your name is not on this diploma, every graduate of Michigan State knows that they could not have done it without their friends and family around them. So congratulations -- and, most of all, thank you.
I came to Michigan State almost a half a century ago. Like many of you, I was the first in my family to go to college. My parents came to this country from Lithuania. My mother was a dressmaker; my father was a housepainter who worked his way from the outside of other people's homes to the counter of his own five and dime store. They came to America for a better life for themselves and their family. They worked hard. They grabbed the opportunities in front of them. And they gave me the gift of education -- most of all, sending me to Michigan State.
It was a great gift, but I must admit that there were times when I thought I wouldn't graduate.
Back then, all students had to live in dorms if you didn't live at home. I did neither. I lived in an off-campus house with some friends. So I told the dean that I was commuting to school -- from Detroit ... every day.
There's no other way to say this, but at that house, we had some crazy parties.
One night, a wild football player from the coal-mining fields of Pennsylvania decided to throw a body block at a grand piano -- which promptly came down on top of him. It gave new meaning to music appreciation...
At one point, our landlord saw how we wrecked the place and threatened to report us to the university. We told him: if you do that, we get kicked out of school, and you lose your money. Or we can repair everything, and you get your money. We repaired everything, and that was one of my earliest and most successful business negotiations.
Like all of you, I will never forget my memories from Michigan State -- from the friends I made to the road-trips to football games to how unexciting I found my accounting courses.
And I'll never forget how welcome I felt here.
I felt welcome because this university was founded not as a finishing school for the sons and daughters of the wealthiest and well-connected. It was established as a land-grant university by the public to serve the common good. It was founded to give every child -- the sons and daughters of factory workers and farmers -- a chance to realize the American dream.
I know that State did that for me -- and I'm not the only one. The land-grant universities have educated almost half of the members of Congress and half of the CEO's of Fortune 100 companies. And I have no doubt that many of you will join those ranks of illustrious alumni.
Why am I so certain?
Because so much is possible in America -- because our nation is a meritocracy.
Look around this hall. Every county in Michigan; every state in the Union; every faith, every race, and dozens of countries from around the world are represented here. Unlike many other nations, this diversity is our strength. Unlike many other nations, you don't need to be from the right race, right religion, right class, right background, or right schools to reach the highest levels of business, civic, or cultural activities.
And while some may still seek to put barriers in your way, we are dedicated as a country to knock them down. We are dedicated to making sure that anyone can go as far as their hard work and determination can take them. Remember: success is not about luck. It's about hard work -- and the harder you work, the luckier you get.
You are fortunate to graduate at a time of immense opportunity -- far more opportunity than when I graduated Michigan State.
It's true our country faces new and great challenges: how do we ease the transition from an industrial economy to an information economy and from a mostly white, Protestant society to a multicultural one? Can we find common cause between the Frostbelt and the Sunbelt? Can we get our economy moving again and create jobs for all our young people? How do we handle a population that is aging, and a retirement system that is straining? And how do we maintain our country's security in a world where the biggest threat is not another nation-state, but stateless terrorist groups?
These are great challenges. Answering any one of these questions correctly may take years, if not generations. Yet, the future is so bright. The Internet along with huge advances in computing power...the mapping of the human genome and discoveries made in our laboratories...these alone have created whole new industries -- industries in which America is the undisputed leader.
Indeed, we are at the forefront of one of the most exciting transformations in world history -- from an insular, national economy to a global one linked through trade...from an industrial-based economy that runs on the strength of our workers' backs to a knowledge-based one built on the strength of our minds.
Many of you have been at the vanguard of this change -- learning about foreign cultures at one of MSU's 160 different study abroad programs or working in the labs here at State on the discoveries that will shape science for years to come.
You are ready to seize the future. Your Michigan State education has prepared you for that. But so many others in our country are not prepared.
And, as a society, we won't be able to realize the potential of this transformation unless we provide all young people -- from every walk of life and every part of our country -- with the education and skills necessary to succeed.
Our prosperity and economic health as a nation rests on a highly-skilled, highly-educated workforce. We need "knowledge workers" to make our information economy run -- to fill its higher-paying, more stable jobs. And the health of our democracy relies on bridging this gap between the education and skills of the middle class and the underclass.
Make no mistake: we can only be as good as tomorrow's workforce; tomorrow's workforce is in today's public schools; and today's public schools are failing horribly.
When it comes to math and science, we rank at the back of the international pack. In some of our fastest-growing communities, drop-out rates are sky-high. And in our urban areas, four out of ten children can't read at grade level.
The time has come to dramatically improve public education in the United States. And as a graduate of Michigan State, you have a special responsibility to make it happen.
Practically, in one way or another -- as teachers, principals, business owners, managers, or parents -- you will have a direct stake in the quality of our schools.
But more than that, all of you as the product of a great public university and almost all of you as the product of our public schools have an obligation to give back...to make sure that others can take the same path that you have taken.
My path began at Thirkell Elementary in Detroit, continued at Dufree Junior High and Central High School. And the truth is: I was a horrible student for the simple reason that I always wanted to know why. I questioned every answer, every argument, and every rule. I was a smart aleck.
Not until I got to State did I realize the important foundation that the Detroit public schools gave me and discovered an environment where my relentless intellectual curiosity was valued and embraced.
I thrived here. After three years, I graduated State at the age of 20. I then took the CPA exam -- becoming the youngest CPA in Michigan history at age 21 -- or as calculated under current accounting practices, at age 35...
My career as a CPA began in Detroit earning $67.40 a week after taxes, and it ended two years later when I realized that accounting was not my calling. I was fortunate, however, to have met Don Kaufman and together we started to build homes.
Eventually, Kaufman and Broad became a Fortune 500 business. Since then, I have founded another Fortune 500 business SunAmerica, raised a family, and been able to give back to my community through an involvement in civic affairs, education, and the arts.
Could young people from my old neighborhood today -- or inner-city neighborhoods like it -- be confident that they too can make this journey?
I have no doubt that they're smart enough. But I do doubt whether the schools are able -- in the face of all the new challenges facing those kids -- to give them the education they need to go to a world-class university like Michigan State.
That's the paradox of American education. We have the best system of higher education in the world, yet a sub-par system of elementary and secondary education.
Part of the reason is that in higher education, we have competition. UCLA has USC. Harvard has Yale. Texas has Texas A&M. And Michigan State -- well, Michigan State has no competition...but you get my drift.
How do we begin to rejuvenate our public schools?
Part of the solution is to create competition within the public school system. And part of it is what the Broad Foundation is focusing on: bringing a whole new generation of leaders into our schools to shake up the status quo.
I realize there are no silver bullets. But how we tackle this challenge with our schools is the same way you tackle any tough problem in business, in politics, or in government -- problems that you will face as the future leaders of this state and this nation.
So, if you will indulge me, allow me to do what every Commencement speaker should do, and give some advice.
First, be bold in your thinking, and take risks with your ideas. Often, it's a simple idea that can have an incredibly large impact.
Steve Jobs believed that we could take computers out of the back room and put them on our desktop.
Henry Ford's idea was to give every worker one job on an assembly line that produced one type of car.
And my first big idea was to build houses without basements -- this way, they'd be more affordable, allowing more families to buy their own homes.
These are all simple ideas that transformed companies, industries, and in some ways, the world.
"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world," wrote George Bernard Shaw, "the unreasonable one persists to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
Be unreasonable! All the great leaders and great artists I have ever known had a certain degree of irrationality to them. They had the courage to ignore the skeptics, challenge the conventional wisdom, and defy the odds.
Conventional thinking did not create the great industries that flourish today. They were born out of inspired dreams that came to life through devotion, hard work, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship.
Conventional thinking leads to conventional lives and to an acceptance of conventional wisdom.
Which brings me to my second piece of advice: you must decide what you want to do in the world -- if anything.
What difference do you -- not your parents, not your friends, not your neighbors -- want to make in the world? Besides earning a good living, what do you want to do? You can let the world pass you buy and let others shape your future. Or you can make a difference of some sort. All of you can -- in any field you choose.
Third, remember that finding forgiveness is often easier than getting permission.
Some of the most successful people I know in education today got there today by doing extraordinary things that don't follow the rules of a central bureaucracy. And their devotion and creativity, while technically against the rules, are making a real difference in the lives of thousands of children.
Take the initiative. In whatever you do, act as if you're an owner. Don't fall into the laziness of the "don't ask me, I just work here" attitude. Always take the risk of doing something rather than the safety of doing nothing
Finally, I won't try to kid you: if you want to be a leader, there will be sacrifices. The worst piece of advice I ever got was that a great manager can lead a balanced life. You can have a clean desk, delegate everything, take Wednesday afternoons off to play golf and be home by five for cocktails. It doesn't work.
If you want to be a leader in business, in politics, in science, or in the arts...if you have lofty goals and great ambition...if you want the satisfaction of creating something new and making a difference...there is a price you're going to pay. It takes hard work and long hours. There will be novels left unread, movies left unseen, and unfortunately, time not spent with family. But if you love what you do, it will all be worth it.
Several years ago, people began asking me why I don't relax, retire, travel, play golf. The truth is that I tried retiring once, in my thirties. It drove me crazy -- though my wife, Edye, might tell you it was her that I drove crazy.
My soon-to-be fellow alumni, what those people didn't know was that I and other graduates of Michigan State don't ever stop; we have a need to continue being productive members of society.
Do we enjoy having a good time? Of course.
But it is not necessarily what we learn at State, but what brings us here that is the source of an insatiable drive for excellence.
In the half century since I first enrolled at Michigan State, the school has gotten bigger and even better. But one thing has not changed.
Just as I did, you came here with dreams.
For some, it was the hope of following in the footsteps of a brother or sister, parent or grandparent in getting a Michigan State education. For some, it was the promise of being that first one to go to college...of being the first one to work behind a desk, not on a factory floor...of being the one who took your family further into the ranks of the great American middle class.
Today, you stand at the threshold of moving ever closer to making those dreams -- of a career, of a better life, of giving back -- a reality.
No matter how many days separate you from your time here at State, never forget those dreams that brought you here in the first place.
No matter how far away from Michigan your lives may take you, never give up trying to build the life you envisioned for yourself during your years here.
And no matter the curves that life may throw at you, never lose sight of the optimism of this moment and the hopes that lie before you as graduates on this day.
Class of 2002 -- thank you, congratulations, and good luck.