Office of the Provost


Remarks at New Student Convocation

Sept 1, 2017

Good evening. I’m Martin Philbert, provost of the University of Michigan and also professor of toxicology in the School of Public Health.

Please join me in thanking Emilie Kouatchou for her lovely rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner.

I also want to recognize Robert Ortega, professor of social work and leader of the faculty senate. At tonight’s event, Professor Ortega represents that faculty who are as eager as you are to start the new academic year.

It is with pleasure and a sense of anticipation that I welcome the class of 2021.

We are very glad you are here. We know from your applications that you are well prepared for the work you will do and that you bring intelligence, energy, and determination to all that you do.

While giving you full credit for your achievements, I also want to salute your parents, families, high school teachers, mentors, and friends, all of whom helped you to become a Michigan student.

You are beginning a new phase of your education and I hope you are excited about starting classes here on Tuesday. At the same time, you may feel a tinge of uncertainty, wondering how things will play out in the coming year.

I recognize those feelings because I am in a somewhat similar position myself. Today is my first day as provost and I, too, am excited about the work ahead. I’m also curious about how the year will unfold.

Based on my 20 plus years of experience here, let me reassure you. Michigan is an amazing place to learn and grow. You’ll have countless opportunities to pursue the interests that brought you here. But the real beauty of the University of Michigan is surprise. In the course of your studies, your conversations with faculty and other students, and your participation in our 1400 or so student organizations, you’ll discover new fields of study and new ways of thinking about the world. I encourage you to explore courses and activities that are different from what you’ve done in the past to see where they take you and how they contribute to your understanding of the world.

Perhaps I should forewarn you that in your exploration of all the university offers, you will encounter ideas and points of view that will challenge your ideas and beliefs. I should also tell you that this is an essential part of a Michigan education. Our mission statement commits us to educating students who will “challenge the present and enrich the future”. Key to doing so is the thoughtful examination of what you believe, testing yourself with logic, with evidence, and with the bright light of opposing ideas. In classes, discussions, and other activities, one of the most effective ways of learning is thoughtful, respectful listening. It’s my experience – and I expect it’s yours too – that it is more productive to seek to understand someone’s ideas than it is to quickly label them. It’s more work and it’s work well worth doing.

Our commitment to the exchange and exploration of ideas is fundamental. As I have often told students in my public health classes, useful things come out of friction. This interaction molds our thoughts and our beliefs. It helps to shape public policies that reflect the range of experiences and circumstances of people throughout society. And, importantly, the exchange of ideas here helps us develop skills in listening respectfully and appreciating the differences among us, skills that will prove valuable throughout our lives.

Examining ideas and possibly changing your mind is some of the hardest work you will do as students here. It is not easy or comfortable. The current national political climate adds to the challenge. We are committed to working with you and supporting you in this work. There are many resources here to help you.

Many courses, such as those offered in the interdisciplinary Program in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics, provide structured opportunities for the examination of ideas and the evidence and arguments that supports them. Our courses in intergroup relations draw on more than 60 years of research to help students develop the understanding and skills needed to work effectively with others whose experiences and understandings are different from their own.

You’ll find a host of experiential learning opportunities that will deepen your understanding of the world as well. The Center for Socially Engaged Design in the College of Engineering provides hands-on opportunities for testing student projects in settings around the world. In designing transportable medical devices for rural communities in Ghana or developing sustainable energy systems for remote locations in Central America, students gain valuable insight into life in other societies.

Your teachers will be important resources as you expand your knowledge of the world and examine your beliefs. They became faculty members because they love to test existing ideas and develop new ones. This is fundamental to their research and to their teaching. They will enjoy helping you think about the world and expect that, in return, you will challenge their thinking. I encourage you take advantage of your teachers’ office hours. Use them for questions about course material, of course, and also for wide-ranging conversations about the world and one’s role in it. It will be some of the most fun you will have in college.

In a similar vein, your fellow students are full of ideas. Insights and stories shared in class, around the dinner table, or in late-night conversations in the library are wonderful ways to learn about each other and the world. They are also the basis for friendships that can last a lifetime.

The university offers many resources – human and material - to help you learn about the world and to develop the skills you need to succeed in it. I encourage you to make good use of them as you prepare to join the ranks of the leaders and best.

You are the Class of 2021, joining us for the last four months of the university’s bicentennial celebration. Since our founding at Detroit in 1817, the university has been sought to serve society by educating people who contribute to the world in whatever work they choose to do. We are proud to welcome you to this tradition and are glad you will carry it forward.

I am pleased to acknowledge members of our governing board, the Board of Regents. They are:

  • Michael J. Behm, Grand Blanc
  • Mark J. Bernstein, Ann Arbor
  • Shauna Rider Diggs, Grosse Point
  • Denise Ilitch, Bingham Farms
  • Andrea Fischer Newman, Ann Arbor
  • Andrew C. Richner, Grosse Point Park
  • Ron Weiser, Ann Arbor
  • Kathy White, Ann Arbor

Our platform party today includes key leaders of the university – the deans and associate deans who head our 19 schools and colleges and the executive officers who oversee the administrative functions of the university. Their names are noted in the program and there will be opportunities for you to meet them at campus events.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Anushka Sarkar, president of Central Student Government. Anushka is a junior studying political science and statistics. She is a member of the Student Advisory Board for the campus-based Ginsberg Center for Community Service and Learning and has held additional leadership positions as well. Anushka is from West Bloomfield, Michigan.

Please join me in welcoming Anushka.