Congratulations, Class of 2015.

4190It was a special honor Saturday to deliver the commencement speech at the three ceremonies in Johnson Fieldhouse and hand out diplomas to our happy graduates. I also enjoyed the chance to meet the family members and friends of graduates at the receptions and chat with our faculty and staff who took part.

Congratulations, graduates. All of your hard work has paid off. Best wishes on the start of your careers or in seeking an advanced degree.

Here is the text of my speech:

Greetings on this great day to all the graduates, their families and friends, my colleagues on stage and in the audience, and everyone else who is here to celebrate with us today.

It is truly an honor and a pleasure to be here to recognize the accomplishments of so many talented individuals. This day is all about the graduates, those who are in front of me in their gowns and mortar boards. But we all know that it takes a lot of support for these graduates to actually get to today. So I would like to recognize the parents, grandparents and other family members who traveled here to see these cherished diplomas being handed out. Could all of these family members please stand up so they can be recognized?

Graduates, you made a great choice coming to UW-Stout. Why do I say that? There are literally hundreds of reasons. I know because I came here myself a long, long time ago as an 18-year-old from Port Washington, Wis., hoping to make a life for myself. I ended up with two degrees from here and worked here for 25 years, before returning last August as chancellor. I say that because my wonderful wife Deb also received two degrees from Stout before embarking on a teaching career. And my oldest daughter Erica also is a proud UW-Stout alumni. My other daughter Melly will graduate next Saturday from UW-Madison.
As I mentioned, I returned to UW-Stout in August after serving six years as the president of Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College. I had the humbling responsibility of assuming the chancellor’s office from Charles W. Sorensen, who led this campus for 26 years and transformed it into the modern, growing and vital institution it is today. Chancellor Emeritus Sorensen was a true innovator in higher education and I am doing my best to keep his vision alive at UW-Stout, as well as the vision of our previous leaders and of course our founder, James Huff Stout.

In thinking about what I would say today, it occurred to me that serving as chancellor—and people are probably getting tired me of me saying how much I truly believe in servant leadership!—has taught me many lessons about UW-Stout, the students who go here, the people who work here and the community where it is located. You would think that after getting two degrees from UW-Stout and then working here for 25 years, there wasn’t much I didn’t know about my alma mater. How wrong I was. So here are a few of the lessons UW-Stout—its students, employees, alumni and community members—have taught me in my first year back.

First and foremost, we have amazing students. As a former faculty member, I knew we had great students. But it is amazing how our students continue to get better, and better, and better.
4401Not a day goes by that I don’t hear about some marvelous achievement, some selfless action, some obstacle overcome, which reinforces that we have the best students around. I’m not even going to try to list all the students who have wowed me in the last nine months. But recently I learned about the cross-media graphics communications class that designed the new decals for the Dunn County Transit buses, the Information Technology students who won first and second places at a national IT competition, and the amazing story of Carlea Jo Lauer, who will receive her Vocational Rehabilitation degree today. I heard her speech of overcoming a bad car accident, with 107 days in the hospital, to graduate from high school on time. She got her UW-Stout degree in three years despite having to use a wheelchair for mobility. Carlea Jo is a true inspiration to me, and I was blessed to hear her story at a recent event. She will come across the stage this morning.

Also, I have had a long association with the employers who have relationships with UW-Stout. But those bonds have grown since August, and I can’t emphasize what our employers mean to the institution. This past year I was able to talk to many of the hundreds of employers who came to our two career fairs in October and March, those who serve on our program advisory committees, those who generously donate equipment to keep our programs at the cutting edge, those who provide co-op and internship opportunities and those who advocate for our financial health during these difficult times. Without our employers, obviously, we wouldn’t be able to maintain the 97 percent job placement rate enjoyed by our graduates. Just for the fun of it, could all the graduates here who already have secured that important first job, or are entertaining an offer, please stand up?

It has been my privilege to spend a lot of time with our alumni over the past few months at gatherings both on campus and across the country. I would challenge any university in the UW System to find more dedicated, appreciative and satisfied alumni than those who hold diplomas from UW-Stout. All the graduates in front of me today soon will be welcomed into the Stout Alumni Association by Vice Chancellor Parsons, so you will realize what it means to be a Stout alumni. A lot of these alumni also become part of the Stout University Foundation by seeking or making donations of time, equipment or money to the foundation. This support is vital as we try to meet the fiscal challenges imposed by declining state assistance for higher education in Wisconsin.

But the backbone of our institution, the secret to our success, is the hardworking, dedicated and talented faculty and staff who work together to provide our students with the quality educational experience they have some to expect and appreciate. It breaks my heart that this current fiscal situation doesn’t allow us to compensate our faculty and staff at the level they truly deserve.

Just to make sure that you don’t think I am engaging in hyperbole, here are some sobering statistics: Our professors rank in the 10th percentile for salaries among our peers nationally and our associate professors rank in the 12th percentile nationally. That means that 90 percent of our their peers at comparable institutions make more than our full professors and 88 percent make more than our associate professors.

It is a true measure of just how much they care for our students that our faculty and staff choose to remain with UW-Stout through thick and thin. I thank my lucky stars each and every day that I have the privilege of working alongside these employees. I’d like everyone in the fieldhouse who works for UW-Stout to please stand up so we can show our appreciation for your hard work and dedication.

An important lesson that has been reinforced for me is that every student who earns a diploma gets to commencement with the assistance of a great many people. I have a little exercise I’d like to use to demonstrate this:

  • Would all of the graduates here today who received some form of financial aid, a grant, or loan, or scholarship please rise and stay standing?
  • Would all of the graduates present who received crucial help or encouragements from a member of the faculty, staff, coach, advisor or other member of the UW-Stout community please stand and remain standing?
  • Would all of the graduates who benefited by studying with a friend or fellow student or had a tutor, please rise and stay standing?
  • Would all of the graduates who received help and encouragement from their parents or another family member or close friend please rise?

4363As the Roman philosopher Cicero once stated: “A thankful heart is not only the greatest virtue, but the parent of all the other virtues.”

You, like me, were blessed to have the assistance, generosity, encouragement and contributions of others. We couldn’t achieve what we do without our faculty and staff, family, friends and colleagues. Let’s take the time once again to thank them for their important impacts on our lives.

For all of us at UW-Stout, it truly is an enormous thrill to be part of today’s experience and share with you this moment when you begin your new journey. I can’t tell you how much it means to me personally to be on the stage in front of all these great new graduates, delivering my second commencement address. It really is a dream come true.

On behalf of the UW-System Board of Regents and UW-Stout’s faculty, staff, and fellow students, I would like to extend our sincere congratulations to you, and offer our best wishes as you take the first steps on your next exciting journey!

Finally, I would like to invite our graduates to visit us often. We would love to have you check in with us as we will learn from your experiences too!

Thank you.