Spring 2017 Commencement 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?  Thank you.

I also want to take a moment to wish all the mothers in the audience a very special and happy Mother’s Day.  Everyone knows how important mothers are in the lives of their children and the hard work, tears and patience it takes to be a good mother these days.  I do hope all mothers have special day next Sunday.

I’d like to take a moment today before I hand out your diplomas to discuss a couple of anniversaries that we are celebrating this year at UW-Stout and share with you some thoughts on how the subjects of these anniversaries have affected UW-Stout and impacted the education you received here.

Fifteen years ago, UW-Stout became the only university to receive the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award.  Award winners have to show a commitment to continuous quality improvement, which means that we are always using data and your feedback to find better ways to operate.  We have a strategic planning process that is a based on those Baldrige qualities. This is a very inclusive planning process that involves external stakeholders, students, faculty and staff from all over campus and has helped us immensely in moving the campus forward.

One of those innovations happened 10 years ago, on March 9, 2007, to be exact, when the UW System Board of Regents voted to designate UW-Stout as Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University.  This was a monumental action for two reasons: the Regents had never approved a formal designation for a specific campus before – or have they voted on one since – and we became the first official polytechnic university in Wisconsin.

We sought the designation after much thought, debate and analysis, but the move had its risks.  While polytechnic universities are fairly well known on both the east and west coasts, as well as overseas, they are not common in the Midwest.  So we had some work to do as far as what we meant exactly by a polytechnic university.

In the end, we adopted three pillars, or tenets, that we used to explain our vision of what UW-Stout looks like as a polytechnic university.  Those tenets are alive today and played a major role in the kind of educational experience you received at UW-Stout.  They are:

Career Focus: Our idea of a polytechnic university offers a comprehensive curriculum that prepares our graduates for professional careers.

Applied Learning: Our idea of a polytechnic university blends theory with practice to produce innovative solutions to real world problems.

Collaboration: Our idea of a polytechnic university works closely with business, industry and other educational institutions to benefit students and grow the economy.

Let’s take a closer look at these tenets and how they played out during your time at UW-Stout.

The career focus tenet meant that the curriculum for the classes in your major was designed with the advice of professionals in your field so that you would be ready for the challenges of your occupation on day one.  Our program directors regularly consult with business and industry professionals to ensure our curriculum keeps pace with changing trends and demands in those particular fields.  But we also ensured that you received a comprehensive, well-rounded education in the liberal arts as well, to ensure you have the knowledge and critical thinking skills you will need in the future.

The applied learning tenet means that whenever possible, your instructor used laboratory, real world problems, or other hands on methods to show you what they were trying to teach.  Sure, you had traditional lectures at UW-Stout.  But we go out of our way to engage students in active learning, which is why we have so many more laboratories on campus than other universities. We even put the pursuit of applied learning, that hands-on approach, in our mission statement.

The third tenet, which concerns collaboration, means that we see UW-Stout as a partner with the employers who depend on us for their key employees.  It also means that we devote a lot of resources, through our Discovery Center, to reaching out to those external partners to help them solve their problems.  Whenever possible, we involved our students, faculty and staff in these efforts to solve those problems.  That harkens back to our applied learning tenet, doesn’t it?

What has happened to UW-Stout as an institution since we received that polytechnic designation a decade ago?  It is not hyperbole, I believe, to say that UW-Stout has been transformed by this designation and the results continue to play out today.

At the time the designation was approved, UW-Stout had about two dozen majors.  In the 10 years since the designation, we have doubled that number.  Many of the majors that you will see on your diplomas didn’t even exist before we became a polytechnic university.

Sure, many of the new majors came in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.  Majors like applied science, game design and development and our engineering majors.  But we also added applied social science, created a master of fine arts in design, added criminal justice and rehabilitation, as well as golf enterprise management and supply chain management.  You can see that the positive effect of the designation spread across all colleges and disciplines.

The polytechnic designation also is changing the way the external world views us.  When we meet with our elected officials, from the governor on down, they know that UW-Stout is special.  They know that UW-Stout graduates have success in finding challenging and rewarding positions. Since becoming Chancellor, our employment rate for new graduates has increased from 97 percent to 97.1 percent, to 97.3 percent, and this past year from 97.3 percent to 97.4 percent! This employment rate is extraordinary, and the trendline is nothing short of amazing.  The outside world knows that UW-Stout is helping to grow Wisconsin’s economy.  In fact, every time either the governor or the lieutenant governor speak about UW-Stout they mention our 97.4 percent employment rate!

The designation also has strengthened UW-Stout’s relationships with our business and industry partners.  In the past, these partners knew that there was something a little different about UW-Stout, that we weren’t quite like the other universities in Wisconsin that they worked with.  But they couldn’t quite put their finger on it.  That polytechnic designation solved that mystery.  We put in words WHY and HOW we are different from the other universities in Wisconsin.  The designation helps us explain ourselves better to employers, and the entire outside world. 

I also firmly believe that the designation has added value to the diploma you will receive today.  Employers know that when a UW-Stout graduate enters their workplace, they have been exposed to the most current curriculum, have used the latest technology and, most likely, have had a workplace experience that will allow them to get started immediately in their new career.  They also know that you have had a well-rounded education that included the ability to participate in myriad groups and activities on campus.  As a former member of the Stout Student Association back in my student days, I can’t say enough about the importance of getting involved in organizations or other activities on campus.  These activities add so much to the educational experience.

The pursuit of our polytechnic designation and the complete history of UW-Stout’s first 125 years has been captured perfectly in a new book we published this year titled “An Idea Comes of Age: UW-Stout 1891-2016” written by our assistant communications director, Jerry Poling. It is a great book, very readable, and it would make a great graduation present! Copies of the book are available in the bookstore in the Memorial Student Center.

I would like to leave you with a couple of thoughts.  One is about the power of pursuing your individual goals and dreams.  This quote comes from the actor Will Smith in one of my favorite movies, “The Pursuit of Happyness.”

In the movie Will Smith plays the part of a character named “Gardner” and states the following to his son “Christopher” who is played by Will Smiths real son Jaden:  “Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something.  Not even me.  You got a dream, you gotta protect it.  When people can’t do something themselves, they’re gonna tell you that you can’t do it.  You want something, go get it.  Period.”

I love this quote from the movie because you came to UW-Stout inspired by a dream.  And you followed Will Smith’s advice in the movie and went after it.  You invested in your future by coming to UW-Stout.  And for that, each one of you has my deepest admiration.  You’ve inspired me, and everyone here celebrating your success!

You now have the education you need, from Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University, to achieve whatever you want in life.  You just have to believe in yourself, put aside all doubt, and pursue your dreams.  I have absolute faith that each and every one of you has the ability to achieve great things if you only believe in yourself.

My final thought involves a little exercise intended to recognize all the people who were involved in helping you get to this point in your lives. I have found this exercise useful in showing our graduates an important lesson that has been reinforced for me — that every student who earns a diploma gets to commencement with the assistance of a great many people. 

  • 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?

As 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 have achieved 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 as 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 sixth 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.