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136th Commencement

Address of

President Mary Sue Coleman,
The University of Michigan


Commencement ceremony, the University of Kentucky

May 10, 2003


“Creating your own hoops”


Thank you, President Todd, for inviting me to speak at today’s ceremony.

And thank you also to the Trustees, to the distinguished faculty members, many of whom once were my colleagues, and to the families and friends of the graduates.

But above all, I want to greet the talented class of 2003!

What a pleasure it is for me to join you for the celebration of this commencement, this new beginning for all of you graduating on this glorious day.

I see joy on your faces today, and sense the jubilation of the conclusion of your journey here. But for most of us at Commencement, that joy is always tinged with a bit of melancholy.

You are moving on to new adventures, but are leaving behind an intense life of scholarship, friends, and routines.

The people you have come to know at UK have created a circle of experience that has greatly expanded the sphere of family and friends you knew when you first arrived here. With today’s ceremony, you are about to begin expanding your lives even further.

You can find perspectives on the cycles of life in many cultures.

The Native American Lakota tribe has a spiritual concept for the interconnections of our lives, which they call the “sacred hoop.” The beauty of the sacred hoop is its linkage of all aspects of life: nature, humanity, and spirituality.>

As your lives constantly evolve, you will continue to re-shape your personal hoops, leaving some elements behind, and always adding new components: new family, new friends, new locations.

Balancing the elation and sadness of life-changing events is a complicated dance.

I remember experiencing these mixed emotions when I departed from the University of Kentucky in 1990, after working on this beautiful campus for nineteen years.

But my own circle still includes wonderful friends I made here, even though my own hoop of life has expanded to include experiences I had not imagined when I left my faculty position here.

It is a profound honor to be asked to return to Kentucky – my roots are very deep in this beautiful bluegrass state. Like many of you, I am a native Kentuckian, as was my father, his parents, and our ancestors dating back to the period before the Revolutionary War.

Recently, I found a sixth-grade essay written in 1926 by my now-deceased father. After World War I, my grandfather and his young family briefly left Kentucky to look for better work. Like many Kentuckians of that time, they moved to Detroit, but the relocation didn’t last long. In his sixth-grade essay, my dad wrote:

“Last summer we took a motor trip to Detroit. We were there about six weeks. I thought I would like it up there but I didn’t. The trip was fine but Detroit is a large city and there is no room for slingshots.”

I live near Detroit now, and I can tell you firsthand that my father was absolutely right! So they moved back to Richmond, Kentucky, where there was plenty of room for slingshots!

The University of Kentucky has provided a path of opportunity for many fellow Kentuckians, including my father, who earned a Master of Science degree here.

My family connection to Kentucky is now continuing into the next generation. With me today are my husband, Ken, and our son, Jonathan.

We raised Jonathan in Lexington. Although he now lives in Colorado, he has found a lovely way to keep his Kentucky heritage alive. Last year, he married a wonderful young woman from Kentucky, Aimee. In fact, they will be celebrating their first anniversary tomorrow!

Jonathan also cultivates his Kentucky roots by continuing to be an intense fan of Wildcats basketball!

My own experience at UK started very inauspiciously. I came here in 1971 as a faculty spouse, when my husband was appointed an assistant professor in Political Science. We arrived with baby Jonathan in tow and I had virtually no prospects to be invited to join the faculty.

What I did have was a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of North Carolina, a salary grant from the National Institutes of Health, and an intense desire to work.

The Biochemistry Department appointed me as a postdoctoral fellow, and I immersed myself in building a research program. It was a challenging time, but it was exciting to be part of a growing department and a university focused on rapid advancement. Eventually, because of my research and teaching activities, I was invited to join the faculty, an event that was the catalyst for my eventual academic career.

I think the genius of this place during the years of President John Oswald and beyond was having the faculty participate in so much of the crucial work of the university.

We were tapped to do important work inside UK – building research institutes, reforming graduate education, finding ways to diversify the faculty and student body, providing a voice for women, recruiting university leaders, and even serving on the Board of Trustees.

The faculty had a very large stake in the future of the University – and we knew we could transform UK into a national university, with the support of the right leadership and state investment.

I have carried the UK faculty values with me in all my subsequent positions, and I continue to revel in those wonderful years here, when we were so dedicated to our investment in shaping the university.

When I think back over the 32 years since I first set foot on the UK campus, I am struck by the enormous upheaval in higher education and in society in general. Our country is still experiencing changing demographics that require all of us to understand and to work with each other in new ways.

For all of you, and particularly those who will emerge as leaders, the ability to grow and to draw upon the wisdom of many traditions will be crucial.

I do have a favorite modern parable about diverse traditions, and it is a parable especially appropriate for this university.

I mentioned the concept of sacred hoops earlier. You may be familiar with that term from a book written by Phil Jackson, coach of the Chicago Bulls during their run of six NBA championships, and now of the Los Angeles Lakers, who have also had a bit of success.

He titled his book Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. In the book, he describes how he drew upon the spirituality of the Lakota tribe for the principles of his own success in building teams, both in basketball and in life.

As a child in North Dakota, Coach Jackson found basketball to be a refuge from the intensive religious atmosphere at his home. While he played with Lakota children, he learned the culture of the Sioux people. From them, he absorbed a philosophy that he later incorporated into coaching the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers.

He began to believe, as the Lakotans believed, that humans are one with the universe, and that the spirit of the universe dwells in each person. He had seen that the Lakotans were motivated for success. But their ethic directed them to work as a team rather than to attain individual glory.

This, of course, is an essential element of any successful team, and Coach Jackson employed this concept, and other aspects of Lakota spirituality, to build a dramatically successful team concept for the Chicago Bulls.

For example, he started and ended each practice in a circle to symbolize that the team was forming its own sacred hoop.[i]

I think Phil Jackson’s perspective struck me with particular force because of an experience I had as provost at the University of New Mexico. There, one of the most enjoyable parts of my job was working with a program we called One-on-One. We paired entering students with faculty members, to help students become acclimated to the university setting.

I chose to be paired with a Native American student from the northern Cheyenne people.

Her Indian name was Horse Comes Running; her name for the majority culture was Karina.

I assumed that I, as the mentor, would be helping this young woman cope with registration, financial aid, and, in general, making her way through the university system.

But I was unprepared for the lessons she would teach me.

The most memorable of those lessons came in November of that year.

My husband, Ken, and I often extended invitations to Thanksgiving dinner to students who were not going to be with their families. And so it was natural for me to ask Karina to join us for the celebration.

I was amazed when she looked at me seriously and said: “You know, for us, Thanksgiving is a day of mourning.”

I was stunned.

I had never really thought about this holiday from the perspective of peoples who were forced from their lands.

Seeing the shock on my face, Karina very graciously said she would love to join us, but asked if she could recite for us some songs and prayers of the Cheyenne.

So we had a wonderful and very meaningful Thanksgiving that year:

Karina came with a gift of a sacred pouch, an offering of good luck for our home. She sang for us and recited prayers about the sadness of her people.

Our extended family and other students were there – and while it was a different celebration from any we had ever experienced, it made us think more deeply about what this holiday really signifies to the United States.

In all the succeeding years, my appreciation for Thanksgiving has been more complex because my Cheyenne friend helped me to confront the sacrifices made by Native Americans. Karina expanded our holiday circle – and helped us form a more inclusively American sacred hoop.

Even though she no longer sits at our Thanksgiving table, her presence is always there.

I hope you have had similar experiences at the University of Kentucky – and will weave those experiences into your own hoops. The accumulation of cherished friends and traditions will continue to enrich your lives.

I have had encounters like that Albuquerque Thanksgiving throughout my life.

And the power of those experiences has made me believe passionately in the need to have a society that welcomes all cultures and backgrounds.

Right now, I have the privilege of leading the university that is defending affirmative action, the policy that has provided access to students from a variety of cultures, who otherwise might not have had the opportunity to attend our universities.

We are engaged in an historic struggle to preserve admissions policies that serve the widest possible array of communities within the United States. Last month, the University of Michigan stood before the Supreme Court to make its case.

We asked the court to affirm America, by re-affirming affirmative action.

We all learn from each other, from differing perspectives and assorted traditions.

In holding open the doors of opportunity for students from all backgrounds, we are building a stronger and more vibrant democracy.

The University of Kentucky has generated opportunity for you. Use your education to generate benefits for yourself and those you love, but also to work on behalf of the larger communities of which we are all a part.

As you expand your own circles, I ask you to extend the hand of fellowship and sisterhood, to create a sacred hoop that is more fully American, more inclusive, and more responsive to social concerns.

You sit here today as part of the sacred hoop of the life of the University of Kentucky. You are linked to the generations of alumni who preceded you, and to the generations who have not yet been born.

You also sit here today at the center of your own personal hoops, surrounded by family and friends who love you, and you are joined in spirit by those who could not be here today.

Even though you are leaving the University today, as I did in 1990, remember there will be times that it will call you home – and I hope you will follow my example and answer that call.

I can tell you that coming home to celebrate your roots is a complete joy, and will immerse you in the many layers of your circle of life.

I wish you success and continued joy.

Good luck and Godspeed!

[i] Phil Jackson and Hugh Delehanty, Sacred Hoops:  Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (New York, 1995), p. 112.