Chancellor Grasso's Inaugural Address

Good afternoon -- Family, Friends, Regents, Colleagues, Students, Alumni, Elected Officials, Delegates from other Institutions and Special Guests ... Welcome!

Thank you for being here on this very special day for the University of Michigan-Dearborn.  

As someone who has spent the majority of his professional career in the academy, I am deeply humbled by this ceremony and honored to stand before you as the newly installed chancellor of this extraordinary campus that is an integral part of the nation’s top-ranked public university.

Of course, I know very well that I would not be standing here were it not for the support, encouragement and guidance of many people, provided over many years.

With that in mind, I would like to take a few moments to express my sincere gratitude to those who have been especially important in shaping my life and my career, and bringing me to this place.

First of all, I regret that my parents are not alive to share in this event.

I know that, if they were, my father would have been very proud.

And my mother would have actually believed all that was said.

However, my younger brother, Alfred, is here with us today, and I am sure he does not believe any of it.

Of course, my mother-in-law Shirley, who is also in the audience, would proffer — correctly I might add — that my greatest single achievement was marrying her daughter, Susan, and in being the father of four amazing children, all of whom are here today as well.

Susan, my soulmate and best friend of over thirty years, has been my greatest source of unwavering encouragement, astute insights, and alternate perspectives. All of which have been indispensable to my growth and success. She is an accomplished engineer, a devoted mother, a supportive partner, and a profoundly thoughtful and good-hearted human being.

And to our children—Ben, Jacob, Elspeth and Caitlin — I say:  As honored as I am to assume the responsibility of chancellor … the title that gives me the greatest pride and satisfaction in life is, and always will be, that of “Dad.”

As an aside, and just for the record, our family can claim a total of four University of Michigan degrees. Although I should point out that Susan accounts for 75 percent of them.

Also, to my delight, our future daughter-in-law, Molly, will be adding to that number as she was just accepted to the MBA program at the Ross Business School.

Although he could not be with us today, I would like to thank Dan Little, my predecessor, for his 18 years of outstanding stewardship and leadership, and for helping to facilitate this transition.

I would also like to acknowledge, Bernie Klein, who served as interim chancellor three times between 1979 and 2000. He is also in the audience today.

I extend special thanks to my long-time mentor Ruth Simmons.  It was Ruth who, years ago, talked me out of an attractive offer from another university by articulating the global impact that a university leader can exert given the right platform, at the right institution, at the right time. Back then, Ruth asked me to start a distinctive engineering program in a liberal arts environment and “do it the right way, because women must not accept so marginal a role in so important a field.” It was an offer — and a challenge — I couldn’t refuse, and a decision I have never regretted.

I want to thank Mark Schlissel for a thoughtful search process and for your support over the past eight months…. I also thank you for calling Ruth as a reference during the search process.

In the past months, I’ve had the privilege of working closely with Mark. During that time, I have come to know him as a brilliant, thoughtful and ethical leader. Moreover, Mark has been an unwavering supporter of, and advocate for, the regional campuses of the University of Michigan.

And, Mark, in case you hadn’t noticed, I always make a point of sitting next to you at our Executive Officer meetings in hopes of some horizontal gene transfer.

My sincere gratitude goes to the University Board of Regents for trusting in, and having faith in me. Thank you for all you do on behalf of all three Michigan campuses.

Special thanks to Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, in absentia, and who—along with her late husband, the legendary Congressman John Dingell—has always been a strong advocate for, and supporter of, higher education and our campus.

And a special thank you to our guest artist: world-acclaimed violinist Xiang Gao and his accompanist Christine Delbeau, for their outstanding performance today.

Finally, I would like to thank the University executive officers and the UM-Dearborn faculty, staff, students, alumni and community members for their warm and welcoming embrace of Susan and me as we transitioned to Michigan. It is terrific to be part of the Michigan family once more.


During my lifetime, I have witnessed, as many of you have as well, vast changes in the way we live. I have seen communications technology advance from rotary phones to iPhones, from black-and-white television sets layered with static to digital streaming on devices that were unimaginable twenty years ago. I have seen the introduction of nano-technology, and biotechnology, the development of precision medicine, and the triumphant sequencing of the human genome. I’ve watched automotive technology evolve from heavily polluting combustion engines to electric cars and autonomous vehicles.

And yet in so many ways, despite a long list of breakthroughs, our progress has been imperfect and incomplete. After all the years and all the advances, we still struggle with issues of social equity. With poverty and homelessness. With climate change. With skewed and unequal access to affordable health care and quality education. With the persistence of discrimination. And in some cases, with the lack of even basic civil rights. Although the life expectancy of North Americans has climbed from 69 years to 79 years in my life time, we are now seeing a disturbing decline in our longevity due to the opioid crisis, obesity and an uptick in suicide rates.

Clearly, as a society, we are confronted by a superabundance of challenging and complex problems.

In thinking about our shared, collective and common predicament, it is difficult not to see the vast potential of higher education to function as an agent of change and a means of serving the greater good. The common good. This is, after all, a hallmark of a Michigan education.

From the very beginning, our founders believed that Michigan would be a university where all—irrespective of  financial circumstances or station in life—could access, and benefit from, a very special academic community. This inspirational organizing principle became part of our lore: Michigan would dedicate itself to providing an uncommon education for the common man.

Whomever may have first authored this sentiment knew then, as I do now, that for our collective success and enlightenment, all people must have the opportunity to be educated—and educated well—so that they, with multiple perspectives, could assume positions of prominence and leadership in our society and, from that vantage point, effect positive change in the world.

Not surprisingly, this powerful and often latent potential of the common individual has been a leitmotif, or recurring theme, throughout our nation’s history. Certainly, there is nothing derogatory or demeaning, nothing pejorative or even counter-culturally elitist in the word “common.” On the contrary, in a nation that was created of the people, by the people, and for the people, there is a certain pride that derives from being an everyday—common—person. 

It was during some of the fiercest fighting of World War II when Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, delivered a speech in which, looking beyond the end of the war, he called for a coming Century of the Common Man --- for an end to economic and military elitism and imperialism and the building of global cooperation by, and for all, human beings.

Indeed, it was Wallace’s idealistic and perhaps chimerical post-war view, that inspired Aaron Copeland to create his “Fanfare for the Common Man” as a tribute to the importance, value, and dignity of the common classes. 

Being a first generation American, first generation college graduate, and first generation military veteran, I join with others who proudly claim roots in the group of common Americans whose strong desire it is to have a productive and fulfilling life and to leave our world better than we found it.

This has been the compelling narrative of our United States that neither lineage nor wealth are necessary determinants of success.  Truly, of any place or time in history, it has been this nation that has raised the potential of the common individual to near iconic and noble status.

Alarmingly, we now find ourselves in an era where wealth disparity is at an all time high and where the role of the common individual is increasingly marginalized and threatened. To be sure, we cannot allow this marginalization to go unchecked.  As a society, we can ill-afford not to capitalize on the diverse wisdom, creativity, and capacity of the vast majority of our population—the common people—who must be prepared, committed, and allowed to play a significant and deterministic role in Wallace’s vision for the Century of the Common Man. 


It is truly remarkable that during the most desperate moment in our nation’s history, the civil war, when the very survival of our Union was at stake, President Lincoln took time to consider and sign the Morrill Land Grant Act “to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes.”  It was clear then, as it is now, that the future of our nation was tied to educating the sons and daughters of farmers and merchants, tradesmen and laborers. To educating the common individual. 

It is widely agreed that these land-grant schools have been a major force in the economic and cultural success of this nation.  However, as time has progressed, land grant schools have become increasingly selective in admissions and increasingly focused on research. 

Not surprisingly, it is regional campuses, such as UM-Dearborn, that have become a natural, necessary, and welcome complement to realizing the vision of Senator Justin Morrill in educating the industrial classes—the common individual. 

UM-Dearborn for decades has provided access to a high quality affordable education and is woven into the fabric of southeastern Michigan addressing the needs of our citizens through strong partnerships with industry and the community.

Serving the common good has been in the DNA of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from our birth. 

In fact, the Dearborn campus was founded as a University of Michigan partnership with Ford Motor company.  And as we all know, it was the genius and hard work of Henry Ford that took a high priced and rare or, at least uncommon, commodity—the automobile—and made it available to the working class. He transformed the lives of common people by giving them autonomy, mobility, and independence.

Today, Ford is continuing that tradition by reinventing the auto industry, introducing new initiatives and championing a user-centric holistic approach to personal mobility that will lead to  revolutionary new levels of access for all individuals.

Building on this original partnership, UM-Dearborn has an outstanding history of providing opportunity and serving the public good. The greater good. The common good.

Not in a paternalistic way. Not as elites dispensing advantages. But in the most practical, relevant and impactful way. Today we continue to be committed to providing a transformational education to a diverse, talented and motivated student body where 43% are Pell eligible, 38% are first generation to attend college, and 44% have dependent care responsibilities.

And so, in keeping with this inspiring tradition, I look forward to partnering with all of you to build on our distinguished legacy—with a renewed commitment to pedagogical innovation, student success and community access—an uncommon education for the common person.

Because of our roots, UM-Dearborn is commonly identified with engineering, the sciences, and business—however, we are not defined by singular ways of knowing. Our campus community realizes the importance of other necessary skills such as critical and diverse modes of thinking, multiple perspectives, thoughtful discernment, and compelling and effective communication. UM-Dearborn is dedicated to providing all those who pass through our halls a broad and holistic education, where an understanding of the human condition, human record, and human desires can engender the fullness of our human potential, the common good.

And we also take pride, practically, in providing an education that prepares our students not only for their first job but, more importantly, for their sixth job as well.


But how will UM-Dearborn continue to serve that end and build on sixty years of excellence?

In answering those questions, and thinking through our strategy for the future, I have sought inspiration from thinkers such as the celebrated American philosopher John Dewey, champion of pragmatism and the common experience who, as it happens, was for some years a professor at the University of Michigan and is buried on the University of Vermont campus.

Dewey famously noted that education was not preparation for life, but life itself. 

On occasion, when I was in Vermont, I would visit Dewey’s gravesite and read the inscription on his tombstone:

 “The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves...but passing on our heritage of values more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.”

I have adapted some of Dewey’s thinking for what I consider the necessary tenets of a well-regarded education along three simple lines: Currency. Luxury. And Legacy.

By currency, I mean that education must provide students with the ability to make a living. It must equip them with the right skills to be a valuable currency in the marketplaces in which we all live.

By luxury, I mean that education should enable students to pursue work they love. It should inspire in them a thirst for continuous learning, a growth mindset, with the certain knowledge that through persistent effort, they can excel and enjoy in their life’s passion. For it is a true luxury to devote your life to what you love.

And finally, by legacy, my sincere hope is that a UM-Dearborn education will instill a desire within every student to make a difference, to contribute to the common good, and to leave the world a better place than they found it. 

Ruth Simmons is well known as a leader who established a legacy of leaving institutions in better form for her having been there.  When she stepped down as president of Brown University, the New York Times published an interview with her in which she wisely noted that “There is nothing worse than a leader who lacks ambition.”

Keeping Simmons’ and Dewey’s wisdom in mind and in setting a course for the future of this special institution, I have developed some bold objectives for my time as Chancellor.

These goals build on our legacy of excellence, and are aggressive, ambitious, obtainable and, I believe, absolutely essential. They may not be achieved during my first term. And they can certainly never be achieved by one lone individual.
But together, working as a community, united in purpose and committed to the success of this campus, we can generate irreversible momentum, make measurable progress and realize our future of promise.

So what exactly are the future objectives of UM-Dearborn? And how should we proceed?

First, we must continue to significantly increase both retention and graduation rates to a steady, predictable 70 percent or better. We can accomplish this not only by continuing to provide superb and relevant education but also by wrapping our students in all the resources and support services they need to succeed. Although we have made progress in this area recently, we need to take it to the next level. 

Second, in order to improve educational access, address talent gaps throughout the state, and meet the needs of expanding markets, we must dare to significantly increase the number of students we serve, potentially doubling enrollment in the coming five to ten years. Closely coupled with enrollment growth must be a significant increase in available student aid.  Inevitably, our recruitment efforts will also make this learning community a stronger and more diverse venue in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomics, life experience, geography, and perspectives.

Third, we must continue to serve as a powerful engine of our economy, leveraging the talent of our distinguished faculty and taking full advantage of our scholarly potential ... doubling our research metabolism. Our faculty, working with our students, must and will play a larger role in exploring new ideas, questioning assumptions, seeking alternative explanations, and formulating the desperately needed policies and solutions for the most pressing challenges of our time.

Fourth, by continuing to collaborate closely with our partners in business, industry, government, and the non-profit sector, we will offer the excellence of a Michigan degree in emerging, exciting, and relevant fields … with a Dearborn Drive Train. 

Penultimately … to support and fuel our vision for the future, we must identify and in some cases create new revenue streams. This will involve significant increases in our philanthropic enterprise and it will also involve finding new, innovative ways to conduct business and to deliver education.  It will also involve forging more and even stronger consequential alliances with external partners. 

Finally, and perhaps most important: 

We must discover how to educate differently.

Of course, that includes exploring new modes of delivery. New ways of organizing our departments, our classes, our internships. New ways of engaging and supporting our students.

Achieving these goals and creating a strong and vital future for UM-Dearborn is a collective enterprise, a group endeavor.

Without doubt, there remain many exciting and revolutionary advances which we will witness in our lives. Equally certain is that the challenges and opportunities we face will require our collective genius, imagination and resourcefulness. Working continuously to provide an uncommon education, we will contribute meaningfully to the heroic saga and destiny of the common individual and make a difference—not only for our state, but for our nation and our world.

Make no mistake, this is a pivotal moment not only for our university but for higher education in general, whose public trust has been abrogated.

We at the University of Michigan-Dearborn have big ideas and high hopes. So let us begin this journey together, knowing that—through our collective action, creativity, and determined effort—we can make a profound difference.

In closing, I would like to adapt the words of my children --- before they took to the excitement and challenge of the playing fields or courts.

It is time to Go Big or Go Home!

But always Go Blue!

Thank you.

Office of the Chancellor

1070 - Administration Building
4901 Evergreen Road
Dearborn, MI 48128
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Phone: 313-593-5500
Fax: 313-593-5204