Domestic and Economic Policy, Education and School Choice, Speeches

Michelle D. Bernard at the Ross School of Business of the University of Michigan: Action-Based Learning to Action-Based Living

May 2, 2012: Michelle D. Bernard, president & CEO of the Bernard Center, opinion maker, and lawyer tells Ross graduates metrics for success in life at Spring Commencement.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — She dropped the Accounting for Lawyers class after one day and was urged not to take any more economics courses as an undergraduate.

Not that you would know it from hearing MSNBC political analyst, author, and lawyer Michelle Bernard address graduating Ross students at the spring 2012 commencement exercises, held April 27 at Hill Auditorium.

Bernard shared her metrics for successful living and, dovetailing with Ross’ action-based learning philosophy, her thoughts on “Action-Based Living in the 21st Century.”

“I challenge you to think about your life 50 years from now,” she said. “When that time comes, how will you define success in how you lived your life?”

Bernard, former president and CEO of the Independent Women’s Forum, is a regular panelist on Hardball with Chris Matthews and The McLaughlin Group. She’s the author of Women’s Progress: How Women are Wealthier, Healthier and More Independent than Ever Before. Bernard also has her own blog, and blogs for The Hill.

Alison Davis-Blake, Edward J. Frey Dean and Leon Festinger Collegiate Professor of Management, said Bernard was chosen as commencement speaker not only for her impressive career path but, more importantly, “her courageous stance on the important issues of our time — education reform, advancing democracy, and defending the rights of women and minorities.” Bernard is the founder of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

One of Bernard’s guiding principles of action-based living is to be innovative and reach for the stars, noting that business people and entrepreneurs make important contributions to society. Sparking societal change is not exclusive to the politicians, military leaders, humanitarians, and theologians so often cited in commencement speeches.

Bernard noted that Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates, physicist Shirley Jackson, and even Spanx undergarments founder Sara Blakelyadvanced society by making our lives better, easier, and more enjoyable.

“Consider the myriad products and processes that we take for granted today,” she said. “Medicines. Cars. Cell phones. Bicycles. Robotic surgeries. Computers. Eyeglasses. Contact lenses. Cameras. Airplanes. Clocks. The Internet. Video games. Refrigerators. Air conditioners. Televisions. Heaters. Pencils. Every one of them was invented by someone. Every one of them enriches our lives.”

She encouraged Ross graduates to succeed and earn wealth, but not let money be their master. Wealth can be used to help others succeed and to promote social causes.

“It’s not wrong to gain valuable skills and seek compensation for using them,” Bernard said. “There is nothing wrong with building wealth for you and your family. You should not feel guilty about being rewarded when you improve the lives of those around you.”

But she emphasized that Ross graduates shouldn’t think of only money, choose a job based on earnings, organize their lives around how much they make, or put money ahead of everything else.

“Money is a means to an end, and it can pose a dangerous temptation,” she said. “Try to do well. But at the same time, promise yourself that when you succeed, you will do well by others.

One of the most important reasons to succeed is to help others succeed. You can help relatives and friends. You can improve your neighborhood and contribute to charities. You can support organizations that help the needy at home and around the world. You can promote social and political causes, and you can invest in others who are struggling to get started in business. So go forth and succeed. View business as a public-spirited endeavor.”

Among Bernard’s other guiding principles:

Honor your village. “All of you know what it is like to have someone help you and push you,” she said. “Honor each individual who has sacrificed, pushed, provided constructive criticism, and cheered for you. All of them deserve credit for their hard work.”

Just make it happen. Bernard noted that the United States has an African-American president and recently had a female speaker of the house, and women competed for the presidency and vice presidency in 2008 and 2012. “We now expect all Americans, regardless of race, religion, gender, or ethnicity, to serve at the top in public life,” she said. “With the degree that you have earned today, you are some of the most blessed people on Earth. Now it is your responsibility to take advantage of your opportunities.”

Be an active citizen. “Policy makers will be spending your money and, in the case of those of you who join the military, risking your lives,” she said. “You need to make your voices heard. That means educating yourselves about domestic and foreign policy issues and events, and thinking about how you want the U.S. government to represent you at home and abroad.”

Be a dreamer. Graduates today face many challenges but also have tremendous opportunities, Bernard said. “In good times and bad, remember what was once said by my hero, the abolitionist and great American, Harriet Tubman: ‘Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, patience, and passion to reach for the stars to change the world.'”

Bernard said the Ross School’s values — and the enthusiasm for them — are obvious to an outsider visiting campus.

“The Ross dedication to community, collaboration, and environmental sustainability is palpable, as is its recognition of the importance of imagination in the affairs of the world,” she said. “You made the first of many wise decisions when you accepted your offer of admission to the Ross School.”

MBA student speaker Noah Levin, MBA ’12, asked his classmates if it was all worth it — the time, the expense, and the work.

“Starting tomorrow, we decide what metrics to live our lives by, and we make a daily effort to meet our targets, make ourselves and our classmates proud, and make the whole thing worth it,” he said. “I would argue Ross has given us all the frameworks, tools, networks, opportunities, discipline, collaborative spirit, and confidence that we need to look back in a few decades and say, ‘Yeah, it was worth it.'”

BBA student speaker Michael Gardner, BBA ’12, asked his classmates not to forget to dream and to return to days of their childhood, before the regimented systems of school and college applications took hold. Gardner noted that he, as a child, was Batman, his little brother was Robin, and their house was Gotham City.

“What type of life do you want to lead, and where does purpose fit in?” he asked. “As you seek the answer to this question, I urge you to be people of impeccable character and integrity in order to continuously strengthen your moral foundation. Run toward purpose and, above all, be Batman. In other words, dream like you were a child again and live a life of boundless impossibilities because only then will you find what you’re truly capable of.”

Terry Kosdrosky


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