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Spring 2002 commencement – Remarks by Chancellor John Wiley

May 21, 2002

May 17-19, 2002

A few days ago I sent all of you graduates an e-mail. You’re the first graduating class that has been accustomed to communicating primarily through e-mail, and this is something that was really driven home to me last week when I got an e-mail from a student who thought we had not done an adequate job of publicizing a particular event on campus. When I told her that we had put it in all the local papers, in all the radio stations, the television stations, she came back with the response, “If you want to communicate with students, you have to do it by e-mail.”

In any case, I did send you an e-mail congratulating all of you on your accomplishments and your graduation, and also asking you to thank someone by e-mail — and copy me if you’d like — to someone who had been particularly influential during your time here or who had helped you in some way that you thought you would remember for the rest of your life.

There are a couple of reasons I did that. The thing that gave me the idea was that I spent most of the month of March traveling around the country visiting with alumni groups — several thousand alumni at the so-called Founders Day dinners, which you’ll all find out about sometime this next year. When you have that experience of meeting with dozens of different groups of alumni of all ages, from all parts of the country in a short period of time, a few experiences tend to stand out in your memory.

One of the things that really struck me was the number of people who wanted to come up and tell me about some particularly memorable experience they had on campus. Usually it was a time in which they were in deep trouble or really seriously concerned about something, weren’t sure they could go on in school — serious problems of one sort or another — and someone stepped forward to help them. Sometimes it was a faculty member, sometimes a TA, a department secretary, an advisor — any number of different people — but they all had stories to tell and they really were from the heart.

They sincerely wanted me to know how much someone had made a difference in their lives. They also often reflected that they wished they had thanked them at the time, and now it’s too late for one reason or another. So I figured this is your opportunity to thank that special person who has helped you through here, and you won’t have to tell me later at a Founders Day dinner that you regret that you never did it.

My other reason for doing it was a little more subtle. We’ve spent a lot of time, as you well know, over the last few years on this campus talking about and trying to deal with issues associated with the campus climate. That means different things to different people. There are lots of different climates, but basically it’s what it feels like to be a student or an employee here. Unfortunately we don’t have any dial or switch that lets us control the campus climate. I think the campus climate very likely is the sum total or the integrated effect of thousands or hundreds of thousands of individual encounters — individual one-on-one encounters, acts of kindness or rudeness, acts of thoughtfulness or thoughtlessness that add up to the way you experience the place.

If that’s the case, I thought the best way you can begin to make a difference is by thanking someone. Maybe that will brighten their day a little bit and maybe those who don’t get any e-mails of thanks will think about that and think about the way they’re treating students here.

Those of you who have responded to my challenge have made a contribution already. I’ve gotten a number of cc’s or copies of those e-mails. They’re pouring in now, and they’re very interesting stories. I haven’t decided what to do with them. One of them I’ll have to wait to see, because the server bounced back my e-mail automatically and it said, in German, “I can’t answer your e-mail because I’ve already sold my computer, but I’ll be checking my e-mail over the Internet and maybe I’ll answer you in three or four weeks.” So we’ll see what happens with that one.

In any case, if you’ve already thanked someone, I appreciate it. And if you haven’t yet done so, I hope you still will. Congratulations to all of you. Best wishes and On Wisconsin!