By James Iseler
The University Record
Dick Costolo received his U-M degree in computer science and went on to lead Twitter, but it was a lesson he learned performing improvisational comedy right fter college that formed the foundation of his address Saturday to graduates at Spring Commencement.
“You can’t plan a script. The beauty of improvisation is you’re experiencing it in the moment,” he said, recalling the advice of an instructor at Chicago’s famed “Second City” improv troupe.
“If you try to plan what the next line is supposed to be, you’re just going to be disappointed when the other people on stage with you don’t do or say what you want them to do, and you’ll stand there frozen. … Be in this moment. Now be here in this moment. Now, be here in this moment.”
That same spirit is a useful guide for life, he told an estimated 50,000 graduates, friends and family members in a humor-filled address delivered under a warm spring sky at Michigan Stadium. "If you're just filling a role, you will be blindsided."
“Not only can you not plan the impact that you’re going to have, you often won’t recognize it even while you’re having it,” said Costolo, who also received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree. “The impact is what others frame for you and the world after it happens. The present is only what you’re experiencing and focused on right now.”
Costolo was born in Royal Oak and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from LSA in 1985. He joined Twitter in 2009 as chief operating officer and became CEO in 2010, helping build the social network company from 50 employees to 1,300.
In recognition of Costolo's role at Twitter, the university encouraged commencement visitors and participants to tweet using the hashtag #MGoGrad. As of 2 p.m. Saturday, more than 4,700 tweets had been posted with the special indicator, and many of them scrolled across stadium screens during the ceremony.
Besides Costolo, four others received honorary degrees Saturday: William Brehm, strong advocate and supporter of higher education, Doctor of Laws; Suzanne Farrell, ballet dancer and educator, Doctor of Fine Arts; Rosabeth Moss Kanter, business leadership expert and former editor of the Harvard Business Review, Doctor of Humane Letters; and David McCullough, best-selling author and historian, Doctor of Humane Letters.
Former U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee was to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree at the UM-Flint commencement Sunday, and economist and sustainability advocate Jeffrey Sachs received an honorary Doctor of Science degree at the UM-Dearborn ceremonies April 28.
In her speech to the graduates, President Mary Sue Coleman announced the inaugural recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship: Zachary Petroni, whose work to better understand the connections between human rights and environmental conservation exemplifies the spirit of 1935 alumnus Raoul Wallenberg. (See related story.)
Wallenberg was “one of the most remarkable graduates of this university,” Coleman said. During the Holocaust, he rescued 100,000 people — “the capacity of this stadium” — from the Nazi death camps before disappearing at the hands of his enemies.
“Generation after generation, alumni push into the world to make a difference, and are motivated, not discouraged, by any roadblocks,” Coleman said.
She cited Lyman Johnson, the grandson of slaves who helped desegregate higher education in Kentucky, and Walter Bergman, who at age 61 was left paralyzed from beatings he suffered as a Freedom Rider in Alabama.
“Graduates, like your fellow alumnus Walter Bergman, you will take risks. You will make a difference with your advocacy, your inventions, and your initiative, because these are the trademarks of leaders. Like Lyman Johnson, you will create change for the better, you will work on behalf of your neighbors, and you will do it with dignity and integrity,” Coleman said.
Provost Phil Hanlon, speaking at his final commencement as provost before leaving to become president of Dartmouth College, urged graduates to take a moment to think about what aspect of their U-M experience is truly special.
“The University of Michigan, your great university, is full of surprises — features that are distinctive, unique, one of a kind,” Hanlon said. “If you are like me, it is the truly remarkable people of the University of Michigan who will forever represent the Michigan difference. … Whatever your special Michigan memory may be, it is part of you and you will carry it with you as you leave Ann Arbor.”
Student speaker Anisha Chadha, who is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in anthropology and microbiology, described how, in her first weeks on campus nearly four years ago, the university seemed enormous and she felt small.
“I had been afraid I would feel insignificant here, but the close community I joined quickly proved me wrong,” Chadha said. “I began to realize that what I was feeling was not smallness, but rather I was feeling like I was part of something bigger than myself.”
“Because of all of you and the time we have shared here, I don’t think I will ever feel small again. And if you can make that difference in my life, I know you can do it for others.”
John Megahan, scientific illustrator, graphic designer and Web developer, on his job: "My favorite kind of work is when I can do an illustration that brings in ideas from various aspects and seeing how they interact."
“Visions Of Serenity: Multi Media Group Show,” 8 a.m.-8 p.m. through June 10 at the Gifts of Art Gallery, Taubman Health Center South Lobby.