Betsey Stevenson gives the remarks on behalf of the faculty at the 2022 Ford School Commencement. April, 2022.
Each year, the Ford School’s graduating students are asked to elect people to play key roles at commencement. One faculty member is chosen to speak to the class. And our BAs and Masters graduating classes choose a representative student speaker. As the faculty speaker, the Classes of 2022 elected professor Betsey Stevenson. Betsey Stevenson is a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan. She is also a faculty research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and serves on the executive committee of the American Economic Association. She served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers from 2013 to 2015 where she advised President Obama on social policy, labor market, and trade issues. She earlier served as the chief economist of the U.S. Department of Labor from 2010 to 2011. Betsey is a labor economist who has published widely in leading economics journals about the labor market and the impact of public policies for families. I'm delighted to welcome her now to speak on behalf of our faculty. Betsey-- Graduating class of 2022 I am so happy to see you here and incredibly honored that you chose me to address you and your loved ones. I watched a lot of previous Ford school graduation speeches in preparation for today and I learned that people do a better job sticking to 5 minutes when a member of Congress is holding a gavel with a countdown clock in front of the witness. Lucky for me, Dean Barr has yet to realize that. There is a familiar rhythm to most graduation speeches just like there is a familiar rhythm to life. We celebrate your accomplishments, we applaud your hard work, we are inspired by the fresh ideas you have brought into the classroom. As we look forward we are energized by the change we know you can bring to society, the difference you will make, and the mark you will leave on the world. The pandemic broke the familiar rhythm of life. And when I asked myself why did the class of 2022 choose me? I realized that you didn't choose me for my accomplishments. You chose me for being in the thick of it with you about the disappointment we felt and the challenges we faced and the mental health struggles we encountered as we endeavored to march forward even though all of the familiar patterns of life had broken, even though the very fabric of our society seemed to be dissolving in front of us. When most of you applied to the Ford school, the pandemic had yet to start. The U.S. economy was booming. Women held more than half of all jobs in the economy. More mothers were in the labor force than ever before in the United States. In January 2020, I said in an interview with NPR I can't imagine what could happen that would disrupt women's upward trajectory. I couldn't imagine. I'm sure that few of you could have imagined. As you applied to the Ford school you envisioned being in rooms full of your classmates, debating policy issues late into the night long after everyone else had departed Weill Hall. And there we were in the Fall of 2021 facing each other on zoom. Graduate students including some of you here in this room took a stand against the university asking for more safety, more clarity, and better partnerships with all stakeholders. Others felt torn about whether to cross a picket line when they had given up so much to be here, even if it was virtually. And the worst of the pandemic was yet to come. These were not the experiences you hoped for. But they are the experiences that have shaped you and they are the experiences that will allow you to bring an even greater vision for change in a world that desperately needs change. While each and every one of you did your best to work through these difficult times, for some of you, the schoolwork that you had been trained to do your whole life became overwhelming, while for others it became easier, an escape from the pandemic. As a faculty, we had to look harder to teach each of you where you were emotionally. The beauty of that experience was that the discrepancy between how each of us appears and how we are actually doing melted away. To paraphrase Frank Bruni we all had to look for each other's invisible sandwich boards that itemize our hardships and hurdles. Suffering from long covid, just lost a loved one and couldn't say goodbye, I'm not sure I can afford to be here. Crippled by anxiety, As we looked for each other's sandwich boards, we developed empathy. I say we because I was right there with you. We all students and faculty alike--needed to dig deep to find empathy for each other. We also need to find empathy for everyone. Empathy for everyone is where the hard work is. It is easy to have empathy for those who face an injustice in the world that angers you deep in your bones. The work, the work is in finding empathy for those who anger you deep in your bones. Why should we find this empathy? We need this empathy to enact change. Only when you can understand can you begin to persuade. Only when you can empathize can you begin to find common ground. Let me step back and explain why I love teaching policy students and take a moment to educate your family and friends about what a policy degree is and throughout I hope you will see why I think you, the graduating class of 2022 have gotten the best policy education of any other graduating class. As an economist, my goal is to teach students how to use economics in policy. To be a successful economist in policy all the economics you need is a deep understanding of the principles of economics but you have to able to move from the textbook to the playbook. A key part of that is being able to understand how people are likely to respond to the ways in which a policy decision shapes and creates incentives. Doing so requires empathy. But policy is about more than economics. You have learned from political science, sociology, history, and of course statistics. Your job as a policy student is to integrate across the many disciplinary fields you are learning from so that you can be effective along all of the dimensions that matter--developing policy that shapes incentives for individuals to get the outcome you want, communicating the policy proposal in a way and at a time that policy makers will be receptive to your idea, considering the social-emotional impact and spillover effects that lead policies to shape not just outcomes for individuals but whole communities, and figuring out how you communicate and implement policy decisions in the best way to minimize negative impacts on communities. It all comes together in the most important part of the public policy degree: learning how to write. If policy schools were ranked on memo writing Ford would definitely be number one. You learn writing by writing so even if you are wincing at the memory of all that writing, know that it was the most important thing you did. Communicating is about empathy. You have to care about your listeners, your readers. Who are you talking to, how are they hearing you, why should they want to listen? You have to listen to me today, but will you hear me? Only if I have heard you. And you did teach me. As some of you may remember I reflected on this learning in an interview in the New York Times last summer when I explained that I was teaching about the disincentive effects of unemployment insurance and how it can discourage people from working a concept economists call moral hazard--when one of you raised your hand and asked, is it really moral to use the threat of hunger to motivate people to work? I didn't have a good answer. Because this is where you now come in. Policy is about values. It is your turn to decide on the values that you believe should guide society. Many of you know my policy priorities, but today is about you. I want to learn more from you as you take your place in the world and begin to advocate for what you believe in. And I know you are going to in the words of Lin Manuel Miranda blow us all away My advice to you as you go forward is to remember that sometimes it gets hard. And those are the moments that define you. Sometimes you fail. And those are the moments in which you grow the most. The past few years have been hard and there have been failures for many of us. Use the empathy that you have developed along with the more concrete tools to build a stronger, more humane, and more just society.