Spectrum Center

Photo of John Evans

Lavender Commencement Address - April 28, 2016

What a day this is.  So many years of all-nighters, caffeine, cold winters, pizza meals, cramming and exams all leads to today --- your graduation --- and a recognition by your diploma that you are now part of the Michigan Difference … and yes there truly is a difference conferred upon you today and I can say that with some authority having 40+ years of experience since I received my degree here … more than 500,000 world-wide alumni ---  leaders, innovators, public servants, writers, entrepreneurs, scientists, medical professionals to name but a few fields of expertise.

Today is particularly special for me as an openly gay man celebrating with you Spectrum’s 45th year, the first Higher Ed LGBT student organization in America and here at our beloved University.  It all started when U-M student, Jim Toy, when asked by the Regents in 1970 what his goal was … said … “we want justice.”  How far our community has come from the end of “don’t ask don’t tell” to gay marriage being legal … and last week on tax day, married gay couples across our land could, for the first time, file joint tax returns. 

I’m particularly proud of Michigan for its unwavering support of Chris Armstrong, then the president of Michigan’s student government, when he was being attacked by the Michigan Assistant State Attorney general.  When I heard about the unrelenting verbal and media attack, I spoke with then U of M President Mary Sue Coleman on whose President’s Advisory Group I am a member. My partner, Steve Wozencraft, and I came to Ann Arbor, met Chris and joined in his University and nationwide wide support.  I cannot tell you how proud I am of Michigan and Chris who handled the attack, the media and his duties as Student Body President with grace, aplomb, and vision of what was at stake. 

So let me share with you my journey at Michigan and the Michigan Difference and how it relates to you in this election year. It started in the College of LS&A – well, full disclosure, I started in engineering in meteorology, but calculus and the first law of thermo-dynamics sunk me.  So I transferred to LS&A, became a speech major --- there was no communications department -- so I became the campus radio 1 station’s, WCBN’s, on-air weather man.  My sophomore year, I became WCBN’s news director and on the fateful day of November 22, 1963 was on the air when news came over the wire that President John Kennedy had been assassinated.  I went to Washington to report back to WCBN listeners and was taken under the wing of New York Times star reporter Eileen Shanahan and NBC’s Bob Abernathy who got me White House credentials and mentored me for my on air reports. 

Reporting on and seeing firsthand our Nation grieve --- particularly seeing the horse drawn black caisson move across memorial bridge with the riderless horse behind --- and seeing the transition of power to Vice-president Lyndon Johnson --- taught me how extraordinary and resilient our fellow citizens are --- how resilient our country is.  There may be many in this room remembering those vivid images.

This experience and so many others that Michigan afforded, in addition to a great education, formed my values, my search for truth, my curiosity and my ability to listen. I was drafted for the Vietnam War shortly before my graduation and enlisted in the Navy being commissioned an ensign.  After serving several years at sea, I was ordered to the Pentagon to the Staff of the Chief of Naval Operations. I had top secret clearances and saw firsthand how our government lied to fellow citizens in order to justify and promote the war … this was certainly not in keeping with the values and perspective I had been taught here. I will return to those values and the Michigan difference in a moment. 

There is no guarantee that this great social experiment we created 240 years ago in 1776 … that we have risked our treasure and blood for --- will last. Lately, especially, it can feel as if we are in a slow decline. I would suggest that there are 5 cornerstones --- 5 pillars – 5 columns upon which our Freedoms rest and depend.  They are: 

 A strong Defense … which includes Homeland Security

 A strong Economy

 An informed, educated electorate 

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 Social Justice and economic opportunity; and

 Global Stability

And if we, as a free people, are not nourishing and aggressively investing in those corner stones, then we too shall go the way of other once great societies over the past 3,000 years. 

Freedom and our ability to govern ourselves is totally reliant upon the free flow of information … the free flow of communications …the free flow of ideas …  and the ability to put that information into perspective … that is – I would argue -- the challenge of all of us in communications, and media field … a challenge we have not -- in 2016 -- lived up to.

For communications is the single most important thread that weaves through the socio-economic fabric of mankind. Everything in our lives, every manifestation in the physical world starts as an idea. Because Today, we are still going through the largest global economic and social reset since the great depression, I am also reminded that individuals,  like you,  make a difference, idealism is in vogue, passion – void of extremism --   can revolutionize, and civil discourse leads to solutions and social progress. You can make a difference. Everything starts from an idea.

Some examples in my field:

 … Gus Hauser’s commitment to children’s well-being created the Nickelodeon channel 

along with the Movie Channel and MTV -- 

 …. Ted Turner’s passion for news and a goofy idea of a 24-hour news channel created 

CNN  

 … John Hendricks passion for personal discovery created the Discovery Channel 

 … And Frank Batten’s and John Coleman’s passion for weather created the weather 

channel … 

 … Larry Page and Serge Brin’s passion to search the internet for knowledge and 

information created Google … or

 … Mark Zuckerberg’s passion for connecting people created Facebook.

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To that end and to further illustrate my Michigan difference, I want to focus on an aspect of informing our society  -- this being an election year -- and tell you the story of C-SPAN’s origination. For you see, almost 40 Years ago next July 2017, I had the passionate idea of opening our government up for the people … and C-SPAN was launched.  

The genesis of C-SPAN started at lunch one day in July 1977 … at the Westpark hotel in Arlington, Virginia overlooking the Potomac River with the Nation’s capital in the background …  Brian Lamb, then the Washington Bureau Chief for Cablevision Magazine and I were musing about our cherished freedom’s … our democracy … our government … and our experience as naval officers in the Pentagon during the Vietnam War … remember, I had top secret clearances and saw firsthand how our government lied to fellow citizens in order to Justify and promote the war … 

I believed then -- as I do now -- if we are to risk our treasure …and don’t mean our money, but rather our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, moms and dads … then we the people should decide and base that decision on accurate, truthful information … So at lunch that fateful day in July 1977, Brian Lamb and I talked about how  we might pick up the signal form the closed circuit cameras being installed in the House of Representatives and microwave the house proceedings to the cable system I was building across the river in Arlington … and what if we got that signal up on a Satellite so other cable systems across the country could carry the House Proceedings … and what if we got it into schools and colleges across the country … so the next generation of our elected representatives could see what was going on in Washington … see and hear the great debates … or not so great debates.

 … It was a revolutionary idea … for you see not since the 1790s when the house gallery was opened to our ancestors had our congress added more contemporaneous outlets so the people could see or hear their debates.

Brian and I discussed at that lunch that C-SPAN might be non-profit, funded by the cable industry as a public service and that there would be no stars  ... no Walter Cronkites or Tom Brokaws …rather the cameras would go on at the beginning of the House proceedings and off at the end … with no commentary… so it is today – 37 years later -- for all C-SPAN covered events.  It is to the great credit of the cable industry’s unswerving support, Brian Lamb’s vision, leadership and passion --- and our colleagues’ leadership over these past 37 years, that C-SPAN has helped change our public debate. 

Today, C-SPAN programs three channels and C-SPAN Radio 24/7 … the House, the Senate and a channel of congressional hearings and other public events … on the weekends C-SPAN 

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programs Book TV and Booknotes ... Today, C-SPAN has 270 employees and runs on an annual budget of $73million.  C-SPAN has one of the largest publicly searchable video archives ... 220,000 hours. I continue to serve on C-SPAN’s board, Executive committee and chair its Finance and Audit committee.

C-SPAN started from an idea and my passionate belief solidified here at Michigan and by my Navy Experience that accurate information provided to our fellow citizens will ensure the future of this evolving social experiment called democracy … 

Well that was my idea … You’ll have some great ideas, and a few not so great ideas … but first settle on your passion. You can -- and I predict will -- make a difference. So I will close by sharing with you my personal paradigm. I frame it with a couple of key questions: 

 Do I believe we are spiritual beings having a physical experience, or physical beings having an occasional spiritual experience?  I can’t believe in both!

 Do I want peace, Joy & Harmony in my life or pain suffering and Disease? 

I realized, the two most powerful words in the human vocabulary are, I CHOOSE...words of 

empowerment... so what do you choose?  

For me, I choose unconditional love over fear.

I choose joining together, over pulling apart from one another.

I choose joy over despair.

I choose passionate support of the 5 cornerstones of our democracy and for the individual role I can make to advance truth and justice.

I choose peace over conflict recognizing to have peace, I must teach peace, but I can only teach that which I know, so I must learn peace.

And I Choose authenticity ... to be who I am... or to put it another way: “What you see is what you get”, for authenticity is the cornerstone of TRUST

These are my choices … What do you choose?

In Closing, I want to highlight our collective challenge … to our Educators, our Scientists, our Technologists, our governments, our economists and our corporate leaders … and to you newly graduated … the challenge of joining together, nourishing and embracing the 5 cornerstones of 

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freedom, and using new and evolving technologies wisely.  For our collective future in the digital age literally depends on it.

For in the end --- when we die and lay our body aside … we will all be remembered by what good stewards we have been … whether stewards of assets, stewards of ideas and information or stewards of other people lives…

AND … For those of us in and you entering public service, the media, or the financial world --- that stewardship is our highest challenge.

And if I’m really honest. I…and our Michigan family …  embracing the Michigan difference …  are passing the torch of LOVE … of energy … of knowledge … of Leadership … of authenticity … of vision … of humanity … and our future … to you, the class of 2016.

Congratulations on your achievements recognized this Saturday and know that you are our 

future … thank you and God Speed ….