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Commencement Address, University Of Minnesota's CFANS

Monday, May 16, 2011

"This school has come a long way from the days when it was called 'Moo U.'"

Commencement Address, University Of Minnesota
College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Friday, May 13, 2011
Remarks of Senator Al Franken
(As Prepared For Delivery)

Thank you, Dr. Levine, for that kind introduction. I want to congratulate Rachel Kyllo on her terrific senior speech. I must say I was struck by the part about her working last summer in a blue cheese factory. I couldn't help wondering what you smell like when you leave a blue cheese factory at the end of the day.

And congratulations to Elizabeth Olson, your outgoing student body President.

I met Elizabeth a couple years ago at the state fair when she was Princess Kay of the Milky Way. We were on a TV show together, and I like to think I played an influential role in convincing her not to melt her butter bust for a corn feed, but instead to keep it frozen so her grandchildren could see what she looked like as a beautiful young woman.

It's great to be here.

Now, I should point out at the outset that I grew up in St. Louis Park. I was a suburban kid. My dad was a printing salesman. I knew nothing about agriculture growing up.

In fact, when I was eight years old, if you'd asked me where food comes from, what do you think I would have said?

No. I would have said, "The farm." I wasn't a total idiot. We had books. That had farms in them. And TV. That also showed farms.

Of course, this school has come a long way from the days when it was called "Moo U."

My state agriculture advisor and the former chair of the Agriculture Committee in the Minnesota House, Al Juhnke, went here back then.

Al told me that, when he was a student here, and I quote, "It was not uncommon to see the farm gals walking around campus with a tin of Copenhagen tobacco accentuating the back pockets of their blue jeans."

Today, of course, we know that smokeless tobacco use carries with it a significant risk of tongue, mouth, and esophageal cancer. We also know-and I will remind Al when I see him tomorrow at the fishing opener-that the term "farm gals" has fallen somewhat out of favor.

And we know that the work you've done here, and the work you're preparing to do when you leave here, isn't just about the farm anymore.


There's a story I like to tell about David Pryor, a former Governor and Senator from Arkansas.

He was campaigning for Governor and he met this guy who was pretty old. And Pryor asked, "How old are you, sir?" And the man said, "I'm ninety-seven years old." And Pryor said, "Wow-you must have seen a lot of changes in your life."

And the gentleman responded, "Yeah-and I been agin' every one of ‘em!"

And sometimes I think there's this feeling that the "rural way of life" is something we have to preserve carefully, as if it were under glass.

But it's this rapid pace of change, it's all this innovation, it's all these new opportunities-this is what is revitalizing the rural economy and keeping this tradition strong.

And you all have a chance to be a big part of it, whether your next stop is a farm or somewhere else: a Fortune 500 company or a brand new startup, a Wall Street hedge fund or a Washington think tank, a big corporate biotech research lab or a rural energy co-op.

This is a moment of great opportunity for you, and for Minnesota.

I was recently named to the Senate Energy Committee, and so I've been traveling the state on a renewable energy listening tour.

Everywhere I go, I see the incredible potential we have here in Minnesota to use our natural resources-not just to feed the world, but to power the world, as well.

What's even more exciting is that the innovations and discoveries that are creating that potential continue to take place every day.

I was up in Isanti recently, at Ever Cat Fuels. The company was started because scientists from the U and Augsburg developed a revolutionary process for producing biodiesel. And they use oil from all kinds of feedstocks, especially-and this is very significant-the seed oil of inedible plants like Pennycress and Camelina.

I've visited schools all over the state-from Morris to Virginia to Bemidji-where they're powering campuses with wind turbines. And the students working in those programs are being swamped with job offers when they graduate.

In Willmar, they told me they've decided to rely on local energy to cut costs at a time when every rural community's budget is stretched. They own two wind turbines. Public buildings use geothermal heating systems. There's a municipal corn cob combustion project. They're working on developing a small solar farm. They're taking west central Minnesota's natural resources and using them to strengthen the rural economy.

By the way, one of the big threats to the rural economy is that young people have to leave to find jobs. But when I was in LeSeuer, checking out one of the practice towers they use to train workers on wind turbine maintenance, they actually strapped me into one of these harnesses-and I went partway up. And then I said, "Okay, I get the idea."

Because those are jobs that only young people can fill. Someone has to go up there and service these turbines. And you know what? I can't do that anymore.

And there are byproducts of renewable energy production. I was visiting with an Angus producer up in northwest Minnesota a couple years ago, and I asked him if he was feeding them DDGs.

The guy said, "What?" I said, "DDGs, dried distiller grains. They're a bi-product of making ethanol. And they're about 30% protein."

He said, "Well, I'll look into ‘em."

And he did, and when I saw him a few months later, he said, "Thank you for the tip on DDGs-they're working out great." Which actually is one of the proudest moments in my life. This kid from St. Louis Park giving advice to an Angus producer, having him follow that advice-and then thank me.

Of course, that's the kind of thing you might expect from the suburban child genius who figured out that food came from the farm.


So, these are exciting times to be involved in the fields you've been studying. And, thanks to the great education here, you're all going to be big successes in agriculture or a related field.

Or maybe not.

Now, don't worry, this isn't going to be a speech about how failure is a better teacher than success. Failure sucks.

But the thing about success is that it doesn't always come the way you think it will. In fact, "success" doesn't always even end up meaning the same thing you thought it would when you started out.

Maybe your path ends up somewhere you never expected to be, somewhere far away from the things you've studied here.

Maybe, and this is especially true for those of you thinking about careers in such fast-moving fields, maybe your path won't even exist until you invent it.

Or maybe you'll find a job you like and raise a family, coach Little League and take vacations.

There are no wrong answers. But, for the most part, you don't start out with the answers. Or even the questions. You figure them out as you go.

Don't get me wrong. Some of you will walk out of here today with a plan and execute it flawlessly. You'll think you know exactly what you want to do with your life and exactly how you're going to get there. And you'll be right. You'll never doubt yourself. You'll never struggle. You'll never have to make hard decisions. Good for the two of you.

But most of you will struggle. You will change your mind. You will change directions. You will be anxious. You will hear people say, "You're making a mistake." You will wonder if they're right. Sometimes they will be right.

Sometimes, when you fail, friends will comfort you with useless bromides-the kind that are often uttered by commencement speakers like me at commencement addresses like this one.

I'm talking about stuff like, "Failure is a better teacher than success." Or, here's another one: "It's lonely at the top."

Actually, it's a lot lonelier at the bottom.

Or here's one I particularly don't like: "When one door closes another door always opens." Also not true.
But even when another door does open, sometimes it's a trap door leading to that very lonely place at the bottom.

All these bromides aside, nearly all of you will experience failure-some of you, crushing failure from that you will recover from. And, yes, learn from. And, yes, be all the better for. Because once you've had a failure, that's really the only good option. To take something from it.

Of course, a very few of you will never recover from your failures. And statistically speaking, between three and eight of you will spend some part of your life in prison. And, interestingly, a couple of those graduates will consider prison to be the best thing that ever happened to them.

But my point is that, for most of you, you will have far less dramatic failures and many, many successes. And one day you will wake up and realize how far you've come. And you will probably also realize how wildly different your life has been than what you expected or planned for.


When my brother and I were kids, we thought we were going to be scientists.

My brother Owen was 11 and I was 6 when the Soviets launched Sputnik. The race to space was on, and the United States was already behind. Not only that-the Soviets had nuclear weapons. So, America was terrified.

My parents sat me and Owen down in our living room and told us it was our job to study math and science to defeat the Soviets.

Now, I thought that was a lot of pressure to put on a six-year-old and an 11-year-old.

But we were obedient sons. And Owen and I studied math and science, and enjoyed it. My brother was the first in our family to go to college. In fact, he went to MIT and got a degree in physics. And then he became a photojournalist.

I was also very good at math and science, and tested well. And that got me into Harvard, where I ended up getting my degree in general studies before embarking on my chosen career path: comedian.

I left college 38 years ago in a 1965 Buick LeSabre with enough gas money to get from Boston to Los Angeles, where I did stand-up comedy with my partner Tom Davis.

We struggled along for two years and then got hired by Lorne Michaels to write for a brand new late night comedy show that was then called "NBC Saturday Night," soon renamed "Saturday Night Live." It was a lucky break; lots of shows fail, but this one succeeded. And that's how I became a TV comedy writer.

Now, as it turns out, my parents were right about studying math and science-and not only because we did, in fact, end up beating the Soviets.

You see, when I was learning about math and science, I was really learning about how to take something apart and reduce it to its component parts. And, as it turns out, those are pretty useful skills when you're writing jokes.

When I was learning problem solving and pattern recognition and critical thinking, I thought it was in preparation for a career in the sciences. And so did my parents. But these tools are useful no matter what you do.

This, by the way, is something we've seen missing in our No Child Left Behind testing. A lot of the debate on reforming No Child Left Behind centers on testing. The No Child Left Behind tests do not measure critical thinking skills. Or the ability to work with others.

But if you work hard at developing those tools, you will find use for them in anything that sparks your interest. They are the currency that allows you to follow your passions to unexpected places.

For instance, I had always had a passion for politics-something I also got from my parents. And in the mid-nineties, I had a passionate distaste for a certain brand of misinformation that was becoming prevalent in certain media.

So I started writing about it, using those same analytic skills to take apart political rhetoric, hold it up to the light, and, using my comedic chops, ridicule it. As it turns out, satire is a great way to make a point-and suddenly I found myself faced with new opportunities in political commentary, including the chance to write several books and the chance to help launch a new liberal radio network.

The more active I got in politics, the more I realized that I had a real passion for it. And not just the part of politics that was about winning arguments. The part that was about helping people, about making sure that every kid in Minnesota and every kid in America could have the same kind of opportunity that I had growing up in St. Louis Park - the part my friend Paul Wellstone-another guy who probably didn't graduate from college thinking he'd ever be a U.S. Senator-the part Paul was so passionate about.

Paul always said, "politics isn't about winning. politics isn't about power. Politics is about the improvement of people's lives." And he had such incredible passion for that project. And with the work he did-on mental health care, on veterans' issues, on domestic violence-you could see how his passion was improving lives.

Even after Paul died, his passion continued to inspire people-including me. And after a while, I started to feel like I might want to run for office myself.

When I first started thinking about running for the senate, there was a lot of self-doubt to go along with the doubts I heard from friends...family...political pundits...complete strangers on airplanes.

But one thing about being a comedian is that you can't really afford to let yourself give in to doubts.

You know how pain is supposed to be the body's way of telling you there's a problem? As in, when you put your hand on a hot stove and it burns, that's your body's way of telling you to take your hand off the stove.

And when you're feeling uncertain or anxious, it's tempting to treat those feelings the same way.

Unless you're in comedy. In which case, you learn to push through the doubts, to live with being a little scared, because otherwise, you never take risks and you never succeed.

So I fought through the doubts. I trusted my passion for the things I thought I could do for Minnesotans in the Senate over the expectations other people had for me, even over the expectations I had for myself.

And when I got to the Senate, I found that the tools I'd developed and the experiences I'd had over the course of my life turned out to be pretty helpful after all.

When I got to the Senate, I was placed on the Judiciary Committee. This would have been an excellent time for me to be consumed with self-doubt, because this was a group of talented attorneys, experienced prosecutors, and other distinguished legal minds. I was the member with the least legal experience of anyone on the committee.

But, as it turns out, media consolidation became a big issue-and I was the member with the most experience dealing with big media companies. Intellectual property became a big issue-and I was the only member who'd ever made his living creating intellectual property. Yes, written comedy is considered intellectual property.

And, all of a sudden, I'd found my place on the Judiciary Committee.


So, to review. My parents raised me to be a rocket scientist. I became a stand-up comedian. Then I became a TV writer. Then I quit that and wrote books of political satire. Now I'm dealing with telecommunications policy and energy policy and education policy and the deficit and all sorts of other issues as a U.S. Senator.

I think my story is pretty good evidence that it's impossible to predict in advance exactly where your interests will lead you, what opportunities may arise, or what choices you'll get to make down the road.

Maybe you'll spend twenty years working in child nutrition and realize that, to solve that problem, you need to become an expert on trade, and that'll turn out to be your real passion. Or maybe you'll start building websites for the paper mill where you got hired to do resource management, and realize that web design is what you really love.

You can't control these things. But you can develop the tools that will serve you well no matter what choices you make. You can learn to follow your passions and disregard your own-or other people's-expectations. You can learn to be resourceful, to be stubborn in the face of adversity, to fight through self-doubt.

And if you do these things, you'll be ready to achieve whatever you decide matters to you, whether it's what you expected or not.

By completing your work here, you've taken a first step along a particularly interesting path. The world keeps moving faster and faster. And the next frontiers, you guys, are right up your alley. Renewable energy. Global warming. Nutrition. Genetic engineering.

But there are so many different ways for you to make a huge impact on the world in your lifetime. And you should be incredibly proud that you've prepared yourselves for that challenge.

I can't tell you which path to take. But I hope that you will never be afraid to keep moving forward.

Congratulations. And good luck.



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