ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- General Motors CEO Mary Barra delivered the University of Michigan’s spring commencement address Saturday, receiving an honorary degree in engineering and imparting lessons for professional success to more than 5,000 graduates in Michigan Stadium.
Her prepared speech made no mention of GM or the company's ongoing recall crisis, instead focusing on the future path for the generation entering the workforce.
“Be open to opportunities as they occur,” Barra said. “Each new experience will broaden your skills and perspectives. Embrace them. Enjoy them. And sometimes you’ll have to overcome them.”
Barra has been in the national spotlight since she was named successor to outgoing CEO Dan Akerson on Dec. 10 -- becoming the first female CEO of a major automaker when she assumed the position in January. Time magazine featured her on the cover of its issue on the 100 most influential people in the world. She also landed spots on the lists of the world's most powerful women published by Forbes and Fortune magazines.
U-M announced in March that Barra was to deliver the commencement address Thursday. Two student groups, the Graduate Employees Organization and the Student Union, issued a resolution that requested the university to reconsider the speaker choice.
The resolution cited Barra’s leadership in the recall and an alleged firing of injured workers in a Colombian plant as evidence that she does not represent the school’s values.
The groundswell of interest and accolades that greeted Barra when she took over in January as the auto industry's first female CEO dissipated quickly amid GM's recall crisis. The company is the subject of at least four federal investigations into its handling of a faulty ignition switch, which has been linked to at least 13 deaths and 35 crashes in Chevy Cobalts and Saturn Ions from the mid-2000s.
Since GM recalled the cars in February, Barra has apologized personally to victims' families and vowed to uncover why it took the company a decade to pinpoint the problem. She also has restructured GM's engineering division and appointed a new safety czar to help prevent future safety lapses.
Barra appeared before congressional hearings in Washington April 1-2 to testify on the handling of the recall.
Barra, in her prepared speech, did hint at the challenges she has faced over the past months.
'Hope is not a strategy'
“Remember that hope is not a strategy,” she said. “Problems don’t go away when you ignore them -- they tend to get bigger.”
Barra acknowledged the high competition that has come with technological growth, and outlined six lessons for success: the value of passion and hard work, behaving with integrity, building relationships, facing challenges directly, giving back and the importance of friends, family and faith.
“As I’m sure you know very well, these skills [that you have learned at Michigan] are just the start of what you need for success in today’s challenging and fast-paced world,” Barra said.
“They are the price of admission to today’s fast-paced, ever-changing, and ever-global economy. To stand out … to really make a difference … you will also need the kind of skills and qualities that most of us learn from experience and over time.”
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