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GM CEO tells University of Michigan students to not ignore problems

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May 3, 2014: General Motors CEO Mary Barra, center, is conferred an honorary Doctor of Engineering degree before addressing the University of Michigan graduates at a commencement ceremony. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Work hard, be honest and address problems quickly so they don't grow.

That is the message that new General Motors CEO Mary Barra gave University of Michigan graduates at a commencement ceremony Saturday.

Barra, the first woman to lead a major automaker, took the top spot at GM in January, just as a deadly ignition switch problem was starting to surface. Her company has recalled 2.6 million older small cars to fix the switches, which have been linked to crashes causing at least 13 deaths. GM has admitted knowing about the problem for more than a decade, yet it didn't start recalling the cars until February. Barra testified before two congressional committees that she didn't know about the problem until December.

The recall wasn't mentioned in a speech prepared for the ceremony and released in advance by GM. But there were several lessons that seemed to apply to her first four months leading the nation's largest automaker.

"Remember that hope is not a strategy," she said. "Problems don't go away when you ignore them — they get bigger."

Barra also urged the students to be honest in every aspect of their lives, and to use their optimism and propensity for inclusion to rethink outdated assumptions and expose and correct injustice. She also told them to keep friends and family close to celebrate good times and for support during tough times.

Two university groups objected to the university's decision to invite Barra to speak. The Graduate Employees Organization passed a resolution asking the school to rescind the invitation due to the recall. It was supported by the Student Union of Michigan.

About 9,500 undergraduate, professional and graduate students received degrees Saturday.

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