Hillsdale College holds in-person commencement, defying Whitmer, AG

Cal Abbo
The Detroit News

Hillsdale — Hillsdale College held its in-person commencement ceremony Saturday night, defying Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, whose office earlier this week called the celebration illegal.

The event concluded three days' worth of festivities including dinners, cocktails, senior music recitals and a party on the quad.

The activities took place as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Michigan and around the country. The state reported 678 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Saturday, bringing the weekly case total to 4,232 — the highest total since the week of May 17, when 3,861 cases were reported.

Workers help prepare for a graduation commencement ceremony at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium, at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020. The college held a commencement celebration on Saturday despite concerns about COVID-19 and a warning from the state attorney general that the event would be illegal.

At some events, attendees were seated six feet apart and were asked not to walk around. The college required everyone to wear a mask, handing them out for free at entrances. The college also took guests' temperatures.

Christian Betz, a 2020 graduate from Rockford who brought his family to the commencement ceremony, said he felt the college took the necessary precautions to prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

Betz said while the college communicated that it would enforce proper social distancing and mask-wearing, he wasn't sure the students would be on board, but he was happily surprised.

"Students were wearing the masks," he said. "(Hillsdale President Larry) Arnn's speech during the first dinner talked about how this was our duty to protect one another, and for us to be able to come together, we have to be responsible."

Betz's mother, Jennie, emphasized the specific safety measures taken by the college.

"They have checkpoints and check-ins to make sure people have not been exposed; they're taking temperatures; they're advising that guests have to wear a mask," she said. "I think those are great things."

The Betz family a few hours before Hillsdale's commencement ceremony.

Betz's father, David, said the decision to bring his family to commencement was an easy one. "COVID obviously was a concern," he said. "For a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be able to come, it was well worth it." 

Another 2020 graduate, Arena Lewis, brought her father, two aunts, cousins, a grandmother and a former elementary school teacher to commencement.

Lewis said Hillsdale's approach to commencement was even stricter than she expected.

"I hardly ever see kids without masks on," she said. I think everyone's being very compliant and obeying out of Christian charity and love for everyone else. I think that's what we're called to do, protect each other."

"They're all from New Mexico," she said of her family, "but it was kind of a no-brainer."

Nessel's office reiterated Thursday organized gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited in the part of the state where Hillsdale College is located under an executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Hillsdale County Sheriff Tim Parker told The Detroit News his office has not enforced any of the governor's orders during this pandemic and does not intend to do so now. Parker said they wouldn't enforce orders or ticket attendees at Hillsdale's event, adding that it isn't the community's top priority right now.

Robert Norton, vice president and general counsel for Hillsdale College, described the lengthy steps it went through to ensure the legality of its event.

Hundreds of chairs line the field in preparation for a graduation commencement ceremony at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium, at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020.

In a press release, Norton said the college believes its ceremony fully complies with the order thanks to the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution, referencing a specific sentence in Whitmer's order: "Nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances."

Since the beginning, Norton said, Whitmer has made it clear that "outdoor, first amendment expressive activities," like spontaneous protests, were exempt from the order.

Arnn notified both the governor's office as well as Hillsdale County prosecutor Neal Brady in June of the event, according to the release.

Brady also coaches varsity soccer at Hillsdale Academy, a private K-12 school owned by the college and located on its campus, according to the academy's website. 

Norton said the college supplied Brady with its detailed health and safety plans so he could judge if the event did everything it could comply with the governor's orders.

"After that, he was here inspecting what we were doing," Norton added.

An employee walks through hundreds of spread-out chairs lining the field in preparation for a graduation commencement ceremony at Frank "Muddy" Waters Stadium, at Hillsdale College, in Hillsdale, July 16, 2020.

Hillsdale also consulted with health officials and epidemiologists, including a Stanford University professor and Joseph Eisenburg, chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan, to prepare for the weekend's activities and ensure the safety of its graduates and their guests, according to a press release.

One of the reasons the college postponed its commencement ceremony to July, Norton said, was to set up proper safety protocol.

"Given that they want to do this, they are being thoughtful about how to do it safely," Eisenberg told The News.

"Whether or not it is a good idea in the first place is another question. It is dependent on what is happening in the state. In the context of (Michigan) seeing rising cases right now, one wants to be more cautious."