Bloomberg urges U-M grads to be wary of partisan politics

Simon Schuster
Special to The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — In a pointedly political address, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg urged the newest class of University of Michigan graduates on Saturday to “help to protect our republic against the dangers of demagogues and the fires of partisanship.”

Bloomberg’s speech was heavily steeped in the issues of the 2016 presidential race. But before he dove into the political foray, the business magnate extolled the virtues of collaboration, of working hard and of remaining relevant in a swiftly changing economy.

“In the information economy, everyone, in both white-collar and blue-collar job will have to keep deepening their knowledge and adapting to technological change,” Bloomberg said during his commencement address at the Big House.

And while the economy may be requiring more of these graduates, they likely won’t face the same sort of stomach-clenching uncertainty graduates did three or four years ago.

A Michigan State University survey of 4,700 employers predicted hiring for graduates of all degree levels should increase 15 percent over the previous year, continuing a healthy rebound from recession levels.

A number of graduates hope to reinvest their newly-earned skills in Detroit, too.

Hanan Yahya, a Detroit native graduated with a degree in social theory and practice and is applying to be a Challenge Detroit fellow.

“I’m really passionate about working in underprivileged communities like the one I grew up in in southwest Detroit,” Yahya said. “To give back economically, communally and educationally.”

The same is true of Faith Darnell , a sociology major, who wants to return to Detroit to teach elementary or middle school. She wanted to teach at the middle school she attended, but can’t — it has since closed.

“I can’t teach at my old school, but any school where kids are underprivileged or underrepresented I would love to work with them,” she said.

She, along with her friend Darin Lasenvy, a board member of the university’s Black Student Union, took issue with Bloomberg’s characterization of the efforts of some college activists at U-M and other schools.

In his speech Bloomberg denounced “safe spaces, code words and trigger warnings” as “a terrible mistake.”

“The whole purpose of college is to learn how to deal with difficult situations and not run away from them,” Bloomberg said. A microaggression is exactly that — micro.”

His remarks earned him a smattering of applause that were quickly replaced by boos and a few audibly hurled expletives.

Faith said her time at U-M has taught her to be more open and empathetic to others’ views.

“It has made me a stronger person, a better person,” Darnell said. “I can really think about the views of other people and not always think I’m being oppressed.”

University officials didn’t shy away from making political points, either.

Provost Martha Pollack made references to supporting transgender children as an example of how young people must “fill the empathy gap.”

President Mark Schlissel decried shrinking state support for public universities across the nation, saying the institutions were “at a crossroads,” and lauded students for their condemnation of recent Islamophobic graffiti.

Bloomberg, who had previously considered an independent presidential run, took jabs at presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump without naming them. He said “candidates in both parties are blaming our problems on easy targets who breed resentment,” citing the targeting of Mexican and Muslim immigrants by some Republicans, alongside some Democrats’ villainization of Wall Street bankers.

He urged the audience to seek out leaders who will unite rather than divide the country.

“Every generation has to confront its own demagogues, and ever generation has stood up and kept them away from the White House,” Bloomberg said. “And now it is your turn.”

Students were filled with nostalgia for their soon-to-be alma mater. These college experiences inspired some student to stay in Michigan, like Druha Karunakaran, a biochemistry graduate from Norwalk, Conn., who is staying in the state to work at a chemical firm before looking to graduate school.

Others are leaving to pursue of opportunity elsewhere. Ardie Mochanad, of Ann Arbor, will be moving to Singapore with his MBA to work in the oil and gas industries. Alex Garwig, a sports management major, will go to the University of Maryland to work for the football team as a graduate assistant.

For Yahya, the University of Michigan will always remain a place of transformation.

“It’s been a privilege to be here and become a part of community here,” she said. “Just growing here immensely with everyone else is the part I’m going to miss the most.”